By Annie Lacroix-Riz
IN 1941-42 the United States intended that France, together with soon-to-be defeated Italy, Germany and Japan, was to be part of a protectorate run by the Allied Military Government of the Occupied Territories (Amgot). According to the agreement of November 1942 between Admiral Jean-François Darlan and US General Mark Clark, which secured France’s commitment to the Allied cause, Amgot would have abolished its national sovereignty, including its right to issue currency.
Some US historians believe this plan stemmed from President Franklin D Roosevelt’s antipathy towards Charles de Gaulle. Roosevelt saw him as a dictator-in-training and sought to prevent him from ruling post-Pétain. (Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain led the pro-Nazi government of unoccupied France at Vichy,1940-44.) The argument that Roosevelt intended to establish universal democracy is compelling but wrong (1).
The US was concerned that France, although weakened by its 1940 defeat, might reject the plan, especially if its presidency went to De Gaulle, who had vowed to restore French sovereignty. It feared France might use its nuisance capacity as it had when it opposed pro-German US policies after the first world war. France would not have wanted to relinquish its empire, rich in raw materials and strategic bases. The US had long called for an open door policy for goods and investments in all colonial empires (2). The US relied on twin strategies: ignoring De Gaulle, and dealing with Pétain’s regime with a combin ation of accommodation and toughness. It realised that Vichy, like the Latin American regimes dear to its heart, was more malleable than a government with broad popular support.
The US plan for a "Vichy-sans-Vichy" took shape. French elites supported the idea: they clung to the Vichy regime, which had restored privileges taken away by the pre-war republican government, and were eager to make a painless transition from German rule to the pax americana.
After December 1940 the US prepared to send troops to North Africa, with Robert Murphy, Roosevelt’s personal envoy. It attempted to cap italise on a symbol of French defeat: General Maxime Weygand, commander-in-chief during the German invasion and Vichy’s delegate- general to French Africa until November 1941. When this failed, it turned to General Henri Giraud. Soon after, US forces landed in Morocco and Algeria on 8 November 1942. The next to be wooed was Admiral Jean-François Darlan, stationed in Algiers, a collaborator who served as Pétain’s vice-premier and foreign minister from 1941-42. He remained at Pétain’s side when Pierre Laval returned to power in 1942-44 (3).
General Clark had Darlan sign an agreement on 22 November 1942 placing North Africa at the disposal of the US and making France a "vassal" state, subject to "capitulations" (4). The US assumed unprecedented rights over French territorial extensions in Africa, including overseeing troop movements; ports, airfields, military defences and munitions, communications networks and the merchant navy. The agreement also provided for US requisitions of goods and services; tax exemptions; extraterritorial rights; and US-determined military zones. Joint commissions would be responsible for law and order, current administration, censorship and economic policy.
Laval had sealed his fate by hoping for "a German victory" . Assisted by his son-in-law, René de Chambrun, a collaborationist corporate lawyer with dual US/French citizenship, Laval believed the US pledge that he would play a key role after a separate peace agreement, pitting Germany, Britain and the US against the Soviets, was reached. But US support for Laval was not compatible with French internal power struggles, and the separate peace proposal failed to take into account the Red Army’s key role in crushing Hitler’s Wehrmacht.
Darlan was assassinated by an anti-Vichyite with Gaullist connections on 24 December 1942. The US turned to General Giraud, who briefly served with De Gaulle as co-president of the French National Liberation Committee (CFLN), founded in 1943. After the battle of Stalingrad which marked the end of the German advance, Giraud was supported by senior Vichy officials, including Maurice Couve de Murville, overseas finance minister, who defected to the Allies in 1943. His supporters included industrialists such as Jacques Lemaigre-Dubreuil, a former member of the pro-fascist Cagoule group, who headed Lesieur oils and the Printemps department stores. Also onside were collaborationist bankers such as Alfred Pose, chief executive officer for the National Bank of Commerce and Industry.
Pierre Pucheu was the next Vichy official to embrace the US option, joining Giraud in Algiers. No one personified the Vichy regime better than Pucheu. In 1941 he became Darlan’s industry minister and then interior minister. He had served as a fundraiser for the fascist French People’s Party . He also championed economic collaboration with Germany and anti-communist repression, working on behalf of the Nazi occupation (including selecting communist prisoners executed in 1941 in retaliation for the assassin ation of German officers, and establishing special sections - anti-communist tribunals).
Spurned by Giraud, Pucheu was imprisoned in May 1943 and sentenced to death; he was executed in Algiers in March 1944. This appeased the communists, whom Pucheu had martyred; but de Gaulle was also warning the US and Britain, and frightening those who expected US saviours to supplant the Vichy regime. In 1943 a police officer joked: "The French bourgeoisie always presumed that US or British soldiers would fight on its behalf if the Bolsheviks won" (5).
The US depicted De Gaulle as a rightwing dictator and a puppet of French communists and the USSR. But it had to abandon plans to impose the dollar in liberated territories. On 23 October 1944 the Allies officially recognised De Gaulle as head of the French government: the USSR had recognised France’s true government two and a half years before. On 10 December 1944 France signed a treaty of alliance and mutual security with Moscow, to offset US power. De Gaulle described it in glowing terms (6).
Excluded from the Yalta conference in 1945 and dependent on the US, France became a key part of the US sphere of influence. But only vigorous resistance, internal and external, had saved it from becoming a US protectorate.
Translated by Luke Sandford
*Annie Lacroix-Riz is a professor of contemporary history at Paris-VII University. Her writings include Le Choix de Marianne: Les relations franco-américaines de 1944 à 1948 (Editions sociales, Paris, 1986) and Les Protectorats du Maghreb entre la France et Washington du débarquement à l’indépendance 1942-1956 (L’Harmattan, Paris, 1988)
(1) See Frank Costigliola, France and the United States: The Cold Alliance since World War II, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1992.
(2) See William A Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, Dell Publishing, New York, 1972 (first edition, 1959).
(3) Laval was prime minister 1931-32 and 1935-36. See Robert Paxton, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, Columbia University Press, New York, 2001.
(4) See Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, L’Abîme 1939-1945, Imprimerie nationale, Paris, 1982, and Annie Lacroix-Riz, Industriels et banquiers français sous l’Occupation, Armand Colin, Paris, 1999.
(5) See letter no 740 by the police commissioner (Melun prefect), 13 February 1943, F7 14904, French National Archives. See also Richard Vinen, The Politics of French Business 1936-1945, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991.
(6) See the memo by the assistant director of political affairs, Paris, 25 October 1944, and the text of the treaty in Europe-URSS 1944-1948, vol 51, French foreign affairs ministry archives.