French Resistance Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The French Resistance brought French citizens together in a spontaneous patriotic movement to fight the German occupation during World War II. While the Allies invaded the country, the Resistance helped to eliminate collaborators within it, destroyed infrastructure to hinder the German war effort, and finally rose up and overthrew the occupation government in Paris.

Summary of Event

When France declared war on Germany in 1939, the French, with memories of atrocities of World War I still in their minds, hoped that an actual war would not break out. In May of 1940, however, the Germans entered and conquered northern France. On June 14, Paris surrendered. On June 17, Philippe Pétain, the eighty-four-year-old general who had served France during World War I and to whom the defeated French looked as a savior, announced over the radio from Vichy France that he was seeking an armistice with the Germans. The next day, Charles de Gaulle spoke on a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio broadcast from London, telling the French that “the flame of French resistance must not die,” and ten days later, British prime minister Winston Churchill recognized de Gaulle as the leader of the Free French movement Free French movement in Great Britain. Few back in France, however, paid much attention. The armistice became official on June 25, 1940. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];French Resistance French Resistance France;German occupation [kw]French Resistance (1941-Aug. 25, 1944) [kw]Resistance, French (1941-Aug. 25, 1944) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];French Resistance French Resistance France;German occupation [g]Europe;1941-Aug. 25, 1944: French Resistance[00070] [g]France;1941-Aug. 25, 1944: French Resistance[00070] [c]World War II;1941-Aug. 25, 1944: French Resistance[00070] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1941-Aug. 25, 1944: French Resistance[00070] [c]Colonialism and occupation;1941-Aug. 25, 1944: French Resistance[00070] Gaulle, Charles de [p]Gaulle, Charles de;World War II Moulin, Jean Pétain, Philippe

There were many French citizens who could tolerate neither the fall of France nor the armistice. These men and women, known as the First Resisters, began to meet spontaneously with one another in opposition to the Vichy government and the German occupation. This small group, largely autonomous and unconnected to the Free French movement led by de Gaulle, formed the nucleus of what was to become the French Resistance. At first, they scarcely knew what to do.

After the armistice, France was divided into two zones: The north was occupied by the Germans, while in the free south the Vichy government Vichy government ruled. As the premier of the Vichy government, Pétain quickly made drastic changes in the government. Although promising that the government was to be run by the French, Pétain abolished the Third French Republic, called for a new constitution, and began a series of reforms known as the National Revolution. A new motto, “Work, Family, Country,” replaced the traditional one of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” By November of 1940, the Vichy government had abolished all free elections, dissolved the trade unions, established a secret police, and banished Jews from government jobs and the professions. Even worse, on October 30, 1940, Pétain used the word “collaborate” with the Germans at the same time as he was filmed shaking hands with Hitler. This behavior shocked many French citizens and galvanized them to action.

Among these early resisters was Jean Moulin, who had been arrested and tortured when the Germans entered the town of Chartres in 1940. Rather than sign a paper stating that the French were responsible for the atrocities committed by the Germans, Moulin cut his own throat. He was then hospitalized and, after his recovery, managed to get to London. De Gaulle sent Moulin back to France in 1942 to head and unify the resistance movement there. For the next year until his death, he was a ubiquitous figure throughout France. Known as “Max,” which was only one of a dozen aliases, he appeared, speaking hoarsely and wearing a scarf around his injured throat.

By 1942, the Vichy government had lost much of its credibility with its citizens. In November, the Germans moved south, making all of France occupied territory. In addition, Vichy lost its foothold in North Africa. In 1942, the Germans asked France to send workers to Germany voluntarily. Out of the 350,000 requested, only 50,000 signed up. By 1943, this voluntary service became obligatory forced labor. In response, new groups of individuals joined the Resistance movement. Their name derived from maquis, the term for the dense brush of the Corsican hill country, where those traditionally in trouble could seek refuge. Now, those who refused to go to Germany became known as the maquis Maquis , the outlaw branch of the Resistance. They found refuge with local sympathetic French citizens. Indeed, later some of the maquis lived up to the name of outlaw and committed violent acts against the French citizenry.

By May of 1943, de Gaulle, who had from 1941 insisted on his right to speak for France, became from his station in North Africa the titular leader of the Resistance. He commissioned Moulin to establish and lead the National Resistance Council in France. In June of 1943, his whereabouts betrayed, Moulin was arrested in Lyon by Klaus Barbie and the Gestapo. He was tortured and then put to death. The identity of the one who betrayed him has never been determined.

