Judging “collabos”, what’s the story?

Today, “collabo” is a term that’s thrown about in a broad and unbridled way. “Collabo” journalist or “pro-vaccine”, anything goes! But collaboration isn’t always that easy to define, and even less so to judge. At the end of the Second World War, this was the mission of the tribunals set up especially for this purpose: the courts of justice.

 Virginie Sansico is a historian and associate member of CESDIP (Sociological research centre on law and criminal institutions) at the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. In her article La cour de justice de Lyon, section du Rhône (The Rhône section of the Lyon Court of justice), she considers this most complex notion. Taking the example of Lyon, the capital of the Resistance hit hard by Vichy repression, allows us to better understand the issue of the judicial purge which followed the Occupation.  


“Screen” before judging 

Upon its liberation on September 3rd, 1944, Lyon inaugurated a period of large-scale purging. In order to avoid any type of mob justice, in advance, the GPRF (Provisional Government of the French Republic) prepared for the creation of new courts especially for judging collaborators. The Lyon court of justice came into operation on September 29th, 1944, and often intervened after the screening commissions had carried out their work. While these control bodies existed throughout the whole of France, Lyon seemed to be at the forefront in terms of their implementation.

They were established on September 7th, 1944, by the Commissioner of the Republic of Lyon in response to the prison overpopulation emergency. Their mission was to legitimise the multiple arrests made by the resistance authorities, while simultaneously speeding up the processing of cases by carrying out case-by-case investigations. It was only on October 4th that the system came to be applied to the entire territory, before being recalled by Government order on November 3rd; by that time, several regions had still not set up such commissions. The one in Lyon had already been operating for two months.

The commissions set up in Lyon were initially composed of a delegated officer from the FFI (French Interior Forces), a police delegate, as well as a delegate from the CDL (Departmental Liberation Committee). A professional magistrate was later added to preside over the commission, and, for the sake of fairness in favour of the accused, a delegate from the League for human and citizen’s rights, again, ahead of government decisions.

With their investigations complete, the screening commissions produced an advisory report which aided in the investigation and, if necessary, directed the accused towards the relevant courts (military court, courts of justice, civic chamber, etc.). The military court stopped operating a few days after the court of justice was established on October 4th, 1944, making the latter the only competent court for judging collaboration. Three scenarios subsequently arose. The file could be sent to the Government Commissioner attached to the court of justice, for investigation and possible prosecution. If the case was dubious but with no incriminating evidence, an administrative detention order could be made against the accused. Finally, the individual could be released provisionally, provided that there was no evidence to support their guilt.

Despite the social pressure weighing on the actions of the screening commissions, they ultimately achieved their objectives. On December 1st, 1944, out of 2,119 files, only 255 were still being screened. Dozens of administrative decisions were made, a third were released and they often resulted in dismissals. An assessment that illustrates, contrary to criticism, a concern for equitable justice.

Daily purge

The majority of files handled by the commissions were entrusted to the court of justice in the Rhône, Ain and Loire sections. As part of the Purge, this court was one of the most active and long-lasting: it remained in operation until 1949, when most of the other courts had already closed their doors. The first two cases handled by the Lyon court were those of René Cussonac, former regional police superintendent, and Alexandre Angeli, former prefect of Vichy. While both men were sentenced to death, popular reactions to the decisions differed. Cussonac’s reputation as a zealous collaborator and his figure as a man of action somewhat clashed with that of a civil servant like Angeli. The uncertainty of the debates surrounding the latter’s trial, coupled with confusion during the first few days of the court, worked in his favour. Following the court’s verdict, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations raged throughout Lyon, leading to a review of the judgment and reduction of the sentence to four years in prison due to a technicality.

Despite the intensity of these two trials, the beginnings of the court of justice were actually rather slow. At the end of its first month of activity, only 13 people had been tried for 8 acquittals, 24 investigated cases were awaiting judgment, 299 were awaiting investigation and the attorney was already planning 1,000 additional cases. By February 1st, 1945, only 44 of the hundreds of planned cases had been processed, with only one execution. Public opinion was irritated as the results fell well short of what was expected from the Purge.

