Occupation: French Police – a Precious Ally of the Third Reich

On the 16th and 17th of July in 1942, 9,000 French police and gendarmes showed the German authorities what they were capable of during the Vél d’Hiv roundup. During the occupation, from the simple guardian of peace to the prefect, the French officials will zealously apply the policy of the Germans, sometimes even ahead of their demands.

In the early summer of 1940, on the banks of the Seine in Paris, plainclothes policemen make a chain to transport hundreds of cartons aboard two barges moored on the banks of the river. The prefect Roger Langeron, who supervises the operations, is worried: it is the files of the prefecture that he evacuated, urgently, through the fear that they may fall into the hands of the Germans. After 48 hours of relocation, on Wednesday, June 12th 1940, two days before the entry of the troops of the Third Reich in the capital, the barges take the direction of the south of France. Alas, less than 10 kilometers away, the accidental detonation of an ammunition ship blocks the lock of Bagneaux-sur-Loing (Seine-et-Marne)!

One of the two barges, containing the political archives of general information, manages to pass, but the second, which carries the files relating to foreigners, is stuck. In desperation, the inspectors moor their boat and try, somehow, to hide it. The Germans discover it however in mid-July. After spending a month in humidity, the archives are soggy or even mouldy. It does not matter: the occupiers requisition dozens of officials to dry and copy the documents. As a result, nearly one million files and three million intelligence cards fall into the hands of the enemy. Although against their will, the French police have just provided a formidable tool to the German authorities: a file that will allow them to count and locate foreigners, especially those of them who are Jewish.

Homosexuality and alcoholism are in the crosshairs

The prefect Langeron pays dearly for his bravery. He was arrested by the Germans on January 24th 1941 and deposed a month later while he was still detained. In the process, 64 police officers are retired automatically, 101 are relieved of their duties, and 112 are transferred or simply warned. And the others, the vast majority of French police? For the most part, they remain in place, in uncertainty, waiting for their new orders. These will arrive soon.

In concrete terms, the basic police officer changes very quickly: he is no longer required to regulate traffic. However, he must now implement the measures decided by the French State, under occupant pressure or not. He learns to confiscate radio stations, enforce a curfew, and enforce the anti-Jewish laws of the Vichy regime, enacted in the autumn of 1940. In the metro, he ensures that Jews get in the caboose that is reserved for them. In the police stations, he is permanently recording them … Moreover, Marshal Pétain also intends to enforce the moral order. Since he replaced the motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” with “Work, Family, Homeland”, directives have been given to the police to fight against alcoholism, homosexuality or adultery, so many defects that, according to the Marshal, “weaken the race”.

In 1942 more than 8,000 cases of adultery were investigated

On the terrain, police and gendarmes focus on the affairs of lifestyle. Many prisoners of war, detained in Germany, write to prosecutors to complain about the alleged misconduct of their wives during their detention. A rogatory commission is immediately provided, requesting that the accused lady be visited at dawn to collect the elements that may constitute an “adulterous atmosphere” (light clothing, imprints of two bodies in bedding, warmth sheets). If the commissioner can get a confession, it’s even better. The minutes of proceedings do not exceed ten lines, which suffice to send more and more wives before the courts: there were, in 1938, about 3000 trials on adultery. In 1942, with the new moral order, there are more than 8000!

On the 20th of January of that year, in the great hall of the Palais de Chaillot, in Paris, the Band of the Paris Prefecture of Police sings “La Marseillaise”, under the delightful eye of Pierre Pucheu, Minister of the Interior of Vichy. Then they read the oath of allegiance to Marshal Pétain: “I swear fidelity to the person of the Head of State in all that he commands in the interest of the service, public order, and for the good of the country”. 3,000 policemen – delegates from the Paris Guard, the National Police, and the Prefecture of Police – raise their right arm. Three months later, in April 1942, a new man arrives at the head of the National Police. René Bousquet is 33 years old and has great ambitions. On June 18th he wrote to Karl Oberg, the SS chief in France: “You know the French police. It has without doubt its defects, but also its qualities. I am convinced that, reorganised on new foundations and energetically directed, it is likely to render the greatest services.”

Fernand David, the cop who loves to “chase the red”

Bousquet, who concentrates in his hands almost the entire police machine, wants to show the Germans that his administration can be modern and effective. He inaugurates schools that teach how to identify a suspect’s face or profile, tailing, hideouts … He also increases recruitment. The police attract many unemployed but also, from February 1943, all those who wish to avoid Compulsory Work Service, since this administration offers an automatic exemption to the people who join it. At the height of collaboration, the numbers reach 120,000 men. Something never seen before. At the same time, there are fewer than 3,000 German police on the territory.

