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Jean Moulin: The unlikely national hero who united France’s Nazi resistance

Jean Moulin (1899-1943), member of the French Resistance during World War II. In 1939. Coloured photograph. (Photo by adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images) - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

Once called ‘the face of France’, Moulin was able to unite the FRench resistance and political groups. CHARLIE CONNELLY reports on his triumphs and tragedies.

The morning of December 19, 1964, heralded one of those cold Parisian days when the chill seeps right through to the bone. André Malraux, novelist and minister for cultural affairs, stood at a lectern in front of the Pantheon addressing president Charles de Gaulle and other gathered dignitaries, his breath clouding as he spoke. It was an impassioned speech, the dedication of an urn containing the ashes of a man 20 years dead ahead of its placement among the remains of France’s national heroes. At the conclusion of the address, in which he had given a detailed account of the man’s achievements and brutal death, Malraux spoke directly to the coming generation.

‘Today, young people of France, may you think of this man as you would have reached out your hands to his poor, unrecognisable face on that last day, to those lips that never let fall a word of betrayal.

‘On that day his face was the face of France.’

Just two decades after the end of the Second World War, Malraux was aware the activities of the French Resistance were already ancient history to some. While he could see gathered in front of him faces whose heroism had helped to liberate the nation and he could call up in his mind faces of those who had died for their country, to the first post-war generation to come of age these were aging men and women they wouldn’t notice if they passed them in the street. The name of Jean Moulin would have meant nothing to them. The ceremony held that freezing morning would help to change that.

Within three decades there would be 37 monuments, 113 plaques, 365 schools and a university bearing Moulin’s name across France, not to mention nearly 1,000 assorted streets, squares, bridges and stadiums. Only de Gaulle himself is more widely commemorated.

In some ways Moulin was an unlikely national hero. When France was invaded Moulin was a womanising divorcé, the son of an influential freemason who had scraped a law degree, milked every contact and charmed and smarmed his way up the greasy pole of politics to become prefect of Aveyron, the youngest person in the country to hold the post. His father’s connections helped him dodge conscription in 1917, and by the time he was finally drafted it was so late in the war the Armistice was signed two days before Moulin’s unit was to be deployed.

That didn’t mean his experience of the war was entirely privileged. He was still put to work burying French soldiers killed in one of the conflict’s last battles near Metz and he never forgot the sight of emaciated prisoners returning to France after captivity, experiences that would help formulate his response when the Nazis invaded his homeland.

As the Wehrmacht poured into northern France in 1940 many French citizens – around eight million according to some sources – headed south in a massive internal migration. Moulin stayed in his regional capital Chartres, southwest of Paris, and was there to meet the Germans when they arrived on June 17, 1940. Immediately they presented him with a document to sign, one that confirmed three Senegalese soldiers they’d just killed had been guilty of rape.

Moulin refused, was taken away, beaten up and locked up. Assuming he would likely be executed he picked up a piece of broken glass and sliced at his own throat. German sentries heard the commotion and prevented him from bleeding out, leaving Moulin with a scar so fearsome he wore a scarf around his neck for the rest of his life.

Although he returned to his post, attempting to keep order in Chartres as chaos reigned, aided only by the former mayor, a couple of journalists, some priests and two dozen nuns, Moulin was eventually removed by the Vichy regime, apparently for his pre-war associations with radical socialism. Having already obtained false identity papers in the name of Jean Mercier, Moulin then headed south to Resistance contacts in Marseille, then travelled through Spain to Portugal and caught a boat to England.

In London, Moulin met with de Gaulle, whose famous rallying call to the French people had been broadcast from the BBC studios the same day Moulin had tried to kill himself. The Resistance at this stage was a loose federation of regional units who de Gaulle was keen to bring together under the Free French banner, a single national organisation under his remote direction. Impressed from the start by Moulin, de Gaulle tasked the former prefect with returning to France and uniting the disparate factions.

On the night of January 2, 1942, Moulin was parachuted back into France carrying a gun and a matchbox containing a microfilm of a letter from de Gaulle authorising him to act on his behalf.

Moulin proved a highly effective unifier and convenor, winning over almost immediately three important Resistance leaders in Henri Frenay, Emmanuel d’Astier and Jean-Pierre Levy.

‘It would be insane and criminal in the event of Allied action on the continent not to make use of troops prepared for the greatest sacrifices, scattered and unorganised today, but tomorrow capable of making up a united army of parachute troops already in place, familiar with the terrain and having already selected their enemy and determined their objective,’ he told them.

Arguably his greatest achievement was to organise the Conseil national de la Résistance, a meeting in occupied Paris attended by all the organisations he’d set out to bring together on May 27, 1943. There were 16 delegates: eight Resistance groups, five political parties, two trade unions and Moulin. It was convincing the Resistance groups to include the political parties that represented his greatest triumph: all of them were sceptical and reluctant to politicise their activities, but in effect Moulin had created a government of national unity on the ground with its own armed forces. The council’s first move was to declare de Gaulle head of the French provisional government they had just become.

Moulin’s triumph was short-lived, however. He’d suspected for a long time the Gestapo were onto him and was always extra careful, only meeting on premises with at least two exits. On June 21, 1943, he arrived at the surgery of a GP named Frédéric Dugoujon in the Lyon suburb of Caluire-et-Cuire for a meeting in an upstairs waiting room with local Resistance leaders. The only way in and out was via the stairs but it was thought a group of men in a doctor’s waiting room wouldn’t be enough to arouse suspicion.

‘I was treating a patient at the time and all of a sudden I heard crashing on the stairs then the thunder of footsteps above my head,’ recalled Dugoujon. ‘I knew it was over.’

The men were taken to Montluc prison and interrogated by Klaus Barbie, the notorious Butcher of Lyon. They were beaten and tortured for days. Raymond Aubrac, also arrested in the raid, was the last person to recall seeing Moulin alive.

Moulin refused to betray his country, even when Barbie drove him to Paris to continue the torture at the home of Major Karl Bömelburg, the head of the Gestapo in France. Reports of Moulin’s death are sketchy and hard to confirm precisely, but it’s believed he died on a train to Germany somewhere around Metz, possibly through suicide.

After the war there was accusation and counter-accusation, and even a theory that Moulin was a lifelong communist who was handed over to the Russians. There is even some doubt whether the ashes in the Pantheon are even his. René Hardy, one of the attendees at that fateful Lyon meeting, was tried twice after the war for betraying Moulin but was acquitted both times. He maintained his innocence until his death in 1984.

Whatever the circumstances of his arrest and death Moulin had achieved what he’d set out to do. His mission was incredibly dangerous: uniting secretive factions suspicious of anyone from outside their organisations and winning them over with his conviction that it was the best thing for France, then putting together a secret provisional government right under the noses of the oppressors.

There were others responsible of course but it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that Moulin’s activities and courageous silence remain in the very foundations of the France we know today. André Malraux’s speech was the first step towards the recognition he deserved. The man of secrets had become a national hero.

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