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.’

Police violence in interwar France

Police violence was of great concern to the ministers and civil servants of the French Third Republic – the democratic regime that governed France between 1870 and 1940.  In the early years of its existence, the Republic granted new rights to its citizens, notably the right to freedom of the press and the right to hold political meetings. Furthermore, the Republic, unlike its predecessor the Second Empire, tolerated civil and political demonstrations in the street (even if it did not legally sanction them).

Yet this new project to grant rights to the French was undermined by the gratuitous brutality of police officers, the majority of whom had served in the former imperial police force. Republican attempts to democratise the police force centred on training officers to respect citizens new rights and treat them accordingly.  Consequently, training manuals stressed that officers should act with self-control at all times; they should be polite in their dealings with the public; and they should resort to violence only as a last resort.

The French police.  At the top, the constable with his iconic white baton

The French police. At the top, the constable with his iconic white baton

I’ve selected a piece of evidence to illustrate the Republican directives on policing. It’s a circular from February 1926. It was sent by the prefect of the county of the Finistère to officers in charge of policing a Catholic demonstration in the town of Landernau :

‘At no time must the security service depart from the calmness and firmness that must drive it. Orders must be executed without brutality [and] with the concern to assure the freedom of movement and the maintenance of good order’.[i]

This was all very well, but contemporaries recognised that even during the interwar years (and despite, therefore, decades of training not to mention Republican schooling), police continued to perpetrate acts of unnecessary violence.

Police constables in 1939

Police constables in 1939

Even the mundane fulfillment of duties often saw officers commit unwarranted violence. Even minor scuffles in the street could see political activists beaten unconscious, while innocent bystanders could come in for a thrashing too. Back at the police station, the imperial practice of roughing up those men in custody was still current.

To illustrate this contrast between police training and practice, this second piece of evidence also comes from 1926, but three months later than the document above, in May.  It’s a report of a conversation overheard between two police officers in Paris. The officers were discussing a demonstration at which they had both been present earlier that day:

– ‘So, how did it go this morning?

– I was at Saint-Lazare, nothing happened.

– That’s not how it was at the rue de Rivoli… We had to charge. I pulled out all the stops; you should have seen how the blows rained down. I spotted one of them who had escaped me for an instant. But a moment later, I had him again and so, mate, I gave him a real hammering, every blow that I dealt him went ‘crack, crack’! He was bleeding; I guarantee you he learned something’.[ii]

Despite Republican attempts to educate officers, a culture of violent policing, which was perhaps a hangover from the Second Empire, remained stubbornly persistent.  My broader research suggests too that a small amount of police violence was ignored, and even condoned by the Republican state; thus if the Republic took steps to ensure that officers rarely fired on large crowds of people, it turned a blind eye to the regular thrashings doled out by officers.

[i] F7 13219 Le Préfet du Finistère à Monsieur le Ministre de l’Intérieur, Quimper, 25 Feb 1926

[ii] F713198 D’un correspondant, 10 May 1926


‘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

Podcast now available

The Shooting at Chartres, 1935

On 21 June 2013, I spoke at the Maison Francaise d’Oxford during a conference organised by Alison Carrol (Brunel) and Ludivine Broch (Birkbeck/EUI), titled ‘A Century Later: New Approaches to French History, 1914-1945′.

My paper concerned an incident of political violence at Chartres in January 1935.   On 20 January, the Jeunesses Patriotes (JP), an extreme right-wing paramilitary group, held a meeting in the town of Chartres, 60 miles south west of Paris.   The announcement of the meeting in Chartres, and the fact that JP leader Pierre Taittinger himself was scheduled to speak, caused a stir among local left wingers.  A counter-demonstration was quickly organised.  Several hundred local JPs attended the meeting, reinforced by four coachloads of activists from Paris.  Meanwhile, over 1000 counter-demonstrators attended their own meeting before making for the square in front of the meeting venue.  The JP meeting passed off without incident.  But violence flared as the leaguers returned to their coaches and took the road back to Paris.  JP activists, believing themselves to be under attack from communists on the roadside, opened fire from the coaches, and a passer-by was shot in the foot.  The communists responded with a hail of bricks, stones and bottles.  On the road back to Paris police stopped and searched the vehicles.  They found a large number of rubber and wooden truncheons, clubs, knuckledusters, and rubber helmets – but no revolvers.  Following conflicting witness statements from both sides, police were unable to identify the aggressor and the case was ultimately dismissed.


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.

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.


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.


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).

A ‘fatherly punishment’: An example of police violence against women

In a recent seminar with my final year undergraduates, we discussed a chapter from Lynne Taylor’s excellent Between Resistance and Collaboration: Popular Protest in Northern France 1940-1945 (2000).  Taylor’s book examines the variety of ways in which French citizens in the Occupied North of wartime France could express dissatisfaction with, or even defy, the authorities.

The chapter under discussion concerned ‘food riots’ – demonstrations in which women, usually accompanied by their children, would march to the local town hall to demand improved rations.  More often than not, it seems, such demands were satisfied.  In class, we discussed whether the gender of the demonstrators had influenced this outcome.  The ‘rioters’ seem to have drawn some form of moral legitimacy from their status as mothers.  We should bear in mind, too, that their demands did not represent an overt challenge to the French or German authorities. But did the fact that the crowd was made up of women stay the hand of a police force that may have acted differently against men?

