The specter of fascism haunts the scholarship on French interwar history. Much ink has been spent among post-war historians while trying to determine whether there ever was such a thing as French fascism, and, if there was, what its defining characteristics were. The evolution of a generic definition of fascism itself owes a good deal to research of the various ligues, partis, and other organizations that constituted the political spectrum of the day. By examining a fascist movement that happened outside of Germany and Italy, the two countries in which can be seen the archetypal fascist movements, fascism as a worldwide phenomenon can be more fully understood. It can demonstrate conceptual evolution of fascism and offer clues as to cultural, economic, and political reasons for fascism’s success or failure in a given country. Nevertheless, this is a highly debated issue, with a lot at stake for the French people for whom the revelation of a fascist past is a modern-day embarrassment.
Fascism, the set of political theories, if not the name, is French. Every element that comprises the ideological cluster known as fascism has a French precedent. There were, however, no French fascists who seized power, save for the Vichy regime, which was more of an occupying fascism than an indigenous one. Out of the five stages that Robert O. Paxton defines as a “fascist cycle,” only the first two – the creation of movements and the rooting in the political system – can be found in France.1Interwar France may not supply the world with a living fascist movement on the scale of Italy or Germany, but it is the most important case-study of prefascism. Prefascism is generally described as an
Fascism failed to gain power in the interwar period for a host of reasons. First of all, no fascist leagues or groups were capable of staging a revolutionary overthrow of the government like the Italian fascists were. French fascism equally ill-prepared to garner sufficient support to take power by parliamentary means. Confounding this latter reason is the fact that the French parliamentary system had had a 150 year history by the time of the 1920s. The polity was thus sufficiently resilient to resist internal fascist threats.
It could equally be argued that French fascism gained what little influence it had only because it was essentially a tool of the entrenched upper-classes to fight the left. Since French fascism is seen as conservative from this standpoint, it can be inferred that the fascist movement, despite its rhetoric, was never meant to challenge the status-quo; it was counter-revolutionary. Can it then be classified as fascist?
One possible answer to the question of whether fascism existed in France is to mark a fine distinction between fascism and its close relatives. Whereas genuine fascism must be revolutionary, I would reproduce Soucy’s argument that the French strand of “fascism” was conservative, even counter-revolutionary.2Thus, there was no “true” fascist movement in France. Neither the Faisceau, the Parti Populaire Française, nor the Francistes can tenably be labeled as successful fascist organizations. If scholars continue to search for a genuine fascist movement in France then either there must be a change in the definition put forward by Nolte, that fascism must be anti-conservative, or it must be proven that there was a French fascist movement that did notinternalize the prevailing conservatism of the Right. At present there is no such proof, the definition proves to be very useful, and so appeals to the verdict on French fascism must be postponed.
Yet we can analyze the prefascist epoch between the end of the Franco Prussian War and the end of the first World War. Here is where can be found the foundations of embryonic fascism that, while not signifying anything in isolation, become the historical phenomenon known as fascism when combined. This is the birth and maturation of hyper-nationalism, antisemitism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, anti-liberalism, anti-Marxism, populism, and the leadership principle.
Extreme nationalism and its European corollary, antisemitism, were present in political discourse since the outbreak of the Dreyfus Affair. By 1898, four years after Albert Dreyfus was arrested and charged with treason, at least three major ligueswere formed to propagate extreme nationalist politcs: The Ligue antisémitique de France, founded by Jules Guérin, the Ligue de la Patrie Françaiseof François Coppée, Jules Lemaître, and Albert Sorel (incidentally of no relation to Georges Sorel), and an early splinter group of the Ligue de la Patrie Française, theLigue de l’Action Françcaise.This position concludes that the authoritarian nationalist groups and individuals of the prewar era can most appropriately be classified as “prefascist.”
