Vichy internment camp
French Police registering new inmates at the Pithiviers camp Photo by Wikicommons
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On October 3, 1940, the French government led by Marshal Philippe Petain passed the “Statute on Jews,” which defined the terms for who was to be considered a Jew (someone with three Jewish grandparents), and placed severe restrictions on the jobs that Jews could hold in French society. They were, for example, no longer permitted to serve in the army officer corps or in senior government jobs. A second Jewish law, enacted in June 1941, deprived Jews of the right to work in business or industry, as well as in the liberal professions.

The Vichy regime had come into power less than two months earlier, on July 10, 1940, and although its base was in the southern city of Vichy, it actually maintained administrative control of civil affairs both in the unoccupied south and in the occupied north. And the decision to pass the statute, and the alacrity with which it was done, was a French initiative entirely. As Petain’s chief of staff, Henri du Moulin de la Barthète, put it proudly, “Germany was not at the origin of the anti-Jewish legislation of Vichy. That legislation was spontaneous and autonomous.”

Already in July 1940, the Vichy regime set up a commission to review the naturalizations of all those who had become citizens of France since 1927; starting in 1943, 15,000 people, most of them Jews, were stripped of their citizenship. Internment camps were set up and quickly became transit camps, from which Jews and other undesirables who were rounded up were sent east to Nazi concentration and death camps. The first deportation took place from Drancy on March 27, 1942. During the next two years, Vichy officials assisted in the arrest and expulsion of some 76,000 Jews, of whom only 2,500 survived.

Vichy initially resisted the German demand for the expulsion, not out of any sympathy for the Jews, but because acquiescence would give the lie to the fiction that the regime made policy independently. Prime Minister Pierre Laval suggested a compromise, by which the Vichy government would expel some 10,000 Jewish non-citizens from the non-occupied zone in exchange for the sparing of Jews of French nationality. In the end, the 75,000-80,000 Jewish residents of France who died in the Holocaust constituted about one-quarter of the country’s pre-war Jewish population of 330,000.