Horizontal perfidy and the French

Shorn Women

September 5, 2003

Every silver lining has a cloud, and the public humiliation by means of the tonte , or head-shaving, of women suspected of German collaboration was the most notorious manifestation of vindictive retribution associated with the liberation of France after the second world war. Fabrice Virgili's well-paced study of the subject leads convincingly towards her conclusion, more explicitly intimated in the book's French title, La France Virile .

Between 1943 and 1946, it is estimated that some 20,000 women were subjected to this punishment as a result of their crime of "horizontal collaboration". They thereby afford, in Virgili's analysis, a microcosm of the psychology of France during the transition from conflict to postwar stability; and she looks initially at three departéments to demonstrate the diversity in practice consonant with the variety of demographic circumstances.

The women were first of all, and rather vaguely, deemed guilty of "relations with Germans", and thus of "national unworthiness", and often identified as the recipients of perceived or real financial advantage. The kinds of sexual collaboration were then categorised by relative degrees of visibility, although prostitutes were, curiously but in a sense logically, deemed the least guilty by virtue of their professional status. The punishment, often meted out on the strength of no more than gossip, was also interpreted as a kind of ex post facto affirmation of guilt. On the other hand, victims were rarely punished further and disappeared into obscurity fairly quickly after the summer of 1945.

The nature of the punitive significance also evolved, so that what started as the execution of summary clandestine justice soon turned into a public spectacle, prepared in advance and enacted, semi-officially, before crowds of onlookers. In this way, a symptom of resistance was transformed into a token of liberation and, finally, of épuration . It was in this last phase in particular, after the discovery of Nazi atrocities, that its perceived status as the cleansing of a stain was reached.

Looking next at the psychology behind the act, Virgili sees it as a form of retribution against a vestigial enemy, and as a defining stage in the affirmation of nationhood by a country on its way to the restoration of normality.

But perhaps the most persuasive argument of all arises from Virgili's examination of the specificity of the victims as women, for the greater part young and single, whose bodies had acquired the status of sites of contamination and betrayal, in distinction to a perceived equation between virginity and patriotism. She thus discerns an element of puritanism but also of sexism (very few men were so punished) and, as it is almost unnecessary to point out, the psychological damage was in some cases incalculable.

The last part, devoted to "virile France", dwells on the celebration that accompanied the humiliation, carried out, as it often was, on the town hall steps or in a station forecourt, with bells ringing, tricolours waving and the Marseillaise being sung, amid jubilation and laughter. Virgili reads this as an act of reaffirmation of the virility of France, found guilty of sleeping with Germany, and as a restoration of vertical patriotism. It is "an act in the course of which clippers took the place of a rifle and the victim represented the enemy". It was private and public, individual and collective, local and national.

As a postscript, the author notes that in 1944 the vote was given to French women (and attempts to deprive tondues of suffrage were largely ineffectual), the infliction of the tonte rapidly began to elicit disapproval, and its status shifted from a para-legal act (in which the forces of law and order were shown to have been frequently complicit) to an illegal one. "The practice," Virgili concludes, "was a huge but brief explosion of violence by a disorientated population, torn between feelings of joy, relief and guilt."

The study makes for compelling reading. The text is happily, after the first chapter or so, not overburdened by charts and percentages; and Virgili is particularly incisive in her analysis of photographic evidence. In addition, there is a comprehensive appendix, affording the scientific grounding for this profoundly intelligent, if occasionally harrowing, account of a dark moment in French history. The translation is clean and accurate; the typesetting is not.

Richard Parish is professor of French, University of Oxford.

Shorn Women: Gender and Punishment in Liberation France

Author - Fabrice Virgili
ISBN - 1 85973 579 7 and 584 3
Publisher - Berg
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
Pages - 329

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