Forgotten history: The women who fought in the French Resistance

The female members of the French Resistance who played their part in liberating France are often forgotten, but their stories are fascinating.

Forgotten history: The women who fought in the French Resistance
Unnamed maquisards (resistance fighters) pictured in summer 1944. Photo: AFP

They did not yet have the right to vote, but women in France played a key part in weakening the enemy from within during the Nazi occupation from 1940-44.

Yet, their stories have gone largely untold.

“These women have really gone under the radar,” said Anne Sebba, a British author whose book Les Parisiennes, published in 2018, traces the lives and battles of female Resistance fighters in the French capital during World War II.

The reason was partly that women did not always join formal resistance organisations, which meant they got few medals at the end of the war. 

“There was a general belief that women didn't do much during the occupation of Paris. We tend to only remember that their heads were shaved and that they collaborated with the Nazis,” Sebba told The Local. 

But that was far from the truth, as the multitude of heroines featured in her book show. They were saboteurs, intelligence gatherers, food distributors, organisers, spies – and fashionistas.

“Couture houses played a key role in keeping the economy going and helping Paris survive the war. It wasn't just about Parisian women being vain. It was all interconnected,” Sebba said.

Here's a look at some of France's Resistance members.

READ ALSO 'I was just 19 when I cycled up to a German officer and put two bullets in his head'

The journalist

Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, niece of Charles de Gaulle who was at that time directing resistance operations from London, joined the resistance at 20, in 1940. Her early days as a resistance fighter consisted of minor protest acts such as tearing up German billboards before moving on to distributing resistance literature and writing newspaper articles.

She was arrested in 1943 and shipped to the female concentration camp of Ravensbrück the year after, where she spent months in isolation. She survived the war, and later immortalised her horrific experiences in the camp in La Traverse De La Nuit (God Remained Outside).

The interpreter

Jeannie Rousseau, later Jeannie de Clarens, was an interpreter in Paris for an organisation of French businessmen, whom she helped negotiate contracts with the German occupiers. 

She then fed all the information she got out of those negotiations to a French resistance intelligence network called the Druids. Her flawless German and attractive looks made her a favourite with the German officers, who did not stop to think that the charming interpreter might actually be a spy.

The information she provided resulted in what historian Rémy Desquesnes called a “masterpiece in the history of intelligence gathering” in his book 1940-1944: The Secret History of the Atlantic Wall (2003).

If you want to learn more about Rousseau, the New York Times published a detailed op-ed when she died back in 2017 at the age of 98.

The liaison officer

Cécile Rol-Tanguy worked with her husband Henri to co-ordinate the battle for the liberation of Paris. She joined the Resistance aged only 21 and acted as a liaison officer for her husband, sometimes in disguise and under different code names. She would use fake documents to pass through German checkpoints, hide guns, grenades, ammo and sensitive documents in a baby carriage.

“It was easier to put a revolver or a submachine gun in the bottom of a pram!” she told France 24 in 2014.

“Often afterwards we would think to ourselves 'that was close,' but you don't do anything if you have fear in your stomach. I believed in everything we did,” she said.

She died earlier this year, aged 101, and there is now a special exhibition to her at the Musée de la Liberation in Paris.

READ ALSO Why you really should visit France's WWII resistance museum

The video below is a full profile of Rol-Tanguy from 2014 (in French).

The nun

Hélène Studler was a nun and resistance member based at a hospital in Metz, northeast France. She helped with transferring injured fighters back from the frontline, visited prison camps and distributed food to areas in need.
Sister Hélène also helped prisoners escape through her wide support network of French families who helped nurse, feed and hide French fighters in need.
Around 2,000 French prisoners escaped thanks to her network in the years 1941-42. One of the most famous ones was François Mitterand – later elected French president – who managed to flee the transit camp near Boulay where he was taken by the help of Sister Hélène's network.
And many more..
These are just four out of many more Resistance heroines, some more famous than others, few of who have received official recognition comparable to that of their male counterparts.
Women hold only six out of France's 1,038 Compagnons de la Libération award, created by wartime president Charles de Gaulle in 1940 to compensate freedom fighters, according to the French government.

Member comments

  1. Oh, dear, what about Madame Fourcade? She headed up the largest resistance organization throughout France all during that time!

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French forces tortured and murdered Algerian freedom fighter in 1950s, admits Macron

French forces "tortured and murdered" Algerian freedom fighter Ali Boumendjel during his country's war for independence, President Emmanuel Macron admitted on Tuesday, officially reappraising a death that was covered up as a suicide.

French forces tortured and murdered Algerian freedom fighter in 1950s, admits Macron
Malika, the widow of Ali Boumendjel, pictured in 2001. Photo: Stefan Fferberg/AFP

Macron made the admission “in the name of France” during a meeting with Boumendjel’s grandchildren.

The move comes after Macron in January refused to issue an official apology for abuses committed during the occupation of Algeria – instead, he agreed to form a “truth commission” as recommended by a report commissioned by the government to shed light on France’s colonial past.

Atrocities committed by both sides during the 1954-1962 Algerian war of independence continue to strain relations between the countries.

Boumendjel, a nationalist and lawyer, was arrested during the battle of Algiers by the French army, “placed incommunicado, tortured, and then killed on 23 March 1957,” the Elysee Palace said in a statement.

“Ali Boumendjel did not commit suicide. He was tortured and then killed,” Macron told Boumendjel’s grandchildren, according to the statement.

It is not the first time the real cause of death was acknowledged.

In 2000, the former head of French intelligence in Algiers Paul Aussaresses confessed to ordering Boumendjel’s death and disguising the murder as a suicide, according to the statement.

It added that Macron on Tuesday had also reiterated his desire to give families the opportunity to find out the truth about this chapter of history.

Last month, Boumendjel’s niece Fadela Boumendjel-Chitour denounced what she called the “devastating” lie the French state had told about her uncle.

French historian Benjamin Stora, who wrote the government-commissioned report, has said there is a “never-ending memory war” between the two countries.

The report has been described by the Algerian government as “not objective” and falling “below expectations.”

During his 2017 election campaign, Macron – the first president born after the colonial period – declared that the occupation of Algeria was a “crime against humanity”.

He has since said there was “no question of showing repentance” or of “presenting an apology” for abuses committed in the North African country.