France and Fascism (?)

fascisme-francais

Berstein and Winock 2014 book

A few weeks ago, the latest book on French fascism landed on my doormat.  Entitled Fascisme français? La controverse, the book is a collection of essays edited by French historians Serge Berstein and Michel Winock.  It is not the first book to bear this title.  Robert Soucy’s Fascisme français? (the French version of his French Fascism: The Second Wave) appeared in 2004.  Why should two books on French fascism be posing the subject as a question?  Because since the 1980s, historians have disputed the strength and import of French fascist groups during the interwar years.  One school of thought (to which Berstein and Winock belong) holds that fascism was a minority pursuit in interwar France, and it denies that the largest extreme right-wing group at the time, the Croix de Feu (which later became the Parti Social Français) was authentically fascist.  Soucy, on the other hand, was one of the first historians to argue the opposite case – that the Croix de Feu and its successor were large fascist movements.  At stake in the debate is the (apparent) inherent commitment to democracy of the French, and their ‘allergy’ (a term used by Berstein) to fascism.

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Soucy’s 2004 book

From my point of view, the most welcome aspect of Berstein and Winock’s new book is that it engages to some extent with the English-language literature on the topic.  Jean-Paul Thomas’s chapter on the Croix de Feu/PSF refers to (‘engages with’ would be too strong a term for this short chapter) the recent publications by Samuel Kalman and Sean Kennedy, among others.  Even the acknowledgement that this literature exists is a good sign, even if Thomas is dismissive of it.  For too long it has seemed that English-language scholarship has been ignored by some historians of French fascism.  Indeed, Soucy should feel himself honoured that his work has even been published in translation.  Other historians of French fascism have not been translated – one wonders if they are ever likely to be… 

Anyway, I haven’t yet had chance to read the whole book, and so I’ll reserve my judgement until then.  But the appearance of a new book on fascism gives me the chance to plug a forthcoming publication of my own, co-authored with Brian Jenkins, who has published in this area previously.  Below is the blurb from the Routledge website: 

‘France and Fascism: February 1934 and the Dynamics of Political Crisis is the first English-language book to examine the most significant political event in interwar France: the Paris riots of February 1934. On 6 February 1934, thousands of fascist rioters almost succeeded in bringing down the French democratic regime. The violence prompted the polarisation of French politics as hundreds of thousands of French citizens joined extreme right-wing paramilitary leagues or the left-wing Popular Front coalition. This ‘French civil war’, the first shots of which were fired in February 1934, would come to an end only at the Liberation of France ten years later.9781138860339

The book challenges the assumption that the riots did not pose a serious threat to French democracy by providing a more balanced historical contextualisation of the events. Each chapter follows a distinctive analytical framework, incorporating the latest research in the field on French interwar politics as well as important new investigations into political violence and the dynamics of political crisis.

With a direct focus on the actual processes of the unfolding political crisis and the dynamics of the riots themselves, France and Fascism offers a comprehensive analysis which will be of interest to undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as scholars, in the areas of French history and politics, and fascism and the far right.’

‘Here lies a good Frenchman’: A victim of 6 February 1934

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In the south west corner of Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery lays the grave of Raymond Rossignol. Aged 37, Rossignol was mortally wounded during a riot on the Place de la Concorde on 6 February 1934. On that night, thousands of extreme right-wing paramilitaries and war veterans took to the street to protest against a centre-left government embroiled in the so-called ‘Stavisky Affair’. The Affair had implicated several high-profile parliamentarians in the dodgy financial dealing of conman Alexandre Stavisky. For the extreme right, the Affair, along with Stavisky’s convenient suicide on 9 January 1934 (thus silencing any potentially damaging revelations), epitomised the rottenness at the heart of the democratic regime. Demanding strong authoritarian leadership guided by ‘French’ values, several groups including the monarchist Action française, the nationalist Jeunesses patriotes, and the fascist Solidarité française fought with police in front of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the French parliament. They ultimately did not gain entry to the building and make good on their threats to ‘string up’ the deputies inside.

