The far right in interwar France is perhaps one of the most interesting of European fascisms; not because of its success, but because of its failure. There were many reasons why it should succeed; the Third Republic was constantly changing government, they pushed it close to crisis on occasion, the French economy was in crisis for most of the 1920s and late 1930s, there was significant support, and support from incredibly wealthy businessmen. Like British fascism, French fascism was mainly an organic creation, undoubtedly influenced by Germany, Italy and Spain, but definitely a creation from within. It is as important to ask, especially when attempting to learn from history, why the French far right failed as to ask why the German and Italian fascists succeeded. The defeat of 1940 aside, why didn’t the French fascist groups succeed before invasion by Germany? Was it because the paramilitary groups were weak, divided and ineffectual? Was it due to the strength of the left in French politics? Or was it because the Third Republic was more resilient than first thought? This is mainly adapted from an essay I wrote examining these questions, and is my attempt to return to noding with an old fashioned revise-while-you-node.

Fascist groups – a brief summary

- Action Française – One of the oldest groups, originally Royalist, slowly converted to Fascism after the Dreyfus Affair and First World War

- FascieauGeorges Valois’ splinter group from the Action Francaise, at the height of its popularity during the 1920s – quickly disintegrated after 1928

- Croix de Feu – a far right group of veterans of the First World War originally, which quickly expanded to relatively well off, disaffected young men. Led by La Rocque, one of the main figures of the fascist movement.

- Front Paysan – An agricultural fascist group, famed for its green shirts, dumping cow manure outside of politicians’ offices, and drenching them with wine.

- La Cagoule – a terrorist group, nicknamed ‘the hooded ones’ by the press, and funded by some high profile individuals, including the founder of L’Oreal.

Sheer Incompetence: The Failed Cagoule Plot and the 6th of February 1934

In 1932, the majority of the country had rejected the parliamentary right, and instead elected a government of Radicals (ironically, not very radical at all, just a fluffy centre ground party led by Edouard Daladier) and Socialists to deal with the economic difficulties of the Depression. The paramilitary extreme right were looking for an excuse to overthrow this socialist government, and it came in the Stavisky scandal. Alexandre Stavisky had been found guilty of many counts of fraud, totalling 300 million Francs, and implicating many important figures within the government and parliament. Stavisky killed himself shortly afterwards, but many members of the general public, the far right, and the far left, were outraged at the collusion of many parliamentary figures. The leagues of the far right violently protested throughout January 1934, but the chief of police in Paris, Jean Chiappe was seen to be sympathetic with the leagues, and Daladier, the prime minister, moved him to another post. This incited the anger of the leagues, and they gathered at various points around Paris, clashed with the police violently, and marched on the Chamber of Deputies to coincide with a vote of confidence on Daladier’s premiership. They never reached the Chamber, as the police blocked the route across the River Seine successfully. Daladier won his vote of confidence, but to quell the riots, against Leon Blum’s advice, resigned rather than call in the army, and the right wing Gaston Doumergue formed a government instead. The riots had removed Daladier’s government, but failed to remove the parliamentary system, as there was no real plot or planning for a putsch, and were instead forced to settle for what La Roque of the Croix de Feu described as a “poultice on a gangrenous leg”.

Apart from the opportunities presented by the 6th of February, and lack of real conspiracy plots with it, the failed Cagoule plot of 1937 is a good example of the right’s failure to implement any plots they did have. The Cagoule was a more violent, action focused offshoot of Action Française, which was determined to overthrow not just the Popular Front government, but the Republic itself, and the attempt of 1937 was the most serious to face the Republic. The main idea behind the plot was to bring out the army against a Communist insurrection, entirely made up by the Cagoule itself. The reasons why this plot failed clearly reflect the reasons why many other groups failed, not only the lack of outright insurrection from the left, but also the lack of support from the military and respectable conservatives, as well as mistakes over timing and organisation.

