Homophobia, Vichy France, and the "Crime of Homosexuality": The Origins of the Ordinance of 6 August 1942
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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8.3 (2002) 301-318



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Homophobia, Vichy France, and the "Crime of Homosexuality"
The Origins Of The Ordinance Of 6 August 1942

Michael D. Sibalis


On 26 April 2001, toward the end of a long speech given at the dedication of a plaque in memory of Georges Morin, a member of the French Resistance during the 1940-44 German occupation, the French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, made a remark that took his audience by surprise: "It is important that our country fully recognize the persecutions perpetrated during the Occupation against certain minorities, [whether] the Spanish refugees, the Gypsies, or the homosexuals." 1 With this one sentence Jospin thrust into the news an issue that had been of little interest to anyone besides French gay activists, who had been demanding official recognition for almost three decades. In addition, only three weeks earlier, on 6 April 2001, a representative of the French secretary of state for veterans' affairs had received a delegation of gay activists and promised them that the government would set up a historical commission to investigate fully the fate of French homosexuals during World War II. As the secretary of state himself later put it: "We have decided for the time being to undertake a historical study in order to make a record of those men and women who have reportedly been victims of deportation for [reasons of] homosexuality. It is a task that we are going to carry out with historians." 2 Although it may be presumptuous to anticipate exactly what such a commission will conclude after a thorough examination of the relevant archival sources, some of which are still closed to historians, this essay seeks to provide [End Page 301] preliminary answers to two questions. First, how and why did the legal status of homosexuals change in France during World War II? Second, what precisely were the conditions under which French homosexuals lived during the war years?

The "Crime of Homosexuality"

Until the French Revolution sexual relations between two men theoretically merited death by fire, although in practice the courts rarely imposed this extreme penalty (five times during the whole of the eighteenth century). The penal code of 1791 dropped all reference to sodomy, and Napoleon's penal code of 1810 followed suit. The law codes continued to penalize certain sexual crimes (in addition to rape): gross public indecency, sexual relations with an underage partner (Parliament instituted an age of consent, eleven, in 1832 and raised it to thirteen in 1863), and "corruption of young people" of either sex under the age of twenty-one, which jurists usually interpreted narrowly as procurement for the purpose of prostitution. In all these instances the courts, at least in principle, treated heterosexuals and homosexuals in the same way. 3

This changed under the collaborationist Vichy regime, headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain between 1940 and 1944. On 6 August 1942 Pétain, who exercised full executive and legislative powers, amended Article 334 of the penal code to provide for a fine and a prison term of six months to three years for anyone who, "to satisfy his own passions, commits one or several shameless or unnatural acts with a minor of his own sex under the age of twenty-one." This made it possible to prosecute individuals who "corrupted young people" of their own sex for their personal pleasure, without prostituting them to a third party. It also reintroduced into French jurisprudence the insidious distinction between natural and unnatural sexual relations. The law had been purged of all such theologically inspired norms (including strictures against blasphemy, heresy, sacrilege, witchcraft, and incest) during the French Revolution.

After the liberation of France, the provisional government under Charles de Gaulle, far from repealing Vichy's antihomosexual legislation, issued an ordinance on 8 February 1945 that reaffirmed it: "The principal motive of this [1942] reform, inspired by a concern to prevent the corruption of minors, cannot be criticized." Since the...


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