From 1940, the French government implemented anti-Semite policies aimed at reducing Jewish influences in French society. These included revoking naturalisations, the abolition of the Marchandeau Decree, the first Jewish Statute and the abolition of the Crémieu Decree.
In March 1941, at the request of the Germans, the Vichy government created the Commissariat-General for Jewish Affairs. The Algeria Hôtel was allocated as its headquarters. On 2 June 1941, the Commissariat ratified its second Jewish Statute, further specifying the definition of “Jew,” lengthening the list of professions Jews were prohibited to exercise and ordering a census of Jews living in the Unoccupied Zone. The individual files created by the Commissariat’s censuses enabled the roundups of Jews in 1942 and facilitated their deportation to the Nazi death camps. Economic Aryanisation was another aspect of the Commissariat’s activities.
Xavier Vallat was head of the Commissariat until May 1942. Monsieur Maingonat, owner of the Algeria Hôtel and on very friendly terms with Vallat, remembered him as an “extremely nice man,” always ready to help: “If we needed anything at all, we went to see him. (…) He never hesitated a second, no matter what we asked for.”*
Maingonat’s account shouldn’t be taken as representing the attitude of other hoteliers towards members of the government living on their premises. But it does show the extent to which daily interaction between the population and the government and the kindness of certain ministers towards the people of Vichy helped humanise the government’s image for some of the local population.
From May 1942 to February 1944, the Commissariat was directed by Louis Darquier de Pellepoix. In February 1944, Charles Mercier du Paty de Clam took over. He was succeeded by Joseph Antignac in May.
* A. Nossiter, The Algeria Hotel, p.189.
Throughout the entire war, the role of Vichy’s Charity Office turned out to be of crucial usefulness. It was involved in numerous fronts: refugee management, food provisions, health care, etc. It coordinated services dedicated to early childhood, in particular the nursery, which was able to relieve countless mothers any day of the week. In 1942, the nursery welcomed a daily average of 14,5 children and carried out a total of 1,212 medical consultations for newborns.
The nursery was located right next to the “Goutte de lait”, an organization created at the end of the 19th century, whose objective was to fight infant mortality. This was achieved mainly by distributing sterilized milk and by offering free medical consultations to young mothers. In 1942, with the support of the French Red Cross, Vichy’s “Goutte de lait” distributed approximately 300,000 bottles to 350 children, of which 10% were free.*
The work and effort provided by Childhood Services and the Red Cross were greatly rewarded. Through them, a large number of children from Vichy and its surrounding area were able to maintain good health. In fact, babies residing in the provisional capital between the ages of 11 and 12-month old weigh 10,2 kilos on average, whereas the French national average was below 9 kilos. In addition, statistics showed that infant mortality and stillbirth rates were clearly lower in Vichy than elsewhere in France.*
After the war, childcare structures for very small children were diversified. The nursery on boulevard Carnot closed its doors at the end of the 1960s. The building later housed the county court (“tribunal d’instance”).
* « Vichy après la guerre » – Numéro Spécial. Novembre 1943. Centre médical de Moulins
The shopping centre of les quatre chemins was constructed in 2002 on the former site of the Military Thermal Hospital.
Opened in 1847, the main mission of Vichy’s military hospital was to treat soldiers who had fallen ill in the colonies. At that time, thermal baths were considered to be one of the best treatments for different pathologies such as malaria, yellow fever or diphtheria.
Developed in a former hotel, the hospital was relatively small. It could only hold a maximum of 30 officers and 60 non-commissioned officers. There were building additions made to the hospital over the years.
One hundred years after its opening, as World War II broke out, the hospital was still functioning. It accommodated soldiers from the French Army up until the end of the conflict.
Its location was strategic, between the train station and the thermal quarter, at the intersection of two commercial streets. When the city was liberated on August 26, 1944, these streets became a gathering place for celebrations. “Jubilation was immense. The balconies and windows were flourished with French and Allied flags, processions of the youth spread throughout the streets singing The Marseillaise (…)”, remembers George Rougeron. Marc-André Fabre, another witness from Vichy, tells the story of the first hours of the liberation in his memoir, Dans les prisons de la milice (In the Milice Prisons): “The first French Forces of the Interior (FFI) automobile had the small Lorraine Cross flag (which would become the symbol of the Free French Forces) all over its hood and fenders, is [led] out into rue de Paris. It [was] taken over by the crowds which cheer[ed] and cover[ed] these woods and mountain men with flowers”. Some of the ill patients, who were treated in the military hospital, could see the parades from their windows.
The hospital closed its doors definitively in 1990.
