Defining French Fascism, Finding Fascists in France

By Bingham, John | Canadian Journal of History, December 1994 | Go to article overview

Defining French Fascism, Finding Fascists in France

Bingham, John, Canadian Journal of History

En France, on est toujours ou l'on a ete le fasciste de quelqu'un.(1)

Although few historians would now deny that fascism in some form was an important part of France's political terrain in the 1930s, there is still little agreement about its origins, its nature, or the extent to which it infiltrated French politics. The lack of consensus in many ways reflects the original fluidity that existed in interwar France between fascist and non-fascist politics. It was no easy matter then to distinguish Fascists from fellow-travellers, anti-democratic conservatives or authoritarian socialists. After the war, painful memories of defeat, occupation, and collaboration ensured that fascism in France's past would remain a volatile element in contemporary politics for some time., Indeed, the residual passions of the Vichy experience have chronically undermined the conceptual apparatus necessary for a balanced historical assessment of fascism as a political alternative in 1930s France. The result has been a counterproductive equation of defining fascism with finding fascists, leaving unsolved the real problem of trying to understand both the ideas that moved fascists and the men who were moved by fascism.

In 1954 Rene Remond, Frances foremost historian of the right, concluded that fascism had not existed in France. It was an Italian or German import, not a native product. Remond asserted that although some French reactionaries and conservatives had let themselves be won over by the vocabulary, and taken in by the propaganda, of fascism" truly fascist currents that appeared in France mere the work of only a handful of fascists, - a small number of writers and intellectuals on the political fringe who eventually achieved prominence only in Vichy and with the help of Nazi occupation.(3) This interpretation at a stroke ghettoized French fascism, removing it from the larger world of 1930s politics and relegating it to a marginal less threatening forum dominated by a small number of eccentric misfits, hooligans, and political outcasts. The extraordinary influence of Remond's analysis has been such that, until fairly recently, it was both the starting point and sounding board for subsequent work. His conclusions framed others' initial questions; his criteria of what was or was not properly fascist, exerted a formative influence on research into fascism in France, determining both its proper subject matter and the admissibility of its conclusions.(4)

In the late 1960s, however, a new generation of French historians, forced to come to terms with the postwar national myths of its parents, began questioning the orthodoxy of a French national "allergy" to movements of the extreme right.(5) Intense public interest in their debates resulted in a virtual media industry devoted to French fascism in which abstruse historical points of contention were fought out in the popular press.(6) As John Sweets observed, the challenge to the allergy, notion brought with it a steady accumulation of historical evidence that France had indeed had its share of fascists. As a result, Frances sense of its wartime identity swung from that of a nation of resisters, to "a nation of collaborators."(7) In the world of scholarly history, the catalyst for these changes came largely from the work of Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell. Sternhell, along with a number of American historians, found what he considered to be early forms of fascism or "proto-fascism"-fascism, in the development of mass politics toward the end of the nineteenth century: in the Boulangism of the late 1880s and nationalist leagues of the nineties, in the writings and politics of novelist cum populist Maurice Barres; in Georges Sorel's Reflections on Violence (1907) and his short period of association in 1912 with the "revolutionary nationalism" of the Cercle Proudhon.(8) From these early roots in the belle epoque, Sternhell traced the intellectual development of French fascism to the appearance of fledgling fascist groups and imitators of Mussolini in the twenties, to its more unique French political forms in the thirties and, following supposedly dear and unbroken lines, to its final apotheosis in Vichy. …

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