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  An historical recollection of the french Resistance movement

An historical recollection of the french Resistance movement


More than 60 years after the German Occupation, the Résistance still evokes vivid interest and questions within our society. As a matter of fact, it lies in the heart of our collective memory. Its political and moral legacy is tremendous. Remi nders of the Resistance movement are everywhere around us (monuments, commemorative plates, names of streets…) as well as the commemoration of anniversaries (the Appeal of June 18 th, the liberation of Paris …). Museums and various foundations have flourished, all with the purpose of perpetuating the memory of this vital movement and encouraging further research. The Resistance movement still represents an boundless source of inspiration for novelists and film-makers. The first historical studies date back to soon after the war, especially with the foundation of the Committee for the History of the Second World War, headed by former resistant fighter Henri Michel. Writings of all nature (testimonies, grey literature) have proliferated and, over the past 15 years, research works led by professors and researchers have largely contributed to renewing the historiography of, and the approach to, the Resistance movement as a whole. Lastly, this movement continues to ignite numerous debates and controversies, mainly in the media and in courts of law. The Resistance movement opens up infinite potential for discussion and reflection around values for our contemporaries.

Sprung from the vivid humiliation of the French defeat, in June 1940, and the German Occupation, promoting the Nazi ideology, the French Resistance movement marked an overall refusal. At that time, France was divided in two by a demarcation-line. The South of France was under Marshal Pétain’s command and unoccupied by German troops; this is why it was called the “free zone”. The North was occupied by German troops, and the French administration was at their service.

According to the French historian François Marcot 1, the Resistance movement is a “voluntary and underground struggle against foreign occupants and their collaborators in order to free the country. To resist is to react. Resistance can not apply to an intellectual reflection or feeling. It is not about resisting in words or intellectual stances, it’s about acting…”

Commitment to the Resistance movement

Relatively marginal, the Resistance movement started quite early on.

In the Northern zone, the Resistance movement confronted trigger-happy German soldiers. In the Southern zone, where the newly-formed Pétain regime abolished the French Republic and implemented repressive policies, strong reactions from part of the population were starting to develop, but the genuine nature of the Vichy regime would only belatedly reveal itself.

Rejection of the political situation began to give way to the most diverse acts: isolated or collective, spontaneous or organized, from the most harmless to the most risky. From early isolated acts to the beginning of armed struggle, the range of attitudes and actions was vast: listening to the BBC 2 broadcast, public disapproval, strikes and demonstrations, wearing of the Lorraine cross, sabotages, attacks on the occupants’ property, propaganda… The commitment issue remains one of the toughest ones ever, as choosing action is complex. Taking part in resistant activities was fraught with consequences for those who opted for it: North of the demarcation-line, they were up against fierce repression by the German occupying forces, and South, they risked being considered traitors. What began as mild repression gradually took a tougher turn, as the country sunk into formal Occupation, on November 11, 1942 .

Enrolling oneself into the Resistance movement implied taking risks and entering an irreversible underground life fraught with loneliness and anguish, which very often ended in torture, death and deportation.

The beginnings of the Resistance movement were marked by unrelated, isolated individual acts. This “pre-organizational” resistance was followed by a step-by-step implementation of structured organizations in the Southern zone (Combat, Libération, Franc-Tireur…) as well as in the occupied Northern zone (Libération-Nord, Défense de la France, Organisation civile et militaire: OCM, Ceux de la Résistance, Ceux de la Libération…). On a national scale, the Communists founded the Front National de lutte pour l’indépendance de la France (FN: the National Front Struggling for the Independence of France), which obtained support from every professional sector.

Diversity of the Resistance movement

All sorts of political discrepancies resulted from the various ways in which the resistance movement came together. The historical context brought unlikely bed-fellows; people who were worlds apart before the war, now united for a common cause. Conflicts were not long in arising between Communists, non-Communists, anti-Communists, partisans of de Gaulle (“Gaullists”) and anti-Gaullists.

Such political discrepancies did give way to different, and sometimes opposite, strategies. Some advocated immediate armed struggle, i.e. attacking and harassing the occupying forces, as was the case for Organisation Spéciale (OS) and later French and foreign members of Francs Tireurs et Partisans (FTP), while others prioritized the gathering of intelligence and information transmission to London only gradually taking up arms. Others focused on sabotaging the economic activities placed under the control of the occupying forces, while others devoted themselves to propaganda activities, disseminating information through underground newspapers (some with up to 400 000 print copies), tracts and underground writings aimed at Resistant fighters and at the population as a whole. One of the characteristics of the Resistance movement was its huge diversity. The general population often lent support by helping to hide shot down aviators, Jews and foreigners…

In the months preceding the Liberation, attacks on the enemy were repeatedly launched. Everywhere, resistance organizations were getting ready to intervene massively to help the Allied troops with their landing, and initiate fighting where Allied troops were not.

