The Épuration légale (French "legal purge") was the wave of official trials that followed the Liberation of France and the fall of the Vichy Regime. The trials were largely conducted from 1944 to 1949, with subsequent legal action continuing for decades afterward.
Unlike the proceedings of the Nuremberg Trials, for instance, the Épuration légale was conducted as a domestic French affair. Approximately 300,000 cases were investigated, reaching into the highest levels of the collaborationist Vichy government. More than half were closed without any indictment. In 1944-51, official courts in France sentenced 6,763 people to death (3,910 in absentia) for treason and other offenses. Only 791 executions were actually carried out, including those of Pierre Laval, Joseph Darnand, and the journalist Robert Brasillach. Far more common was “National degradation,” a loss of civil rights, which was meted out to 49,723 people.
Following the liberation of France, the Provisional Government of the French Republic (GPRF) led by Charles de Gaulle was faced with rebuilding the country and removing traitors, criminals and collaborators from office. The Comité Français de Libération Nationale (CFLN), which became the GPRF on 4 June 1944, issued an ordinance in Algiers on 18 August 1943, setting the basis for the judicial purge and establishing a Purge Commission (Commission d'Epuration).
The official purge in metropolitan France began in early 1945, although isolated civil trials, courts martial, and thousands of extra-legal vigilante actions had already been carried out through 1944, as the nation had been freed. Women accused of "horizontal collaboration" were arrested, shaved, exhibited and sometimes mauled by crowds after Liberation, as punishment for their sexual relationships with Germans during the occupation.
In another example of action before the purge, following the landings in North Africa in November 1942, some important civil servants loyal to Vichy, including Pierre Pucheu, former Minister of the Interior, had been detained. Pucheu was indicted for treason by a military court martial at the end of August 1943, and his trial started on 4 March 1944. He was executed 20 days later.
Organized implementation of the official purge was made difficult by the lack of magistrates. With a single exception, all of the Third Republic's judges had taken an oath to the disgraced regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain.
Three major types of civilian courts were set up:
A fourth category was the military court martials. This jurisdiction covered French citizens charged with pro-German military acts, and German nationals charged with war crimes, such as Pierre Pucheu, Minister of the Interior of Vichy, and Otto Abetz, ambassador of Nazi Germany to Paris ).
The High Court judged 108 persons (including 106 Ministers). In total the courts investigated more than 300,000 people, classifying 180,000 of them without any indictment, and finally fewer than 800 executions were enacted . Three successive general amnesties were enacted, in 1947, 1951 and 1953 .
While the laws of 1939 included provisions against treason, the particular nature of events related to the Occupation of France made a number of offenses legally unclear, such as joining the SS or the paramilitary Milice. Hence, exceptional legal procurements were made. The principles set unanimously by the Conseil National de la Résistance (National Council of Resistance, CNR) on the 15 March 1944 called for the political elimination of any person guilty of collaboration with the Nazis between the 16 June 1940 and the Liberation. Such offences included, notably:
On the other hand, preventing a civil war meant that competent civil servants should not be taken out of office, and that moderate sentences should be given where possible. More importantly, this prevented local Resistance movements from doing vigilante "justice" themselves, ending the "combative" period of the Liberation and restoring the proper legal institutions of France. These new institutions were set on three principles:
On 26 August 1944, the government published an order defining the offence of indignité nationale ("national unworthiness"), and the corresponding punishment of dégradation nationale ("national stripping of rank"). Indignité nationale was characterised as "harming unity of France and neglecting one's national duty," and the sentence aimed in particular in prohibiting guilty individuals of exercising political functions.
On 18 November, the Haute Cour de Justice ("High Court of Justice") was created, with the aim of judging members of the Vichy government charged of offences of Indignité nationale (Marshal Philippe Pétain, etc.) Other suspects were judged by the cours de justice ("Court of Justice"). A High Court of Justice already existed under the Third Republic: the Senate was then to organise a court to judge state leaders guilty of high treason. But this form of justice had been suppressed by Marshal Pétain's Fifth Constitutional Act of 30 July 1940, establishing the Vichy regime.
The new High Court was not composed anymore of senators, but presided over by the first President of the Court of Cassation, assisted by the President of the Criminal Chamber of the Court of Cassation and by the first President of the Appeal Court of Paris. It was also composed of 24 juries, randomly chosen on two lists of a dozen each. The first list included 40 senators or deputies in function on 1 September 1939, who had not voted the full powers to Pétain on 10 July 1940 (the Vichy 80). The second list was composed of 50 persons chosen by the Consultative Assembly in Resistance movements.
The composition of the High Court was changed again by the 27 December 1945 Act. Thereafter, it was composed of 27 members, three magistrates and 24 juries randomly chosen on a list of 96 deputies of the Constituent Assembly, elected on 21 October 1945. Each political party was represented on this list proportionally to its presence in the Assembly.
The High Court was further modified by the 15 September 1947 Act, and then again by the 19 April 1948 Act.
The French concentration camps used by the Vichy regime to intern Jews, Spanish Republicans, Resistants and others, were now used to detain presumed collaborationists. In Paris, these included the Velodrome d'Hiver, the Drancy internment camp (managed by the Resistance until the arrival of the gendarmerie on 15 September 1944) and the Fresnes prison, which held Tino Rossi, Pierre Benoit, Arletty, and the industrialist Louis Renault. The 4 October 1944 ordinance authorised prefects to intern dangerous prisoners until the end of hostilities. For some Collaborationists, internment meant protection from popular vengeance.
On 31 October 1944, the Minister of Interior Adrien Tixier created commissions charged with controlling the internment camps and home confinements. The Red Cross was permitted to visit the camps. Tixier then stated in 30 August 1945 that although the war was not yet officially ended, further internments were prohibited except for cases of spying or major black marketeering. The 10 May 1946 Act fixed the legal date of the end of the war, and at the end of May 1946, all internment camps were cleared.
The first high official tried in the purge was Jean-Pierre Esteva, Resident General of France in Tunisia. He was sentenced to detention for life on 15 March 1945, avoiding capital punishment because the court recognised that he had assisted patriots in May 1943, just before quitting Tunisia. Ill, Esteva was pardoned on 11 August 1950 and died a few months later.
The trial of Marshal Philippe Pétain began on 23 July 1945. Pétain's defense lawyer, Jacques Isorni, pointed out that the public prosecutor, André Mornet, had also been in charge of the failed Riom Trials organized by Pétain himself under the Vichy regime. This may not have impressed the judge, Pierre Mongibeaux, who had himself sworn allegiance to Petain in 1941. The 89-year-old Marshall was sentenced to death on 15 August, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He lived six more years, banished to the Île d'Yeu.
Pierre Laval, the French Prime Minister from July to December 1940 and from April 1942 to August 1944, had fled to Francoist Spain. Franco, however, sent him back to Innsbruck in Austria, which was part of the U.S. Occupation Zone. Laval was thereafter handed over to the French authorities, and his trial started on October 1945. In a hasty, rancorous trial, he was sentenced by an openly hostile jury to death on 9 October 1945, and executed a week later.
By 1 July 1949, the High Court had given out 108 sentences (106 of them concerned former ministers ):
Between 1954 and 1960, the High Court judged prisoners who had been sentenced in absentia or had been taken prisoner. More than a decade having passed, the court showed more leniency. For example, the General resident of Morocco, Charles Noguès, had been sentenced in absentia to 20 years of forced labour on 28 November 1947, but his indignité nationale was immediately suspended on 26 October 1956.