Pierre Laval

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Pierre Laval as Prime Minister, 1931.
Laval at the Adlon Hotel, Berlin, 1931.

Pierre Jean Marie Laval (28 June 1883 – 15 October 1945) was a Papal Count[1], lawyer and veteran French politician. He was Prime Minister of France between 1931 and 1932, and a second time between 1935 and 1936. He was Vice-president of the Council of Ministers from July to December 1940 and Head of Government from April 1942 to August 1944 for the French State.

Early years

Pierre Laval was born at Chateldon, a small town in Auvergne, where his father owned several small businesses. He attended secondary school and subsequently the Faculty of Law in Paris. For a time he was a supervisor at a school at Lyons, where he served under Professor Edouard Herriott. He returned to Paris in 1909 and established himself as a very successful lawyer and soon afterwards the legal advisor to the C.G.T trades union.[2]


Laval was famous for his defence of strikers, trade unionists and leftists against government prosecution. On 8 May 1914 the Communist newspaper Humanité gave him a glowing write-up describing him as having "indefatigable energy with pungent and convincing eloquence. His profound knowledge of labour problems, and his fine gifts as a speaker promise to render even greater services to the Party when he becomes a Deputy." He was that month elected to the Chamber of Deputies for the Socialist Party, being the youngest of their members, and remained committed to his pacifist convictions during the First World War, belonging to the minority of the Socialist Party in favour of peace negotiations with Germany through the Second International[3]. Towards the end of the War he began to evolve towards the Right, stating "democracy will never fraternise with the Bolsheviks".[4] Following his defeat in the 1919 election, Laval left the Socialist Party and became Mayor of Aubervilliers.[5]

In 1924 Laval was returned to the Chamber as a left-wing Independent deputy, and was elected to the Senate three years later. From 1925 he held a series of governmental positions, including Minister of Public Works, Minister of Justice, and Minister of Labour (1926).

The 1928 Army Act gave France 521,000 men, of whom only 106,000 were professional soldiers. In addition, the Republican Guards, the Foreign Legion, the Gendarmerie, etc., brought the total to 590,000. Of these an important proportion were stationed in the overseas territories.[6]

Laval played a dominant part in French Affairs 1930 to 1932, marked by a reaction against the policies of Louis Barthou and Aristide Briand. Laval also claimed to desire Germany's friendship after a decade of France's anti-Germanism.[7] In February 1931, Laval became Prime Minister of France, and a year later also assumed the position of Foreign Minister, replacing the seriously ill Briand.[8], but these were difficult times for French politics with several financial scandals, and his government fell that year to the broad Left. By 1934 France had had eight governments, or at least Cabinets, in two years.[9]

Laval joined the centre-right government of Gaston Doumergue in 1934, serving as Minister of the Colonies[10] and then Foreign Minister, becoming the dominant figure in French politics internationally. He was very worried about the Saar plebiscite and opposed sending French troops in to 'supervise' it. He considered it German territory. In the event it was agreed that an international force would do the job without either German or French supervision; the voters were 90.08% for reunion with Germany. The 'German Soul of the Saar' had won. On 17 January 1935, the territory's reunion with Germany was approved by the League of Nations Council, and on March 1st Germany re-integrated the region back into the German Reich.[11].

In June 1935 Laval again became Prime Minister as well as Foreign Minister, pursuing foreign policies favourable to Italy (he was the first French Foreign Minister to visit Rome since the war; on March 12th the Chamber ratified Laval's Rome agreements unanimously except for the nine Communist deputies), and the Soviet Union (Laval signed the Franco-Soviet Pact on May 2nd and then visited Moscow where he had a long conversation with Stalin). (Poland, however, disapproved of France's pacts with Russia.) In November Laval stated that he wanted rapprochement with Germany; as did many others in France including Parliamentarians.[12]. The broad Left Parliamentary Chamber then accused Laval of sympathy with the "fascist" Croix de Feu, and proceeded to attack his (and his British colleague Sir Samuel Hoare's) handling of the Abyssinia crisis (The Hoare–Laval Pact, signed Dec 8th) — widely denounced as appeasement of Benito Mussolini and fascist Italy, which prompted his resignation on 22 January 1936.[13] He remained a Senator.

A General Election was held by two ballots on April 26th & May 3rd with an 85% turn-out. In the first only in less than half the constituencies was a candidate returned. The Communists gained heavily and the broad Left held their own. Following the second ballot The Left held 380 seats against those of the Centre and The Right with 238 between them. In Paris and its immediate neighbourhood the Communists were the strongest single party. The Paris newspaper the Journal had run a referendum asking people: "Who are the four French Statesmen who enjoy your greatest confidence?". Laval came first.[14]


Marshal Petain with Pierre Laval, circa 1942
Pierre Laval at his show trial, 1945.

Following France's defeat in 1940, Laval was recalled to the government by Philippe Pétain and served in prominent roles in the French State ("Vichy France"), first as the Vice-president of the Council of Ministers from July to December 1940, and later as the head of government from April 1942 to August 1944.


