When the Nazis and Their Collaborators Ruled France

Vichysoisse is a thick soup made of leeks, onions, potatoes, cream and chicken stock, usually served cold. Whether it was invented in France or the United States is a matter of controversy among culinary historians. It is agreed, however, that the soup was named by a French chef who worked at the Ritz Carlton hotel in New York City, in honor of the spa town of Vichy.

Vichy is perhaps more famous as the capital of the French State (its actual name) during the German occupation in World War II. Vichy was chosen as the capital because it was relatively close to Paris, had lots of hotel rooms and also had a modern telephone exchange. Two weeks after surrendering to the Germans, the French parliament met in Vichy and voted to abolish the Third Republic. Marshall Philippe Pétain, the Lion of Verdun, was chosen to lead the new government.

I’ve never been interested in French history and know very little about the Third Republic or the Vichy government. (Although I remember that something called “Vichy water” was mentioned in Casablanca.) However, a recent article in the New York Review of Books by the historian Robert Paxton turned out to be quite interesting.

The article is called “Vichy Lives! — In a Way”. It’s a review of a book about the lasting effects of the Vichy period on modern France. The first especially interesting thing in the article was this description of the final years of the Third Republic, before the German invasion:

The late Third Republic had woefully neglected French infrastructure, along with a host of unresolved political, social, and economic problems. The contraction of the French economy in the 1930s is sometimes attributed to the Third Republic’s weak executive, deadlocked parliament, and ideological divisions. The essential reason … was the economic policy of deflationary budget-cutting with which French leaders confronted the Great Depression until 1936. Even then, when the Popular Front government of Léon Blum proposed to take a different economic tack, it was prevented by divisions within its tenuous majority from embarking seriously upon needed public expenditures. The final decade of the Third Republic was therefore a period of extensive disinvestment. 

Does that sound familiar? Change the dates and a few proper names and it’s a description of present-day America.

The other striking point Professor Paxton makes is that the Vichy government had some significant accomplishments, even though the leaders of the government were definitely right-wingers. For example, they began construction on the freeway that circles Paris, built a major bridge over the Seine, constructed a tide-operated power plant and started the Trans-Sahara railroad. They created a national police force, replaced France’s 90 departments with 17 regions and unified Paris’s mass transit system.

More surprisingly, as a very conservative regime, Vichy instituted old-age pensions, a minimum wage, obligatory doctor visits for students, labor inspectors in factories, universal vaccinations and a program to reduce alcohol consumption. Vichy’s social welfare activities were actually consistent with the actions of other right-wing governments in Europe. It was Otto von Bismarck of Germany who created the first social welfare state, which was emulated by the Austrian Empire. As Paxton explains:

All the modern twentieth-century European dictatorships of the right, both fascist and authoritarian, were welfare states. The current American conservative agenda of a weak state associated with laissez-faire economic and social arrangements would have been anathema to them, as an extreme perversion of a despised individualistic liberalism (in that term’s original sense). They all provided medical care, pensions, affordable housing, and mass transport as a matter of course, in order to maintain productivity, national unity, and social peace.

Of course, these authoritarian right-wing governments, especially the fascists and the Vichy government, combined their positive accomplishments with terrible misdeeds. They also used some of their reforms to exert more control over their citizens.

Still, the contrast between these European politicians and our own bizarre Republican Party is remarkable. It’s possible that no other nation in world history has ever been at the mercy of a gang of radical politicians who want a government that does as little as possible, aside from extending its military and surveillance powers, supporting a conservative religious agenda and insuring rising incomes for the wealthy, while ignoring the needs of the majority.