Perceptions of Britain in Vichy’s Foreign Policy, 1940-1942

Presented at ‘Britain and France in World War Two’ colloquium, British Ambassador’s Residence, Paris, 16 October 2015



In a conversation with Pastor Boegner on 27 May 1941, Admiral Darlan stated: ‘I worked with the English for fifteen years, they always lied to me. I’ve negotiated with the Germans for 3 months, and they have never misled me.’ Boegner pointed out that Hitler had in fact consistently violated the most solemn agreements, but this had little effect upon Darlan.  This self-delusion or wilful amnesia may just have been Darlan seeking to justify his pursuit of collaboration with Germany, but in Vichy, the belief in British duplicity was deeply-rooted and widely-held.

Virtually all of the scholarship on Vichy’s foreign policy portrays a pervasive Anglophobia that was deeply-rooted in resentments and suspicions of British intentions towards France. 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 claims to sovereignty and status as a global power depended: its colonial empire and navy.

I want to explore how in the turbulence of the French collapse, perceptions of Britain operated to become critical shaping factors in Vichy’s foreign policy. Rather than balanced analyses of how French interests might best be protected in the circumstances in which France found itself after the armistice, distrust, suspicion and even paranoia gained new credence. The absence of direct diplomatic contact between the UK and France during much of this period created a vacuum in which suspicions were heightened and in which British actions that conflicted with French interests served to legitimise mistrust. While historians have devoted considerable attention to the factors that drew Vichy into collaborating with Nazi Germany, just as important are the considerations that shaped its move away from its former ally Britain.

It is not difficult to find evidence of the strains in relations in the years leading up to the Second World War. But I want to look briefly at the evidence that Anglophobia had become endemic among the key institutions and individuals who shaped Vichy’s foreign policy.

In the French colonial service, the long history of rivalry with Britain and memories of the Fashoda incident of 1898 loomed large. This deeply-rooted hostility was instrumental in colonial officials’ decision to support Vichy rather than to join with the British and Free French. In the French navy, while many historians have portrayed a similar picture of traditional antipathy towards Britain, the reality is more nuanced. After the initial shock of Mers-el-Kebir, many officers reflected that they did not wish to be drawn into doing Germany’s bidding in engaging in hostilities against Britain.

The pervasiveness of this culture of antipathy towards Britain became significant because under Vichy, senior figures from the army and navy came to occupy key positions of authority over French foreign policy. Viewing Britain through the prism of this anti-British sentiment, they tended to distort and exaggerate the nature of the threat.

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. According to Bernard Costagliola, the 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.Darlan

What I want to look at is how far these distorted and inflated suspicions of Britain prevailed over balanced, objective analysis in shaping assessments of France’s future at the end of the war and consequently the direction of French foreign policy under Vichy. How far was it the case, as Herve Couteau-Begarie and Claude Huan have suggested, that Darlan’s Anglophobia so blinded him to the realities of Nazi intentions towards France that he believed France would gain more favourable terms from a German victory than a British one?

What is perhaps most striking is how among the relative few voices who argued in favour of Vichy maintaining at least a modus vivendi with the UK, none sought to justify this on grounds of historical or cultural affinity. Instead, arguments rested on notions that a British-led victory would be the least worst option for France.

Justification of suspicion

The very challenging and complex situations in which the French and British governments found themselves during the war caused each to have to defend their interests in ways that were sometimes damaging to the other. 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 real, legitimate concern.

The first of these was the British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir on 3 July 1940. While Franco-British relations had been tense since the French surrender, it was this act of what Vichy saw as unjustified aggression that caused the formal severing of diplomatic relations between the two states and enabled Foreign Minister Paul Baudouin’s directeur du cabinet, to declare that France was henceforth free from any obligations towards its former ally.


The fallout of Mers-el-Kebir might have been surmountable had it not been followed so soon by a British and Free French attack on Dakar on 23-5 September 1940. The attack on Dakar shattered the détente in Franco-British relations that had been so painstakingly rebuilt after Mers-el-Kebir. The fact that there had been no call for British help from the people of Dakar only fed into Vichy’s narrative of Britain’s malign intentions towards France’s colonial empire. It allowed Baudouin, who had 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. However legitimate the military and strategic justifications may have been, they did not mitigate what was arguably a political misjudgement that played directly into Vichy’s suspicions. The British bombing of Sfax on 29 May 1941 and the British occupation of Madagascar in mid-1942 only fuelled these beliefs.

