guest post: what vichy france can teach us about the normalization of state violence

The following is a guest post by Aliza Luft.

On July 10th 1940, the French Third Republic was dissolved and a new authoritarian government came to power. Led by Prime Minister Phillipe Pétain, the Vichy regime tried to re-organize French social life — to “Make France Great Again,” one might say. Also known as the “National Revolution,” the Vichy shift from Republicanism’s civic virtues of liberty, equality, and fraternity to the principles of work, family, and fatherland brought with it an ethnic nationalism that privileged ancestry, tradition, and religion as if biologically transmitted. Consequently, the regime’s first targets were “others” considered external to the national, and supposedly natural community: foreigners and Jews.

My research on civilian decision-making in violent contexts often urges comparison to present-day politics, particularly where it seems to presage the implementation and normalization of violent legislation—statutes, laws, rules, and policies that define, isolate, separate, and even attempt to eliminate subsets of a population. As in America today, the citizens of France in 1940 were asked to adapt to massive changes in how their country is organized and who belongs. In France, a political sea change ultimately transformed attitudes and actions once thought beyond the pale into ho-hum parts of daily life.

To be sure, much has already been written about normalization in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and transition in the run-up to the January 20, 2017 inauguration of Donald J. Trump (for example, here and here). Consequently, I will only describe two of my research findings about the Vichy government’s attempted normalization of the authoritarian and ethnic nationalist National Revolution (1940-1944) to analyze them against present-day American analogs.

Vichy Chief of State Phillipe Pétain (long coat & military cap) standing on steps beside clergy of Cathedral at Marseille, after offering prayer in service for war dead
Vichy Chief of State Phillipe Pétain (in long coat & military cap) standing on steps beside clergy of the Cathedral at Marseille, after offering prayer in service for the war dead.

1. Institutional Consecration

Normalization depends on an authoritarian regime’s ability to accumulate political capital.

Normalizing authoritarianism as a form of political rule depends on a government’s ability to accumulate political capital. Political capital is a subtype of social capital, the ability to mobilize support through acquaintances and networks. Specifically political capital is the objectification of this support in the form of institutionalized positions and alliances. In Vichy France, public figures who previously expressed hesitation or disagreement with exclusionary policies later threw their weight behind the new authoritarian government. Their use of their political capital in this way powerfully indicated to civilians that the new regime was O.K. — that Vichy’s efforts at redefining what it meant to be Jewish, restricting Jews’ rights, de-naturalizing recent citizens and detaining recently arrived immigrants was perhaps not so bad after all. Many of these same public figures would gain powerful government positions during World War II. Their willingness to serve within the Vichy government rather than use their political influence to take a stand against it enabled the regime to normalize its rule.

Consider, for example, bishops in the French Catholic Church. At a time when 85% of French citizens were Catholic, the churches found themselves flooded with laity seeking guidance in the wake of Germany’s invasion. Thus Catholic bishops held significant power to shape popular understandings of political circumstances. From 1933-1940, many bishops spoke out against the evils of Nazism in what Archbishop of Cambrai Jean Chollet described as a “crusade” in “defense of civilization.” Others, including prominent bishops in big cities like Paris, Lyon, Marseille, and Toulouse, formed a “front of defense for the bible” to protest Nazi ideology in alliance with the Jewish rabbinate.

Yet in August 1940, even before France and Germany embarked upon an official collaboration, the French Catholic episcopate formally endorsed the Vichy regime’s first anti-Semitic decree, the Statut des Juifs. Shortly thereafter, the State Council, Vichy’s highest judicial body, purged all Jews from public office. Simultaneously, more Catholics were ushered into government appointments than at any time since 1878. In the magazine Informations Catholiques Français, the episcopate characterized its “national role” as a common effort between civil authorities and religious authorities — meaning, at this point, Catholics only. Later on, as state policies of classification and denaturalization both widened and worsened, from confiscation of Jewish belongings to forced evictions of Jews from their homes, the Association of Cardinals and Archbishops encouraged “the union of all French” around Marshal Pétain’s regime. Time and again, the episcopate would call on laity to rally in support of the regime and its National Revolution philosophy. In contrast, bishops would no longer publicly ally with the rabbinate and there was no public protest on behalf of Jews until late August 1942.

Similarly, in the contemporary U.S., we have seen many public figures who once spoke out against Trump and his pro-surveillance, pro-discrimination, pro-torture, and pro-deportation agenda begin to call for compromise. Some are accepting positions within the Trump administration. One of the most prominent Democratic figures to recently strike a conciliatory tone is former Vice President Al Gore, now an environmental policy activist, who said on October 10th that “[Trump] would take us toward a climate catastrophe.” On December 5th, Gore went to Trump Tower in New York City and boarded its gilded elevators to meet with Trump in “a sincere search for areas of common ground.” Two days later, Trump nominated a dear friend of the fossil fuel industry, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, to run the EPA (NPR reports that Pruitt’s official biography calls him “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and that he has allowed energy executives to ghost-write his letters to the EPA). Gore’s search for common ground was, via Trump’s appointment, publicly mocked. Yet what is truly dangerous — and what the lessons of Vichy France teach us — is how attempts at accommodation repeatedly reveal trusted leaders’ willingness to look the other way when it comes to some threatening proposals (including, say, deporting millions of undocumented immigrants or revoking the citizenship of flag burners), in favor of attempts to nudge Trump on others (transportation, infrastructure). Such acquiescence quietly extends the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable, with obvious consequence for shared moral sensibilities.