Finally, the motivation for fighting gave birth to an in-depth discussion around after-war projections and politics, each resistant organization trying to have a say in the matter. There again, political unity was achieved through the implementation of a democracy, under the presidency of General de Gaulle, which on a certain number of economic and social principles, in accordance with the “Programme of the National Council of Resistance”, unanimously ratified by its members.

Organisation and unification of the Resistance movement

The Resistance movement was punctuated by seminal moments that accelerated its development. This was the case when the Wehrmacht 3attacked the USSR on June 22 1941 , which resulted in the Communists’ sudden massive commitment to the resistance movement, though prior they had been torn by the contradictions of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, signed in August 1939. Shortly after the mass arrests of Jews during the summer 1942, many partisans joined the FTP-MOI (Francs Tireurs et Partisans-Main d’Œuvre Immigrée) movement. Then the invasion of the Southern zone by German troops, in November 1942, brought final discredit upon the Vichy regime and finally helped gain the support of public opinion. Finally, the implementation of a legislation establishing compulsory labour service (Service du Travail Obligatoire 4), in February 1943, resulted in opposition from many young men who chose to go underground and join the movement.

In January 1942, General de Gaulle sent Jean Moulin to France with a mission to bring the French resistance organizations under a unified command and under his control. One year later, the resistance organizations from the Southern zone merged to become the “Unified Movements of Resistance” ( MUR ). In the Northern zone, actions started being coordinated. The first meeting of the “National Council of the Resistance movement” (CNR) was organized in May 1943 in Paris , gathering representatives of the Northern and Southern zones, political parties and trade unions. The programme presented by the CNR was adopted in March 1944. It called for immediate struggle to liberate the French territory, and determined economic and social reforms to be brought into effect following the Liberation.

By early 1944, the ‘Mouvement de Libération Nationale’ (Movement for National Liberation’:MNL) was founded, gathering the MUR and several organizations from the Northern zone. The armed groups, stemming from the various resistance organizations, were unified within the “French Internal Forces” (“FFI”), under the command of General Koenig, operating from London . A trend towards unity was hence born: the unifying of the Resistance movement under General de Gaulle, unity within the Resistance organizations, unity of its military forces within the FFI, and such unity grew greater with time.

The role of the Resistance movement in the liberation of France

From 1943 on, the armed groups within the French Resistance movement in all their diversity (Francs-Tireurs, underground and maquis groups, FFI paramilitary organisations) began mass harassing and attacking the occupying forces.

The FFI, backed by the Second Armoured Division, launched a large uprising in Paris , which later led to the liberation of the French capital on August 25 th 1944 .

Prior to the liberation of France , “Departmental and Local Committees for Liberation” (“CDL” and “CLL”) had been created everywhere in the country. They were led by resistant fighters who would later prepare the Liberation and then play a pivotal role in establishing new authorities after the collapse of the Vichy administration. The liberation of the majority of the French territory, including Paris , took place from the second half of August until the early days of September, 1944.


The Resistance movement allowed France to ensure its independence in post-war Europe . Integrated into the regular armed forces, the FFI continued to fight against the forces of the Third Reich until the Victory of the Allies in 1945. The Resistance movement made it possible to unify the vast majority of the French population, to restore the Republic and to bring a genuine renewal in numerous areas. The CNR programme led to restoring liberty, democratizing public office and implementing social measures such as pension schemes, the nationalization of key economic sectors and the creation of a social security system. The right to vote for women, decided in the beginning of 1944 by the interim government in Algiers , was established. Policy as a whole was profoundly marked by the legacy of the Resistance movement.

Finally, and to a large extent thanks to the actions of the Resistance movement supported by the general population, France came out on the winning side when Germany surrendered and became a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

1 In La Résistance , une histoire sociale , under the conduct of Antoine Prost, pp. 21-23, Les Editions de l’Atelier, 1997.

2 British Broadcast Corporation :refers to the ‘ London radio’ that radio receivers could pick up, in spite of the German jamming attempts

3 The German name of the German army.

4 Compulsory Labour Service, enforced by the Vichy regime in February 1943, made it compulsory for young men to go and work in Germany under threat of severe penalties.


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