In the spring of 1940, as German forces advanced across Western Europe, and more specifically into France, several hundred thousand men, women and children, including numerous Jews, fled south. Some of them stopped in Vichy, where the provisional establishment of the Jewish Consistory of the Bas-Rhin helped make the town an attractive destination for Jewish refugees from northeast France. More than 220 families affiliated themselves to the Vichy synagogue.
The constitutional upheaval caused by the law passed on 10 July 1940 did not particularly worry the Jews. On the contrary, many were glad to see Marshal Pétain as head of the government. But in Vichy they were soon cruelly disillusioned. More than 3,000 foreign Jews were expelled from the town from August to October 1940. A few months later, French Jews were also hunted down and expelled. According to Xavier Vallat, the regime’s commissioner for Jewish Affairs, their “mere presence” in the new French capital was “annoying in itself.”*
Police raids of hotels, apartments and rooms became increasingly frequent. The number of Jews in Vichy fell by 70 % from 1941 to 1943. From one day to another, these Jews lost their home, employment and support network of family and friends. Isolated and vulnerable, they became easy prey for the French Milice and the Gestapo.
The population’s response to the government’s anti-Semite measures was different all over France. At the beginning of the war, several anti-Semite incidents were reported in Vichy. Yet as the regime’s stranglehold on the Jews tightened, a wave of solidarity developed locally. Several Jewish refugees in Vichy were saved with help from the local population.
* Letter from Xavier Vallat to Henry Chavin (20 May 1941). Cited in M. Marrus and R. Paxton, Vichy et les Juifs, p. 157.
In 1855 Vichy’s town council embarked on a major urban development project, widening streets and building a railway station. At the instigation of Napoleon III, who wanted to make Vichy a world-famous spa, many of these plans were soon realised. The railway station was inaugurated in 1862. People travelling to take the waters could now reach Vichy quicker and more easily.
In May and June 1940, the station’s platforms were no longer bustling with people taking the waters but crowded with thousands of refugees from northern France and neighbouring countries recently occupied by the Nazis. To deal with this massive influx, the town created reception centres, one at the aerodrome and one at the station. When they arrived at the railway station, refugees were taken to the Concours hippique, Vichy’s equestrian stadium, where they were admitted to the reception centre.
In mid-June 1940, there were rumours of the Germans’ imminent arrival in Vichy. On 18 June, military headquarters sent an armoured train in reinforcement. On board the train, artillery lieutenant Louis Simon Domb had orders to fire at enemy troops on sight. Anxious for the town and its population, the mayor, Pierre Victor Léger, and Lucien Lamoureux, member of parliament for the Allier, asked Lieutenant Domb to do everything he could to avoid urban combat. Lieutenant Domb accepted and declared Vichy an “open town.” On 19 June the Germans entered Vichy without a single shot being fired.
At the end of June, Vichy hosted a new wave of arrivals: French members of parliament fleeing Paris after the German invasion of the capital. A few days later, the Journal Officiel announced that Vichy had been chosen as France’s provisional capital. Several factors were instrumental in this, one of which was the direct rail link between Paris and Vichy.
The railway station was also a strategic place for members of the Resistance. In July 1942, for example, railwaymen created a hiding place in the locomotive of Pierre Laval’s train, which they used to transport members of the Resistance and mail between Vichy and Paris.
At the beginning of the 20th century, when Vichy was becoming an internationally famous spa, the town council decided to build a new town hall. The one built at the instigation of Napoleon III in the spa quarter had become too small. In 1928, after several years work, the new town hall was at last ready to be inaugurated.
When Pétain arrived in Vichy in 1940, Pierre-Victor Léger, a member of the radical-socialist party, was the town’s mayor. He remained mayor until Vichy’s liberation in August 1944. In 1940, a full-scale purge was carried out in the local administrations so that the government could get rid of mayors it thought little inclined to follow the dictates of the “National Revolution.” But Pierre-Victor Léger remained in office. Was this proof of his approval of Vichyist policies?
Several documents attest to Léger’s support for the French State. In the dossiers the government compiled on prominent personalities in the Allier département, the mayor of Vichy is always described as “supporting the government” and being “loyal to the Marshal.” On the other hand, several witnesses claim that Léger’s support was only “strategic,” and that he was secretly a member of the Resistance.
Whatever the mayor’s “real” position vis-à-vis the French State may have been, Pétain never removed him from office. A town councillor from 1919 and mayor from 1929, Léger had one major advantage: he knew the town like the back of his hand and had the support of most of the population. It was vital for the government to have as mayor of its provisional capital a man with Vichyist allegiances – at least seemingly so – but also a competent, experienced figure respected by the population.
The Grand Etablissement Thermal, with its Byzantine-style exterior and Symbolist-inspired interior, was inaugurated in 1903. Twenty years later, its clientele had risen considerably: some 200,000 people came to take the waters at Vichy during the cure season from May to October.
