Review: France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Petain
The criminal trial of Marshal Philippe Pétain in Paris in 1945 was that of the highest ranking military officer accused of treason, in having betrayed his country by collaboration with the enemy. The contrast in personal fortunes was extreme: Pétain had, as supreme commander of French armies in the Great War, led the victory parade down the Champs-Elysees in 1919. Indeed, the title of ‘marshal’ is an honour rather than a military rank. It was awarded to generals in recognition of exceptional service in wartime only.
In 1940 the French armies had been routed humiliatingly by the German forces and Pétain had become head of the French government. An agreed armistice allowed the Germans to occupy two thirds of France, including Paris, and the French government moved to Vichy, a spa town, in central France. In October 1940, Pétain met Hitler, itself a deeply political act, and while the outcome was inconclusive, the meeting was a propaganda coup for the Germans. The armistice signed was a suspension of hostilities, although the Germans were in control.
The trial of Pétain was a political trial, given the nature of the controverted issues. Perhaps the major uncertainty was the penalty. The trial, however, is said not to have been a charade and it proceeded as a criminal trial, albeit that it also promised to be an opportunity for self-education as to the events that lay behind the establishment of the Vichy government. The trial was an examination of an alleged crime, through collaboration with an enemy, in the context of national politics.
What was to be learnt from such a trial was less than absolutely certain, and a diminishing band of nostalgic Pétainists still try to rehabilitate the Vichy government, while others are likely to focus on the role of that government in the deportation of 75,000 Jews. It was a noticeable feature of Pétain’s trial that no Jewish witness was invited to testify. It is scarcely believable now that the fate of the Jews had been peripheral to the trial of Pétain.
This book is the historian’s view of a criminal trial and its context and it is also an excellent work for the general reader. Scots lawyers will easily find the description of the necessary preparations under French procedure for the trial itself very similar to the traditional arrangements in Scotland. The placing of the participants in the court room, and the evidential and procedural dynamics of the inquisitorial trial itself, are most likely to be entirely unfamiliar to the modern reader.
The charge of treason, given the contentious political decisions at a time of great national danger and uncertainty, makes the trial one difficult to imagine now, and yet the narrative keeps the reader’s interest throughout. Proof of treason and the immediately suggested commutation of sentence to life imprisonment came as no surprise at the time. Pétain died in prison in 1951.
Professor Jackson’s clear exposition of a criminal trial in the context of modern French history is an excellent illustration of a certain class of case with serious political consequences, beyond those of the accused. The aphorism cited that “treason is a matter of dates” is illuminating, and so too are the difficulties in obtaining suitably, perhaps, judges and lawyers willing to take on their professional roles in matters of such sensitivity.
Julian Jackson, France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain (London: Allen Lane, 2023)