Hélène de Portes

Hélène de Portes (24 February 1902 - 28 June 1940) was a countess of France. She is remembered for the influence she exerted on her partner, Paul Reynaud, premier of France under the Third Republic at the time of its defeat in June 1940 at the hands of Nazi Germany.[1] A Fascist sympathizer, she was described as "a middle aged woman, with a shrill voice, and a clamorous, demanding manner, who chatted like a magpie and lost her temper with ease."[2] Charles de Gaulle called her "a turkey", while Winston Churchill nicknamed her "the parrot".[3]


The Countess de Portes was born Hélène Marie Jeanne Rebuffel in 1902 in Marseille, the daughter of Charles Honoré and Jeanne Marie Juliette (née Sans) Rebuffel.[4] Her father was a civil engineer and director of Société des Grands Travaux de Marseille from 1917 to 1939. Hélène Rebuffel was introduced to Paul Reynaud in the early 1920s by Andre Tardieu, a friend of her father's, much to his displeasure, and he actively sought other suitors. She eventually married the Italian Count Henri de Portes, but they separated after she had borne him two children: a son, Hervé, in 1930, and a daughter, Anne Juliette Caroline, in 1932.[3] De Portes became Paul Reynaud's mistress in 1938 after he and his wife separated.

Reynaud's premiershipEdit

As Reynaud rose through the upper ranks of his party, the Democratic Republican Alliance, de Portes' status moved upwards with him. She was described by insiders as la porte à côté, the side door through which interested persons could gain access to the state of mind of the French government.[5][6]

As the power of Nazi Germany grew, Reynaud was identified by many French voters and parliamentary deputies as a strong voice of resistance. He became Minister of Finance in 1938 and on 21 March 1940, after the German occupation of Poland, became Prime Minister of France. As such, he led a government whose status depended on its alliance with the United Kingdom. However, while the French alliance with Britain was strategic policy from the standpoint of the fight against Hitler, the alliance was obnoxious to de Portes, who has been described as "so violently anti-British that Hitler had once sent an emissary to woo her favours."[7]

Reynaud's ability to lead his government against the Axis was compromised by his partner, who was on terms of friendship with the ambassadors from Mussolini's Italy[8] and Hitler's Germany.[9]

Battle of FranceEdit

After the catastrophic Battle of Sedan, and the subsequent German offensive on the Allied defence line centered on the Somme river, the French forces and civilian government were forced to leave Paris. On 10–13 June 1940, Reynaud tried to re-establish his government at Tours. To reorganize the forces, he opened intensive negotiations on 12 June with the maverick general Charles de Gaulle, but de Portes personally intervened in their discussion and threw a tantrum in their presence at the prospect of what she considered to be futile further warfare.[10] De Portes held a particular antipathy towards Winston Churchill and during one meeting at Tours, according to his bodyguard Walter Thompson, lunged at Churchill's throat with a knife she had concealed within her dress.[11][12]

As the French front continued to collapse, Reynaud, his government, and the Countess de Portes briefly re-established themselves at the Hotel Splendid, Bordeaux on 15 June. De Portes intensified her efforts to persuade her partner to offer terms of surrender, going to the length of intriguing with a key diplomat from the United States of America. The disgusted envoy later recalled that "I don't think her role in encouraging the defeatist elements during Reynaud's critical last days as prime minister should be underestimated. She spent an hour weeping in my office to get us to urge Reynaud to ask for an armistice."[13][14]

De Portes' final intervention on 16 June was aimed at the last-ditch plan, strongly supported by Winston Churchill and Jean Monnet, to merge France and the United Kingdom into an emergency Franco-British Union. The document to create the Union was meant to be presented to the French Cabinet that evening as an alternative to requesting an armistice, but de Portes entered the stenographer's room where the document was being typed, read it, and then left to spread its contents among the Cabinet ministers who were leaning towards defeatism. Forewarned, the Cabinet rejected both the Union and Reynaud's government. The beaten premier resigned that evening.[15][16]


Reynaud's car after the accident

Now private citizens, Reynaud and de Portes left Bordeaux, driving southeast away from the advancing German armies, intending to stop at Reynaud's holiday home at Grès, Herault, (some sources state his daughter's home at Sainte-Maxime [17]) before fleeing to North Africa. On 28 June, with Reynaud at the wheel, their Renault Juvaquatre car inexplicably left the road and hit a plane tree at La Peyrade, between Frontignan and Sète; de Portes was all but decapitated, while Reynaud escaped with relatively minor head injuries.[18][19] On hearing news of the accident, de Gaulle exclaimed "J’espère qu’elle est crevée, la salope!" ("I hope she's gone, the bitch!") [20]

Hospitalized at Montpellier, Reynaud was arrested on his discharge and imprisoned for the rest of the war.[21][22] At about the same time, French diplomat Dominique Leca was apprehended by police in Madrid while in possession of a diplomatic bag containing gold and jewellery destined for de Portes' children evacuated to the United States. The affair was used as propaganda by the Vichy government to further discredit the Third Republic.


