Vichy France, the Nazis and the Holocaust: An introduction

On 22 July 2012, French President Francois Hollande gave a speech that was closely watched by the French media.  The subject of his speech was the 70th anniversary of the roundup of Jews in Paris, which took place on the night of 16-17 July 1942.  On that night and in the following days, the Parisian police arrested 13,152 Jewish men, women and children.  Many of those arrested were taken to an indoor cycle stadium, the Vélodrôme d’hiver, where they were held for five terrible days without sufficient food, water and sanitary facilities.  From the ‘Vél d’Hiv’, they were sent to a French internment camp near Orléans before being deported to Auschwitz.  Only 811 of them survived the war.  President Hollande was not the first French president to mark the anniversary of the ‘Vél d’Hiv roundup’.  In 1995, Jacques Chirac recognised the French state’s responsibility in this affair.  However, his predecessor, Francois Mitterand, had always argued that given the illegitimacy of the Vichy regime, the deportation of Jews from wartime France was not the responsibility of the French people.  Hollande broke with his socialist forebear in speaking of ‘France’s responsibility’.  He stated that though German officials had ordered the arrests, not a single German police officer or soldier had been needed in the operation.  It was a ‘crime committed in France, by France.’

In attributing responsibility for the persecution and deportation of Jews from Occupied and Vichy France, it has always been difficult in getting the balance right.  The Nazi occupiers, the Vichy French authorities and the French population all played a part.

As with the history of Vichy France, collaboration and resistance (see here for a further explanation), the historiography of Vichy’s anti-Semitism has developed in phases.  Until Robert Paxton’s Vichy France (1972) histories of Vichy, such as Robert Aron’s Histoire de Vichy (1954), neglected the issue.  Paxton was different because he argued that Vichy’s anti-Semitism was rooted in French cultural and historical tradition, not imposed by the Germans.  Paxton followed up this work with Vichy France and the Jews (1981) written with Michael Marrus.  In this book, the authors argued that anti-Semitism was an essential component of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s programme for ‘National Revolution’ – a right-wing renovation of French politics and society.  These works laid the foundations for all subsequent histories of French involvement in the Holocaust.  We should not forget, though, that other groups fell victim to racial discrimination in France; recently historian Shannon Fogg has researched the persecution of Gypsies during the war.

Anti-Semitism in France during the interwar years

After the First World War, French society was quite tolerant of the national Jewish population.  Many Jewish French had given their lives in the war, and this fact made it less plausible to accuse Jews of betraying France.  Evidence of this more tolerant climate can be found in the collapse of the anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole in 1924.  At its height, this newspaper had had a circulation of over 300 000 copies.  The 1920s was a time of governmental tolerance too: in 1927 naturalisation procedures were relaxed and many immigrants became French citizens – 270 000 between 1927 and 1930 alone.

The Depression changed this tolerant atmosphere.  Rising unemployment and the influx of Jewish and Eastern European refugees revived old prejudices.  Anti-Semitism resumed a prominent place in political discourse, thanks in part to the efforts of the hugely successful extreme right-wing leagues.  The newspaper of the Action Française league routinely pilloried Jews.  Charles Maurras, leader of the Action Française, called for the pummeling of Jews and political opponents and even demanded that Léon Blum (Jewish leader of the socialist party) be murdered, preferably by a shot in the back.  Action Française was read by up to 70 000 people.  But the most prominent anti-Semitic weekly newspaper was called Gringoire.  By the late 1930s, it had 650 000 readers and this perhaps gives an indication of the popularity of anti-Semitism in France at this time.

Xenophobia was not the preserve of the extra-parliamentary leagues.  In August 1932, a left-wing parliament limited the number of foreigners in certain professions. In July 1934 a law imposed a delay of ten years on naturalised foreigners before they could hold public office or enter the legal profession.  In 1935, a protest by medical students against foreigners in their profession prompted more legislation.  Newly naturalised foreigners who had not completed their military service were prohibited from practicing medicine for at least four years.  Foreign Jews were banned altogether.

It was the government of Edouard Daladier that set a new precedent in its treatment of foreigners.  (Daladier was Prime Minister from April 1938 to March 1940).  Anti-immigrant feeling had intensified after the influx of half a million Spanish refugees in early 1939.  Mainly Spanish Republicans, the right had vilified them as revolutionaries, thieves and murderers.  Daladier’s laws on exclusion and discrimination anticipated the more severe measures under Vichy.   French police were given the power to fine and imprison illegal immigrants.  They were ordered to send illegal immigrant Jews back to Germany.  As well as having restrictions put on their voting rights, naturalised and foreign individuals were placed under surveillance and a central identity card service was set up.  Furthermore they could be deprived of their French nationality if they were deemed ‘unworthy of the title of French citizen’.  Daladier’s government also set up internment camps and these would later be used by Vichy.

