The French Path of Most Resistance

Jean Moulin, the leader of the struggle against the Nazis, died in 1943. Now his aide’s memoirs have revived controversy

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General de Gaulle and Georges Bidault (left) stride down the Champs Elysées after Paris's liberation on 26 August 1944

As we approach the 70th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s historic broadcast from London on 18 June 1940 that inaugurated the French Resistance, interest in the story remains undiminished. It is, though, increasingly difficult for the French to fit the Resistance into their collective memory of this difficult period. There is a prevalent British misconception that the French exaggerate their glorious Resistance exploits-everyone claiming a “resister” in the family-in order to gloss over the darker aspects of the Occupation. In truth, those darker aspects are as present in public discussion today as the Resistance. Every school in Paris has a plaque reminding people of the role played by the Vichy state in the deportation of the Jews.

The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, on the other hand, has attempted to refocus attention on the Resistance. His first presidential decision was to instruct teachers to read to their junior classes every year a letter written from prison by the 17-year-old Resistance fighter Guy Môquet on the eve of his execution. Soon afterwards, Sarkozy visited the Plateau of Glières, site of a major Resistance uprising in 1944. This has led to accusations that Sarkozy is shamelessly annexing the Resistance to his cause. A film has just opened in Paris telling the story of Walter Bassan, a communist fighter at Glières, who was deported to Dachau. Now aged 82 and as vigorous as ever, Bassan argues in the film that Sarkozy’s policies, especially its attacks on illegal immigrants, are a betrayal of the values he had joined the Resistance to defend.

The Resistance continues to excite the imagination because of its sheer drama and mystery. Nowhere are all these elements more perfectly encapsulated than in the story of Jean Moulin. As Prefect of Chartres in 1940, Moulin attempted suicide rather than sign a German document blaming Wehrmacht atrocities on black French troops. In October 1941, Moulin arrived in London-the most senior official to have joined de Gaulle up to that date-and returned to France as de Gaulle’s representative to the Resistance movements. He was captured by the Germans on 21 June 1943 and died after atrocious torture. Moulin’s emblematic status was consecrated in 1966 when de Gaulle’s government transferred his remains to the Pantheon. On the day of his Presidential inauguration in 1981, François Mitterrand paid homage to the tomb of Moulin. In doing so, Mitterrand, who had himself been a Resistance member (after first supporting Vichy), sought to reclaim Moulin from Gaullism. Yet Moulin remains a controversial figure. Some former fighters accuse him of emasculating the “true” Resistance for de Gaulle’s purposes. Others claim he was a crypto-communist, even a Soviet agent, and one recent book argues that on the eve of his capture he was about to desert de Gaulle and go over to the Americans.

Last summer saw the publication of the memoirs of Moulin’s former secretary in the Resistance, Daniel Cordier. It is not the first time that Cordier has written on Moulin. After 1945, Cordier put his Resistance years behind him to become a modern art dealer-a passion he learnt from Moulin. In 1977, when participating in a television debate, he found himself confronted with the former Resistance leader Henri Frenay, who accused Moulin of crypto-communism. Lacking arguments to counter this accusation, Cordier embarked on a quest to determine the truth about the man he had served. Twenty years of indefatigable research produced four volumes on Moulin’s life, running to almost 4,000 pages. Now, however, Cordier has moved from the register of history to that of memory: he tells his own story. His memoir has been a bestseller as well as winning literary prizes. It is one of the most brilliant memoirs of  the Resistance ever written, offering us innumerable insights — but it also raises problems about the relationship between history and memory.

