The Clintons’ Islamophobia

Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was intended to humanise his steely wife, and he came across as genuinely smitten as he regaled the audience with tales of their relationship. Moving on to discuss his wife’s political career, he described her as a great “change maker”, though, in truth, he failed to expand upon the specific changes required from America’s next president.

Yet, by far the most jolting moment of his speech came near its end as Clinton set about conscripting various sub-groups of Americans into backing Hillary’s campaign. Between reaching out to undocumented immigrants with the offer of citizenship and to African Americans with support in addressing police brutality, Clinton regrettably stumbled into Trump-ism in his attempts to woo American Muslims, depicting them as foreigners, welcome only to the extent that they assist the war on terror.

If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together, we want you.

The problem, here, is in the assumption. American Muslims should not have to prove their love of America and freedom, nor their hatred of terror, in order to be allowed to remain in their country. Nor is it their duty because of their religion to aid in the war on terror. No such conditions may be imposed upon their citizenship. In short, they ought to be considered in identical terms to the rest of the American population.

Intentionally or otherwise, Clinton implied that Muslims are therefore deserving of extra scrutiny, and are – because of their religion – to be considered guilty until proven innocent with regard to any suspicion of terrorist sympathies. Dr. Muqtedar Khan, professor of International Relations at the University of Delaware, responded to Clinton’s remarks:

No doubt he intended to convey to Muslims, and the rest of America, the contrast between Donald Trump’s exclusivist, neofascist attitude towards Muslims, and Hillary Clinton’s progressive, supportive and inclusive stance towards all minorities including American Muslims, but the one line that mentioned Muslims may have fallen far too short, and even dangerous in repeating the same patterns as other Islamophobes during this election cycle.

[…] The message stated by Clinton is we, American Muslims, can stay here if we love America and freedom and hate terrorism. How generous! […] Why the conditions? And why only while speaking about Muslims would he mention the word terror?

[…] The problem with the semantics of what Clinton said in his speech is that it borrows the Islamophobic assumptions that have plagued American political arena in the past several months. This was a good opportunity for Bill to push back against it and shift the conversation. Unfortunately, he framed his arguments within the same parameters of the Islamophobic discourse employed by Trump which treats Muslims as unwelcome foreigners.

In an election cycle defined by fever-pitched anti-Muslim incitement, Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric on Muslims continues to ring with ostentatious tolerance, yet it is repeatedly flanked by qualifiers such as ‘terror-hating’ and ‘peace-loving’, or the seemingly benign ‘moderate Muslim’ tag, which divisively frames the majority of Muslims as the exceptional few. This position represents a wholly condemnable concession on the part of the Democrats towards the neofascism of Trump, and it shifts the Overton Window, the spectrum of political discourse, to a realm wherein such parlance is not only perceived as tolerable but normal.

The implication that the “Americanness” of Muslim U.S. citizens is somehow suspect on the basis of religious background may be an idea that has emanated from the far-right, but it also belies a more troubling reality: the Clinton campaign, which portrays itself as promoting tolerance in the face of Trump-style bigotry, in fact echoes all too casually the dangerous, Islamophobic rhetoric employed by the Republican candidate. Hillary is the lesser of two evils, no doubt, but she is not progressive, nor liberal, and she is certainly not good news for the country, nor the world.


Interwar Fascism in France

Was France ‘immune’ to fascism in the interwar years?

In the aftermath of the First World War, the Third Republic was heavily criticised as consecutive governments failed to deal with the economic and social challenges of the period and subsequently collapsed. As the feeling of discontent grew, particularly in the wake of economic depression, so too did the increasingly extreme opposition. One school of predominantly French historians, such as René Rémond, argues that this opposition was not, for the most part, fascistic because France was ‘immune’ to such ideologies[1]. Another school, however, associated with Robert Soucy among others, rejects this idea by pointing to the popularity of the fascist-style leagues among traditional conservatives, radicalised by a fear of communism, and impressed by Mussolini and Hitler[2]. This essay will argue in favour of the latter in that the ideologies and practices of many popular right-wing groups during this period were indeed fascistic, regardless of whether or not they would accept such a label, to prove that France was not ‘immune’ to fascism.

