Influence of war’s Vichy regime still present in France

Legislation introduced by the Vichy regime in World War Two is still being applied in France today according to an expert historian

Vichy, in central France, was the capital of the regime which governed southern France from 1940
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Up to 100 laws and customs introduced by the Vichy regime during World War Two are still being applied in France today, says a historian who specialises in the period.

These include set menus in restaurants, identity cards, the love of judo and handball, a minimum wage, rugby union, monthly siren tests and Mother’s Day.

Headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain, the Vichy regime was named after the city where its seat of government was based. Although officially independent, half of its territory was occupied under the terms of the 1940 armistice with Nazi Germany and it adopted a policy of collaboration and reversed many liberal policies.

However, not all the new rules were necessarily unpopular or anti-Semitic. Among legislation introduced in this period are around 100 decrees and customs that are still used today, Cécile Desprairies, author of L’Héritage de Vichy told The Connexion.

Among them is the right for a woman to give birth without having to give her identity (known as l’accouchement sous X), which was brought in to help protect women who were victims of war crimes.

Ms Desprairies, whose latest novel, published in the US in October, The Propagandist, is set in the period, believes France has often shied away from the topic.

“There has not been any real reflection of the heritage of the Vichy period,” she said.

“French people did not talk about it. It was never mentioned until [US historian] Robert Paxton studied it,” she said.

Paxton’s 1972 book Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944, argued that the Vichy government was eager to collaborate with Nazi Germany. It also did not play down Vichy’s achievements, arguing that reforms undertaken prefigured the reforms of the 1950s and 1960s.

Some Vichy laws reiterated reform proposals previously put forward but which had not been passed. This was the case with the Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) for food items, which featured in a decree in 1942 (Vichy also established the Meilleur ouvrier de France title).

In other cases, laws were original creations of Vichy, such as the role of PDG (président-directeur général) in companies and the establishment of professional orders – the Order of Physicians being the first.

A minimum wage for workers was also imposed.

In principle, everything was repealed with liberation in 1944. However, while discriminatory laws disappeared, others soon reappeared, often with just a word changed.

Examples of Vichy laws and customs which continue in some form today include:

Handball, judo and rugby union

Sport has been impacted with the promotion of handball (popular in Germany at the time but not in France) and rugby union (the latter at the expense of rugby league, which was banned for its association with the pre-War socialist government, the UK and General Charles de Gaulle).

Japanese sports such as table tennis and judo were also cultivated, Japan having been part of the Axis powers.

Judo was cultivated during this time, Japan having been an Axis power

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Obligation to help someone in danger

A good example of Vichy heritage, Ms Desprairies says, is the obligation to assist a person in danger, the legal provision for which was introduced by the regime under a law in 1941.

It was designed to force the French to come to the aid of wounded German soldiers and part of a broader law that included the obligation to denounce Jews to the authorities. When France was liberated, only the denunciation aspect was removed.

She said the law is still evident today, citing the example of two head teachers who were arrested in January after failing to report suspected child abuse which led to the death of a three-year-old.

“To remain quiet is punishable. This is a legacy of Nazi Germany,” she said.

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Other reforms focused on health, as the regime introduced medical check-ups at work and in schools, and a child health booklet to track vaccinations.

Many healthcare innovations were kept because they brought new hygiene standards at a time when many households had no access to private bathrooms and toilets.

Identity cards, sirens and Mother’s Day

One of the most infamous rules was compulsory identity cards to monitor and control the population and, above all, exclude ‘foreigners’.

After Liberation, some countries abolished the card but France kept it. The number on it is still the holder’s Social Security number. If it has ‘99’ in, it identifies the holder as having been born abroad.

Vichy also installed the sounding of defence sirens as a test every first Wedensday of each month – as continues today.

With a politic favouring the family and more births Pétain inscribed the celebration of mothers (fête des mères) into the French calendar.