Fascism in the colours of France

First published in the next step, March 1982
Associated Categories War and Peace Tags: ,

This book review, written more than 35 years ago, gives some historical clues as to why Marine Le Pen did relatively well in the French presidential elections of 2017. Mistake! Class war had a lot more to do with it

David Pryce-Jones, Paris in the Third Reich: a history of the German occupation, 1940-1944, Collins, 1981

David Pryce-Jones has done a hatchet job on the conduct of France’s petit-bourgeois intelligentsia under Nazi rule. However, Paris in the Third Reich is little more than a hatchet job. Pryce-Jones makes two major errors: he fails to see why French bourgeois democracy had to give way to fascism; and, caring only about the behaviour of his peers, he restricts his study of fascist rule to a survey of its impact on the middle class.

Heavy Petain

As the author notes, nearly every intellectual based in Paris made his peace with Hitler’s representatives in one way or another: painters Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse and writer André Malraux, for, instance, were disgusted only with German fascists, not French ones, so they decamped to unoccupied Vichy. While novelists Vladimir Nabokov and André Gide did leave the country, collaboration permeated French society, from fellow-travellers of Stalinism (Sartre, de Beauvoir) to bosses of all persuasions. The indigenous fascist organisation Parti Populaire Francais was also strong, with a tradition stretching back to the early 1930s. It had an able ex-Stalinist – Jacques Doriot – as its leader, and about 100 000 members (many of whom were also ex-Stalinists) on its rolls in Paris alone. And anti-semitism was widespread enough for more than 70 000 Jews to be deported to Auschwitz with barely a murmur of protest.

All this isn’t just shocking, as the author clearly feels: it is instructive too. It reminds us how weak the French economy of the earlier part of this century was – so weak that the French bourgeoisie had to resort to a prolonged terrorist attack on the working class to raise its profit rates. But it also reminds us that, when the chips are down, there are no ‘progressive capitalists’ around to ally with in the struggle against fascist reaction. For the ruling class, fascism, like bourgeois democracy, is but a means to an end.

We should, however, note that the French Communist Party bears the main responsibility for the triumph of fascism in France. The PCF was already so mired in French chauvinism that it was utterly unable to defend oppressed minorities like the Jews. Pryce‑Jones hints at this, but his critique of the PCPs behaviour in the war rests more on muckraking than on political analysis.

The Liberation lives on

The author’s focus on the hypocrisy of the intellectuals makes him neglect the class consciousness of the workers. The fact that about as many fascists lost their lives after the Liberation of August 1944 as did anti-fascists and Jews in the previous four years isn’t as surprising as he suggests. France in the war wasn’t all prostituted intellectuals; it was also workers who, despite the confusion caused by the PCF, were very clear who their enemies were.

Of course, the French bourgeoisie would rather muddy over the Liberation episode. Severely compromised by its involvement with fascism, it doesn’t like admitting that the eventual seizure of the factories by the Partisans and their supporters amounted to a working class insurrection. On the other hand, the PCF would also like to obscure the real significance of the Liberation. Not to do so would be to concede that its three years of governmental office after the war marked the snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory.

Pryce-Jones does not believe that many people manned the barricades in Paris. But the working class remembers the street fighting better than he can, for the simple reason that it was there and he was not. In fact the Liberation had a lasting effect on the whole political outlook of the French labour movement. Because the struggle against wartime fascism took the form of a struggle against ‘unpatriotic’ native capitalists (Vichy) and against Germany, a foreign power that had invaded France twice before, the struggle against post-war reaction in France has always taken on nationalistic overtones. The theme of national liberation was part of the general strikes of 1953 and 1956, and even had its influence on the events of May 1968. The PCF has for many years vied with Gaullism for the right to lead anti-German hysteria in France.

Pryce-Jones is full of hatred for those who were soft on fascism. But it is not enough not to be soft: so long as fascism is combatted with nationalist politics, it will live to fight another day. Nearly 40 years after the Liberation fascism is, indeed, alive and well in the more lumpen suburbs of Paris.

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