The growth of the extreme-right in the interwar period can be attributed not only to the ineffectiveness of successive left-wing governments but also as an opposition to the threat of Bolshevism and the 2.4 million strikers taking part in 3296 strikes between 1919 and 1920[3]. As a result, right-wing elites established groups that sought to end the tedious debates of the Cartel des Gauches and replace them with an authoritative leader to protect the interests of the nation and its people. Working class disillusionment and the subsequently rising fear of a communist ascension meant that traditional conservatives flocked towards nationalistic, extra-parliamentary groups such as the Jeunesses Patriotes and Légion. Led by Pierre Taittinger and Antoine Rédier respectively, both were backed financially by General Édouard de Curières de Castelnau of the Fédération Nationale Catholique and thus operated to protect the interests of the bourgeoisie by opposing the left-wing incumbent government. Taittinger, like the FNC, was directly influenced by Mussolini and the group’s paramilitary style was inspired by his Blackshirts. Similarly, Rédier openly advocated the abolition of democracy to be replaced by an authoritarian state and “claimed that France longer for a ‘true leader’ who would raise his arm in a fascist salute and launch a movement of national salvation”[4]. By 1926, Légion had merged into the Jeunesses Patriotes, placing their membership at around 50,000[5], and this quotation endorsing such a leader shows the fascistic aspirations that they shared with a rival para-military founded by Georges Valois, who considered himself a founding thinker of fascism[6]. The Faisceau, backed by elites such as François Coty, boasted 60,000 members at its peak[7], and was also violently anti-communist as it too openly sought an authoritarian leadership. Valois asserted that, “Si La France surmonte sa démocratie, tout est sauvé[8]. Yet, it was in decline by 1926 as it complied with the moderate right in support of a new government under Raymond Poincaré. This was a move replicated by the Jeunesses Patriotes amongst others, with Taittinger declaring that, “against the worst of the resurrected Cartels, the opposition must unite, resolved to save the country despite all and by all means necessary”[9]. Despite the typically fascistic threat of violence, the suggestion is that the right settled for defeating the Cartel democratically, a result which, by ensuring defeat for the centre-left and communists, would placate their elite backers and thus reduce the need for further action by the fascistic leagues.

In the 1930s, following the onset of economic depression, the working classes became disillusioned again as the haute bourgeoisie enjoyed continued prosperity whilst unemployment reached up to a third in factory towns[10]. As a result, similarly fascistic paramilitaries rose up to oppose another left-wing government. Established as recently as 1933 by François Coty, a former financier of Faisceau, Solidarité Française took inspiration from the Nazi party and boasted 180,000 members by the time of its dissolution following the protests against Daladier’s government in February 1934[11]. Inspired by Italian fascism and bankrolled by Mussolini, Francisme was also overtly fascist, yet it attracted just 10,000 members[12], which seemingly supports the argument that, had fascism truly taken hold in France as is claimed, such patently fascistic groups would have been more popular. Instead, as the church advised the FNC to support the centre-right instead of promoting its own agenda[13], the far-right compromised again to rally around another centre-right government, this time under Gaston Doumergue to appease once more the interests of the leagues’ elite backers. Irwin Wall argues that a vital reason for the failure of fascism in France was the success of the moderate right, who, through Poincaré and Doumergue, “[…] ended left-wing experiments with government in a manner satisfactory to the French bourgeois elite, which financed the fascist groups and participated in their leadership”, concluding that, “In no sense were the French ever ‘immune’ to fascism”[14].