Divisions within the Right

The multitude of groups on the right may have had different methods, and outright fought each other at times, but they had a consistency of opinion, around the ideas of anti-parliamentarianism, authoritarianism, anti-Semitism and fear of communism, especially when the left were in power. These divisions were not as distinctly ideological as those amongst the left and centre of French politics, where the Communists and Socialists viewed each other with suspicion on a doctrinal basis of the relationship with both the Third International and with democracy itself, and yet still united against the right in the Popular Front. Despite the confusion and lack of a single leader which the disunity of the far right caused, the internal competition caused could have helped, rather than hindered the extreme right leagues in France, as it could have forced group after group into action, just to keep up with the others, and made it much more difficult for the conservatives to keep them in check. However, despite having plenty of common ground, the lack of a unified, distinct leadership and planning did mean that any attempts to take power would suffer from a lack of coordinated plans for replacing a government, even in the ‘missed opportunity’ of the 6th of February 1934. Disunity was undoubtedly a factor in the right’s failure to overthrow the Third Republic, but a relatively minor one, as the left had overcome bigger ideological differences to unite against the right, as there were still more similarities between fascist leagues in France than there were differences.

Extra-parliamentary politics and Legitimacy

Unlike both Germany and Italy, the left wing in France mobilised in response to the growth of groups such as the Croix de Feu, Action Française and Front Paysan, rather than the right developing in response to the left, which meant the Popular Front in 1936 was a rejection, through parliamentary politics, by the majority of the French population of right wing, anti-parliamentary politics. The left was a parliamentary force, in both the Socialist party, but also when the Communists moved towards mainstream politics, which provided both an anti-fascist focus, and a way of delegitimising the anti-parliamentary, violent methods of the extreme right. Left wing parties in France, especially the Socialists, had gone to great lengths to make themselves appear respectable and willing to work within the system, and used strikes as extra-parliamentary action, rather than street violence, so were considerably more revisionary than many of their European counterparts, which made it much more difficult to exploit anti-communist sentiment, which considerably weakened the appeal of fascism.

There was a distinct disadvantage from being solely extra parliamentary, especially in the aftermath of the 6th of February, when they couldn’t immediately take advantage of the political chaos they had caused, and their success in removing a left wing government was then reliant on Doumergue, a respectable right wing politician. Even after the paramilitary leagues were banned by the Popular Front, the turn to parliamentary politics in the Parti Social Français was relatively late, and seemed contradictory after La Rocque and other leaders had condemned the Third Republic so vehemently in the early 1930s. Despite the Parti Social Français (PSF) and Parti Populaire Français (PPF)’ level of support (between 750,000 and 1.3 million members in 1938), most of the right wing population had found similar socio-economic doctrines within conservative parties such as the Alliance Democratique or Radicals, and the only thing to differentiate the fascists was the use of paramilitaries, anti-Semitism and anti-republicanism. Unlike Hitler or Mussolini, the far right in France failed to exploit both parliamentary politics and street politics, and thus struggled to take advantage of the many crises, including the riots of the 6th of February, of the Third Republic and bring it down.

Lack of support from key groups – Police, Military and moderate right wing

Support from the military, the police or both is necessary for a fascist overthrow of power, something which both Hitler and Mussolini had, and the French right wing leagues were distinctly without. Despite organisations such as Croix de Feu being made up of anciens combattants, the Army remained loyal to the Republic and the government, and General de la Laurencie refused to be “An Army of Pronunciamento”, and wouldn’t undermine the government. The police had long been loyal to governments and were more capable of maintaining a relative level of order, both against the Faisceau in the 1920s and during the riots of the 6th of February, they staunchly defended the Republic against rioters, and successfully limited the amount of weapons the paramilitary groups could get their hands on. There may have been pro-fascist elements within the Army, but not enough to ever attempt a coup d’état, and the Republic was relatively well protected by the police, both of which made any attempt at overthrowing the government difficult.

A far-right overthrow of the Republic would have been more viable if the moderate right wing parties and conservative figures were prepared to support right wing leagues and give them a chance of legitimate power. However, the only real reason parliamentary conservative parties would have for doing that was if they thought the left posed a genuine threat, beyond what the republic could protect, and this clearly wasn’t the case, at least in the 1920s. Left coalition governments between the Radicals and Socialists didn’t last long and lost coherence over economic policies. This meant that whenever governance from the left incited anti-communist sentiment, it was unlikely to last long. Poincare’s government in 1927 reinstated conservatism and reduced the appeal of right wing leagues until the depression. The Cartel des Gauches in the early 30s inspired conservative backlash, and after the 6th of February, was replaced with Doumergue, another conservative politician, and calls in conservative newspapers for moderation rather than a fascist uprising. After the collapse of the Popular Front, the conservative response was in Daladier and Reynaud’s government, not in the PSF or PPF.

