The Marshal, the General and ‘The Patriotic Traitor’

Jonathan Lynn’s The Patriotic Traitor has recently come to the end of its run at the Park Theatre in London.  It tells the story of the personal relationship between Charles de Gaulle (Laurence Fox) and Philippe Pétain (Tom Conti) from their first meeting before the Great War to their showdown as leaders of two competing Frances during the Second World War – de Gaulle’s Free France and Pétain’s Vichy France.  The play has received largely positive reviews but is probably most well-known for Fox’s dressing down of a heckler at the end of one of the performances.  I went to see the play on 18 March and thought I share my opinion of it and some concerns I have about its version of history.

The staging of the play was very effective.  A large map of France was displayed behind the actors, showing the locations mentioned during the play such as Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises (de Gaulle’s home) and Verdun (scene of the Marshal’s famous victory in 1916).  The demarcation line (France’s wartime internal border) is also traced along the centre of the map reminding the audience of the temporal setting.  At various points throughout the play flags drop down over the map – the tricolour when de Gaulle is speaking to French refugees in England in 1940, and the flag of Nazi Germany after Pétain signs the armistice in the same year.

The play is staged largely as a series of reminiscences as Marshal Pétain sits in his prison cell awaiting trial at the end of the war.  Both in conversation with the prison chaplain and sitting alone in his cell, Pétain’s mind wanders to his relationship with Charles de Gaulle, whom he appears to have considered a surrogate son.  In a series of flashbacks, we see this relationship develop from their first meeting to their final encounter after Pétain has been sentenced for treason.  There are fleeting scenes when de Gaulle speaks to the audience in the form of an inner monologue yet the majority of the play focuses on Pétain either in conversation with himself or in scenes depicting his memories.

The overall merit of the play is in educating the audience in a subject with which they are likely to be unfamiliar.  In fact, I overheard a conversation near to me in which someone stated that they had not known that France had been divided into a northern and a southern zone, and that the Vichy zone was ‘free’ from German control.  If the play encourages the audience to go away and learn more about the subject then that can only be a good thing.

The Marshal, played by Tom Conti (left), and de Gaulle, played by Laurence Fox

Some of the scenes in the play are very effective.  We are shown Pétain’s struggles with the army high command during the Great War as he strove to end the murderous bloodshed at Verdun.  A year later, the Marshal speaks to mutineers in the French army – and then orders the ringleaders to be shot (in a rare moment of cold brutality from the character).  Later in the play, we see de Gaulle speaking to the French from London in 1940, urging his compatriots to resist.  These scenes were particularly well recreated and the latter was quite affecting.

As for the characters, De Gaulle is portrayed as an arrogant and bookish know-it-all, believing absolutely, even before 1914, of his importance to the destiny of France.  In one scene, we see him coming to terms with the birth of his daughter Anne (who had Down’s syndrome) while at the same time experiencing frustration with his apparently stalled military career.  He attributes both to some sort of punishment from God for which he has been specially selected.  By the end of the play, de Gaulle has come to speak about himself in the third person.  He is thoroughly convinced that he embodies France itself.

We see glimpses, too, of de Gaulle’s personality – or lack thereof.  He is awkward in social situations; painfully so upon the first meeting with his future wife Yvonne.  Yet even with his peers his lack of sense of humour leads him to take everything with deadly seriousness, leading him to ask on several occasions, ‘is that a joke?’  By the end of the play he has developed a sense of humour, but a bad one, and I found myself cringing in my seat at his attempts to be funny.

The infamous handshake at Montoire, 30 October 1940

The general feeling we have for Pétain is sympathy.  To some extent, this sympathy stems from the narrative device used throughout the play.  We are seeing Pétain’s own memories and hearing his point of view.  He speaks to himself and the audience in a conversation in which he justifies his own actions.  From my point of view, Pétain came across as a kindly old man, carried along by events out of his control (such as when he is called upon to save France in 1916, having planned to retire).  In contrast with de Gaulle, he is the one with a personality and a sympathetic one at that.  When de Gaulle is in the throes of anguish over his daughter and his career, it is Pétain who urges him to think first of Yvonne.

We see all too little of Pétain at Vichy, trying to reshape France and the French in the image of the National Revolution.  If anything, the audience is encouraged to take Pétain’s side in his dealings with the slimy presence of Laval (de Gaulle in fact refers to him as a ‘slug’, a point of view with which Pétain agrees).  In one of the later scenes in the play, we see Laval and Pétain discussing the former’s decision to make his infamous statement in support of a German victory in Europe (in the play this discussion seems to take place in July 1942 when in reality Laval made the statement in June).  Pétain is palpably more reluctant than Laval to move closer to Germany.  While this is not necessarily untrue, the audience gets the impression that Laval is the evil presence at Vichy, sympathetic with Nazi ideology, while Pétain is more or less forced to react to events.

To the play’s credit, there is a scene in which Pétain is notified of the infamous Vél d’Hiv roundup of Jews in July 1942 and informed of the terrible conditions in which Jewish families are being held.  He is seen to approve of the round up, arguing that he is not discriminating solely against Jews but against other groups too.  Yet this is a fleeting moment in the production and does not undermine greatly the overall sympathetic light in which Pétain is cast.  The play thus falls into the trap of propagating the ‘two Vichies’ interpretation – the evil Vichy of Laval and the benevolent Vichy of the Marshal – a view of the history of the Dark Years that historians moved away from long ago.

I was left with mixed feelings after watching the performance.  On the one hand, if plays such as The Patriotic Traitor bring this period of French history to a wider audience while (hopefully) encouraging further research, then so much the better.  However, I was not satisfied with the portrayal of Pétain.  The ‘Patriotic Traitor’ of the title of course refers to the Marshal – but given the sympathetic light in which he is cast, I did think that the character of de Gaulle himself could fit this moniker, too – having betrayed the father-like Pétain for his own vision of France.

 

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.

cropped-6-fevrier-34.jpg

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).