Meanwhile, on the right, Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker quipped recently, “one by one, Republicans who stood up to Trump or questioned his statements and antics have made a pilgrimage to Trump Tower to kiss the president-elect’s ring, or joined his administration, or decided uncharacteristically to just keep their mouths shut.” Senator Ted Cruz, House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Representative Jason Chaffetz were among the first to accede. Rucker is also correct that both the vocal and now-silent about-faces are significant (I have written on silence as a political statement in Vichy France here). Mitt Romney, who called Trump a “phony” and a “fraud” in March 2016 but after the election dined at Trump International Hotel with the President-elect, emerged from the meal with his toothpaste-ad smile to declare, “I had a wonderful evening with President-elect Trump. We had another discussion about affairs throughout the world, and these discussions I’ve had with him have been enlightening and interesting and engaging. I’ve enjoyed them very, very much.”

Romney is in the running to be U.S. Secretary of State. By kowtowing to Trump, Romney is normalizing a man and a sweeping political agenda he very recently and publicly decried. He and other never-oh-maybe-now-Trump politicians are modeling what it looks like to accept rather than resist authoritarian abuse, to put short-term self-interest ahead of conscience. They will not protect the vulnerable.

Subsequently, as Trump assembles a team of loyal advisors and a cabinet of extremists (including Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, and the David Duke-approved Stephen Bannon), as he surrounds himself with more military generals than any other democratic leader in the world (a distinction that also generally separates democracies from autocracies), and as he potentially incorporates pliable “mainstreamers” such as Romney into his regime, we must resist the delusion that the latter is typical partisanship at work. In fact, by acting as if the acquiescence of rank-and-file Republicans is typical, we risk allowing Trump’s proposed policies to go unchallenged—just everyday politics and therefore normal.

2. Symbolic Consecration

Normalization depends on an authoritarian regime’s ability to accumulate symbolic capital.

Normalization hinges on the successful combination of political capital with symbolic capital. Unique in its emphasis on misrecognition, symbolic capital naturalizes political capital by deflecting attention away from its power dynamics. Put differently, symbolic capital allows political circumstances to appear natural and self-evident. Symbolic consecration, in turn, allows existing modes of domination to become entrenched.

In Vichy France, one way the regime accumulated symbolic capital was in underscoring supposedly shared symbols and worldviews among variously situated authorities. On November 19, 1940, Catholic Cardinal Pierre-Marie Gerlier of Lyon proclaimed from his pulpit to a crowd of hundreds, “Work, family, fatherland — these words are ours.” One month later, Gerlier praised Pétain’s National Revolution philosophy in the Journal des Débats, a French weekly, stating: “The Marshal said one day: ‘our fatherland must recover the beauty of its roots.’ What is then the most beautiful of all the roots if not Christianity, which gave it birth?” In doing so, he echoed not only Pétain’s speeches but also the Marshal’s essays which described a worldview in which Jews were not a part of the natural French community. Statements like these, echoed by bishops throughout France from their pulpits to the pews, conflated the government’s political agenda with the Church’s ideology and powerfully legitimized the National Revolution’s exclusionary philosophy.

Now, consider how following Trump’s Twitter announcement last week that he would leave his businesses to focus on running the country, the official account of the Office of Government Ethics cheered “@realDonaldTrump Bravo! Only way to resolve these conflicts of interest is to divest. Good call!” Trump never said he would pursue divestment, and the extent to which he will “leave” his businesses is dubious, at best. Kellyanne Conway did, after all, just announce that Trump would remain executive producer on television’s The New Celebrity Apprentice even while he occupies a presumably more-executive office, and Trump, while claiming the position is nothing more than a title, still admits that he has “a big stake” in the show.

And what about cable news and online media “debates” over whether Japanese internment camps of the 1940s set a precedent for the possible detention of Muslims in the U.S., asking with impenetrable gravity if there is such a thing as facts and, relatedly, whether or not there was voter fraud in the election (news flash: there wasn’t, and this is just another way to legitimize GOP efforts at voter disenfranchisement), or even asking are Jews truly human?! Sure, some of these extreme claims are important to report on. At each turn, however, we must be cautious: Trump has yet to hold a public press conference (the longest of any incoming president since Carter in 1976), he continues to control the narrative via his indignant tweets, and he does so especially when major news stories break about him. What do you remember more? Trump’s $25 million fraud settlement for Trump University, or that he was pissed off at Hamilton? The problem is that every time journalistic norms are applied to exceptional circumstances — every time an individual or organization expresses Trump’s goals as its own or debates unconscionable ideas and policy proposals as if they might have merit — extreme ideologies creep closer to the mainstream. From the periphery to the fringe to the presidential podium, ideas that are anything but become normal politics.

