With defeat at the hands of Argentina in the rugby and Scotland in the football, national pride in France is at something of a low ebb. A rather bizarre technique to boast the teams before their games was to read them the letter of Guy Moquet . And even more bizarrely , the letter is such a favourite of Nicolas Sarkorzy, that one of his first presidential decrees was that it should be compulsory reading for every French schoolchild: A sentimental note written by a 17 year old boy to his family on the eve of his execution by the Nazis.
Guy Moquet was an active member of the Communist Youth Movement and the son of a Communist Party deputy in Paris. With the Nazi occupation of Paris he was arrested and imprisoned at the age of 16 by the Vichy authorities, along with other known activists.
When the German commandant in Bordeux was assassinated by the Resistance the Nazis ordered the Petain government to take reprisals. Vichy authorities handed over 50 Communist prisoners to the Germans “in order to avoid letting 50 good French people get shot.” And so it came about that Guy Moquet was killed by a firing squad in October 1941, refusing a blindfold and crying out ‘Vive La France’.
The legacy of the Vichy government shames and divides France, but also has lessons for all of us nowadays.
Practically every French town still has its memorial to the ‘deported and the shot’. It is a reminder that the collaborationst government did much of the Nazi’s dirty work for them; a quarter of all French Jews, and a much higher proportion of foreign-born Jewish refugees in France, were either deported to German death camps or perished in camps in France, guarded by French Gendarmes. Along of course with many other ‘undesirables’ and political opponents, such as Guy Moquet and his comrades.
There were French Nazis in the Vichy government, but the majority, like Marshal Petain, were simply ultra-conservatives who saw co-operation with the Nazis as the lesser of two evils in comparison to the pre-war Popular Front government and the threat of socialism. Their position was perhaps best summed up in their replacement of the French Republic’s slogan of ‘Liberty, Fraternity and Equality’ with ‘ Work, Family and Nation’.
And the lessons for us now?
Repression and reaction don’t have to come in the form of goose-stepping storm-troopers. The Vichy regime was the tyranny of small-town France and the petty-bureaucrat . De-facto fascism came in to power not by a coup d’etat but by a series of administrative measures.
And so the threat in Europe today doesn’t come from the boneheads of Combat 18 but from the populist nationalism to be found on the fringes of mainstream parties – the whole Daily Mail / Little England mentality is the home-grown descendant Vichy-ism. And asylum seekers are the Jews of the 21st century.
It is no accident that Le Pen’s Front National has distanced itself from its street-fighting wing and has sought rehabilitation for the ’mis-understood’ Vichy regime.