In the midst of intense negotiations with the German government in late May 1941, French Prime Minister Admiral Darlan declared: ‘I worked with the English for fifteen years, they always lied to me. I have negotiated with the Germans for three months, and they have never misled me.’ His interlocutor, Pastor Boegner, pointed out that Hitler had consistently violated the most solemn agreements, but Darlan paid no heed. While Darlan’s comment might be dismissed as mere self-delusion or a self-serving justification of collaboration with Nazi Germany, it was also a measure of something more deeply-rooted within the Vichy government: a belief that the British government and armed forces were fundamentally duplicitous.
This paper explores how perceptions of Britain become critical shaping factors in the foreign policy of the Vichy government after the French collapse of June 1940. Much of the existing scholarship on Vichy’s foreign relations depicts a pervasive Anglophobia rooted in resentments and suspicions of British intentions. However, this paper seeks to suggest that antipathy towards Britain was reactive and inconstant rather than irredeemably ingrained. As such, it was instrumentalised by ministers in Vichy for political ends. At the heart of the problem was that the age-old rivalry between Britain and France happened to revolve around the two key assets upon which Vichy’s post-armistice claims to sovereignty and status as a global power depended: the French colonial empire and navy. The absence of direct diplomatic contact between the UK and France during much of this period created a vacuum in which suspicions flourished and in which British actions that conflicted with French interests served to legitimise Vichy’s agenda of distrust. Rather than balanced analyses of how French interests might best be protected in the circumstances in which France found itself, suspicion and paranoia gained new credence, enabling the architects of Vichy’s foreign policy to re-orientate it away from Britain and towards the axis.
The strains in Franco-British relations leading up to the Second World War were evident; the extent to which Anglophobia had become endemic among the key institutions and individuals who shaped Vichy’s foreign policy was, however, less clear. In the French colonial service, the long history of rivalry with Britain and memories of the Fashoda incident of 1898 loomed large. This deeply-embedded hostility was instrumental in some colonial officials’ decision to support Vichy rather than to join with the British and Free French in 1940. While many historians have portrayed a similar picture of traditional antipathy towards Britain in the French navy, the reality was more complex. After the initial shock of the British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir, many officers reflected that they did not wish to be drawn into doing Germany’s bidding by engaging in hostilities against Britain.
With Vichy appointing senior army and navy figures to key positions of authority over foreign policy, the pervasiveness of anti-British sentiment became acutely significant. Indeed, Peter Jackson and Simon Kitson argue that not only was Admiral Darlan’s strategic vision conditioned by an imperial world-view and the Anglophobia of the French navy but that his whole approach in government was shaped by the ideological and geopolitical vision that he had developed as a naval officer. For Bernard Costagliola, the French navy’s Anglophobia had so embedded itself upon Darlan that he had come to believe that five generations of his family had been ruined by the death of his great-grandfather at the hands of the British at Trafalgar, even though none of his relatives had actually fought in the battle. Hervé Couteau-Bégarie and Claude Huan go still further, suggesting that Darlan’s Anglophobia so blinded him to the realities of Nazi intentions towards France that he believed that France would gain more favourable terms from a German victory than a British one. By looking at the policies pursued by Laval and Darlan between 1940 and 1941 and drawing a comparison with Vichy’s relations with Italy a more nuanced picture emerges, however. The distorted suspicions of Britain prevailed over balanced analysis by virtue of conscious, if misguided, decision-making, rather than visceral Anglophobia.
One of the most striking aspects of French foreign policy under Vichy is how, even among the relatively few voices who favoured maintaining a modus vivendi with Britain after June 1940, none justified doing so on grounds of historical or cultural affinity. Instead, arguments rested on notions that a British-led victory would be the least harmful option for France. In part, this was because the challenging and complex situations in which the French and British governments found themselves after the French defeat caused each to have to defend their interests in ways that were damaging to the other. Indeed, just as the British government was alarmed by some of the actions taken by the French, so a number of actions taken by the British gave Vichy legitimate cause for concern.
The first such incident was the British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir on 3 July 1940. Franco-British relations had been tense since the French surrender, but interpreting the British action as unjustified aggression, Vichy formally severed diplomatic relations between the two states. Foreign Minister Paul Baudouin’s Directeur du Cabinet declared that henceforth, France would be free from any obligations towards its former ally. The fallout might have been surmountable had it not been followed so soon by a British and Free French attack on Dakar on 23 to 25 September 1940. The operation shattered the fragile détente in Franco-British relations that had been so painfully rebuilt in the months following Mers-el-Kébir. It fed into Vichy’s narrative of malign British intentions towards the French colonial empire and allowed Baudouin, who had hitherto been seeking to improve relations, to assert that the British government was using the threat from the axis as a pretext for eliminating a powerful rival navy and seizing the spoils of a defeated former ally.
