The Journalism of the
An underground war of words
The period after the german defeat of French forces in 1940, from the signing of the armistice on June 22, 1940, to the liberation of France in the summer of 1944, was a bleak time for the press. The Third Republic was terminated, and the country was divided in two. In the north and west, two-thirds of France was occupied by the German army, which held newspapers under its control with the help of collaborationist journalists. In the south, in Vichy, the government of Marshal Pétain also kept close watch on the press with its own censors: its editorial instructions left journalists little freedom of expression. After the Allies landed in North Africa, on November 11, 1942, the Germans invaded the so-called Unoccupied Zone governed by Vichy. From then on, newspapers were under the double dominion of Vichy and of the propaganda machine of the occupying forces.
By June 10, 1940, a majority of the 50 national dailies had stopped publishing. The others had followed the southward retreat of the French government and settled in cities such as Lyon, Clermont-Ferrand and Limoges. By the end of 1942, many of those that had moved south, like Le Temps or Le Figaro, decided to close shop so as not to function under the invaders’ supervision. All the papers that continued to publish in France from 1940 to 1944 became, voluntarily or not, instruments of German or Vichy propaganda, serving “collaboration.” The only pluralist source of information the French then had was radio. Although the occupation forces and Pétain’s authoritarian regime controlled their own stations, French people could, in spite of jamming, listen to “voices of freedom” from London, from French-speaking Switzerland, later from Algiers and also, from the United States, the Voice of America.
In this disastrous situation, journalists faced terrible dilemmas: if they refused to write, not only did they end their own careers but they made way for “collaborating” propaganda makers often recruited among the most despicable ranks of prewar journalism. If they continued to write, they submitted to the demands of the censors and to the orders of the occupiers—and thus cheated their readers. Only a few of the great journalistic pens took the way of exile in the summer of 1940 and went to Britain, such as Louis Levy of the daily Le Populaire, Georges Boris of La Lumière and Elie Joseph Bois of the Le Petit Parisien, or went to the United States, like Pertinax of L’Écho de Paris, Pierre Lazareff of Paris-Soir, Émile Buré of L’Ordre and Geneviève Tabouis from L’Œuvre. In their host countries they worked for the Free French publications: France, La France Libre, La Marseillaise in London and Pour la victoire or France-Amérique in New York. French expatriates also published a large number of brochures and books.
Taking an inventory of underground publications is no easy task. Archivists and librarians find it hard to classify tracts, small posters, mere stickers and true periodicals whose names have often changed. The preserved collections of such material show gaps; moreover, it is often difficult to distinguish among local editions, which multiplied as early as 1941 and sometimes varied in their editorial contents. Overall, there were tens of thousands of tracts and more than 1,100 titles of periodicals—quite a few of them very short-lived.
The history of underground journalism nevertheless shows constant expansion. The first handbills appeared at the end of the summer of 1940: in the confusion and distress of the time, they expressed a refusal of defeat. Only a few copies of those simple tracts could be produced—handwritten, typewritten or reproduced by lithographic paste. Their anonymous, isolated authors recommended that readers copy them and thus widen the distribution. The use of stencil machines sometimes made it possible to make a few dozen copies. The first periodical to be printed was Pantagruel, whose first issue came out at the end of 1940. Its writer and editor Raymond Deiss, being a publisher of musical scores, owned an offset printer. He brought out 16 issues before he was arrested in October 1941. Two years later, he was beheaded in a prison in Cologne, Germany.
As early as 1941, periodicals began to multiply everywhere in France. With the complicity of small printers and of some typographers employed by the big authorized newspapers, the underground publications sometimes reached print runs of 5,000 to 10,000 copies. The format was kept small (usually the 21x27 cm format of sheet paper) and they ran only two to four pages (printed on one side only so they could be posted on walls) because paper was scarce. It was obtained from various sources, sometimes on the black market and sometimes by appropriating newsprint from the stocks of authorized publications.
The Resistance groups were scattered, and they devoted their first efforts at propaganda to creating underground publications. Very soon, they felt two further needs: federating their efforts and extending their action to other fields—intelligence gathering both for Allied and Free French services, infiltration of the Vichy bureaucracy, sabotage and, starting in 1943, the organization of paramilitary groups (maquis) and the preparation of the armed insurrection that would accompany the expected Allied landing. So it was around the publishers, printers and distributors of the underground press that the great Resistance movements were born at the end of 1942 and developed in 1943. They often took on the names of the major clandestine papers: Combat, Défense de la France, Le Franc-Tireur, L’Insurgé, Résistance, Valmy, Libération Nord and Libération Sud.
In may 1943, a conseil national de la résistance (CNR) finally managed to gather all Resistance movements under its single authority, in allegiance to General de Gaulle’s Free French. The underground press benefited a great deal from that consolidation. Its financial needs were largely covered by funds from the Free French: the money was indispensable as the clandestine newspapers were, of course, distributed free. The Resistance movements equipped themselves with genuine printing centers in large cities such as Lyon, Paris and Toulouse, which, besides printing newspapers, produced counterfeit identification documents—and even postage stamps—that were very useful to the underground. It was now possible for the better-managed titles to reach a circulation of more than 100,000 copies. Efficient distribution services sent out bundles of newspapers with the complicity of employees in the railroad and other transportation companies. Then the bundles were entrusted to volunteers who dropped the newspapers in letter boxes. Sometimes they were just flung around in university auditoriums or in the most populous streets.
