Democracy and Class Struggle is continuing our investigation of Fascism by looking at France in the inter war years utilising the studies of Robert Paxton a retired bourgeois academic.
We welcome any contributions on this article critical or otherwise.
Not even the victor nations were immune to the fascist virus after World War I.
Outside Italy and Germany, however, although fascists could be noisy or troublesome, they did not get close to power.
That does not mean we should ignore these other cases.
Failed fascist movements may tell us as much about what was needed for taking root as successful ones.
France offers an ideal example.
Though France seems typified for many by the fall of the Bastille, the Rights of Man, and the “Marseillaise,” numerous French monarchists and authoritarian nationalists had never been reconciled to a parliamentary republic as appropriate for la grande nation.
When the republic coped badly between the wars with the triple crisis of revolutionary threat, economic depression, and German menace,that discontent hardened into outright disaffection.
The extreme Right expanded in interwar France in reaction to electoral successes by the Left. When a center-Left coalition, the Cartel des Gauches, won the 1924 parliamentary election, Georges Valois, as the founder of the Cercle Proudhon for nationalist workers in 1911,founded the Faisceau, whose name and behavior were borrowed straight from Mussolini.
Pierre Taittinger, a champagne magnate, formed the more traditionally nationalist Jeunesses Patriotes. And the new Fédération Nationale Catholique took on a passionately anti republican tone under General Noël Currières de Castelnau.'
In the 1930s, as the Depression bit, as Nazi Germany dismantled the safeguards of the 1918 peace settlement, and as the Third Republic’s center-Left majority (renewed in 1932) became tarnished by political corruption,a new crop of radical Right “leagues” (they rejected the word party) blossomed.
In massive street demonstrations on February 6, 1934,before the Chamber of Deputies in which sixteen people were killed, they proved that they were strong enough to topple a French government but not strong enough to install another one in its place.
In the period of intense polarization that followed, it was the Left that drew more votes. The Popular Front coalition of socialists, Radicals, and communists won the elections of May 1936, and Prime Minister Léon Blum banned paramilitary leagues in June, something German chancellor
Heinrich Brüning had failed to do in Germany four years earlier.
The Popular Front’s victory had been narrow, however, and the presence of a Jew supported by communists in the prime minister’s office raised the extreme Right to a paroxysm of indignation.
Its true strength in 1930s France has been the subject of a particularly intense debate.
Some scholars have argued that France had no indigenous fascism, but, at most,a little “whitewash” splashed from foreign examples onto a homegrown Bonapartist tradition.
At the opposite extreme are those who consider that France was the “true cradle of fascism.”
Contemplating this undeniably noisy and vigorous far Right and the ease with which democracy was overthrown after French defeat in June 1940,
Zeev Sternhell concluded that fascism had “impregnated” by then the language and attitudes of French public life. He supported his case by labeling as fascist a broad range of criticisms of the way democracy was working in France in the 1930s made by a wide spectrum of French commentators, some of whom expressed some sympathy for Mussolini but almost none for Hitler.
Most French and some foreign scholars thought Sternhell’s “fascist” category was far too loose and his conclusions excessive.
It is not enough, of course, to simply count up the number of prominent French intellectuals who spoke a language that sounded fascist,along with the colorful array of movements that demonstrated and pontificated in 1930s France. Two questions arise:
Were they as significant as they were noisy, and were they really fascist?
It is important to note that the more closely a French movement imitated the Hitlerian or (more frequently) the Mussolinian model, as did the tiny blue-shirted Solidarité Française or the narrowly localized Parti Populaire Français of Jacques Doriot, the less successful it was, while the one far Right movement that approached mass catch-all party status between 1936 and 1940,
Colonel François de La Rocque’s Parti Social Français, tried to look moderate and “republican.”
Any assessment of fascism in France turns on La Rocque. If his movements were fascist, fascism was powerful in 1930s France; if they were not, fascism was limited to the margins.
La Rocque, a career army officer from a monarchist family, took over in 1931 the Croix de Feu, a small veterans’ association of those decorated with the Croix de Guerre for heroism under fire, and developed it into a political movement.
He drew in a wider membership and denounced the weakness and corruption of parliament, warned against the threat of Bolshevism, and advocated an authoritarian state and greater justice for workers integrated into a corporatist economy.
His paramilitary force, called dispos (from the French word disponible, or “ready”), embarked on militaristic automobile rallies in 1933 and 1934.
They mobilized with precision to pick up secret orders at remote destinations for “le jour J” (D day) and “l’heure H” (H hour) in apparent training to combat by force a communist insurrection.
The Left, made jittery by supposed fascist marches on Rome, Berlin,Vienna, and Madrid, branded the Croix de Feu fascist. That impression was fortified when the Croix de Feu participated in the march on the Deputies in the night of February 6, 1934.
Colonel de La Rocque kept his forces separate from the others on a side street, however, and in all his public statements he gave the impression of strict discipline and order more than of unbridled street violence.
Unusually for the French Right, he rejected anti-Semitism and even recruited some notable
patriotic Jews (though his sections in Alsace and Algeria were anti Semitic).
Although he found good in Mussolini (except for what he saw as excessive statism), he retained the anti-Germanism of most French nationalists.
When the Popular Front government dissolved the Croix de Feu along with other right-wing paramilitary groups in June 1936, Colonel de La Rocque replaced it with an electoral party, the Parti Social Français (PSF).
The PSF abandoned paramilitary rallies and emphasized national reconciliation and social justice under a strong but elected leader. This move toward the center was enthusiastically ratified by rapidly growing membership.
