The our understanding of this episode in France’s history

The historiography of
France in the Second World War and her experience of the Occupation, Vichy
Regime, and Liberation is precarious terrain. Even when the scope is narrowed
to only one aspect of this period such as the Resistance, attempts to document
and define it become problematic, subjected to a multitude of personal,
political and historical perspectives. Recollections of the Resistance were,
and to some extent still are, indissolubly tied with personal experiences and
heavily coded by the political climate post-liberation, both internal and
external, that ‘necessitated’ the promotion of a very specific version of
events. Comprehending the Resistance is also complicated by geography and the
spatial terrain of Resistance movements, with the physical distance of external
Resistance efforts by French nationals reflected also in an ideological
distance with many internal Resistance movements; the division of France into
the Occupied and Free Zones and the specific Resistance needs within each; and
the distinct activities and enterprise of urban guerrilla Resistance groups
versus the rural maquis. Even the
notion that the Resistance was unified by a single goal is negated by the fact
that most Resistance factions each had aspirations to actualise their own
enduring vision, toward which the liberation of France was the initial step. Deconstructing
the label of the French Resistance in
an attempt to clarify our understanding of this episode in France’s history
establishes a further conundrum pertaining to the definition of “French-ness”;
what specific factors qualify what it is to be French? The Resistance is
situated in the midst of a turbulent national politics swept up in gathering
global political, economic and religious agitations. The decade preceding is categorised
by a rooted and violent divide between the left and right, and severe political
instability in the decade following prompted the re-evaluation of the nation in
the creation of a new, Fifth Republic. In light of this, how is it possible
determine what was categorically French about the Resistance, rather than
symptomatic of broader political, ideological and religious conflicts that had
afflicted Europe and the world in the decades building up to war?

