The French Resistance Took Many Forms During WWII

By: Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 

French Resistance
A French resistant trains young volunteers in the alps of southern France in October 1944. STF/AFP via Getty Images

In 1940, it may have seemed that all was lost for France. Paris was under control of the Nazis, much of the country had been occupied and the Allies had suffered a heroic failure at Dunkirk. Addressing the citizens of France from London June 18, 1940, Gen. Charles de Gaulle urged them not to give up the struggle against Germany.

"Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished," said de Gaulle (in French, of course) over the airwaves. What exactly did de Gaulle have in mind when he called for resistance? And what form did that take in France and elsewhere?

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De Gaulle's Call Answered in Many Ways

French Resistance is an umbrella term covering many different movements and types of resistance during World War II, according to Robert Pike, scholar of French history and author of "Defying Vichy: Blood, Fear and French Resistance."

"These days we see it more as a collection of different movements and groups," he says. French Resistance has a military side, as well as a more civilian component, and it wasn't always based on what de Gaulle wanted.

Not yet the eminent figure he would become, the French general continued broadcasting messages of encouragement from London, but his intention was not for those in France to immediately take up arms against the German occupiers. As Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker, "At first, de Gaulle had no vision of an armed internal resistance in France."

Fr Resistance
Gen. Charles de Gaulle issues his call of resistance to the French people from London, England, June 18, 1940, just after the Nazi occupation of France. De Gaulle led the Free French Forces from London and later from Algiers throughout the occupation, and returned to Paris on its liberation in September 1944.
© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis/Getty Images

However, resistance groups did form within France, including paramilitary organizations, often comprised of demobilized military men, with varying levels of loyalty to de Gaulle. Called the maquis, these organizations consisted of guerrilla-style resisters who lived in the mountains and caves throughout the country.

"If you went into the maquis, you went into clandestine, illegal life," says Pike. Members were never recognized as soldiers by the enemy, which meant that if caught, they did not enjoy the rights a prisoner of war would have.

Examples of maquis organizations included the Armée Secrète (AS), a Gaullist group; the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans Français (FTPF or simply FTP), created by the French Communist Party; and Organisation de Résistance de l'Armée (ORA), a non-Gaullist group formed in the southern zone.

The various groups operated independently and did not necessarily agree with one another. In fact, there was friction between the AS and the FTP. The AS saw the communist-led FTP as causing trouble with its acts of sabotage, while FTP referred to the AS as the "wait and see boys," according to Pike.

A turning point for the disparate resistance groups came when de Gaulle sent civil servant Jean Moulin to France to unify the various networks. In May 1943, he convinced several groups to merge into the Conseil National de la Resistance (CNR). In later stages of the war, fighters worked together as the Force Françaises de l'Intérieur (FFI) under the Allied command.

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Other Forms of Resistance

But, of course, the maquis were just the fighting side of the French Resistance.

"The resistance was so much more than that," says Pike. The maquis were supported by regular citizens. Bringing the fighters food, hiding them in barns and outbuildings, passing messages or information — these were also forms of resistance. Events like the November 1942 German occupation of the southern zone and the 1943 establishment of the Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO), which required French men to work for the German war effort, helped turn public opinion and increased involvement in the movement.

Resistance consisted of activities like creating propaganda, newspapers and leaflets, as well as helping downed Allied airmen escape the country or creating false documents. There were citizens who worked to save persecuted minorities, including getting Jewish children safely out of France to neutral Switzerland. Resistance workers were, for example, barbers by day and part of the liberation movement by night, or women who worked in the post office and intercepted mail.

"In a way, their lives were more dangerous," says Pike. "Any action like that, I think, is more dangerous than going and living in the forest."

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A group of French Resistance fighters (maquisards) pose for a picture with weapons in the courtyard of a farm in France, during the summer of 1944.
AFP/Getty Images

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Resistance Outside Metropolitan France

In his June 19 radio broadcast, de Gaulle urged it was the "duty of all Frenchmen who still bear arms to continue the struggle.... For the moment I refer particularly to French North Africa — to the integrity of French North Africa." As he had made clear, he wanted to run the Free France movement from London and North Africa, not from inside France.

"Some people believe [French Resistance] actually begins in the French colonies and Africa," says Annette Joseph-Gabriel, associate professor of French and francophone studies at Duke University.

In fact, it was Félix Éboué, a Black colonial administrator in Africa, who was the first French administrator to respond "yes" to de Gaulle's June 1940 call, explains Joseph-Gabriel. He endeavored to mobilize African troops and resources. From 1940 to 1943, "the 'heart of Free France' lay in Africa, not London," according to Chris Miller's "France in the Second World War: Collaboration, Resistance, Holocaust, Empire."

Broadening the story of French Resistance to include involvement of civilians, women and people in and from the colonies provides a more nuanced and accurate picture of the movement as a whole.

"They offer an entirely different perspective on the ideological underpinning of the French Resistance," says Joseph-Gabriel. "We gain a new definition of freedom when we also remember and consider the roles of ordinary people who did extraordinary things at this moment."

Fr Resistance
Members of the French Resistance movement arrested Germans in hiding throughout Paris after the liberation of the city by Allied forces in 1944.
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis/Getty Images

And how important was the French Resistance? Did it turn the tide of the war? Could the Allies have won without the efforts of, for example, the maquis and post office workers?

Militarily, the resistance was small. Miller cites an estimate that less than 2 percent of the population, or 300,000 to 500,000 people, were members of a resistance movement. More than 30,000 French overseas subjects volunteered to fight. But if the French Resistance was not a major factor in turning the war, its soldiers and civilians were important in terms of morale, as well as the many lives they saved.

"They were certainly helpful," says Pike. "It was a unifying kind of idea for that final stretch of the war."

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