L'internement : La France des camps (1938-1946)

The camp de Drancy. The arrival of a convoy
Corps 1
"Under a bland, administrative title, a document taken from the Loiret archives reveals, page after page, an interminable list of names. These first and last names, addresses, places of birth and destinations, give us the list of Jewish deportees to the camps of Beaune-la-Rolande and Pithiviers in the summer of 1942. Another column shows dates of birth: 1933, 1935, 1936, 1939... Those official papers are evidence of the worst horror: the deportation of children. Of the 3-5,000 boxes of archives that I had to go through for my work on the internment camps, this one, through its cold reality, shocked me the most. Denis Peschanski.
Corps 2

Unlike traditional "judicial/policing" procedure, administrative internment targeted people not for what they had done (or were suspected of having done) but for the potential danger they represented in the eyes of those in power. Does the continuity of this extraordinary procedure imply a continuity of policy, or does it reveal differences in nature? Without dismissing the phenomena relating to continuity, we favour the second option, that of a sudden change. The first law allowing administrative internment during that period dates from 12 November 1938. It targeted what were called at the time "undesirable foreigners". Although highly symbolic, as this was the category for which the first camp at Rieucros, in Lozère, was opened, and because it fit into a xenophobic context, it only affected a few people in the final days of the 3rd Republic.

Spanish refugees fleeing Franco's armies formed by far the largest category of internees between 1938 and 1940. At the end of the Third Republic, almost 350,000 of the 465,000 people who came over the border in February and March 1939, spent time in the temporary camps. The camp at Gurs was put up in a few weeks in the spring of 1939. The French government wished to build huge internment areas following the improvisation at the start, but one detail tells us that this policy was provisional and in response to circumstances: wooden skylights served as windows on the sides of the huts. During the spring and summer these basic openings did not cause too many problems, but with the arrival of autumn, internees had to choose between daylight and the cold. The authorities had simply expected the camps to be closed by the end of the summer. The Gurs camp finally closed... in 1945. Some work was carried out, but this episode shows that - in the minds of the authorities - internment as an extraordinary measure for extraordinary circumstances should have been very short term.

With the declaration of war in September 1939, a new category of internees was added: "citizens of enemy powers": Germans and Austrians (Austria had been annexed by the Reich during the Anschluss). Precautionary measures are understandable at the beginning of a war. But, over a period of months, over 20,000 people found themselves interned in the name of a war conducted against those responsible for the emigration to France of a significant majority of them: persecuted Jews and the politically suppressed. How could they understand their internment and the repeated reluctance of the French authorities to allow them to join the French army? In May 1940, a new wave of internment in this category also included women. The law of 26 September 1939 prohibiting communist organisations following the signature of the dual German-Soviet pact is well-known. The decree of 18 November 1939 went beyond this and allowed for the internment of any "individual posing a danger to national defence or public safety." The ministerial circular that followed the address to Prefects was explicit: "we must be armed, not only against criminal acts, but also against the recognised wish to commit them." This was indeed at the heart of internment.

The argument for exclusion

Between summer 1940 and spring 1942, Vichy was in control of internment and its thinking of exclusion took the upper hand. Two figures are enough to demonstrate that: in December 1940 there were around 50,000 internees in the non-occupied zone (including North Africa); and around 2,000 in the northern zone. That doesn't mean that life in the occupied zone was easy for the victims. Just that the camp was not as such a crucial element in the occupying force's strategy. The latter had two clear objectives: to benefit as much as possible from the occupied country's riches, and ensure the security of the occupation troops. In both cases the best guarantees were provided by there being an authoritative French regime and an efficient native authority. In a first stage, after many hesitations due to negotiations between the French Communist Party and occupying forces, the latter accepted to give in to pressure from the French police force wishing the internment of communists. Soon this obsession with security would transform the camps in the northern zone into suppliers of hostages against the arising armed fight . Thousands of Jews and gypsies were also interned.

