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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les premiers pas de la Résistance

by Roger Bourderon

The First Steps of the Resistance

Translated Saturday 2 June 2007, by Carol Gullidge

After its defeat by Germany on 25 June 1940, France was divided into the "North Zone", run by a German military command, and the "South Zone", which was run by the collaborationist Vichy government and led by Marshall Pétain. Here, historian Roger Bourderon (1) looks at the background to the arrest of Guy Môquet, who was executed along with fellow communist sympathizers.


In the autumn of 1940, whilst Vichy was organizing the collaboration, the nucleus of a resistance network was being formed. The French Communist Party (PCF) was secretly developing a Popular Front strategy for confronting the enemy.

The arrest of Guy Môquet, on 13 October 1940, was totally in line with the policy of Vichy, for whom the tracking down of communist militants was a major objective. At the beginning of October 1940, with the green light from the occupying forces, 210 Parisian communists were arrested and interned – as were nearly 5,000 throughout France up to June 1941. We must not forget that, whatever has been said about it, the legal government of France was that of Marshall Pétain: the Vichy parliament might well have been imbued with an atmosphere of fear and threat, but the fact remains that on 10 July 1940, it gave him full powers by 570 votes to 80 with 20 abstentions, the communist MPs having been stripped of their mandate in January 1940.

Dependant on German goodwill but endowed with real margins of autonomy, with its programme of “National Revolution”, the French State allied itself with the repressive Franco regime, and with Salazarism and fascism, all of which were responding to their leaders’ obsessive dread of seeing bolshevism win through: the experience of the Popular Front, albeit brief, had made them fear the worst. The end of the democracy, along with Vichy’s radical anticommunism and its reliance on the old standbys of the nationalist right – anti-Semitism, and anti-freemasonry, which were stigmatised along with communism as the pillars of the “Anti-France” – ensured the support of the financial and industrial sectors, most of the army bosses, the top clergy, and the classic right.

Demoralized, and from the depths of defeat, public opinion sided with Pétain, who still enjoyed the prestige of “the Conqueror of Verdun”: his “charismatic dictatorship”, as Henry Rousso describes it, was consecrated by triumphal parades through the big cities of the South Zone. However, support began to wane from that autumn onward, as living conditions became considerably worse, and especially with Pétain’s meeting with Hitler at Montoire on 24 October 1940, as well as the Marshall’s announcement that he had opted to collaborate with the conqueror. From then on, while essentially continuing to follow a wait-and-see policy, opinion of the regime began to waver as the months went by: from August 1941, Pétain denounced the “ill wind” that blew throughout the country. Henceforth, his government was to multiply the instruments of repression, the judiciary, and the police.

At first isolated – but increasingly gaining the sympathy of the population –, acts of insurrection against the intolerable immediately broke out behind the scenes: the Resistance began to take shape in the autumn of 1940, both in the North and South Zones. A few pioneers, from various political tendencies and backgrounds, laid the foundations of what were to become the organs of the Resistance, such as Libération Nord, Libération Sud, Liberté, Franc-tireur, Défense de la France, Musée de l’Homme, and the Organisation civile et militaire... There also appeared the nucleus of the information and escape networks. From the Free French headquarters in London, whose radio broadcasts were very much listened to in spite of being banned, the BCRA (Central Bureau of Information and Action) began to put out feelers in France. Underground press, tracts, and posters comprised the visible face of this burgeoning movement.

At the time when Guy Môquet was arrested, the Communist Party was beginning to get away from its confinement to the mindset of the “imperialist war on both sides” imposed by Moscow after the Germano-Soviet Pact, and whose excesses had been unknown to most of the militants who remained loyal. The Communist Resistance asserted itself with the denunciation of the “Vichy traitors”, the demand for national independence, and an increasingly anti-German tone in the underground press. Efforts focussed on the renewal of contact with the working population: people’s committees formed the essential basis of its recovery, particularly in the factories. Likewise, from the summer of 1941 onwards, the communist management relaunched the immigrant workforce (MOI). In May 1941, the National Front for the Independence of France took a decisive step towards the return to a strategy aligned with the Popular Front. Militants of all ages dedicated themselves heart and soul to this rebirth, driven on by their ideals of solidarity, internationalism, and the building of a world where everyone would be able to flourish freely. Soon arrested and never set free despite a release on 24 January 1941 – which remained purely hypothetical since, like a good many victims of Vichy, he was immediately subjected to an administrative internment – Guy Môquet was one of those militants.

With the Russian invasion in June 1941, the French Communist Party (PCF) took up the armed struggle, but did not claim responsibility for the first attacks against military personnel. The hostage massacres that followed – Pucheu, the Minister of the Interior, guided the occupying forces in their choice towards the communists, while negotiating their number – provoked public indignation, but at the same time - due to the heavy price paid - this first form of armed struggle created unease even in the ranks of the communists.

Evoking the memory of Guy Môquet requires us not to lose sight of the context of his martyrdom and most particularly of the crushing responsibility of the repressive policies of Vichy France.

(1) Latest published work: Rol-Tanguy, prefaced by Christine Levisse-Touzé (éditions Tallandier, Paris, 2004)

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