French royalism was a dwindling political force from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards. When Maurras’s AF formed, it drew supporters further right because it was a coherent and effective doctrine, unlike the nostalgic anti-republicanism that had been the primary ideological tool of earlier monarchists. By the time of the Dreyfus Affair, old monarchism was already antidemocratic (that is, anti-Republican), xenophobic, and antisemitic. It was also charged with a strong nationalist sentiment and was socialist in the sense that it demanded social justice for the working class. From a monarchist perspective, it was political liberalization that had brought the greater excesses of industrial capitalism. Both the Comte de Chambord and the duc d’Orléans had produced arguments against the evils of capitalism. Pretenderists and Legitimists advocated the same thing; Republican France had been too capitalistic for them and the Second Empire hadn’t been much better. Richard Griffiths argues that the AF was not different from this older monarchism in its policies, but rather, it was simply more active.3
Zeev Sternhell begins the first chapter of his 1994 book, The Birth of Fascist Ideology, with a quote from and explanation of Georges Sorel’s Réflexions sur la violence. Sternhell very appropriately links Sorel’s thought to a nascent fascism but it his claim that fascism thus constitutes a revision of Marxism that is dubious. Sorel did indeed consider himself a Marxist of sorts, and towards the end of his life he is known to have expressed his sympathies with Lenin and the Bolshevik revolution. Moreover, Sorel’s advocacy of violence as a legitimate means – and indeed an end in itself – was a crucial element in the generic formulation of fascist ideology. According to Sterhnell, fascism is a fusion of left and right and as an ideology stands beyond this clear distinction. Sternhell’s main thesis in another one of his books, Neither Left Nor Right, is that French fascism has its roots in the last two decades of the 19thcentury and was given its clearest expression by Maurice Barrès. In another essay Sternhell pushes his declaration of fascist presence ahead, “On the eve of the First World War, the essentials of fascist ideology were already well defined. The word did not exist yet, but the phenomenon it would eventually designate had its own autonomous existence….”4
Sorel was a founding member of le Cercle Proudhon (CP), a political study circle who took their cue from the French contemporary of Marx, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Ironically, the father of anarchism became the patron saint of the premier fascist intellectual group in prewar France.5This group included such individuals as Georges Valois, the future founder of le Faisceau, Edouard Berth, and Pierre Eugène Drieu La Rochelle. In 1912 the first issue of les Cahiers du Cercle Proudhonis published, of which French historian Michel Winock says can be identified the unmistakable mark of prefascism. The essays of les Cahiersdecry the failures of democracy and ruminate on a hypothetical panacea. They praise war as a virtue, nationalism, heroism, antisemitism, revolutionary action, and order. They hold human rights, parliamentarianism, and capitalism in contempt. The next year, the Futurist Manifestois published in Italy. But where the futurists come to fascism through hyper-modernism, the Cahiersreveal a lingering integral nationalism that is fundamentally traditionalist.
Although the CP is composed of members of the left and right wing, they come to a plausible agreement that a combination of nationalism and syndicalism will save France. As Berth was to put it two years later, “Two synchronic and convergin movements, one on the far right, the other on the far left, have begun the seige and assault on democracy, for the salvation of the modern world and the greatness of our Latin humanity.”6
“Sorel himself admitted that he had less than a thousand readers in France, and felt extrememely discouraged. In Italy his following was probably greater for various intellectual reasons. He was introduced in Italy by Croce, and offered the columns of a leader Bologna newspaper by the well-known journalist Missiroli. Mussolini had certainly read articles by Sorel and they probably influenced him. But even in Italy he probably did not have any real influence outside small intellectual, élite groups.”7
In an English text on Syndicalism, written the same year as the founding of the Cercle Proudhon, the author is most likely interpreting Sorel when he states, “For syndicalism does not seek merely to reform. Modern society is wrong fundamentally. It is built up so that great masses must be poor.”8This simultaneously reveals the similarities and differences between syndicalism and socialism. Syndicalism is more than just an economic system; it is antidemocratic, antimodern, direct-action oriented, and has a corporate vision for the state. When combined with nationalism, as it was by the CP, it produces national socialism, at least in theory. For according to Valois’s, deceivingly simple mathematical equation, “nationalism + socialism = fascism.” Roger Eatwell responds that, “This formulation helps illustrate the vital mutations at the heart of fascism, but is in crucial ways misleading…. Although still misleading, it would be more accurate to say that nationalism + conservatism = fascism.”9
French fascism is intrinsically linked to integral nationalism in its conceptual framework. Charles Maurras and his group the Action Français are the point of convergence. It was organized during the exciting days of the Dreyfuss case, under the leadership of Charles Maurras and Leon Daudet. Its policies from the start were strongly nationalistic, anti-semitic, monarchical, and Catholic. France was to be for the French, not for the Jews and Protestants. Bitterly opposed to democratic principles, it organized its shock troops, the Camelots du Roi, or henchmen of the King. In 1923, these “henchmen” staged a demonstration in which they wrecked the presses of several newspapers and fed castor oil to the Left Deputies. They have been enthusiastic in their support of Mussolini’s principles and methods.
