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.
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.
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:
Here lies a good Frenchman
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. 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).
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. 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.
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.
Published as From Victory to Vichy: Veterans in Inter-war France (Manchester: MUP, 2012).
Le National [the newspaper of the Jeunesses patriotes], 18 May 1934. Available at the Bibliothèque nationale Paris.