The Fracture of France

France on trial: the case of Marshal Pétain, Julian Jackson

France on trial: the case of Marshal Pétain, Julian Jackson, Allen Lane, 2023.

The history of France is full of deep fractures, never completely healed, whose effects continue to be felt centuries later. The most recent of these major fractures is undoubtedly that produced by the defeat of May-June 1940. This defeat and its consequences were the decisive experience that, more than any other, gave birth to contemporary France. We overcame that defeat but, in a way, we never recovered from it. The Resistance and Collaboration were the two main options open to the French after this staggering defeat. Two men embodied each of these options: Charles de Gaulle and Philippe Pétain. Those who chose the path of the Resistance ended up, willy-nilly, rallying around General De Gaulle; those who chose to follow Marshal Pétain gradually sank down the path of ever closer and more infamous collaboration with Nazi Germany.

For reasons that have as much to do with its history as with that mysterious yet enduring thing we call the national temperament, France has always contained within itself powerful ferments of conflict. An eminently political nation, talkative and reasoning, France always seems ready to tear itself apart for reasons ranging from the most trivial to the most serious. This ‘Gallic temperament’ was brilliantly caricatured by the comic strip ‘Asterix’ (the first volume of which appeared in 1959, just after de Gaulle’s return to power). In it, the inhabitants of the only small village that the Romans were unable to conquer stop fighting each other only to unite, temporarily, against the invaders, whom they repel thanks to a ‘magic potion’ that gives them superhuman strength.

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