            As intimated by the geographical division of France
following its fall in 1940, the Resistance was characterised not as a unitary
event, a single national project stretching from Calais to Cannes, but as a
phenomenon comprised of varied and distant groups conducting a variety of
operations to different ends. This diversity was not simply the product of the
armistice agreement of 1940, but reflected the specific skills, needs, and
interests proposed by people who grouped themselves along the lines of
religion, class, political ideology, industry, location, nationality, often
also through a combination of these factors. Reflecting on this diverse, sometimes
contradictory, plurality, Jean-Marie Guillon has suggested that ‘les
résistances’ is a more apt signifier for what is commonly understood as ‘la Résistance’.1 In light of this, it
becomes necessary to distinguish the similarities in the actions of these
movements in order to determine an understanding of the Resistance.
the Resistance, in its multitude of disparate forms, should begin by
establishing the parameters that constitute an act of Resistance, or rather, an
act of the Resistance rather than an act that simply showed resistance to Nazi
or Vichy jurisdiction. Julian Jackson outlines the difficulties in this
endeavour, warning of both an excessively narrow definition that is solely
military, and affixing the criteria for resistance activity too broadly. He
suggests that Resistance activity should be defined by intent; subverting
authority on the basis of personal motives/necessity, rather than subverting
authority for the service of others, does not amount to Resistance, in the same
way that actions with unintended consequences that aided Resistance movements
do not qualify either.2 Thus, the Resistance can
be defined as a series of meditated acts, conducted with the intent to disrupt,
subvert, undermine, prevent, and, ultimately, attack the Nazi military,
political and social authority in both the Occupied Zone and Vichy.
             Within Jackson’s paradigm of intentions and
actions, operates a general classification of the genres of resistance methods exercised
throughout France. Denis Peschanski recognises these as falling into roughly 6
categories: propaganda, social struggles, intelligence missions, armed
resistance, resistance in internment camps, and rescue and escape networks.3 This is suggestive of the
fluidity of the Resistance and its groups, emerging in response to the needs of
the population and allied forces, and perceived threats that arose as Vichy and
German oppression continued. The human composition of each group was arguably a
large contributing factor to this fluidity, as it determined the type of
activity that they could carry out. For instance, prior to the formation of Libération de zone sud, Emmanuel
d’Astier and a few others formed the group La
Dernière Colonne with an aim to
organise attacks on collaborators. This focus then diverted to propaganda when
it became clear that the people involved were ill equipped to carry out such
attacks. It took a series of failed attempts before d’Astier was able to
coordinate a successful act of Resistance in the creation of the newspaper Libération-Sud, which printed 10,000
copies in its first issue making the group one of the most influential in the
unoccupied zone.4
Conversely, refugees of the Spanish Civil War aggregated a pool of Resistance
fighters experienced in armed combat who had fought either amongst the Spanish
Republicans or in the International Brigades that joined the struggle; they
were able to use the routes and networks across the Pyrenees established years
earlier during the war and La Retirada
to both aid the escape of stranded allied forces and clandestine subjects, and
ambush tobacco smugglers to accumulate the funds for weapons and resources to
be used in armed Resistance.5 Thus, the capacity of
Resistance movements and networks was largely determined by its composition. As
organisations expanded, it furnished the occasion to expand the genre and scope
of the operations it carried out. However, Resistance groups also frequently
lost members of their organisations due to capture or death; the survival rate
of the Carmagnole group in Lyon in 1943 was said to be 3 months.6  In this sense, the capacity of Resistance
groups was shifting, able to expand, change track, and also diminish.
Therefore, the Resistance cannot accurately be attributed a fixed definition,
but must be understood as a fluid, dynamic, sporadic, process that unfolded in
different ways during 1940-1944.
this definition of the Resistance as multitudinous, fluctuating and determined took
many decades to emerge. Indeed, even as late as 1995 Guillon, as editor,
introduced a comprehensive volume of essays on the Resistance stating that its history
remains to be written.7 This proposed historical
dearth on the subject is in large part owing to the image of the Resistance
fervently propelled by de Gaulle from the outset of the Liberation in Paris in
August 1944 of ‘France in combat. The one France, the true France, eternal
France’ that had been ‘liberated by its own efforts’.8 During the Fourth and
early Fifth Republic, the French administration exerted the full weight of its
political, legal and educational structures to suppress any interpretation of the
war years in France that did not align itself with that of a united French
people taking up arms against German oppression, with the few, anomalous
collaborators purged during heavily publicised trials known as the épuration. While there was some literary
and cultural scepticism of this Gaullist myth during the 40’s and 50’s aroused
in the works of right-wing, anti-parliamentary writers such as Roger Nimier and
Antoine Blondin who have been grouped under the name Les Hussards, for the most part
the release, in 1969, of Marcel Ophüls’ two-part television documentary Le Chagrin et La Pitié (although not
aired until 1971 in the cinema and 1981 on French television) marks the turning
point in perceptions of life in France during the Occupation and Vichy regime. Simone
Veil, head of the Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française at the time,
refused its broadcast on the grounds that it manipulated memory and did not,
for her, reflect the reality of the time.9 This indicates the extent
to which national perceptions of the Resistance, and its historiography, were impacted
by personal memories which were sometimes ‘too heavy, even for loved ones’.10 Yet, when exploring how
the Resistance can be defined, unearthing individual experiences of Resistance
and Collaboration alike, so long suppressed by de Gaulle’s myth of a unanimous ‘France
in combat’, provides the key to a more nuanced understanding of the scope,
diversity, and in short, the reality of how the Resistance materialised across
France and abroad. 
Gaulle re-established French national identity after the Liberation around the
concept of French Resistance, however, remarks by members involved with
internal Resistance groups reveal a trend pointing to the idea that active
engagement, in a lot of cases, was the consequence of the exact opposite to an
affinity with a particularly French identity. Jackson notes that d’Astier
recognised resisters as ‘maladjusted’, while others such as Claude Bourdet and
Jean Cassou suggested that Resisters were made of those who experienced a
