Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba - review by Caroline Moorehead

Caroline Moorehead

Occupational Hazards

Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 457pp £20 order from our bookshop

In the spring of 1942, a French résistante called Cécile, forced to go underground in Paris on account of her activities, was asked by her mother how, since she was herself the mother of a young daughter, she could carry out this work. ‘It is precisely because I have a child that I do it,’ Cécile replied. ‘I do not want her to grow up in a world of occupation and collaboration.’ Les Parisiennes is full of stories of equally brave women, alongside those of women who collaborated with the Germans. It is said that a similar proportion of the population – some 10 per cent – became either active resisters or active collaborators during what became known as les Années Noires, with the rest simply carrying on, as best they could, their ordinary lives. Until 1938 women had only been allowed to work or own property with the permission of their fathers and husbands. As Anne Sebba shows, life for Parisian women was a deeply ambiguous affair. Their experiences, like a kaleidoscope, can be ‘turned in any number of ways to produce a different image’.

Parisians were first amazed and then reassured when the gleaming, well-fed, glossy German soldiers marched into their city on 14 June 1940. Expecting brutality and uncouthness, they found their occupiers polite and suave. As one woman put it, ‘after the agony of defeat a kind of euphoria reigned’. It was

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