Henri Philippe Benoni Omer Joseph Pétain (24 April 1856 – 23 July 1951), generally known as Philippe Pétain or Marshal Pétain, was a French general, later Head of State of Vichy France, from 1940 to 1944.
Due to his military leadership in World War I, he was viewed as a hero in France, but his actions during World War II resulted in him being convicted and sentenced to death for treason, which was commuted to life imprisonment by Charles de Gaulle. In modern France, he is generally considered a traitor, and pétainisme is a derogatory term for certain reactionary policies.
Born in Cauchy-à-la-Tour (in the Pas-de-Calais département, in the north of France) in 1856. He joined the French Army in 1876 and attended the St Cyr Military Academy in 1887 and the École Supérieure de Guerre (army war college) in Paris.
Pétain was a distinguished veteran of World War I, hailed as a French hero and the "Saviour of Verdun". In August 1914 he was a Colonel pending retirement who was primarily viewed as a tactician who rejected the French Army philosophy of the furious infantry assault. However, he was quickly promoted to Brigade commander and saw action in the Artois Offensive. He was promoted to Division Commander in time for the First Battle of the Marne and became Second Corps commander in October 1914. In July 1915 he was given command of the French Second Army and he commanded the French forces at the start of the Battle of Verdun. The famous quotation "Ils ne passeront pas!" (They shall not pass!) is often attributed to him, though it is actually from Robert Nivelle, who was one of his chief assistants at that time, and who was promoted over him to replace Joseph Joffre.
Due to his remarkable ability and high prestige, Pétain rose to be Commander-in-Chief of the French army, replacing Nivelle in 1917 after the failed Nivelle Offensive and the subsequent mutiny in the French army, in which Pétain acquired a reputation as a soldier's soldier. He was promoted to Marshal of France in November 1918.
Pétain emerged from the war as a national hero. He was encouraged to go into politics although he protested that he had little interest in running for an elected position. He continued to play a military role, commanding French troops during their alliance with the Spanish in the Rif War after 1925. He expressed interest in being named Minister of Education, a role in which he hoped to combat what he saw as the decay in French moral values. In 1934 he was appointed to the French cabinet as Minister of War. The following year, he was promoted to Secretary of State. During this period, he became one of the main advocates for French appeasement of Nazi Germany. Pétain served as French ambassador to Spain following the Nationalist victory in the Spanish Civil War, arriving in March of 1939.
In spring 1940, France was invaded by Nazi Germany. After the French defeat, Marshal Pétain was appointed head of state and granted extraordinary powers. The constitutionality of these actions was later challenged by de Gaulle's government, but at the time Pétain was widely accepted as France's savior. On June 22 he signed an armistice with Germany that gave the Nazis control over the north and west of the country, including Paris, but left the rest, including about two-fifths of France's prewar territory, unoccupied, with its administrative center in the resort town of Vichy. (Paris remained the de jure capital.)
Again the Chamber of Deputies and Senate, constituted in "Assemblée nationale", had an emergency meeting, and voted to cede all government power—Constitutive, Legislative, Executive and Judicial—to Marshal Pétain, suspending the constitution of the Third Republic and making Pétain a dictator. The Third Republic, and by extension liberal democracy, was blamed for the French defeat, and in its place the parliament sought to impose a new, more authoritarian regime. Conservative factions within his government used the opportunity as an occasion to launch an ambitious program known as the "National Revolution" in which much of the former Third Republic's secular traditions were overturned in favor of the promotion of a traditionalist Roman Catholic society.
Pétain immediately used his new powers to order harsh measures, including the dismissal of republican civil servants, the installation of exceptional jurisdictions, the proclamation of anti-semitic laws, and the imprisonment of his opponents and foreign refugees. He organized a "Légion Française des Combattants", in which he included "Friends of the Legion" and "Cadets of the Legion," groups of those who had never fought but who were politically attached to his regime.
Neither Pétain nor his successive Deputies, Pierre Laval, Pierre-Etienne Flandin or Admiral François Darlan, resisted requests by the Germans to indirectly aid the Axis Powers. However, Vichy France remained neutral as a state, albeit opposed to the Free French. After the British attack on Mers el Kébir and Dakar, Pétain took the initiative to collaborate with the occupiers. Pétain accepted the creation of a collaborationist armed militia "Milice" under the command of SS-colonel Joseph Darnand, who, along with German forces, led a campaign of repression against the French resistance ("Maquis"). Pétain admitted Darnand into his government as Secretary of the Maintenance of Public Order (Secrétaire d'Etat au Maintien de l'Ordre). In August 1944, Petain made an attempt to distance himself from the crimes of the Milice by writing Darnand a letter of reprimand for the organization's "excesses." The latter wrote a sarcastic reply, telling Petain that he should have "thought of this before" he turned the Milice loose on the French population.
Petain provided the Axis forces with large supplies of manufactured goods and foodstuffs, and also ordered Vichy troops in France's colonial empire to fight against Allied forces everywhere (in Dakar, Syria, Madagascar, Oran and Morocco), in line with his commitments in the 1940 armistice, but also received German forces without any resistance (in Syria, Tunisia and Southern France), the latter due to Laval's urging.
On 11 November 1942, Germany invaded the unoccupied zone in response to the Allied Operation Torch landings in North Africa. Although Vichy France nominally remained in existence, Pétain became nothing more than a figurehead, as the Nazis abandoned the pretense of an "independent" Vichy government. On 7 September 1944, he and other members of the Vichy cabinet were forcibly moved to Sigmaringen in Germany and soon after he resigned as leader.
In April 1945, Pétain was returned to France, where he was tried for collaboration (or treason), convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad in July-August 1945. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Charles de Gaulle on August 17, 1945, on the grounds of his age; he was 89. He died in 1951 in prison on Île d'Yeu, an island off the Atlantic coast, and is buried there.
In modern France, the word pétainisme suggests an authoritarian and reactionary ideology, driven by the nostalgia of a rural, agricultural, traditionalist, Catholic society. Petain himself is generally regarded in the same manner as Vidkun Quisling in Norway, Benedict Arnold in the United States, Mir Jafar in the Indian subcontinent or Otto Ville Kuusinen in Finland.