In June 1940, Cordier was 19. Disgusted by Pétain’s 17 June broadcast calling for an armistice, he resolved to leave France and continue fighting from abroad. He managed to board a Belgian ship supposedly destined for French North Africa but it ended up heading for Britain instead. On 25 June, he landed at Falmouth-not a reassuring destination for a boy from an Anglophobic background who had heard (false) rumours about British sailors at Dunkirk chopping off the hands of French soldiers desperate to board their ships. Taken to a transit camp outside London, Cordier first heard of General de Gaulle and immediately volunteered to join him. He describes vividly the experiences of the exiguous band of early Free French recruits — their burning desire to fight, their intense sense of comradeship, their bouts of homesickness, their growing admiration for the phlegmatic British and their almost mystical reverence for de Gaulle. Cordier’s first encounter with de Gaulle, as for so many others, was disconcerting. On de Gaulle’s first visit to review his “troops”, he reminded Cordier of a huge heron, distant, cold and impenetrable, but quickly Cordier was won over by the strange cadences of the general’s rhetoric and the uncompromising lucidity of his vision.

Cordier joined the Free French Intelligence Services, where he was taught how to parachute, to code and decode messages and to use explosives. These two years in England were also a period of self-education. Cordier’s passion to boot the Germans out of France was inspired by no allegiance to the traditions of French democracy. From an ultra-conservative bourgeois background, he was a passionate supporter of the anti-Republican ideologue, Charles Maurras. Cordier’s political ideas were simple: France’s defeat was due to the traitorous activities of socialists, freemasons and Jews. Now for the first time he met young volunteers like himself who were democrats, even socialists — but no less patriotic or brave. This is a salutary reminder that the first fighters came from every conceivable background: the adventure of resistance was a gradual voyage of discovery in which the French came to learn about each other and to re-evaluate their previous conceptions of the world. Those such as Cordier, who hated the Boche, encountered others for whom the enemy was the Nazi.

In London, Cordier was won over by the extraordinary intelligence of another French volunteer, older than himself. This was Raymond Aron, who after the war was to become one of the most celebrated French intellectuals of his generation. One day, Cordier was amazed to be told that Aron was Jewish. For Cordier, Jews had always been abstract hate figures, but he had never knowingly met one. Aron fitted none of his preconceptions. On the eve of Cordier’s departure for France, Aron asked Cordier to warn any fighters that he might meet there to beware of the dictatorial tendencies of de Gaulle: “If not, France will head for catastrophe.” Cordier would not hear a word against the general, but he began to understand that the world was more complicated than just killing the Boche.

Parachuted into France on 24 July 1942, Cordier was sent to work for Georges Bidault, the organiser of the underground press. He was also asked to hand over an envelope to a certain “Rex” in Lyons. After he had accomplished this task, “Rex” — Moulin’s pseudonym — invited him to dinner. By the end of the evening, he had suborned Cordier from his original mission and told him that he would be now working for him: he should present himself the next morning to receive his instructions. From that day, for almost a year, Cordier would see Moulin every day, often several times a day — except on his absences from Lyons. He arranged his meetings, distributed messages and money to Resistance leaders, decoded telegrams from London, coded and sent Moulin’s own despatches to London — as well as carrying out ordinary chores. The French national archives contain a crucial report in Moulin’s own hand-and on the bottom in Cordier’s hand is written “benzine, sausages, bread, cigarettes” to remind him of some shopping Moulin had asked him to do.


Authority, integrity and charm: Resistance leader Jean Moulin 

To carry out his duties, Cordier had to organise a system of letterboxes where messages could be left (Lyons had the advantage that, unlike Paris, its buildings had no concierges), recruit his own helpers, find lodgings — in a city he hardly knew. He conveys the extraordinary intensity of his existence in this period: the constant danger of being arrested in a routine inspection of papers, the frequent news of the arrests of comrades, the moments of immeasurable solitude-and the sheer exhaustion. Finding so much time taken up walking from one rendezvous to another, Cordier asked Moulin’s permission to buy a bicycle out of the funds allocated from London. But when the bicycle was stolen, Moulin, who believed in not wasting official funds, told him curtly: “So now you will just have to walk.” Cordier also describes the strange paradoxes of Occupied France. One family who sheltered him in their apartment for several weeks out of sympathy for the Resistance turned out also to be fervent supporters of Marshal Pétain. In Paris, he observes that the only people to be seen carrying the German collaborationist magazine Signal were Resistance fighters who were using it to identify each other at meetings in public places. If the Germans had arrested everyone carrying Signal, they would have destroyed the Resistance.