The rioters failed largely because the police responded with brutal violence as officers tried to stop the invasion of the Chamber. The police  had come under constant attack from projectile-throwing demonstrators in the early evening –between 5pm and 7.30pm, the majority of injuries were suffered by constables and officers of the riot police, the Mobile Guard. Nevertheless, the most serious violence occurred during two episodes when police opened fire on and charged the crowd: between 7.30pm and 8pm (when 47 people were shot) and 11.30pm and 12am (when 23 people were shot). The total injuries amounted to: 969 police constables, 695 Republican Guards, Mobile Guards and Gendarmes, and 655 demonstrators. Two-hundred-and-eight people were admitted to hospital, 82 of whom had suffered gunshot wounds.[1]

Three demonstrators were killed outright during the riot, while twelve more victims succumbed during the following week. One of these men was Raymond Rossignol, a member of the Jeunesses patriotes. I stumbled upon Rossignol’s grave quite by accident during my stay in Paris while researching my PhD in 2006/7. I was in fact drawn to the grave by the surname because Henri Rossignol had for a time led the Union nationale des combattants, the veterans’ association that was the subject of my thesis.[2]

Upon seeing the grave, two things struck me. Firstly, the epitaph. It is typical of the way victims of the six février violence were memorialised by the extreme right during the 1930s. The text reads:

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Here lies a good Frenchman

Raymond Rossignol

Fell Place de la Concorde

6 February 1934

At the age of 37

The extreme right made martyrs of the dead, and the text here apes that of the memorials to the much-revered dead of the Great War. Like a soldier killed defending France from the Germans, Rossignol was a ‘good Frenchman’, who had ‘fallen’ for France. In fact, the Jeunesses patriotes renamed their veterans’ association in his honour. Rossignol’s son was enlisted in the league, and told that he could live with his head held high safe in the knowledge that his father was a hero.[3] All of the leagues, except for Colonel de La Rocque’s Croix de Feu, self-consciously linked the martyrs of February to the dead of the Great War, all the better to demonise the left-wing government whom they held responsible for the deaths. The left was linked with the wartime enemy, demonstrating that socialists and radicals were somehow ‘anti’ France. Below is a poster illustrating this – the dead man can be seen to be wearing medals won during the war.  The legend reads, ‘He dodged German bullets, but the bullets of the Cartel got him’ (the Cartel was the ruling left-wing coalition).

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The second thing that strikes me when looking at the grave is its state of repair: the grave is very well maintained. The marble is clean and (looks) polished, and the plants and flowers are green. It’s possible that this is not the original stone, given that it would be 80 years old by now. If there is still someone who comes to maintain the grave, one wonders who. A handful of groups on the extreme right, including the Action française, still commemorates the night of the riot each year; their night time torch-lit events can be viewed on Youtube, with militants announcing a roll call of the dead to which their comrades respond ‘Present!’ (much like the commemorations of the 1930s). Until the 1970s, the Front National continued to preserve the memory of the riot. Indeed, historian Olivier Dard has called it the ‘foundation myth’ of the modern extreme right.[4] Though there are sporadic outbreaks of politically inspired violence, it is highly unlikely that the Front National would take to the streets against the Fifth Republic, preferring as Dard states, the ballot box to the street.

If the Front National has chosen the route of electoral politics, the grave is nevertheless a reminder that an admittedly small hard-core of activists in France still preserves the memory of the ‘February martyrs’, echoing the calls of ‘Down with the assassins!’ of their 1930s forebears.

[1]This information is taken from the report on the victims of the February 1934 violence compiled for the parliamentary commission of inquiry by deputies Louis Gardiol (SFIO), Jean-Baptiste Amat (Radical Party) and Ernest de Framont de la Framondée (Fédération républicaine). See also Maurice Chavardès, Le 6 février 1934and Pierre Pelissier, 6 février.

