Eighty years ago, on February 6, 1934, the French Republic had a near-death experience. On that wintry evening, tens of thousands of protestors, mostly young and mostly male, massed along the boulevards of Paris.
Their aim was to bring down the Republic—or, as they called it, “la gueuse” or whore. In the eyes of contemporaries, they nearly succeeded: outside the National Assembly, a pitched battle between the police and demonstrators exploded and in the confusion of violent scrums and police charges, shouts and gunshots, the fate of the Republic seemed to hang in the balance.
Ultimately, the forces of disorder were beaten back, but at great cost. When Parisians woke the next day, they learned that more than a dozen protestors had been killed and more than 1,000 wounded. Among the casualties was the government of Edouard Daladier, which resigned and replaced by a government of national unity.
Perhaps the only winner to emerge from the bloodied streets was France’s past. In a history as old as its revolution, France found itself as divided as ever over the legacy of 1789. Did the enlightened and universal ideals of liberty and equality form the essence of the French nation? Or was the nation instead the property of a particular race sprung from what one conservative thinker, Maurice Barrès, called the soil and the dead?
The question, it appears, has yet to be answered. Events last week in Paris revealed that history, while it never repeats itself, it does hiccup. A large and violent demonstration in Paris, aptly named “Jour de colère,” or “Day of Anger,” not just marked the anniversary of “la crise du 6 fevrier,” but also seemed to recapitulate it.
Inevitably, there were important differences between the two demonstrations. While there was a great deal of vandalism and several hundred arrests, last week’s demonstration did not end with an assault against the National Assembly, much less corpses in the street. The Fifth Republic, unlike its ancestor, was never in immediate danger.
But no less inevitably, given the persistence with which France’s past washes into her present, unsettling continuities stretch between then and now. Many of these ties are ideological. Consider the presence of Action française, the reactionary and anti-Semitic movement born in the midst of the Dreyfus Affair. The movement’s founder, Charles Maurras, built an ideological time machine, turning the clock back to the Old Regime, when kings ruled, priests prayed, commoners knew their place and Jews had no place. In 1934, members of Action française—in particular, their organized ruffians known as the “camelots du roi”—were at the forefront of the riots. Eighty years later, Action française remains front and center on the far right: Under the guise of “French Spring,” Maurras’ spiritual descendants helped orchestrate the “Day of Anger” demonstration.
Yet other continuities are religious. While many Catholics had come to terms with the Republic by the interwar period, yet others still viewed it as the satanic spawn of modernity. Casting themselves as defenders not just of faith, but also of the family and traditional values. Though Pope Pius XI had excommunicated Action française in 1926, it retained its Catholic identity. No less important were the bonds between conservative Catholics and the Croix de feu. Originally a war veteran organization, the Croix de feu dwarfed the other interwar leagues, and their helmeted members dominated the street battles in 1934. Militant Catholics inside and outside the Croix de feu pinned the blame for the decline of the family—measured by the dropping birth rate—on the godless policies of the republican state.
Once again, little is new under the French sun. The leading movement involved in the “jour de colère” was Printemps français, a radicalized and largely Catholic spin-off from last year’s “Manif pour tous.” These were the massive anti-gay marriage demonstrations that, encouraged by the Church, morphed into anti-government protests. The movement’s goal, according to its leader, Beatrice Bourges, is to “safeguard our civilization.” When asked about her group’s decision to join the many anti-Semitic and anti-republican organizations participating in the demonstration, Bourges’ reply was Rumsfeldian: “When the house is on fire,” she observed, “you don’t ask for the firefighter’s resumé.”
Yet anti-Semitism links the resumés of the protesters in 1934 as in 2014. Virulent anti-Semitism marked nearly all the movements involved in the events of February 6 crisis; in the universe of Action française and fascist competitors like Jeunesses patriotes, the dark sun was international Jewry, around which spun French politics and the economy. Substitute “Zionist” for “Jew” and the script for “Day of Anger” remains largely unchanged from 1934. Along with supporters of the negationist Alain Soral and anti-Semitic writer Renaud Camus, there were hundreds of followers of the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné, happily displaying the “quenelle” and chanting slogans ranging from imperative (“Death to the Zionists!”) through the descriptive (“France does not belong to the Jews!”) to the suggestive (“Jews out of France!”)
In a recent interview, Robert Badinter expressed his shock over the demonstration. Having served as attorney general under François Mitterrand, and the figure responsible for the abolition of the death penalty, this remarkable individual represents the moral conscience of the political left. Badinter observed that this marked the first time since the Occupation that one heard in Paris cries of “Jews out of France!” As a French Jew growing up during the Occupation, Badinter said he understood all too well what such slogans meant. “These are lethal blows that challenge the Republic.”
To his dismay, Badinter noted there were no republican demonstrations to counter “this fascist provocation.” This is where the similarities between the two crises seem to end. The most significant consequence of February 6 was the creation of the Popular Front: the alliance of parties on the political center and left formed to combat the leagues. Though it was hardly a success as a government, the Popular Front at least succeeded in breaking the leagues. Yet the French Left today seems hardly capable of such generosity, imagination or energy. This time, the crisis seems to be the winner.