In June 1942, a news agency was tentatively set up, the Bureau d’information et de presse, to be supplemented in April by a Comité d’information et de documentation: their bulletins were meant both for the publishers of underground sheets and for the Free French services in London. BBC and VOA broadcasts often consisted of quotes from those sheets. So did tracts scattered by Allied planes that made it possible for people in occupied France to discover a clandestine press many had never seen before. Conversely, exhibits of underground papers were organized in Britain, in South America and in the United States, which had some success at giving a concrete idea of the French people’s fight against the occupying enemy.
At the end of 1943 and in the spring of 1944, the underground press experienced a boom. At that time, clandestine periodicals distributed nearly 1.5 million copies a month—in addition to hundreds of thousands of tracts. The higher circulations reached 200,000 to 250,000, including several regional editions. Those newspapers, usually monthlies, were supplemented by brochures of more than 50 pages like the Cahiers du Témoignage chrétien run by Pierre Chaillet, a Jesuit priest: 15 issues followed the first, with its epigraph “France, beware that you lose not your soul.” From late 1941, the Editions de minuit (still alive in 2000) published two dozen real books, among which the very famous short novel Le Silence de la mer by Vercors in February 1942—the story of a francophile German officer facing the obdurate silence of the French family he was billeted to live with. The first print run of that book was 350 copies, but it was reprinted in Britain and widely distributed afterwards.
Those achievements came at a high price—ruthless repression by the Vichy and the German police. One of the first Resistance groups, that of the Musée de l’Homme, the great anthropology museum in Paris, published Résistance; it was shut down in February 1942 and seven of its members were executed—as were Jacques Decour, Jacques Salomon and Georges Politzer, who ran L’Université libre—in May 1942. Before Liberation in 1944, many other names were to be added to the list of press martyrs jailed, executed or sent to concentration camps from which few returned. As late as June 17, 1944, following a Gestapo raid in Villeurbanne, near Lyon, four typographers were shot dead in a villa harboring a printing press that produced regional editions of Combat, Défense de la France and Le Franc-Tireur. No particular statistics are available concerning those who worked for the underground press—but, taking the Défense de la France network as a whole, 688 of its 3,000 members were arrested, 127 executed and 322 sent to the camps, of whom 132 never returned.
Many stories bear witness to the determination of Resistance fighters and to their cunning. On Bastille Day 1943, Défense de la France (in its early days printed in the basement of the Sorbonne, then the major building of the University of Paris), organized an open distribution of its newspaper in metro trains, with its distributors protected by armed guards. In Lyon, on December 31, 1943, men from the Resistance went to street newsstands and replaced copies of the Nouvelliste, a collaborationist daily, with 25,000 copies of an imitation paper bearing the same name. The new Nouvelliste closely mimicked the original, down to its games, but presented a Resistance viewpoint. It was sold until the French police came, with no excessive haste, and seized the few remaining copies.
Overall, in the vast and original operation that manufactured the underground press, press people played a minimal part. None of the major prewar barons of the French press took part in this new form of journalism. As for reporters and editors who were at work in the beginning of the war, quite a few entered the ranks of the Resistance—but not in a proportion any larger than for other professional groups.
The first publishers of underground sheets were journalists by chance. They were amateurs whose personal hostility to the Vichy regime motivated them to venture into journalism even though they were ignorant of its techniques. Actually, they operated as managers as much as writers: it was no big problem to fill the few pages of small size papers that came out at long intervals. And their political background varied. While the center of gravity in the Resistance was on the left, and a large part of the French right leaned toward fascism, underground press people (like their comrades in the larger Resistance) came from all political horizons, from the left and the right, and from all social classes. Political party militants, labor unionists, academics, members of the professions, students, writers, clergymen, lawyers and army officers switched to journalism—and were surprised to discover how easy it was to express their indignation and enthusiasm in short columns, or to comment upon events that they heard about on the radio or in the regular papers. Because most Resistance publications were monthlies, they did not cover daily developments in the war, which people could grasp by listening to the BBC every day. The underground press did, however, report on the local abuses by occupying forces and on local Resistance activities, which neither the collaborationist press nor the BBC would talk about.
The strict anonymity of the underground journalists and their use of pen names makes them difficult to study. And their more important activities had to do not with the writing but with printing and distribution—which involved the highest risk of arrest by the French or German police. Witness the following:
Instructions by Combat in February 1942
Let us recommend to you the utmost caution. Distribute the newspaper as fast as possible. Avoid keeping bundles of it at home for any length of time. Never send a package of papers by mail. Never write any name on a package or newspaper.
