851.00/2179: Telegram

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

1154. While of course for obvious reasons the press in unoccupied France has not been permitted to indulge in the slightest expression of elation at the elimination, however temporary it may turn out to be, of Laval from the position of power he has so obviously and effectively enjoyed during the past few months the feeling of relief and hope [Page 424] which has been aroused by his dismissal is except for his little group of immediate “collaborators” unanimous throughout France. It would be hard to exaggerate the unpopularity of the Auvergnat “Dauphin” all over the country and the uneasiness over the lengths that he might go in his boasted policy of Franco-German collaboration. His departure from the scene and the firm and abrupt method by which it was brought about have greatly strengthened the Marshal’s prestige and popularity and have given rise to a new hope and a new feeling, something akin to “self-respect”, that the country and its Government have not sunk to the degradation of Nazi enslavement. That at least is the reaction one hears on all sides in conversation; even in ordinarily timid and discreet Government circles no attempt is made to disguise the delight which Laval’s dismissal elicited.

There is, however, another side to the picture. Considerable uneasiness, to put it mildly, exists as to German reaction and what steps the occupying authorities may decide to take. While the brief visit of Abetz to Vichy was viewed with frigid eyes on both sides—and his carload of guards with sub-machine guns hardly served to thaw the atmosphere—there was real fear lest his coming presaged either the reinstatement of Laval or the occupation of the entire country. The feeling here today is that immediate danger of either alternative has for the moment largely been removed; an atmosphere of uncertainty and suspicion, however, naturally still persists. In the occupied territory I understand German “annoyance” has created the impression that the Marshal’s days as active Chief of State are numbered. Déat60 for instance is openly rejoicing at this prospect. I am told that by German order no reference has yet been made in the Paris press to the “resignation” of Laval and that similar orders which were promptly disregarded here, were issued for the unoccupied zone. In fact Abetz was quoted in the press of the former capital as stating that the “one man” who could really engineer the true Franco-German collaboration which both sides so ardently desired was Monsieur Laval.

Thus the recent change has placed the Government in a difficult and delicate position: the temporary elimination of Laval from the picture, whatever the final incident that really caused it, means at bottom recognition of the unpopularity of his enthusiastic and determined march down the path of collaboration with the Nazis and of the bad name which that policy is giving France abroad (especially in the Unites [United States?]). But it is more than that: Laval was the inspirer and the genius of the present French system of government. It was he above all who in the critical days of Bordeaux fought with great determination and success against the removal of the Government to Africa; it was his persuasive powers that engineered the [Page 425] death of the Third Republic and organized the new regime, and it was he who hoped behind the dignified and patriotic facade of a tired and aged Marshal to go the whole way in aid to Germany. His antiwar sentiments were well known to Hitler and he has been the close and intimate collaborator of Abetz during the past months, and presumably also prior to the latter’s expulsion from France shortly before the war. The rough treatment given him therefore (partly in the nature of Peyrouton’s and Baudouin’s revenge) was in Abetz’ eyes not only a political affront to his Fuhrer, but a personal blow to himself.

To allay German misgivings that the line of French policy in the future will diverge too far in another direction, is the difficult task of the Marshal and his Government. The appointment of Flandin, “acceptable” as he is in German eyes, is clearly, perhaps all too clearly, designed to save France from further grinding of the German boot. The next few days, or at most weeks, should indicate whether the game has succeeded, or whether Germany, disregarding the probable effect on the French African colonies, the French fleet and the additional administrative burdens involved, decides that the time has come to occupy the whole of a “hostile and unappreciative” France or to show her resentment in some other unpleasant form.

A discreet press and radio in Great Britain and the United States can assist the Marshal in his task to an important degree. Any note of exultation at the recent change is therefore to say the least highly inopportune.

  1. Marcel Déat, editor of French newspaper L’Oeuvre under German control.