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.

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