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This freshly hired labour can dream of quick promotions. Because the era and context are conducive to searing careers. If one doesn’t embarrass oneself too much with scruples and chooses the right service, one can easily jump up the ladder. The Special Brigades – created in 1941 inside the General Intelligence by Pierre Pucheu – constitute one of the best elevators for advancement. These units are known for their high salaries as well as their brutal methods. A mixture in which certain persons find themselves perfectly. Thus, Fernand David, who entered in 1932 in the Parisian police as the secretary of the commissioner. The Occupation offers him to lead, from 1942, Special Brigade No. 1, in charge of anticommunist tracking. And for him, when it comes to “chasing the red”, all means are good. He encourages his men to beat and torture. Every day, the policeman will take his orders from the Gestapo. On occasion, he brags in the corridors: “Fernand David, 34 years old and chief commissioner!”

Mobile Reserve Groups are involved in dirty work

Police work becomes almost entirely political. In the streets, the investigators of the General Intelligence mingle with the population. In civilian clothes, they line up in front of the grocery stores, spying on anti-German remarks. Disguised as postal workers, gas workers, or labourers, they organise tailing that last weeks, sometimes months, before triggering a trap. The performance of the dirty work is more particularly reserved for the Mobile Reserve Groups (Groupes Mobiles de Réserve, GMR). The first units appear in Marseille, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Perpignan, and Carcassonne before being established throughout the whole territory. René Bousquet is in fact one of the spearheads of terror. Consisting of guardians of peace, but also of former soldiers left behind after the defeat, the GMR will have up to 20,000 men, assigned to all the dirty work. Without qualms, they put framework around the roundups and track the resistant. And when it is required of them, they will switch to armed action, engaging in combat with the resistance in pitched battles, for example against the maquis of the Glières Plateau (Haute-Savoie) in January 1944.

Beware of those who try to hide their yellow star!

But it is in the implementation of the anti-Jewish policy that the French police will be the most formidable. The infernal machine sets in motion in May 1941. That month, in Paris, agents knocked on the doors of some 6,500 Jewish homes. To those who open them, the police tend a folded paper like a tube, and leave immediately. The given document – the “green ticket”, as it is called because of its apple-green colour – is a convocation to go, the next morning, to three specific places of the capital: the Napoleon barracks, the Minimes barracks, or the Japy gymnasium. When the person arrives on the spot, the police confiscate his identity papers, before putting them on a bus… 3,700 Jews fall into the trap of the green ticket in this way. But this is not enough. In September 1941, wearing the yellow star became mandatory in the unoccupied zone. The agents are responsible for the distribution in the police stations: three stars per person. In the street, the same policemen rigorously control the badge. There are sometimes scenes of horrible zeal: a man is arrested because the package he carries in his arms masks his star. Beware also of those who have the misfortune to leave their jacket and hold it thrown over their shoulder!

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July 7th 1942: in the Paris office of the SS Theodor Dannecker, one of the leaders of the Gestapo, all the thinking heads of the French police are gathered. Among them are Jean Leguay, Bousquet’s deputy, Emile Hennequin, director of the municipal police, and André Tulard, in charge of Jewish affairs. It is in the service of the latter, on the first floor of the police headquarters of Paris, that tens of denunciations, not necessarily anonymous, and hundreds of spontaneous declarations arrive every day. Under Tulard’s leadership, teams of police officers exploit this harvest of information, improving and constantly updating the central file that will be used to prepare the big scheduled roundup on this July 7th. It was decided a few days earlier by René Bousquet and Karl Oberg. And everyone works together for maximum efficiency. Tulard supplies the ID forms; Hennequin writes the communiqué destined for the “arrest teams”: “Each team will consist of a uniformed guard and a guard in plainclothes or of an inspector of General Intelligence or of the Judicial Police. The guards and inspectors, having verified the identity of the Jews who they have the mission to arrest, do not have to discuss the various observations that may be formulated by them; (…) The operations must be carried out with the utmost speed, without useless words and without any comment.” On the 16th and 17th of July in 1942, 9,000 French police and gendarmes show the German authorities what they are capable of: according to the prefecture, during the roundup of Vél d’Hiv, the number of arrests amounted to 13,152 people in Paris. In the rest of France, we are witnessing these same gigantic traps.

