The phrase “From hero to zero” is probably the most appropriate way to describe Philippe Pétain.
Pétain was after World War I regarded ,without a doubt, the most accomplished defensive tactician of any army and one of France’s greatest military heroes and was presented with his baton of Marshal of France at a public ceremony at Metz by President Raymond Poincaré on 8 December 1918.
However after the Nazi occupied France in June 1940 he was very eager to please his new lords. He would be their puppet and they would pull his strings. If they told him to jump, he would ask “How high?” If they ordered him to deport Jews he would say “How many?”. He and his Vichy regime would serve their Nazi masters any which way they could.
France had always been a colonial power therefore there would be many French Jewish citizens living and working in the North African colonies like Algeria,Tunisia and Morocco.
In October, 1940, Pétain’s Vichy government, not the Germans, passed antisemitic legislation called the Statut des Juifs.
There was no German pressure on Pétain to promulgate racial laws in the fall of 1940. Just to illustrate how eager the Vichy regime was to implement the Statut des Juifs, below a timeline comparison between the time it took for the Nazis to implement the antisemitic laws and how long it took for the Vichy regime.
Nor was there German pressure on Pétain to apply these racial laws to the colonies of North Africa. Finally, there was no German pressure on Pétain to repeal the Crémieux Decree, which had made the Jews of France and of Algeria and Tunisia full citizens 70 years before in 1870..
One of the first moves of the pro-German Vichy regime was to revoke the effects of the Crémieux Decree, thereby abolishing French citizenship for Algerian Jews, affecting some 110,000 Algerians. Under Admiral Darlan and General Giraud the antisemitic legislation was applied more severely in Algeria than France itself, under the pretext that it enabled greater equality between Muslims and Jews.
Philippe Pétain signed a bill to construct a trans-Saharan railway, which was to be built by prisoners of war and Jews.
Approximately 2,000 Algerian Jews were put into labor and concentration camps throughout Algeria, including the camps at Bedeau and Djelfa. Though the camps were not a Vichy innovation, the plan to construct a trans-Saharan railroad to serve coal mines across North Africa was an exclusively Vichy initiative. Work camps were set up for this purpose. Prisoners were forced to labor in difficult conditions, performing strenuous work, for ten hours each day. They were poorly fed and housed, and lived in terrible sanitary conditions. Tortures and atrocities were inflicted by the guards for the slightest breach of the rules; the internees were not treated as human beings. Many died from beatings; even more died from outbreaks of typhus or just from exhaustion and hunger.
Although there is a lot of information available om the construction of the Burma railroad, there is relatively little information on the construction of the Trans-Saharan railway and how many perished.
The Algerian Jewish community survived due to the early Allied Liberation of Algeria in November 1942.
However, the Jews were not entirely “liberated.” It took until October of 1943 for all of the anti-Jewish laws to be cancelled and for the Jews of Algeria to be reinstated as citizens of France. Giraud promulgated the cancellation of Vichy statutes on March 14, 1943, retained exceptionally the decree abolishing citizenship rights for Algerian Jews, in so far as he attributed France’s defeat to the Jews. His decision was overruled, on appeal, by the CFLN( French Committee of National Liberation)in October of 1943.
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