These measures set a dangerous precedent.  After June 1940, civil servants found it easy to adapt to Vichy’s policies and implement them precisely because they had honed their skills under the Third Republic.  In a similar way, jurists and lawyers had become used to dealing with a two-tier citizenship system in which naturalised and non-naturalised foreigners were effectively of second class status.  Vichy was therefore able to make use of the Third Republic’s existing administrative and legal apparatus, while tapping into a latent public anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

Jews in wartime France

Living and working conditions for Jews were different in the Northern Occupied Zones and the Southern Free Zone.  In the North, Jews were subject to measures familiar to Nazi anti-Semitism.  From August 1941, Jews were banned from owning a radio or a bicycle.  From February 1942, they were subject to a curfew.  From June 1942, they were allowed only to travel in the last carriage on the metro and shop only between 3pm and 4pm.  Jews were banned from all public spaces.  That same month the Germans introduced the wearing of a yellow star for all Jews in the Occupied Zone.  Nevertheless, it was French police who enforced the wearing of the star in the North.  Vichy actually refused to do likewise in the South, but largely because it feared a negative public reaction to this policy.

Yet as with other matters, Vichy and German policy were not independent of each other and the regime usually went one better than the Nazis with its own policy – and without German pressure to do so.  Some of Vichy’s actions made the Germans’ job easier in an obvious way: French police participated in arrests and round-ups, for example.  Other Vichy actions made the task easier in indirect ways.  In July 1941, for example, Vichy ordered a census of all Jews in the Unoccupied Zone.  The data, though not intended to help the Germans, certainly made it easier to track down Jews as the Final Solution intensified after 1943.

Vichy’s first anti-Semitic policies took effect in October 1940.  In September 1940, the Germans ordered that all Jews in the Occupied Zone be voluntarily registered.  The authorities defined as Jewish anyone of the Jewish religion or with three Jewish grandparents.  They did not use the word ‘race’.  The following month, under no pressure from Germany, Vichy went one better.  On 3 October 1940 the French passed the first ‘Jewish Statute’.  The statute was drafted by a man named Raphael Alibert, Vichy’s Minister of Justice.  Alibert was a former Action française sympathiser and an anti-Semite.  But don’t think that Marshal Pétain had no influence on this new direction in policy.  He may never have mentioned the Jews directly in his speeches but when it came to legislation such as the Jewish statute, he was one of the harshest voices in government.  It was at the Marshal’s insistence, for example, that under the statute Jews were excluded from public posts.

The first Jewish statute was the first French law to define a distinct ethnic group – the Republic had not explicitly distinguished between citizens on the grounds of race or religion. Vichy’s definition of Jewishness differed slightly to that of the Nazis: You were a Jew if you had three Jewish grandparents, or if you had two Jewish grandparents and you were married to a Jew.  Significantly, your religion did not matter – even if you had converted to Christianity, Vichy still classed you as Jewish.  Unlike the German definition, Vichy’s rested on race and therefore more Jews were subject to the French law than to the German one.

The statute excluded Jews from political office, judicial appointments, diplomatic and prefectural posts, and the senior branches of public services.  Jewish French people could not be managers or directors in cinemas, theatres, radio or the press.  Some Jews were exempt, for example, those who had served in both wars, and those recognised as having rendered exceptional service to the state.  These were the ‘good’ Jews.  Vichy further distinguished between foreign and French Jews.  From 4 October 1940, foreign Jews could be interned at the discretion of prefects.  They were held in internment camps originally intended for refugees from Germany and Spain.  By 1941, 40, 000 foreign Jews were held in seven camps across France.  The French administered all but one.  By 1942, 3000 Jews had died from cold and undernourishment in these camps.

In the 12 months after the first statute, Vichy issued 26 laws and 24 decrees against Jews.  French judges, lawyers and law professors accepted the new legislation.  It was discussed in legal journals in a seemingly neutral fashion, using allegedly scientific objectivity to examine and condone the laws.  Some were no doubt influenced by latent anti-Semitism, believing that Jews were too influential in the legal system.  Others acted out of mercenary or opportunistic motivations, or they defended the statute simply because they believed that the law, whatever it was, should be obeyed.

On 26 April 1941, the Germans extended their definition of Jewishness.  You were now a Jew if you had two Jewish grandparents and were married to a Jew, unless you were divorced before April 1941.  On 2 June 1941, a second French statute widened the definition of Jewishness.  The second statute widened the number of occupations from which Jews were banned to include all posts in public administration.  Quotas were introduced in the fields of medicine, law, architecture and university students – usually 2-3% of non-Jews in these areas. Like the first statute, the second one used a wider definition of Jewishness than the Germans.  Vichy’s second Jewish statute changed the date of divorce to June 1940, meaning more people were subject to the Statute.  Significantly, when the German round ups of Jews began in summer 1942, the Germans used Vichy’s definition of Jewishness, feeling that their own was too restrictive.

Vichy’s desire to please the Germans, in the vain hope that they would grant political concessions, meant that anti-Semitism spiraled in an ever more radical direction. On 23 March 1941, Vichy created the General Commissariat on Jewish Questions.  The Germans had been pressing for the establishment of a Jewish office to co-ordinate anti-Semitic policy throughout France.  To pre-empt this, rather than see the Germans set up an office in the North, Vichy set up the Commissariat which had jurisdiction over the whole of France.  Its job was to prepare and propose legislative measures concerning Jews and to participate in the ‘Aryanisation’ process.  This meant dealing with the sale and liquidation of property and assets owned by Jews.  This policy is a radical example of the French pre-empting the Germans in an effort to retain sovereignty over domestic matters. The Germans had no major plans to Aryanise the French economy, yet they were happy for the French to believe that they did.  By May 1944, 40 000 Jewish businesses had been placed in trusteeship and three-quarters of these had been sold to Aryans.

We must be clear that Vichy’s policy was not driven by the desire to exterminate the Jews just as the policy of state collaboration was not, in the main, pursued because the French were committed Nazis.  Few were concerned about a final solution to the Jewish question.  Vichy’s main preoccupation was to extend the boundaries of French jurisdiction and to eventually reunify the country.  The political leadership used the so-called Jewish problem as it did other issues: for wider political advantage.  Vichy clung to its inflated sense of its own importance in Hitler’s New Order.  However, for the Germans, France was just a part of a Europe-wide enterprise – and this was the same in the case of the Final Solution.

France and the Final Solution

In January 1942, the Nazis decided upon the Final Solution at Wannsee in Berlin.  Jews would be deported to the East from the occupied territories.  Already though in France on three occasions during 1941 the Germans had, with the help of French police, arrested Jews in Paris as a reprisal for resistance attacks.  The arrestees were mainly foreign Jews, though over 1000 French Jews were among those arrested.  These Jews filled internment camps, the most notorious of which was called Drancy.  Drancy was an unfinished municipal housing estate just outside Paris.  From its creation it was administered by the French but was so lacking in basic amenities that in October 1941 the Germans ordered the release of 900 prisoners they considered too ill to stay there.  When the deportations of Jews from France began in summer 1942, Drancy became the main departure point for trains leaving for Auschwitz.

Arrests of Jews in France began in earnest from May 1942.  This was a German policy but arrests were carried out mainly by French police even in the Occupied Zone because in doing so Vichy believed that it was preserving French sovereignty.  In mid-June the Germans demanded a first transport made up of 40 000 Jews from both zones – 40% of them were to be French.  On 2 July Vichy managed to negotiate with the Germans and the quota was restricted only to foreign Jews.  It was agreed that French police would make the arrests.  The round ups in the Occupied Zone came on 16-17 July 1942.  On 16 July 9000 French police arrested nearly 13 000 Jews.  6500 Jews were arrested in the Unoccupied Zone between 26-28 August.

July 1942 was a turning point in Vichy’s anti-Semitism.  Firstly, it drew French authorities in both zones into the Nazi timetable for extermination.  In both the North and the South, officials worked to meet German quotas.  When these quotas were not met in the North, Vichy offered up foreign Jews interned in the South to make up the remainder of the quota.  Secondly, up to July 1942, police had arrested only adult men – it was therefore easy for some French – and some Jews themselves – to believe that these men were being deported to work in Germany.  But in July, the Germans arrested children too.  This was not the Germans’ plan – it was a special request by Pierre Laval.  After all, if the Germans were arresting adults, who would look after the children? Certainly not the French authorities.