Even when the British government did seek to reassure Vichy that it did not have malign intentions, its lack of attention to French sensitivities 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, that the note’s 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 was a measure of a lack of faith in Vichy’s assurances.

The problem was that French and British governments had fundamentally opposing approaches and priorities 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 suspicions that the French government would be unable 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. When Baudouin sought assurance (August 1940) that the British government would not seek to detach France’s colonies from Vichy’s control, Churchill refused.

Assessments of British intentions

At the heart 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 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 Petain maintained the opposite.

Numerous reports, including from sources sympathetic to Vichy, stated 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. In his analysis for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 14 October 1940, Charles-Roux summed up the unanimous view of diplomats in stating that a ‘pax Britannica’ would be infinitely less disadvantageous for us 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 then lost them to Germany, Italy or even Spain or Japan later on.

Yet despite criticisms even from colleagues such as General Doyen, the head of the French armistice commission for Germany, that their assessments of German intentions towards France were not based on political realities, Darlan, Laval and Petain continued to maintain that French interests were better safeguarded under Germany than under Britain.

Contrast with Italy

I want to draw a comparison between Vichy’s dogmatic distrust of Britain and the way that Vichy viewed 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 and the Spanish Civil War widened tensions between the two states. But as with Britain, it was from the fall of France that a narrative of betrayal developed. The Italian declaration of war on France on 10 June 1940, as it was already on the verge of collapse was widely seen as Italy ‘stabbing’ France in the back. And yet, despite all this, between July 1940 and November 1942, Baudouin, Laval and Darlan each sought rapprochement with Italy claiming it was France’s natural ally.

The need to ease the burden of the German armistice terms led to the creation of a cultural rationale that enabled Vichy to transcend the 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 ideologically-driven efforts in pursuance of collaboration with Germany. Indeed, in the summer and autumn of 1940 and in the winter of 1941, Laval, Baudouin and Darlan sought explicitly to appeal to Mussolini isolate the German government, weaken its domination and pressurise it into granting concessions on the armistice terms.

What this comparison suggests is that cultural perceptions functioned as shaping elements but not determining factors in the formulation of Vichy’s foreign policy.

Amateur diplomats

The sudden, brutal nature of the rupture in Franco-British relations in July 1940 was perhaps best summed by the Marquis de Castellane, the First Secretary to the French embassy in London. Diplomats had spent years working to create an atmosphere of reciprocal trust and friendship between Britain and France. But after the attack on Mers-el-Kebir, ‘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.’

Despite this, I would suggest there was nothing inevitable or irreversible in the rupture in relations. Rather, the picture is one of misunderstanding and wilful misrepresentation due in no small part to the changes and reduction in influence of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

According to Francois Charles-Roux, the secretary-general at the Foreign Ministry, ministers in Vichy suspected the entire French diplomatic service of disapproving of the government’s foreign policy and harbouring sympathies for Britain. As a consequence, many experienced diplomats were recalled, retired, moved or like Charles-Roux, resigned. Foreign policy came increasingly under the domain of two men who had little or little recent experience in foreign affairs. Instead, Laval and Darlan were driven by their own political agendas and personal views. 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 saw him out of his depth and outmanoeuvred. In the negotiations for the Protocols of Paris, for example, he made significant concessions to Germany on the use French airfields in Syria and the 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 inexpert nature 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 made matters worse.

As Baudouin noted in late September 1940, one of the consequences of allowing emotive negative perceptions to prevail over balanced analysis was that Franco-British relations had become a seemingly endless string of unfortunate incidents. And the main beneficiary of these misunderstandings was, of course, Germany.

The podcast of this and other papers presented at the colloquium is now available:



British Ambassador's Residence, Paris

British Ambassador’s Residence, Paris


Images from the day

British Ambassador's Residence, Paris

British Ambassador’s Residence, Paris


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