At the heart of the problem were the fundamentally opposing approaches and priorities of the British and French governments in relation to the French colonial empire. A significant gulf emerged between Vichy’s exaggerated insistence that it retained a high level of sovereignty and British scepticism about the French government’s ability to resist axis demands. For the British government, the risk of the French empire and navy falling into axis hands outweighed the need to allay French suspicions. Thus even when it did seek to reassure Vichy that it did not have malign intentions, it only aggravated matters. In a note sent to the French government via Madrid on 21 October 1940, the British government sought to assure Vichy that it would restore France’s ‘independence and grandeur’ after the war. The problem was, however, that its assertion that France was ‘powerless’ to protect its empire from German or Italian infiltration and that it needed British assistance to do so went entirely against Vichy’s insistence that it would defend the sovereignty of its colonial empire. The language of the British note may have been clumsy, but it signalled an insurmountable lack of faith in Vichy’s claims.
Central to the formulation of Vichy’s foreign policy were the conflicting impulsions of weighing up the most likely outcome of the war against the preferred outcome. In the initial months after the French surrender, few believed there was any realistic prospect of a British victory. Even as the tide started to turn against the axis in 1941, officials at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs concluded that the most Britain could hope for was a compromise peace. But whereas diplomats maintained that a German-led victory would be significantly more harmful to France than a British-led one, the likes of Darlan, Laval and Pétain maintained the opposite.
Numerous diplomats reported that any unpleasantness from having to endure future British domination would be as nothing compared to the territorial and material losses that Germany would impose. Indeed, in a note for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 14 October 1940, François Charles-Roux summed up the position by stating that a ‘pax Britannica’ would be infinitely less disadvantageous than a ‘pax Germannica’. Without concrete assurances from the axis, Vichy risked playing a ‘fool’s game’ in defending its colonies against the British and the Free French only to find that it later lost them to Germany, Italy or even Spain and Japan. Yet despite criticisms including from the head of the French armistice commission for Germany that their assessments of German intentions were not based on political realities, Darlan, Laval and Pétain continued to maintain that French interests were better safeguarded under Nazi Germany than under Britain.
The Vichy government’s dogmatic distrust of Britain might be contrasted with the way that it viewed Fascist Italy. As with Britain, France had long-running colonial and naval rivalries with Italy, especially in the Mediterranean. France and Italy had also been allies in the First World War and their governments had also diverged over the peace terms of 1919. French support for sanctions against Italy over its invasion of Abyssinia, the election of the Popular Front government and the Spanish Civil War widened tensions between the two states in the interwar years. But as with Britain, a narrative of betrayal developed from the fall of France, with Mussolini’s declaration of war on 10 June 1940 widely seen as Italy ‘stabbing’ France in the back. Despite all this, between July 1940 and November 1942, Baudouin, Laval and Darlan each sought rapprochement with Italy, claiming that it was France’s natural ally.
The need to ease the burden of the German armistice terms led Vichy to create a cultural rationale that enabled it to transcend resentments over past Italian action and suspicions about Italian intentions. Over late summer and early autumn 1940, Laval and Baudouin engaged in sustained efforts at rapprochement with the Italian government, citing cultural and historical affinity as two ‘Latin and Catholic’ countries. These attempts at an alignment with Fascist Italy were not, however, ideologically-driven efforts in pursuance of collaboration with the axis. Indeed, in the summer and autumn of 1940 and again in the winter of 1941, Laval, Baudouin and Darlan sought to drive a wedge between the axis partners by appealing to Mussolini in order to isolate the German government, weaken its domination and pressurise it into granting France concessions on the armistice terms. In other words, Vichy’s relations with Italy suggest that cultural perceptions functioned as important shaping elements but not determining factors in the formulation of French foreign policy.
The brutally sudden nature of the rupture in Franco-British relations in 1940 was perhaps best summed by the Marquis de Castellane, First Secretary to the French embassy in London. Despite diplomats working for decades to create an atmosphere of reciprocal trust, after the Mers-el-Kébir attack, ‘this closeness was destroyed within the space of one day […] we suddenly went from the closest of alliances to acts of hostility, a […] situation which has perhaps no precedent in modern history.’ Yet there was nothing inevitable or irreversible in the rupture of diplomatic relations. The picture was rather one of misunderstanding and wilful misrepresentation due in no small part to the reduced influence and personnel changes that Vichy imposed upon the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to François Charles-Roux, the Secretary-General at the Foreign Ministry, ministers suspected the entire diplomatic service of opposing the government’s foreign policy and harbouring sympathies towards Britain. As a consequence, many experienced diplomats were recalled, retired, moved or like Charles-Roux, resigned.