In total 36 802 Jews were deported from France between July and December 1942.  Almost all of them were foreign.  Vichy’s post-war apologists claimed that French police co-operation was the price paid for saving French Jews.  Despite the moral dubiousness of this argument it ignores the fact that without French information and manpower the Germans could not have rounded up significant numbers of either foreign or French Jews.  French decision-makers rarely considered the broader implications of German policy or developments in other countries.  The Jews were viewed as expendable, a necessary price for retaining control over French policing.

From the spring of 1943, as the Final Solution intensified, the Germans took over the arrests of Jews in the whole of France.  They also took over the running of Drancy and conditions in the camp actually improved.  French police still participated in the arrests of non-French Jews, but most work was done by the Germans with the help of the Vichy’s Militia.


In 1939, there were about 300 000 Jews in France; 190 000 of them were French and the rest were foreign, mainly eastern European and German refugees.  Recent calculations of the number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust in France stand at 80 000 if one takes into account the number deported and those that died in French internment camps.  Approximately 24000 deported Jews were French (32%) ad 56 000 were foreign (68%)  Three quarters of arrests were carried out by French police.  Few other semi-independent governments in Nazi Europe were as helpful in this respect as Vichy.

It cannot be denied though that a large proportion of France’s Jewish population survived.  Historian Michael Marrus argues that this can be explained by several factors.  For one thing, conditions in Western Europe in 1940 were different to those in the East.  In Poland, the Germans could begin rounding up and murdering Jews earlier than in France.  The Germans were still unsure of public support in the West.  In any case, their agenda was different.  They were not looking for ‘living space’ in France as they were in Eastern Europe.  France therefore occupied a minor place in the Nazis’ mobilisation against the Jews – before 1942 the Germans were more concerned with excluding Jews from the Occupied Zone than exterminating them.  Another reason for the survival of many Jews in France is that the country was liberated almost a year before the end of the war.  If the Occupation had continued it is likely that more if not all Jews in France would have been deported.  These reasons better explain the survival of many French Jews than the reason cited by Vichy apologists – that the regime protected French Jews.

There is one final question that we must ask: Did Vichy and the French ‘know’ what the Germans had planned for the Jews?  Michael Marrus argues that the question should perhaps be ‘Was Vichy interested?’  There is no evidence that Vichy paid any attention to happenings in other countries or was interested in the ultimate goal of the Nazis’ Europe-wide policy.  Laval told cabinet meetings and foreign diplomats that the Jews were going to a new state in Eastern Europe where they were building an agricultural colony.  He did not press the Germans on whether this was true or not.  The real conclusion then isn’t about whether Vichy knew or not: Vichy did not want to know.


I used several sources to write this essay.  I have removed references for ease of reading.  Below is a bibliography of useful sources on France’s involvement in the Holocaust.  You can find information on this topic too in general historys of 20th century France such as Charles Sowerwine’s France since 1870 and Rod Kedward’s La Vie en Bleu.

Key texts

Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1981).

Susan Zucotti, The Holocaust, The French and The Jews (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993)

Jacques Adler, ‘The Jews and Vichy: Reflections on French Historiography’, The Historical Journal 44 (2001), 1065-1082.

Work by Vicki Caron

Vicki Caron ‘The Path to Vichy’ online article

Vicki Caron, ‘The ‘Jewish Question’ from Dreyfus to Vichy’, in Martin S. Alexander (ed.), French History since Napoleon

Vicki Caron, ‘Prelude to Vichy: France and the Jewish Refugees in the Era of Appeasement’, Journal of Contemporary History, 20.1 (1985), 157-176.

Vicki Caron ‘The anti-Semitic revival in France in the 1930s’ Journal of Modern History 70 (1998), 24-73

Other useful works

Shannon L. Fogg, ‘”They Are Undesirables”: Local and National Responses to Gypsies during World War II’, French Historical Studies 31 (2008), 327-358.

Shannon L. Fogg, The Politics of Everyday Life in Vichy France: Foreigners, Undesirables and Strangers (Cambridge: CUP, 2008).

Pim Griffioen and Ron Zeller, ‘Anti-Jewish policy and organization of the deportations in France and the Netherlands, 1940-1944: A comparative study,’ Holocaust and Genocide Studies Winter 2006 20.3, 437-473.

Julian Jackson, The Dark Years: 1940-1944 (OUP), chapter of France and the Jews.

David Lees, ‘Remembering the Vel d’Hiv roundup’ online article


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