August 23, 2023


Case closed?: a review of France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain by Julian Jackson (ANNE FREADMAN BOOKS 23 AUGUST 2023, Inside Story)

Did the court action against Pétain really put France on trial? This is the question that pervaded the trial and pervades the book.

From the moment of liberation, de Gaulle insisted that France was a nation of resisters that had been betrayed, in Jackson's words, "only by a handful of traitors who needed to be punished." To understand this belief, we need to remember that the Gaullist resistance was a nationalist movement, and ideologically conservative. We also need to remember that de Gaulle's principal aim from 1944 on was to have France recognised as a participant in the war effort and accepted among the Allies at the negotiating table for decisions concerning postwar Europe.

Jackson is sympathetic with this account, deeming it "necessary." But it was necessary only in the relatively short term; in the longer term, it has been a major cause of France's difficulty in coming to terms with its history. It surely lends respectability to the national nostalgia for a "certain idea of France," a nation -- notably not a "state" -- whose "greatness" would rest on its ideological and cultural homogeneity.

As Jackson remarks elsewhere, France's wartime population consisted of resisters -- a small number at the start, more towards the end -- a great number of supporters of Pétain and Vichy, and many people on the fence, waiting to see how the cards would fall. Even if attitudes had been more homogeneous, France could not be tried, if only because a criminal trial necessarily focuses on the accused person and his or her intentions, as was reiterated several times during the proceedings.

At the same time, some prominent intellectuals acknowledged at the time that France as a whole shared some responsibility, that "each of us was complicit," in the words of one. One of the defence lawyers argued that "if Pétain was guilty so were the French -- so was France"...


Posted by at August 23, 2023 12:00 AM