In Montargis, the roundup takes place on the very July 14th, without fear of shocking opinion. In Nancy, however, the roundup of July 19th 1942 is a failure. Seven police officers who refused to obey orders are to blame. On the eve of the operation, Edouard Vigneron, head of the foreigners’ department, and six of his colleagues passed around the ID forms of the people to be arrested in order to warn them. Vigneron, who remained at the police station, covers his colleagues. The others go door to door and warn threatened Jews: “Tonight, do not sleep at home.” They also ask them to warn other families. At noon, the seven policemen have lunch together and take stock, putting a cross on the forms of those they could not warn. Then they go back to the city to complete their rescue mission. The next day, the Germans prefer to give up on dispatching the convoy for Auschwitz: not enough people were arrested.

In 1993, an unbalanced person fired five bullets at Rene Bousquet

An episode that tries to show that it would have taken little to stop roundups. Serge Klarsfeld asserts in this way that “without the French police, the occupation authorities would not have reached such deportation figures”. From the 76,000 Jews deported from France to extermination camps, the overwhelming majority took place with the help of French law enforcement. “The assessment of the period 1940-1944 is extremely heavy for the police institution,” notes the researchers of the “Historical Atlas of France during World War II,” published in 2010 by the Ministry of Defense. Pierre Pucheu, Minister of the Interior, will be sentenced to death and executed on March 20th 1944 in Algiers, when he decided to join the camp of Free France. André Tulard, the man responsible for the Jewish file, will not have to undergo any prosecution. Keeping his rank of knight of the Legion of Honour at the time of the Liberation, he died peacefully in 1967. By dismissing him from service in 1943, due to a disagreement, Karl Oberg had unknowingly saved his life. The penultimate Frenchman to appear before the High Court of Justice in 1949, René Bousquet, will be acquitted before his collaborator past caught up with him in 1991, through a complaint filed by several associations. But on June 8th 1993 Christian Didier, an unbalanced person, killed him with five bullets. A summary execution that will impede his trial and the cold examination, 50 years later, of the exact role of the French police during the Occupation.

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At the end of 1942, Hitler informed Pétain that he was not satisfied with the French police. The Marshal responded by creating the French Milice on the model of fascist paramilitary groups. Laval is the responsible official. But its true leader, its soul, is Joseph Darnand – an authentic hero of the First World War. A recruitment campaign soon allows him to have 15,000 men at his disposal – a majority of workers, employees, artisans, traders and … 5% women – all were volunteers in order to bring order and fight against “Jewish leprosy”. And indeed, the Milicemen sow terror and death throughout the country from the outset. For their part, the police progressively show themselves to be less zealous. They are more and more numerous to help the Resistance. At the end of 1943 the Führer became angry at the lack of collaboration of French officials. Bousquet is put in the dock and Darnand propelled to the head of the police system. The Milice gives free rein to its extremist brutality. During the Liberation, the purification of the Milicemen will be violent. Many will be shot without further trial. Captured as he fled, Darnand will be sentenced and executed. Paul Touvier, the leader of the Milice Lyonnaise, will only be found in 1994. The first French convicted of crimes against humanity, he will die in prison on July 17th 1996.


In the autumn of 1940, the Vichy government carried out slight administrative cleansing, dismissing officials who did not collaborate effectively. In April 1941, the municipal police force was integrated into the national police force. They thus escape the control of mayors, and the national police becomes a powerful state body. It is divided into three sections: Public Security for Urban Police Forces, Judicial Police (PJ), and General Intelligence (RG). It is placed under the command of René Bousquet. The latter creates the Mobile Reserve Groups (ancestors of CRS), made up of 20,000 men. In each police station, 10% of volunteer agents constitute the Special Brigades. Recruitment campaigns were launched, and police schools opened: the national police counted in 1943 more than 120,000 men.


While the agents are busy tracking down the Jews, the Resistance and Freemasons, criminals and delinquents have a good life. These years are among the most beautiful of the French underworld. Criminals can act all the more with perfect impunity because at 36 Quai des Orfèvres the investigators have their hands tied, since the men of the Gestapo intervene in their affairs. Thus, André Roche, head of the Criminal Brigade, one day has the bad idea of ​​dismissing Gestapo members who invited themselves to the scene of a crime. He will be soon demoted and transferred to a neighbourhood police station. Georges Massu – who is said to have inspired the character of Maigret of Georges Simenon – replaces him and knows the same difficulties. When his men detain criminals, it is not uncommon for the Gestapo or colleagues of the Special Brigades to arrive in order to immediately release them at liberty. Many crooks indeed work in addition as informers, or even as auxiliaries, of the Franco-German repressive apparatus. This blurs the latest reference points. This is how during the Occupation “robberies committed by fake police offers” became more and more, because criminals displayed their fake police cards in order to rob their victims.

GEO Histoire No. 16, September 2011

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