As a young man, Gilbert Lesage was a conscientious objector. He was an activist with the Quakers, who sent him to Germany in the 1930s. Even at that early stage, he was sensitive to the fate of the persecuted Jews. In the summer of 1940, Lesage offered his services to the Vichy regime and was appointed head of the SSE (Service Social des Etrangers, the social-service agency for aliens). In August 1942, when the authorities in southern France began to round up Jews and turn them over to the Germans, Lesage was placed in charge of selecting Jews for deportation, according to police secretary-general, René Bousquet’s instructions. Lesage disobeyed his orders and clandestinely warned Jewish and other rescue organizations of impending raids, thus making it possible to hide most of the children consigned to deportation. When Bousquet eliminated all exemptions from deportation, Lesage ignored this order as well and sent the selection officers an instruction sheet exempting everyone under the age of fifteen. He personally directed the selection process at the Vénissieux camp near Lyons and freed 108 Jewish children. This method was used in other places where Jews were concentrated, near the cities of Mâcon, Clermont-Ferrand, Limoges, and Montluçon. Police officers reported this to Bousquet, and Lesage was investigated on suspicion of foiling “operations meant to concentrate several types of aliens.” Lesage was arrested on April 8, 1944, and the SSE was shut down in June. Lesage remained in prison until the liberation of France. He belonged to the group of senior Vichy officials who courageously used their power to foil the authorities’ policies.
On January 14, 1985, Yad Vashem recognized Gilbert Lesage as Righteous Among the Nations.