The underground press

Hélène Viannay, founding member of Défense de la France

”Philippe Viannay had found financial help and support from an industrialist, Marcel Lebon (Lebon gas and electricity), who paid for two identical printing presses that were more modern than roneos. One was bought for us with forged papers; the other was officially set up in the company’s offices. This system allowed us to obtain all the strictly rationed and closely monitored supplies that would have been impossible to get otherwise: ink, stencils and various other items. The system worked throughout the Occupation. Philippe didn’t want to use professional printing presses because he thought it would be too risky, so we always printed our newspaper ourselves. Marcel Lebon’s donations enabled us to buy a tandem, a trailer and some equipment, and to rent a place.

Then we had to start: writing articles, finding a name for our newspaper – Défense de la France – and distributing the first printed sheets. Philippe Viannay and Robert Salmon, both of them philosophers, wrote the first articles; I was in charge of distribution, organizing right from the start a security system that worked until the end of the Liberation, even when others took over distribution.

Our first issue had an ‘official circulation’ of 5,000 copies (there had been one in April, but that was before we had come up with our newspaper’s name; the number of copies was 3,000). The founding date was 14 July 1941, and the copies bore the number 1. From then on, at the price of many adventures and frightening close calls, the issues came out once a month until the Liberation. The last one was numbered 47.

Our beginnings were as hard as the times we were going through: Germany was winning on every front, its armies fanning out all over Europe. Only England held out. We in France were cold and hungry; it snowed in winter, the curfew restricted our movements, the Germans were everywhere. Those were very long months when hope was slim. Yet the newspaper thrived and we were never able to meet demand. Naturally, at first everybody did everything, from participating in what we called the editorial board to learning how to use the machine, setting type, writing articles and delivering copies. There was total equality between boys and girls because our men were not sexist. Gradually, we even set up typesetting, printing and other workshops in order to be more efficient.

We had to move our precious printing press several times, either at the request of the people hosting us or because we found that the neighbors were giving us suspicious looks. In late 1941 I decided to move our printing press into the cellar of my laboratory at the Sorbonne. We stayed there several months, working at night because of the curfew. It was an exhausting but exalting time.

Outside events affected us, too: the round-ups of the Jews in the summer of 1942 led us to develop our system of forged papers, which became very effective. The Allied landing in North Africa gave us hope. And we weren’t alone: a group of young university and high school students, the Volontaires de la Liberté, joined us. They distributed the newspaper, whose circulation had soared from 20,000 to 150,000 copies. The scale had changed.

More people had joined the editorial board. A boy named Jean-Daniel Jurgensen – a future diplomat – joined us. He had been part of an intelligence network where everybody had been arrested, but he was lucky. His contribution was important because he was an intelligent Gaullist and talked Philippe into giving up the myth that Pétain was part of the Resistance. »

Hélène Viannay in Combats de femmes, 1939-1945, Evelyne MORIN-ROTUREAU, Autrement, 2001