certain social and professional marginality.11 Although Jackson warns
against taking these cases as representative of a whole, they certainly refute
the notion of a patriotic French resistance given that some of the founding
members of Resistance movements considered themselves and their associates to
be somewhat socially detached from the rest of the nation. Elsewhere,
participation in the Resistance can be witnessed as dictated much less by
French patriotism than external circumstances.
12 The threat of Service de Travail Obligatoire in 1943
drove many young men to the arms of the Resistance, and it was not until the
dissolution of the Nazi-Soviet pact in June 1941 that Communist Resistances
truly galvanised their force. Thus, the idea that it was a French Resistance, the unique production of a nation of patriotic
citizens, is dubious.
many consequential Resisters were not considered citizens under the Third
Republic, Vichy regime and Occupation, while others were citizens but not of
French origin.  The protracted omission
of the contribution made by other nationalities to Resistance efforts in France
has accompanied and accommodated de Gaulle’s prevailing false image of the
French Resistance. Acknowledging the extent of activity conducted by foreign
Resisters, Gildea suggests that a more accurate designation would be
‘Resistance in France’.13 Economic migrants, and
political and religious refugees from Italy, Germany and Eastern-Europe who immigrated
to France during the inter-war period, as well as Spanish Republicans seeking
asylum after the Spanish Civil War, in a lot of cases came to encapsulate the
marginal, maladjusted figure suited to the Resistance. For some, integration
into France was impeded by hostility from its citizens, hostility that
flourished under a struggling economy, global political tensions, and steadily
increasing numbers of refugees during the 1930’s.14 The internment of Spanish
Republicans, established not by Vichy but the Third Republic, demonstrates the
extent of the animosity that foreigners contended with in France. As Communists
and other advocates of the left were targeted for internment, and the 1940
Statute on Jews and ensuing rafles endangered
Jewish people, this had in some cases the adverse effect of galvanising forces
of potential resistance as people were forced underground, or gathered in camps
such as Le Vernet. The religious and political affiliations of immigrants meant
they were especially targeted, so that out of the total population of
foreigners in France, the proportion engaged in the Resistance was higher than
that of the French population.15
            Foreign Resistance movements
also had distinguished experience and success in their operations. The POWN, a
non-communist Polish group operating in the Occupied and free zones, carried
out roughly 300 sabotage missions. In Paris, four immigrant detachments of the
FTP (Communist Resistance group Francs-Tireurs et Partisans) were all that
remained of the Communist Party after 1942; with roughly 60 immigrants they
carried out 92 attacks in the first 6 months of 1943 alone.16 In Lyon, the FTP-MOI
group Carmagnole-Liberté conducted 241 confirmed actions, believed to be an
underestimate of their activity. When a rescue operation of the group in August
1944 resulted in an armed shoot-out with German troops, crowds gathered in
Villeurbanne joined them in building barricades, forming an insurrection;
although it failed, it bears noting that it was immigrants who led the example
of Resistance for the French public. 17
for the FTP-MOI, the Resistance in France was not a unique struggle. Divisions
were headed by those with experience in combat, largely from the Spanish Civil
War in the International Brigades or as part of the Republican army.18 In this sense, the
Resistance was to some extent shaped by the Spanish Civil War, its fighters
repurposed for the liberation of France. For younger recruits, it seems they
inherited the fight from their parents; ‘the war simply continued for these
people; their parents had fought in Spain, they went on in this struggle’,19 others were ‘trained in
the hard school of Polish illegality’.20 In both instances, there is
evidence to suggest that immigrants were predisposed to fight in the
Resistance, in some instances continuing political, ideological or religious
battles wrought in their home or parents nation.
is perhaps a very lack of French nationality, of explicitly French patriotism,
which in some ways sustained the Resistance on a wider level. The idea that the
experience of social marginalisation equipped many immigrants to be Resisters
has already been mentioned, however it does not account for the intense
psychological ordeal of accentuated isolation, perpetual fear, and spells of
acute violence pinpointed by Simmonds as the experience of members in
Carmagnole-Liberté.21 After the 1940 armistice
most French ‘muddled through’, looking inward to their family and
Meanwhile, it was the project of Communist and immigrant Resistance groups ‘to
make our towns inhospitable to today’s victors’, conducting attacks in vastly
public domains such as the street, trams, hotels, restaurants, cinemas, and stations.23 They were certainly in
the minority, and armed Resistance groups struggled not just against the German
authorities and its French agents, but also to some extent the attitudes of the
French public; it was many years before the prospect of Nazi defeat and an
allied invasion buoyed more widespread encouragement for acts of Resistance, or
that the STO highlighted the reality
of Nazi subjugation. Their acts were perceived in some cases as terrorism, and
it was often the MOI divisions of the FTP that bore the brunt of this
antipathy. There is some speculation that the FTP used their partner MOI
divisions as scapegoats to divert the authorities and public condemnation
toward foreigners, such as the Marcel Langer brigade in Toulouse and the
Manouchian group in Paris.24 The covert armed action
of immigrant resistance groups throughout most of the war paved the way for the
open street battles of the Liberation, however in this environment its agents
were vulnerable and largely unschooled. All this is to say that, in some cases,
while de Gaulle stoked the flame of French resistance abroad, immigrant
Resistance movements payed a fundamental effort to keep it burning in France, adopting a role that other
French and Communist groups could (or would) not.
motivations of immigrants and refugees in the Resistance are commonly believed
to be governed by the pursuit of liberation for their birth nation and/or
religion. However, it is not just these groups who acted with their sights set
beyond the borders of France. At its base, WWII was ideological; the forces of
fascism, communism, and all that falls between, were embroiled in a global
struggle. The allied nations, while united in their goal to defeat Nazi
Germany, also sought to maintain and promote their political sovereignty
post-war. This phenomenon is reflected in the Resistance among both French and
immigrant groups aligning themselves with de Gaulle’s Free French, the
Communist Party, or otherwise. This contributes to an understanding of the
Resistance as a multiplicity of disparate political, religious, and national
interests that actively refused the military, political, social, and cultural
authority of fascism in France. While the Liberation may have been France’s,
the Resistance was not.