Above all, this book is about Cordier’s growing devotion to Moulin, as he becomes seduced by his mixture of authority, moral integrity, charm, humour and artistic culture. He speculates privately about his real identity: was he a former minister? A diplomat? A painter? (He seemed so interested in art.) Moulin, who had strongly left-wing convictions, continues the processof emancipating Cordier from the values of his youth. During a conversation about the Dreyfus Affair, Cordier was surprised that someone as knowledgeable as Moulin was unaware that Dreyfus had been found guilty. On this occasion, he kept quiet but when Moulin once mentioned the name of Pierre Cot, a former Popular Front minister, Cordier expressed the received wisdom of French conservatives that Cot was a traitor. “People should not talk about things they know nothing about,” Moulin rebuked him sharply. End of conversation. Only after the war did Cordier learn that Moulin had been an adviser to Cot in the 1930s and had helped to organise the smuggling of arms to Spanish Republicans.

Cordier’s feelings about Moulin came to verge on a kind of passion — even if not a sexual one, since Moulin was old enough to have been his father. Using such language is perfectly appropriate since Cordier today makes no secret of his own homosexuality — even if he was not aware of it at the time. But what of Moulin’s feelings towards Cordier? In his voluminous writings on Moulin, Cordier has never once suggested that Moulin might himself have been homosexual, but there is reason to believe that Moulin’s sexuality was highly ambiguous. Why indeed did he suddenly take on this intense (and attractive) young man? Although Moulin never let Cordier forget that he was “the boss” (le patron), he also showed him real affection. One day, he gave Cordier a big book on modern art. On another, he tells him: “At the Liberation, I will take you to the Jeu de Paume Museum. It will be our celebration.”

Such speculation s are more than of purely anecdotal interest, although in France it is still considered a kind of lèse-Resistance to raise these issues. There is a common trope of writing about collaboration which links it to a homoerotic fascination with German uniforms — Sartre wrote an article linking collaboration to sexual passivity — but the story of homosexuality in the Resistance has never been written. It is very plausible that the strategies of compartmentalisation-the leading of double lives-imposed upon homosexuals in this period might have predisposed them to adapt to Resistance. They did not have families, either. In the documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, the British SOE agent Denis Rake suggests that one of his motivations in undertaking such dangerous work was to prove that as a homosexual he was no less brave than anyone else. Whatever Moulin’s feelings for Cordier, it is certain that “the faithful Alain”- as he introduced him to the Resistance leaders-became indispensable to him. At the end of a particularly trying day he would often take Cordier to dinner and launch into long monologue, unburdening his worries and frustrations.

Worries and frustrations Moulin had in ample number. Although Cordier had wanted to “kill boches” — in fact during the whole of the Resistance he never fired a gun in anger — he found himself transported instead, through Moulin, into the most passionate internal political conflicts of the Resistance. Moulin’s instructions were to unite the fractious and divided Resistance movements, organise their forces into an underground army and ensure their allegiance to de Gaulle. The Resistance leaders, unhappy to lose their independence, felt they owed de Gaulle nothing — while desperately needing the money he could provide. The stakes in the conflict increased after the Allies invaded French North Africa in November 1942. Because of Roosevelt’s hostility to de Gaulle, the Americans sought another French figure to take over this portion of newly-liberated France. More than ever, de Gaulle needed the support of the Resistance leaders to counter Roosevelt’s attempt to marginalise him. Moulin became convinced that to widen the basis of de Gaulle’s legitimacy it was necessary also to secure the backing of pre-war political leaders by including them in a symbolic National Council of Resistance (CNR). This outraged the Resistance leaders, since they considered the politicians to have been discredited by the defeat of 1940.