The growth of the extreme-right is shown more generally by the popularity of its press which included party newspapers such as Le Flambeau, L’Ami du Peuple and Émancipation Nationale and many other nationalistic, anti-democratic publications that incited political violence such as Action Française, which had become something of a ‘school’ for right-wing writers[15]. However, it was not necessarily fascist, unlike others such as Candide, Je suis partout and Gringoire, which although not explicitly linked to any group, had a print-run of 640,000 in November 1936[16], the highest of any weekly French newspaper[17]. The popularity of such fascistic rhetoric demonstrates the growing contempt towards the Republic, and more specifically, the Popular Front, which represented both perceived evils as it was led by a Jew, Léon Blum, described by Pierre Gaxotte, editor of Candide and later Je suis partout as, “everything that turns our blood cold”[18]. The popularity of this fascistic press highlights the clamour for a more authoritative regime as was proposed by the Croix de Feu, who as well as producing Le Flambeau, purchased a ‘Big Five’ newspaper, Le Petit Journal, in 1938[19].

Inspired by unpopular cuts to veterans’ pensions by the Cartel des Gauches, the Croix de Feu (CF), like other right-wing groups, had a rhetoric based around social conservatism, order and discipline. But La Rocque, who Soucy describes as, “the most important French fascist leader of the period”[20], believed that the veteran was also charged with the duty of standing up for the nation’s interests when required, and thus, his group seemed to offer a “more authoritarian response to the red menace than that proposed by the traditional parties of the parliamentary right”[21]. For this reason, the CF attracted many “beleaguered conservatives” who, “looked to the Croix de Feu as a potential saviour”[22]. As a result, it became the largest right-wing group of the period boasting a membership of 450,000 at the time of its dissolution[23], before being reborn as the Parti Social Français (PSF), which inherited its predecessor’s support to boast between 700,000 and 1.2 million members by 1937[24], far surpassing the membership of the Socialist and Communist parties which stood at just 202,000 and 288,000 members respectively[25]. Its popularity transferred into parliamentary success as the party boasted 11 deputies and won 15% of the national vote in the municipal elections of 1938-39[26], rendering it by far one of the most powerful political groups of the period.

The argument that the CF/PSF was essentially fascist is one spearheaded by Robert Soucy. He disagrees with historians who claim not only that La Rocque was too moderate to be a fascist, but that he disapproved of political violence and was a political democrat. However, La Rocque frequently condemned moderates, such as for their “compromise and hesitation” in the face of communism, adding that, “Ce sont gens de mignardise. Ce sont gens de mollesse[27]. This demonstrates his bitterness towards the moderate right and evidences his belonging to a more extreme ideology. La Rocque was also not opposed to all political violence. In 1933, he praised members who engaged in political assaults on pacifist conferences, and, in 1936, following the disturbance of a Communist Rally by between 15,000 and 20,000 PSF activists, La Rocque lauded the violence as a spontaneous “mass uprising” that stopped the “rise to power of a communist plot”[28]. La Rocque’s continued defence of these para-militant elements in the face of condemnation from the moderates shows that, as Zeev Sternhell argues:

“This huge army of activists was committed to an ideology whose core was […] anti-liberal, authoritarian, calling for the destruction of the existing order, such was the spirit of the reforme de l’État evoked by La Rocque. His main work, Service Public, sits comfortably in the classical canon of fascist thought”[29].

La Rocque further demonstrated his political alignment by calling for “continental solidarity” with fascist Italy, and “continental collaboration” with the Nazis[30]. Furthermore, upon concluding that the PSF should pursue an electoral path to power, it was reluctantly that he told his troops, “even the idea of soliciting a vote nauseates me”, reminding them that Hitlerism “became a preponderant political force only on the day […] it achieved 107 seats in the Reichstag”[31]. As Robert Paxton states, “Soucy’s judicious comparisons demolish the claim that the PSF was not fascist because it played the electoral game. That criterion […] would exclude the young Hitler and Mussolini”[32].

