740.00119 European War 1939/530: Telegram

The Chargé in France (Matthews) to the Secretary of State

832. Peace in Europe and a long-deferred chance to return to a previous way of living is the bait cleverly dangled by Hitler to a France that in its great majority has wished for it more than anything else since the tragic collapse of June. At first it was thought by the great [Page 396] mass [of] Frenchmen, subconsciously unwilling to admit that others could “take” more than they, that a British surrender would inevitably soon come. This was followed by a combined admiration for British courage, by increased harshness by France’s German masters and by a dawning hope and realization that British victory meant the saving of France. This second phase which I have so emphasized in recent weeks is, I fear, through active and intelligent German propaganda methods in the course of changing to a third: A new fear that British resistance cannot long continue and a new hope that a drawn peace may soon come about. We must not forget that there are 2,000,000 French prisoners of war, that the division of the country materially, physically and morally has brought, thanks to German severity, much hardship, unemployment and discouragement. France has been led to fear the loss of much territory and many colonies and even her existence as more than a puppet state. In this carefully prepared setting and I presume in the light of his failure to invade or defeat England Hitler has come to offer the hand of friendship and a not too bedraggled dove of peace—a dove perched on the pedestal of the new Europe in which his propagandists emphasize order, discipline, and work, three words dear to the heart of the Marshal and close to the lips of his associates. Such is the background.

As to the facts Laval returned shortly after noon and the Council of Ministers began about 5. It terminated near 7 with the issuance of two communiqués. The first stated that Marshal Pétain and Hitler had a meeting with Laval and Ribbentrop present in which the Marshal was treated “with utmost courtesy”. The two Chiefs of State, continued the communiqué, reached an agreement “on the principle of collaboration for the reconstruction of peace in Europe”. The details are to be discussed later. This communiqué confirms the earlier impression reported in my telegram No. 826, October 26, 1 p.m.31 and subsequent reports reaching me that nothing definite was signed. It was followed shortly by a second stating that the Marshal and Laval informed the Council of Ministers of their interview with Hitler and that the Council “unanimously approved their statements”.

Certainly the developments of the last several days have served materially to strengthen the position of Laval and his authority within the Government. His enemies and other wellwishers of France must be discouraged at the ascension to power he is making and his approach to the side of the Marshal. He will, of course, largely direct French “foreign policy” if it can so be termed in the future. It seems that he is annoyed at Baudouin’s disgruntled offer of resignation and has threatened to make his position difficult if he persists (it would obviously sound a note of discord in the present harmony of German appeasement to have the Foreign Minister resign at this time).

[Page 397]

As for the terms of future Franco-German relations only one important fact has yet transpired: Before agreeing to receive the Marshal, Hitler, I hear, insisted that all French naval bases be surrendered to German control; this includes Marseille, Toulon, Bizerte, and Oran.

The utilization of the French Fleet actively against the British is as I have previously indicated not specifically insisted upon in the present negotiations though I am convinced that Laval has discussed it; it will be employed ostensibly to “defend” the French coasts and colonies and assist in “breaking” the British blockade. One of my sources maintains that German control over Dakar is included but I have not yet been able to confirm this. As to other conditions, emphasis is placed upon a sort of customs union between France and Germany (whatever that may mean under present conditions!) in which Spain and Italy are soon to join. The Germans as previously reported will annex Alsace but a small part of Lorraine including Nancy may be left to France. The Italian claim to Nice was definitely rejected by the Marshal and Hitler is reported to have promised “to use his influence” on Mussolini to relinquish that claim: The question has been left “in suspense”. It is also reported that France will keep Corsica, though granting equal status to the Italian language there and the proposed “condominium” over Tunis seems confirmed (my telegram number 812, October 23, midnight32).

It will thus be seen that Hitler’s offer to his conquered foe has all the ostensible generosity that we feared. (My telegram 816, October 25, noon.32) That this sugar-coated Slovakization of France may meet with some approval by the uncomprehending and peace seeking masses is, I fear, all too likely. Under these circumstances the details yet to be worked out for the return of the Government to Paris seem relatively unimportant.

  1. Not printed.
  2. Not printed.
  3. Not printed.