In a speech broadcast on the Western Allied invasion of France on 6th June 1944, Laval appealed to the nation:

You are not in the war. You must not take part in the fighting. If you do not observe this rule, if you show proof of indiscipline, you will provoke reprisals the harshness of which the government would be powerless to moderate. You would suffer, both physically and materially, and you would add to your country's misfortunes. You will refuse to heed the insidious appeals, which will be addressed to you. Those who ask you to stop work or invite you to revolt are the enemies of our country. You will refuse to aggravate the foreign war on our soil with the horror of civil war... At this moment fraught with drama, when the war has been carried on to our territory, show by your worthy and disciplined attitude that you are thinking of France and only of her.

About two months later, he and some others were moved by the Germans to Belfort where they arrived on August 19th. In view of the speed of the western Allies' advance, on 7 September 1944 the remaining members of the French government at Vichy were moved from Belfort to Sigmaringen in Germany. Pétain took up residence at the Hohenzollern castle there. At first Laval also resided in this castle. In January 1945 Laval was assigned to the Stauffenberg castle in Wilflingen outside Sigmaringen. By April 1945 USA General George S. Patton's army were approaching Sigmaringen, so the French ministers were forced to seek their own refuge. Laval was granted permission to enter Spain and was flown to Barcelona by a Luftwaffe plane. However, 90 days later, Charles de Gaulle put pressure on Spain to repatriate Laval. Prior to this, Laval had planned to move to Sintra, Portugal, where a house had been leased for him.[15][16]

With the collapse of the Axis in Europe a nervous Spain agreed that Laval must leave. Ironically the same Luftwaffe plane that flew him to Spain was sent to fly him to the American-occupied zone of Austria, where Laval planned to ask for asylum. The treacherous American authorities immediately arrested Laval and his wife and turned them over to the entirely illegal so-called 'Free French'. They were then flown to Paris and imprisoned at Fresnes Prison. Madame Laval was later released; Pierre Laval remained in prison to be tried for treason.[17]


A show trial, with a bench of communist and hard-left socialist judges, with a jury of four, quickly found Laval guilty of high treason, refused him an appeal, and almost immediately executed him by firing squad. "The haste with which Laval was 'liquidated' suggested that only too many of his parliamentary camarades were afraid of what he may say next....too many had a vested interest in Laval's silence and death."[18][19] Even politically-correct sources admit it was a miscarriage of justice: "Most unfair to have shot Laval. He did his best. We wouldn't be here but for him...."[20]

Laval's manifold political activities left a complicated and controversial legacy, resulting in more than a dozen conflicting biographies of him.

What they said

Under any regime, in any century, Laval would have been an adventurer who takes his own risks....his style is reminiscent of certain men of the 'ancien régime'. Laval will be something in the history of France, just like others during past centuries who resemble him, and most of whom came, like him, to a bad end...[21]
Laval was unlucky. Both the Court and the jury were vicious, and, more than in the case of any other trial, it was felt by almost everybody in France that the accused had been denied a proper hearing.[22]

See also


  1. Werth, Alexander, The Destiny of France, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1937, p.100.
  2. Werth, 1937, p.101.
  3. See: The Black Book of Communism
  4. Werth, 1937, p.101-2.
  5. Werth, 1937, p.102.
  6. Werth, 1957, p.129.
  7. Werth, Alexander, The Twilight of France, Harper Bros, New York, 1942/Howard Fertig, N.Y., reprint 1966, p.34.
  8. Werth, 1937, p.32-5.
  9. Werth, 1937, p.142.
  10. Werth, 1937, p.65.
  11. Werth, 1937, p.119-121.
  12. Werth, 1937, pps: 98-100, 104-5, 123-5, 140.
  13. Werth, 1937, chapter xii "The Fall of Laval".
  14. Werth, 1937, p.272-4.
  15. Heinzen, Ralph (17 August 1944). "Quislings Between Two Fires As France Falls. Laval May Head for Portugal--Fate of Petain Uncertain". The Republic (Columbus, Indiana): p. 9. https://www.newspapers.com/image/128861244/?terms=%22Rene%2Bde%2BChambrun%22. "A law partner of his son-in-law, Count Rene de Chambrun, had gone to Portugal and leased an estate in Laval's name for three years. It is north of Lisbon near Cintra, on the sea and surrounded by high walls." 
  16. Heinzen, Ralph (16 August 1944). "Laval Ready to Flee When Nazis Leave France; Petain May Stick". The Coshocton Tribune (Coshocton, Ohio): p. 1. https://www.newspapers.com/image/11317916/?terms=%22Rene%2Bde%2BChambrun%22. "A law partner of his son-in-law, Count Rene de Chambrun, had gone to Portugal and leased an estate in Laval's name for three years. It is north of Lisbon near Cintra, on the sea and surrounded by high walls." 
  17. Warner, pp. 404–407.
  18. Werth, 1957, p.261.
  19. Werth, 1957, p.240n: The tremendously self-righteous Procureur-Général Mornet, who prosecuted both Laval and Pétain under the Ordnance decree of 27 December 1944 had, like all his colleagues, sworn allegiance to Marshall Pétain and the French State.
  20. Werth, 1957, p.276.
  21. Georges Bernanos, in Combat newspaper, Paris, Aug 12 & 21, 1945.
  22. Werth, 1957, p.261.
  • Werth, Alexander, France 1940-1955, Readers Union pubs., London, 1957. Many references to Laval.
  • Warner, Geoffrey, Pierre Laval and the Eclipse of France, University of Reading, London, 1968. (Sympathetic)