The events of 1940 make it one of the darkest years in contemporary French history. The “Phoney War” and a military collapse leading to rout and exodus, the failure of the elites and the choice of an armistice, the division and occupation of French soil, and the advent of an authoritarian regime that collaborated with the enemy. Defeat, collapse and the advent of the Vichy regime were, however, accompanied by significant forms of resistance and opposition in 1940. To understand 1940, teachers and students can focus on three major themes from that year[1]:


  1. France and the French in the face of war: the Phoney War and the Battle of France;
  2. France and the French in the face of defeat: the call to arms, the awakening and salvation; 
  3. France and the French in the face of Germany: governing and resisting in turbulent times. 


panzer IV
A column of Panzer IVs crosses a French village in May 1940. © German Federal Archives


1. France and the French in the face of war: the Phoney War and the Battle of France

By 1940, France had been at war for four months. A backward war, a “Phoney War”, a war without a front. While 1939 had seen an apparent toughening of public opinion towards Nazi Germany following the annexation of Prague, there was an impending threat of civil war among the French people – between patriots and pacifists, left-wing anti-militarists and right-wing anti-modernists, who were joined, with the signing of the German-Soviet pact in 23 August 1939, by dissidents, cadres and militants of the Communist Party. France’s entry into the war was sealed without the word actually being uttered by the prime minister and minister for national defence and war, Édouard Daladier, in the Chamber of Deputies, but instead with a vote on budgetary provisions “to address the international situation”. The political class was itself deeply divided, in the same way as French society was divided between the elites and the rest, the workers and the peasants, the haves and the have-nots: “The possessor is possessed by what he possesses.”[2] Social, political and diplomatic disintegration, internationalist or disenchanted literary pacifism, the attitude of the intellectuals – “the pacifism of [Jean] Giono, the bitterness of Paul Valéry, the defeatism of [Roger] Martin du Gard, or the fascism of [Pierre] Drieu La Rochelle” – combined to form “a kind of majority resignation”[3].

France’s military capability had been slow to modernise, and that modernisation was unfinished and incomplete: “the military apparatus, receiving only irregular and contradictory stimuli from the State, was locked into conformity. The army was stuck in a mindset dating back to before the end of the last war. This was aggravated by the fact that its ageing commanders remained attached to bad habits which had previously brought them glory.”[4] An army of infantry and reservists, a few tanks, and inadequate training in the shelter of the Maginot Line. An air force equipped too tardily with modern fighters and bombers, with no doctrine for their use, and an aviation industry whose production could not keep up[5]. The navy fared better, with a new, modern fleet in 1939 that was capable of protecting maritime routes and the Empire as part of a long-term war strategy. The most serious aspects were: the absence of a High Command worthy of the name, and of an inter-Allied organisation in conjunction with the British, meaning joint planning; a doctrine of defence and an unbroken front, yet in practice an offensive in Belgium; a form of military disarmament in the winter of 1939-40, despite the energy and initial results of a courageous armaments minister, Raoul Dautry, who was grappling with passive sabotage, a slowdown in production and insufficient skilled labour.

The “Phoney War” referred to immobility on the military front, inertia on the industrial front and irresponsibility on the political front. The Norwegian campaign of April to June 1940, ardently advocated by Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty in the Chamberlain government – in lieu of the support that came too late for Finland when it was attacked by the USSR, surrendering on 13 March 1940 – was poorly planned, poorly coordinated and ended badly[6]. Defeat on the Western Front meant that what had been a peripheral operation was salvaged, with the re-embarkation of troops, who, in unbelievable conditions, went beyond the call of duty. The whole thing was played out in northeastern France.

