80 Years Ago This Town Was The Capital of France For One Day

Editor's note:  This week the French press has been covering the 80th anniversary of the terrible events that led to the sudden “fall” of France as Hitler’s armies swept past the Maginot Line and into the heart of the country.  We’re reminded again of how rapidly the social order tumbled into chaos with the great “Exodus” of refugees moving from north to south; we’re hearing again DeGaulle’s moving speeches on the BBC calling on French people to fight back against the Nazis.

…and all of that set me wondering about the days, 80 years ago this week, when the war finally came to Clermont-Ferrand in the deep heart of France.  How can we even imagine how it felt to stand on a corner in the Place de Jaude as a German division rolled into the square and read out the terms of Occupation?  How can we understand the cold that must have arisen in the chests of proud French people, even in the heat of a brilliant June day, as they scrambled for news of their Army sons and brothers lost in the chaos surrounding the invasion?

A window on the past

In fact, there is a way to gain at least some insight into what people were thinking and feeling when all this was happening: go to the source!  There's very little more interesting to me than reading authentic historical documents -- there's an immediacy and an "every-dayness" about them that can transport my imagination back in time to understand what life was like for people living through huge historical events. So, when I found a site online that sells old French newspapers... well, I had to get a few for myself!

Thanks, then, to the people at CadeauRetro.com for a fresh look at one of the most interesting periods in the recent history of the deep heart of France:  that incredible weekend in June 1940 when Clermont-Ferrand became the capital city of France.


The last days of the French Republic

Clermont-Ferrand WWII France History War Auvergne Petain
June 20, 1940: "Let's Stay Calm"... "Don't despair"... "The government has named plenipotentiaries who will discuss with the Germans what conditions might stop the hostilities" (as the enemy army marches down the valleys of the Allier, the Loire, and the Saone!)

…and it wasn’t even necessarily the strangest day of a very difficult month month for the people who lived there.

Things had fallen apart for France at an incredible speed in those earliest days of World War II.  As the German armies approached, the French government abandoned Paris in early June, 1940. Président du Conseil Paul Reynaud and his ministers landed first in Tours before ending up in Bordeaux.  This was a government in chaos, shocked by how easy it was for Hitler’s armies to blast past the Maginot Line of defense, and paralyzed by the conflict between ministers who wanted to continue the fight and those who were ready to negotiate an immediate armistice.

Source: Encyclopedie Larousse

On June 14th, 1940, the Nazis marched into Paris. The whole northern half of France was in massive convulsion as 8 to 10 million people – French, Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourgers – pushed to the south to get away from the German invaders.   The political infighting in Bordeaux intensified, as Paul Reynaud tried to get British help.  He sent a largely unknown general named Charles de Gaulle to London, and in fact de Gaulle came back with a proposal for support from the Royal Air Force.   But by the time he arrived in Bordeaux at 9:30 p.m. on June 16th it was too late – Reynaud had been forced to resign, and Philippe Pétain – the ancient maréchal of the French army, the “hero of Verdun” from World War I – was in charge.

Clermont-Ferrand WWII France History War Auvergne Petain
June 27, 1940: "Bordeaux, Three Times the Capital of Invaded France"

By the next day (June 17th) Pétain had formed a new government. The 84-year-old was among those who had no stomach for continuing the war, and he was on the radio that same day, justifying his call for an armistice.

With the French administration in chaos, the Germans moved aggressively to put the rest of the country under control.  As they fanned out across the country, a Panzer division with 300 men under the command of Joseph Dietrich rolled into Clermont-Ferrand on June 21st, taking over the Prefecture and City Hall and setting themselves up in the Grand Hotel. 

Place de Jaude on June 21, 1940
Clermont-Ferrand:  The Place de Jaude on June 21, 1940
... and the same corner of Place de Jaude today.  Photo © 2016 Richard Alexander
... and the same corner of Place de Jaude today. Photo © 2016 Richard Alexander

The German show of force lasted for a week.   The Panzer division, loaded up with tires they had stolen from Michelin’s factories, headed east for St. Etienne on June 28th, leaving behind a Nazi administrative structure to supervise the years of occupation, the deportation of “Jews and undesirables” to German prison camps, and the intimidation of the Gestapo.  Clermont-Ferrand would remain "under occupation" until it was liberated four years later on August 27th, 1944. 

Clermont-Ferrand WWII France History War Auvergne Petain
June 28, 1940: Le Moniteur and La Montagne are ordered to publish one common edition... Here: the official communiques of the Nazi occupiers are accompanied by the details of the incredibly heavy terms of the Armistice signed by Petain. ... and Petain's government tells the people, "Our honor is saved. From now on, we have to turn our efforts to the future. A new order has begun."

Clermont-Ferrand: The New Capital of France

So how did this modest city in the Auvergne become the capital of France?  The Germans would not permit the French government to stay in Bordeaux – its position on the Atlantic coast was too strategic.  By the time the armistice went into effect on June 26th, 1940, the country had been cut into “Occupied” and “Free” zones (even if "Free" still meant "under German control"), and the government went looking for a place to go in the “Free” zone. 

Photo © 2016 Richard Alexander
Photo © 2016 Richard Alexander

Clermont-Ferrand must have seemed a logical choice – it was centrally located, away from the coasts, and politically more conservative than bigger cities like Lyon.  The German troops left town on Friday, June 28th, and Philippe Pétain arrived with his new government on Saturday the 29th.

