In the second of our series, Chris Millington explains his current research into French political violence…..
This research project is the first to investigate political violence in the late French Third Republic (1918-1940). The historiography of Third Republican political culture marginalises political violence. Existing accounts claim that politics was essentially peaceful, founded on bourgeois parliamentarianism and constitutional republicanism, with confrontation largely limited to verbal violence. These arguments are applied to the right and left wing of politics: René Rémond (1954) dismisses sporadic right-wing violence as ‘boy scouting for grown-ups’ or student pranks, while Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau (1983) blames the decline of the communist party at the end of the 1920s on its unpopular violent strategy. According to Serge Berstein (1985), violence was confined to discourse and caused no more than ‘a ripple on the surface’ of society. Under the influence of this historiography, little attention has been paid to French political violence.
However, during the interwar years, people resorted to force in many ways. In the 1920s and 1930s, hundreds of thousands of French joined extra-parliamentary groups on the left and the right that resorted to violence. In 1932, communist writer Louis Aragon’s poem, ‘The Red Front’, included the line ‘Kill the coppers’ at a time when the party predicted a final confrontation between revolution and reaction. On 6 February 1934, nationalist leagues and veterans rioted in Paris; thirteen people died and over a thousand were injured. After 1934, the paramilitary Croix de Feu, which became the largest political group on the right, fought the left in the street. The period between 6 February 1934 and 30 November 1938 saw 75 people killed.
My research analyses micro-political processes in order to investigate how contemporaries understood, represented and justified their violence, and looks to uncover what we might call the ‘unspoken rules’ of confrontation – the types of behaviour that people thought were acceptable and unacceptable during fighting. Political meetings, for example, offer a means of investigation. At public and private meetings, official rules were in place to confine conflict to debate and avoid violence. Speakers and contradictory-speakers were chosen. Attendees voted for a bureau to preside over the meeting. Yet public meetings were inherently risky for those who organised them. If a sufficient number of opponents was present, they could replace the proposed bureau and gain control from the original sponsors. Violence in the audience at meetings was considered normal and the throwing of punches rarely disrupted proceedings. Yet meetings could also end with the storming of the platform. My research has identified the unspoken assumptions and implicit cultural knowledge that governed violence at meetings. For example, if speakers were judged to have behaved with insufficient courtesy toward their opponent, it was at times deemed acceptable to resort to violence to resolve the argument. It seems, then, that even in settings that were designed to encourage democratic practices – the debating hall, for example – there was still a place for a certain amount of violence.
The research is based on a close reading of memoirs, press and police reports. It has produced two journal articles and a book is currently in preparation.