[2]Published as From Victory to Vichy: Veterans in Inter-war France (Manchester: MUP, 2012).

[3]Le National [the newspaper of the Jeunesses patriotes], 18 May 1934. Available at the Bibliothèque nationale Paris.

[4] http://www.liberation.fr/politiques/2014/02/06/le-6-fevrier-1934-un-mythe-fondateur-de-l-extreme-droite_978118

80 years ago today: 6 February 1934, French fascists topple government

As today is the 80th anniversary of the riots of 6 February 1934, I thought I’d post something on this event that redefined French interwar politics.  On that night, extreme right-wing activists and war veterans descended on central Paris to protest about the alleged corruption of the ruling centre-left government.  The demonstration soon turned violent.  Thirteen rioters were killed and hundreds were injured as police fought off repeated attempts to storm the French parliament. The following day, the government resigned.  Street violence had successfully removed the elected administration.

In 1941, French author Robert Brasillach looked back on the night of 6 February 1934 with fondness:

‘For us, we did not have to repudiate the 6 février. Every year we went to place violets on the Place de la Concorde, in front of this fountain that had become a cenotaph, in memory of the twenty-three dead.  Each year the crowd diminished, because French patriots are forgetful by nature.  Only the revolutionaries understood the meaning of the myths and the ceremonies.  But if the 6 February was a malicious intrigue, it was a night of sacrifices, which remains in our memory with its odour, its cold wind, its pale common faces, its groups of humans on the pavement, its invincible hope for a National Revolution, the very birth of social nationalism in our country.  What does it matter if, later, everything was exploited, by the right and the left, of this burning fire, of these dead who were pure.  One cannot prevent from being what has been.  (from Notre avant-guerre [1941])

Historians have spilled much ink over the intentions of the rioters on the night of 6 February 1934.  The debate is split along the lines of what is called the ‘immunity thesis’ debate (a term coined by French political scientist Michel Dobry). The immunity thesis pertains to France’s alleged ‘allergy’ to fascism.  Developed in the 1950s and 1960s, under the influence of the resistance-centric history of the Vichy years and the totalitarian model that sought to compare fascist and communist regimes in order to discredit the latter, the immunity thesis has proved robust.  Defence of the immunity thesis most often entails reference to a political culture founded upon the long implantation of democracy in France.  Immunity thesis historians argue that certain groups spread their values and ideas to a diverse set of social formations, especially the middle classes, and so oriented them towards democracy.  One such group, the mouvement ancien combattant, was essential to the edification and maintenance of this democratic culture.  Veteran anti-parliamentarianism therefore expressed a legitimate dissatisfaction with a regime that no longer functioned, rather than a desire for fascist government.  The associations’ true convictions lay in their ideas on a democratic reform of the state.

Rioters on the Place de la Concorde

Rioters fight with police in central Paris

In recent years, a largely Anglophone group of historians (Dobry being a notable exception) has challenged the French orthodoxy on fascism.  The anti-immunity thesis school stresses that fascism was a significant force in France on the level of ideas and political movements.  Moreover, the argument for the existence of a common political culture is problematic.  However widely a group may publicise its doctrine or ideology, the internalisation of such a culture on an individual level, that is to say for ‘ordinary’ citizens, is subjective.  Each person has prejudices and preconceptions that would make them more or less receptive to one idea or another.  One cannot credit a whole nation with the same fundamental political values.

As for the riot of 6 February 1934, some French historians argue that the failure of the rioters to install a fascist regime attested to the democratically minded French people’s rejection of fascism and their ‘immunity’ to the doctrine.  For René Rémond the events of 6 February were little more than a protest that went wrong.  Had the night not turned to tragedy, it would have been quickly forgotten. Serge Berstein claims that the lack of co-ordination between the nationalist leagues and the absence of a plan to invade the Chamber prove that the riot was not an attempted coup.  The heterogeneity of the six février groups underlines the disjointed nature of the protest.  Pierre Pellissier suggests that the rioters in no way threatened the Republic as the failed insurrection did not follow the ‘strict rules’ of past revolts, such as Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup of 2 December 1851.  A successful coup requires the utmost secrecy in preparation, the selection of one supreme leader and the use of arms or the threat of armed action.  The action failed in February 1934 as agitation throughout January alerted the authorities to trouble, no group would submit to the leader of another, and arms were not employed.

