Vichy Lives!—In a Way

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A Vichy government propaganda poster by J.A. Mercier, 1941

L’Héritage de Vichy is an unconventional work—more a catalog of curiosities than a regular book. It advances a strong claim: that contemporary France still bears today many traces of the Vichy regime that governed under German occupation from 1940 to 1944. Cécile Desprairies proceeds item by item—vaccination, for example, or television—showing for each one, aided by contemporary photos and texts, what its situation was in 1939, how Vichy dealt with it, and what part of Vichy’s actions remained in effect after 1944. She offers, however, only the sketchiest general analysis of what continued, what didn’t, and why.

Desprairies’s main message is surprise. Isn’t it odd, she seems to say, how many traces remain of the Vichy experiment. One had believed it discredited by collaboration with the Nazi occupiers, swept away by the Liberation of 1945, and buried by the postwar transformation of French society during the Trente Glorieuses years of economic expansion. The brief preface by the celebrated historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, “Moi et Vichy,” strikes a similar note. He mainly lists survivals he found unexpected. Although Le Roy Ladurie alludes to his father Jacques, who served as the Vichy minister of agriculture in 1942 before joining the Resistance, he avoids raising any sensitive issues of general interpretation.

Surprise is not really warranted, however. The historiography of Vichy France since the 1970s has consisted largely of refuting the early postwar view that Marshal Pétain’s regime was an alien import imposed for the moment by Nazi force. Recent historians have reinstated Vichy firmly within the continuities of French history. Vichy France reacted to what had gone before, especially to the Popular Front of 1936, and tried to prepare for a postwar world that it believed was just around the corner. Historians have abundantly analyzed the breaks and continuities in France across World War II—what was radically changed in 1940 and again in 1945, and what went on very much as before. The breaks were exceptionally sharp at both turning points, but there were authentic continuities of personnel and of institutions, especially in technical matters. The contribution of Desprairies lies not in the idea that Vichy had a heritage but in the richness of her often fascinating details.1

Vichy’s legacies fall mainly into two categories: technocratic modernization and social welfare. The first category is the largest. The late Third Republic had woefully neglected French infrastructure, along with a host of unresolved political, social, and economic problems. The contraction of the French economy in the 1930s is sometimes attributed to the Third Republic’s weak executive, deadlocked parliament, and ideological divisions. The essential reason (one too often ignored by historians as well as by the public) was the economic policy of deflationary budget-cutting with which French leaders confronted the Great Depression until 1936. Even then, when the Popular Front…

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