10 July 1940, Vichy, France: Lessons on dynasties from a democratic suicide

Jean Lacroix, Pierre-Guillaume Méon, Kim Oosterlinck 18 July 2020



In a time when several democratic countries are showing signs of authoritarian backsliding and raising questions on the drivers of populism (Rodrik 2019), lessons may be drawn from history (Voth 2008). The tenth of July 2020 marks the uncelebrated anniversary of a turn in French history that parallels current debates on the fragility of democracies.

On 10 July 1940, exactly 80 years ago, the French parliament committed democratic suicide: the vast majority of its members voted to end the Third French Republic by passing an act granting full power to Marshal Philippe Pétain. One cannot but wonder how a democratically elected parliament in a 65-year old republic could pass such a bill.

By analysing what determined individual Members of Parliament’s (MPs’) votes, we show that MPs belonging to a pro-democratic dynasty were more likely to oppose the enabling act (Lacroix et al. 2019).

The context of the vote

Neither the military defeat nor the armistice signed with Germany on 22 June 1940 implied a regime change. Other countries that had been invaded – like Belgium and the Netherlands – kept their institutions. Nonetheless, the French government decided to ask its MPs to end democracy.

French MPs knew that the objective was to establish an autocratic regime that would implement the ‘Révolution nationale’, a radical conservative reform package based on Catholicism, political centralisation, large capitalist corporations, and coercion. The regime nearly immediately started discriminating against Jews, although there is no evidence of German demands on French policy towards Jews until August 1941 (Paxton 1972).

The vote was thus one of the most consequential of France’s history. Its outcome was no foregone conclusion.

Determinants of the vote

The outcome can, of course, be blamed on the cunning of Pierre Laval, the Vice-President of the Council of Ministers, who viewed the military defeat as an opportunity to replace the republic with an authoritarian regime aligned with Germany and Italy.1 He leveraged his supporters within the parliament and took advantage of rising anti-parliamentarian sentiment.

However, the majority of MPs were democrats elected in an election that had brought to power a left-wing coalition. Many of them therefore passed a bill that was at odds with their political views. Some were seen crying; others were even already taking steps towards what would later become the resistance.

Laval and his associates would not have succeeded without the disorganisation, the chaos, and the uncertainty caused by the military defeat. The vote took place in the spa town of Vichy, to where the government had retreated only eighteen days after the armistice was signed (Wieviorka 2001: 25). Not only was it difficult for MPs to get to Vichy, but it was also hard for them to find a place to stay and work. Political parties had collapsed, making it even more difficult to coordinate any opposition to the bill. In short, debate and coordination ahead of the vote were almost impossible, even more so since MPs did not receive a draft of the bill until 9 July, the day before the vote.

Under those circumstances, MPs were lost, pressured, and faced a radical uncertainty as to what the right decision was. They, therefore, had a strong incentive to conform (Ermakoff 2008). Herd behaviour was likely, and Pierre Laval’s intrigues provided a focal point on which to coordinate.

Yet, 80 out of 669 MPs found the resolve to oppose the act. To understand what prompted them to stand out, we collected the votes and bibliographies of all the MPs who participated in the vote, thanks to the Dictionnaire des députés et sénateurs français (1889–1940) (Joly 1960). We then studied the correlates of their votes on the enabling act.


Our most striking result pertains to the behaviour of dynastic MPs, defined as politicians who are related by blood to other individuals formerly holding political office (Dal Bó et al. 2009, Geys and Smith 2017), and more specifically of pro-democratic dynastic MPs, those belonging to a dynasty whose founder was a defender of democratic ideals.

Pro-democratic dynastic MPs were more likely, by a margin of 9.6 to 15.1 percentage points, to oppose the act than were members of other political dynasties or elected representatives belonging to no political dynasty (Figure 1). Propensity score estimates suggest that the effect we observe could be causal.

Figure 1 Mean comparison – Shares of MPs opposing the act

*** p<0.01, ** p<0.05, * p<0.1

Furthermore, among pro-democratic dynastic MPs, those with less experience in parliament and more experience in local politics were more likely to vote against the act. These findings suggest an important role for socialisation inside and outside the parliament. Pro-democratic dynastic MPs who had had less time to be embedded in a network of relationships within parliament and who had more relationships outside it could better resist the incentive to conform to the majority of their peers and follow the moral compass and belief in the benefits of democracy they had acquired through their education in a pro-democratic dynasty.

Concluding thoughts

There are indeed lessons to be learned from the 80-year old vote. First, despite the fact that political dynasties raise issues of political representation and fairness in democracies (Dal Bó et al. 2009, Mendoza 2012, Folke et al. 2017, Fiva and Smith 2018) and perform poorly (e.g. Rossi 2017, Geys and Smith 2017, Geys 2017), pro-democratic dynasties may contribute to stabilising democracies.

Secondly, and most of all, it is important to find ways to elect MPs who can resist the pressure of their peers and make independent decisions. Whereas connections may lay the ground to corruption and the over-representation of special-interest groups into politics (Persson 1998, Fouirnaies and Hall 2018), our research shows that in some settings, those connections may help stabilise and consolidate democratic regimes.

At the end of the day, democracy can only be more efficient and resilient if MPs do not follow the herd.


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Ermakoff, I (2008), Ruling oneself out: A theory of collective abdications, Durham: Duke University Press.

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Lacroix, J, P-G Méon and K Oosterlinck (2019), “A positive effect of political dynasties: The case of France’s 1940 Enabling Act”, CEPR Discussion Paper 13871.

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1 Pierre Laval had been elected as a socialist MP in 1914 and served as minister several times and twice as President of the Council of Ministers. He had also been the French ambassador to Italy, where he befriended Benito Mussolini.



Topics:  Economic history Politics and economics

Tags:  democracy, populism, democratic dynasty, petain, France, Vichy

Research Fellow, Fonds National de la Recherche Scientifique, Université libre de Bruxelles

Professor of Economics, Université libre de Bruxelles

Professor of Finance at the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management, Université libre de Bruxelles


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