It’s hard to imagine the chaos that must have surrounded all these events.  By this time, Charles de Gaulle had already begun broadcasting from London, denouncing Pétain for “treason” for giving up so easily to the Germans.  The Exodus from the north had flooded Clermont’s streets with refugees; the status of French soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans was still unknown and terrifying to their families.

And into the midst of this misery came the elegant, aging figure of Philippe Pétain, thrust into a leadership role he had never imagined.  I’ll say frankly that it’s hard to understand, looking back, how profoundly he was loved by so many French people at the time.  But for many – probably most – Pétain represented calm and order and a promise that somehow France could get through this horrible period if it just fell back on “traditional values”.  (Of course, at least some of these “traditional values” focused on cutting back the rights of women, deporting “undesirables” to concentration camps, and collaborating with the Nazis – all the elements of misery that came to characterize the shameful Vichy government.)

via Wikimedia Commons
Philippe Pétain in 1930, via Wikimedia Commons
In the national memory, he embodies at the same time the victory of 1918, the shame of the summer of 1940, and the crimes of Vichy.
- Encyclopédie Larousse

So, on this particular Saturday in June 1940, Pétain came to Clermont-Ferrand.  He moved into the Michelin family’s traditional villa on the Cours Sablon.  Welcomed by a mostly supportive crowd of Clermontois, Pétain set up offices in the black lava-stone Prefecture.  The War Minister found offices in the suburb of Chamalières, the Justice Minister took over the local court building, the Minister of Foreign Affairs commandeered the school buildings of the Lycée Blaise Pascal, and the man in charge of Information moved into the offices of the local newspaper.

Clermont-Ferrand WWII France History War Auvergne Petain
La Montagne's version of the story on June 30th: "Marshall Petain, the Chief of State, and most of his ministers arrived yesterday in the capital of the Auvergne and took possession of their new residences." The editor's column on the left is a plea for calm and clear communication between citizens in the wake of the "disaster that has fallen on our heads".

In all this commotion, it became obvious that while Clermont-Ferrand had many other good qualities, it didn’t have enough hotel rooms or lodgings to support the influx of bureaucrats, Nazi officers, and survivors of the Exodus all converging on the city.  After a (very brief) period of thrashing around, the government decided to move one more time – to Vichy, 45 minutes north of Clermont-Ferrand.  It was (and still is) a spa town, built to draw the luxury trade of tourists seeking a “cure” in the hot thermal baths that bubble up so frequently in this volcanic region of France.  In short: lots of space to lodge an itinerant government and all its hangers-on.

On June 30th, Maréchal Pétain and many of his principal ministers packed up one last time and headed for Vichy.  Some key government offices remained in Clermont-Ferrand until the end of the war, but the city’s reign as “the capital of France” had lasted just over 24 hours. 

Clermont-Ferrand WWII France History War Auvergne Petain
The same story, as reported on June 30th in Le Moniteur... "No man, in all our history, better merits the recognition of all French people than Marshall Petain [...] Everyone understands that the task given to him is immense, difficult, terrible, but everyone knows that the care to dress our country's wounds could not be placed in better hands."
Photo © 2016 Richard Alexander
Photo © 2016 Richard Alexander

When I walk through the Place de Jaude now – particularly in the searing wet heat of a day in June – I try to imagine the anxiety and tension that must have electrified this great space during those days in 1940.  Germans in their green summer uniforms, refugees stumbling under the weight of their bundled belongings, Pétain and his ministers sweating in wool suits…rumors swirling about the young man shot by the Germans under mysterious circumstances in Montferrand, the local police surrendering their weapons only to have them handed back when they agreed to cooperate with the Occupiers…people of every category living in fear for their sons in the army, their relatives stuck in the north…

Very few traces of this terrible month remain in the current landscape of Clermont-Ferrand.  Many of the native citizens I’ve known don’t have any idea that their city was once the capital of France, and most history books gloss over the episode in a single sentence if they mention it at all.  Given the nasty reputation history has correctly attached to the “Vichy government”, I’m sure les Clermontois prefer it that way! 

Photo © 2016 Richard Alexander
Photo © 2016 Richard Alexander

In your travels and reading about France, what traces of World War II have made the biggest impression on you?  Please share your experiences in the space below!

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12 thoughts on “80 Years Ago This Town Was The Capital of France For One Day

  1. Richard, your article is just wonderful. Thank you for writing it. I would like to be in CF right now!

      1. I think I have been most affected by Oradour sur Glane. However I’m proud of our village’s part played in hiding Jewish children…we even have a plaque recognising this fact on the Mairie wall. I’d like to try to find out more – maybe you can do it for me!!!

        1. Thanks, Alison. Yes, there are a few villages in central France known for their work in protecting Jewish children during the war (I wrote a little about one — Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne .) Let me know which one(s) you’re interested in and I’ll try to add it to the calendar for a future exploration.

          1. I live in Saint Just en Chevalet – a rather uninspiring (but I like it!) village in 42, Loire, between CFd and St Etienne. Not as isolated as the more famous Le Chambon-sur-Lignon but still the inhabitants played their part.

  2. Loved the posting about the time Clermont-Ferrand was the capital of 🇫🇷 France, even if it was only one day.

  3. Great post Richard! Place de Jaude is now full of people happy to be (gradually) released from confinement. For me, WWII in France = Normandy. I’ll be making my 4th visit this summer (and the first our sons will remember) since we can’t make it back to the US 🙂

    1. Kenneth – it’s great to hear from you! Good luck with your déconfinement and the trip to Normandy. Best regards, Richard

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