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How Paris Came to be Occupied by Evil Incarnate

Pre-WWII France
In the 1920s and 1930s, France, like the rest of Europe and America, suffered from hyperinflation during the Great Depression. The middle class was hardest hit as they resorted to selling personal belongings and treasured heirlooms that had been in their families for generations. Devastated, they looked for someone or something to blame for their misfortune. The French blamed their existing government, The Third Republic. As a response to the economic crisis, there was a strong political reaction all over Europe that pitted an extreme right against a radical left.

The League of the Croix de Feu. Paris, Avenue des Champs-Elysées, 14 July 1935. Photo Credit: parisenimages
The far right in France was an alliance between, Action Française, the Parti Populaire Française (PPF) and the Croix de Feu. These groups exuded an aggressive nationalism and hated parliamentary governments, Communists, and were extremely anti-Semitic and xenophobic (particularly against Eastern Europeans). The goal of the fascist right was to re-establish a "True France" - one in which each individual was Catholic, and of French soil (and preferably had been for generations). By the 1930's, 7.5% of France's population was immigrants (the highest percentage in Europe), while the population of the "True France" was on the decline. These statistics certainly fanned the flames of the xenophobic right's fire.


In February of 1934, tensions came to a head as a result of a scandal known as the Stavisky Affair. An Eastern European Jew immigrant, Serge Stavisky, had embezzled millions by selling fake municipal bonds. When some officials from the Third Republic were allegedly linked to the scandal, Stavisky wound up dead and the far right was in an uproar and held violent riots in the streets of Paris. One failed coup d'état, fifteen dead people, and one resigned Prime Minister later, the left stepped in to save the Republic.


The left, which became known as The Popular Front, was an alliance of Socialists and Communists who were predominately middle and working class. Their goal was to save the Republic from the fascist right. Their leader, Léon Blum, was a Socialist and a Jew.

Leon Blum, Photo Credit: WW2gravestone.com
The Popular Front won the 1936 elections, and Blum became Prime Minister. Although its tenure was short-lived, they did legislate improvements for the working class. By 1939, the Popular Front was alive in name only. France was at war and moments away from Nazi Occupation. Leaders of the right would find camaraderie with the Nazis. 


On September 3, 1939, just two days after the German invasion of Poland, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. There wasn't much fighting during the winter months in a period known as the "Phony War." But, by April of 1940, fighting ensued.

The French had spent the better part of the 1930s building the Maginot Line, a fortified line of defense that ran along the German-French border. 
Along the Maginot Line, France. Photo Credit: techlawforum.net
Germany had invaded France during WWI by going through Belgium. The French made two critical strategical errors. First, they ended Maginot Line at the Belgian border as the French believed the Ardennes and Argonne Forests that stood between Belgium and France would serve as a natural impediment. The French also believed that the fire power of their fixed artillery would be more important in fighting the Germans than rapid movement. The Germans, on the other hand, used a strategy of rapid movement known as blitzkrieg, and also had superior tanks that made mulch of the trees in the forest. 



George Formby performs for British troops the popular 1939 song "Imagine Me In the Maginot Line"

By May 1940, the Germans had the combined British and French forces trapped between them and the English Channel at the French coastal town of Dunkirk. The French and British needed a miracle, and that is exactly what they got. The Germans stopped to refuel their tanks because they were ahead of schedule. This allowed time for the evacuation of British and French to Britain. 


The above YouTube video chronicles the Battle for Dunkirk

Although the evacuation saved many lives, it did not stop the Germans. French citizens began to flee. Long lines of refugees lined the roads, and despite the fact that they were unarmed citizens, the Luftwaffe flying overhead strafed them down. The French suffered a significant loss of life. 

Capitulation
In early June, the Germans were at Paris' doorstep. Fearing for their lives, many Parisians made a mass exodus out of the city, carrying with them the bare essentials. Many didn't even reach their destination before France surrendered. 


Check out the 1952 movie Forbidden Games (French title Jeux Interdits). Begin around 2:05 and watch until at least 7:00 to get an idea of what the mass exodus was like.


On June 10, 1940, the French government took what important documents they could, and abandoned Paris. They realized it was the only way they might be able to save France. The Germans entered Paris on June 14, 1940, and when France capitulated on June 22, 1940, many were confused as to how France fell so rapidly. 

The above newsreel video of the surrender of France is from Marcel Ophüls' 1969 documentary, Le Chagrin et la Pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity) Note the change in the tone of music when the black, Asian, and Maghrebian soldiers are shown.

Even though troop numbers were nearly even on both sides, the Germans dominated in terms of technological superiority (especially their Panzer tanks and their Luftwaffe). France was swiftly divided into two zones: the Occupied Zone in the north, and the "Free" Zone in the south, also known as Vichy France.

Map of Occupied/Vichy France
Paris' government fled, predominately to London, shortly before the Nazis seized the city. However, not everyone was finished fighting. The exiled government worked closely with the Allies with the goal of liberating their beloved France.
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Comments

I love that you provide mini history lessons and what neat YouTube videos you included with this post. They were indeed among Paris' darkest days and one can't imagine them as a visitor to Paris today. Although it's purely Hollywood, Casablanca is one of my favorite movies and I love the scenes of Bogart and Bergman in Paris.
Your blogs are such an inspiration. I have to seriously go back and read or reread all of them! Please keep blogging!

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