6 février 1934
Part IV: The Leagues Attack
We left off last time with the apparent suicide of Stavisky and the growing sense of crisis in the capital. From the beginning of January into February, the far-right leagues staged violent demonstrations in Paris with separate groups often coordinating their actions. The press—left, right, and center—printed wild conjecture and sensationalistic “reports” on the affair. The new Radical premier Daladier’s dismissal of the Prefect of police Jean Chiappe convinced the Right that the Radicals were getting rid of Chiappe to appease their Socialist allies, a belief that quickly transformed into hysterical fears of an imminent left-wing coup.
The first group to announce a demonstration for February 6 at the Place de la Concorde was the Union Nationale de Combattants, a First World War veterans association. Their president had actually resigned as a result of the Stavisky affair: it was alleged that h e was friendly with the late swindler. Other leagues quickly issued their own appeals in the form of handbills and posters to their memberships to descend on the house of parliament at the Palais-Bourbon. Solidarite Française combined republican and revolutionary rhetoric with xenophobia and antisemitism:
Are we no longer the sons of 1789? Are we going to lie down under such provocations? Daladier is leading you all like sheep, and will deliver you to the Blums, the Kaisersteins, the Schweinkopfs and Zyromskis, and all those other authentic ‘Frenchmen’ whose very names symbolise a whole political programme. These will be your masters, you patriots! That’s the kind of dictatorship that is in store for you! Your parliament is corrupt. Your politicians discredited. Your country dragged in the quagmire of scandal. Your security threatened. Civil War is imminent, and war itself in the offing.1
One Jeunesse Patriotes poster warned that a “wholesale purge is being prepared;” another announced, “This is the hour we have been awaiting for so long! The hour of National Revolution.” Colonel de la Rocque and the Croix de Feu’s communique: “We are threatened with sectarian dictatorship. Don’t submit, follow the Croix de Feu. We place ourselves above all the discredited parties. We will sweep away this shameful divisiveness. We will establish a Government of good Frenchmen who are free of political chicanery. Once order has been re-established, we shall maintain it and not betray you, for our code is that of honour and fraternity.” Action Française: “This evening, when the factories and offices close, they will assemble outside the Chamber of Deputies and, with the cry ‘Down with the thieves’, they will show the Government and its parliamentary vassals that they have had enough of this despicable regime.”2
Not to be left out, the Association Républicaine des Anciens Combattants, the Communist veterans group, announced they would join the demonstration for “different reasons,” objecting to Daladier’s pension cuts, the “regime based on profit and fraud,” and calling for the arrest of Chiappe for his alleged involvement in the killing of Stavisky, rather than his reinstatement like the other protesters.
The rallying points of the various groups ended up forming a ring around the Palais-Bourbon, but only Colonel de la Rocque’s Croix de Feu detachments deployed on the Left Bank, behind the Chamber of Deputies. William Shirer, then an American journalist living in Paris, was an eyewitness to the events:
Late on the afternoon of February 6 I was assigned by the Paris Herald to go down to the Place de la Concorde, across the Seine from the Chamber, to see if the threatened demonstrations showed any signs of developing. I had read the accounts in the morning newspapers of the meeting places of the various leagues and had noted that they formed a wide circle around the Palais-Bourbon, on which the demonstrators planned to converge. I found a few hundred young men, shock troops from Action Française, Jeunesses Patriotes and Solidarité Française, trying to shove back the police toward the bridge that leads from the great square across the Seine to the Chamber. But they were easily dispersed by the police, who numbered about one hundred, backed up by another hundred Mobile and Republican Guards. After phoning the office, I went into the Hôtel Crillon on the north side of the Place for a bite to eat. It did not look as if it would turn out to be much of a story. The demonstrations I had seen on previous evenings had been much rougher.
But when I emerged onto the Place de la Concorde an hour later—about 6:30 P.M.—the scene had changed. The square was packed with several thousand demonstrators who were standing their ground against repeated charges of mounted, steel-helmeted Mobile Guards. Over by the obelisk in the center a bus was on fire. I worked my way through the Mobile Guards, who were slashing away with sabers, to the Tuileries, which overlooks the Place on the east side from an elevation of ten or fifteen feet. A mob was crowded behind the railings, pelting the police and guards with stones, bricks, garden chairs, and iron grilles ripped up from the base of trees. It was here that I noticed for the first time Communists mingled with their supposedly Fascist enemies. Down on the broad square itself the fighting continued, with the crowd advancing and then retreating before charges of the mounted Guards. It was by no means an unequal fight. The rioters were using sticks with razor blades attached to one end to slash away at the horses and the legs of the men mounted on them and they were throwing marbles and firecrackers at the hooves “horses went down and their riders were mauled. Both sides began to carry away their wounded.
