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The Right in France: From the Third Republic to Vichy Review

Updated on August 11, 2018

French history is a contentious affair, and its historiography presents waters which make for no smoother sailing. The Third Republic was striven by intense political debates, with a bewildering variety of different political factions that can only vaguely be stuffed into the terms of left, right, and center. Living through it and looking back on it, political scientists and historians have classified and engaged with it in a host of different ways, including the temperaments of people from different regions, viewing the French right as belonging to three thoughts of Orleanism, Legitimism, and Bonapartisme which mutate but stay essentially the same until, well, today, modernization thesis of the development of a modern political sphere against "traditional" organization, the domination of socialism and communism as a tool for reconciliation of the right and center against the left, France's nature as a democratic country and its relationship to fascism, and a host more which would scrawl across many pages. Kevin Passmore, a respected historian on European and particularly French fascism, adds another perspective to this in his book The Right in France: From the Third Republic to Vichy, which argues against both simply seeing the French political right in the terms of three schools of thought, or in terms of its reaction and transformation by modernity, ignores its actual diversity and its historical developments. Instead, Passmore argues that the right included a hazy mixture of different thoughts which interacted with each other differently in producing its ideologies, and that it can be divided into three historical stages in terms of its organization (among the further right at least), of initially popular conservatism, then elite conservative control in committees, and finally the re-invigoration of mobilization and activism. Along the way he lays out a lengthy and detailed history of the French political right, its ideology, impacts, and relationships to society.


Chapter 1, introduction, starts out with portraying a variety of events of conservatives, ranging from the Boulanger affair, to French parliamentary debates, to 1935 fighting between PSF and communist protesters. It then delves into some of the peculiar elements of political history in France, in a focus on regionalism and sectional divisions, before moving into the most important part: the historiographical study of the right, which has been dominated by the division of French conservative political thought into strands of Legitimisme, Orleanism, and Bonapartism. Political analysis has long focused principally on elites, and held a “modernization” theory of inevitable triumph of certain elements of the “modern” national-political sphere. Passmore’s intent is to move beyond a simple modernization model and see its different organizations over time and how the Right in France was structured by different identities and groups.

Patrice de MacMahon, the president of the Moral Order in France, while ideas for a monarchy or a de facto monarchical republic still abounded.
Patrice de MacMahon, the president of the Moral Order in France, while ideas for a monarchy or a de facto monarchical republic still abounded.

In the second chapter, entitled “Moral Order (1870–1884)” the focus is upon telling the ideas and stances of the four principal currents of conservative thought. The Orleanists (monarchists who supported the Orléans dynasty, overthrown in 1848) were the most liberal, favorable towards a “rational” society, parliamentary, economically libera (in the European sense, as it is used throughout this, meaning limited government and free markets)l, of a liberal Catholic bent, and one where they were amenable to the idea of a republic, an empire, or a monarchy, provided it defended the social order. Moderate Legitimists (who supported the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, overthrown in 1830 and 1789) also accepted an economically liberal, parliamentary regime and the gains of 1789, but viewed a monarchy as necessary, and placed a much greater role on Catholicism as the basis of the social order. It was the ultra-Legitimists who promulgated a society led by the aristocracy and on anti-liberal economic, anti-rational, lines, harkening back if not being able to fully restore the days before 1789, viewing a monarchy untainted by the revolution and the very essence of the nation, and that the Catholic church was the foundation of the nation - although whether the church or the monarchy was its sovereign was something they had trouble deciding on. The Bonapartists, populist, authoritarian, Catholic-friendly but not dominated to the same extent by it as the Monarchists, were anti-urban and radical, sometimes more so than Republicans, in their believe of the usage of the state to secure popular welfare. The book also covers the main geographic distribution and class composition.

Boulanger, head of a populist movement which mixed both leftist and rightist ideas, and which threatened to overthrow the Third Republic. Still a source of debate over whether he can be defined as proto-fascist, as a leftist, as a rightist, etc.
Boulanger, head of a populist movement which mixed both leftist and rightist ideas, and which threatened to overthrow the Third Republic. Still a source of debate over whether he can be defined as proto-fascist, as a leftist, as a rightist, etc.

