The Role of Radio in Wartime France

During World War II, the radio became a tool of immense political power. By 1936, 4 million French citizens possessed a radio in their homes, with a choice of three main stations (Tour-Eiffel, Paris-PTT and Radio-Paris) as well as smaller private and provincial stations. After the signing of the Armistice, the Nazis took control of all the northern stations, focusing heavily on Radio-Paris, and Vichy took control of the south. In the meantime, another primary station named Radio-Londres developed, broadcast from London and featuring a special programme every evening: Les Français parlent aux Français (the French speak to the French). Thanks to this influential platform for music, the composition of wartime songs flourished, to increasingly acerbic political ends.


Set up on 18 June 1940, Radio-Londres was the voice of the Free French Forces, broadcasting up to five hours a day. The first broadcast, given by Charles de Gaulle, is often considered to be the origin of the French Resistance. De Gaulle declared that France was not yet beaten, and invited anyone who was able to, to join him in London. He ended with the iconic line: ‘Whatever happens, the flame of the French Resistance must not be extinguished, and will not be extinguished.’

One of the important features of Radio-Londres was its focus on music. Some French songs were written in England and broadcast on Radio-Londres, such as ‘Le Chant des Partisans’ (The Song of the Partisans) sung by Anna Marly, and ‘La Chanson du Maquis’ (The Song of the Maquis - guerrilla Resistance fighters) by Maurice van Moppes and Francis Chagrin, which was also dropped by RAF aircraft into occupied France. Others were written in France then sent to London, such as ‘l’Hymne de la Résistance’ (Hymn of the Resistance) by Marcel Salin, ‘Les Amis du Maquis’ (Friends of the Maquis) by Blanche Gabrielle, and ‘La Chanson de la Résistance’ (Song of the Resistance) by Jean Nocher. There was also an attempt by Georges Gies and Pierre-Henri Teitgen (future Minister of Information at the Liberation) to send Humel’s song ‘Liberation’ to London, but the aeroplane carrying it was lost on route. After the liberation, these songs were broadcast on Radio-Paris too in order to enforce patriotic sentiment at the end of the war. ‘Le Chant heroique de la Résistance’ (Heroic Resistance song) by Blanche Gabrielle, for example, was performed on 11 November 1944 by Guy Lauro, during a particularly turbulent period between Allied forces and Nazi Germany and on the same day that American forces moved into the Netz area in northern France. Between 13 October and 24 December 1945, Paul Arma introduced a radio series entitled La Résistance qui Chante (Resistance Singing) devoted to performing lesser known songs which had played an important role in the Resistance.

'Les Amis du Maquis' (The Friends of the Maquis) was one of a number of songs written by French musicians in France and then sent secretly to London so that it could be played as an act of resistance on Radio-Londres. This radio station became a lifeline to people in France, reminding them that others were there in spirit with them, in their hatred of the Nazis and desire for national freedom. The lyrics were written by Blanche Gabrielle, a French musician who wanted to show support for the Maquis Resistance fighters. The melody was taken from 'La Carmagnole' (The Military Jacket), a French Revolution song of 1792 that described the fates of Marie Antoinette and those who supported the French monarchy, and became an iconic song of France. It was adapted many times in the 19th century and is even mentioned in famous fictional works such as A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy.

In addition to broadcasting songs to boost French morale and national spirit, Radio-Londres also criticised the music and musicians of Radio-Paris. A famous ditty played on Radio-Londres was to the tune of ‘La Cucaracha’ (The cockroach), a Spanish folk corrido that became popular in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, with the words ‘Radio-Paris ment, Radio-Paris ment, Radio-Paris est Allemand.’ (Radio-Paris lies, Radio-Paris lies, Radio-Paris is German.) This song was performed by the satirical singer Pierre Dac, who also denounced Nazis and French politicians. After Admiral Darlan's famous meeting with Hitler at Berchtesgaden, for example, Dac wrote a song to the tune of Frère Jacques with the words 'qui trahit la France? C’est Darlan! C’est Darlan!’ (who is betraying France? It’s Darlan! It's Darlan!). His song ‘Et tout ça, ça fait’ parodied Maurice Chevalier’s ‘Ça fait d’excellents Français’ which was played on Radio-Paris, criticising the greed, fame and ultimate disloyalty of French stars who agreed to sing on the collaborationist station Radio-Paris. A similar composer was Maurice van Moppes, whose songs were parachuted by the RAF into France in a small pamphlet entitled 'Chansons de la BBC' (Songs of the BBC), illustrated by Moppes himself, with an inscription on the back: ‘les chansons que vous avez entendues à la radio vous sont apportées par vos amis de la RAF’ (the songs that you have heard on the radio are brought to you by your friends in the RAF).

