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L’Histoire refoulée. La Rocque, les Croix de feu, et le fascisme français. Sous la direction de Zeev Sternhell. Review: Fascisme à la française?

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L’Histoire refoulée. La Rocque, les Croix de feu, et le fascisme français. Sous la direction de Zeev Sternhell. Les Éditions du Cerf.

Zeev Sternhell is a reference point amongst historians of Fascism. L’Histoire refoulée focuses on the Croix de Feu (CDF, a movement, originally largely of Great War veterans, led by Colonel François de la Rocque. In 1936, after anti-parliamentary street violence led to the dissolution of the “leagues”, they became the Parti sociale français (PSF) with membership of around three quarters of a million. Opinion has been divided about how far La Rocque’s troops were properly fascist, with some dismissing them as nationalist “boy scouts”. The contributions by Sternhell, “Anglo-Saxons” Caroline Campbell, Kevin Passmore and Chris Milligan with Laurent Kestel and Didier Leschi and Samuel Kalman aim to show that during the 1930s important parts of French society were tempted by “les aventures fascists” and that the CDF/PSF was not a “mass party of the right” but infected with fascist ideas.

Didier Leschi and Lauren Kestel refer to Michel Dobry’s claim that there is a consensus that France was “immune” and “allergic” to Fascism (Le mythe de lallergie française au fascisme. 2003). In this view, taken up anew by Sternhell the minimising of the CDF/PSF is a case study in how a 1930s a fascistic movement is downplayed. Present targets include Michel Winock, who questioned this classification, noting that, apart from its backward looking debts to 19th century the Caesarism of Boulangism, has said in his own works, that the “term fascism cannot be applied to all movements supportive of right-leaning authoritarianism, the so-called national right, or the far-right” and that the “Croix-de-Feu and the PSF cannot be called a fascist party unless, of course, we disregard semantic precision altogether.(1)

“Refoulée”, in psychological terms, is to repress, to push back into oneself, to refuse to acknowledge an impulse. The intention of L’Histoire refoulée is to bring out from this collective subconscious the existence of French fascism as an independent political force in the 1930s. It equally contributed to the National Revolution of the Vichy regime and the Collaboration. The importance of this task is highlighted, the authors argue, by the resurgence of a xenophobic extreme right that has reinvented a French nationalist tradition without fully recognising its debts to fascism. .

General readers, many of whom are familiar with the historian of Vichy, Robert O Paxton (La France de Vichy. 1973,  in English, Vichy France : Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944) , will be surprised to learn that the domestic responsibility for the Pétain regime continues to be ignored. Not long ago the polemical historian Éric Zemmour violently attacked the anti-Vichy ‘doxa’ (established opinion), also known as the « révolution paxtonienne », led by “notre bon maître”, the American (nationality underlined) in the best-selling Le Suicide français (2014). The far-right writer became instantly notorious for defending the care shown by Vichy towards Jews of French nationality. His claim that De Gaulle was a child of both the far right and left Catholic patriotism, “un enfant de Maurras et de Péguy” could also be said to be attempt to blur the lines between fascism and French republicanism. L’Histoire consigns Zemmour to a footnote of the Leschi and Kestel Introduction – on his more recent Destin Français (2018).

The Revolutionary Right.

In La Droite Révolutionnaire, (First Edition, 1978) Sternhell proposed that late 19th century and pre-Great War France was the cradle of fascist ideology. France was, in Sternhell’s eyes, an ideal field for studying pre-fascism, and, full blown, “neither left nor right” fascist thought. This developed earliest in the country with “exceptional intellectual quality. Ni droite ni gauche: l’idéologie fasciste en France (First Edition, 1983), surveyed anti-parliamentarian nationalism (the ‘ligues’), “planiste” sections of French social democracy (Marcel Déat), the Monarchist and anti-Semite Action française, the mass parties of the later 1930s, the Parti Social français (PSF), the Parti Populaire français (PPF) of the renegade Communist Jacques Doriot, and a mixed bag of admirers of National Socialism and Mussolini. This indicated that fascism was a synthesis of socialist ideas and nationalism. An earlier work had marked out in the literary and polemical figure of the nationalist Maurice Barrès and his appeal to La terre et les Morts, the homeland heritage and the living memory of the dead. (Maurice Barrès et le nationalisme français. 1972). In the years preceding the Second World War these movements drew together calls to “workers of all classes” against banking “hyper” capitalism, drew on the romance of the nation, and opposition to the liberalism of the Enlightenment and the elites of the Third Republic. (1)