From pacifism to defeatism, now all that was awaited was a German offensive. It came at 4.45 am, on 10 May 1940, the morning after Paul Reynaud resigned as prime minister, having failed to obtain the resignation of the French commander-in-chief, General Gamelin.
The Battle of France needs to be studied in its successive phases. From 10 to 18 May came a twin German offensive: in Belgium, where the French high command sent the best Allied troops, then near the Meuse, where the enemy’s most offensive armoured elements were concentrated, against French forces that were ill-equipped, inadequately trained and poorly commanded. The German tanks then turned towards the English Channel and the North Sea, in a scythe movement which a counter-attack by Colonel (and soon-to-be General) de Gaulle’s 4th Armoured Division against the enemy’s southern flank, at Montcornet on 12 May, was unable to prevent. 18 May to 4 June saw the retreat and encirclement of the northern armies, Dunkirk and an attempt to regain the upper hand militarily, outnumbered one to three. 4 to 14 June saw the breakdown of the system of defences put in place by General Weygand. On 10 June, Italy entered the war. On 12 June, all the armies retreated. On 14 June, Paris was declared an open city. 14 to 24 June saw the end of all military manoeuvres on the French side and the scheduled withdrawal of the British, with Marshal Pétain making his request for an armistice on the 17th. What can be learned from this fighting which, in less than six weeks, resulted in nearly 60 000 French dead and 1.8 million prisoners[7], defeated an army which in September 1939 had been regarded as the greatest in the world, brought France to its knees and dissolved the Republic?
Firstly, that the French army fought hard and, in most cases, fought well. Without skating over their failings, lack of discipline and lack of preparedness, here were two armies that were different in every way. The Wehrmacht Panzerdivisionen regrouped at a particularly weak point of the French formation, towards the Meuse then the sea, giving them a great deal of tactical room for manoeuvre, against units of ageing reservists who were poorly commanded, poorly armed and ill-prepared for speed, mechanical force and swooping aircraft. But elsewhere, in Belgium, on the Maginot Line, on the Aisne, the Somme or in the Alps, the Germans and Italians found themselves up against French troops who, when well-armed, well-commanded and well-trained, showed great bravery under fire and undeniable technical prowess.

Secondly, that the French command showed it was not up to the task, owing to an excessive attachment to outdated procedures, and that the Phoney War had a demoralising effect on the troops – boredom, passivity, indecision – with a political class in ruins that was incapable of anything but indecisiveness. “To be inert is to be beaten (...) The obscure feeling of impotence that the current system produces in the soul of our leaders is beginning to spread throughout the Army-Nation itself.”[8]

Thirdly, that it signalled a new war, a decisive thrust, a formidable drive on the German side – and dejection, despondency and passivity from the French command. The state of paralysis did not dissipate until 25 May, when the command understood the reasons behind the German successes: cooperation between aircraft and tanks, mixed-force tactical groups, autonomy geared to the desired final impact.
After Reynaud abandoned ship, on 16 June, making way for a Pétain government, the latter requested an armistice, remaining in France and soon setting in motion a regime change. It was all linked.

The armistices of 22 and 25 June 1940 were in proportion to the collapse: France two-thirds occupied by the Germans and (to a much lesser extent) by the Italians, with Alsace and Moselle annexed to the Reich, northern France assigned to the German command in Brussels, and the coastal areas of the North Sea, English Channel and Atlantic Ocean subject to special rules. A map of France that was unrecognisable, with the country now divided up into eight zones, or “sectors”, often completely cut off from one another. France under German economic and financial control, very heavy reparations to pay, military, administrative and political subservience[9]. Collapse, humiliation and renunciation. France retained an intact fleet of warships, its colonial empire and a semblance of sovereignty, albeit in uncertain conditions.


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Poster put up in London on 5 August 1940. GNU Free Documentation License


2.  France and the French in the face of defeat: the call to arms, the awakening and salvation [10]

General de Gaulle issued his famous call to arms on 18 June, when the terms of the armistice were not yet known, the British government had yet to break ties with the French government, and the British cabinet was itself divided over what course to follow. The call was deliberately brief and to the point: France, with its empire, remained a key power; Britain “[held] the seas”; “the immense industry of the United States” would come into play, because “[t]his war [was] a world war”. It was also a calculated appeal. While it was known that Pétain had requested an armistice, no one knew what sort of regime would be installed in France. De Gaulle was speaking of armed struggle and addressing those willing to fight. There was no political, idealogical or even military dividing line. However, he did make it clear who was responsible for the defeat: “The leaders who, for many years, have been at the head of our armed forces”. First in line was the Marshal of France, last Prime Minister of the Third Republic and soon-to-be “Head of the French State”, Philippe Pétain.

One word summed up the appeal: “resistance”. No military or political connotation, rather a moral stance, which, between 1940 and 1944, inspired de Gaulle and his followers in Free France and the Resistance, and gave meaning to the years ahead. It cannot be overemphasised what a rare moment in history this was. It really did signal a change of fortunes and a founding act that was about to drastically alter the course of both the war and de Gaulle’s own life, leading the act of resistance to be identified with the man. By rejecting the armistice and surrender, de Gaulle was resisting and, in so doing, breaking with his background, his officer status and his career, and turning to rebellion and insubordination, a conscious individual choosing to follow his conscience and assert his freedom from the group and constituted authority.