This question reminded me of the memoirs of Georges Ballyot (Un flic dans la tourmente.  Souvenirs (1937-1944) (Les Presses Bretonnes Saint-Brieuc, 1992). Ballyot became police superintendent of the 15th arrondissement of Paris in February 1937.  Ballyot’s souvenirs refer to a strike of cousettes in 1938.  Their union had organised a meeting at the Winter Velodrome in Paris, at which about 4,000 women were present.  Ballyot claimed that this was the first time the police had come face-to-face with a large group of women.  Officers therefore had no idea what to expect from such a crowd, which was allegedly in a state of agitation.

Following the close of the meeting, the first women to leave the venue were wives and mothers.  These strikers headed straight for the metro and home, doubtless (thought Ballyot) with a meal to prepare for their husbands and children.

Next to exit were the younger girls, excited by the incendiary speeches they had heard.  As the girls stopped to talk with each other, they apparently caused an obstruction at the exits and on the pavements outside the Velodrome.  Police attempted to move them along by raising their voice, but to no avail.  An officer took the arm of a ‘screaming Amazonian’, who shouted ‘He’s feeling me up…pig…’.  Ballyot’s recollection of what happened next is worth quoting:

‘…the officer, probably a father, without losing his cool, administered to the agitated woman a masterful couple of slaps…’

The girl looked ashamed for having insulted the officer.  She fled, sobbing.  Ballyot called this a ‘punishment of a pater familias’.

The story reminds us that when investigating violence we must take into account the prevailing cultural context.  Violence which might seem unjustified and abhorrent to the modern observer was perfectly rational (and ‘normal’) according to past understandings of ‘correct’ behaviour.  Such understandings both permitted and constrained violent action.  Extreme violence against the female strikers would have been condemned.  Instead, the violence of the policeman was considered a paternalistic punishment – a justifiable corrective – to a woman who had transgressed the boundaries of acceptable feminine behaviour.



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.


Archives nationales, Paris: F7 14817

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

Investigating political violence: ‘Physical’ sources



A selection of canes, clubs, truncheons and knives at the Museum of the Police, Paris.

In December I took part in the Swansea European History Research Workshop.  The workshop provides an informal setting for staff and postgraduates in the department to discuss their current and future research.  It allows all those involved in Swansea’s history research community to exchange comments and ideas on each other’s work.  Past workshops have concerned policing in Mussolini’s Italy and the memory of 1968.

My session was entitled ‘Investigating Political Violence in Interwar France’.  Rather than presenting specific outcomes of my research so far, I spoke to colleagues and students about methods for investigating violence.  In particular, I was keen to tell colleagues and students about a discovery I made during the summer spent researching in Paris.

This discovery concerned the ‘physical’ nature of my sources.  My project on political violence relies in the main on archival documents and newspapers from the period.  These sources can provide useful information, such as the details of an incident and the statements of witnesses recorded within hours of the violence.  Such documents are certainly useful given that my approach involves the detailed examination of violent incidents in order to interpret and explain the behaviour of protagonists.

Yet over the summer I began to question whether written sources such as archival papers were sufficient for understanding what were essentially physical acts.  This thinking was in part informed by two French historians of the First World War, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker.  In their study of battlefield violence, Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker have argued that, when it comes to violence, historians are too often cut off from the physical nature of their object of study.  A historian might know the caliber of a firearm, how many were produced and how this affected a battle – but the historian is likely less familiar with the feel of a weapon, its weight, how it operates and the damage it can inflict.  Consequently, when it comes to weapons, ‘tactile contact is not a superfluous historical experience.’[Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker, 14-18: Understanding the Great War, p.19]

How might this approach inform my own research?  While working in the archives of the Prefecture of Police in Paris, I decided to visit the museum there.  The museum holds a collection of weapons seized by police. During my visit, I saw a collection of weapons including firearms, clubs and truncheons, knives and knuckledusters.  Seeing these weapons changed the way I understood the violence I had read about in the archives.  For example, I had consulted many reports about political activists who suffered gunshot wounds.  More often than not, these victims survived the injury- it seemed that only a shot to the heart could kill.  When I saw the revolver on display in the museum, the first thing that struck me was its size – it was small, about the size of the palm of my hand.  The size of a weapon was an important consideration to political groups:  police could only stop and search a suspect if they could see the weapon.  The size of the revolver meant it was ideal for being concealed, yet it was perhaps not as lethal (or accurate) as I had initially assumed it should be.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Revolver circa. 1890-1914.

Of course, at the museum I was not allowed to handle a weapon.  Yet the visit taught me that physical encounters with sources are far from useless.  I was prompted to ask new questions of my research.   Did practical considerations, such as concealment, inform the choice of weapon, or were smaller, non-lethal arms simply intended to intimidate?  Did groups who employed such small weapons really intend to kill?

I thank the staff and postgraduate students at Swansea for their comments.  I thank the staff of the Museum of Police in Paris for their assistance.