Brian Jenkins has specifically questioned the immunity thesis as applied to 6 February.  Firstly, immunity thesis historians mistakenly equate a fascist takeover with a violent coup.  This was neither true in the case of the Nazis in Germany nor the Italian fascists.  Secondly, despite Berstein’s judgement on the alleged heterogeneous nature of the groups, Jenkins writes that the organisations that took part on the night shared common ideas and an anti-democratic attitude. Their memberships often overlapped and were largely drawn from the same social groups.  Thirdly, there is evidence that despite the apparently disparate nature of rioting groups, a collective mood took hold as the evening progressed.  Witness statements do give some indication of a common feeling among protesters.  Finally, an argument that uses the outcome of events to presume the intentions of actors is dubious.  In short, the failure of rioters to enter the Chamber does not prove that no such intentions existed.  Moreover, the disappointment of the extreme right on one night should not neutralise the threat that it posed during the decade.  In France, extra-parliamentary movements like the Croix de Feu grew while parliament gradually gave way to a government reliant on decree powers.

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Veterans of the Union nationale des combattants march on 6 February 1934

Admittedly, there is a lack of documentation to prove that an alliance between the various rioting groups existed.  No blueprint for the overthrow the Republic has been found.  Immunity thesis historians cite this shortage of evidence in their argument.  However, in reference to the French penal code Marcel Le Clère argues that a plot did exist.  Though it is largely futile to re-classify the riot as a plot largely based on a legal technicality, as Le Clère does, he makes several valid points.  The leagues had co-operated throughout January.  Activists of the Action Française (AF) and the Fédération nationale des contribuables worked together on 9 January, as did members of the Je4nesses Patriotes (JP) and the Solidarité Française on 11 January.  On 23 January, the call to demonstrate saw the names of the AF, the JP and the Contribuables on the same poster.  On 6 February, the arranged meeting time for each group would see them converge on the Place de la Concorde, over the river Seine from the French parliament building, between 8 and 9pm.  Le Clère concludes that this synchronisation shows a devised plan and an evident entente among the groups.

Whatever the case, the riot witnessed collaboration between individuals of different groups.  Town councillors Charles des Isnards and Puymaigre joined the marches of the JP and the Croix de Feu respectively.  Prominent members of several groups were in regular contact and had met before the riot.  The Parisian municipal council included veterans’ leaders Georges Lebecq and Jean Ferrandi.  JP leader Pierre Taittinger was also a member of the council and a deputy in the Seine.  His name appeared alongside veteran leader Jean Goy’s and twenty-eight other deputies at the bottom of an open letter of protest to interior minister Eugène Frot.  This was turned into a poster and stuck up around Paris on the night of 5 February.

Collusion on the night should not be discounted simply because it was not ‘total’.  Thus whether or not a plan existed does not mean that the riot did not undermine the Republic, which six years later gave way to an authoritarian regime.  Even if their action was apparently uncoordinated the organisations nevertheless secured the eviction from power of an elected left-wing government.  The riot of February 1934 is therefore best viewed as part of a longer process of political radicalisation that destabilised the democratic regime in the years preceding the defeat of 1940.

