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The forgotten French

Exiles in the British Isles 1940–44

Nicholas Atkin

It is widely assumed that the French in the British Isles during the Second World War were fully fledged supporters of General de Gaulle, and that, across the channel at least, the French were a ‘nation of resisters’. This study reveals that most exiles were on British soil by chance rather than by design, and that many were not sure whether to stay. Overlooked by historians, who have concentrated on the ‘Free French’ of de Gaulle, these were the ‘Forgotten French’: refugees swept off the beaches of Dunkirk; servicemen held in camps after the Franco-German armistice; Vichy consular officials left to cater for their compatriots; and a sizeable colonist community based mainly in London. Drawing on little-known archival sources, this study examines the hopes and fears of those communities who were bitterly divided among themselves, some being attracted to Pétain as much as to de Gaulle.

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The context of exile

Communities, circumstances and choices

Nicholas Atkin

-in-chief, and Marshal Pétain, who had been appointed deputy prime minister on 18 May in a desperate attempt to shore up morale. On 16 June, two days after the Germans occupied Paris, the government reached Bordeaux where a dispirited Reynaud resigned and recommended Pétain as his successor. The next day, this ancient soldier, some eighty-four years of age and best known for his victory at Verdun in 1916, announced to a stunned nation that he was in the process of negotiating an armistice. Signed on 23 June, the terms of this agreement divided France into two principal zones

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Nicholas Atkin

. The image of the Glasgow consul de Curzon, taking furtive notes, and rebutting the jibes of his countrymen, comes to mind. Unquestionably, these Vichy officials were anxious to book their return home; only as the war developed, and the prospects of the Pétain government deteriorated, and no doubt the opportunities for pensions and career advancement worsened, did the prospect of resettling in France appear less attractive. Even among the expatriates there was discomfort. Although some were fugitives from religious persecution across the Channel, descendants of

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Robert Boyce

Liberation 157 Robert Boyce over 124,000 Frenchman were brought to trial and more than 75 per cent of them were convicted of war crimes, mostly for collaboration with the occupying power or attacks against the Resistance. Marshal Philippe Pétain, head of the Vichy regime, was convicted of collaboration, although his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Pierre Laval, twice Prime Minister under Pétain, was convicted and shot. Members of the prefectoral corps to which Papon belonged were purged with particular thoroughness. Of the approximately one hundred who

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The surveillance of exile

The Vichy consulates

Nicholas Atkin

2499 Chap4 7/4/03 2:43 pm Page 141 4 The surveillance of exile: the Vichy consulates Whom have you come here to insult? England in her people or France in her exile? Leave freedom in peace! (Victor Hugo on Napoleon III’s visit to England)1 The history of Vichy at London is usually told as the secretive and mysterious negotiations conducted in late 1940 between Churchill and Pétain, a line of communication manned by such self-appointed intermediaries as the Canadian diplomat Jean Dupuy and the enigmatic Professor Louis Rougier. This is the so-called ‘double

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The tradition of exile

La colonie Française

Nicholas Atkin

’s Casino to vote full powers to Marshal Pétain, the War Cabinet gathered at Downing Street to consider what action, if any, should be taken against French men and women present in Britain.47 It was a many-sided question. To whom would these colonists owe their loyalty? Could they still be counted as allies in view of the Armistice and Vichy’s early forays into collaboration? Would the marshal’s personal charisma and magnetism extend beyond the Channel? Would 2499 Chap5 7/4/03 2:44 pm Page 195 Map 4 The London of the forgotten French: outer areas Map 5 The London of

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Nicholas Atkin

out to be entirely pro-Pétain’ and ‘left this country for France with the French Chargé d’Affaires’.57 The Centre had subsequently lost its financial support and was in the hands of just one French representative, a Mlle Herinex, who was struggling to raise enough volunteers. Nor did it receive much support from the French Red Cross Society, which was under the control of Vicomtesse de la Panousse. In the words of Bessborough, this was no match for the British Red Cross and had displayed a ‘rather low standard of efficiency’.58 The situation was so 2499 Chap3 7

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Nicholas Atkin

until the time comes for you to return once again to your country.’28 Depending on which version was being relayed, it ended, ‘Long Live Queen Wilhelmina’, ‘Long Live King Leopold’, and always ‘God save King George’. There was no ‘Vive, la France’; nor later was there ‘Vive, le maréchal Pétain’, or for that matter ‘Vive, le général de Gaulle’. Reading the minutes of the local government authorities in London, it seems that the reception of refugees went without a hitch. ‘An intimation from the Ministry of Health that about 1,200 refugees will be 2499 Chap2 7

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Series:

Geoffrey K. Roberts and Patricia Hogwood

Mendès France, Pierre Mitterrand, François Modrow, Hans Mollet, Guy Monnet, Jean-Marie Moro, Aldo Mussolini, Benito Ollenhauer, Erich Paisley, Ian Palme, Olaf Papandreou, Andreas Pétain, Marshal [See: Vichy regime

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Series:

Kevin Harrison and Tony Boyd

absolved him of all loyalty to the (admittedly legal) government of Marshal Philippe Pétain that emerged after the fall of France. Indeed, de Gaulle and his followers believed that they had not only the right to continue the war, but a positive obligation to do so. Yet another question arises. Can the ‘nation’ be equated with ‘society’? Or is there a global society that has an equal, if not superior, claim