Maître Jacques Isorni, one of Marshal Pétain’s three lawyers, addresses the Paris High Court of Justice

J’accuse: the case that never closes

France was putting itself on trial, for its actions during the war

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

We can spend all of our lives paying for some decisions. In the case of a nation, the process of coming to terms with such decisions and taking responsibility for their consequences is the work of generations, and it requires eternal vigilance. 

This is the haunting message of France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain by Julian Jackson, Emeritus Professor of History at Queen Mary, London, and much-lauded author of books on the fall of France in 1940, its Nazi occupation in 1940–44 and a biography of Charles de Gaulle. Here he revisits the trial of Philippe Pétain, a legendary WWI hero who signed the armistice with Germany in June 1940, the first in a series of decisions whose deadly consequences still reverberate in France today. 

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

The verdict, Jackson writes at the start, was a foregone conclusion. France needed to mark Pétain as a traitor in order to try others, because everyone claimed they were just following his orders. This trial was about more than one person. “What matters is not the carcass of this old man,” said a member of a group of resisters and former parliamentarians assembled by de Gaulle to act as a temporary parliament. “What matters is what he represents.” 

France was putting itself on trial, although it would take decades to come fully to terms with its actions during the war, especially its role in the deportation of over 75,000 Jews from France — of whom less than three per cent survived. Yet their fate was not in focus at the Liberation in 1945. Even as deportees were returning every day, “more dead than alive … each given a packet of cigarettes, a coffee and a sandwich”, what mattered to de Gaulle’s provisional government was whether the French had collaborated with the Germans or resisted them.

The concept of crimes against humanity was created for the Nuremberg trials, which were held after Pétain’s own, and it applied only to the Axis powers. When France adopted crimes against humanity into French law in 1964, it was with the intention of persecuting Germans, not Frenchmen. This only changed in the 1970s, by which time Pétain was long dead — albeit peacefully in prison, not executed as thousands of his countrymen were. 

Why Pétain was spared that fate despite his conviction for treason, and how France evolved to take responsibility for its role in the Holocaust, are amongst the questions Jackson explores. He uses a chronological narrative divided into three parts: before, during and after the trial, with the last part continuing up to the present day. It is a sound approach to cover such a big canvas, one that springs to life thanks to Jackson’s command of sources and exquisite use of anecdotes.

French marshal Henri Philippe Petain (1856-1951)

These paint a devastating portrait of Pétain, who goes on strike with his much-loathed prime minister, Pierre Laval, whilst imprisoned in 1944 by the Germans in Sigmaringen Castle on the Danube. (History does not relate the Germans’ reactions to this, but we can imagine.) The prison menus, Jackson reports, were carefully calibrated according to status, with only Pétain and his wife given the luxury of full-fat cheese; Laval had to make do with mostly potatoes and cabbage. 

Jackson is unsparing on Pétain’s strategic deafness during the trial, noting that the elderly statesman was also a dedicated womaniser who for years maintained several mistresses concurrently, proposed to at least two old flames in the weeks before he proposed to the woman who became his wife, and made incognito visits to the famous Parisian brothel One-Two-Two whilst serving as France’s ambassador to Spain in 1939-1940 — at the age of 84. Touché.

There is a cinematic quality to the way Jackson brings us into the packed courtroom of the Palais de Justice in Paris, where spectators, jurors, at least one judge and Pétain himself routinely fall asleep in the stifling summer heat. Listening to the testimonies, we too wrestle with terrible dilemmas: Was the armistice itself treason? Was there a realistic alternative? Where did patriotic duty lie after the military defeat of France? 

Knowing what was to come, our hearts wrench as former prime minister Léon Blum tells the court of Petain’s fateful decisions to sign the armistice and choose a policy of collaboration: 

I saw that France was betraying her allies … I saw France occupied and divided into two parts. I could see all the future dismemberments that were to follow … France committed herself to handing over to Germany those “outlaws”, exiles who had found refuge on our soil … It was a spectacle that still chills me if I think back to it. In those two days I saw men transformed and corrupted in front of my eyes, as if they had been dipped into some kind of toxic bath. What made them change was fear.

Throughout, we sense the presence of de Gaulle, largely off-stage but still following the trial of his one-time mentor, the man who had condemned him to death in 1940 after he fled to London to mount the resistance and whose own death sentence he commuted. 

Le Pen has spent years trying to soften her image and detoxify her party

The last section of the book considers France’s painful process of coming to terms with its wartime past — what the Germans call the Vergangenheitsbewältigung. This captures the shift in French values and attitudes, marked by such milestones as the trials of Paul Touvier and Maurice Papon for crimes against humanity in the 1990s, the death of Vichy collaborator and resister President François Mitterrand, and the landmark speech of Jacques Chirac in 1995, when a President of the Republic finally took responsibility for France’s role in the Holocaust. 

There is a glaring absence of any analysis showing how Pétain and his supporters link to Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter Marine Le Pen, however, whose far-right political party has its origins in Vichy France nostalgia and Holocaust denialism. Marine, who came second in the last presidential election and will likely run again in 2027, is not someone to skip over. She has spent years trying to soften her image and detoxify her party, and she has been rewarded for it by voters with each election. 

She is also the same politician who went on TV only six years ago and denied French responsibility for the round-ups of Jews, telling viewers, “If there are people responsible, it’s those who were in power at the time. It’s not France.” Her rise and prospects merit the full force of Jackson’s analytical firepower. Instead, he restricts his focus to Éric Zemmour, a Vichy apologist who, though worthy of study, nevertheless came fourth in the last presidential election.

“The Pétain case is closed,” Jackson concludes. I’m not so sure. Thanks to Jackson’s book, de Gaulle’s words will forever ring in my ears, as he dismissed claims that Petain’s death in 1951 would put an end to the affair once and for all. “It was a great historical drama,” he reflected, “and a historical drama is never over.”

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover