By Lindsey Dodd, Project Co-Investigator, School of Music, Humanities and Media, University of Huddersfield
Rapidly defeated in 1940 by the German army, France was divided and occupied by its conquerors until its liberation in 1944. The new French government was presided over by the authoritarian Marshal Pétain, much-loved hero of the Great War, around whom developed a cult of personality. Named after the spa town of Vichy where it sat, this government began to enact what became known as the National Revolution: a conservative project for French regeneration.
French children were the subjects and objects of the Vichy government’s propaganda, and the regime actively sought their participation in its policies. How did they respond?
Oh, how he helps us! Oh! Victor of two wars, great comfort of France, I hope you live for many years to come and help the French people who have loved you so much. Yes, I love Monsieur le Maréchal Pétain very much. I love him because he saved us, because he deserves to be loved. And he will be loved until the end by the French people who would give their lives for Maréchal Pétain.
So wrote a 12 year old French girl in an essay about the head of the French State in 1941. This outpouring of affection should be seen as more than a mechanical parroting of the party line. Her work forms part of a body of children’s essays and letters which show us some of their responses to the Vichy regime. Essay-writing was obviously coordinated by adults, as was much letter writing; but many children wrote often and spontaneously to a man they were led to regard as a father or grandfather.
My case study in the ‘Agents of Future Promise’ project examines the way that the Vichy regime used children as the objects and subjects of its propaganda. For, as Judith Proud wrote, ‘the importance of the child as propaganda target and ideological icon is fundamental’. The two dimensions are worth exploring. Officials assumed that children would act in response to the its propaganda, that they had agency and could act to alter their behaviour and environment.
This highlights a number of issues relating to the way adults manipulate children for ideological purposes, and raises three key questions: how images of children are used, how the idea of what ‘a child’ is gets mobilised, and how children as real people – rather than images or ideas – are manipulated. While the Vichy regime had very particular (authoritarian, exclusionary, traditionalist, Catholic, pronatalist) characteristics, it provides a clear example of the process of instrumentalisation which is recognisable in other contexts, and not just in the past.
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Notes and further reading:
Extract from 12 year old girl’s essay about Marshal Pétain (2 Dec. 1941) taken from Archives Nationales, F/41/269.
W. D. Halls, The Youth of Vichy France (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981. See pages 14 and 15 for his comments about the way that were ‘taken in’ by Pétainist propaganda as they were forced to write essays and letters that praised the leader and speak positively of his reforms.
J. Proud, Children and propaganda (Bristol: Intellect Books, 1995)