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1 Jean-Marie Guillon, ‘La Résistance, 50
ans et 2000 titres après’ in Jean Marie Guillon and Pierre Laborie (eds), Mémoire et Histoire : la Résistance, (Toulouse :
Editions Privat, 1995), p.42.

Julian Jackson, France: The Dark Years,
1940-1944, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp.387-8.

3 Denis Peschanski, ‘La Résistance
Immigrée’ in Mémoire et Histoire, p.211.

4 Julian Jackson, The Dark Years, pp.406-7, “Dictionnaire d’Histoire de France”, éd. 2005, Archives Larousse, p.709 available at

5 David Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance, (London:
Faber & Faber, 2016) pp.225-6, Geneviève
Dreyfus-Armand, ‘Les Espagnols dans la Résistance: incertitudes et spécifités’,
Mémoire et Histoire, pp.220-2.

Léon Landini, Interview with Léon Landini (Bagneux, 2012) as cited in David
Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows, p.208.

7 Jean-Marie Guillon, ‘La Résistance’, Mémoire et Histoire, p.15.

8 Charles de Gaulle, Discours et messages I, (Paris: Plon, 1970), pp.439-40.

9 Aurélien Veil, ‘Echos d’une vie: Simone
Veil’, ETUDES, November 2017, p.36.

10 Simone Veil, trans. by essay author,
‘Simone Veil: “J’ai ressenti une grande solidarité”, l’Express, February 2008 available at

Emmanuel d’Astier, l’Aventure incertaine,
pp.26-7 and H.R Kedward, Resistance
in Vichy, pp. 76-7 as cited in Julian Jackson, France: The Dark Years, p. 403.

Colin Nettelbeck, ‘Getting the Story Right: Narratives of World War II in
Post-1968 France’, Journal of European
Studies, 15(2), 1985, p.83.

David Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows, p.239.

Greg Burgess, Refuge in the Land of
Liberty: France and its Refugees, from the Revolution to the End of Asylum,
1787-1939, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp.141-3.

Julian Jackson, France: The Dark Years, p.494.

16 Ibid, pp.495, 496.

J.C Simmonds, ‘Immigrant Fighters for the Liberation of France: a Local Profile
of Carmagnole-Liberté in Lyon’, H.R Kedward and Nancy Wood (eds), The Liberation of France: Image and Event, (Oxford:
Berg Publishers, 1995), p.37.

David Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows, p.224.

Jean Ottavi, Interview with Jean Ottavi, (Paris, 1992) as cited in J.C Simmonds
‘Immigrant Fighters for the Liberation of France’, p.32.

20 RHICOJ, Les Juifs dans la Résistance et la Libération, histoire, témoignages,
débats, (Paris: Editions du Scribe, 1985), p.174.   

J.C Simmonds, ‘Immigrant Fighters for the Liberation of France’, p.36.

David Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows, (EPUB:
Faber & Faber), ch.2 par. 5. 

Leon Landini, Letter to Vittori, as cited by J.C Simmonds in ‘Immigrant
Fighters for the Liberation of France’, p.37.

Julian Jackson, France: The Dark Years, p.497.