Richard Vinen
The Unfree French

Some made queuing a profession. Often this was a family business: mothers would queue for seven francs an hour and then send their children to deliver the provisions to clients. People who had special rights to go to the head of a queue, such as a tramp with a card that defined him as 'severely handicapped,' were the elite of this new profession. Established social hierarchies were reversed in wartime queues. In Marseilles, Italian women, normally the lowest in the working class, were said to have pushed to the front of queues saying, 'Priority to the victors.' In Brittany, women who cooked for the Germans were given special rights to go to the head of queues. Since women who worked for the Germans were usually poor and often regarded as little better than prostitutes, housewives from 'respectable' families resented making way for them. When Madame L., who brought provisions for the Germans, went to the front of a queue in November 1940, 'there was general discontent and muttering could be heard.' In a food queue in Beauvais, an argument that began when one woman accused another of 'sleeping with boches' finished with the accused woman having her head shaved at the liberation.

People talked in queues, spreading the gossip that was so important in occupied France, and, sometimes, they began to protest. On 22 December 1940 there was a near riot in the Marche de Buci when five Germans went to the head of a queue of 2,000 people who were waiting to buy 300 portions of rabbit. The Paris police became uncomfortably aware that every queue was a political demonstration waiting to happen and, in December 1940, they sought to regulate queues by insisting that shoppers collect a ticket and come back at an appointed time. On 28 June 1940 (perhaps anticipating the ways in which the Communist Party might exploit discontent after the invasion of the Soviet Union), the Paris police tried to forbid the formation of queues more than half an hour before shops opened. They were right to be worried. On 31 May 1942 a queue in the Rue de Buci gave rise to a riot in the course of which Communist militants killed two policemen.

The absence of petrol made bicycles important. They were especially valuable for town dwellers who needed to get into the countryside to buy provisions. On his way back to Dijon in September 1941, Henri Drouot noted 500 bicycles coming in the opposite direction, including ten ridden by grocers pulling small carts. Andre Montagnard, who wrote 'Marechal nous voila,' also composed a song entitled 'Peā‚¬dalons' about a couple who spill a bag of onions while cycling back from a provisioning trip. Bicycles themselves became sought-after items on the black market: in Rennes, a city of 100,000 inhabitants, about 1,000 bicycles were stolen per year during the occupation.

Keeping track of consumption in occupied France was hard. Prices rose so fast and so unpredictably that, in 1943, school mathematics textbooks ceased to ask students to compute specific prices and suggested instead that they should assign commodities prices that seemed realistic to them at the time. Official rations were barely enough to support life; the philosopher Simone Weil is said to have starved to death in 1943 because, as an exile in London, she tried to live on the official rations that were permitted to her compatriots who stayed in France. However, it was not always easy to obtain even minimum rations, because shopkeepers were unable, or unwilling, to honour ration tickets: a Paris police report described ration tickets as 'uncovered cheques.' Furthermore, many could not afford to buy, with their official wages, even the meagre goods that they were permitted by their rations. Inevitably, people were forced into informal and illegal transactions.

Informal channels were themselves complicated. There was no single black market. Prices might vary according to who was buying, and how risky the transaction seemed to be. Often exchange replaced simple cash purchase, and sometimes the exchange involved an unspoken assumption of favours to come. The very goods that were exchanged changed in nature. The underfed cattle of July 1944 were not the same as their fat relatives of 1940: it was estimated that 130 beasts in 1944 would provide the same amount of meat as 70 in 1940. The government sponsored ersatz production so that state-manufactured cigarettes contained one part 'odourless leaves' to two parts of tobacco. Bakers were permitted to include maize as well as wheat in their bread. Black marketeers watered milk and mixed butter with margarine.

Consumption was never, however, just about grams and calories. The very basis of the Vichy regime was linked with food. In his message of 13 August 1940, Petain said: 'The first task of the government is to ensure an adequate supply of food for everyone.' Jacques-Alain de Sedouy recalled of his schooldays: 'I was not surprised that the distribution of the vitaminized biscuits and pastilles that took place each morning was staged in front of the portrait of the Marshal, as though he himself presided over a sort of communion.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.