If the speech of 18 June was not yet a political speech, it was both an anticipation and a calculation. An anticipation of the terrible, degrading terms of the armistice. A calculation that the Empire, and in particular French North Africa (AFN), would choose to carry on the fight. It was not until the terms of the armistice became known, on 21 June, particularly those in respect of the French naval fleet, that the British war cabinet ratified, in a sense, the choice of prime minister: de Gaulle had made a commitment; he would be supported. This comes through in his speech of 22 June.

In the weeks that followed, he therefore sought to rally the support of the different territories of the Empire and the French forces based in Great Britain, generally to little effect. The General had no more success in bringing together the personalities requested by the British prime minister to form a National Committee that was supposed to represent French interests. On 28 June, Churchill noted this failure and said to de Gaulle: “You are alone. Well, I shall recognise you alone”, as “leader of all free Frenchmen”. And on 7 August, the Chequers Agreement, drawn up by René Cassin and signed by the two men, recognised the Free French movement as a regular government in the making.

Across the Empire, in view of the terms of the Franco-German and Franco-Italian armistices of 22 and 24 June 1940, the vast majority of French military leaders fell into line. A French government and authority, maintained as it was by the armistice throughout the country, control of the colonial empire, and an intact naval fleet whose head, Admiral Darlan, was now a minister under Pétain: all of these factors explained their decision, added to which was the personality of the man who had “given himself to France”[11]. It was against this backdrop that the Royal Navy attacked the French fleet at Mers el-Kébir on 3 July.  Bloody evidence from Britain and its prime minister of an implacable desire to carry on the war, the inability of a former ally to decide, the sacrifice of nearly 1 300 French marines, vision and icy determination from General de Gaulle.

By 15 August 1940, only 2 721 volunteers had signed up to join the “De Gaulle Legion”, of a total of around 40 000 French expats or refugees living in Britain. Legalism and discipline, as well as relief that the fighting was over and the hope that they would soon be reunited with their families, prevailed in most cases. Among those who chose “dissidence” were only 900 men of the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion, a handful of chasseurs alpins of the French Expeditionary Corps in Norway and a few infantry, marines and airmen. A very small number, by all accounts. All had in common a kind of uprootedness from the group, an insubordination towards authority, an act of breaking with their milieu, background, career.

These historic beginnings are thus an opportunity to ask questions. What does it mean to “resist”? While historians more often than not give priority to modes of action to answer this question, the relationship between action and meaning is crucial. To resist is to act and give meaning to that action. This was the case for Captain Philippe de Hauteclocque, who, in 1940, after a brilliant Battle of France, refused to accept defeat, broke ties with the army, its traditions and constraints and, a free man, took the decision to join General de Gaulle. Hauteclocque became Leclerc[12]. It was also the case for prefect Jean Moulin, who, by June 1940, had understood and refused to accept the situation, before joining the movement to resist[13].


de Gaulle Muselier

General de Gaulle and Admiral Muselier on the bridge of the Président Théodore Tissier. Source: ECPAD


3.  France and the French in the face of Germany: governing and resisting in turbulent times

By the summer of 1940, France was feeling the full brunt of the war and its ravages, the “exodus”, with ten million people on the roads, the military collapse and its soldiers taken prisoner. Life would not return to normal until the autumn, and even then, not everywhere. There would be no news, in writing or by telephone, let alone in the newspapers, for a long time to come. Transport was disrupted, a demarcation line prohibited crossing between the northern and southern zones without permission, cities faced a shortage of supplies and services. Daily life became exhausting and impossible.

Full constitutive powers for the “Head of the French State” were voted by the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, on 10 July 1940, at Vichy. The French State and its motto “Work, Family, Country” replaced the Republic and its “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. Under the guise of a “National Revolution”, an authoritarian regime was quickly installed, with a police force, judicial system and civil service under the orders of an anti-democratic, anti-republican, anti-liberal power. The regime immediately enacted xenophobic and antisemitic legislation, from the denaturalisation law of July 1940 to the law of 3 October 1940 defining the status of Jews and excluding them from occupations linked to the State. Even before Pétain’s meeting with Hitler at Montoire, on 24 October 1940, collaboration with the occupier was already the political stance, and it would only intensify. As a way of asserting some form of sovereignty vis-à-vis the Third Reich, Vichy acted ahead of German orders. At Montoire, Marshal Pétain went from being implicit to explicit, by embarking “freely on the path of collaboration”[14].
Public opinion was kept in check. Political parties, unions and the political press disappeared. Distancing from a republican regime which, unlike in the First World War, did not hold firm, alignment of the communists with Moscow following the German-Soviet pact, a cult of Pétain, and more or less forced adherence to the “National Revolution”.