Furthermore, Irvine notes that what made the PSF, “more fascist than any other formation of the Third Republic” was that they, “eschewed elite politics in favour of mass-mobilisation”, and “formed genuinely popular movements adept at the ‘politics of the street’”[33]. For example, membership opened to all non-veterans with the Ligue des Volontiers Nationaux in 1933, and, through the Section Féminine, female membership rose to 50,000 by 1936[34]. Youth movements such as the Fils and Filles des Croix de Feu were also established wherein children were given prominent roles in ceremonies and didactically-themed parties whilst the older boys became propagandists[35]. These are mass-mobilisation tactics comparable to those of other fascist regimes, such as the Nazi’s National Socialist Women’s League and Hitler Youth. Taking this evidence together to suggest that the PSF was fascist, its enormous seems to somewhat disprove the ‘Immunity Thesis’ defended by the so-called ‘consensus historians’ in that such a movement possibly attracted over a million members.

However, Pierre Milza writes, “Populist and nationalist, the PSF is more anti-parliamentarist than anti-republican”[36]. He reserves the term ‘fascist’ for the leagues and Jacques Doriot’s Parti Populaire Français (PPF), insisting on the importance of the latter’s anti-communism as vital to such a definition. Indeed, the PPF claimed in an early poster that, “La tâche essentielle, celle qui prime toutes les autres, c’est de barrer la route au Parti Communiste[37]. Yet, Fernand Sape, a prominent member of the party, described how the revolution required for the instilling of ‘popular sovereignty’ and the construction the PPF’s new-fangled socio-political elite would be a “‘TOTAL national revolution’” which “‘would not stop at the extermination of communism”[38]. As well as communism, the PPF also violently targeted Jews, the Popular Front and its ruling class, against whom it hoped to mobilise the people for their betrayal through war-mongering, devaluing of the franc and alliance with USSR[39]. It attracted up to 130,000 members including industrialists and prominent intellectuals such as Drieu La Rochelle and Bertrand de Jouvenel[40]. However, this is far below the 295,000 the party itself claimed to have in a failed effort to seem competitive with the PSF[41]. Following the dissolution of the leagues, it recruited former leaders of Solidarité Française and Francistes, and with Doriot labelled as the ‘new Mussolini’, it attracted subsidies from fascist Italy[42]. Doriot particularly looked to traditional conservative workers who, “frightened by the progress of communism”, had been forsaken by the traditional right whose ability to deal with the Popular Front they doubted[43]. As a result of the dissolution of the leagues, the PFF was circumstantially bound to work within the system. In the absence of political breakthrough in the 1937 elections, and despite its mistrust of the parliamentary right, particularly the PSF, Doriot proposed a PPF-led Front de Liberté in an attempt to forge a right-wing coalition to rival that of the Popular Front on the left.

Although many groups backed the move, the PSF stayed out as La Rocque, rightly detecting an attempt to steal troops[44], said “[…] we would have been classified as fascists – which we do not wish at any price”[45]. It is in this respect that Rémond claims that, “Loin d’avoir représenté une forme française du fascisme […] La Rocque contribua à préserver la France du fascisme[46]. By 1939, without support for the Front de Liberté from the period’s largest right-wing group, membership had fallen to 50,000, coinciding with the fall of the Popular Front, which it had been established to oppose[47]. Whilst the PPF displayed elements of fascism in that it was hostile towards communism, liberal democracy and social elites and had a desire to mobilise the people against politicians, Passmore argues that, “the PPF has had a greater impact upon historians than it ever had upon the political scene of the Third Republic”[48], explaining that, in the end, the PPF was “playing a secondary role […] defending the meetings of the Fédération Republicaine from a more successful movement of the far-right [the PSF]”[49]. Therefore, although Rémond and Milza accept that it is a fascist party, they argue that its relatively low appeal proves that fascism was not particularly prevalent in France.

