De Gaulle’s Debt

Patrice Higonnet

  • Jean Moulin: Le politique, le rebelle, le résistant by Jean-Pierre Azéma
    Perrin, 507 pp, €24.00, April 2003, ISBN 2 262 01329 2

By 1995, there were 37 monuments and 113 plaques dedicated to Jean Moulin in France; 978 boulevards, avenues, streets, squares, bridges and stadiums were named after him, as well as more than 365 schools, including one university. There are even more today; only de Gaulle is more honoured. And yet at the time of his death at the hands of Nazi torturers in the first days of July 1943, Moulin was unknown even among the elite circles of the day. In all likelihood, Pétain and even Laval had little idea who he was. To no other man, however – apart from Churchill – did de Gaulle owe so much, as that excessively immodest man fully understood, just as no one, apart from de Gaulle himself, did more to frustrate Franklin Roosevelt’s determination not just to liberate France in June 1944, but to occupy and administer it until some government presumably favourable to the US emerged from its ruins. By what he had done – and because of his untimely death, what was left undone – Moulin made a lasting mark on French history, greater than he himself could ever have anticipated.

Moulin was born in Béziers in 1899 – he spoke with an almost imperceptible ‘accent du Midi’ – to a standard-issue, lower-middle-class, left-of-centre, anti-clerical family. He was very successful as a young man, a golden boy to the ‘radical-socialist’ (which was neither radical nor socialist) establishment that ran France – not very successfully – in the last decades of the Third Republic. At the age of 37, he became the youngest prefect in France, but was not, I suspect, as pleasant a young man as Jean-Pierre Azéma makes him out to be in this excellent biography. In the late 1930s he became a friend and client of Pierre Cot, the rather dubious Popular Front Air Minister, whose help was spurned by de Gaulle in 1940.

The collapse of May-June 1940 transformed him. At a time when most provincial prefects, a majority of Parisians, and eight million French citizens fled mindlessly southward before the invading Germans, Moulin stayed on in Chartres. There, he was impressed by the behaviour of the local nuns, who had also stayed put and had even managed to roast whole oxen in order to feed hundreds of refugees. When the Germans asked him to sign a statement blaming Senegalese troops for offences they had committed themselves, he refused. (The Nazis did not like African soldiers, and threw some of those they captured under tank treads.) Beaten and imprisoned, and fearing he might be tempted in the end to sign the statement, Moulin slashed a vein in his neck. But he was found in time, and saved. The Germans then apologised for their treatment of him, and he remained as prefect for the first four months of the Vichy regime.

In October 1940, when Vichy enacted its first overtly anti-semitic laws, Moulin did not protest, much less resign. Perhaps he thought that anti-Jewish legislation, however reprehensible, mattered less than Vichy’s more obvious failings, like the ending of the republican form of government in July, and its subservience to the Germans after that. Or he may already have decided to keep quiet so as to resist from within. In November, he was fired; Pétain himself signed the letter of dismissal. (Bizarrely, in mid-1942, Laval, who by then wanted to move away from Pétain’s archaic ‘révolution nationale’, and was unaware of Moulin’s Resistance role, offered him his old job back. Vastly amused, Moulin declined the offer.) Before leaving office, he secured a set of false identity papers: he had, it seems, already decided to go underground.

By early 1941, the Resistance had become more coherent, especially in the northern, occupied zone, where the presence of the Germans was more deeply resented. Moulin made it his job that year to move about from one Resistance group to another; he decided also to share his knowledge with either de Gaulle or British Intelligence. In October 1941, he arrived in London via Lisbon, which he had reached under a false identity.

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