The defeat of France by Nazi Germany in the summer of 1940 ushered what the French later called Les Année Noires – the Dark Years. Germany’s victory caused the collapse of the 69-year-old Third Republic. Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, the lionized hero of Verdun in World War I, stepped into the political void and proclaimed a new government called Etat Français, better known by the name of the spa town where Pétain established his government: Vichy. Its first prime minister was the rabidly pro-Nazi Pierre Laval. Laval was dismissed in December 1940 when he failed to obtain any easing of the punitive armistice terms from Germany or prevent Germany’s annexation of the province of Lorraine (it had already annexed the province of Alsace). The apogee of Vichy’s collaboration policy – that ironically only succeeded in exposing how helpless Vichy was – was achieved by Laval’s successor, the most devious and opportunistic man in Vichy: Adm. Jean Louis Xavier François Darlan.
“If we collaborate with Germany . . . that is to say, if we work for her in our factories, if we give her certain facilities, we can save the French nation. . . .”
– Adm. François Darlan, Prime Minister, Etat Français
A 1902 graduate of the French naval academy, Darlan was a naval gun battery commander in World War I. By 1939 he had become the French navy’s top officer. Short, shifty-eyed, a lover of luxury, and an Anglophobe, Darlan projected the aura of a conspirator, a talent that served him well at Vichy. In addition to being the head of the French navy, in February 1941 Darlan became Vichy’s Prime Minister, Minister for the Interior, Defense, and Foreign Affairs, and Pétain’s designated heir; the second most powerful man in Vichy.
Darlan, and many in the Vichy government, believed that Germany would win the war and that to preserve its empire and position in Europe, France must link its fate to Germany. Darlan’s immediate goal was to reduce the occupation costs imposed by Germany and obtain the release of French troops still being held in prisoner of war camps. On May 11, 1941, Darlan met Hitler at his mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden. Hitler told Darlan that, while Germany was certain to win the war, it was to France’s advantage to accelerate the timetable. Hitler made a tit-for-tat proposal – any concession or assistance made by France would be matched at an equal level by Germany. When Darlan returned to Vichy, he reported to his cabinet, “My choice is made: it is collaboration . . . France’s interest is to live and to remain a great power. … In the present state of the world, and taking account of our terrible defeat, I see no other solution to protect our interests.” Upon getting the cabinet’s approval, negotiations commenced.
“My choice is made: it is collaboration . . . France’s interest is to live and to remain a great power. … In the present state of the world, and taking account of our terrible defeat, I see no other solution to protect our interests.”
The result was the Protocols of Paris. In it, Vichy made concessions that allowed Germany military use of facilities in its colonies of Syria (airfields), Tunisia (the port of Bizerta to supply Rommel’s Afrika Korps), and Senegal (submarine facilities at Dakar). A fourth concession, which provided Vichy justification if it found itself declaring war against Britain and America, was later added. In return, Germany would repatriate 6,800 skilled French workers in POW camps, reduce occupation costs from 20 million Reichsmarks to 15 million Reichsmarks, and ease travel restrictions between the occupied and unoccupied zones. The protocols were signed on May 27, 1941, by Darlan, Otto Abetz, the German ambassador to Vichy, and the negotiators. Post-war studies reveal contradictory accounts open to interpretation about what happened next. Darlan, ever the conspirator, seems to have simultaneously backslid, straddled, and advanced in different ways the issue. The only clear fact is that the protocols were never ratified. Darlan survived this diplomatic failure because there was now no doubt that collaboration with Germany was a one-way street. When Laval returned to power in April 1942, Darlan resigned all positions but that of commander of all French military forces. He was in Algiers when the Allies invaded French North Africa in November 1942. Darlan’s conspirator skills finally failed him on Dec. 24, 1942, about a month after he had reached an agreement with the Allies to head the French government in France’s North African colonies. He was assassinated while walking to his office, said to be the victim of a conspiracy.