In conclusion, the conditions that inspired fascism elsewhere in Europe, namely economic depression and the rise of Communism, were also prevalent in France, and, in turn, similarly fascistic groups rose up. These groups espoused a violent rhetoric, practiced political violence against their opponents and featured nationalist principles based around the installation of an authoritarian leader. They inspired a mass-mobilisation towards the ‘politics of the street’, and furthermore, incited vicious anti-Semitism, as was the case not only in France but across Europe. However, there was little co-ordination and much rivalry between these groups, as was epitomised by the riots of February 1934, during which some league leaders wanted to push on to launch a total fascist putsch where others had been contented with the successful intimidation of the leftist government. Ultimately, the various groups chose, for the most part and on several occasions, to persist within the Republican system, backing Raymond Poincaré, Gaston Doumergue and later Edouard Daladier, in order to remove a succession of left-wing governments and prevent the potential ascension of a communist regime in a move which would placate their elite backers. Nevertheless, considering the exponential popularity and mass-mobilisation around the violent, anti-democratic and anti-Semitic groups such as the Croix de Feu/Parti Social Français, the Parti Populaire Français and many other paramilitary leagues, one can certainly assert that France was by no means ‘immune’ from fascism.

Continue reading “Interwar Fascism in France”

1924-1933: The ‘First Wave of French Fascism’?

How far would you agree with Robert Soucy that the period 1924–33 represents the ‘first wave of French fascism’?

In the aftermath of the First World War, the Third Republic was heavily criticised as consecutive governments failed to deal with the economic and social challenges of the era and subsequently collapsed. As the feeling of discontent grew, particularly in the wake of deepening economic depression, so too did the opposition, on both the left and right, which became increasingly extreme. This essay will argue in favour of Robert Soucy in that the popularity of the prominent right-wing groups of this period represent the ‘first wave of French fascism’, as is claimed by his book’s title[1]. The Oxford English Dictionary defines fascism as, “an authoritarian and nationalistic system of government and social organization”[2]. Although France’s more extreme parties did not get into power, and thus do not receive the historical attention as their German or Italian counterparts, this essay will demonstrate that their ideologies and practices fit this definition and are fascistic.

The exponential growth of the extreme right in this period can be attributed to the perceived ineffectiveness of successive left-wing governments, the new threat of Communism in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and also to widespread opposition to the 2.4 million strikers taking part in 3296 strikes between 1919 and 1920[3]. Soucy states that in 1926, the combined membership numbers of Action Française, Légion, Jeunesses Patriotes and Faisceau totalled 155,000. By 1934, at the end of the period in question, this figure had more than doubled to 370,000[4]. The popularity of the press of the extreme-right, such as Action Française, during this period highlights the polarisation of French politics as support for such ideologies became more prevalent. In particular, the anti-Semitic Gringoire had the highest print run of any weekly French newspaper[5]. The popularity of its fascistic rhetoric is evidence not only of the pan-European scapegoating of the Jews in the wake of this economic depression, but of the contempt held by many towards the incumbent system. An increasing number of people registered their support with a number of groups to end the unsuccessful debates of the Cartel des Gauches that were not delivering for French voters, and replace them with an authoritative leader to protect the nation’s interests.

Groups such as the Fédération Nationale Catholique and the Fédération Republicaine began as elite groups for the upper classes, though membership widened in the mid-1920s so that whilst in 1925, the former had claimed 700,000 members, they boasted 3 million by 1926[6]. This clearly shows the huge growth of the right during this period, particularly among the lower classes. As the 1930s progressed the church, fearful in the midst of possible state infringement through the left wing governments’ secularism, advised the Fédération Nationale Catholique to support the elected governments rather than to promote their own agenda[7]. Similarly, Louis Marin, the leader of the Fédération Republicaine, the largest right-wing group in the inter-war period, remained committed to the Republican system and backed former President Raymond Poincaré of the centre-right Alliance Démocratique in order to defeat the Cartel des Gauches[8].