However, internment was, above all, characteristic of Vichy politics, itself underpinned by a general interpretation of defeat. For those newly installed in power, the debacle was not due to military errors. It was partly to be explained by various recent political events, but it was essentially caused by the so-called decay in society, exploited by what Pétain himself called "anti-France Forces", by which he meant Jews, Communists, foreigners and Freemasons. In a vision of conspiracy, highly typical of the French extreme right, there was no point in fighting the occupation, which was merely a symptom, the roots of the disease had to be attacked by regenerating French society from the inside by uniting so-called "pure" elements around traditional values (work, family, country, devotion and order) and by excluding the "impurities" responsible for the defeat. From this perspective, internment camps were a major part of the scheme. Economic conditions were also to have their say. Vichy did not have the resources to maintain this network of centres, which rapidly fell into crisis, as witnessed by the terrible mortality rate in the winters of 1941 and 1942 at Gurs. Under the combined pressure of events and aid organisations that joined forces and co-ordinated in what was known as the "Committee of Nîmes", the camps gradually emptied to the point where, at the beginning of the summer of 1942, there were no more than about 9,000 internees, compared with 50,000 eighteen months earlier.

The arguments for deportation and extermination

In the spring of 1942, the French internment camps, all of which were under French administration except Compiègne and, from July 1943, Drancy, took their place within the new German way of thinking: the implementation of the final solution in France. This did not mean that there were no more political internees in the camps, or Gypsies or communists. But, from now on, the camps were to serve primarily as a waiting room for death for the Jews of France. The figures are well-known: of the 320,000 or so Jews present in France, some 76,000 were deported of whom only 2,500 survived. Around 10,000 were handed over by the Vichy authorities between August and November 1942, before the Germans set foot in the southern zone. What was the Vichy regime's thinking? The new Head of Government, Pierre Laval, believed he could negotiate France's place within an essentially Nazi Europe. He held one ace in his hand: foreign Jews. Moreover, he, like René Bousquet and many other top civil servants had an obsession: enforcing the authority of the French State over the whole of the country, even if it meant implementing the occupier's aims in terms of repression and persecution.

At this time the German deportation policy thus dominated. But Vichy agreed to incorporate its own policy of exclusion into this rationale. This was also the moment when French public opinion turned. People were deeply shocked by the stigmatisation, raids and deportations. Although we must avoid confusing opinion with action, this attitude helped the rescue Résistance, led by secret organisations, such as the éclaireurs israélites de France (Jewish Scouting movement or EIF) and the national movement against racism (MNCR), and by self-help groups set up in the camps, on the condition of course, that they combined legal action with secret action, as was the case, for example, with the group for helping children (OSE) and the inter-movement committee for aid of evacuees (CIMADE).

A return to the policies of exception

The liberation of the country did not signal the end of internment, but its mutation, once again, to a policy of exception. Indeed, the war continued for many months and security behind the lines had to be guaranteed. Besides, after four years of occupation and particularly after six months of intensified repression under pressure from the militia, there would also be the purge of the Epuration. Internment was not peripheral. On the contrary, it peaked in the autumn of 1944, with more than 60,000 internees at one time. It is worth remembering the wide variety of groups interned: suspected collaborators of course, but also Gypsies interned since 4 October 1940, by order of the Germans, common criminals, black market dealers or German civilians, often transferred from areas of fighting in Alsace and among whom the mortality rate was high. The Home Minister, Adrien Tixier, intensified the pressure to lower the numbers as quickly as possible. His reasoning was simple: either the internees were guilty and should be transferred to prison, or there was no reason to detain them and they should be freed. The final internee left in May 1946. He was a Gypsy. Poorly studied and glossed over in the collective memory until the 1970s, internment was a massive phenomenon that affected, between 1938 and 1946, almost 600,000 people. More than 200 camps drew a little-known map of France from very dark years.