The third chapter, “From Conservatisme to Boulangism (1884–1889)”, principally concerns covering the affiliations between monarchism and Boulangism, and how to monarchists he represented an image of the Republic in crisis, of a strong man who would end the republic and bring back the monarchy, one which had an increasing democratic tinge to it. With previous political forces in disarray, monarchists turned to Boulanger, which cannot simply be seen as Bonapartism, being a mixture of new political movements and not always doing well in Bonapartist areas such as South-West France, but which otherwise largely continued to be strong in rural regions and in cities sometimes won due to its radical nature, and its nationalistic, antisemitic, and xenophobic stances focusing upon class conciliation and populism. Although Boulangism failed, it gave rise to a new radical right, and other new political ideologies like Christian Democracy.

Chapter 4, “The Ralliement (1890–1898)”, details how Monarchists reacted to an environment where at last the Republic did not seem to be on the verge of imminent collapse to their eyes, leading to a necessity to work with the system even if they continued to believe that the restoration of a monarchy was ultimately inevitable. One group of Catholics who rallied to the Republic were the ralliés, promoting a liberal Catholicism that cooperated with the moderate Republicans, the opportunists. This failed to truly succeed and on the back of insoluble differences on the response to socialism (where the perspectives of even the moderate left and the Catholic right ran directly into opposition) and the religious question, the political ralliement failed to incorporate the right wing into the Republic. But it did continue a process of transforming the monarchists whose strategy of simply holding for the collapse of the Republic was increasingly sidelining them.

The false accusation of the French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus of spying for Germany launched a major political crisis in France that did much to radicalize the French right and to form its penchant for antisemitism.
The false accusation of the French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus of spying for Germany launched a major political crisis in France that did much to radicalize the French right and to form its penchant for antisemitism.

Chapter 5, “Nationalism (1898–1900)”, looks at the Right in its development during the Dreyfus affair, when a Jewish officer was falsely arrested for spying, ultimately polarizing the nation between left and right and mobilizing new forms of the latter. New nationalist organizations included the Ligue de la patrie française as a nationalist intellectual development, helping to transform the right into the banner holders of nationalism. Rightist leagues also emerged to promote radical nationalism, anti-capitalism, populism, anti-feminism, anti-socialism, nativism, anti-semitism, and a range of social reforms. Bonapartists were weak and had little independent role to play, but Marraus of Action française, a reactionary French monarchist movement, started to organize during this time period. Ultimately the right failed to transform the Republic in an oft-mooted coup, not because of their democratic leanings but because of their disunity.

Chapter 6, “Party Formation (1898–1906)” disputes the idea of parties being an inevitable part of modernization and development, instead seeing the development of parties as neither being a simple transition, as politics had not simply been personal among notables beforehand, and French politics visualized the political parties in certain ways that were unique than elsewhere - emphasizing their electoral role, but reducing their role in parliament itself. Furthermore conservative leaders did not see rival parties as simply a pluralistic expression of society, but rather often as a platform for demagogues, operating off of their theories of the distinctions between the masses and leadership. Although parties were formed, they were never able to dominate political life like in the Anglo-Saxon countries, but they did influence the markers of political life.

The seventh chapter, “Organization (1906–1914)” details the conservative Republic, where although the right had fallen to a low level of support, moderates ruled in alliance with conservatives and marginalized the extremes. During this time the defining ideology was that of organizationalism, transforming society into organized structures that would promote a balance of social interests such as agriculture or industry, according interests groups such as business, agriculture, and regionalism their rightful role. This fell at a time of constantly increasing concerns over society, and the French Right reacted differently - the conservatives falling in with the center, while the far-right began to coalesce into organizations like Action francaise that posed a threat to the Republican center in a merging of the Far Right and the Far Left.

The unity of all French political parties during the war was not as seamless nor as final as it might have seemed.
The unity of all French political parties during the war was not as seamless nor as final as it might have seemed.

Chapter 8 commences during the war years, entitled “The Union Sacrée (1914–1918)”, when all French parties came together to set asides their differences for the war. This alliance however, was not absolute, and it ran into tensions over the question of socialism, the role of parliament, the war effort, and the Church, which were intimately connected to political disputes and the perception of Germany. The ultimate result was the expulsion of socialists from the French government and the rise to power of Clemenceau, as head of a national government encompassing the center and right. Of course, the war left behind its effects, and one of the largest was that it was believed that the war had to have solved the pre-war divisions, when in reality it had done nothing of the king and both the Left and the Right were disappointed at their position post war.