The PSF was probably the largest party in France on the eve of the war.
It is very hard to measure the size of any of the French far Right movements, however, in the absence of electoral results or audited circulation figures for their newspapers.
The parliamentary elections scheduled for 1940, in which La Rocque’s party was expected to do well, were canceled by the war.
As France regained some calm and stability in 1938–39 under an energetic center-Left prime minister, Édouard Daladier, all the far Right movements except the most moderate one,
La Rocque’s PSF, lost ground.
After the defeat of 1940, it was the traditional Right, and not the fascist Right, that established and ran the collaborationist Vichy government.
What was left of French fascism completed its discredit by reveling in occupied Paris on the Nazi payroll during 1940–44.
For a generation after the liberation of 1945, the French extreme Right was reduced to the dimensions of a sect.
The failure of fascism in France was not due to some mysterious allergy though the importance of the republican tradition for a majority of French people’s sense of themselves cannot be overestimated.
The Depression, for all its ravages, was less severe in France than in more industrially concentrated Britain and Germany. The Third Republic, for all its lurching, never suffered deadlock or total paralysis. Mainstream conservatives did not feel sufficiently threatened in the 1930s to call on fascists for help.
Finally, no one preeminent personage managed to dominate the small army of rival French fascist chefs, most of whom preferred intransigent doctrinal “purity” to the kind of deal making with conservatives that Mussolini and Hitler practiced.
We can put a bit more flesh on these bare bones of analysis by examining one movement more closely.
The Greenshirts were a farmers’ movement in northwestern France in the 1930s, overtly fascist at least in its early days, which succeeded in sweeping some embittered farmers into direct action, but failed to construct a permanent movement or to spread outside the Catholic northwest to become a truly national contendender.
It is important to investigate rural fascism in France, since it was among farmers that Italian and German fascisms first successfully implanted themselves.
Moreover, in a country that was more than half rural, the potential for fascism in France would rest upon what it could do in the countryside.
That being the case, it is curious that all previous studies of French fascism have examined only the urban movements.
Space opened up in rural France at the beginning of the 1930s because both the government and the traditional farmers’ organizations,as in Schleswig-Holstein, were discredited by their utter helplessness in the collapse of farm prices.
The Greenshirts’ leader, Henry Dorgères (the pen name of an agricultural journalist who discovered a talent for whipping up peasant anger on market day), openly praised Fascist Italy in 1933 and 1934 (though he later declared it too statist), and he adopted a certain number of fascist mannerisms: the colored shirt, the inflamed oratory, nationalism, xenophobia,and anti-Semitism.
At peak form in 1935, he was capable of gathering the largest crowds ever seen in distressed French rural market towns.
There was even a space in France that superficially resembled the opportunities offered to direct action by Italian Fascists in the Po Valley:in the summers of 1936 and 1937, when massive strikes of farm laborers on the big farms of the northern plains of France at crucial moments—thinning the sugar beets, harvesting the beets and wheat—threw farm owners into panic.
The Greenshirts organized volunteers to carry out the harvest, recalling the Blackshirts’ rescue of Po Valley farmers. They had a keen sense of theater: at the end of the day, they gathered at a memorial to the dead of World War I and laid a wheat sheaf there.
Direct action by Dorgères’s harvest volunteers led nowhere, however,and these tiny groups that bore a family resemblance to Mussolini’s squadristi never became a de facto local power in France.
A major reason for this was that the French state dealt much more aggressively than the
Italian one with any threat to the harvest.
Video about Comrade Maurice Thorez and Popular Front Against Fascism
Even Léon Blum’s Popular Front sent the gendarmes instantly whenever farm workers went out on strike at harvest time.
The French Left had always put high priority on feeding the cities, since the days in 1793 when Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety had sent out “revolutionary armies” to requisition grain.
French farmers had less fear than the Po Valley ones of being abandoned by the state, and felt less need for a substitute force of order.
Moreover, over the course of the 1930s, the powerful French conservative farm organizations held their own much better than in Schleswig Holstein.
They organized successful cooperatives and supplied essential services, while the Greenshirts offered only a vent for anger. In the end, the Greenshirts were left on the margins.
The crucial turning point arrived when Jacques Le Roy Ladurie, president of the powerful French Farmers’ Federation (FNEA, Fédération Nationale des Exploitants Agricoles),who had earlier helped Dorgères work up rural crowds, decided in 1937 that it would be more efficacious to construct a powerful farmers’ lobby capable of influencing the state administration from within.
The power of entrenched conservative farm organizations like the FNEA and the mighty cooperative movement based at Landerneau in Brittany was such that the Greenshirts found little space available.
This suggests that fascist interlopers cannot easily break into a political system that is functioning tolerably well. Only when the state and existing institutions fail badly do they open opportunities for newcomers.
Another shortcoming of Dorgères’s Greenshirts was their inability to form the basis for a catch-all party. While Dorgères was a genius at arousing farmers’ anger, he almost never addressed the woes of the urban middle class.
As an essentially ruralist agitator, he tended to see urban shopkeepers as part of the enemy rather than as potential alliance partners in a fully developed fascism.
Still another reason for Dorgères’s failure was that large areas of rural France were closed to the Greenshirts by long-standing attachment to the traditions of the French Revolution, which had given French peasants full title to their little plots of land.
While peasants of republican southern and southwestern France could become violently angry, their radicalism was channeled away from fascism by the French Communist Party, which was rather successful among French small farmers of traditionally Left leaning regions.
And so rural France, despite its intense suffering in the Depression of the 1930s, was not a setting in which a powerful French fascism could germinate.
FURTHER STUDY :