Henri Philippe Petain

Henri Philippe Pétain (April 24, 1856 – July 23, 1951), generally known as Philippe Pétain, was a French soldier and President of France during the Vichy regime.

Born in Cauch-à-la-Tour in 1856, he was a distinguished veteran of World War I, and in particular the Battle of Verdun. He rose to be second in command of the French army, and it was his advocacy of a defensive strategy that lead, in large part, to the construction of the Maginot Line.

After the fall of France in the spring of 1940 the Chamber of Deputies appointed Pétain as Prime Minister of France and granted him extraodinary powers. The constitutionality of these actions was later challenged by de Gaulle’s regime, but at the time Pétain was widely accepted as France’s saviour. On June 22 he signed an armistice with Germany that gave the Nazis control over the north and west of the country, including Paris, but left the rest under an independent government that located its capital in the resort town of Vichy.

As leader of this semi-fascistic regime a personality cult was set up and Pétain’s image was spread throughout France, portraying him as a father figure to the nation. Pétain refused the requests by the Germans and his Deputy Pierre Laval to side with the Axis Powers. Pétain also at first resisted pressure to deport large numbers of France’s Jews to German concentration camps.

He did provide the Axis with large supplies of manufactured goods and foodstuffs, and also encouraged resistance by Vichy troops in France’s colonial empire. In April 1942 Germany abrogated the cease-fire to deal with the French Resistance and also to try to recruit more French labour to aid their war effort.

All of France was occupied and Pétain became nothing more than a figure head for the Nazi regime. On September 7, 1944 he and other members of the Vichy cabinet fled to Sigmaringen and soon after he resigned as leader. In April 1945 he returned to France, where he was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in July-August 1946. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Charles de Gaulle on August 17, 1946, on the grounds of his old age. He died in imprisonment on l’Île d’Yeu, an island off the coast of Brittany, in 1951.