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What If France Had Suffered a Coup in February 1934? by Rooksmoor

Author says: we're very pleased to present a new story from Rooksmoor's excellent blog Tablets of Lead. Please note that the opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of the author(s).

Please click the icon to follow us on Twitter.This is a posting I had been thinking about after completing 'The Collapse of the Third Republic' (1969) by William L. Shirer.  France in the 1930s was faced by a great deal of political tension.  Like the rest of the world it was dealing with the consequences of the Great Depression which had been provoked by the Wall Street Crash of October 1929.  This had led to a slowing of trade, numerous foreclosures of loans and, in turn, high unemployment.  France, in some ways, with its own empire providing some of the resources it needed and able to produce much of its own food, was spared the extreme experiences of countries like the USA and Germany.  However, France had other problems.  A key issue was the tension between different perceptions of 'proper' French society.  One side encompassed much of the military, the Catholic Church and Royalists and others opposed to the whole concept of a democracy and the liberal attitudes that the Third Republic, established in 1870, seemed to stand for.  To characterise those who had a different view as 'the left' is not really accurate as it encompassed many centrists and liberals, people who simply believed in democracy and its liberties as well as more genuinely left-wing parties including Socialists.  Whilst the Communists stood against the authoritarian 'establishment' opponents of democracy, they too wanted to see the end of the republic and its replacement by a Communist dictatorship.  In many ways these groupings and the tensions between them, mirrored the divisions in Spain and was the basis of the Spanish Civil War 1936-9.  These internal tensions naturally were developing in a broader context with different groups looking to the models of dictatorships in the USSR, Italy and Portugal, and, of course, after January 1933, to the Nazi dictatorship.

Despite the economic and political challenges, French democracy was able to last until June 1940, when defeated by Germany, France was split up: the Alsace and Moselle departements (i.e. Alsace-Lorraine) were annexed by Germany; the two most northern departements came under the control of the German military governor of Belgium; the bulk of northern and western France came under a occupation regime run from Paris and the southern and eastern France under the puppet regime of Marshal Petain, based at Vichy (being the only French town outside Paris that had direct international telephone connections) until it was occupied by the Germans in November 1942. A strip of this region, along the Alps, was occupied by the Italians November 1942 - September 1943, then by the Germans.  Due to the German victory the anti-Republicans of the right, were victorious, briefly and worked to establish the kind of authoritarian, anti-semitic, nationalistic, Catholic, French society they had yearned for since 1870 or even 1789.

The conflict between those who supported a liberal Republic and those who opposed it bubbled up intermittantly.   One key incident was the Dreyfus Affair of 1894-1906 over the wrongful conviction of a Jewish captain, Alfred Drefyus for spying.  Whilst evidence soon came to light exonerating him, the opposition in military circles to even looking for the genuine culprit and the anti-semitism that was provoked by the incident indicated the difference of attitudes within the French political scene.  Such forces, however, had not been able to dent the general support for the Republic even during the dark days of the First World War.  The economic crisis of the 1930s came after a period of recovery, which contrasted with the economic difficulties that Germany had faced in the 1920s which had turned its middle classes to look for non-democratic solutions. However, a series of financial scandals involving ministers steadily sapped confidence in the political system.  Owner of financial newspaper, Marthe Hanau, was arrested in 1928, went on trial in 1932 and revealed details of politicians she had bribed. Banker Albert Oustric was imprisoned in November 1929 for his involvement in financial speculation, and led to the fall of the government in 1930 when it was revealed the Minister of Justice, had been involved with Oustric's dealings.

