The Hooded Cloak
Violent Reactions to the Popular Front
In the last newsletter about the Third Republic, I described the dramatic wave of strikes during the spring of 1936 and the sweeping social legislation undertaken by the new Popular Front coalition to deal with their root causes. These measures included the 40-hour week, paid vacations, an across-the-board pay hike, and the right to collective bargaining. As you might imagine, the French Right looked on the factory occupations and the Popular Front’s bevy of pro-labor legislation with horror: the events of June looked like a prelude to revolution if not revolution itself. Moreover, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July added to both the Left’s and Right’s anxieties about the prospect of coups and revolutions. But the Popular Front’s leaders viewed their own role as restoring Republican order, not setting the groundwork for revolution. Quickly after the labor accords were signed, Léon Blum’s government undertook another part of its anti-fascist political mandate: the banning of the right-wing paramilitary leagues that had participated in the riots of Feb 6 1934 and contributed to the ongoing atmosphere of public disorder. (Action Française had already been suppressed by parliamentary decree after the February attempted lynching of Blum.)
The banning of the leagues did not end the far right’s political efforts against the Popular Front. The Right began an ideological counter-offensive to appeal to the more conservative sections of the Radical party: shopkeepers, small-holding peasants, and small and medium business owners who felt excluded by the birth of social democracy.1 Fears of Marxist revolution were leavened with antisemitism.2 At the opening session of the new chamber, the right-wing Deputy Xavier Vallat declared: “Your arrival in office, M. le Président du Conseil, is incontestably a historic date. For the first time, this old Gallic-Roman country will be governed by a Jew. I have the special duty here of sayting aloud what everyone is thinking to himself: that to govern this peasant nation of France it is better to have someone whose origins, no matter how modest, spring from our soil than to have a subtle Talmudist.”3 In the right-wing press, the idea of a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy against the hard-working French people was sometimes hinted at, sometimes stated openly.
Other themes included the Popular Front’s supposed threats to the family and production: the 40-hour week was described as by the head of the coal industry employers group as “the voluntary mutilation of the nation’s productive capacity.”4 There was also a rather strange pro-natalist message connected to the concerns of production: sections of the Right believed that the workers occupying the factories were engaging in orgies, called for the banning of pornography, and the restoration of the family.5 Added to this, the inclusion of women in Blum’s government inflamed fears of feminism and its threats to the old rights and privileges of the père.
The end of the leagues also did not cripple mass mobilization on the Right. The paramilitary groups just shifted to “legitimate” politics and re-organized themselves as “legitimate” electoral parties. Colonel de La Rocque’s Croix de Feu simply became the Parti Social Français and continued to attract a mass following. The tactics barely changed: provocative counter-demonstrations by PSF members lead to violence, but skillfully laid the blame on the Popular Front. The new political conjuncture also attracted adventurers and opportunists. Jacques Doriot, a former Communist Deputy who once urged anti-fascist collaboration between the Socialists and Communists, formed the Parti Popular Français.
Doriot, a working-class brawler famous for fighting cops in protest to France’s colonial wars, now turned into a nationalist and anti-communist rabble rouser. Organized on the strict hierarchical basis of a Communist Party and based on a cult of personality around Doriot’s masculinity, the party got funding from banking and industry (as well as Mussolini’s government) who hoped to win the working class away from the Popular Front and support from former Communists and “non-conformist” intellectuals. Notable among the intellectual followers of the PPF was novelist Pierre Drieu de la Rochelle, who saw in Doriot’s steelworker’s physique the negation of the ills of modern decadence, mediocrity, and femininity, all of which were, of course, associated in his imagination with the Jews.6
Mass mobilization and propaganda were not the only political responses of the Right to the Popular Front: Even more dramatic perhaps was the use of clandestine activity and terrorism. The principal terrorist far-right terror group of the interwar years was the Organisation Secrète d’Action Révolutionnaire Nationale, known as OSARN or “the Cagoule”,—the hood or the cowl. Founded in the wake of the Popular Front victory by Eugene Deloncle, a naval engineer and decorated war veteran, and former member of Action Française, OSARN plotted to overthrow the Republic by force. Made up of former members of the various anti-parliamentary leagues, the Cagoule formed clandestine cells across the country that stockpiled arms, attempted to recruit army officers (with mixed success, although the record suggests Pétain may have had some pre-War contact with Cagoulards), and got significant financial support from French business interests. The reader may recognize the names of some of the industrial backers of OSARN: Byrrh, Michelin, Renault, Taittinger (yes, the champagne), as well as the founder of L’Oréal, all donated millions of francs to Deloncle’s group.7 Fascist Italy also provided significant arms and funding. In return, Cagoulards performed hits on exiled Italian anti-fascists in France.
