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D-Day, De Gaulle, and Dignity: The Role of French Resistance in WWII

Updated: Jun 17


            Two weeks ago, leaders of the former Allied forces (among other world leaders) gathered on the beaches of Normandy to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the momentous occasion. They watched, most in awe, as hundreds of Belgian, American, and British paratroopers landed on the beaches of Normandy. The ceremony was meant to recreate the historic moment in a commemorative style. In France, the day invoked an intense sense of remembrance and reflection. Macron awarded three former WWII veterans the Legion of Honor, France’s highest military award. In honor of this 80th anniversary, and the reflections it has ignited, I invite you to join in on the remembrance of French Resistance in WWII.


2024 D-Day Remembrance

France Between Wars

France has long been considered one of the powerhouses of Europe. In the First World War, France was a critical player in the defeat of Germany and its allies. Marshal Philippe Pétain was a renowned war hero, becoming a symbol of French power and influence. Despite its immense success in the war, France was immensely vulnerable. Its infrastructure and manpower had been decimated, and its national morale was in a state of grievance. Over a million French men had been casualties of the war, leaving families broken and recovering. Furthermore, like the rest of the world, the economy of France collapsed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, leaving the citizens further distressed.


The Fall of France

            Such was the reality in France in 1939, when the Second World War was sparked. France joined the war immediately upon the German invasion of Poland in September, but actual warfare didn’t come until the beginning months of 1940. The period from September to May of 1940 is referred to as the Phoney War, a period where both sides dug their infamous trenches at the borders and the Allies attempted to build up forces to oppose German invasion. But in May, the warfare on Europe’s western front broke out.

Code Yellow Map
Code Red Map

            The Third Reich of Germany launched a two-pronged invasion of Northwestern Europe, called Case Yellow. They targeted nations like Belgium, Luxembourg, and Denmark. Their goal was to draw the allies into that area and away from more strategically advantageous locations. Within a week, the German forces had reached the English Channel using their tactics of “Blitzkrieg” (lightning war), which stopped any chances the Allies had for reorganizing or launching a counterattack. By the 26th of May, the Nazi Germany occupied all ports (besides Dunkirk) north of the Somme River. Over the next ten days, French and Belgian troops were rescued in a water mission from the port of Dunkirk. This operation, called Operation Dynamo, was a final sign of retreat during the Case Yellow invasion.

            With the success of Case Yellow, Hitler turned his attention to the second phase: Case Red. This phase was the official fall of France, as Germans moved south into Paris, coming across the Somme and Aisne rivers. They also launched a full-scale attack against the Maginot line, which was designed to stop heavy artillery but fell with ease to the German tanks. After seventeen days of battle, France fell to German forces on June 22nd. Following the fall of France, many described Paris as a barren land. Journalist Dominique Jamet described it as “Paris without light, but [also] Paris without cars, Paris without traffic jams, Paris without pollution, Paris without accidents, Paris without stoplights, Paris without noise.” The culture and vibrancy of Paris had been muted with the Fall of France.

           

Philippe Pétain

Vichy France & La Révolution Nationale

            As France fell, the WWI hero Philippe Pétain signed an armistice with Nazi Germany. The new government, led by Pétain, would be headed in Vichy, a small town in Southern France. Its control would be limited to Southern France and any colonial possessions (particularly in North and West Africa). Although maintaining a claim of autonomy, this government was essentially a puppet state of Germany. Pétain was selected as the leader of this new government, named Vichy France, for two reasons: his status as a French hero (with Hitler believing this would allow Pétain to control the citizens) and his political presence in the interwar period.

            During the interwar period, Pétain was an active member of a growing political movement called the “Révolution Nationale,” (National Revolution) which made calls to “purify the French nation.” During the beginning periods of German occupation, key leaders of the Révolution movement seemed to be sympathetic, if not supportive, of the Nazi regime. This sentiment, however, was not shared by all.

 

Origins of Resistance

Charles de Gaulle

            As Vichy France established control over the people, a new government arose out of exile. Across the English Channel in London, Charles de Gaulle established a movement known as “Free French.” De Gaulle was passionate about organizing a revolution against Vichy France and German occupation. The French Resistance had three distinct origins: the Resistance-Nord (Northern Resistance), Resistance-Sud (Southern Resistance), and the Maquis. The Resistance-Nord was a small but unified front under direct German occupation. They launched several small-scale attacks against German forces during the occupation. The Resistance-Sud was larger but less unified. Many of the Southern Resistance members were divided between Gaullists (strong de Gaulle supporters), communist leaders, and anti-Gaullists. This rhetoric of fractured resistance was used by the Nazi forces to deem the cause as a project of “foreign communists,” a targeted group during the Holocaust.