The most extreme case was that of Alexandre Stavinsky, a fraudster and embezzler.  Fleeing in December 1933, he was found shot in January 1934 and later died, the suspicion that he had been killed by the police.  Like Hanau and Oustric, Stavinsky had been close to several politicians particularly of the Radical-Socialist Party (which, despite its name was a centrist pro-democracy party) which had been the backbone of many French governments.  Right-wing commentators used the affair to attack the party and the basis of democracy in France which seemed to allow such corruption.  The Stavinksy Affair led to the resignation of left-wing (Cartel des Gauches, i.e. 'group of the lefts') government of Camille Chautemps at the end of January 1934; it had been in power since May 1932, a very long time in Third Republic politics. However, two weeks' later, the next government, the more centrist one of Édouard Daladier was also forced out by the rioting discussed below.  The conservative, Gaston Doumergue, came into office though only until November 1934.  He was followed by Pierre-Étienne Flandin, serving until June 1935, though he would go on to serve briefly as Vice-Premier and Foreign Minister in the Vichy Regime.

With the depression, traditional middle class supporters in France began to be more sympathetic to anti-Republican sentiment, partly fearful of the rise of Communism and the increasing rights of working people. The Republic was weakened by its system, not really addressed until the Fourth Republic was dissolved in 1958, that allowed easy overthrow of governments.  While particular individuals were often in ministerial posts, the government was often in turmoil and during crucial periods, France was often without a government; the state effectively run by the civil service in the interim.  In such a context it is unsurprising that people began to look to models such as that of Fascist Italy which appeared to give a modern dimension to the kind of authoritarian regime that many in France had long dreamt of.

Given that dictatorship came to the neighbouring, formally democratic states of Italy in 1922, Germany in 1933 and Spain in 1939 and nearby Portugal from 1932, it does not seem impossible that France could also have gone this way.  The most likely date for an overthrow of democracy appears to have been the 6th February 1934.  Demonstrations and rioting had become increasingly common, especially in Paris.  These had increased in 1934 over the financial scandals, outlined above, involving politicians. 

On the evening of 6th February, following the dismissal of notably right-wing Paris police prefect, Jean Chiappe, a wide range of right-wing extremist groups took to the streets of Paris and sought to storm the parliamentary buildings.  In the face of this, many politicians fled.  Those involved included the royalist group Action Française (60,000 members), pro-capital Jeunesses Patriotes founded in 1924 (90,000 members), Italian-funded fascist group Mouvement Franciste founded in 1933 (10,000 members), fascist group Solidarité Française (claimed 180,000 members, may have had less than 80,000; 15,000 marched in Paris) founded in 1933; the conservative war veterans group UNC (Union Nationale des Combattants - 900,000 members) and notably the Croix-de-Feu (60,000 members by 1934), founded in 1926 as a veterans' group but with a broader membership from 1931 onwards.  Its membership rocketed to 400,000 by 1935, in large part due to these riots.  The Communist ARAC (Association Républicaine des Anciens Combattants) was also present and probably seeking to overthrow the Republic but with a Communist rather than Fascist state as its goal.

The different groups gathered across Paris and most marched towards the Place de la Concorde, on the North bank of the River Seine, so across the water from the Palais Bourbon which housed the National Assembly.  UNC members marched on the President's palace and the Croix-de-Feu forces came along the South bank and surrounded the Assembly building rather than storming it; they were sharply criticised for this.  It does appear that 6th February marked a clear phase in the organisations development.  Despite its broadening recruitment and establishment of dispo, i.e. para-military units, the leader Lieutenant-Colonel François de la Rocque, was beginning to move towards becoming a more mainstream conservative party. He had broken with  François Coty, who had long funded the group, in 1930.  Coty went on to found the Solidarité Française, a more overtly Fascist group.  De la Rocque's ambivalent attitude to Fascism can be seen in his formation of the political party PSF in 1936 when the right-wing leagues were banned.  The Vichy regime used PSF rhetoric but the group dissolved in 1940 and de la Rocque died in 1946.

The inaction by the Croix-de-Feu was often blamed for the failure to overthrow the republic on the evening of 6th February.  Police blocked access across the Concorde Bridge so that most of the groups could not reach the assembly building.  They opened fire and made baton charges into the crowd leading to 16 deaths and 2000 people being injured.  If the Croix-de-Feu had become violent then they would have either seized the Palais Bourbon or have attacked the police from behind so opening up the Concorde bridge to the other groups to storm across.  Similarly if the Croix-de-Feu had been sent to the North bank and one of the Fascist groups had come along the South bank, history could have been very different.