Although many worked within the parliamentary system, the period 1924-1933 also saw the establishment of nationalistic para-military groups such as the Jeunesses Patriotes and the Faisceau led by Taittinger and Valois respectively, both of whom were heavily influenced by Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Georges Valois, a former Action Française militarist, and like Taittinger, was directly influenced by Italian fascism as was shown by his party’s name and the two groups’ paramilitary styles. Faisceau was violent both in rhetoric, and also occasionally in action, and it openly sought a more authoritarian leadership. By the end of 1926, the party was losing militants fast and the decline was hastened by both the formation of a new, right-wing government under Raymond Poincaré, whom it ultimately supported, and the subsequent stabilisation of the franc. Taittanger too backed Poincaré, declaring in La Liberté in October 1925, “Against the worst of the resurrected Cartels, the opposition must unite, resolved to save the country despite all and by all means necessary[9]. Here, too, it is important to note the incendiary suggestion of violence against the opposition, as is typical of such fascistic, paramilitary groups. The Légion, under Antoine Rédier, was another right-wing paramilitary group that seems to have opposed the Cartel if only as an alternative to keep Communism at bay. The suggestion is that the right in France feared the prospect of the Communists as an alternative to the centre-left incumbents and without the capacity to seize power outright in a coup or civil war, when given the opportunity to ensure Communism’s defeat within the political system through a right-wing leader in Poincaré, they settled for doing exactly that. However, he openly advocated the abolition of political democracy to be replaced by an authoritarian state and “claimed that France longer for a ‘true leader’ who would raise his arm in a fascist salute and launch a movement of national salvation”[10]. This quote endorsing such a potential leader clearly shows the aspirations and fascistic tendencies of Légion as well as those of other such groups so close in political proximity, for example the Jeunesses Patriotes and the Faisceau.

A series of cuts to civil servants’ wages and veterans’ pensions were hugely unpopular and indeed it was among the latter group that some of the most virulent right-wing groups rose up, namely the Union Nationale des Combattants and Colonel De La Rocque’s Croix de Feu. Like the other right-wing groups, they had a rhetoric based around social conservatism, order and discipline, but De La Rocque, who Soucy describes as, “the most important French fascist leader of the period”[11], saw the veteran as having the duty to stand up for the nation’s best interests when required. Contrary to the accusation that fascism was merely an ideology of fringe groups, too small to truly take-off in France, the Croix de Feu, at its peak, boasted between 700,000 and 1.2 million members[12], according to William Irvine, and Zeev Sternhall argues that,

“This huge army of activists was committed to an ideology whose core was a ‘Christian nationalism’, anti-liberal, authoritarian, calling for the destruction of the existing order, such was the spirit of the reforme de l’État evoked by La Rocque. His main work, Service Public, sits comfortably in the classical cannon of fascist thought”[13].

La Rocque’s group offered, “a more authoritarian response to the red menace than that proposed by the traditional parties of the parliamentary right”[14], and many “beleaguered conservatives looked to the Croix de Feu as a potential saviour”[15]. Irvine goes on to note that what makes the Croix de Feu “more fascist than any other formation of the Third Republic”[16], namely that they “eschewed elite politics in favour of mass-mobilisation. They […] formed genuinely popular movements adept at the ‘politics of the street’, at home with the mass rallies”[17]. The grass-roots efforts of the Croix de Feu are an example of typical mass-mobilisation tactics typically deployed by fascist groups. In this sense, one can certainly assert that this period represents the ‘first wave of French fascism’.

In conclusion, whilst the conditions that inspired fascism in Germany and Italy were prevalent in France as they were across Europe, namely economic depression and the rise of Communism, the parties of the extreme right persisted within the Republican system in order to remove the left-wing incumbent governments of the early 1920s and to rival a Communist party effort. Despite violent and fascistic rhetoric and a large paramilitary presence, these groups ultimately, and for the most part, threw their support behind Raymond Poincaré in order to ensure the defeat of the centre-left and left-wing, and fight the threat of Communism. Nevertheless, there seems to be no doubt that the ideology and rhetoric of the major right-wing parties of the period were fascistic in that their primary focus was on nationalist principles, the installation of an authoritarian leader, mass-mobilisation towards the ‘politics of the street’, and furthermore, vicious anti-Semitism, as was widespread in the press of the French far-right and across Europe.

Continue reading “1924-1933: The ‘First Wave of French Fascism’?”