Georges Valois, the intellectual who was equally steadfast and sporadic in his national socialism is, in a way, a symbol of left fascism. Even though he gave lip-service to dictatorship, he never made his Legionnaires swear any allegiance and take an oath of honor to anyone, including himself. Valois’s rhetoric fooled even himself at times. From the outset, he proclaimed the affinity of fascism and communism: “There is no profound difference between them and us. Like us, they are revolting against the reign of money.”10
Robert Soucy’s pair of studies on French Fascism each track a “wave” of fascism, the first happening from 1924 to 1933 and the second from 1933 to 1939. Implicit in his “wave” method of chronicling fascist history is correlating the rise of fascism to threats from the left. When the left was perceived as a threat to middle-class interests, fascism was seen as the antidote. Therefore, fascism was merely a conservative device. I agree that there can be said to be two waves of fascism, but before the first wave I believe there is an era of
The era of fascism is inaugurated with the end of World War I. Mussolini (or Gentile) bestows an Italian name on a French ideology when he publishes The Fascist Manifestoin Italy. While it is gaining headway to the South, fascism hits a lull in France, no doubt in part cause by the fact that while both countries were victors in the war, the conservative, parliamentary right in France was more deeply entrenched than in Italy. In the early 1920’s, the French right is a loose movement of radicals and conservatives with a large political presence. Alexandre Millerand, at this time being known as a rightist, was elected president of France in 1920 and he did a satisfactory job of stabilizing the economy. The general calm of the period left the radicalism of the AF out of vogue with the lower-middle class, which tended to drift towards the conservative side of the right. There is a major rivalry then in the mid-twenties, between the AF and theJeunnes Patriotes (Young Patriots). They vie not for objective radicality, butfor conservative sympathizers.
In 1922, Maurras and the AF welcome Mussolini into power in Italy and praise the strength with which he achieved that power. The AF is, however incapable of ever attempting a feat as daring as the March on Rome. The paramilitary youth league of the AF, les Camelots du Roi(Newsboys for the King) limit themselves to attacking three leftist deputies who were on their way to a Dreyfusard meeting, apparently pouring castor oil down their throats in the fashion of Mussolini’s blackshirts. In light of this, Valois, still living by a false view of fascism, claims “There is no need for fascism in France because an Action Française has existed for twenty years!”11The next year the Cartel des Gauches, France’s majority centrist and anti-clerical party, is elected. While the AF can only garner 328,000 votes in this election, the Communist party receives three times that amount and the Socialists claim over twice that amount. This is indicative of a general swing to the left in the government. France recognizes the Soviet Union. Communist political prisoners are also pardoned in 1924, making the conservatives even edgier.
After the election, numerous paramilitary organizations are founded, the most important being the Jeuness Patriotes(JP), a youth league with connections to the Ligue des Patriotes. These groups, strictly speaking, were not fascist organizations, but leaned in the general direction of fascism. They had an antiparliamentarian, anti-Bolshevik, antilabor programs. The JP group strove to build up a national party and openly acknowledged its intentions to seize power in the fashion of Mussolini, with a program demanding the defense of the small middle class, small producers, small pensioners, and French petty property. For the workers, the Young Patriots threatened law and order everywhere, in the streets, schools and factories, and advocated the elimination of strikes. The AF tries to save itself from obscurity.
In 1925 a new rivalry open up to the right of the AF. Georges Valois distances himself from the AF and in February opens up his own newspaper, Le Nouveau Siècle. To complement the JP, Valois founds his own paramilitary group, the Légion. A few months later the two groups are fused together into a more militarized organization under the leadership of General Dessoffy. Dessoffy commanded that the membership be divided into “squads” of five men, four of which then form “sections,” which in groups of five were then “centuries.” More than simply making the JP-Légion more efficient, this was a propagandistic demonstration of power. The militarization simultaneously led conservatives to presume that were would be a revolution coming from the left and that the fascists would be there to stop it with force. In any case, it was not intended to overthrow the government, only to indulge the conservatives.
The strategy works well for the JP. In August, Taittinger tours the country and raises membership by about 3,000. His campaign claims that the right was weak, allowing leftists into power. What was needed, he said, was for a more authoritarian system. France needs, he said, “disciplined action, no [democratic] committees, no discussions, no elections. The Leader, aided by his collaborators and technical advisors, will name all his subordinates….”12On Novemeber 11th, Valois and some colleagues hold a mass rally at the Salle Wagram in Paris, attracting 4,000 young people to hear their message. The Faisceau de Combattants et Producteurs, inspired in name and shirt style by Mussolini,is formed from this rally. Their program proclaims a sort of “left fascism,” the type that Valois had believed Mussolini’s to be. Four days later there is another JP mass meeting in Paris that 7,000 people attend. The fortunes of the fascists increase because the left is in power. For the next two years, they will see a steady increase in fascist sympathizers.
1926 is the first peak of fascism if based on membership amounts. The JP can claim 65,000 supporters, the Faisceau 60,000, the AF 2,000, and Marcel Rédier’s Légion 10,000. Incidentally, in March, Rédier formally requested all Légion members to join the Faisceau. The rivalry between Maurras and Valois intensifies as Valois’s blueshirts wage an attack on AF headquarters. The AF suffers another blow this year when Pope Pius XI excommunicates Maurras and prohibits Catholics from associating with the organization. From this point on, the AF, which had been so prominent before 1919, is known mainly for its ideological achievements and the impact of its propaganda, not for its direct action. A telling sign of their impotence is that only 5,000 people could be compelled to agitate during the funeral of AF leader, Marius Plateau.