Foreign policy under Vichy moved increasingly into the domain of two men who had little relevant experience in foreign affairs and who were driven instead by their own political agendas. Since leaving office in January 1936, Laval had been cut off from the Quai d’Orsay and was consequently out of touch when he returned to government in June 1940. Darlan’s lack of experience exposed him as being out of his depth and easily outmanoeuvred. In the negotiations with the German government over the Protocols of Paris, for example, he made significant concessions on the use French airfields in Syria and the Tunisian port of Bizerte for little in return. French diplomats expressed deep concern at Darlan’s ignorance of Nazi ideology and the delusion of those in Vichy who believed that the final peace terms would be like those at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, in which France would lose Alsace-Lorraine, pay some indemnities, and that would more or less be the end of the matter. The chaotic and amateur conduct of Franco-British relations during this period is epitomised in Louis Rougier’s unofficial mission to Britain in which he exaggerated his authority, misled his interlocutors in London and Vichy and ultimately only aggravated matters.
Previous analyses have tended to depict an image of culturally-ingrained ‘Anglophobia’ within the French government, administration and the armed forces. Yet comparisons with Vichy’s policy towards Italy suggest that while antipathy towards Britain was widespread, its elevation to the core of foreign policy was a calculated political manoeuvre. Indeed, if the likes of Laval and Darlan were willing to set aside traditional hostility towards Germany to pursue collaboration, no such incentive existed for Italy. With diplomats increasingly marginalised over the course of 1940 and 1941, negative perceptions of Britain were manipulated to legitimise a foreign policy that centred upon an assumption of German victory. Clashes over the fleet and colonial empire served to create an image in which the alliance had been no more than a pragmatic deal whose specious character had manifested itself in the events of 1940 to 1941. For Vichy, breaking ties with Britain therefore represented a useful symbolic rupture with the discredited policies and values of the Third Republic. The damaging consequences of such an approach were all too evident to Baudouin by September 1940. In vain he appealed for French relations with Britain to be conducted from a more balanced perspective so that they might cease to be a series of harmful clashes in front of the ‘tertius gaudens’.
 Cited in Bernard Costagliola, Darlan: La collaboration à tout prix (Paris: CNRS, 2015), p. 140.
 Ibid, p. 83.
 Peter Jackson and Simon Kitson, ‘Pétain’s Vichy France’, in Jonathan Adelman (ed.), Hitler and his Allies in World War II (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 87.
 Costagliola, Darlan, p. 66.
 Hervé Coutau-Bégarie and Claude Huan, Darlan (Paris: Fayard, 1989), pp. 442, 447.
 Archives Diplomatiques, 10GMII473, Note, 5 July 1940.
 M. Baudouin, Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, à M. Haye, Ambassadeur de France à Washington, 24 September 1940; M. Baudouin, Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, à M. de La Baume, Ambassadeur de France à Madrid, 29 September 1940, in Ministère des Affaires Etrangères Commission de Publication des Documents Diplomatiques Français, Documents diplomatiques français: 1940 Tome II (11 juillet – 30 décembre) (Peter Lang: Brussels, 2009), pp. 494-5, 505.
 Note de M. de Castellane, 7 August 1940, in Ministère des Affaires Etrangères Documents diplomatiques français: 1940 Tome II, p. 210.
 Note du directeur politique. Observations sur la Note anglaise du 21 octobre 1940, 22 October 1940, in Ibid, p. 732.
 Note de Nac, 16 July 1940, in Ibid, pp. 51-2.
 Archives Diplomatiques, Papiers Charles-Roux 1, Situation Internationale et Politique Extérieur Française, 14 October 1940.
 Note de l’Amiral Darlan sur la situation politique, 5 October 1941 in Ministère des Affaires Etrangères Commission de Publication des Documents Diplomatiques Français, Documents diplomatiques français (1 janvier 1941- 31 décembre 1941) (Peter Lang: Brussels, 2015), pp. 841-7.
 Relations avec l’Italie, Mirko Giobbe, 15 September 1949, in Institut Hoover, La vie de la France sous l’occupation (1940-1944) Tome III (Librairie Plon: Paris, 1957), pp. 1367-8.
 Archives Diplomatiques 10GMII473. Telegram, 6 August 1940; L’Ambassade de France au Secrétaire d’Etat, 19 August 1940, Actes et documents du Saint-Siège relatifs à la période de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, 4 (juin 1940-juin 1941) (Liberia Editrice Vaticana: Vaticana, 1967), pp. 113-4. See Karine Varley, ‘Entangled Enemies: Vichy, Italy and Collaboration’, in Alison Carrol and Ludivine Broch (eds.), France in an era of Global War: Occupation, Politics, Empire and Entanglements (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 152-70.
 Note de M. de Castellane, 7 aout 1940, in Ministère des Affaires Etrangères Documents diplomatiques français: 1940 Tome II, p. 214.
 François Charles-Roux, Cinq mois tragiques aux affaires étrangères, 21 mai-1er novembre 1940 (Paris: Plon, 1949), p. 319.
 Note, 5 May 1941, in Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, Documents diplomatiques français (1 janvier 1941- 31 décembre 1941), p. 433.
 M. Baudouin, Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, à M. de La Baume, Ambassadeur de France à Madrid, 29 September 1940, in Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, Documents diplomatiques français 1940 Tome II, p. 532.