The conservative parties’ policies were sufficiently right wing to occupy the ‘space’ sought by the fascist movements, meaning that they were reliant on respectable conservatives to gain power. Despite conservative resistance to the far right, there was also a similarity in policy which undermined the influence of the far right; right wing governments had followed a similar economic line to the fascist groups, and most believed that political democracy could be an effective bulwark against socialism, as they proved that anti-communism was possible through parliamentary politics and did not require anti-Republican values. Conservatives were further dissuaded from extreme right politics by the nature of governments in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and saw the contradiction, despite differences in the nature of French and German fascism, in being nationalist, but supporting an ideology of a country which contested everything won at Versailles.

The Parliamentary Republic as a Resilient Republic

The nature of politics within the Third Republic, and the ability of the left to move towards the centre and unify in response to right wing radicalisation, as well as the ability of conservative backlash to come in parliamentary, rather than violent forms, meant that there was little room for fascist uprisings. Parliamentary politics and the short lived span of governments, especially in the interwar period meant that coalitions of the left lasted as long as the Radicals could put up with the Socialists, and allowed a series of right wing parliamentary backlashes, so the period was mainly moderate right-centre governments, with the occasional coalition between the Radicals and the left wing. The ability of the Republic to survive in the face of far right uprising was not necessarily down to actors' democratic values, but because they all had an interest in the Republic withstanding fascist and far right attempts at insurrection.

The Socialists and Communists took the threat of the 6th of February seriously, and the Socialists realised that they had to defend democracy rather than force a choice between fascism and socialism; a choice they were worried they might lose. The Radicals had been the most consistent party of government, in both left and right wing coalitions, not only most staunchly believed in the concepts of political liberty and democracy, but were in danger of losing support for economic liberalism as politics polarised during the 1930s, and had an interest in a political system which allowed them to form governments. The right, as already mentioned, could more effectively respond to left wing governments through a parliamentary system of government than through street violence and had no reason to give far right groups the support they needed. In this sense, the fluidity of the parliamentary system meant that there was no reason for parties or the high majority of the population to consider their grievances would not be dealt with from within the system, as this seemed far more plausible and probable a solution than change from without, through violence, as the situation precipitating a coup d’état seemed incredibly unlikely in interwar France.

Conclusions

The main reason for the far right’s failure to take power in France was not to do with their divisions, but more because they remained outside of parliamentary politics and dedicated to extra-parliamentary actions, without the support of conservative parties within parliament, despite similarities in policy. The splits could have served to their advantage, but without any real plot, or coherent plan to take power, they missed their best opportunities in 1934 and 1937, and instead the initiative with the conservative backlash against leftist governments was from Doumergue and Daladier, within parliamentary and constitutional limits. As long as French conservatives felt they could be protected from communism and socialism within parliamentary politics, and as long as the left were shifting towards the centre, rather than radicalising, in response to the far right, most were unlikely to join or support groups on the extreme right. The Republic’s ability to respond to both left and right politics within parliament meant that it survived the polarisation of politics in the 1930s without succumbing to fascist parties.

Sources

Blatt, J. “The Cagoule Plot 1936-7.” In Crisis and Renewal in France 1918-1962, edited by K Moure and M Alexander, pp. 86-105. (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2002)

Dobry, M. “French Society's Allergy to the 'Fascist Revolution.” In France in the Era of Fascism; Essays on the French Authoritarian Right, edited by B Jenkins, pp. 129-151. (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2005)

Greene, N. From Versailles to Vichy; The Third French Republic, 1919-40. (Arlington Heights, IL: AHM Publishing, 1970)

Jackson, J. “1940 and the Crisis of Interwar Democracy in France.” In French History Since Napoleon, edited by M Alexander, pp. 222-244. (London: Arnold, 1999)

Kedward, R. La Vie en Bleu; France and the French since 1900. (London: Penguin, 2006)

Marcus, J. French Socialism in the Crisis Years 1933-36; Fascism and the French Left. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976)

Nolte, E. Three Faces of Fascism: Action Francaise, Italian Fascism, National Socialism. (New York, NY: R. Piper, 1969)

Soucy, R. French Fascism: The First Wave 1924-33. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986)

Soucy, R. French Fascism: The Second Wave 1933-39. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995)

Sternhell, Z. Neither Right nor Left; Fascist Ideology in France. (Chichester: Princeton University Press, 1986)

Tannenbaum, E. The Action Francaise: Die Hard Reactionaries in Twentieth Century France. (New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, 1962)

The lectures of Professor Martin Alexander, Aberystwyth University

Also, I could do with feedback, as I haven't posted here in a while. I at least hope it's up to previous standards

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