References

Numerous works were consulted for this post.  There are several works in French on the 6 February 1934.  The most influential, particularly for the immunity thesis, is Serge Berstein, 6 février (Paris 1975).  See also Maurice Chavardès, Une campagne and  Le 6 février: La République en danger (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1966).  Pierre Pellissier’s 6 février (Paris: Perrin, 2000) offers a detailed if rather dramatic account of the events.  For a ‘dissenting’ interpretation in French see Marcel Le Clère, 6 février and Michel Dobry, ‘Février 1934’ (or ‘February 1934’).  Books in English are lacking.  The fullest treatment is that of Brian Jenkins, ‘The Paris riots of February 1934: The crisis of the Third French Republic’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of London, LSE, 1979).  See Jenkins’ historiographical article, ‘The six février 1934 and the ‘survival’ of the French Republic’, French History, 20 (2006), pp. 333-351 and Chris Millington ‘February 6, 1934: The veterans’ riot’, French Historical Studies (2010). Works written at the time include Laurent Bonnevay, Les journées sanglantes de février 1934: pages d’histoire (Paris: Flammarion, 1935) and Philippe Henriot, Le 6 février (Paris: Flammarion, 1934).  See also the collection of essays in Le mythe de l’allergie française au fascisme especially Dobry, ‘La thèse immunitaire’; William D. Irvine, ‘Fascism in France: The strange case of the Croix de Feu’,  Journal of Modern History, 63 (1991), 271-295; Kevin Passmore, From liberalism to fascism: The right in a French province, 1928-1939 (Cambridge: CUP, 1997); Robert Soucy, ‘French fascism and the Croix de Feu: A dissenting interpretation’, Journal of Contemporary History 26 (1991), pp. 159-188; and French Fascism: The Second Wave (1995).

I’ve just killed a communist: A ‘political’ murder in interwar France

On Sunday 5 September 1937, a gunshot disturbed the sleepy commune of Les Salles-de-Castillon in the Gironde.  The shot was fired by Paul G., a local wine grower.  On returning from a hunting trip, Paul had called round to the house of his neighbour, Armand R.  A short discussion ensued before Paul shot to death Armand in front of his family.  Paul left the scene of the crime on a bicycle, loudly proclaiming to the locals, ‘I’ve just killed a communist’.

The authorities decided that the murder was ‘clearly political’.  Paul G. was well-known in the region for his activism in the extreme right-wing group the Croix de Feu, while Armand R. was a highly-regarded socialist councillor.  There was a history of confrontation between the two men: Paul had threatened Armand several times and it seems that he had gone to see his neighbour on that day to provoke a heated political discussion.

The left-wing parties concurred with the police.  Communist newspaper L’Humanité reported the incident as ‘a crime provoked by the hateful campaigns of the fascist press’.  Local Radicals and members of the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme were said to be ‘overexcited’ by the news.

And yet… such a blatantly political murder was rare in France.  Deaths were usually ‘accidental’ – that is, they occurred during spontaneous confrontations, or in the heat of a clash between a number of activists.  Rarely (if at all) were killings premeditated, or committed with explicit political ideology in mind.  It is possible that the murder of Armand R. was committed for purely political reasons.  Yet the local press hinted at other factors too.  La Petite Gironde reported that in ‘small rural communes’ like Les Salles, ‘everyone knows the opinion of their neighbour’.  Quarrels could result, but they did not usually pass the bounds of verbal insults.  It is unlikely that these ‘quarrels’ would have all been political in nature, and personal disputes must be taken into account.  In fact, the same newspaper reported that Paul G. had claimed Armand R. owed him a sum of money.  Whether this was true or not, hearsay and rumour serve to complicate the origin of such crimes.

However, it seems that the case of Paul G. bucks the trend.  The fact that he boasted of ‘killing a communist’, and subsequently turned himself in to his employer, suggests that he was proud of his crime, and that Armand R. was targeted explicitly for his political loyalties.  Nevertheless, as Eve Rosenhaft has argued in her study of communist streetfighters in interwar Berlin, while political affiliation and ideology placed activists in confrontational situations, personal motives and local relationships between enemies could be at the forefront of activists’ minds.

Sources:

Archives nationales, Paris: F7 14817

Eve Rosenhaft, Beating the Fascists? The German Communists and Political Violence 1929-1933 (CUP, 1983).