During the Second World War, spa tourism came to an abrupt end. The situation was made especially difficult because all the hotels in Vichy had been requisitioned, and also because the demarcation line between the occupied and free zones strictly limited travel between the two zones. But these constraints did not prevent Vichy from hoping that spa tourism would gradually resume. The government agreed to create a residence permit system during the cure season. Anyone wishing to come to Vichy between 1 June and 30 September, for a period of more than five days, could stay as long as they had a permit specifying the reasons for their stay.
Despite this, conditions were difficult. Visitors complained that there were “too many profiteers and beggars around the ministries, too many people in the cinemas, too many “zazous” – delinquents – in the streets, and too many police everywhere.”* Postal control reports in the summer of 1943 also stressed the discontent of Vichy’s inhabitants, who longed for the departure of the regime’s civil servants, of those “undesirables” who were harming Vichy’s economy.*
After the war, spa tourism took time to pick up again. Five years passed before people returned en masse to take the waters. Not until 1950, for the first time since 1938, did their number rise beyond 100,000.
* AD (Allier). 996 W. Postal control report, July 1943.
In the summer of 1940, Germany seized much of France’s agricultural production and raw materials for use by the soldiers of the Third Reich. Fuel, coal, meat, flour, butter…everything became increasingly scarce. A national rationing system came into force in September 1940. Food cards were distributed to all French citizens, who were classified in categories, according to age, profession and place of residence. For many, obtaining food became a daily struggle.
The town of Vichy was no exception. The endless queues outside grocers’ and bakers’ shops became grim daily realities for the population. But of course not all the inhabitants of the new capital were affected in the same way. The “popotes” – the restaurants patronised by members of the government and the Germans – received almost unlimited supplies, which outraged the far less fortunate.
However, despite many difficulties, the situation in Vichy was far less hopeless than in many other French towns and cities. As France’s provisional capital and seat of its new regime, Vichy had to maintain a semblance of normality and avoid civil unrest at any price. Throughout the war, the authorities did all they could to solve supply problems as quickly as possible and maintain a “decent” standard of living.
And so in Vichy the mortality rate remained relatively stable until the Liberation, while it rose constantly in many other French towns and cities.
On 10 May 1940 Hitler’s troops invaded Belgium. Four days later they were in France. The German advance triggered an unprecedented exodus of refugees fleeing south. The towns and cities where they sought refuge were overwhelmed. In Vichy, the Concours hippique, the town’s equestrian stadium, was transformed into a reception centre. An enormous canteen was created and after only a few weeks around 800,000 meals had been served. In addition to the reception centre at the Concours hippique, the town council created an orphanage, a maternity service and several clinics housed in requisitioned buildings to cater to refugees’ needs.
The Concours hippique was then requisitioned by Pétain’s paramilitary groups, the GMR, created in the spring 1941. Following the armistice in June 1940, the army and antiriot police were drastically reduced in number. The GMR were created to maintain public order. They were initially deployed in the southern zone then throughout France late in 1942. In Vichy, they were stationed in the Concours hippique.
After Vichy’s liberation, the Concours hippique became an internment camp for several hundred presumed collaborators. To make the camp more functional and secure, the site was enlarged and altered and two watchtowers were built.
The camp’s population varied greatly, ranging from ordinary people to writers such as Jacques Chevalier, generals such as Commandant Féat, and members of the deposed government, including former ministers such as Xavier Vallat. The prisoners were housed in fourteen sheds, ten for men and four for women. The camp was dismantled late in the spring of 1945. According to the prefect, their proximity to the local population helped create an unhealthy and potentially dangerous atmosphere in the vicinity of the Concours hippique.
The imperial chalet at 109 Boulevard des États-Unis, now known as the “Villa Marie-Louise,” is one of the chalets that Napoleon III built in Vichy between 1861 and 1864. In 1928, the “Marie Louise” was bought by the Société de l’hôtel des Lilas, which transformed the ground floor into a bar, the Cintra.
During the Second World War, the bar became the meeting place for Vichy high society. Daily, Germans, French ministers, foreign diplomats and the local bourgeoisie rubbed shoulders there, and throughout the war the Cintra flourished as a melting pot for all kinds of murky political and commercial deals and of course amorous affairs.
Henry Vuitton, manager of the Vuitton boutique on the ground floor of the Hôtel du Parc, was a regular at the Cintra, where one day he met Robert Lallemant, who had just created Marshal Pétain’s artistic service, whose main purpose was the production of objects depicting the marshal. Henry Vuitton proposed his services and Lallemant accepted. Although Vuitton’s precise role in Vichyist propaganda is still obscure, it is nonetheless certain that they produced several objects portraying Marshal Pétain.
Despite its salacious reputation, the Cintra remained open after the war. It closed for good in the mid-1970s.