Would seizing the National Assembly on the evening of 6th February have truly ended French democracy?  Fighting actually broke out inside the assembly with right-wing politicians seeking to use the rioting as an excuse to physically attack the government; prime minister Daladier was defended by other deputies of the National Assembly.  I imagine, if para-militaries had breached the building then he would have been removed either by them or by the right-wing politicians.  Of course, the government could have fled to another city.  This had happened before in French politics.  The government of Daladier, who had been a popular prime minister did resign on 7th February, but again, this was something very common and though he was replaced by more conservative Doumergue, by 1937 a Popular Front government of left-wing parties was elected to office.

With ructions both inside and outside the parliament building it seems that if these activities had been linked by either the Croix-de-Feu or some other grouping storming into the Palais Bourbon, not only would the Daladier government have fallen but democracy would have be under threat.  One could certainly imagine a politician, perhaps the ambitious if ineffective Flandin, stepping forward to declare a state of emergency and someone being given emergency powers.  President Albert Lebrun, was pretty ineffective as became very apparent in 1940 when Petain and his supporters brought the republic to an end.  Petain was not politically active in 1934, but some other general might have been encouraged to step in to run the state during its 'emergency' as was to happen in 1940 and 1958.  In these circumstances, what seems likely is that parliament would have been purged of its left-wing and even centrist deputies, as was achieved steadily during the Battle of France in 1940 until only conservatives and extreme right members remain who would be likely to give a democratic gloss to the suspension of democracy, just as they would in 1940.

This may have not been the kind of coup d'etat that the rioters had anticipated.  They are likely to have wanted a move to a clearer form of dictatorship with one of their leaders at the head.  Perhaps de la Rocque would have been persuaded to step into such role and would have accepted knowing that if he did not then the risk was that someone more radical, and even in Italy's pay, would take up the role instead.  This would not necessarily have disappointed the extreme right-wing groups, who may have remembered that though he came to office in 1922, Mussolini's dictatorship was not really established fully until 1925 and similarly, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933, when Germany had effectively been governed by presidential decree since 1930, even though elections continued, it was the president rather than a government who was making legislation.

In terms of dictators, it seems that Pierre Taittinger (1887-1965) would have been a front runner.  He was a deputy for the 1st arrondisement of Paris 1924-40, (whist also being mayor of Saint-Georges-des-Coteaux, 1919-37); later head of Paris city council under the Germans 1943-4, and, crucially, head of the Jeunesses Patriotes, which despite being formed primarily of university students, had finance from industrialists and was one of the largest groups at the riots.  The advantage of Taittinger was that he was both a deputy, so feasibly prime minister, but also head of an extreme right-wing group so would have been backed, it is imagined, by the rioters.  Given that so many governments of the Third Republic were cobbled together rather than deriving much power from the electoral results, it seems that with a 'rump' parliament with left-wingers being excluded on some technicality (perhaps the presence of the ARAC on the evening of 6th February, making it appear as if the right-wing groups had been defending the state from an attempted Communist coup) then Taittinger could have appeared to come to power legitimately.  No doubt his cabinet would have welcomed the extremists in parliament and possibly outside 'experts', perhaps Coty, Marcel Bucard (1895-1946; head of the Mouvement Franciste) and de la Rocque, perhaps won over by a 'bloodless' coup.  Chiappe would have probably been immediately re-appointed to his position and quite likely would have begun rounding up left-wing para-militaries.

