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. 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. 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. 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”. By 1926, Légion had merged into the Jeunesses Patriotes, placing their membership at around 50,000, 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. The Faisceau, backed by elites such as François Coty, boasted 60,000 members at its peak, 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”. 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”. 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. 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. Inspired by Italian fascism and bankrolled by Mussolini, Francisme was also overtly fascist, yet it attracted just 10,000 members, 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, 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”.
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. 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, the highest of any weekly French newspaper. 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”. 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.
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”, 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”. For this reason, the CF attracted many “beleaguered conservatives” who, “looked to the Croix de Feu as a potential saviour”. 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, 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, far surpassing the membership of the Socialist and Communist parties which stood at just 202,000 and 288,000 members respectively. 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, 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”. 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”. 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”.
La Rocque further demonstrated his political alignment by calling for “continental solidarity” with fascist Italy, and “continental collaboration” with the Nazis. 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”. 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”.
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’”. 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. 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. 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”. 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”. 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”. 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. It attracted up to 130,000 members including industrialists and prominent intellectuals such as Drieu La Rochelle and Bertrand de Jouvenel. However, this is far below the 295,000 the party itself claimed to have in a failed effort to seem competitive with the PSF. 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. 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. 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, said “[…] we would have been classified as fascists – which we do not wish at any price”. 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”. 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. 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”, 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]”. 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.