The French right won the elections of 1919 decisively.
The French right won the elections of 1919 decisively.

Chapter 9, “The Bloc National (1919–1924)”, covers the post-war French victory of the Right and the alliance of conservatives in the national bloc in the Assembly. Unfortunately for their hopes, its prospects proved stillborn, for it was too riven to confront a still-important religion question, its economic and social visions were in conflict, foreign policy views stumbled on foreign failings and internal dissent, and its internal unity fell apart, in effect breaking the cooperation that had been developing between the right and the center over the previous few decades.

In chapter 10, “The Revival of Activism (1924-1926), spotlight is put on the formation of the “leagues”, which were far-right organizations that operated in a non-parliamentary sense, which have often been the target of debate over whether they were fascist or not. Their views varied, but they commonly had a glorification of veterans as a moral force in the nation, as well as youth. The difficult events of this period of economic crisis for France were an important part of their mobilization in fears of a decadent and incompetent regime throwing away the products of victory.

André Tardieu's government in 1930, the closes the French right came to real unity.
André Tardieu's government in 1930, the closes the French right came to real unity.

In a painfully briefly happier period, chapter 11 “Apogee and Crisis (1928–1932)” covers the period under Tardieu when the French right came closest to being a united and reformist element, which sought to co-opt the center into its program of national reorganization. For once religion started to lack its divisive appeal among the right although it still split delegates at times, and during the times of prosperity the reformist conservative coalition held together. It did however, increasingly radicalize the far-right in opposition, while new political forces like peasant mobilization arrived. When economic ruin and European crises arrived, the right lost the elections of 1932.

The troubled year of 1934 commenced with a coup attempt against the Republic in the protests of February 6, 1934, and also serves as the opening for chapter 12 "Fascism in France? (1934–1940)". The author does not see the rise of French far-right groups as an inherent result of French politics, but rather a result of the failures of conservative governments which radicalized the French far right. It then discusses the characteristics of some of the organizations, particularly Croix de feu (Cross of Fire), under Colonel François de la Rocque, painting a picture of it as similar to but still distinct from Italian fascism.

Chapter 13, “Conservatives and the Popular Front (1936–1939)” proposes that although the Conservative role in actually leading to the Popular Front (an alliance of French democratic and left-wing parties intended to “save democracy” in France and counter fascism) collapsing, but the experience played a role in radicalizing the conservatives, driving them to authoritarianism, and that they were able to impact certain events like consideration of intervening in the Spanish Civil War.

Philippe Petain, the leader of the Vichy collaborationist regime during WW2: like other developments, circumstances rather than inevitability led to the authoritarian collaborationist government which led the country under German occupation.
Philippe Petain, the leader of the Vichy collaborationist regime during WW2: like other developments, circumstances rather than inevitability led to the authoritarian collaborationist government which led the country under German occupation.

After the German invasion of France in 1940, the Vichy regime came to power, which is covered in Chapter 14, “From Republic to Vichy (1940–1944)”. The chapter constitutes principally a way to review the themes which had led up to this, focusing on the idea that the Vichy regime was one which was, like previous conservatives, divided and not with absolute ideological trends, that the scenarios and events of French history are deeply bound up in the context of the time, and to reinforce its usage of crowd theory, focusing on a split between the elites and the masses as seen from the time.


This is a lengthy and well researched book. It broadly succeeds in showing its objectives - that French conservative political culture was not defined by absolutes, that its ideology changed, that its members were not solitary ideological figures but were affected by multiple strains of thought, and that it is impossible to reduce French political history merely to a train of developments to modernity, a teleological thesis that sees Gaullism as its ending subject and that presupposes that developments before it fit into the development of mass parties and party politics like today. Rather the book demonstrates that these fell into the context of the time, although sometimes the two are broadly similar: sure events such as the February 6 1934 riots might not have been a priori inevitable, but the book questions less about whether they were inevitable in their context, something which would have been more intriguing.

