La ligne de démarcation

The demarcation line, a French control post - 1941
Corps 1
On the 18th April 1959, during an official visit to Moulins-sur-Allier, General de Gaulle referred to the major division that marked the German occupation in the very heart of France: "I know everything that was done here. It is all the more commendable that you were here on the edge of the drama (...) on this wound made across our country that we call the demarcation line ".
Corps 2

It was the first time that the demarcation line had been referred to publicly in this way by the French premier. During the occupation, in his addresses at the BBC, the head of the Free French had denied the notion of a France compartmentalised in an arbitrary fashion by the occupying forces. However, although the demarcation line and those involved with it (whether smugglers or just inhabitants) were barely represented in the commemorations, except for about forty steles, plaques and minor monuments inaugurated between 1945 and 2002, there is no denying that the daily reality of the line was much more than just a sometimes vague mark on the maps at headquarters. Historians have barely studied it. Yet the demarcation line is a remarkable observatory of the history of the local economy of thirteen divided départements, of local, departmental and prefectorial administration, not forgetting that of the armistice army and the police forces.

Literary memory has retained the most dramatic aspect of the history of the demarcation line. Top of the list of publications, Colonel Rémy's twenty-two volumes, written between 1964 and 1976, gave the smuggler a motive that was either "heroic" or something darker. Claude Chabrol even made a film about it, which was in the cinemas in 1966. Writers like Joseph Joffo, Jacques Laurent, Jean-Louis Curtis and Bernard Clavel recount the romanticised saga of several smugglers. Such tales teach historians next to nothing about the daily life of those living along the line, on the traffic between the zones, whether human, material or financial, on the types of "passengers", whether fugitive or legal, or on the chronology of the repressions.

The surprise installation

The main demarcation line in occupied France, established by article 2 of the Armistice Convention, crossed thirteen départements over around 1,200 kilometres. To be honest, French ministers - principally General Huntziger - were not expecting the compartmentalisation of France. The line caused the administrative and territorial division of waterways and forests, prefectures and sub-prefectures, legal institutions, police forces, educational establishments, national banks and the SNCF, etc. The Vichy regime, who only discovered the exact route of the line at the end of 1941 - the occupying forces regularly altering it on a local level - had to reorganise the administrative running of the country; for example, they were forced to create gendarmerie sub-legions in the non-occupied zones of the former divided legions. The country's lack of organisation was magnified by other demarcation lines: that in the North-east; the line that isolated the Alsace and the Moselle département which became annexed to the forbidden zone - which disappeared in 1941 - not to mention the establishment of a forbidden coastal zone from April 1941. We need to add that the return of those French who had fled was complicated to organise across the line towards the occupied zone.

A "border" under guard but not impenetrable

Along the line, the signage was incomplete, consisting of placards, posts painted in Nazi colours, battens, sentry boxes and barriers in divided towns and villages; in some places the Germans had even laid mines along the edges of the line. But it was not impenetrable. A few hundred men (first of all soldiers and then, from February 1941, German customs officers) were not enough to block the route of the thousands of fugitives who had no Ausweis - free pass - which were very difficult to get.

Incidentally, Pétain's ministers did not have permanent free passes; only Pierre Laval had this privilege. In front of the German posts, Vichy established a French surveillance system made up of soldiers from the army, gendarmes, policemen and customs officers, who did not much agree on the nature of the duties they had to perform. There were hardly any telephones between the posts. However, many people secretly crossing the line owe their lives to French guards who saw them running in the distant fields. The collaborating Vichy regime, trapped in the vicious circle of increasing concessions to the occupying forces, could never find a way of softening the negative effects of the demarcation line. Hitler very quickly moved away from the measures taken on it. In 1940, he demanded the finalisation of a plan for the total occupation of France.

The daily life of the French people turned upside down

In 1940-1941, along with the prisoners of war, the line was at the heart of German extortion. The immediate constraints obviously affected those living alongside the demarcation line who had a special status. They became a new kind of "cross-border commuter", since they lived along an internal "border" within their own country and region. They received special passes which allowed them to cross the line more easily, in order to go to work during the day in one zone and return home in the evening to another. It was a chance to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the German posts to carry letters and stowaways under the seats of a lorry or in barrels loaded on a trailer.

On the whole, the French put up with the Ausweiss, the infrequent inter-zone train journeys and also the inter-zone cards, the first of which were printed at the beginning of the occupation and involved the crossing out of stupid comments such as "I am not dead". Inter-zone money transfers were stopped for a while and then re-established thanks to the establishment in the unoccupied zone of a branches of the banque de France, Crédit Lyonnais, la Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations and la Société Générale. The occupying forces were deliberately vague regarding the permission they accorded to the flow of merchandise, stocks and money from one zone to another. They ran an increasingly greedy war economy. The line was also a means of taking full advantage of France's riches. Residents along the line also generally profited from the black market, whose main customers were the Germans.

The French and the Belgian, Polish, Dutch and German refugees refused to accept this wound to the heart of France, organising family teams and national people trafficking networks. The first smugglers appeared in the summer of 1940. They often worked alone, providing a kind of mutual aid. Then the British secret services and the resistance movements and networks started looking for smugglers to work in both zones and spy on German military installations. Colonel Rémy's Notre-dame brotherhood very soon organised secret crossings in the south west, thanks to Louis de la Bardonnie. But along the route of the line, in the north (in Brittany and Normandy in particular) and the east of France, well-structured networks carried hundreds of fugitives, who were either hunted or on missions: airmen who had been brought down, Jews, escaped prisoners or simply travelling salesmen. Passages sometimes cost money in order to provide food and shelter for a time to those involved. However, some independent smugglers took advantage of this to set very high prices, especially when great numbers of Jews started to pour in along the line, following the raids of the summer of 1942. There were also fake smugglers operating under the Germans. But this must not cause us to forget all the volunteer smugglers, whose motives lay half way between "humanitarian" action and commitment to the resistance movement.

Finally, lets remember that the demarcation line was suspended in February 1943, with the Germans then occupying the whole of France from November 1942. However, it did not disappear from the maps at German headquarters and certain restrictions remained, especially where the movement of merchandise was concerned. And so it remained as a means of applying pressure until the end of the war, with the threat of its reintroduction weighing heavily on the French people to the very end.