Category Archives: The French State

The Hôtel du Parc

In the early 1910s, Vichy had the third most hotels in France after Paris and Nice. Many of these were luxury hotels like the Hôtel du Parc.

In June 1940, the hotel was requisitioned by France’s defeated military chiefs of staff, then allotted to the government, now headed by Marshal Pétain. Its rooms were transformed into makeshift ministries. Despite the lack of space, the hotel housed Pétain’s offices, Prime Minister Pierre Laval’s offices, as well as the Foreign and Information ministries. To maintain his grip on power, Pétain also had several rooms on the third floor furnished for his personal use and lived there until August 1944.

The people of Vichy were subjected daily to Marshal Pétain’s propaganda and succumbed quite easily to his charm offensive. Every Sunday morning a huge crowd gathered in front of the Hôtel du Parc to watch the changing of the guard, hoping to see “France’s saviour.” Intent on nurturing the personality cult growing around him, Pétain often stopped to greet the crowd and kiss children offering him bunches of flowers.

On 20 August 1944, the Germans raided the Hôtel du Parc, arrested Marshal Pétain and took him forcibly to Belfort then to Sigmaringen in Germany. He was joined there by several ministers and other fleeing collaborators. These successive departures marked the end of the French State.

Freed from its residents, the Hôtel du Parc was used as a relief hospital until 1945.

After the war, the hotel was sold to several buyers. Pétain’s apartment was bought by the ADMP (Association for the Defence of the Memory of Marshal Pétain).

The opera house

On 10 July 1940, Vichy’s magnificent opera house – inaugurated in 1901 – was the venue for an extraordinary session of France’s National Assembly. The following article was put to the vote of members of parliament and senators: “The National Assembly grants all powers to the Government of the Republic, under the authority (…) of Marshal Pétain, for the purpose of promulgating (…) a new constitution of the French State. This constitution must guarantee the rights of work, the family and the fatherland. It will be ratified by the nation and implemented by the assemblies it will have created.” 570 of the 670 members of parliament present voted in favour. Eighty voted against and the rest abstained.

The next day, Pétain overstepped his mandate and assumed near-absolute legislative and executive powers as Head of State and also partial judicial powers. The French Republic had been liquidated and replaced by an authoritarian regime: the “French State”.

The civil service was reformed. Civil servants not fitting the profile defined by the new government were dismissed. The government could now be sure of the compliance of its staff and their correct implementation of exceptional judicial measures taken against those considered harmful to the regime (Communists, Freemasons, Jews, etc.). The government also reorganised the police for largely repressive purposes. In parallel, the new regime embarked on a moral, social and intellectual re-education of the French population. The “National Revolution” advocated by Pétain was conservative and traditionalist and inspired by pre-war anti-liberal doctrines.

Although the history of the opera house from 1940 to 1944 was overshadowed by the momentous vote on 10 July 1940 creating the French State, it continued to host cultural events. Throughout the war, many artists performed there and sports events – gymnastics, fencing, etc. – were regularly organised.

On 10 July 1988, a plaque commemorating the 80 members of parliament who voted against the promulgation of a new constitution under Marshal Pétain’s authority was unveiled on the opera house.

The Algeria Hôtel

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.

The Hôtel des Célestins

During the war, the Hôtel des Célestins was occupied by the Ministry of the Interior. Even though it was slightly outside of the geographic realm of power, the Ministry of the Interior played a leading role in Vichy politics, especially in the domain of repression.

The General Direction of the Police belonged to one of the departments where the Ministry of the Interior was held. It also included a cabinet in Paris, in the Occupied Zone.

The police force was an essential governmental instrument for two main reasons. First of all, it was able to maintain order. Secondly, by tracking the “antinationals”, the Jews and the recusants of the STO, it demonstrated to the German authorities the rigorous efficiency of the French Government, hereby allowing the latter to maintain a certain amount of autonomy.

On April 23, 1941, police forces in towns with more than 10,000 inhabitants were placed under the authority of the General Secretary of the Police within the Ministry of the Interior. The General Direction of the National Police force was created within the Ministry and was separated into three different groups: The Judiciary Police, General Information and Public Safety.