Culturally acute, plunging straight through the confusion reigning in European politics of the 1930s, Sternhell had an immediate and lasting appeal. It did not take long for his thesis to come under attack. The writer of a landmark study of George Sorel (L’illusion du politique.1984) Shlomo Sand was one of the first off the mark. Ni droite ni gauche was the “most completely a-historical than one can possibly imagine. The author never puts things in their context. He gives fascism such a vague definition that you can stick onto it anything whatsoever.” Sand goes into some detail on the faults behind this conception. His summary could equally stand for other critics. In L’illusion du politique the Cercle Proudhon, a key ‘red-brown’ movement for Sternhell in which extreme-right monarchists met syndicalists inspired by Sorels’ revolutionary anti-parliamentarism, was put into its real, marginal, barely noticed, context. Sorel ended his days an enthusiast for the Bolshevik Revolution, not nationalism. (2)

The meat of the argument against Sternhell is that, as a field of observation, France, like Great Britain, was marked by victory in the Great War, and did not know the crisis of regime that afflicted Germany. This has implications for any study of movements born amongst those who fought in the conflict. The Croix de feu, which had nobody with experience of anything resembling the far-right civil war fighters of the German Freikorps nor, as many argue, did its vaunted “dispos” (men ready for action), who wore no uniform but the occasional Trilby hat, resemble anything like the Sturmabteilung (SA). France neither knew the kind of turmoil and use of violence against the left that proceeded Mussolini’s power grab. Threatening a coup, but never united enough with the other major forces of the far right like the Parti Populaire français (PPF) to carry one out, was not the same carrying one out.

The major difficulty is that a broad sweep of far-right ideas, focused on intellectuals in countries where they did not control the state, ignores what for many historians is the crucial aspect of fascism and Nazism. They were  doctrines of regimes with totalitarian power.

Settling Accounts.

Many readers of L’Histoire refoulée will have these thoughts in mind as they open its pages. Sternhell pursues the ideological well-springs of fascism, and the ideological confusion of the 1930s, which drew some parts of the left towards the extreme right. ”. At the end of the 19th century France saw two traditions battle it out, the tradition of the Enlightenment faced a “tradition organiciste, antirationaliste, historiciste, nationaliste, antisémite, la tradition de la terre et les morts très proche de la tradition völkish en Allemagne.” (Page 40 – 50) This, he asserts, was the “motor” of Vicky’s National Revolution. The intellectuals prepared people’s minds; it was up to mass movements and the Disaster of the War, to give them life. The PSF’s call for Travail, Famille, Partie, became the motto of Vichy.

Sternhell does not always stay on this abstract plane. He peppers his contributions with revelatory attacks on liberals and moderate left wingers, like the ‘organic intellectual’ of the Radical Party Alain (Émile-Auguste Chartier), now known to have written anti-Jewish and pro-German comments in his war-time notebooks, Bertrand de Jouvenel (who launched a successful libel case against Sternhell in the 1980s for suggesting that he had been pro-Hitler), Maurice Duverger, the political scientist, dammed for his favourable writing for the Vichy government. His principal target is the already cited Michel Winock, a specialist in the same area, and author of the indispensable history of the journal Esprit (Esprit, des intellectuels dans la cité 1930 – 1950). 1996). Once a supporter of Sternhell’s early work he is damned not only for refusing to accept that groups like Les Croix de feu were full-blown fascist but also for his tenderness towards the Director of Esprit, Emmanuel Mounier. In a contemptible attack Sternhell lets it suggested that the left Christian personalist and anti-totalitarian was an admirer of Hitler for brief favourable comments on the invasion of the Soviet Union. (Page 83)

The serious nature of these claims is obscured by their anecdotal presentation, which recalls Bernard-Henri Lévy’s catch-all accusations of fascism in L’idéologie française (1981) rather than thorough historical research. This aspect of L’Histoire refoulée has led some to suggest that the book is intended to settle old scores (this review barely scratches the surface) rather than offer new insights into the history of French fascism. The final chapter, Réponse à Michel Winock, which drags up grievances going back decades, does not diminish this impression. (4)

Sternhell should not overshadow L’Histoire refoulée. Laurent Kestrel tackles the issue of the PSF “republican” claims, La Rocque’s prejudices and dislike of freemasons, the presence of anti-Semitism in the movement, and compares it to Doriot’s PPF. Kevin Passmore compares relations with the German regime, always difficult given deep-rooted French nationalist traditions of Germanophobia, and Italy. He notes that he disappointed those who encouraged him to attempt a coup d’État. (Page 211). Carline Campbell explores both the way La Rocque defended the higher civilisation of France and melded it with racial ideas. Perhaps her most interesting pages develop research into the social basis of the CDF/PSF, its policies, and the way it became an astonishing large movement. Chris Millington reminds us of the violence between left and right in 1930s French politics, culminating in the Limoge shootings of 1935.