The writings of Pierre Laborie stress the “grey areas”, “ambivalence” and “double thinking” at work in France in 1940: support for Marshal Pétain at the same time as opposition to the occupation and collaboration and a desire to make preparations for “revenge”. Julian Jackson highlights the opposition and refusal that were manifest at the very time of defeat, while Julien Blanc shows how the Resistance in its organised form emerged in the occupied zone as early as the summer and autumn of 1940, and was not entirely cut off from French society. Among politicians, elected representatives and political parties, lines can nevertheless be plotted in the light of history. This applies to the Communist Party, linked to the USSR and Germany by the German-Soviet pact of 23 August 1939. It also applies to the armistice, which was not neutral, to Vichy, which was not sovereign, and to collaboration, which became military[15].

In those early days, that resistance had very few ties with a combatant France embodied by General de Gaulle in London. Its diversity, and at times diverging positions concerning what stance to take vis-à-vis Pétain and Vichy, also make it more appropriate to speak of “resistances”, in the plural, rather than “the Resistance”, in the singular. The early resistance fighters formed small units, from limited circles of personal, professional, political or religious acquaintances. They wrote articles, distributed pamphlets, set up escape networks. In the north, the situation was critical; in the south, the early resistance groups were very much left to their own devices. The first operations in the occupied zone had the goal of gathering intelligence. Although acts of refusal were carried out by isolated individuals, larger group demonstrations also took place in the autumn of 1940, showing how French society was no longer entirely passive towards the occupier, despite the fact that participation in these protests rapidly waned, did not necessarily go hand in hand with membership of a resistance group, and also resembled the “non-consent” referred to by Pierre Laborie. They nonetheless show how many French people were conscious, patriotic and anti-German in 1940, and were not afraid to show it[16]. The biggest of the mass protests was that of the Parisian youth who, without exactly responding to an order from London, were not afraid to defy the ban imposed by the occupier on holding demonstrations on Armistice Day.

A resistance nevertheless began to develop and manifest itself in metropolitan France in its pioneering forms in late 1940 and early 1941, with the emergence of the first networks and movements: Boris Vildé’s “Musée de l’Homme” and Philippe Viannay’s “Défense de la France”, in the occupied zone; François de Menthon’s “Liberté”, Frenay’s “Mouvement de Libération Nationale”, Jean-Pierre Lévy’s “Franc-Tireur” and d’Astier de la Vigerie’s “Libération”, in the southern zone. The publication of the first underground newspapers in this period constituted a crucial step in the maturing process of the Resistance, since it gave it a concrete dimension, drove it to become more structured and established links with the rest of society through their circulation.

While it is undeniable that “Free France was African”[17], French North Africa (AFN) stayed loyal to Vichy and only a small number of peripheral, sparsely populated territories manifested their desire to remain on the side of their British ally in the war, in the summer and autumn of 1940: the New Hebrides on 20 July, the French Establishments in Oceania on 2 September, the trading posts of the French East India Company on the 9th, New Caledonia on the 19th. The main contribution came from French Equatorial Africa (AEF) and Cameroon, who followed Governor Félix Éboué’s Chad in declaring their support for Free France, at the commemorations of the French Revolution of 1830, on 26-28 August 1940; only Gabon remained under Vichy’s authority. Churchill and de Gaulle then tried to rally Dakar and the whole of French West Africa (AOF), but the operation of 24 and 25 September 1940 was a failure. Vichy gave orders to fire on French troops. Meanwhile, the Free French Forces (FFL) took Gabon, in November, after a brief campaign. This support gave Free France territories over which to exercise its authority, resources for the Allied war effort and personnel to swell the FFL’s ranks. It also provided an opportunity to assert the continuity and sovereignty of belligerent France, through the creation, at Brazzaville on 27 October 1940, of the Empire Defence Council, a consultative body comprised of governors of these territories, military leaders and personalities of Free France.

