Life & Culture

France on Trial review: The Case of Marshal Pétain - Jewish saviour or antisemite?

The reputation of France’s wartime leader comes under the microscope in Julian Jackson's scholarly work


circa 1940: French officer Marshal Petain (1856 - 1951). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain
By Julian Jackson
Allen Lane, £25

W as Philippe Pétain a good guy or a bad guy? Pétain led the French Army to victory against the Germans in the Battle of Verdun in 1916, a decisive turning point in the First World War.

After the war the nation’s heroic Maréchal [Marshal] by then into his sixties and having seen up-close the suffering that warfare can impose, was determined to do all he could for the rest of his life to avoid, or at least minimise, any further barbarity.

The Second World War broke out a generation later and in May 1940 German armies invaded France. In June, Pétain became head of the French government and signed an armistice with the occupying enemy.

Northern France would be under the control of the Third Reich while much of the south, named after its capital Vichy, would nominally remain in French hands.

The two regimes, it was agreed, would collaborate under what would be essentially German terms. In October, Hitler and Pétain met and were photographed shaking hands.

Julian Jackson, British born and Cambridge educated, is a leading historian of 20th-century France, much of his work focusing on the wars and depressions by which France was afflicted and the lives of pivotal figures such as Charles de Gaulle. And now Pétain.

The new book is not a formal biography. Rather, it’s a brilliantly researched and vividly narrated attempt to understand and assess a man alternately among the most admired and most abhorred in modern French history.

And to do this, Jackson invites us to sit in on the trial, starting on July 23, 1945, at which the frail and elderly Maréchal was accused of treason.

The three -week hearing seems to have been a little prosaic, Pétain remaining largely silent as witness after witness attested, predictably enough, to either his treacherous collaboration with the brutal German occupants of France or to what others saw as his invincible desire to do all he could to protect the lives of his fellow countrymen.

Yet Jackson manages to engage the reader, adopting a rich literary style with which to communicate not only the data and opinions expressed but also the atmosphere in and outside the court and something of the personality of a variety of characters, from prime ministers such as the Jewish socialist Léon Blum or the vain and dapper Paul Renaud to writers such as the scruffy, antisemitic Céline or Pétain’s passionate young defence lawyer Jacques Isorni.

Pétain was found guilty and sentenced to death. However, General de Gaulle, President of the Provisional French government, agreed to commute the sentence to life imprisonment and Pétain was incarcerated on a small island off the Brittany coast where he died in 1951, aged 95.

The story doesn’t end there. In a riveting final section Jackson shows how the disputes and debates about Pétain continued ever more passionately after the old man’s death. What is true patriotism? What is treason?

Did Pétain preserve the French Empire, only for de Gaulle to preside over its subsequent dissolution?

More specifically, could — or should — Pétain have done more to protect the Jews in occupied France?

To some degree he had stood up to the Nazis.

In May 1942 he rejected their demand that Jews living under the Vichy regime wear a yellow star and the following year, when the Germans ordered the denaturalisation of all Jews in the “Unoccupied Zone”, Pétain refrained, knowing that this could lead to their mass arrest and deportation.

Was it true, as many asserted, that proportionately fewer Jews living under the Vichy regime were deported and murdered than elsewhere in France?

If so, might this have resulted more from the courageous actions of non-Jews who had bravely tried to protect them than from the policies of the Pétain regime?

Before the trial Pétain had proclaimed that, if no longer able to be his nation’s sword, he sought to be its shield. As Jackson shows convincingly, the debate continues to this day.

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