At Large

French Fears, French Fantasies

The specter of February 6, 1934 is haunting France today -- but this time the popular front is coming from the right.

By 4.30.13

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What happened on 6 February 1934 is known to every Frenchman of a certain age, but of the younger generation one cannot say, because history has been banned (the word is not too strong) from the curricula of public schools. There are practically no private ones in France and Catholic schools must conform to the state’s standards, while yeshivot are after-school schools.

Indeed observers of the downward spiral of the once vaunted French public education system have singled out the elimination of history as a pedagogical as well as a cultural folly, among many others such the abandonment of Latin and excusing girls of the Muslim faith from gym class. They also cite the absence of zero tolerance against juvenile thugs attacking teachers -- often Jews -- with brazen effrontery. This overall civilizational cave-in is not unrelated to the education ministry trend toward “universal baccalauréat,” which essentially meant gutting the content from the high school-exiting cum university-entrance exam.

Now the schools are fields of ruins. That France’s immigration policies since the 1970s are partly to blame no serious observer denies, but immigrants as such are not the reason the governing classes have allowed, even encouraged, the erosion of the social fundamentals -- such as schools -- that make governing possible and coherent.

Ordinary Frenchmen understand they are paying the price for the elites’ failures. Accused of “populism” when they vote for parties that denounce bad government, they get their revenge by rejecting the centrist mainstream, seeing it as alternating gangs of rascals. To express this bitterness politically, however, they must vote for parties, of the far right or far left, that propose, for all practical purposes, regime change. The National Front on one side, the Left Party on the other, blame France’s problems on the European project, on global capitalism. This is why the French equivalents of what we could call the mainstream media have been evoking a reprise of “February 6.”

The detonator of what happened on 6 February 1934 was an immigrant, a Jew from Ukraine named Alexandre Stavisky, “le beau Sacha” to his friends and the policemen and journalists who followed his scams. He was a handsome and fast-talking charmer (portrayed by Jean-Paul Belmondo in the film by Alain Resnais) who had a knack for separating people from their money.

In 1927, using a Ponzi scheme and phony securities issued by a savings-and-loan (crédit municipal) in France’s southwest, whose officers he had drawn into the plot along with the town’s mayor and several national pols and police officials, Stavisky defrauded thousands of small savers. The crime was discovered and the perps identified. But for reasons unexplained, Stavisky’s trial for embezzlement and fraud kept getting postponed, and finally he absconded. In January of 1934 he committed suicide, unless he was murdered, as a police dragnet closed in. Janet Flanner, the New Yorker correspondent in Paris, did not believe Stavisky committed suicide. He was not the type.

Coming atop of a long series of scandales politico-financiers, to use the French idiom, that had regularly shaken what was variously, in anti-republican circles, dubbed “la République des voleurs” and “la République des camarades,” the anti-parliamentary right seized the uproar caused by the affaire Stavisky to call a demo in front of the Palais Bourbon (the parliament building). It ended in gunfire and blood in the streets.

The night of 6 February 1934 immediately passed into political folklore. On the right, it was the final proof that the republican regime was leading France to perdition. On the left, it confirmed the belief that the right was driven by its most extreme factions, who would stop at nothing to destroy republican order and democratic legitimacy and install an authoritarian regime.

One of the minor details about le 6 février was that the leadership of the far-right leagues tried to restrain the demonstrators, who reached the steps of the Palais Bourbon before being persuaded to cool it (the ruckus flared up again during the night, leading to bloodshed). They were determined to bring down the Republic, but they were not exactly democrats and the tradition of the righteous insurgent people, viz. the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the charge against the Hotel de Ville (city hall) in 1871, was not the default mode on their hard-drives.

The conservatively inclined citizens who have been demonstrating en masse across France over the past several weeks against “marriage for everyone,” code for the activity suggested at about 2:12 on this short video are peaceful, orderly, tolerant. The few scuffles with police that have occurred have been the work of small bands of fascistoweirdos or provocateurs with creepy motives posing as such.

The demonstrations have brought out hundreds of thousands of law-abiding citizens who think or sense that the legislation to alter the meaning of marriage, covered by slogans about equality, aim not at equality but at the subversion of their own beliefs and social codes and are therefore discriminatory and ultimately tyrannical.

They note that the organizations promoting “marriage [and parenthood] for everyone" are unrepresentative: no one elected them and most of those whose voice they claim to be do not share their definition of equality. Equality, they further observe, is a lark. All citizens are equal, and all citizens have an equal right to disagree with conventional definitions of what is normal; but how does this give them the right to invade the spaces of people who consider them abnormal?

The Left Party does not support these demonstrators, but the National Front does, as do most members of the parliamentary right; this in itself represents a major difference between today’s social tensions and the 1934 context. But then why do the political class and the media establishment raise the specter of February 6?

Certain commentators believe President François Hollande pushed the h*m*s*x bill -- the push got going late last year, went into shove mode in January, and passed the two houses of parliament this month -- because his other policies are so unpopular he needed to distract the restive populace. Sex wars replacing real ones as a way to change the political topic: maybe, since Hollande tried a real war in Mali (thus far a successful one) and it did not help his low standing in public opinion.

