On June 10, 1940, the National Assembly, faced with imminent military defeat by Germany, gave full power to Marshal Philippe Pétain.In 1940, Pétain was known mainly as a World War I hero, the winner of Verdun.
Government and military leaders, deeply shocked by the debacle, debated how to proceed.
Many officials, including the Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, wanted to move the government to French territories in North Africa, and continue the war with the French naval fleet and the resources of the French empire.
The “French state,” (L'État Français) in contrast to the “French Republic,” willfully collaborated with Nazi Germany to a high degree: raids to capture Jews and other “undesirables” were organized by the French police not only in the northern zone - occupied by the German Wehrmacht - but also in the southern “free zone” which was occupied only after the Allies invaded North Africa in November 1942.
While Pétain collaborated with the Germans, Charles de Gaulle claimed to incarnate the legitimacy and the continuity of France.
Others, particularly the vice-premier Henri Philippe Pétain and the commander-in-chief, General Maxime Weygand, insisted that the responsibility of the government was to remain in France and share the misfortune of its people.
The latter view called for an immediate cessation of hostilities.
This civil war can be seen as the continuation of a division existing within French society since the 1789 French Revolution, illustrated by events such as the Bourbon Restoration and the White Terror enforced by the Chambre introuvable; the 1825 vote of the Anti-Sacrilege Act by the ultra-royalist comte de Villèle; the 1871 Paris Commune and the violent repression which followed, including the creation of the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur in expiation of the “Commune's sins”; the May 16, 1877 crisis; the Dreyfus Affair; the conflict during the application of the 1905 law on the separation of the Church and the State; the 6 February 1934 riots, etc.
A part of French society had never accepted the Republican regime issuing from the Revolution, and wished to reestablish the Ancien Régime.
Paris remained the official capital, to which Pétain always intended to return the government when this became possible.