6 February 1934 as a Wordle

I’ve recently discovered the ‘Wordle’ toy (described this way at wordle.net).  Wordle takes bodies of text and generates ‘word clouds’ from them.  The larger the word in the cloud, the more frequently it appears in the source text.  I’ve been playing around with it while wondering how it could be used for teaching.

The Wordle in this blog post concerns the crisis of 6 February 1934 (which I’ve written about on this site before).  In my course ‘France in Crisis, 1934-44’, which I teach at Swansea University, UK, students look at the appeals made by the various groups involved in the riot in the days preceding 6 February.  There is much historical debate about the intentions of these groups – did they want to topple democratic regime or just the government? – and in class we try to work out what they wanted from these appeals.

I’ve recently co-authored a book on this riot, with Brian Jenkins, and in the appendix to this book Brian translated 13 appeals into English (the first time this has been done to my mind).  I fed these translations into Wordle – here’s the result (click on the picture for a larger version).

Derived from the calls to demonstrate of the groups involved on 6 February 1934.

Derived from the calls to demonstrate of the groups involved on 6 February 1934.

I plan to use the Wordle in my class in the autumn, asking students to comment on the size of the words and what we might glean from these regarding the intentions of the groups (at least those intentions that they made public in writing).  What strikes me at first glance is the size of the word ‘Government’…. can you spot ‘Republic’?

France and Fascism (?)


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.


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

Digital StillCamera

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:

Digital StillCamera

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).

Digital StillCamera

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

6 February 1934: The aftermath

‘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.

Women and violence: The example of 6 February 1934

When investigating political violence in France between the wars, there is a notable absence from press and police report: women.  Yet women were not completely absent from French street politics.  Female members of the extreme right-wing ‘leagues’ were present at important ceremonies: Jeunesses Patriotes women joined male counterparts at parades, keeping “a resolute and energetic pace.” Similarly, women took part in left-wing ceremonies and events, as well as being present at antifascist demonstrations.

Whether women were actively involved in violence is a rather more difficult question to answer.  On rare occasions female leaguers could be armed at meetings.  Occasionally one comes across a woman who was punished for violence, usually for slapping a police officer, which seems to have been considered a ‘feminine’ form of attack

The overall participation of women in the riot of 6 February 1934 (when the leagues and war veterans attempted to storm parliament) is unknown.  Undoubtedly, the leagues would have discouraged the involvement of women, given the exclusion of French females from the ‘public sphere’ – women only received the right to vote, and thus became full citizens, in 1945.

What scant information that exists allows the formulation of only a partial picture.  Women helped to treat the injured.  Lucille Sumpt, a nurse during the Great War, had arranged to join the veterans’ march at 8.30pm.  Unable to reach the meeting point, Sumpt, dressed in her nurse’s uniform, tended the wounded at the restaurant Weber. Women were themselves injured on the night, and one, Corentine Gourland, was shot dead by a stray bullet as she stood on the balcony at the Hotel Crillon, which overlooked the square.

One of the processions on 6 February was notable for its inclusion of women: that of the Union nationale des combattants, a right-wing veterans’ association.  Unlike the leagues, women were not permitted to join the UNC.  Consequently, it is paradoxical that during the riot women were apparently most numerous in the ranks of the UNC.

While some of these women may have been simple bystanders, others accompanied their husbands and fathers.  L’intransigeant reported: ‘Mixed with the veterans to the order of ten to one, women, young girls, young people, veterans’ wives, who did not want to leave their husband, their father.’ According to ‘Rouxanne’, a journalist for Gringoire, these women wanted to associate themselves with the ‘honest people’ and be on hand to ‘help, to care and to relieve’.  They contrasted sharply with the wives of the ‘privileged’ who watched from the other side of the Seine, deriving a perverse pleasure from seeing unarmed men and war-disabled beaten.  Their perfume mixed with the smell of gunpowder and excited (sexually) the killers to higher levels of depravity.

Though we do not know the reasons for their participation, it is plausible that some women were accompanying their disabled spouse or parent.  This task carried risks.  A journalist at Le Journal saw a woman carried away, ‘…injured in the fight, where she was accompanying her husband [who had been] blinded in the war’.

Attacks against women were said to prove the brutality of the enemy, and the right regularly reported communist violence against its women and their children.  It is in this role of victim that women featured most commonly in post-riot press reports.