But the argument is not persuasive: the subversion of traditional marriage and parenthood were planks on his personal and his party’s campaigns last year. Since his other pledges, such as reviving the economy by hiring a few hundred thousand new civil servants, notably teachers, are going nowhere due to his total lack of economic elbow room -- the country is broke and economically stagnant and like much of the European Union is likely to stay that way until they can do something about public sector expenditures -- he figured he might as well get this out of the way.

The man who ran as “Mr. Normal” finds himself in dire straits that require the vigor and boldness of a strong leader, and in some respects he has shown he has the steel required. Speaking to the press a fortnight ago, he noted the “exceptional” difficulties before him as he took office: high unemployment, a financial-economic crisis, looming war in Mali, “populist” challenges. In referring to these, which he also said were on the rise not only in France but throughout Europe, he was surely thinking of the mobilization against neo-marriage legislation, as well as the strong campaigns run by the extreme right last year during the presidential and legislative elections.

Under Hollande’s leadership, our gallant French allies, with powerful reinforcement from Chad’s high-performance desert fighters, jumped into Mali in the nick of time to save that beleaguered Sahelian country from jihadist conquest, and he has not shirked the need to stay there despite initially naming April as the target date for a West African peacekeeping force to take over. The mission is now defined as being on “as long as needed.”

On the economic side, Hollande jettisoned the soak-the-rich demagogy of his campaign in favor of budgetary rigor, in keeping with the policies followed by his Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. But the Socialist Party is dressing up for full-scale class war in anticipation of a busy 2014 electoral year (municipal and Europarliamentary elections), going so far as to accuse the German government of being a threat to France. This is surely a surprising outcome to the campaign for the creation of an “ever closer union,” which practically an entire generation of public officials supported.

It is quite conceivable the passions unleashed by new French marriage legislation will quiet down in short order, opponents will shrug off their discontent, mutter about the decline of France, and finally take the evolution of mores in stride, such as they did after the flare up over “civil union” legislation a few years ago, when couples of whatever form and shape were given the legal instruments to fully partake of French social insurance (e.g., pensions, sharing health insurance, and such). Likewise, the proponents of the legislation will quiet down as they realize that getting what they wanted does not really change anything for them personally.

But could it be that the threat to republican order is greater than appears to the naked eye, that the ghosts of 6 February are still stirring? Is France as divided as in 1934, when angry forces united against a government of the left and, notwithstanding the blood that flowed, or because of it, prepared for civil war? Civil war came: World War II, in France, was that, as well as a foreign war and a national liberation war. Today, as then, the anti’s consider themselves patriots, view the government as inimical to their way of life, and the natural order of things.

Observers have noted that the arguments of the anti’s follow in their broad lines the advice of the Catholic Church. Might this indicate that France remains more Catholic than one guesses when viewing the deserted pews in the country’s churches? Absent sociological research, this question remains unanswerable; the fact that research so important to the country that used to be called the Church’s eldest daughter remains of little interest to social scientists may say more about them than about the Church.

Hollande and his recent predecessors, Sarkozy, Chirac, Mitterrand, were raised in the Catholic faith but became as adults non-practicing sinners, the latter term being in no way a reproach, merely normative Church designation for frail humans. Sarkozy is facing a rap for cheating on campaign fundraising (possibly including perpetrating a con on a mentally weakened old -- but extremely rich -- lady); Chirac himself was indicted once he lost his presidential immunity, but at trial the charges (abuse of office when mayor of Paris) were dismissed on grounds of too-close-to-gaga. Mitterrand’s two terms were marked by shadowy networks of political, personal, and financial corruption, and were shaken by shaken by the deaths of close collaborators, officially described as suicides but, as in the Stavisky case of yore, never definitively explained.

The truth of the matter is, the only recent president whom we can speak of with assurance as a practicing and believing Catholic was Charles de Gaulle. But none of this proves anything regarding the beliefs and identities of the French people.

Matters could degenerate, as the raz-le-bol, the disgust with things public, spilleth over. People willing to march and protest over marriage are surely the kind of people who will not tolerate forever the arrogant sense of entitlement shown by the political class, demonstrated by the Socialists’ tolerance (and cover up) of a manic sex predator in their midst for many years, who would have run for president, and almost certainly been elected, had Sarkozy not cleverly sent him on a mission to America knowing he would get into trouble there (annoyingly enough, Dominique Strauss-Kahn almost certainly is, on the macro level, the most intelligent and sensible economic and financial leader the French political class has at the moment, not that this sort of technical competence translates into the qualities required of a statesman). Nor will these sensible people accept the double standard the political class applies to itself. Hollande’s budget minister until his resignation and expulsion from the Socialist Party was a forceful and articulate budget hawk until he was charged with money laundering and tax evasion. The throw-them-all-out mood that boiled over nearly 80 years ago sometimes feels eerily real.

Which, however, does not mean it is.

Photo: Creative Commons

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.