To get a better view I went up to a third-floor balcony of the Hôtel Crillon overlooking the Place. About twenty journalists, French and foreign, were standing there against the railing and there was one woman whom I did not know. The first shots we didn’t hear. Then the woman slumped to the floor. When we bent over her, blood was flowing down her face from a bullet hole in the very center of her forehead. She was dead, instantly. The firing now became general—from both sides. It was difficult to see what was going on, for almost all the streetlights had been pelted or shot out. Later it would be established that a mob, mostly from Solidarité Française, had started to break through the last police barricade guarding the bridge leading to the Chamber, which the police chiefs had been instructed to hold at all costs. A few policemen and Mobile Guards panicked and opened fire with their automatic pistols, killing six rioters in front of them and the woman on the Crillon balcony across the square and wounding forty more. “Finally the officers in charge got their men to stop firing. One of them, the director of the municipal police, and two senior officers were themselves injured, the latter seriously, and carried away to the Chamber of Deputies where a first-aid station had been hastily set up.3
The Chamber of Deputies was technically in session, but the scene inside was utter pandemonium. When the news of the police shooting reached the right-wing deputies they assailed Daladier’s cabinet as a “government of murderers.” Communist deputies started demanding the creation of Soviets. Still, Daladier’s government, with the support of the Socialists, withstood successive no-confidence votes. Léon Blum, the leader of the S.F.I.O., read a defiant statement on behalf of the Socialist bloc:
The vote which [the Socialist group] is going to cast is not a vote of confidence, it is a vote of combat…If the government wages the struggle with enough energy, with enough faith in the popular will, it can count on us. If it fails in its duty, it is we who will launch an appeal to the entire country to all republican forces and to the mass of workers and peasants…In the battle that is engaged from this moment on, we seek our place in the first ranks. Fascism will not pass.4
Outside, the great mass of UNC veterans—some 8,000 men—was approaching the chamber. This group had the potential to totally overwhelm the increasingly exhausted police, but most of the demonstrators stayed orderly and turned at the last moment, with only some joining their comrades on the barricades battling the police. Late into the night a crowd of mixed leaguers, veterans, and Communists made charge after charge at the police barricades, pushing them back over the bridge and threatening to overwhelm them entirely. When it seemed like the police and Mobile Guards couldn’t withstand another assault, a colonel of the gendarmes on the scene decided to go on the offensive, leading a cavalry charge that cleared the square and ended the riots. Shirer accounts for the toll:
Among the estimated 40,000 rioters fourteen were killed by bullets and two died later from their wounds; some 655 were injured, of whom 236 were hospitalized and the rest treated at first-aid stations. The police and guards lost one killed and 1,664 injured, of whom 884 were able to resume service after having their wounds dressed. The guardians fired 527 revolver bullets; the number of shots fired by the rioters was never ascertained. It was the bloodiest encounter in the streets of Paris since the Commune of 1871.5
One key element was missing in the end: Colonel De La Rocque’s Croix de Feu. At the crucial moment, De La Rocque decided not to order his disciplined troops into the fray. In fact, he even commanded them to disperse. Some joined the other leaguers on the Right Bank, but others simply went home. The next day he issued a statement claiming that his men had stormed the chamber and forced the deputies to flee; it was not true. Stationed behind the Palais-Bourbon, he was in the best position to overrun the Chamber. Like General Boulanger before him, he apparently lost his nerve at the decisive moment.
Although the rioters did not succeed in overthrowing the Republic, they did manage to bring down the government. Daladier’s resolve began to waver in the morning. Police reported a run on the gun stores of Paris and that the leagues were planning a larger demonstration armed with revolvers and hand grenades. Most of Daladier’s cabinet and the leaders of the other parties encouraged him to resign. Only Léon Blum remained steadfast and encouraged the premier to declare martial law and keep parliament in permanent session, proposals that it must be admitted are in tension with each other. Daladier declined to do either and resigned, stating:
The government, which has the responsibility for maintaining order and security, refuses to assure it today by resort to exceptional means susceptible of causing a bloody repression and a new effusion of blood. It does not wish to employ soldiers against the demonstrators. I have therefore handed to the President of the Republic the resignation of the cabinet.6
The government that followed, lead by the partially senile centrist republican Gaston Doumerge, gave France its first taste of Vichy rule: the new cabinet saw the war hero Marshal Petain made minister of war; also elevated to office was his new ally, a former pacifist socialist named Pierre Laval, now minister of colonies. Although the chiefs of the leagues called off their men, right-wing disorder continued in the streets. With the government of the left brought down, the leagues retreated for the moment, but the events of Feb 6 1934 created a new mythology of grievance for the Right:
In the weeks, months and years after the riot, right-wing opinion understood the night as a massacre of unarmed war veterans at the hands of a corrupt government in hock to Moscow. This myth drew conservatives and leaguers closer together. Deputy Paul Reynaud spoke for many on the right when in March 1934 he told a political meeting, ‘[M.] Daladier spilled the blood of Verdun [on the six février]’.101 The Fédération Républicaine praised the rioters for their service to the nation. Indeed, a number of the party’s members and deputies had been at the centre of the night’s political violence: Taittinger, Edouard Frédéric- Dupont, Jean Ferrandi, Charkes des Isnards and Félix Lobligeois. The night provided images and symbols with which the enemies of the Republic would continue to lambast their opponents.7
The Left, alarmed by the show of far-right strength and fearful of the possibility of a fascist seizure of power a la Germany and Italy, swung into action. The Communists were in the awkward position of having participated in February 6 but also now raising the alarm about “fascism.” They at first refused the call by the Socialists to join together in a peaceful rally on the 8th and instead went ahead with their own on the 9th. The cops arrested 1,200 protesters and fired into the crowd, killing four. The press, who had scolded the police for the brutality on the night of the 6th, lauded the forces of order for putting down the Communists. On February 12, the CGT, the largest union in France with a predominantly Socialist membership, declared a twenty-four hour general strike. The Communists ultimately joined. Police would go on to shoot and kill four of the strikers. The night of February 6 may have drawn the Right closer together in opposition to the Republic, but it would soon unite the Left—Socialist, Communist, and Radical—in its defense.
Brian Jenkins and Chris Millington, France and Fascism: February 1934 and the dynamics of political crisis, pg. 180
ibid., pg. 180
William Shirer, Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940, pg. 267
Joel Colton, Léon Blum: Humanist in Politics, pg. 95
Shirer, pg. 275
Ibid.m, pg. 278
Chris Millington, A History of Fascism in France: From the First World to the National Front, pg. 43