The quality of these, and other contributions, brings us back to the initial questions. Is this part of French history willingly forgotten? Is this because to talk about La Roque, the most “republican” of the 1930s far right, would be to tarnish the idea that France was “immune” to fascism? This is not just a conceptual dispute about the nature of fascism and French history. Readers of Michel Winock will know that far from denying the long-standing existence of a powerful extreme right in the Hexagon he is one of the foremost historians and opponents of “la tradition contre-révolutionnaire” and its present day “avatars” “national-populisme”. If there is one thing about L’Histoire refoulée that rankles it is an implication that suggests otherwise. (5)


  1. Revisiting French fascism, La Rocque and the Croix de Feu. Michel Winock Vingtième Siècle. Revue dhistoire. 2006/2 (No 90)
  2. Page 405. La Droite Révolutionnaire. Zeev Sternhell. Edition de Seuil 1978.
  3. Written in 1983 and cited Page 144. La Fin de l‘intellectuel français? Shlomo Sand La Découverte. 2016.
  4. Une guerre de trente ans  Sonia Combe En attendant Nadeau. Notably on, in her view, the “l’équipe Serge Berstein-Jean-Noël Jeanneney-Michel Winock qui continuait à alimenter le mythe français déconstruit par Sternhell. “
  5. Page 297. Conclusion.Histoire de l’extrême droite en France. Sous La Direction de Michel Winock. Editions du Seuil. 2015 (New Edition) 

Written by Andrew Coates

November 18, 2019 at 1:51 pm

6 Responses

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  1. So were Duce il Lateralo, “Franco Caudillo de Dios” and Christian National Socialist Deutchland all socialist régimes with a dash of Jesus sauce added or not?


    November 18, 2019 at 2:42 pm

  2. If WWI was a post-Chinese-antidumping opium glut fight among opium-producing Balkans and morpine-refining Austria, Germany, GB and France, it would be natural for Bayer et alii to seize Marseilles with its drug plants, non?


    November 18, 2019 at 2:46 pm

  3. Doesn’t “Croix de Feu” seem vaguely reminiscent of Reconstruction-era “Burning Crosses”? Those were Klaverns of force-initiating racial collectivism if ever there was such a thing.


    November 18, 2019 at 4:24 pm

    • Except that it has no reference to that whatsoever.

      The term comes from La Croix de guerre 1914-1918 a medal awarded for valour in the combats of the First World War “similar to the British mentioned in dispatches”.

      Feu in this sense means “under fire”, as in one of the most famous French novels of the Great War, “Le Feu Journal d’une escouade, Translated as Under fire. Diary of a Squad, by Henri Barbusse.

      Very few people in Europe thought then, or since, about the KKK, if ever.

      Andrew Coates

      November 18, 2019 at 6:00 pm

  4. I read somewhere that members of Le Feu were among some of the first resisters in 1940 carry out attacks against the German.

    Dave Roberts

    November 18, 2019 at 7:56 pm

  5. Indeed Dave Roberts, though they were not the first as an organised group, and that’s one of the reasons people refuse to see them as full blown fascists,

    “The PSF likely played a role in defining the ideology of
    the Vichy regime after the defeat of 1940, as evidenced by Marshal Pétain’s adoption of the
    PSF’s slogan as the motto of his regime. In 1942, La Rocque broke with Vichy over its
    collaboration with German occupier, and formed a resistance organization. I investigate La
    Rocque’s actions during the Second World War, as well as efforts by his family and former
    followers to influence memory of his actions after his death in 1946.”

    Click to access Drew_Flanagan_Fran%E7ois_de_la_Rocque_and_the_R%E9seau_Klan.pdf

    They were not the first to take armed action.

    This is probably the most famous.

    “On 21 August 1941, a French Communist, Pierre Georges (Note, better known as Colonel Fabien) assassinated the German naval officer Anton Moser in the Paris Metro (note, Barbès) , the first time the resistance had killed a German.”


    There was also this group,

    “In mid-November 1943, the French police arrested 23 members of the Communist Francs-Tireurs et Partisans de la Main d’Oeuvre Immigrée (FTP-MOI), who were part of the French Resistance.[1] They were called the “Manouchian Group” after the commander, Missak Manouchian. The group was part of a network of about 100 fighters, who committed nearly all acts of armed resistance in the Paris metropolitan region between March and November 1943.[2]

    Its membership included 22 men: eight Poles, five Italians, three Hungarians, two Armenians, a Spaniard, three French men, and a Romanian woman; eleven members were Jewish.[3]

    After having been tortured and interrogated for three months, the 23 were tried by a German military court. To discredit the Resistance, the authorities invited French celebrities (from the world of the cinema and other arts) to attend the trial and encouraged the media to give it the widest coverage possible. All but one of the Manouchian Group’s members were executed before a firing squad in Fort Mont-Valérien on February 21, 1944. Olga Bancic, who had served the group as a messenger, was taken to Stuttgart, where she was beheaded with an axe on May 10, 1944.


    Andrew Coates

    November 19, 2019 at 12:34 pm

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