Other departments and sub departments are born from the state-owned police, such as the Anti-Communist Police, the Police for Jewish Affairs and the Department of Secret Societies.

In April of 1942, Pierre Laval, Head of the Government, called upon René Bousquet, the préfet in the Marne department, to head the National Police Departments. Bousquet reorganized the police force and created the groupes mobiles de réserves, former CRS (General Reserve of the French National Police). In July of 1942, he signed an accord with the heads of the SS with the aim to maintain autonomy of the French Police. However, this autonomy was illusory because French police officers were forced to collaborate more and more frequently with the German Police.

In December of 1943, Bousquet was replaced by Joseph Darnand, General Secretary of the Milice.

In 1946, the Hôtel des Célestins was transformed into an all-girl high school. Twenty years later it became a school for secondary education.

The church of Saint-Louis

When Napoleon III came to Vichy to take the waters for the first time in 1861, the town had only one church, the church of Saint-Blaise. Its priest, Father Dupeyrat, wanting to preach in a more majestic setting, asked the emperor to build a larger and better-situated church. Napoleon accepted and the church of Saint-Louis opened in 1865.

During the Second World War, the church of Saint-Louis played a key role in government protocol in Vichy. Official masses were held there, including for the funeral of General Huntziger, France’s war minister, in November 1941, in the presence of Marshal Pétain.

Marshal Pétain not only attended official events there, he also often went to Sunday morning services. Since the Catholic Church played a major role in the moral recovery the government wanted to achieve, he had to set an example.

Although most Catholics were favourable to the changes proposed by the new regime, several priests, including Father Dillard, objected to its increasingly radical measures.

Father Dillard regularly officiated at the church of Saint-Louis from 1942 and in his sermons subtly criticised the government’s anti-Semite measures and economic policies. When the Service du Travail Obligatoire* – Compulsory Work Service – was implemented in February 1943, he went to Germany to organise a clandestine chaplaincy for French workers. He left Vichy disguised as a worker.

After several months in Germany, he was denounced and arrested by the Gestapo. He was deported to Dachau, where he died in January 1945.

* STO: In February 1943 the French government passed a law obliging all young men born between 1920 and 1922 to do compulsory work service in Germany.

The Petit Casino

The history of the Petit Casino began in the late 1920s, when this building with atypical architecture housed a theatre, gambling rooms and a large brasserie with a capacity of several hundred people. It was one of Vichy’s most fashionable haunts.

In 1943, the Petit Casino was requisitioned by the French Milice, a paramilitary organisation created by Prime Minister Pierre Laval in January 1943 to combat the Resistance. From then onwards, its reign of terror was felt throughout France.

The Petit Casino became the antechamber of death for many members of the Resistance in the Vichy region. Torture was commonplace, as Maurice Constantin-Weyer’s son-in-law and brother remember only too well: “For three days they were hung by their wrists in the latrines; every half an hour, a milicien threw a bucket of ice-cold water over them. But his was nothing compared to the agony on the floor above, where a clever milicien had devised an electric torture apparatus. Hanging in the air, the prisoner had copper bands put round the wrists and ankles and the current was switched on.”*

In Vichy, the Milice also requisitioned the Hôtel Moderne and the Hôtel Métropole, where it installed its offices, and the Château des Brosses (Bellerive), which it used as a prison.

After the war, the Petit Casino was refurbished, and in 1961 it was transformed into a cultural centre.

* M. Constantin-Weyer, Vichy et son histoire, p.159

The Concours hippique

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 Villa Ica

In 1940, forty states had representatives in Vichy, including the United States. The American ambassador, Admiral William Leahy, appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, arrived in France’s provisional capital on 5 January 1941. He took up residence in Villa Ica, tasked with defending American interests in France and convincing the French government to limit its negotiations with Germany as much as possible.

Pierre Laval’s return to power in April 1942 marked a turning point in Franco-American relations. His declarations left absolutely no doubt as to the French government’s determination to pursue and intensify its collaboration with Germany. Ambassador Leahy was recalled to Washington shortly after Laval’s nomination and in November 1942 diplomatic relations between France and the United States ceased completely.