All of the general participation of right-wing political organizations was effective because later that year, the weight of the perceived financial crisis pulls Raymond Poincaré, a conservative, into office. This victory for the right harms the fascists, whose opportunistic rise was directly related to the illusive leftist threat. By 1928, Poincaré has stabilized the economy and the first wave of fascism recedes. The Faisceau is disbanded as Valois slowly rediscovers that his version of socialism was incongruent with fascism. His book, L’Homme contre l’argentreveals his turn towards the left.
By the early 1930’s, the stock market crash of 1929 starts to be felt in the French economy. In 1930, the AF, the JP, and another group, Solidarité Française, merge to create the Front National. Then, in next year’s election, a leftist majority is appointed to parliament. It was possible partly because of a popular reaction to events in neighboring Germany, who, 1933, found Adolf Hitler to be their new leader. This gives an opportunity for fascists to once again assail the left while at the same time having a new authoritarian model to base their actions off of. Copycat national-socialist groups such as Marcel Bucard’sFrancisteswill pop up, generating the second wave of fascism in France.
In 1934, the most threatening organization, as far as street action was concerned, had been none of the preceding organizations. It was the Croix de Feu (Cross of Fire), which at first was organized to include only war veterans who had been decorated, but later was extended to take in other veterans and finally, the sons of war veterans. It was led by Colonel Robert De la Rocque. Claiming a membership of over 180,000, it was the largest extra-parliamentary liguein France.
The first-era prefascists are out of the picture at this point. Like the regimes in Italy and Germany, the new French fascists could not substantiate any true leftist elements within their fascism despite their claims to “socialism.” Since the overwhelming majority of French people are lower middle class, the second wave of fascism turns out to be nothing more than a “fascist scare.” The primary thing that it can be said to accomplish was to fuel anti-fascism, assuring a victory for the Popular Front in the 1936 elections. The 6 February incident radicalized the right only temporarily. These large scale riots in Paris were a show of extra-parliamentary politics and they attracted support to fascist organizations but at the price of eventual radicalism. It was a conceded fact that the fascists needed conservative support, which was evidenced by the fact that through all of the chaos of the day, none of the rage was directed towards the police forces. Even the Croix de Feu refused to break the barricades set up by the police. French fascism was as interested in counter-revolution as it was in revolution. In 1936, by order of the new Popular Front government, all of the 6 February participant movements are outlawed. The Popular Front also passes the Matignon Accords, which grant paid vacation to all French workers and a limited workweek.
[Conclusion missing. Essay under construction.]
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This elephantine book
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The Nature of Fascismis the product of a conference on Fascism held in 1967 at the Reading University Graduate School of Contemporary European Studies. S. J. Woolf brings the papers presented by individual scholars together and attempts at a synthesis of all the arguments at the end of each section. The result is a discussion of the tensions and insights found in modern scholarship on fascism.
1Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: Knopf, 2004), 23.
2This definition is based off of Ernst Nolte’s “fascist minimum.” E. Nolte, Die Krise des liberalen Systems und die faschistischen Bewegungen (Munich, 1968), 385. Found in Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism 1914-1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), 5.
3Richard Griffiths, “From Nostalgia to Pragmatism: French Royalism and the Dreyfus Watershed,” in The Right in France: 1789-1997, eds. Nicholas Atkins and Frank Tallett (New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 1997), 115.
4Zeev Sternhell, “Fascist Ideology”, in W. Laqueur, ed., Fascism: A Reader’s Guide (London: Penguin Publishers, 1982), 325-406.
5The connection is more appropriate than it may first appear to be because despite his belief that the state should be abolished and replaced with federations of cooperative communities, Proudhon was intensely nationalistic and a borderline antisemite. Proudhon’s anti-statism was really integral nationalism.
6Edouard Berth, Les méfaits des intellectuels (Rivière, 1914), taken from Michel Wincok, Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, and Fascism in France, trans. Jane Marie Todd (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 180.
7S. J. Woolf, “Discussion – Fascism and the intellectuals, The Nature of Fascism (New York: Random House, 1968), 248.
8James Ramsay MacDonald. Syndicalism: A Critical Examination (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1912).
9Roger Eatwell, “Fascism”, in Roger Eatwell and A. Wright (eds), Contemporary Political Ideologies, London, Pinter, 1994.
10Georges Valois, Le Nouveau Siècle, 19 March 1925, found in Winock, 181.
11George Valois, found in Soucy (1986), 20.
12Taittinger quoted in a police report of September 6, 1925, F7 13208, National Archives (Paris), found in Soucy, 1986, 33.