‘The first days of the revolution, here we are,’ wrote poet Christine Pozzi in late February 1934. A month later her mood would become more sombre: the current situation had assumed apocalyptic proportions.[i] Not everyone was as downcast. Certainly, some sections of the right were heartened to see Gaston Doumergue in power, while the left-wing demonstrations throughout France gave antifascists reason for some optimism.[ii] But the mood remained tense. ‘Public opinion’ became a discursive battleground between the left and the right. Both sides sparred with each other for the right to be recognised as representatives of the popular mood.[iii] Left-wing activists explained the plot behind the riots and the threat to the Republic, as well as eulogising on the significance of 12 February. Likewise reactionary speakers such as Philippe Henriot and Jean Ybarnégaray mounted a propaganda tour, supported by right-wing journalists and pamphleteers, to bring the ‘truth’ about 6 February to the provinces.[iv]
But for all the efforts of an Henriot or an Ybarnégaray, newspapers provided an important source of information for the French public.[v] According to police, demand for news was high. In Melun, eager citizens stampeded to the train station and ‘besieged’ the newsstand when the newspapers arrived by rail from Paris. The crowd, though excited, was reported to be ‘…a very calm crowd…. but anguished, [a crowd] which grasped the gravity of events and which feels, or supposes, that the Republican regime is at stake.’[vi] In Rennes, police noted that the public ‘fought over’ the Parisian newspapers, which usually sold out by early afternoon. [vii]
In several areas, police reported that the press had an inordinate influence on public opinion. In Rennes, it was noted that L’Action française had experienced unexpectedly high sales. But even the regional newspapers had ‘… helped to intensify agitation and sow discord in the Public mind, which has given itself over to rash comments.’[viii] In Reims, the tendentious articles of L’Action française and L’Humanité had ‘completely warped the judgement of their readers’. Worse still, the campaign of the former against the police and certain politicians had apparently gained widespread credence in the local population.[ix]
Even in usually calm areas it seemed that people were nervous. In the Haute-Loire, the events of February had ‘profoundly troubled’ opinion in the department despite the distance from Paris, the usually difficult lines of communication and the ‘southern tendency’ to downplay the importance of national events.[x] Police blamed political agitators for the disquiet in some areas. In Lyon, the local commissaire spécial noted that since mid-February Lyonnais citizens had abandoned their ‘usual reserve’ and ‘levelheadedness’. He blamed ‘extremist agitators’, who had instigated a sea-change in local opinion.[xi] Likewise, in Le Havre, political activists had sought to ‘keep their members on tenterhooks, maintaining their fighting spirit’. The result was a ‘heavy atmosphere’ of ‘worry’ and ‘tension’….[xii]
[i] ‘Les premiers jours de la révolution, nous y voici’: Catherine Pozzi, Lawrence Joseph, and Claire Paulhan, Journal 1913-1934 (Paris : Éditions Ramsay, 1987), 640, 644.
[ii] Archbishop Alfred Baudrillart described a ‘détente’ at the time of Doumergue’s assumption of power, but remained sceptical that a man of the premier’s age could act effectively; Baudrillart and Christophe, Les carnets du cardinal Baudrillart, 697.
[iii] Jessica Wardhaugh, ‘Between parliament and the people: the problem of representation in France, 1934-39’, Parliaments, Estates and Representation, 27 (2007), 211-213.N
[iv] Pierre Taittinger, ‘Camouflage communiste’, L’Ami du Peuple, 23 Apr. 1934; AN F7 12963, ‘Conférence de M. Jean Ybarnégarary, député des Basses-Pyrenées, sur ‘La Politique du Crime’, 1 Dec. 1934; Untitled note, 15 Mar. 1934.; J. Bardoux, La Journée sanglante du Mardi 6 Février 1934: Récits de témoins (Clermont-Ferrand, 1934).
[v] AN F713030, ‘Commissariat spécial de Cannes. Rapport mensuel: mois de février 1934. État d’esprit de la population’, n.d. There were only 1.5 million radio sets in France at the time; Winock therefore judges their role to have been ‘very modest’: Winock, La fièvre hexagonale, 213.
[vi] AN F7 13042, ‘Le Commissaire spécial’, 10 Mar. 1934.
[vii] AN F7 13034, ‘Le Commissariat spécial de Rennes’, 3 Mar. 1934.
[viii] AN F7 13034, ‘Commissariat spécial de Rennes’, 3 Mar. 1934.
[ix] AN F7 13036, ‘Commissariat spécial de Reims’, 5 Mar. 1934.
[x] AN F7 13026,‘Le préfet de la Haute-Loire à Monsieur le Ministre de l’Intérieur’, 26 Mar. 1934.
[xi] AN F7 13040, ‘Le Commissariat spécial de Lyon’, 3 Mar. 1934.
[xii] AN F7 13041, ‘Le Commissariat spécial du Havre’, 5 Mar. 1934.