However, there was no question of a lack of will on the part of magistrates, whose work was made difficult by material and logistical constraints. Conditions improved in February 1945 when the court services moved to the premises of the Celtic Hotel. However, the staff still lacked everything they needed: no telephone, transport problems, lack of typewriters and staff shortages… Added to this, the police services were excruciatingly slow in executing letters rogatory. They were also overwhelmed by the work requested by the investigating judges but also by the investigations carried out on behalf of the Government Commissioner. Gradually, an understanding was formed between the judicial police services and the magistrates, whose staff increased from 4 to 12 judges between the end of 1944 and March 1945. That’s when the judicial machine was launched.

Judges and jurors against collaboration

Located in the capitals of each court of appeal, the courts of justice generally operated in the same way as the assize courts except that the investigating judges had reduced powers. Unable to decide on the dismissal of the accused, the investigating judge could only give an advisory opinion. In front of them, the hearings were held in the presence of a professional magistrate, the power commissioner who acted as prosecutor, as well as four jurors selected at random.

The question of which magistrates should appear before the court of justice came about very early on. Certain changes did not go unnoticed, like that of a former judge of the special sections (court responsible for punishing opponents of Vichy) who was criticised by the public. However, this didn’t seem to worry the judicial and administrative authorities, who highlighted said judge’s qualities as a magistrate. The inspection officer at the court of justice chose not to take the criticism into account, even going so far as to support the judge’s appointment as vice-president. Among the judges, two became of particular importance within the court of justice.

First, Judge Rousselet, who defended important cases such as the Cussonac affair or that of the far-right essayist Charles Maurras: his commitment to the young resistance fighter André Reussner in August 1944 earned him a good reputation with the resistance authorities. Even more eminent, Judge Vaysettes, main instigator of the court’s move to the Celtic Hotel thanks to the letter he wrote to the Government Commissioner about the working conditions of the jurisdiction.

As new judges arrived as reinforcements, he was called upon to work on top cases. One of his most notable cases was that of Joseph Boiron, a former magistrate who joined the French Milice as well as the legal department of the office of Joseph Darnand, former operational head of the Milice. He investigated the case with rigor, understanding the symbolic importance of the conviction of a collaborating magistrate like Boiron. Vayssettes also benefited from the sympathy of resistance circles due to his favourable action towards them during the war.

The work carried out on the procedural files of the Lyon Court of Justice allows us to appreciate the rigor of the magistrates who, despite difficult material conditions, were able to see their missions through with success. The public prosecutor seemed to continue on the same path, according to the positions of Alexis Thomas, Government Commissioner. He refused to investigate unjustified convictions as well as those relating to crimes of opinion, distinguishing himself from his predecessors condemning comments deemed “anti-national” by Vichy. 

However, the composition of the jury was the thing that received the most criticism. As the selection of jurors was limited to “citizens whose national sentiment never wavered”, their impartiality was questioned for fear that resistance fighters would come to judge those who had mistreated them for many years. Here again, the study of the procedural files helps to dispel any doubts, because there is no obvious discrepancy between the anticipated charges and the verdicts actually rendered by the court. As soon as it came into operation, jurors and magistrates agreed on a classification of charges with aggravating or mitigating circumstances. The objectivity of these characteristics gave the jurors an additional perspective from that of public opinion. 

What were the results for the court of justice?

Carrying out a reliable assessment of the results of the Lyon court of justice is a complicated task. The figures reported by Government Commissioner Alexis Thomas, who speaks of 1,443 files, contrast with those in the departmental archives directory, of which there are 2,050. The most thorough report that we have is dated November 30th, 1945, and reports 586 judgments with 195 death sentences, 54 life sentences of forced labour, 106 fixed-term forced labour sentences and 64 acquittals. With these details, we can establish that the interval from November 3rd, 1944, to November 30th, 1945, includes 90% of the death sentences and only 22% of the acquittals. As in the rest of France, the repression was harshest when the courts of justice were first starting to come into existence.

Mission accomplished? In the face of criticism and difficult conditions, the court of justice seems to have accomplished the task entrusted to it. Far from a simple political parody, it certainly allowed justice to be served in the fairest way possible. In the troubled context of the Liberation, it replaced the popular demonstrations caused by four long years of occupation, opening the way to a lasting peace. 


Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: CC BY-NC-ND
To see more of her drawings, visit https://adelehuguet.wordpress.com/

Image credits in CC : Macrovector, Freepik, stories, flaticon, Wikimédia, rawpixel

   

For other articles in  English



Citer ce billet
Théo Cottalorda (2024, 22 janvier). Judging “collabos”, what’s the story? Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 25 février 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/vmzh

Théo Cottalorda

Théo Cottalorda est membre du réseau de masters SMS.

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