Finally, the comparison of normalizing authoritarianism and ethnic nationalism is most direct when we look at the rise of Nazism in Vichy France and the rise of “neo-Nazi,” “white supremacist,” or “alt-right” actions and reactions in the U.S. today. When journalists discuss whether neo-Nazi leaders are “intellectuals,” “hipsters” or “dapper,” when they devote articles to evaluating these agitators’ fashion choices, and when they frame white supremacists as “the new think tank in town,” they downplay the danger of those advocating for racist, religious, and anti-immigrant violence in America. Even in using the term “alt-right” rather than neo-Nazis, we risk dampening what Noah Berlatsky in Quartz describes as “the revulsion of recognition” — the kind of outcry so many of us hope would have arisen if, from the start, all media had bluntly reported on hate crimes, hate speech, and extremism in the runup to the 2016 presidential election. “Alt-right” sounds reasonable, even over the shouts of “Heil Trump!” and calls for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” in the U.S. It obscures a hateful long tradition of promoting racism through false science and mock intellectualism. “The invention of new words and phrases to conceal old evils is itself an old evil,” Berlatsky writes. In not calling out supremacists, we enable symbolic violence by allowing the regime to accumulate symbolic capital.

I have hardly scratched the surface of everything about “Trumpism” that scares me in light of my research on Vichy France. Still, if there is there is one lesson worth learning, it is this: it is awfully easy for civilians to adapt to authoritarianism and the symbolic and ultimately physical violence that often accompanies it. Social classification categories and censuses, forced registration of individuals and their property, restrictive changes to employment and immigration law, internment or deportation—each of these policies once seemed unfathomable in France, yet each helped lay the groundwork for the Holocaust to come. Each is also mirrored by a policy openly espoused by candidate Trump or his most trusted advisors. Thus while I am not saying genocide is coming, I am arguing that increased symbolic and physical violence is happening in the United States today. I also believe that internment and forced deportations are possible. We therefore cannot let our leaders of the hook when they make choices to accommodate racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, attacks on queer and trans people, and deep economic inequality — each of these operates intersectionally and we must combat them together or not at all. Likewise, fear and instability mask extreme words and actions as rational and moral, but here, too, we must fight at every turn, recall our past, and be stubborn in safeguarding the future. We must remain vigilant even when our worldviews are coopted and coerced, even when the unthinkable creeps closer to normal.

Aliza Luft is Assistant Professor of Sociology at UCLA. This post is based in part on her paper, “A Bourdieusian Approach to Explaining the Rise of Religious Nationalism in France,” available at SocArXiv

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

10 thoughts on “guest post: what vichy france can teach us about the normalization of state violence”

  1. The problem we all have is figuring out the correct precedents. Will this merely be a disastrous [from the standpoint of people to the liberal/left end of the political spectrum] right-wing government, or will it be something worse? And if worse, what kind of worse? After all, deportations of immigrants have accelerated under Obama. As far as I know, Trump has not written the equivalent of Mein Kampf. From what I’ve read, there is little evidence that he is an ideologue. His track record is of being erratic, unpredictable, and self-serving. This can be even more dangerous than a predictable He sure sounds like an authoritarian, but also just sounds crazy.

    I do agree with you that this is a very dangerous time for minorities in this country. I’ve been processing “black protest” data from the 1990s and 2000s today, which includes lots of White supremacist mobilization happening then. The growth of White supremacist organizations and rhetoric is quite frightening.


  2. This is a headscratcher for sure. Speaking for myself, I’d feel far better if Trump’s team looked more like, say, Marco Rubio’s team. So yes, the Republicans going over to kiss his ring may be normalizing him, but I prefer a standard Republican presidency (pretty bad) to an unpredictable one (which is olderwoman’s point, I think).

    I also find myself persuaded by Matt Yglesias’ point that we might want to normalize Trump; that concentrating on his small-bore politics rather than his constant stream of baffling and/or offensive statements might be a better option. As he puts it, we “need to get out of the habit of being reflexively baited into tweet-based arguments that happen on the terrain of Trump’s choosing and serve to endlessly reinscribe the narrative of a champion of the working class surrounded by media vipers.”

    That said, it’s a hard problem and honestly, I am not quite sure yet.


  3. This is really useful, and clear and well-written as well. I often find historical analogies unhelpful, mostly because they tend to be glib and provoke a dismissive response. But this post, using material that is new to many or most of us, actually teaches us something and makes us think about the process of normalization — how does it work? Thanks very much!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Well researched and written. I so appreciate examples from history that should show us, with clear examples and parallels, what future we are very likely headed for. I am concerned nationally and internationally. The poor decision making, lack of diplomacy and etiquette and disregard for the extremely important position he holds, as the head of an entire country, is volatile! I also hate how every day I feel more inclined to scold him like a child!


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