The mobilization of political groups during the interwar years saw a battle waged for ‘the people’ of France. Rivals claimed to represent the popular will, lending their programme and their action a veneer of popular legitimacy.
The polarization of French politics following the nationalist riot of 6 February 1934 intensified this struggle to speak for the people. For conservatives, the demonstration of February was made on behalf of France. Perfume magnate and right-wing financier François Coty claimed that ‘Indignant France protested’ that night.[i] Polemicist Henri Béraud agreed: the ‘Stavisky bomb’ had reawakened the whole French people.[ii] The right thus framed the riot as a Parisian expression on behalf of the nation. Yet the left, too, attempted to claim Paris and the provinces for itself. According to this interpretation, a fascist and reactionary minority had attempted to overthrow the regime. Writing in the Radical newspaper, La République, Paul Bouillon condemned the ‘counter-truth’ that the ‘near totality’ of Parisians had demonstrated.[iii] In Notre Temps, Jean Luchaire refused to see the riot as expression of ‘spontaneous popular indignation’. It had been ‘carefully prepared’ by a minority against the will of ‘the republican [provinces].’[iv] For the left-wing parties, it was the working-class demonstration on 12 February, held in response to the ‘fascist coup’ of the sixth, that truly represented France. On that day, ‘Worker Paris’ had taken to the streets in defence of the Republic. This represented the true ‘popular mobilization of the Nation’.[vii]
One might assume that the very seriousness of the February 1934 crisis prompted such a reaction. After all, it seemed to both sides that the future of the nation was at stake. Yet it was standard practice for political groups to lay claim to popular support following even minor violent incidents. Usually, the partisan press referred to the ‘indignation’ of local populations at the conduct of a rival, while townspeople and villagers expressed their approval of such and such a party. Police sources rarely hint at the reaction of the public to violence; officers were more concerned with establishing the facts of an incident. Of course, police commented on the number of people involved but their motivations remain hidden. At times we can distinguish between a hard-core of demonstrators and those who were apparently less committed: at Limoges in November 1935, for example, when left-wingers fought with the extreme right-wing Croix de Feu, persistent rain reduced the number of antifascist protesters from an estimated 2000 to about 300.
A different portrayal of public reaction to political violence may be found in Paul Nizan’s 1935 novel Le Cheval de Troie. Set in the town of Villefranche, the novel concerns a league meeting and the violence that followed it; young leaguers scuffled with local workers, before police intervened with customary brutality. Nizan, a left-wing author, does not reproduce the usual line of ‘popular indignation’; far from it. While local antifascist activists are outraged that a league meeting should be taking place in their town, the inhabitants of Villefranche are excited:
‘From peaceful corners of the town, they rushed toward the blistering spectacle that was happening between the cathedral and the theatre, they said to each other secretly: “Let’s hope that we haven’t arrived too late, let them still be fighting”. There were people who supported the workers, others were on the side of the police, and others expressed no preference: it was like a sport match. Nearly everyone was nervous: they ran towards all this politics like they would have run toward a great fire: in such towns, there is not one inhabitant who doesn’t live in hope of a fire, an explosion, a crime… The people [went to the scene] as if to a festival.’
[i] L’Ami du Peuple,13 February 1934.
[ii] Henri Béraud, Pavés Rouges. (Paris : Les Éditions de France, 1934).
[vii] Le Populaire, 13 February 1934; L’Humanité, 12 February 1934.