Jean-François Darlan, Admiral of the Fleet, a title he had ordered put back into use for himself and which has never been used since, remains a very controversial figure. Different historians have attributed contradictory and dubious intentions to him, so one must turn to the facts instead. As a member of a navy family that had dabbled in politics (his father had been a deputy for Lot-et-Garonne and minister of justice from 1896 to 1897), he joined the navy as well but saw little action, at least at sea. During World War I he almost always fought on land, and in the years that followed was often a state minister. He had a reputation for leaning toward the Left, which was rare in the navy, and it was Léon Blum who appointed him Admiral Chief of Staff in 1937. He is a bit excessively glorified as the creator of the large fleet France possessed at the outbreak of World War II in 1939. The ill winds of the day worked against anything more than its limited use in combat, however. A portion of the fleet was destroyed in the raid on Mers El-Kebir in July 1940 by the British, who were afraid it would fall into the hands of the Germans. The majority of the fleet, however, was scuttled in the port of Toulon in November 1942, when the Germans invaded the “Free Zone.”
Admiral Darlan was a high-profile figure under the collaborationist Vichy government. He had been tapped as minister of the navy by Marshal Philippe Pétain on 16 June 1940, during the last government of the Third Republic. But it was only after the 1940 defeat that he acceded to the highest ranks. An Anglophobe, as French sailors traditionally were, especially after the events at Mers El- Kebir, he quickly became convinced of the need to collaborate with Germany, whose victory appeared certain. His position was in fact very close to that of Pierre Laval, and when a plot was hatched in December 1940 to supplant Pétain’s second-in-command, who held the real reins of power, Darlan replaced him as deputy prime minister and designated successor. Although some said Darlan privately had reservations about the National Revolution, in practice he was a fervent supporter, and it was during his government that a whole series of its measures were taken, including the creation of the General Committee on the Jewish Question, the passage of the second set of anti-Semitic laws, the special tribunals for judging members of the Resistance, and the Work Charter. Above all, it was during Darlan’s tenure that a marked increase in collaboration with the Germans occurred. In the hope of forging a political accord, to which the Germans had no intention of agreeing, Darlan offered military cooperation, which included giving the Germans access to airfields in Syria and the ports of Bizerte and Dakar. As events unfolded after the Soviet Union and the United States entered the war, however, these attempts failed to gain concessions from the Germans, who feared Admiral Darlan would change sides and whom they felt was not the man they needed. They reinstated Laval to his position of power in April 1942, though Darlan remained commander of the army.
His fate was determined somewhat by chance, since he happened to find himself in Algiers during the Anglo-American landing in North Africa in November 1942. It was an opportunity for him to switch sides-he intended to maintain a Vichy-style regime while at the same time rallying the leaders of the colonial territories, as well as other exiled French forces to the Allied cause, even though he had recently ordered those forces to fire on the Allies. He was engaged in a highly complex and ambiguous game, virulently opposed by the Gaullists, when he was assassinated by Bonnier de la Chapelle, a young member of the Resistance with monarchist tendencies. Was this an isolated act or the result of a conspiracy? The truth will never be known, given the local authorities’ evident haste to execute the admiral’s murderer by firing squad. In continental France, the public was not fooled-Darlan, too visible to be able to switch sides at the necessary moment as others managed to do, was a Vichyist and a collaborator who had been executed for his acts.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Couteau-Be’garie, Herve’, et C. Huan. Darlan. Paris, 1989. Paxton, Robert. “Un amiral entre deux blocs.” Vingtie`me sie`cle, revue d’Histoire (October-December 1992): 3-19. Sirinelli, Jean-Franc, ois, ed. Dictionnaire historique de la vie politique franc, aise au XXe sie`cle. Paris, 1995.