What we know of Taittinger's views, he was an enthusiast for Italian Fascism but more virulently anti-semitic than Mussolini's regime proved to be.  During the German occupation, Taittinger benefitted personally from assets seized from Jews; his brother-in-law, Louis Burnouf, ended up controlling 27 former Jewish businesses given to him by the Vichy regime.  Consequently, we would have seen France develop in a way familiar not only in Germany but in states like Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, later Slovakia and Croatia as German allies.  There would have been an end to democracy, probably initially suspended during the period of 'crisis' and then through alterations to the constitution.  Given the support that Taittinger would have attracted it is likely that the Catholic Church's role would have grown as it was to do so in Austria at the time and in Spain when it fell under General Franco; the secularisation of the 20th century would be rolled back.  Many of the policies of the regime would be those which we saw under the Vichy Regime, whose slogan 'Travail, Famille, Patrie' (Work, Family, Nation) was taken from a Croix-de-Feu slogan.  Certainly Jews would have faced increased discrimination of the kind witnessed under the Vichy Regime and as was coming into force in Germany.  Socialists and Communists are likely to have been imprisoned or exiled to remote French colonies.

What is interesting is that France could easily have become one of the strongest Fascist powers at the time.  Its armed forces and empire, at the time, were far greater than Italy and Germany's combined.  Hitler though he had been in power for a year by February 1934 was not yet secure in his position and would not really manage this until June-August 1934 with the Night of the Long Knives which purged the SA as an internal rival, won Army backing to the Nazi regime and saw the death of President Hindenburg which allowed Hitler to become head of state as well as head of government.  At the time Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler were not on good terms.  The state visit of Hitler to Italy in June 1934 was not a success and in July 1934 Mussolini moved troops to the Brenner Pass into Austria to prevent the Germans exploiting the failed National Socialist coup in the country.  It seems that with a Fascist France a different alignment may have developed.  Hitler would have thrived without Italian backing, but it certainly would have shifted the development of the alliance which would be involved in the Second World War.  Would Hitler have tried to woo Taittinger instead of Mussolini?

One major difference would occur in terms of Spain.  The civil war broke out in July 1936, France was divided between those who backed the elected Republican government and the insurrectionist Nationalists led by General Franco. In many ways the two sides reflected similar divisions in France.  France like Britain retained a rather ambivalent attitude to the conflict, not assisting the elected government.  France participated in the farcical non-intervention procedures that were supposed to stop weaponry reaching either side, whereas in fact Germany and Italy were supplying troops and weaponry to the Nationalists and the USSR allowed the Republicans to buy weaponry from them.  Fascist France is likely to have intervened as actively as Fascist Italy, not least to give some outlet for the right-wing paramilitaries, who as the SA did in Germany, were likely to have become frustrated when the coup had been achieved and would have become a destabilising force in a regime seeking respectability.  France in our world allowed refugees to flee over the border.  This border is unlikely to have been closed and any Republicans returned to Franco by the French.  It is quite likely, that with French assistance, Franco would have won sooner.  This would have meant that by 1939 if not earlier, most of western Europe would be under a Fascist dictatorship.  Perhaps Britain would have been plagued by the kind of disillusion with democracy that plagued France in the 1930s and itself drifted towards some kind of dictatorship with the National Government remaining in power indefinitely.  Given this coalition's dominance of the British political scene 1931-45 with no series rivals, it was not far off that anyway.

During the mid- to late 1930s the focus of French foreign policy was primarily dealing with the rise in strength of Nazi Germany, prompted and also restrained by Britain.  Britain was quite capable of working with dictatorships as its interaction with Hitler, Mussolini and Franco at the time shows.  However, the general thrust of its policy was to restrain the expansion of Germany and the USSR.  Fascist France would not have been opposed to Germany on ideological grounds.  The extreme right-wing in France saw the post-First World War peace treaties as a failure and are unlikely to have presented any opposition to German reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 or annexation of Austria in 1938.  In fact, these may have occurred sooner. 

In many ways it would have made little difference, because, despite the fact that even as late as early 1940 the French military was stronger than the German forces it would have faced, the French did nothing after 1923-4 that was effective in limiting destruction of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.  Without any credible partner on continental Europe, Britain may not have even become as involved as it did; perhaps like the USSR it would have been excluded from the Munich Agreement which began the destruction of Czechoslovakia.  Britain, like the USA, may have entered a period of isolationism, trying to give heart to the few remaining democracies.  Despite having an overwhelming superiority against the forces defending western Germany, the French military in our world did nothing but penetrate a few kilometres and then withdrew.  In many ways their 'defeatism' seems to have been pretty much like support for Hitler's actions, so with a Fascist France this approach would have been pretty minimal.

