Review of Chris Millington’s A History of Fascism in France: From the First World War to the National Front
published by Bloomsbury 2020, pp. 235
In 1995, President Jacques Chirac stated that France was responsible for the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up of Jews in 1942. In 2018, Marine Le Pen, president of the Front National, attributed the blame, not to France, but solely to the wartime Vichy regime. Le Pen played to the immediate postwar self-perception that all French citizens – apart from an unsavoury few – sympathized with the Resistance. This belief had been challenged as long ago as 1971. when Marcel Ophuls’s documentary, Le chagrin et la pitié demonstrated that most French citizens instead focused on attentisme (wait and see).
Chris Millington’s comprehensive and detailed overview of French fascism indicates that the sentiment of the far right stretches back decades. He documents the street violence and xenophobia in the country during the 1930s, when a plethora of groups ranted against the presence of Yiddish-speaking foreigners. The Croix de Feu, funded by François Coty, displayed a poster that proclaimed: “The Jew kills your parents” and antisemitism was particularly embedded among the colons in Algeria. The far right “Cagoule” wanted to replace the republic with a regime that mimicked the Duce’s Italy, and embarked on a series of bombings and murders to induce public fear. A large stockpile of arms was accumulated including “rudimentary biological weapons”. There were even fountain pens which could shoot acid.
The socialist Léon Blum, elected in 1936 as prime minister of the Popular Front coalition, was seen as an agent for both Stalin and international finance as well as the Freemasons because he happened to be Jewish. Catholicism was identified with the right and many hoped that a Parisian Mussolini would lead the French back onto the path of national salvation and Christian values. Instead they got Marshal Pétain’s Vichy regime and the Gestapo. Pétain hoped that a Latin bloc together with Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal could be established. Vichy police obligingly assisted in the deportation “to the East” of almost 80,000 Jews – the overwhelming majority never came back. Arthur Koestler astutely remarked that France had morally lost the war – even before its military collapse in 1940.
Jean-Marie Le Pen built the Front National from humble beginnings into a national political force in the 1980s. Vichy sympathizers gladly followed him and applauded his penchant for making antisemitic remarks or diminishing the significance of the Holocaust. His daughter, Marine, has tried to reconfigure his movement as “true republicanism” and make it more presentable.
While Vichy and the colonial past have become history, in the twenty-first century, North African Arabs have replaced Polish Jews as the target for retribution. As Chris Millington ably demonstrates, the need for a scapegoat remains. His book is a well-crafted reminder of how the past relates to the troubled present.
Times Literary Supplement 21 February 2020