In September 1940, pilots of the Free French Air Force (FAFL) took to the skies over England to combat German fighters and bombers. Marines of the Free French Naval Forces (FNFL) were engaged around the world in operations to protect merchant navy convoys, surveillance and attack missions against enemy submarines, warships and aircraft, or simply as a presence flying the French flag and Cross of Lorraine. Finally, land forces were mobilised in Africa against Italian forces that threatened the British from their colonial possessions. It was Leclerc’s epic, which would take the Free French from Koufra to Strasbourg.[18]




Tristan Lecoq - Inspector-General of National Education

Associate lecturer in contemporary history at Paris-Sorbonne University

[1] Final-year history syllabus for the general and technical lycée, official bulletin special edition no 8, 25 July 2019.
[2]  Alain Peyrefitte, C’était de Gaulle, vol. 1: ‘La France redevient la France’, Paris, Fayard, 1994, p. 148 
[3] Julien Winock, Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac : Servir la France, servir l’État, Paris, La Documentation française, 2019, p. 189. The book also provides an excellent summary of Crémieux-Brilhac’s seminal work Les Français de l’an 40, two volumes, Paris, Gallimard, 1990. Jean-Baptiste Duroselle’s L’abîme, 1939 - 1945 (Paris, Imprimerie nationale, 1982) is well worth re-reading. 
[4] Charles de Gaulle, Mémoires de guerre, Paris, Plon, 1954, vol. 1 ‘L’appel (1940 - 1942)’, p. 4. 
[5] In 1939, the index of industrial production was the same as in 1929. 
[6] John Kiszely, Anatomy of a Campaign. The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2017. 
[7] Of these, 1.1 million soldiers were taken prisoner between Pétain’s appeal for a ceasefire on 17 June and the armistice with Italy on 25 June. 
[8] Colonel de Gaulle, ‘Note officieuse de janvier 1940’, in Lettres, notes et carnets, vol. 13, Paris, Plon, 1997. 
[9] Two armistice commissions were set up: Franco-German at Wiesbaden and Franco-Italian at Turin. 
10] Tristan Lecoq (ed.), Enseigner De Gaulle, Paris, Canopé, 2018, and Laurent Douzou & Tristan Lecoq (eds.), Enseigner la Résistance, Paris, Canopé, 2016. 
[11] One example of the attitude of an imperial proconsul appointed by the Third Republic and rallied to Vichy in the weeks of June-July 1940 was Admiral Georges Robert: Jean-Baptiste Bruneau, La marine de Vichy aux Antilles, juin 1940-juillet 1943, Paris, Les Indes savantes, 2014, and Odile Girardin-Thibeaud, Les amiraux de Vichy, Paris, Nouveau Monde éditions and Ministère de la Défense, 2016. 
[12] Le général Leclerc vu par ses compagnons de combat, Paris, Alsatia, 1948; André Martel, Leclerc : Le soldat et le politique, Paris, Albin Michel, 1998; Christine Levisse-Touzé, Du capitaine de Hauteclocque au général Leclerc, Actes du colloque des 19-21 novembre 1997, Paris, Éditions Complexe, 2000; and Olivier Forcade, ‘Du capitaine de Hauteclocque au général Leclerc’, in Vingtième siècle, revue d’histoire, no 58, Paris, 1998, pp. 144-146. 
[13] Daniel Cordier, Jean Moulin, l'inconnu du Panthéon, vol. 2, ‘Le choix d’un destin (juin 1936-novembre 1940)’, Paris, J.C. Lattès, 1989. 
[14] Selected titles from an abundant historical literature on the subject are: Robert Paxton, La France de Vichy, 1940-1944, Paris, Seuil, 1974; Marc-Olivier Baruch, Servir l’État français. L’administration en France de 1940 à 1944, Paris, Fayard, 1997; Marc-Olivier Baruch, Le Régime de Vichy, Paris, La Découverte, 1996; Henry Rousso, Le régime de Vichy, Paris, PUF, ‘Que sais-je ?’ collection, 2007. 
[15] Julien Blanc & Cécile Vast, Chercheurs en Résistance. Pistes et outils à l’usage des historiens, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2014; Pierre Laborie, Le chagrin et le venin, Paris, Bayard, 2011; Julian Jackson, La France sous l’occupation, 1940-1944, Paris, Flammarion, 2004; Julien Blanc, Au commencement de la Résistance. Du côté du Musée de l’Homme, 1940-1941, Paris, Seuil, 2010. 
[16] Tristan Lecoq & Annick Lederlé, Gustave Monod : Une certaine idée de l’École, Sèvres, Centre international d’études pédagogiques, 2009, and ‘L’Inspecteur général qui a dit non’, in L’Histoire, no 357, October 2010, p. 36-37. 
[17] Éric Jennings, La France libre fut africaine, Paris, Perrin, 2014. 
[18] Diane Grillère & Tristan Lecoq, Enseigner 1940, ‘Comme en 40’ Musée de l’Armée exhibition catalogue, Gallimard/Musée de l’Armée, June 2020.