Moulin’s death notwithstanding, the Resistance continued to grow, largely in response to the sustained repression by the Vichy government. With the establishment of the Milice in 1943, an outgrowth of the French secret police started earlier by Vichy, and the obligatory service in Germany, the ranks of the Resistance swelled to more than 200,000. Resistance members undertook a multitude of tasks. First, the Resistance needed to make information available to their fellow French and to the Allies and so published numerous clandestine newspapers. By 1944, the Resistance press was publishing two million papers a month. Second, through the services of doctors and other professionals, the Resistance produced false papers that made discovery of its membership difficult. Next, resisters engaged in sabotage, destroying factories turning out weapons for the war effort and shutting down power stations that fed such factories. Last, they tried to assist in the escape of Jews and to ambush German patrols.

This activity escalated when the Allies landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944, and began to push the Germans back toward central Europe. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];French campaign At this point, the Resistance blew up bridges, cut electrical cables and telephone wires, blocked tunnels, delayed railway movements, and removed signposts and milestones so as to confuse the Germans. In addition, they used several delaying tactics to slow the German march. In some instances, the Resistance would place explosives amid piles of stones along the roads; soon the Germans became suspicious of any pile of stones. The resisters also buried boxes of explosives in holes in the road underneath clumps of cattle dung. The resulting explosions were sufficient to dismantle tanks. The Resistance then encouraged French children to spread the dung in the roads without the explosives. When the Germans saw the dung, they spent at least twenty minutes investigating it for the explosive. They thus lost valuable time in their retreat across France.

The Allies pushed the Germans back toward Paris. While the Allied troops had no intention of entering the city initially, on August 19, 1944, when Resistance fighters rose up against the Germans in Paris, the Allies decided to intervene. On August 25, 1944, the Allies declared victory and de Gaulle, flanked by members of the Resistance, walked through the Arc de Triomphe in the heart of the city. Although de Gaulle would not have been there without the efforts of these resisters, he gave them little recognition.


As the Resistance had traveled behind the Allies forcing the Germans back across France, they had spontaneously eliminated ten thousand Vichy officials. After the liberation of Paris, the French courts assumed the task of administering justice to those suspected of collaborating with the Germans. Treason;France World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];postwar trials Fifty thousand of those placed on trial lost their civil rights, another forty thousand were sent to prison, and between seven and eight hundred were executed. Pétain was one of those who was tried and sentenced to death in 1945. The government commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, and he died in prison off the coast of Brittany in 1951.

The French Resistance kept few written records during its existence, for these would have jeopardized the membership. Because their language was one of the few things left to them under the German occupation, some resisters wrote poetry. As values of the Resistance were felt rather than learned, these few used the language of emotion poetry to memorialize their actions. This poetry and subsequent memoirs remain among the major legacies of the French Resistance. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];French Resistance French Resistance France;German occupation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aubrac, Lucie. Outwitting the Gestapo. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993. Written by the wife of the noted resister Raymond Aubrac, the book details nine months of the couple’s activity in the movement. An excellent introduction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bodson, Herman. Downed Allied Airmen and Evasion of Capture: The Role of Local Resistance Networks in World War II. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005. Discusses the Dutch and Belgian resistances in addition to the French Resistance, detailing how each aided pilots shot down in German-occupied territory during the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Vomecourt, Phillipe. An Army of Amateurs. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961. Detailed and lively memoir from a resister present at the beginning of the movement until the Paris liberation in 1944.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehrlich, Blake. Resistance: France, 1940-1945. Boston: Little, Brown, 1965. The most comprehensive, factual account of the activities of the French Resistance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frenay, Henri. The Night Will End. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976. Eyewitness account of an early participant in the movement. Frenay is critical of de Gaulle and Moulin, although he worked for both of them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kedward, Roderick, and Roger Austin, eds. Vichy France and the Resistance Culture and Ideology. Kent, England: Croom Helm, 1985. Interesting collection of essays by British and Irish scholars emphasizing the ambiguities of the times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marriott, Edward. Claude and Madeleine: A True Story. London: Picador, 2005. Details the activities of two members of the French Resistance who spied for the British Secret Service during World War II until their deaths in 1942.

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