French Election: The Shadow of the Dark Years

Chris Millington says we shouldn’t be surprised by the Front national’s show of strength in the recent French elections.

Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie Le Pen and Bruno Gollnisch, May 1st 2010 at the Front National's rally in honour of Joan of Arc. By Marie-Lan NguyenOn May 6th, 2012 socialist candidate François Hollande defeated incumbent conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round run-off of the French presidential election. Hollande is the first socialist to be elected president since François Mitterrand won a second term in 1988.

If pollsters had long predicted Sarkozy’s defeat, the success of another candidate, Marine Le Pen, grabbed surprise headlines around the world. Le Pen is the leader of the extreme right-wing Front national. While she could not match the success of her father in 2002 – when former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen beat socialist Lionel Jospin into second place – Marine Le Pen nevertheless won the vote of 6.4 million French (almost one in five) in the first round of the 2012 ballot. Certainly Marine has avoided much of the controversy that Jean-Marie’s antisemitic outbursts have attracted – he once described the Holocaust as a ‘detail’ of history. Yet the Front national has not abandoned its tough stance on immigration, epitomised in the slogan, ‘France for the French’.

It would be wrong to assume that the Le Pen family’s political successes represent the zenith of the extreme right in modern France, for a regime of similar ilk governed France during the Second World War. Founded in July 1940 following the defeat to Nazi Germany, Marshal Philippe Pétain’s ‘French State’, based in the spa town of Vichy, pursued a policy of collaboration with Germany, a stance that ultimately led to French complicity in the Final Solution.

The so-called ‘dark years’ of Vichy have cast a long shadow over postwar France and the 2012 presidential campaign was no exception. As Sarkozy attempted to woo right-wing voters away from Le Pen, the left drew comparison between the president’s stress on ‘real’ work, family values and ‘Frenchness’ and Vichy’s maxim ‘Work, Family, Fatherland’ (Travail, Famille, Patrie). Communist publication L’Humanité went so far as to picture Sarkozy opposite Pétain on its front cover.

Commentators failed to mention that the slogan was not coined by Pétain or his cronies at all, but was in fact a motto of the interwar extreme right-wing Parti social français (PSF). By 1939 the PSF was not only the largest political party in France, with approximately one million members, it was also the largest political movement in French history.

The party was originally founded in 1927 as an association for Great War veterans under the name the Croix de Feu (CF). Like many contemporary groups on the extreme right (known as ‘leagues’), the CF blamed the democratic Third Republic for France’s political and economic difficulties. It appealed to returning ex-servicemen who were disillusioned with the rapid turnover of Republican governments and the apparent incompetence of elected politicians. The CF proposed a new form of authoritarian government led by veterans and inspired by military-style discipline and authority.

Unlike the present-day Front national, the CF rejected electoral politics. Instead, it used paramilitarism in the street, meticulously organised parades and a cult of personality around its leader, Lieutenant-Colonel François de La Rocque, to project itself as France’s only defence against the alleged decadence of democracy and Communist revolution.

The CF grew rapidly following the nationalist riot of February 6th, 1934. On that night league members and war veterans demonstrated on the Place de la Concorde in Paris against the supposed corruption of the left-wing government. Over a dozen demonstrators were shot dead and hundreds injured as police defended the French parliament building. Following the riot, politics polarised between the extreme right and a coalition of the left known as the Popular Front. Political confrontation moved from parliament to the street.

By summer 1936 La Rocque counted half a million followers across a diverse movement that included war veterans, the postwar generation, women and influential industrialist and politicians. When the Popular Front was elected to government in June 1936, socialist Prime Minister Léon Blum dissolved the leagues. La Rocque founded the PSF and ostensibly embraced electoral competition. Yet the party lost little of its extremism and was more stridently xenophobic, antisemitic and nationalist than its predecessor. Could the PSF have become the dominant party in the French parliament? We will never know: the outbreak of war in 1939 and the demise of the Third Republic prevented it from contesting a general election.

The CF/PSF is part of a historical debate about the strength of fascism in interwar France. Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought.
First, there are those that take the view that French fascism was weak and insignificant. This interpretation has been popular in France since the mid-1950s and is still current in French universities. It rests on a belief that the long implantation of democracy in France rendered its people ‘allergic’ to extremist doctrines such as fascism. Accordingly, La Rocque’s party is considered to have been conservative rather than fascist and a forerunner of Gaullism.

Since the 1980s a second viewpoint has developed. This interpretation is underpinned by Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell’s controversial conclusion that fascism originated neither in Italy nor Germany but in France. The French were not, therefore, pre-conditioned to reject fascism. They joined fascist groups in their hundreds of thousands. The CF/PSF was one of these groups, founded on a violently anti-Republican and anti-democratic extreme right-wing programme.

The fact that historians cannot agree on a definition of fascism means that the disagreement between the two camps shows little sign of being resolved. Perhaps this state of flux explains why, in seeking historical comparison for the presidential campaigns of both Sarkozy and Le Pen, French memory appears to stop at 1940.

The example of the CF/PSF reminds us that extreme right-wing politics have a long history in France. If Vichy was the most spectacular expression of this politics, we must not ignore its deeper roots. Could we argue that the Front national’s success is built as much on current concerns about immigration as on the persistence of older right-wing ideas? When one considers the longer history of the French extreme right, Marine Le Pen’s strong showing in the presidential election, though giving cause for revulsion, perhaps should not give cause for surprise.

Chris Millington is a British Academy Research Fellow at Cardiff University and the author of From Victory to Vichy: Veterans in Inter-war France (Manchester University Press, 2012).

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