The veterans and the Paris riot
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The veterans and the Paris riot book
The veterans’ movement in France The French Great War veterans’ movement was vast and complex. Unlike in Britain, where the British Legion came to represent all ex-servicemen in 1921, French veterans did not coalesce around a single organisation. During and after the war many associations were founded, representing different regiments, disabilities and political affiliations. Yet despite the multitude of groups, two associations came to dominate: the Centre-Left UF and the conservative UNC. Their dominance of the broader veterans’ movement stemmed from their sheer size: of the three million ex-servicemen who belonged to an association, the UF and the UNC represented approximately 1.8 million. Founded before the end of hostilities, the UF was a democratically-structured federation of provincial groups that represented both ex-servicemen and socalled ‘war victims’, such as widows and orphans. Drawing a significant portion of its leadership from the liberal professions and the civil service, the UF was close to the Centre-Left Radical Party and favoured governments of this ilk. The UNC, on the other hand, was staunchly conservative. Established on 11 November 1918 exclusively for male veterans, the UNC grew quickly with the support of Clemenceau’s government, the Catholic Church, the Army and prominent business interests. With significant representation from the officer class and the bourgeoisie in its leadership cadres, the association spread quickly in traditionally conservative areas. Less democratic in structure than the UF, the UNC was controlled by its Parisian leadership. Though the veterans’ associations were organisationally disunited, one factor was common to them all: anti-parliamentarism. Virtually without exception, the associations poured scorn on parliamentarians, politicians and political parties. They alleged that France’s elected representatives were concerned for the interests of their clients and interest groups alone. The Sacred Union of wartime had fallen by the wayside, lost amidst hopeless squabbles over political labels, ideologies and shadowy agendas. Such irreconcilable and selfish divisions threatened France with disaster. The solution lay in the veterans’ associations, which, unlike politicians, were said to have French interests at heart. They had demonstrated their patriotism in the crucible of the trenches, having shed their blood for France and seen their comrades die for the nation. Schooled in the values of selflessness, sacrifice, honour and courage, the veterans championed this ‘veterans’ mystique’ after the war. To the dangerous and Machiavellian scheming of politicians, they would bring honesty and probity. For the Right in particular, the veteran incarnated France and the promise of a much-needed military-style authority in domestic affairs. The veterans thus waxed lyrical about ‘sweeping clean’ the Republic and ‘cleansing’ France. It is difficult to determine their actual intentions. The call for
veterans to govern France was common to all associations but this apparent desire for the wholesale replacement of the political classes did not translate straightforwardly into anti-Republican sentiment. By February 1934, Republicanism was still strong in large sections of the movement. In particular, while the UF ’s anti-parliamentary rhetoric could be as robust as any other association’s, it rejected all projects for the revision of the constitution. The UF feared changes to the regime made by extra-parliamentary forces and instead specified that such action should be taken by elected representatives within a parliamentary context. Conversely, the UNC desired extra-parliamentary reform. It had little confidence in the ability of politicians to act selflessly in the interests of France. The association thus recommended that certain ‘national’ personalities, such as prominent figures from the military, revise the constitution and end once and for all the nefarious influence of the parties. Yet even within the UNC, divisions existed between this activist tendency and a more moderate faction. The latter, represented by men such as honorary president Humbert Isaac, favoured leaving political matters to one side while concentrating solely on issues particular to the veterans’ movement such as pensions provision. On the other hand, men in the Parisian leadership such as Jean Goy, Georges Lebecq and Henry Rossignol attempted to take the association in a more political direction. In February 1934, these activists held the upper hand in the UNC. Lebecq was president of both the Parisian section and the national UNC, and was thus at the heart of the association’s participation in the protest. If the figure of the veteran (and the legends that surrounded him) was not inherently anti-Republican, it was nevertheless harnessed by an array of extremist groups. The veterans’ mystique was a useful propaganda tool that both lent perceived legitimacy to a group and served as a means to mobilise support. On the extreme Left the Communist ARAC no more sought to shore up the bourgeois regime than its opponents on the extreme Right. At the other end of the political spectrum, a variety of extreme right-wing groups constructed their identity at least in part around the war experience and the quasi-beatification of the veteran. In some cases, groups set out very real plans about the place of the veterans in a future society. Georges Valois’s Faisceau and Antoine Rédier’s Légion both envisaged an important role for ex-servicemen in the government of their future French regime. While the Jeunesses Patriotes did not base its appeal solely on the mystique of the génération du feu, its propaganda nevertheless used the image of the veteran and appealed to this constituency. The new leagues of the 1930s shared their forebears’ appeal to the veterans. The Croix de Feu especially offered the chance of political action for veterans who were so inclined. La Rocque drew heavily on the veterans’ mystique in his discourse at least until 1936.11 The group’s anti-parliamentarism rhetoric and plan for the future based around the authoritarian leadership of right-wing veterans chimed with the UNC’s own rhetoric and programme.12 If by 1934 the league had begun to move away from its roots as a dedicated veterans’ group, this change did not prevent some veterans from joining La Rocque’s group.