It Was Easier for the French to Win the War than the Peace

France has never overcome the June 1940 defeat against the Germans. Above all, it was the biggest military debacle in French history. I remember my history teacher in high school trying to find an image vivid enough to make us realise how dreadful this defeat was: “Worse than Agincourt!” he eventually told us, although I very much doubt that “Agincourt” reminded my apathetic schoolfellows of anything. Anyway, it was much worse than a mere military defeat: it was also a political tragedy, which culminated in the Vichy regime being set up. However, this astonishing disaster led to a no less astonishing conclusion: not more than five years later, De Gaulle managed to turn France into a victorious nation and, as if by sleight of hand, succeeded in tossing the defeat, the Vichy government and the collaboration into oblivion. What a magician! Some malicious tongues could point out with good reason that during the whole war De Gaulle spent far less time fighting the Germans than fighting Roosevelt and Churchill to secure his own position, but the result is undisputable: in 1945, France found herself on the side of the victors!

Nowadays, however, we wonder if this diplomatic ploy was a good thing and if it would have been better for France to be treated as a defeated nation. At least, a true “de-vichysation” of the country might have been undertaken, on the pattern of the denazification of Germany (even though incomplete), and maybe today more French people would remember Vichy and the role of the French police in deporting Jews. The disgusting “debate on national identity” could have been avoided too, or at least it could have been more dignified. Unfortunately, a national psychoanalysis did not happen. And what about the return of the repressed?

In an essay published in 2007, La Société de défiance (“The Society of mistrust”), two sociologists, Yann Algan and Pierre Cahuc, try to understand why France is the developed country where people, according to numerous international opinion polls, have the least confidence in the State and other social institutions such as courts, unions, political parties, companies, etc. – and even in their own neighbours and colleagues! The two authors specifically show that this particular state of mind is not a timeless characteristic of the French psyche but dates back to the forties. The turning point is significant: it can be inferred that the 1940 defeat, the Vichy regime and the collaboration combined to create a highly traumatic experience for French society, which lost confidence in itself, its institutions and its leadership. Sixty-five years later, this broken trust between citizens and so-called “elites” has not yet been restored.

A revealing incident occurred some days ago in the small town of Parthenay. On the Day of Commemoration of the Victims and Heroes of the Deportation, a history teacher had planned to read a letter from an Auschwitz survivor during the ceremony at the city hall. The mayor however tried to prevent her from doing so, on the pretext that the letter, in which the author (Ida Grinspan) spoke about her arrest by French gendarmes, could “stigmatize the profession as a whole.”

Interesting, isn’t it? But are we really surprised? What would De Gaulle have thought of that? Truth is a struggle too!


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