Georges Bégué, an operative with the Special Operations Executive, began the trend to send coded messages to resisters in France. Broadcasts would begin with the words, ‘Before we begin, please listen to some personal messages,’ followed by information for the Resistance, messages of thanks to agents, and personal events such as details of the birth of agents’ children. Because the lines were flooded with these codes, particularly from June 1944 onwards, the Nazis were not able to keep up with the decoding; as the messages became increasingly political, they reacted by trying to jam the radio waves with background noise. (Resistance fighters retaliated by blowing up one of the Radio-Paris transmitters in Bourges on 8 May 1942.) But the static was not strong enough to drown the music. On 1 June 1944, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony was broadcast, with its Morse-code ‘V’ (…_) for Victory. The same day, Radio-Londres broadcast the first stanza of Verlaine’s poem ‘Chanson d’Automne’ (Song of Autumn), of which the first three lines were a coded message informing the French Resistance that the invasion would begin within 24 hours. These lines were: ‘Les sanglots longs/ des violons/ de l’automne/ blessent mon coeur/ d’une langueur/ monotone’ (The long sobs of the violins of autumn hurt my heart with a monotonous languor). Four days later, at 11.15pm, the rest of ‘Chanson d’Automne’ was broadcast, again carrying a coded message, this time that the attack would start within 48 hours and the Resistance should begin sabotage operations, especially on the French railroad system. The next day, Allied forces began their offensive. On 15 August, the enemy radio station, Radio-Paris, was shut down as part of the liberation of Paris.


In Occupied Paris, music was equally important for radio propaganda, but on an even greater scale and for antithetical purposes. Radio-Paris employed over 1,000 people and cost the Nazis a million Reichsmarks to run, revealing the importance they attributed it. Its first broadcasts were made less than three months after the initial invasion, consolidating its role in Nazi war efforts, like another branch of the army. About half the daily output of Radio-Paris (45%) was devoted to music, including a programme called Au Rythme des Temps (The Rhythm of Rime) which, from March 1942, adapted famous songs for propaganda. For example, the tune ‘Aupres de ma blonde’ (With my girlfriend) was used as a vehicle for the words:

Au jardin d’Angleterre, les bobards ont fleuri.
Tous les menteurs du monde parlent à la BBC.
Au gre de ces ondes, qu’il fait bon mentir

In the garden of England, deception has flourished.
All the liars of the world speak on the BBC.
As the radio waves welcome it, they tell good lies.

On average, Radio-Paris broadcast around 75 symphony concerts a year, weekly chamber concerts, and biweekly operas. It also encouraged private radio stations to have a musical programme each evening.

Initially, there was a sharp divide between cultural and entertainment programmes entirely devoid of politics, and those devoted to propaganda. The idea behind this was to have a mask of normality; in keeping with this aim, mainly French citizens were employed at the station. The principal music DJ was Pierre Hiegel, who, from the summer of 1940 until the liberation, presented concerts and recordings. He became the most popular voice on French radio. Not one of his programmes alluded to political affairs, and there is no evidence that he was involved in collaboration. In fact, contrary to the wishes of the station director, Major Schmidtke, who wanted to use German music to convince people of the superiority of German culture, Hiegel played primarily French composers, such as Debussy, Fauré and Ravel, refusing to play pieces by Germans such as Lortzing, Lehar or Strauss. The Propaganda Abteilung (Propaganda Department), set up by the Nazis to control French press and publishing, tried to impose German music broadcasts, but gave up after the first two because internal reports showed that it was serving no purpose. Instead, the Germans came around to the programming of French music as it was thought to entice French listeners and make them more open to the political programmes. The only reminders of Nazi control were the frequent interruptions for speeches from Hitler in Berlin, and the conspicuous absence of music by Jewish composers.

In 1941, the Grand Orchestre de Radio Paris (The Radio-Paris Symphony Orchestra) was set up, conducted by Jean Fournet. It specialised in playing a combination of serious and popular music, including the works of Maurice Chevalier, with popular musicians such as pianist Alfred Cortot and singer Mistinguett. Mistinguett explained that she sang on Radio-Paris not to collaborate, but ‘in order to please the public and make them forget what was happening in France’. Free concerts were also given at the Théatre de Champs-Elysées (Champs-Elysées theatre) to popularise the orchestra. On average, 100 works were performed a week, involving 33 soloists. Popular groups were the Chorale Emile Passani (Emile Passani Choir), L'Orchestre de Raymond Legrand (The Raymond Legrand orchestra), L'Orchestre de Paris (The Paris orchestra, directed by the pianist Kostia de Konstantinoff), and L'Orchestra de Rennes Bretagne (The Orchestra of Rennes, in Brittany, directed by Maurice Henderick).

