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World War II Infamy : Vichy: Town Tries to Shed Its Dark Past

November 06, 1986|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

VICHY, France — For more than 100 years, the little town of Vichy, renowned for the curative powers of its waters and the ease of its life, ranked as one of the premier resorts of France. Many Vichysoisse, as the townspeople are known, like to bask in this romantic history. But the rest of the world now associates the town with a darker history.

During World War II, the town, which had no say in the matter, served as the capital for the collaborationist and fascist government of Marshal Henri Philippe Petain, and the name Vichy, for many, still conjures images of traitors and Nazi sympathizers and anti-Semites.

A visitor would have to look very hard to find even the barest trace of this past in Vichy today. Yet the reputation of history is hard to shake off.

'Wrong Impression'

"No one ever calls the government of those days the Petain government or even the government in Vichy," said Mayor Jacques Lacarin in his offices in the city hall recently. "They simply call it Vichy. We spend millions of dollars to advertise the city as a wonderful place to come and stay, and people have this wrong impression of it from history. And do you know there was not a single Vichysoisse in the government of Vichy?"

The dark history, however, does not keep French visitors from the city. Almost 20,000 still come to Vichy every year to take a cure by sipping varieties of mineral water and submitting to massages in the mineral baths. Another 100,000, seeking a vacation more than a health cure, join them to play tennis or golf, walk in its lovely, 19th-Century parks and gamble in the baroque casino.

'An Idealized France'

"Look around you," said Jacques Chambriard, a reporter for the local newspaper La Montagne, as he chatted in a cafe in the Parc des Sources where people sit and drink mineral water or stroll under fancy, curving wrought iron arbors. "This city is beautiful. It is like a movie. You not only feel that you see all France here, but it is an idealized France that you see."

Vichy is a city of deep greenery and bandstands and terraces and fountains and antique hotels and magnificent, Oriental-domed baths. It still has much of the splendor spawned in the 19th Century by the decision of the imperial doctors to send an anemic and sickly Emperor Napoleon III here.

The waters of Vichy failed to strengthen him. If they had succeeded, according to one 19th-Century historian, the emperor might have been strong enough to stave off France's defeat by Prussia in the war of 1870.

Yet the inefficacy of the imperial cure has never seemed as important as the glamour of the imperial court. Though the waters failed and the emperor abdicated, his choice of the resort as his favorite health spa ensured its popularity until well into the next century.

This popularity, in fact, led to its selection as the capital of the Petain government in unoccupied France after the Nazi Germans occupied Paris and northern France in 1940. Vichy, then a town about two-thirds the size of its current population of 35,000, had 15,000 hotel rooms then. No other town in this part of France had so much available space.

The Petain government, with all its civil servants and politicians, moved in, swelling the population of the town to more than 100,000.

"They all came from Paris," said 74-year-old Mayor Lacarin, who was a young medical student then. "We just looked at them."

Vichy tries to ignore this history. "The world may think of the Petain state when they hear of Vichy," said Chambriard, the local reporter, "but you cannot see anything about it here. There is not a sign anywhere."

The traces are covered up. The Vichy public library keeps archives of the Petain government, but they lie in a basement under lock and key. Upon request, however, a librarian will unlock the safe-like doors and show a visitor stacks of fascistic posters, almost all sporting a portrait of Petain. The posters brim with homilies to motherhood and youth set against the stark propaganda decorations of those years.

The Hotel du Parc that Petain used as his residence and headquarters is now an office and apartment building housing a variety of clients, including the studios of local radio station Vichy Infos and the Joana Jopez occult bookstore. A right-wing Paris organization, the Assn. for the Defense of the Memory of Marshal Petain, bought Petain's old rooms in hopes of transforming them into a Petain museum. But objections from other owners in the building have prevented that.

The Pavillon Sevigne, a 17th-Century mansion that is now the most comfortable hotel in Vichy, was used as the site of Petain's Cabinet meetings during World War II, but no one has put up a plaque in any of its ornate public rooms to commemorate that.

Vichy is no longer the great spa that it was. Yet, although the bureaucracy of the Petain government damaged many hotel rooms, few Vichysoisse, no matter how bitter about Petain, blame the decline of the city on its role in World War II.

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