June 02, 2004

*French History: Politics Before WWII, Part Two

This series is by no means a comprehensive history of France, but may put WWII in some context.

Brief Introduction.
Culture Before WWII.
Politics Before WWII, Part One.

The Depression hit France later than most countries, but it also lasted longer. In 1939, production levels were still lower than they had been a decade earlier. The French government took an almost lackadaisical attitude towards the economic crisis. The lower classes were hardest hit, and this helped set the stage for class polarization at the same time that political polarization was occurring.

Parliament’s ineffectiveness was due in large part to the refusal of the political parties to work together. In particular, the Socialists refused to work with the Radicals. Between 1932 and 1934, nothing got done in the French government. In October 1933, the Socialist party split as 28 members rebelled over their group’s refusal to cooperate with the Radicals. In February 1934, riots broke out. When the new parliament was seated, reforms were proposed that would keep such a deadlock from happening again. Unfortunately, the right-wing did not act quickly enough and gave the left-wing time to spin the reforms as a new form of Bonapartism. The reforms failed to pass.

Anti-parliamentary groups were materializing in the early 1930s. One of the most powerful groups was the right-wing Croix de feu, which had begun as a war veterans group in 1928. In 1931, the group was opened up to the general public and moved into politics. Paramilitary organizations cropped up within the group, and by the end of 1935 it boasted over 300,000 members. The group promoted themselves in a way that exuded menace and strength. Membership was mostly lower-middle class and urban. The group had a fascist bent that was historically downplayed until recently.

The left-wing answer to the Croix de feu and the Depression was the Popular Front. With Hitler rising in power, the left knew that it would be dangerous to continue their political disunity. The Communist Party, which historically maintained a policy of sectarianism, joined the Socialists and Radicals. Stalin was courting France as an ally against Hitler, which made the French Communists unwilling to damage France’s ability to defend herself and pull herself out of economic crisis.

In May 1936, the Popular Front won the elections and the Socialists became France’s largest parliamentary party while the Communists’ votes doubled. In June they passed a law that ended the Croix de feu and paramilitarism. The Popular Front was perceived as an attack on bourgeois society, and the upper class feared the end of their social space. The threat of communism was becoming a larger concern than the threat of fascism, and by 1938 the Radicals drifted to the political right to combat the rise of communism. This ended the Popular Front’s coalition.

The anti-left furor led to a radicalization of the right-wing. Groups popped up vowing to fight communism by any means necessary. To that end, arms caches were prepared throughout the country, and terrorist attacks were made in 1937. The boundaries between the parliamentary right and the extreme right were blurring, and the former leader of Croix de feu established a new group with approximately 1.5 million members. It favored an authoritarian-populist form of government and was the largest political group in France. Anti-communism was also showing up in some left-wing groups such as the Socialists and trade unions.

At this time, France was still recovering from World War I emotionally. The horror of war had bred pacifism in a significant percentage of the population. The military was not prepared for any kind of fighting, and the economy was ravaged by the Depression. Hitler was rearming his military in defiance of the limits placed on Germany after WWI. There were calls for the rearmament of France, but the nation was war-weary and cash-poor.

The Occupation.

Posted by Jennifer at June 2, 2004 09:30 PM