Friendly readers, gather around us: set up small cells—we may one day have other things to ask of you. Last point, be discreet: do not try to know who makes your newspaper, do not try and find out where it comes from. ... On the other hand, don’t forget to have each copy read by a dozen of your friends. Let us not confuse caution and cowardice. Our newspaper is not meant for those who, comfortably ensconced in an armchair, would read it on the sly and then hasten to burn it for the sake of caution.
From 1943, the free french authorities and l’Assemblée Consultative, a kind of parliament set up in Algiers—together with the CNR and the Fédération nationale de la presse clandestine, set up in occupied France in September 1943—carefully prepared the rebirth of a free press after the country was liberated. In the spring and summer of 1944, executive orders of the Provisional Government of the French Republic determined a press policy aimed at ending the corruption by business interests that had widely characterized the French press before World War II. It was quite smoothly implemented in the liberated regions and in Paris starting on August 24.
The French press then underwent a revolution vaster than that in any other European country. Every newspaper that had published for more than 15 days during German occupation, either after June 30, 1940, in the north zone, or after November 26 1942, in the south, was outlawed and its assets (buildings and equipment) sequestered and entrusted to the new press. The Provisional Government delivered licenses to publish to those newspapers that had stopped functioning before those dates, such as Le Figaro, L’Epoque, Le Populaire, L’Humanité, L’Aube, to the teams running underground papers and to a few new titles in parts of the country that had neither acceptable prewar papers nor any underground publications. All told, over 85 percent of the dailies in existence in 1940 thus disappeared. The purge severely struck the owners and journalists of the collaboration press: some were sentenced to death and about 10 were executed; others were jailed, and many were prohibited from working in the press again.
A few titles of the underground press survived the war. Défense de la France, born in 1941, published 47 clandestine issues and became France Soir in December 1944; that daily is still publishing in 2000, though considered moribund. Le Franc-Tireur, born in December 1941, tried hard to publish monthly, put out 37 issues, became Paris-Jour and died in the early ’60s. Combat, born in December 1941, published 58 issues and survived until 1981. Libération Sud, born in July 1941, published 52 issues, became Libération (no link with the present daily of the same name), which was in the orbit of the Communist Party until the early ’60s when the paper lost its Party subsidy and died. Libération Nord, born in October 1940, published 190 issues and then became Libé-soir, which died in the early ’50s. Ceux de la Libération, born in May 1943, became France Libre and died in 1947. Le Populaire, born in July 1941, published 35 issues, was the daily of the Socialist Party until the late ’50s. Cahiers de l’O.C.M. (Civilian and Military Organization) launched in June 1942, published four issues and became Le Parisien libéré, still one of the best-selling dailies in France. L’Humanité, the daily of the French Communist Party, was a special case. It went underground as early as the fall of 1939 because it had been banned by the French government after the German-Soviet nonaggression pact was signed. It became firmly anti-German only after Hitler decided to invade Russia in 1941. In all it published 316 issues.
New teams issuing from the Resistance, often endowed with more enthusiasm than experience, headed the new newspapers both in Paris and in the provinces. The papers enjoyed a very favorable status: founded without capital and without having had to invest in bricks and mortar or in manufacturing equipment, they also benefited from state subsidies on newsprint and on news (via the new wire service, Agence France-Presse) and for distribution. The Fédération nationale de la presse française stood watch over the material and moral interests of its members. The French were thirsty for uncensored information and critical comments, which they had missed during the dark years, so the prosperity of the newspaper market at the beginning of the Fourth Republic was guaranteed, at least at first. That new press started from scratch. Albert Camus, a journalist in Algiers and then for the underground Combat, became the editor of the new daily Combat. In an editorial of August 31, 1944, he very clearly expressed what had been the hopes of the members of the Resistance and what, he thought, was to be the new reality: a press controlled by journalists only:
Our desire, all the more profound as it was often silent, was to liberate newspapers from money and to give them a tone and a veracity that would raise the public to the level of what is best in the country. We thought then that a country is as good as its press. And if it is true that newspapers are the voice of a nation, we were determined, insofar as our position and our modest capacity allowed, to raise the country by raising its language.
In the euphoria of recovered freedom, the sales of the 200 new dailies reached 15 million copies—far more than the 1939 circulation of 11.5 million. Actually, the expansion was artificial: the scarcity of newsprint restricted newspapers to four pages, often small size pages. By 1947, political and economic crises (food rationing lasted until 1949) caused many people to drop the overpoliticized papers. Competition became fierce. When the newsprint market returned to normal, the best-selling papers were able to increase the number of their pages and to siphon most of the slowly expanding advertising. In 1952, there were only 130 dailies left, and the total circulation had dropped to 9.5 million. Economic factors became dominant. In the Resistance, people had wanted to contain market forces by protecting the press from big business, but now it ruled again. Many of the titles born at the Liberation vanished. Camus and others had dreamed of a press entirely controlled by the journalists—but gradually the newspapers fell into the hands of publishers and managers.
Pierre Albert, professor emeritus of the Institut français de presse at the Université de Paris-2, is a leading historian of the French press. He is author of
La France, les Etats-Unis et leurs presses (1632-1976).
This essay was translated by Claude-Jean Bertrand.