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  • Reconciling France against Democracy: The Croix de Feu and the Parti Social Français, 1927-1945
  • Perry Biddiscombe (bio)
Sean Kennedy . Reconciling France against Democracy: The Croix de Feu and the Parti Social Français, 1927-1945. McGill-Queen's University Press. 2007. 384. $95.00

The veterans organization Croix de Feu, and its successor political movement, the Parti Social Français (PSF), were the largest of the paramilitary 'leagues' and right-wing parties that played an important role in French politics between the two world wars. Founded in 1927, the Croix de Feu had over half a million members by 1936, when it was banned by the Popular Front government, and after it reappeared under the banner of the PSF, it grew even larger, numbering over a million members by 1938. Sean Kennedy's superb new study of the Croix de Feu / PSF, Reconciling France against Democracy, explains both the successes and limitations of these movements.

Kennedy's book adds to a crowded field, especially since debates over the existence and efficacy of French fascism have inspired much research by historians. As early as the 1950s, René Rémond was already defining the field with his contention that the 'leagues' were conservative-nationalist or populist-demagogic, but usually not fascist - an interpretation that has since influenced much scholarship and been dubbed the 'immunity thesis.' Partly in reaction, a number of revisionist historians, [End Page 261] mainly non-French, later respondedwith works describing the supposedly fascistic character of the 'leagues' and the intrinsic strength of French fascism. Although Kennedy's graduate supervisor, William Irvine, is part of this revisionist school, and although Reconciling France against Democracy is a revised version of Kennedy's doctoral dissertation, Kennedy backs away from the revisionist line in favour of a synthesis. Hehesitates to classify the Croix de Feu/ PSF as 'fascist,' noting that scholars have never arrived at a consensus definition of the term. Instead he calls them 'authoritarian nationalist' and 'indisputable anti-democratic,' and he does accept the revisionist contention that they were hardly benign in their threat to the parliamentary republic. According to Kennedy, the Croix de Feu / PSF were sociologically similar to fascism in their dependence upon a base of the lower-middle class and the well-to-do supporters; they were functionally similar, offering 'patriotic' palliatives to societies shaken by war and economic crises; they were organizationally similar in their focus on mass politics and social outreach; and they were ideologically similar in their concentration on anti-communism, 'third way' alternatives, and 'comradeship of the trenches,' but they were less radical, and a potential Croix de Feu or PSF regime would have been less expansionist than Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. According to Kennedy, the emphasis in the Croix de Feu / PSF was on stability, and he notes that they were 'anchored in a counter-revolutionary milieu.'

On the whole, however, Kennedy is tired of the debate over French fascism and classification of the 'leagues.' Like many young scholars who enter a field with rigid battle lines, he sees much of the existing debate as sterile, and he is interested in posing new questions. How effective, for instance, was François de La Rocque, the leader of the Croix de Feu / PSF, in building up the strength of his following? La Rocque, he contends, was far from being the empty suit that has sometimes been portrayed, and Kennedy suggests that he was a capable organizer and an adaptable strategist. Kennedy also wonders about the nature of the Social Catholic-nationalist subculture - Kennedy calls it the 'associational life' - created by the Croix de Feu / PSF. In particular, he directs extensive attention toward the 'flanking organizations' of the Croix de Feu / PSF, a network of offshoot youth auxiliaries and summer camps, women's groups and professional associations. He argues that these bodies marked the main attempt of the Croix de Feu / PSF to combine the patriotism of the right with the social conscience of the left, thus promoting their claim to have transcended the right-left divide and offering an embryonic model of how French life was supposed to function. And finally, Kennedy probes Kevin Passmore's thesis about a...


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