The British journalist Noel Barber characterized Hélène as follows:

The most powerful woman in France, she exercised a malign influence on the destinies of her country.[6]

The American journalist and author Vincent Sheean added:

She was not chic, she was not charming, and she was not intelligent. Reynaud was used to her, depended on her, needed her: that was all.[2]

Major General Edward Spears, British Liaison Officer, observed:

Madame de Portes appeared to an ordinary male observer as absolutely devoid of charms and even of that 'chic' that Parisian women always had. However, she dressed blindly following fashion, always wearing the latest dress, whether it suited her or not, provided it is narrow and shows her shapes. She had lovely legs and ankles, but her complexion was yellow. Medium-length, her black, curly hair, crowned short and high, never looked clean. She liked the kind of hat that men find the most ridiculous: a kind of saucer stuck on the back of the head. Her mouth was very large and the voice that came out was not harmonious. Her keen intelligence and a culture rare enough among the women of her milieu ought to have given her assurance and the air of the world. Instead, she seemed annoyed and uncomfortable. Her obvious desire to be noticed was probably due to a lack of self-confidence, but she often disliked it because it was too obvious that the attentions she overwhelmed were not a sympathetic feeling, but an instinctive and visible desire for criticism. She "sought the fault" and, to her obvious satisfaction, generally found it. She was, as the French say, "une excitée." Some of them found sex appeal.[23]


Hélène de Portes is portrayed in Jean Marboeuf's 1993 film Pétain by Frédérique Tirmont. She was also the basis of the fictionalized character "Baronne de Porte" in Dennis Wheatley's novel, The Black Baroness.


  1. ^ Shirer, William L. (1969). The Collapse of the Third Republic.
  2. ^ a b Gates, E. M. (1982). End of the Affair: The Collapse of the Anglo-French Alliance 1939–40. 409–412. Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978-0049400634
  3. ^ a b Pelayo, D. (2009) L'accident de Paul Reynaud. l'Agglorieuse
  4. ^ Belcikowski, C. (2018). Les registres d’état-civil de Marseille, 1901, in Helene Marie Jeanne Rebuffel, comtesse de Portes 1902-1940. [1]
  5. ^ Shirer, William L. (1969). The Collapse of the Third Republic. pp. 484–486, 551.
  6. ^ a b Barber, Noel (1976). The Week France Fell. p. 27.
  7. ^ Barber, Noel (1976). The Week France Fell. p. 29.
  8. ^ Barber, Noel (1976). The Week France Fell. p. 45.
  9. ^ Barber, Noel (1976). The Week France Fell. p. 68.
  10. ^ Barber, Noel (1976). The Week France Fell. pp. 123–125.
  11. ^ Thompson, W. (1951). I Was Churchill's Shadow. C. Johnson, London. ASIN 0000C12EW [2]
  12. ^ Callan, P. (2012). "Adolf Hitler's orders: Kill Winston Churchill". Daily Express, 21 July 2012. Northern & Shell, London.
  13. ^ Shirer, William L. (1969). The Collapse of the Third Republic. p. 813.
  14. ^ Barber, Noel (1976). The Week France Fell. p. 223.
  15. ^ Shirer, William L. (1969). The Collapse of the Third Republic. pp. 827, 830–841.
  16. ^ Barber, Noel (1976). The Week France Fell. pp. 261–271.
  17. ^ Kapfer, E. (2017). Hélène Marie Jeanne Rebuffel, Comtesse de Portes (1902 - 1940). Christine Belcikowski Publications. [3]
  18. ^ Benoit-Méchin, J. (1956). Soixante jours qui ébranlèrent l'Occident : Volume 3, La Fin du régime - 26 juin / 10 juillet 1940,  p.46. Laffont, Paris. ISBN 978-2-221-13211-1
  19. ^ Photo of the car wreck, under year '1940', in Chronology La Peyrade [4]
  20. ^ Bentegeat, H. (2014). Et surtout pas un mot a la Maréchale - Petain et ses femmes. 252  p. Albin Michel, Paris. ISBN 978-2226256911
  21. ^ Shirer, William L. (1969). The Collapse of the Third Republic. p. 931.
  22. ^ Barber, Noel (1976). The Week France Fell. p. 299.
  23. ^ Spears, E. (1978). Testimony of a Disaster. p.226. Editions Arthème Bayard.