Financing the fight: sovereignty, networks and the French resistance during World War II

by David Foulk (Oriel College, University of Oxford)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.

 

Commander_of_Free_French_Forces_General_Charles_de_Gaulle_seated_at_his_desk_in_London_during_the_Second_World_War._D1973
Commander of Free French Forces General Charles de Gaulle seated at his desk in London during the Second World War. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Under General Charles de Gaulle, the Free French movement represented a different conception of France – free from the defeat that Marshal Philippe Pétain’s armistice and the Vichy regime represented. While metropolitan France had been overrun, subjugated under enemy jackboots, this could not be said for all French overseas territories.

When de Gaulle formed his military movement, in London, there was no indication that those colonies would support his efforts to rally an external resistance movement. But by the end of 1940, some had rallied to his side.

Such actions would fundamentally change the nature of the movement; from a purely martial enterprise, into a state-in-waiting. This raised important questions of sovereignty.

These territories were part of the French empire yet were being driven to support a rebel movement, in the hope of liberating France. Who was to support their economy? What part were they to play, both economically and militarily?

Having been separated from metropolitan French institutions, including the Banque de France, these territories began to experience economic difficulties, including the replacement of used banknotes and the brutal separation experienced, from their chief export markets.

Under the leadership of ‘experts’, supported by the Bank of England and His Majesty’s Treasury, the Free French financial service found a method to finance their cause: one based on British government advances, transnational donations and colonial exploitation.

Their funds supported covert action in France. The Gaullist equivalent of the Special Operations Executive, known as the Bureau Central de Renseignements et d’Action, parachuted containers, filled with weapons, equipment and currency, in francs and dollars, into France.

These groups were created to perform sabotage, diffuse propaganda and establish escape routes for downed Allied airmen and other groups, targeted by the invading forces or Vichy’s civil security. Obtaining finance was a perpetual problem.

Jean Moulin, the former prefect of Eure-et-Loir, was appointed as General de Gaulle’s representative to the internal resistance movements. His role was to act as a coordinator for the three main groups – Combat, Franc-Tireur and Libération. This was achieved through a judicious use of finances, organised by his secretary, Daniel Cordier.

Great stock was placed in Moulin’s powers of political persuasion. His mission was a success and the Mouvements unis de la Résistance was established in January 1943. Without the financial backing of the Gaullist movement, this internal network could not have existed. This did, nevertheless, offer credence to Vichy propaganda, which implied de Gaulle and his movement were under the control of the British government.

American economic support came in the form of Lend-Lease, by supplying the majority of Free French troops with equipment and weapons. Moreover, it was reimbursed, in part, through reciprocal aid.

This entailed French bases providing housing, office and workspace, to help US troops launched operations, notably in New Caledonia, in the Pacific. A delegation of Free French supporters, from within the United States, acted as a financial conduit for funds being sent from other support groups, throughout the world.

The predecessor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services, through Allen Dulles, financially supported resistance activity from Switzerland. This briefly allowed the Americans a means of bypassing Gaullist intelligence services. The transnational nature of the financing for the French resistance is underlined.

Using social network analysis, a digital humanities technique that cartographically plots interactions between correspondents, the key figures, from among the financiers of the resistance, are shown in my study.

Through their interactions, financial ties that bound the French resistance to those who drove its economic policy are revealed. Without international support, military resistance in France would have been inconceivable.

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