Not only did Cordier attend many of the bruising meetings where Moulin was insulted by the Resistance leaders, but he himself was often caught in the crossfire when, during Moulin’s absences, he had to hold the fort, liaise with the leaders and dish out funds to them. These prickly figures were not prepared to show him even the minimal deference that they did to Moulin-and were appalled that this “child” should be controlling their funds. “What rank are you?” Frenay contemptuously asked him one day. Cordier provides acid portraits of most of the Resistance chiefs. One particularly telling insight is his observation that the Free French envoys, whatever their ages, almost all used the form “tu” to each other, while to the Resistance leaders it was always “vous”. They represented two separate worlds. Towards the end he quotes a comment from Pascal Copeau, one of the few Resistance leaders of whom he has good memories: “Rex [Moulin] has behaved quite unacceptably towards the resisters. You don’t understand that because you are not one yourself.” Cordier comments: “For me, that was a compliment but I didn’t say anything.”

In the end, Moulin prevailed because the Resistance leaders were even more suspicious of each other than of London. The first meeting of the CNR took place on 23 May with Cordier waiting outside in the street. But the Resistance leaders had not given up their hostility to Moulin, and in his final pages Cordier depicts an increasingly exhausted and isolated Moulin. Cordier last saw him on 15 June, and a week later he heard of his arrest. The book ends there — with a post-war coda when Cordier discovers to his amazement that the man for whom he had worked had been a “mere” prefect, not a minister, ambassador-or painter.

Cordier’s book is a remarkable achievement, but it is not without problems. It is inconceivable that anyone could remember in such detail what he was doing and thinking almost every day. There are long conversations which can only be-as he admits-approximate reconstructions. Sometimes he reports people conveying to each other pieces of information they would simply not have needed to tell each other-but which are necessary for the comprehension of the modern reader. The words put in the mouths of the main protagonists are clearly reconstructions in dramatic form of the arguments they might have used. The book would make a wonderful film.

Of course, all memoirs contain a dose of artistry and reconstruction, but Cordier as an historian has made it his mission to prioritise the veracity of the written archive over the frailties of memory. Cordier’s rigour regarding historical evidence was most in evidence during a painful affair that exploded regarding the resisters Lucie and Raymond Aubrac. Raymond had been arrested along with Moulin, but because the Germans never discovered his true identity he was sprung from prison in a daring plot hatched by his wife. When Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo chief in Lyons, was put on trial in 1987, he threatened to reveal all kinds of betrayals in the Resistance. In particular, Barbie suggested that Raymond Aubrac might have betrayed Moulin. Nothing came of this, and the consensus among historians (including Cordier) remains that Moulin was betrayed by a resister named René Hardy, even if this could never be proved. Lucie Aubrac certainly believed it, as she tried to have Hardy poisoned in 1944. The matter seemed to be concluded, until a French journalist, Gérard Chauvy, wrote Aubrac: Lyon 1943 (Albin Michel, 1997), in which he suggests that in their various versions of their story the Aubracs had never told the whole truth. To clear their name, they asked to testify before a panel of historians-among them Cordier. To their consternation, this confrontation turned into something approaching a trial. The historians, while not accrediting the idea the Aubracs had betrayed anyone, mercilessly dissected the inconsistencies contained in Lucie Aubrac’s memoirs. No one was more severe than Cordier. He commented that he was reminded of Zola’s comment on Dreyfus, who so disappointed his supporters when they actually met him: “It is enough to make you despair of the innocent.”

Yet now Cordier has produced a memoir that certainly contains considerable imaginative reconstruction. On what is this based? Sometimes, evidently, his own memory, but sometimes presumably he uses the historical record (as established often by him) to recall exactly where he was on a particular day. This raises the question whether his own massively researched history was not itself already affected by his negative personal memories of the Resistance leaders. Was Cordier the historian affected by Cordier the member of the Resistance? Is Cordier the memorialist remembering the events or, at least partly, his history of the events? None of this is to discredit the remarkable historical work that Cordier has achieved. But we must not assume that his savage portrait of the Resistance leaders — either in his history or in his memoirs — is the last word on the subject. 


Jean Moulin’s Resistance aide: Daniel Cordier in England (July 1940)