After the closure of the United States embassy, Villa Ica was occupied by the Swiss delegation. The Swiss ambassador, Walter Stucki, was particularly active in Vichy. His talents as a diplomat and negotiator were well known and during Vichy’s liberation, he acted as intermediary between the Resistance, the Germans and Vichy’s town council.

Although Pétain’s forced departure with the Germans on 20 August 1944 reduced the risk of an offensive on Vichy, an armed confrontation between Resistance fighters and the Germans remained a possibility. Members of the diplomatic corps still present in Vichy asked General Blassel, a former member of Pétain’s military office, to intervene to ensure their protection. Blassel enlisted the aid of Walter Stucki.

Thanks to Stucki, Vichy was liberated without bloodshed. The Free French Forces entered the town on 26 August without a shot being fired. After the war, Stucki was made an honorary citizen of Vichy and a street was renamed after him in his memory.

The Hôtel du Parc Lardy

In order to assert its sovereignty throughout France, maintain its credibility with the German authorities and efficiently counter all forms of opposition and resistance, the Vichy government reorganised the police for mainly authoritarian and repressive purposes.

Several repressive units specialised in hunting down so-called “anti-nationals.” In Bordeaux, police superintendent Pierre Poinsot was appointed head of a new “political affairs” section. The Poinsot Brigade relentlessly hunted down members of the Resistance all over southwest France. From July 1942 to May 1944, it arrested over 2,000 people, many of whom were immediately handed over to the Germans.

In May 1944, Poinsot was appointed head of the regime’s home intelligence division in Vichy. His brigade moved into the Hôtel du Parc Lardy and “tirelessly pursued the work of destruction begun in Bordeaux with a ferocity that only increased as the German defeat approached.”* Most of the people arrested were “beaten regardless of their age, gender or social situation, with fists, boots, riding crops and bullwhips. Some had their head plunged in water until they lost consciousness, others were hung by the hands or neck and savagely beaten.”*

Members of the Resistance were not the only victims of Poinsot’s henchmen, who also made a point of honour of seizing every Jew they succeeded in localising, after which they were deported and their homes pillaged.

In August 1944, Poinsot fled to Germany. In April 1945, he entered Switzerland illegally and tried to offer his services to the French, hoping that this would save him. He was arrested on 1 May 1945 and shot at Riom on 12 July 1945.

* AD (Allier), 612 W 23. Report of the Court of Justice, 14 June 1945.

The Pavillon Sévigné

In 1842, this large mansion, until then the private residence of its wealthy owners, was transformed into a hotel. In order to attract an up-market clientele, its new owner claimed that Madame de Sévigné stayed here when she came to take the waters in Vichy. This has never been proven but it was a successful marketing ploy… And when it became a luxury hotel at the beginning of the 20th century, it was naturally renamed the “Hôtel Sévigné.”

During the First World War, the building was used as a temporary hospital.

It was requisitioned again in 1940. Early in July, it became the temporary residence of the President of the Republic, Albert Lebrun. It was subsequently allotted for Marshal Pétain’s private use, but he lived there rarely, preferring the more central Hôtel du Parc. Nevertheless, the Pavillon Sévigné was still regularly used by the Head of State, who held several cabinet meetings and official receptions there. On 17 December 1940, for example, Pétain chose the Pavillon Sévigné rather than the Hôtel du Parc, to host the German ambassador, Otto Abetz.

Despite the mansion’s requisition, the owners, Élisabeth François and her brother, were allowed to keep a few rooms for their personal use. As the war was intensifying, they allowed Éclaireurs de France, France’s scouting association, of which they were members, to use these rooms as their provisional headquarters. Until the end of the war and despite Pétain’s regular presence, scouts who had taken refuge in Vichy actively aided Jews and STO (Compulsory Work Service) deserters to leave France or go into hiding.

In 2010, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, honoured Élisabeth François and her husband Pierre François, as “Righteous Among the Nations.”