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coins of the month - february 2016
Collaboration and Resistance in the coinage of Vichy
When France was defeated by Nazi Germany in June 1940, the deputy prime minister and victor of WWI, the 84 year old Marshal Philippe Pétain, formed a government to agree on an armistice and start collaboration with the occupying German forces. His stated purpose was to end the war because further defense was impossible and to protect the French people from further catastrophes. The French Parliament then voted to transfer all powers to Pétain, including the right to change the constitution by decree, voting in fact its euthanasia. The government was transferred in the southern part of France not occupied by German troops, in the thermal town of Vichy, full of empty hotels which could be used to host the ministries. What had started as a constitutional government with democratic centre-right politicians became an authoritarian puppet regime, under Nazi control.
The coins of the Vichy regime translated into images the new ultraconservative and reactionary values promoted by the “National Revolution”. Gone was the Republic, replaced by the authoritarian “État français”. Images of Marianne and of red liberty caps were replaced everywhere (from coins to stamps, official documents and buildings, artistic productions, shops and homes) by the portrait of Petain and by the Francisque, the new symbol of the State, with a careful propaganda attempting to introduce a cult of personality. The republican motto “liberté, egalité, fraternité” was replaced by “travail, famille, patrie” (“work, family, fatherland”). The engravers called to design the new coinage tried to represent graphically the meaning of those new reactionary values in coinage.
We have here illustrated a 1941 trial strike of a 10 francs aluminium piece by the engraver J. Galle, showing a profile of Pétain, framed in a modern way, hiding his baldness and giving particular emphasis and room to his titles as Marshal of France and Chief of State. The Republic was not formally abolished but had disappeared and Pétain incarnated in his person the term Patrie, with military, political and religious meanings. On the other side the other two values of the triptich are illustrated with great clarity- Famille is primarily the responsibility of a seated mother, playing with her child, while her husband is distanced in the background, as the Regime wanted women to remain home and take care of family and house and men to go out and work. Travail is represented exclusively as an activity for men, primarily employed in agriculture, because the “eternal France” praised by Pétain was meant to return to rural work and values. The German plundering of resources and industry also increased the relative weight of agriculture during the war. Many other trial strikes of similar flavor for 5, 10 and 20 francs were prepared but were never issued, to save scarce metals, confiscated by the Germans for military use, replaced by cheaper paper money.
Today’s collectors seek the 5 francs coin with Petain’s profile, dated 1941, which is frequently on sale despite never having entered circulation because the 13 million pieces minted were melted before distribution. The rumor is that a barge transporting a large quantity of those coins to Germany was sunk by Allied bombings, before they could be melted down and that those coins were recovered privately many years after the war and were smuggled into the numismatic market.
In fact Vichy introduced into circulation large quantities of light and cheap aluminium and zinc coins of 1 and 2 francs and 50, 20 and 10 cents. The 1 franc of 1942 here illustrated bears on one side the motto and the value, flanked by oak leaves, a military symbol of force, replacing the more peaceful cornucopia symbol of abundance which adorned the prewar equivalent coin. On the other side the Francisque dominates the space, flanked by two stylized ears of wheat, surmounting the new denomination of France “État français” .
The Francisque deserves a special analysis because it is an interesting case of symbolic syncretism, blending into one fascist, military and republican images. It was introduced in July 1940 as the personal seal of Marshall Pétain and became a special decoration offered to deserving citizens loyal to Pétain (famously François Mitterrand was awarded one while he was working both for Vichy and for the Resistance from the office for the protection of prisoners of war). The Francisque then became the ever present symbol of the State. At first impression it is a simple attempt to give a French patina to a fascist symbol, being defined as a “Gallic axe” or Frank axe. It also had some resemblance to the upper part of the symbol of one of the tiny fascist movements of the 1930’s, the Parti franciste created in 1933, here illustrated. The Francisque, however, upon closer inspection which requires colour, as in the badge here illustrated, is not just an axe: the handle is the “baton de Maréchal”, in blue with golden stars, the symbol of the highest military honour and rank, gained by Pétain at the end of WWI for his decisive contribution to victory. The blades bear the colours of the French revolutionary flag. Altogether the Francisque can also be read as an evolution of the republican symbols, with the old fasci surmounted by the red cap frequently represented with double axes in the early years of the twentieth century, a decorative evolution testified in the picture annexed. The final paradox is that the authoritarian Francisque, overloaded with symbolism, could almost be perceived as having the appearance of a tree of liberty with two republican flags floating on its sides! The Pétain government was not entirely in the hands of the extreme right but initially included several former ministers of the democratic right of the third republic (including the former prime ministers Laval and Flandin). It did not seek a full fascist approach and blended in its symbols fascist suggestions with traditional conservative nationalism. The Francisque was the sum of this process.
Of course most of the French did not waste their time in iconographic interpretation. The Nazis had imposed an expropriatory economic regime, starting with a payment of 300 million francs per day to cover the expenses of the German occupying force and the imposition of an artificial exchange rate favourable to Germany at 20 francs per reichmark. According to the representatives of the Bank of France at the negotiating table of the Commission for the armistice, price levels indicated 11 francs per reichmark to be a fair rate.
French opposition to collaboration with Nazi Germany rapidly began to counter the propaganda and the images of Vichy with their own. The “Free French” of De Gaulle adopted as their symbol the cross of Lorraine, a cross with double arms and words “France libre”, here illustrated. It was the symbol of the resistance to annexation by Germany of the province of Lorraine in 1870, when a broken cross of the province had been deposited in a sanctuary with the message “It is not forever”. Lorraine had indeed returned to France in 1918. The cross of Lorraine became a very popular symbol of the French resistance, together with the V for victory, used for clandestine publications or drawn rapidly on walls and shop windows of occupied territories, as well as in the areas controlled by Vichy. We have here illustrated a 1 franc coin of 1939, roughly countermarked by hand with the V and the cross of Lorraine and a 2 francs coin of 1938, also countermarked with the cross of Lorraine. Such a symbol was also introduced during the war in the coinage of some French colonies overseas whose administration sided with De Gaulle.
At the end of the war Laval was tried and executed, while De Gaulle, who had become prime minister, commuted the death sentence of Pétain, his old prewar mentor, into detention for life, because of his old age and services to France during WWI.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics