Sympathy for the Devil

In the days leading up to his joint commemoration of World War 1 with Theresa May, French President Macron publicly announced his interest in honouring France’s chief Vichy collaborator  Marshal Philippe Pétain for his role in France’s WW1 war effort.

A storm of public protest forced him to abandon the idea, but the subsequent dispute over the impropriety of this move turned-up some interesting and disturbing sympathies.

Scotland Editor of the Spectator Alex Massie, treated us to this question in the pages of a journal gaining reputation for far-right apologia:

“Can the Petain of 1940 be distinguished from the Petain of 1943, 1944 and 1945?”

And a little later, discussing the establishment of Pétain’s authoritarian Vichy state, which operated in partnership with the Nazi occupation of Northern France:

“…could a French patriot serve Vichy as an honourable man?”

“The answer, as the question was asked in 1940, seems to me to be Yes. At that moment, in that place, this could plausibly appear the least terrible of all the dreadful possibilities available.”

The answer to both these question is an unambiguous No.

By 1940, Petain had already been involved in far-right politics for for at least 15 years.

He became besotted with the vicious dictatorship of Don Migeul Primo de Rivera in Spain in 1925, after a barbaric episode of French and Spanish colonialism in Morocco introduced the pair. The Marshal approved of the ceremony de Rivera enjoyed as they travelled and were feted together. But more than that he admired the military autocrat’s authoritarian style and his violent suppression of the left.

Petain had always been a trenchant reactionary, as so much of the leading ranks of the French army were. He was raised in a series of conservative and elitist institutions, which taught him a militant hatred of the left, particularly after the brief experiment in direct working class rule – the Paris Commune – in 1871. He shared the anti-Republican and antisemitic suspicions of the officer class.

But these general ideas flourished in the 1920’s, as Petain mixed easily in France’s growing extreme right scene. This included membership of the proto-fascist Redressement Francais group of intellectuals, who speculated about the need for military strongmen to restrict democracy and deal with the left and trade unionism.

It also meant association with the various paramilitary organisations, some staffed by disgruntled former soldiers and others by rich playboys with bomb making equipment.

As the left grew, Petain became more pronounced in his far right leanings. He attended events by one of the largest groups, the ‘Croix de Feu’. He read ‘L’Action Francais‘ newspaper, infamous for its obscene antisemitic tirades. During the 1936 elections, as France elected the leftwing Popular Front government, Petain openly endorsed the far right. He praised Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and said they were happier societies than troubled France.

The idea of the Petain of 1940 (and in fact, as Massie’s article goes, of 1941 and 1942) as qualitatively different from the Pétain of 43, 44 or 45 is simply implausible. Indeed, all the horrors of those years stemmed directly from his earlier trajectory.

In 1940 he introduced stridently antisemitic laws curtailing the activities of Jewish people in France. For many years after the war, Pétain’s admirers had claimed he had curbed antisemitism after it became a political reality after defeat to Nazi Germany, and with overtly fascist and Nazi sympathising forces representing a significant part of the new Vichy state. We now know this isn’t true.

In October 1940, Pétain was handed a draft of the antisemitic decrees. Under the influence not of Nazi Germany, nor wayward Vichy allies, but of his own hideous racism, Pétain extended the decrees to include French Jews. This document, which surfaced in 2010, has the exemptions for the French Jewish population scribbled out in Petain’s own handwriting.

It was from these early actions that the transportation of some 77,000 Jews to Nazi camps, most of them to their deaths, followed.

Immediately upon its establishment, the Vichy regime endorsed Pétain’s disgust for democracy, which he blamed for France’s defeat in war (rather than blame Nazi Germany, which he showed grudging respect). The institutions of the Third Republic were dismantled, as were its democratic rights.

In place of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité‘ Vichy supplanted the grotesque ‘Travail, famille, patrie‘ (work, family, fatherland). The ‘National Revolution’ of coming years, which would seek to radicalise the French people into a fascistic culture, echoed Pétain’s own dismissal of the “false idea of the natural equality of men”.

The ‘Milice’ a fascist militia set up to combat the French resistance and which terrorised the country was the latest mutation of the violent fanatics Pétain associated himself with in the 1930s.

Massie’s argument relies for all its (very limited) power on the idea that Pétain was taking the tough choice, rather than the easy way out of refusing to endorse the Nazi occupation and resist. It is a miserable conception that only requires repeating to prove it’s essential cynicism. 

Forgotten in the pantheon of ‘difficult choices for grown-up realists’ are those rightly remembered as the heroes of the French resistance, who fought under difficult circumstances, often to the untimely and terrifying end of their lives.

Why make such a fuss over bad history? Because of its dangerous context.

The original incident only adds to the comic-repulsive profile of ‘little Manu’, the man so desperate for a wiff of maréchal authority he barks at teenagers to address him by his proper title.

His antics are far from amusing here though. Macron is attempting to generate a new French nationalism, replete with a crack down on trade unions and the left, a new mood of respect for national institutions including, of course, the Presidency, and a new scheme of national service for teenagers.

And his idea of rehabilitating the Vichy chief is part of the programme: “It’s legitimate that we pay homage to the marshals who led the army to victory,” he said of Pétain, “He was a great soldier – this is a reality.”

This is a reach across a chasm of French society, to that portion, largely supporters of the Le Penn school of modern fascism sympathy, who feel that wartime collaboration was on the right side in the eternal fight against the left, and that the hero Pétain has been unjustly maligned.

And it’s not just France. Jair Bolsonaro’s Presidential election success in Brazil was won through a tidal wave of hatred and threats of violence. Big business in Brazil and around the world backed his campaign, in words wads of cash. A class element with pretensions to ‘centrism’ and political stability bought into his campaign against the poverty reducing measures of the workers party, and Bolsonaro’s promises to open up the country to accelerated money-making.

The new era of establishment footsy-playing with the far right comes as a fright to those of us who thought that certain things were universally understood: fascism is an unmitigated evil, appeasement, collaboration and complacency in the face of that evil is unforgivable, and it is the moral and practical duty of all to resist it.

In the face of the new far right, and a growing mood of historical revisionism and apologetic in parts of the mainstream media, we have to resist in word and deed. We owe it to the heroic generation of the French, and Europe-wide resistance, who will always be in fashion for us.

Comments (5)

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  1. Davie Laing. says:

    I am surprised and disappointed that in these deeply troubled and dangerous times no voices have been raised to support the revival of the spirit of the Popular Front. After all, it defeated fascism definitively in 1945. I stress the ”spirit” of this strategy as the original included, for example, no special role for women as any revival today has to.
    I do not pretend that such a strategy is without difficulties. As Eric Hobsbawm wrote some years ago, ”No strategy is guaranteed to succeed.” But he added ,” Certain strategies are guaranteed to fail”

  2. Redgauntlet says:

    Who was the son of the dictator Primo de Rivera that David mentions?

    The young, dashing Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the man who founded the Spanish fascist party, The Falange…

    Jose Antonio was arrested early in the Spanish Civil War and executed by the Republicans in Alicante. He was on familiar terms with Lorca and also wrote poetry, though unlike the case of Federico, it was pretty bad poetry.

    After the war, his body was disinterred and taken to the Valley of the Fallen in a huge and sinister torchlight procession from the Mediterranean coast all the way up to Madrid organized by Franco as a propaganda coup. Franco used the Falange and especially Jose Antonio to win favour with the Fascists, though he was no ideologue like Primo de Rivera was… Franco didn’t believe in the “new Fascist State”…he believed in Franco…

    Jose Antonio’s body, like Franco’s, lies still today in the Valley of the Fallen mausoleum, his tomb next to Franco’s, and Pedro Sanchez’s PSOE government has no intention of moving José Antonio Primo de Rivera from there, despite the fact that he was not just a fascist, but in fact the founder of Spanish Fascism, and that extreme violence and racial theory were fundamental to Fascism…

    Why move Franco but not Jose Antonio? Because Primo de Rivera died during the Civil War, like everybody else in the Valley of the Fallen, EXCEPT Franco.

    And the only reason the Catholic Church in Spain is going along with the disinterment of Franco is that Franco did not die during the Civil War, and that, according to Franco himself, the Valley of the Fallen was to house the dead from the Civil War…. ie, Franco’s corpse lying in the Valley of the Fallen is anomaly, and one which isn’t actually Franco’s fault, but the fault of the former King of Spain, Juan Carlos, who apparently decided he should be buried there.

    By the way, on a bizarre note to end this comment, there was a plot hatched in Spain in about 1940 to couple Jose Antonio’s sister – Pilar Primo de Rivera – with Hitler, in the hope of creating a fascist dynasty though fortunately the idea never really got off the ground….

    There is a need, I think, to try to distinguish between ideological 1930’s Fascism – especially in terms of its racial theory – and other kinds of extremely nasty and violent authoritarian regimes…. though no doubt if you live under it’s like splitting hairs.

  3. William Ross says:

    I agree with David Jamieson that Macron`s attempt to honour Petain is shocking. There is nothing to be admired in Petain.

    Macron seems to be doing two things which work against one another. One is to fan French nationalism and the second is to further submerge France`s identity in the EU.

    I do not see any substantial constituency in the UK who would admire or subscribe to the abhorrent views of Petain. But in Jeremy Corbyn we have a leader who lionises Hamas, whose charter endorses the ” Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, which was the warrant for the Holocaust. Through the Nazi -Soviet Pact, French communists collaborated with the Nazis up until late June 1941. Mitterrand served Petain for a time. Was he also beyond the pale?

    Our danger in the UK is not the Alt-right but the burgeoning Alt-left.


  4. Redgauntlet says:

    The best account I have seen of French collaboration with the Nazis is in Max Ophüls’ absolutely indispensable THE SORROW AND THE PITY…

    Anyway, David, it’s a timely article, because Fascism has clearly gone mainstream again, there can be no question of that. And with Trump it has the racial undertone which is the hallmark of Fascism, in his case, “white supremacy”. …

    In Spain, the Right has never condemned Fascism, not ever, not once, and just yesterday, the number 2 of the PP quoted a Fascist poet when asked to define what Spain meant, a poem in which there is a line which talks about the Spanish “race”. It’s the kind of nod to Fascism / Franco which the Spanish right-wing do on a daily or weekly basis here…

    And the normalization of Francoism and Fascism is everywhere in Spain. So there are TV shows about the sentimental life of Serrano Suñer, an absolute out and out Nazi and Franco’s brother in law, the man responsible for putting together a list of Jews to be rounded up and deported if required.

    And Arturo Perez Reverte, one of Spain’s biggest selling novelists, a guy with a big media profile, his latest offering is a fictional character called Falcó who is a Francoist spy who tries to break Primo de Revera from prison in Alicante… People like Arturo Perez Reverte (ALATRISTE) are directly responsible for the normalization of Fascism in Europe again today….

  5. Graham Ennis says:

    So, sadly, We are seeing an emerging Petainism here in the so-called “UK”, which is now becoming rapidly an “Un-UK”. In Scotland, the forces of the right are now gathering and organizing, to ensure the outcome of a hard BREXIT. The realistic thing is to learn from the Petainism of that time, the great dangers, as the Scottish Right, its darkest fears now emerging, organize against the increasing tide of support for the Next Referendum. Do not think it cannot happen here. it will. We are now in great danger of a dangerous right-wing backlash…..after BREXIT. The London Government can act against the Scottish Parliament, with impunity, stripping it of its powers, or simply suspending it, by Royal Decree. The Scottish Government, after BREXIT, is literally a single Royal signature away from closure. Nobody is looking at what might happen, in Scotland, after BREXIT. The SNP Government seems to have lost its way, and its appetite for change, and simply does not have any kind of plan, for a post-BREXIT UK crisis. Petainist forces exist in present-day Scotland. After a hard BREXIT, I fear that the Scottish State will be dealt with in the same way as the Catalans were. If they were, and probably will be, in such a situation, then do not look for any coherent response, or plan, from Holyrood. They do not have one. In that situation, a Vichy type administration would be imposed on Scotland, using Unionist Scottish politicians. I will by now be raising hackles, by saying this, but a realistic look at what has happened elsewhere in Europe gives us a clear idea. Petainism is not some historical event. it is a blueprint, for what might happen in Scotland, after hard BREXIT. Will Scots please wake up, and see the dangers?…..probably not.

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