With the kind of regime that they liked in force in France, would the French military have fallen into the pathetic defeatism that they did in our version of the 1930s?  We know that the French army was stronger than the German invaders in 1940 but terribly misused and that the French airforce was barely used at all, so would the military of Fascist France have represented a more confident, stronger defence?  It seems likely.  Hilter's dreams always lay in eastern Europe and though he liked Paris, I believe if he could have fought the USSR without having to conquer France first he would have done.  He may have done a deal that France got the areas of Belgium that Napoleon III tried to buy.  Germany would have had a free hand in the Netherlands, Flemish Belgium, Denmark and Norway, partly to keep them out of British control if the UK had decided to oppose Hitler's expansion; without France it may have given up.  I doubt Hitler would have invaded France simply to get Alsace-Lorraine back; the forces needed to take the Netherlands and Belgium would not have impinged on the army he was building to take on the USSR.  What seems most likely in this scenario is the German-Soviet War would have broken out in June 1940, with Poland having been divided between the two the previous years.  Among the forces invading the USSR, alongside those from Italy, Romania and other allies of Germany would have been French forces taking part in the anti-Communist crusade.  Now we begin spiralling off into a whole plethora of outcomes.  I doubt Germany with even additional allies would have defeated the USSR and perhaps even as early as 1942 the Soviets would have begun rolling back.  Would they have stopped at Berlin or the Rhine or sought to expel all Fascist regimes from Europe so have continued to Brest or even Cadiz?  Would the UK, not weakened by its jaunt into France in 1940 have invaded to try to bring some democracy to Europe?  I imagine that with Hitler's declaration of war on the USA, they would have been involved.  If France switched sides quickly enough, would its regime have been allowed to continue the way Franco's was in Spain and Salazar's was in Portugal?  Certainly there would have been no French zones in Germany and Austria and France would have been looked on a little uncertainly.  Though the Americans and British were quickly forgiving of Fascists especially if keen opponents of Communism.

Thus, the outcome by 1944 might have pretty much resembled the one we had by 1945.  Politically France would be a bit different.  Democracy would be seen as having been restored by outsiders, but perhaps, with the lesson learnt there would be no greater difficulty with it than was the case with post-war Italy which had not been democratic for far longer.  There would be a huge issue around anti-semitism as it would have been a policy of a French government itself not simply one that came about due to foreign invasion.  As it was in 1944, effectively the Fourth Republic simply restored the approach of the Third Republic and it did not work much better.  It was only De Gaulle's more authoritarian style Fifth Republic that created a firm democracy.  Given the authoritarian regime of Fascist France maybe this approach would have been unacceptable and so France would have continued to be plagued by political instability into the 1960s and 1970s.

France almost lost democracy on the evening of 6th February 1934.  A few small differences could have easily seen a coup d'etat.  I believe that a further six years of dictatorship would clearly have been harsh for those who had to endure it, but ironically would have meant little different outcome by the time we reached 1945.  A key difference would be how bankrupt democracy would have looked in 1934 with almost the whole continent under some kind of dictatorship or soon to head that way.  Revival of democracy in France, I believe is important for the perception of democracy as a whole.  It offered an example of a non-monarchical democracy, secular and liberal in nature that has impacted on political systems across Europe.  France was able to recover in the post-1945 period because of its reference to the Resistance and it would have had to focus on a different legend, something more akin to West Germany's Year Zero, if it was to find a binding tradition.  I think too, without its rather awkward partner of France, Britain's handling of international politics in the 1930s would look even more appeasing and pathetic than it even appears in our world.

Rooksmoor, Editor of Tablets of Lead. You can comment on this story here.


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