The OSARN attempted to use “false flag” operations to try to frame the Left. On September 11 1937, Cagoule agents delivered a bombs to the headquarters of two large industrial employers organizations. The buildings were empty, but two police officers were killed in the blast. The choice of targets was meant to imply Communists were behind the attacks, but the French press quickly assumed that foreign agents—either Soviet or Francoist—had planted the bombs. In the already xenophobic climate, attention focused on the danger of emigres. Nonetheless, the police were now on the trail and the group felt pressure to act. On November 15, OSARN activated its plan to fake a Communist coup dressed as CGT and PCF members and then lead a counter-revolution, replete with death squad executions of prominent Leftists. It was a terrific failure: The army officers Deloncle tried to cultivate didn’t buy that a coup was imminent and the plan fizzled.
The authorities had had enough. On November 23, the Socialist Interior Minister Marx Dormoy exposed the Cagoule and the extent of its plot against the Republic in the press, detailing the arms caches, the lists of targets, and the plans to seize government ministries and public utilities.8 Even so, Blum’s government was not energetic about pursuing the case against OSARN, perhaps for fear of the foreign policy implications of exposing Italian, Spanish and German support for the group, and none of its members faced trial until after the War. (Many Cagoulards would go on to hold positions in the Vichy regime.) The conservative press launched a counter-offensive that portrayed the Cagoule as patriots and victims of a plot by the Sûrété Nationale, the intelligence services, to discredit the entire Right. The charge was now that the Cagoule plot was itself a false flag and a hoax created by the Left. One citizen remarked of the arrests, “We understand that every French citizen who doesn’t adhere to the Popular Front will lose all their goods and liberties.”9
Even more bizarrely, the exposure of the Cagoule plot kicked off a kind of carnivalesque response in France. As Chris Millington writes in his A History of Fascism in France:
The press was replete with stories of arrests and discoveries of arms dumps and underground prisons. The affair seemed ‘too sensational to be true’. The French of 1937 could hardly find more entertainment at the movies as they could in reading the latest revelations in the daily newspapers and true crime journals like Détetcive magazine. The affair took hold of the popular imagination: ‘The fashion in the salons was for Cagoulard parties [with people] decked out in masks and robes. The catherinettes donned a hood as their symbol. Cabaret artists and cartoonists took great pleasure in it.’
The treatment of the whole thing as a big joke was not an encouraging sign of health for the Third Republic. But how seriously should the Cagoule have been taken considering its utter failure to initiate a coup? After many years of historians downplaying the significance of the Cagoule, more recent analysis suggests its political success went beyond its probably unattainable immediate goal of overthrowing the Republic through force. In this reading, OSARN should be understand more as a discursive phenomenon than a military one, part of the incessant propaganda campaign of the Right against the Popular Front. As Annette Finley-Croswhite and Gayle K. Brunelle write:
To the extent that the Cagoule’s violent actions and successful manipulation of French public opinion in 1937 served to weaken the Third Republic, it indeed was a significant factor in the events of 1940. That significance should not be overestimated either; the French military defeat was the primary reason why Pétain and Laval were able to bring about the end of the Republic during that terrible summer in 1940. But the target of their animosity was already moribund, and part of the responsibility for the Republic’s vulnerability lay with the Cagoule’s achievement.
Kevin Passmore, The Right in France from the Third Republic to Vichy, 326
Joel Colton , Léon Blum: Humanist in Politics, 144
Robert Soucy, French Fascism: The Second Wave, 292
Chris Millington, A History of Fascism in France: From The First World War to the National Front, 96
Annette Finley-Croswhite and Gayle K. Brunelle, “Lighting the Fuse: Terrorism as Violent Political Discourse in Interwar France,” in Millington, Passmore (eds.), Political Violence and Democracy in Western Europe 1918-1940, 151