By Lindsey Dodd, Project Co-Investigator, School of Music, Humanities and Media, University of Huddersfield
The conservative, authoritarian Vichy government, headed by the octogenarian Marshal Pétain, saw in the defeat of France in 1940 an opportunity for national regeneration. Under the slogan ‘Work, Family, Fatherland’, it pumped out propaganda in pursuit of its goals. Children were explicitly targeted. They were to become the carriers of the regime’s ideologies which would prolong its existence and embed the ideals of the National Revolution. Leadership, national unity and population increase were high on the agenda.
Pre-adolescent children were singled out by Pétain as a special concern. He addressed them in a speech in October 1941:
You need to know that I am counting on you absolutely to help me reconstruct France, to make the French a great people, loyal and honest. And I do not want to wait until you’ve become grown-ups to ask you to do it.
Children’s value was in the future loyal population that they would become, and their love and support for Pétain now, as children, would cement this.
But their role in the National Revolution extended beyond that. They were asked by the government to participate in charitable and fundraising initiatives, always in Pétain’s name. While raising money for needy sections of the population was vital, it also served the regime, which was desperately trying to unite a nation divided by the German occupation as well as by ideals, economics and persecution. The Ministry of Information’s Youth Section explained its aims for Christmas 1942:
We will give the under 15s an opportunity to act in favour of others and thus allow them to show their love for the Maréchal. It is, of course, among the very youngest that this love maintains most of its purity. It is possible that a demonstration of this feeling could have an important influence inside families and even on the country as a whole. This would be an example of solidarity in action which would be easy to use in more general propaganda at Christmas time.
It seems from the thousands of letters and the millions of francs raised by children that they threw themselves wholeheartedly into this activity, wittingly or unwittingly propagating the regime’s ideologies. The sincerity of some letters is touching, as children donated their birthday money or their meagre savings to try to heal the wounds created by war and division.
Not just the objects of the regime’s propaganda, children were also its subjects. The mass of children often photographed surrounding Pétain on his walkabouts represented the population increase so central to the regime’s family policy as well as loyalty to the chef or leader. Other images of children were aimed at potential – or existing – mothers and fathers to inspire them to grow their families and to devote themselves to building the next generation. ‘If you don’t have children, who knows? You could be denying the world of another Pascal, a Pasteur, a Lyautey, through your own selfishness,’ one Mother’s Day leaflet commented.
A different set of images of children were reflected back at children, as on the cover of Paluel-Marmont’s Winter Aid 1941 edition of his book Il était une fois un Maréchal de France (Once upon a time there was a Marshal of France), shown above. Here are pictures of children, in propaganda for children, encouraging children to raise money for children.
This case study provides clear examples of the way that children are used as vehicles for political ideologies, as the objects and subjects of propaganda, and their responses to it. They are mobilised because of their vulnerability and because of their potentiality, two qualities which continue to define our view of children in society today. There is a danger that in focusing on these qualities to the exclusion of others, we risk undermining the reality of childhoods lived. Children do embody a future potential, but to concentrate on that at the expense of their here-and-now existence, or to use that potential to shape and reshape society on ideological grounds, is a concern. And children are, of course, vulnerable, but to exploit that vulnerability for commercial or political gain is deplorable, if sadly common.
Notes and further reading
Read Marshal Pétain’s speech to French schoolchildren of 13 October 1941.
Extracts from Ministry of Information and Mother’s Day leaflet taken from the Archives Nationales, F41/293 and 19760145/145
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