When Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain came to power in France he immediately began negotiations with Adolf Hitler and on 22nd June signed an armistice with Germany. The terms of the agreement divided France into occupied and unoccupied zones, with a rigid demarcation line between the two. The Germans would directly control three-fifths of the country, an area that included northern and western France and the entire Atlantic coast. The remaining section of the country would be administered by the French government at Vichy under Petain.
Other provisions of the armistice included the surrender of all Jews living in France to the Germans. The French Army was disbanded except for a force of 100,000 men to maintain domestic order. The 1.5 million French soldiers captured by the Germans were to remain prisoners of war. The French government also agreed to stop members of its armed forces from leaving the country and instructed its citizens not to fight against the Germans. Finally, France had to pay the occupation costs of the German troops.
Some members of the French Army led by General Charles De Gaulle managed to escape to England. Soon after arriving he made a speech where he argued that "whatever happens, the flame of French Resistance must not and will not be extinguished."
At first, humiliated by Germany's easy victory, few French people sought to continue the war. There were scattered acts of sabotage but these people were unorganized and in most cases were quickly arrested by the authorities.
One of the first acts of public resistance to German occupation was a small public demonstration of secondary school students at the Arc de Triomphe on 11th November 1940, when they celebrated the Allied victory over Germany in the First World War.
A group of scientists and lawyers working in Paris led by Boris Vilde began publishing a clandestine newspaper calling on the French people to resist the German occupation. The Musée de L'Homme group was infiltrated by a supporter of the Vichy government and as a result virtually all of the men and women involved with producing the newspaper were arrested and executed. It is claimed that one member of the group, Valentin Feldman, shouted at the moment of execution: "Imbeciles, it's for you, too that I die."
In occupied France the Gestapo began hunting down members of the Communist Party and Socialist Party. Most of them went into hiding. The obvious place to go was in the forests of the unoccupied zones. Escaped soldiers from the French Army also fled to these forests. These men and women gradually formed themselves into units based on political beliefs and geographical area. Eventually these people joined together to form the Maquis. As the organization grew in strength it began to organize attacks on German forces. They also helped to get Allied airman, whose aircraft had been shot down in France, to get back to Britain.
Radical members of the Socialist Party, including Pierre Brossolette and Daniel Mayer, formed one of the first resistance groups in France when they established the Comité d'Action Socialiste in January, 1941.
The Communist Party also became involved in the struggle against the German occupation. As they had been working in secret since 1939 they were ideally suited for clandestine activities. In its newspaper, L'Humanité, edited by Pierre Villon, the Communist Party called for a "National front for the independence of France." In May 1942, Villon established the resistance group, Front National.
Some early supporters of Henri-Philippe Petain and the Vichy government had become disillusioned and joined the resistance. Henry Frenay, who had initially worked for the Vichy administration, became active in the resistance in February 1941. He published underground newspapers such as Les Petities Ailes and Vérités, before forming Combat in November, 1941.
During this period, three important resistance leaders, Jean Moulin, Jean-Pierre Lévy and Emmanuel d'Astier, emerged in France. At first Levy and d'Astier concentrated on producing underground newspapers but eventually established the resistance groups, Francs-Tireur and Liberation-sud. However, both these groups only had a few thousand members.
In the spring of 1942, communist militants, acting independently of the leadership of the French Communist Party, organized the first Maquis units in the Limousin and the Puy-de-Dôme. Marquis groups were established in other regions of France. As the Maquis grew in strength it began to organize attacks on German forces. They also helped to get Allied airman, whose aircraft had been shot down in France, to get back to Britain.
General Charles De Gaulle was keen to unite these different resistance groups under his leadership. Jean Moulin, who had spent time in London with De Gaulle, was sent back to France and was given the task of uniting the various groups into one organization. He arranged meetings with people such as Henry Frenay (Combat), Emmanuel d'Astier (Liberation-sud), Jean-Pierre Lévy (Francs-Tireur), Pierre Villon (Front National), Daniel Mayer and Pierre Brossolette (Comité d'Action Socialiste), Charles Tillon and Pierre Fabien (Frances-Tireurs Partisans).
After much discussion Jean Moulin persuaded the eight major resistance groups to form the Conseil National de la Resistance (CNR) and the first joint meeting under Moulin's chairmanship took place in Paris on 27th May 1943.
On 7th June 1943, René Hardy, an important member of the resistance in France, was arrested and tortured by Klaus Barbie and the Gestapo. They eventually obtained enough information to arrest Jean Moulin, Pierre Brossolette and Charles Delestraint. Moulin and Brossolette both died while being tortured and Delestraint was sent to Dachau where he was killed near the end of the war.
In December, 1943, Joseph Darnard, an fanatical anti-Communist, became chief of secret police in Vichy. Called the Milice, its 35,000 members, many of them fascists, played an important role in investigating the French resistance. Like the Gestapo, the miliciens were willing to use torture to gain information.
On 15th March, 1944, the Conseil National de la Resistance published a charter that demanded a series of social and economic reforms should be implemented after the liberation of France. This included the establishment of universal suffrage and the equality of all citizens. The charter claimed that to ensure true equality it would be necessary to nationalize the large industrial and financial companies. It also called for a minimum wage, independent trade unions, comprehensive social security, worker participation in management, educational equality, and the extension of political, social and economic rights to colonial citizens.
Later that month the German Army began a campaign of repression throughout France. This included a policy of reprisals against civilians living in towns and villages close to the scene of attacks carried out by members of the French Resistance. As one official wrote on 15th April, 1944 that the authorities "wanted to strike fear into the population and change their opinion by showing them that the evils they were suffering were the direct consequence of the existence of the marquis and that they had made the mistake of tolerating them."
On 5th June, 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower asked the BBC sent out coded messages to the resistance asking them to carry out acts of resistance during the D-day landings in order to help Allied forces establish a beachhead on the Normandy coast.
This included attacks on the occupied garrisons in the towns of Tulle and Gueret. In revenge for the French attack on the German garrison 120 men were hanged in Tulle on 9th June. Later that day another 67 were murdered in Argenton.
These armed resistance groups were able to slow down the attempt by the 2nd SS Panzer Division to get to the Normandy beaches. It was decided to carry out a revenge attack that would frighten the French people into submission. On 10th June a group of soldiers led by Major Otto Dickmann, entered Oradour-sur-Glane, a village in the Haute-Vienne region of France. He ordered the execution of more than 600 men, women and children before setting fire to the village.
Despite these atrocities the French Resistance continued to take up arms against the German Army. After the war General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote: "Throughout France the Resistance had been of inestimable value in the campaign. Without their great assistance the liberation of France would have consumed a much longer time and meant greater losses to ourselves."