The station also specialised in more experimental music, broadcasting pieces such as Puisque vous êtes chez vous (Since you are at home) which tested experimental sounds. An important centre of this was the Studio d'Essai. Created by Pierre Schaeffer in 1943 in conjunction with the Universtiy of Paris, its mission was to research the principles of artistic radio broadcasting, as well as to experiment with Musique Concrète, composed from recorded sound. This facility was used as the French centre of Resistance radio, which in 1944 became responsible for the first broadcasts in liberated Paris. Schaeffer also prepared 100 hours of programmes to be used at the liberation, including Eluard’s own recording of his poem ‘Liberté’ (Liberty) which had been set by composers such as Poulenc. These episodes were broadcast between 19th and 24th August.

One of the key questions to emerge after the war was whether those who had worked for Radio-Paris were necessarily collaborators. Many French were unable to comprehend how musicians and DJs could work for an organisation so clearly under the thumb of Goebbels and Nazi propaganda. Some, such as Maurice Chevalier, were criticised by Radio-Londres and accused of collaborating. However, Chevalier did refuse to perform in Berlin at the request of the Nazis. Instead he agreed to perform for prisoners of war at the camp where he was interned during WWI, in exchange for the liberation of ten prisoners. He was officially acquitted of collaborating by a French court. Hiegel faced a similarly ambivalent response after the war, but was allowed to broadcast again from 1950. Others, such as conductor Jo Bouillon, faced an even more difficult conundrum: originally contracted to the Radio-Nationale at Vichy, Bouillon refused to give concerts on Radio-Paris in 1942. However, the Nazi-supporting politician Philippe Henriot retaliated by breaking his contract with Vichy, so that in order to avoid STO, he had no choice but to accept the job. Bouillon worked with Mistinguett and Chevalier, complicating the question of whether or not his work constituted collaboration, as well as with Josephine Baker (an officer of the French Resistance and friend of De Gaulle) who became his wife in 1947. For others, Radio-Paris was one of the few employment opportunities during a period of food and heating shortages. This process of disapproval, followed by acquittal, repeated itself in the case of every person working for Radio-Paris, as the Commission d’Epuration decided to exonerate actors and musicians.

Radio-Nationale de Vichy

Radio-Vichy never achieved quite the same prominence as its Parisian and British counterparts. Partly, this was because a vast number of listeners in Free France listened to Radio-Paris and Radio-Londres, especially after 1941 when Radio-Paris increased its broadcasts. These listeners were not even swayed when Vichy tried to make listening to Radio-Londres a crime punishable by death. The Vichy government was also far from ideologically unified. Between Pétain’s idealistic revolutionary policies, Laval’s more collaborationist policies, and Darlan’s lack of belief in the national regime (the latter became a frequent voice on Radio Vichy), as well as smatterings of communism and resistance throughout southern France, there was no single political message that the radio tried to publicise. The political function of Radio Vichy was also undermined by Radio-Paris which ridiculed Pétain and criticised Weygand and Darlan, and by Radio-Londres, which slandered the entire Vichy regime. The overall consequence of this lack of unification and solidarity in free France was that the Radio-Nationale de Vichy did not come to play as significant a role as the other stations during the Occupation.

Instead of one dominating radio station in free France, smaller scale and private radio stations became popular. Minister Daladier brought in a new law that all small radio stations were under his authority, and set up a censorship to establish state monopoly on all broadcasting. Amongst the stations set up was Radio-Jeunesse which broadcast popular songs to boost morale and promote unity of spirit. This spirit was carried on by Jean Nohain in his 1941 Radio Vichy broadcasts dedicated to the family, using songs that evoked the glory of the past and life in the country. The Orchestre Nationale (National Orchestra), which had been disbanded earlier in the war, was revived with new players under the direction of D E Inghelbrecht, to perform on these shows.

Other stations also broadcast popular songs, but for resistance purposes, as with Radio Montpellier. Initially it managed to avoid censorship, but in May 1941, after the broadcast of the Maurice Chevalier’s song, ‘Prenez le Temps d’Aimer’ (Take the Time to Love), which contained inappropriate lyrics, the station was suspended for eight days.

The burgeoning of radio stations, the boom in listeners, the quantity of money invested, and the virulence of reactions against radio stations, is testimony to the immense power accorded to the radio during World War II. The term la guerre des ondes (the war of the radiowaves) was coined, to refer to the verbal battles that took place between the different stations as the brutalities of war raged. The fact that music played a crucial role in all this shows just how significant it was during WWII.

By Daisy Fancourt


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