            The Maquis resistance was concentrated in rural areas. These resistance groups were passionate and eager for vengeance against the German forces. Many of them dodged the ‘Service du travail obligatoire” (STO; Obligatory Work Service), a system that the Germans used to force French citizens into industrial output to fuel the war. Once in the mountains and countryside of rural France, these people became guerrilla fighters, using unique tactics to fight the Occupation. The Maquis also enlisted soldiers from the Allied Armies who had either been lost or wounded in battle and recovered in the countryside. This gave them a powerful advantage: actual military equipment and training. The most notable of these groups was the Maquis of Vercours, a group armed with US supplies that had been airdropped and a spare troop from the “Tirailleurs Sénégalais,” a colonial troop from the French colony of Sénégal. The Vercours launched a large-scale uprising in July of 1944, just before the reclamation of Paris and just after the success of D-Day.


Tirailleurs Sénégalais

 

La Rafle

            On July 16th, 1942, the streets of Paris were full of people, but not in an expression of rebellion or culture. This event, called La Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver, was the single largest roundup of persecuted individuals in France during the Holocaust. Over 13,000 Jewish men, women, and children were rounded up across Paris and sent to Germany. While some denied knowledge of their fate, this was the nail in the coffin for a vast swath of the French population who remained afraid of the Germans or indifferent to the Occupation. La Rafle, meant to show German power in Paris, was the final event in the unification of the French Resistance.

 

United Resistance

            As La Rafle inspired Resistance, de Gaulle capitalized on this momentum. De Gaulle sent Jean Moulin as an emissary to unite forces from the Resistance-Nord, Resistance-Sud, and the Maquis. This mission was championed under the label of “Forces Françaises Combattantes” (Fighting French Forces). By early 1943, the French Resistance was making noise and gaining success. The Allied Forces started to take note of this noise and began supporting the underground revolutionaries. With the successful launch of D-Day in June of 1944, the French Resistance was launched into full force. During D-Day, they were critical in sabotaging power grids and slowing German response to the attacks. As the war continued, so did the French Resistance, gaining power at every move. In the end, the French Resistance was a critical form of internal struggle that supported the eventual defeat of the Third Reich and the end of WWII.

 

Rebuilding France: At Home and Abroad

Resistance Poster

            As the French people rebuilt from the devastation of two world wars and a foreign occupation, rebuilding was a tough task. Over 400,000 buildings across France had been leveled and over two million had been severely damaged. Infrastructure of all forms was severely limited and industrial and agricultural production was nearly nonexistent. Released from exile, Charles de Gaulle took on a leading role in the task of nation-building during the second half of the 20th century. De Gaulle initiated a large nationalization program across France, investing in industry, finance, energy, and transportation to build back. Additionally, he attempted to use social advances to support his cause. In 1944, women were granted the right to vote and in 1945, France’s social security system was adopted.

            Since the end of the war, the government has made a conscious effort to remember the French Resistance (while sometimes overlooking the role of Vichy France in supporting Germany). The government has officially recognized 220,000 fighters of the resistance (totaling roughly 1% of the population at the time). These men, women, and children became a symbol of French pride and courage. Even further, the memory of the French Resistance pushed Europe to unify itself. As France rebuilt, it brought Europe along with it. France became, once more, a leading figure of European progress and even advocated for amicable relations with the population of West Germany.

 

As the realities of WWII seep into the past, it is important to remember the events today. French Resistance played a critical role in overcoming German occupation and propagating the legacy of France today. There is one French poem in particular that exemplifies the French Resistance (and was used to announce the start of D-Day to Resistance members):

 

Chanson d’automne – Paul Verlaine                                 Song of Autumn

 

Les sanglots longs                                                             The long sobs

Des violons                                                                        Of violins

            De l’automne                                                                     Of autumn

 

Blessent mon coeur                                                            Wound my heart

D’une languer

            Monotone.                                                                          With a monotonous languor.

 

Tout suffocant                                                                      All breathless

Et blême, quand                                                                   And pale, when

            Sonne l’heure,                                                                     The hour sounds,

 

Je me souviens                                                                    I remember

Des jours anciens                                                                The old days

            Et je pleure;                                                                          And I cry;

 

Et je m’en vais                                                                      And I go

Au vent mauvais                                                                   In the ill wind

            Qui m’emporte                                                                    That carries me

 

Deçà, delà,                                                                            Here, there,

Pareil à la                                                                              Like the

            Feuille morte.                                                                       Dead leaf.


















Written by Kaleb Houle-Lawrence

University Intern


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