Furthermore, it proves its worth in integrating in a broader intellectual history of conservatism and staying true to this framework, such as the focus on “crowd theory”, with masses requiring a strong and firm - conservative - hand, which animated conservatives, or Darwinism and its social counterpart which drove a changing view of the relationships between nations and how a political economy should be organized. This book is very much centered upon conservatism, rather than the idle flipping of coalitions in the Assembly, and it combines both the histoire longue durée and the histoire evenementielle - indeed, as the author notes, French political history generally is not divorced from the annales school in focusing on underlying structures, as compared to traditional political history like that of the British model which focuses excessively on cabinets and prime ministers.

It does have a tendency sometimes however, to not fully explain what certain events were. For example the “Ralliement”, wherein (some) French Catholics accepted the Republic is covered in Chapter 13, but it never actually starts out by explicitly stating what this is. Thus if one doesn’t know a basic French political history selection, there are things which will not be well explained. Furthermore, there is a problem in that French politics are tremendously complicated and widely used acronyms, but once stated, the book rarely once states what they mean or where they lie. It makes it very easy to lose track of the various actors. Its grand themes can be lost easily, and the effect of events from a previous era upon the future era are often not followed up on: anti-semitism and anti-freemason for example never receives a real dedicated section and its influence for future movements, just is mentioned occasionally. The Boulanger affair appears, but then the organizations it developed and the mobilization it created do not form a part of the rest of the book. Similarly, the book doesn’t really easily demonstrate the French Right’s strength as part of the political spectrum throughout the entire period, the closest it comes is eras, but there could be a lot more done to show things such as a chart of its percentage in parliament, or its power among local notables. Its social composition and which parts of society were conservative would also be useful, and it is neglected beyond the mention of a few professions and geographical maps.

Having commented upon the difficulties of following it, it should be noted that neophytes studying French politics from the era do sand to benefit from a very good introduction, which details the historiography and traditional attitudes upon French politics - a tremendously useful subject, for historiography, how we study something in history, is just as important as the actual subject itself, and far more difficult to find out in the modern mass sources of information like Wikipedia.

This is combined with a focus that privileges certain aspects of French political life above the rest - it focuses above all else upon religion, the challenge of economic modernization, social organization, and relationship to communism and socialism. It only briefly includes things like foreign policy, colonialism, the military beyond nationalism, or protectionism. And while there are nearly infinite scandals to choose from under the Third Republic, requiring that only a few can be examined (the Boulanger affair, and the Stavinsky affair being the principal one), it mentions some without mentioning what they were, such as making references to Panamiste delegates, those who had been caught up in a bribery scandal related to the French company building the Panama Canal (the works of which were later sold to the Americans). It also doesn’t define some key features, such as notables - the important personnages of local life - and does not deal much with their relationships to the parties. Finally, it also has weak linkings to how the right was constituted internationally across Europe, and it restricts itself firmly to Metropolitan France, ignoring Algeria or other overseas regions as part of the French political history.

What sort of audience would be best for such a tome? This book is in theory, not terribly difficult for somebody without an extensive knowledge of French politics from the era to read. But in practice its various problems mean that it is hard to follow easily unless if one is aware of the parties and ideas from the era. While it does succeed in proving its points, most are generally aware of, for example, that politics is rarely as pure as a simple parliamentary chart would lay out, especially for French politics with its confused and shifting coalitions and its tendency for famous figures to crisscross the spectrum, particularly from the left to the right like Clemenceau, but also from the right to the left like Pierre Cot. Its principal point that simply a chronology of “modernization” is an excessively broad and inaccurate one for French conservative politics moving from notables to parties and developing party structures, and rather it went through multiple stages with their own levels of activism and structures, is more intriguing, and a valuable one. It might match what to me seems like where the book fits, in trying to recast the framework of French politics in adding on another perspective, and thus best for those who are committed to a scholarly path towards studying French politics in the era of the Third Republic, in helping to provide an organizing structure and general reference. It is not a book for amateurs and it has its share of exceptions and flaws, but still serves as a useful book for providing for a new understanding of this important era.

3 stars for The Right in France: From the Third Republic to Vichy

© 2018 Ryan Thomas


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