February 6 is a date that means nothing to Americans but it is the anniversary of one of the most memorable events in modern French history, an event with repercussions not merely for the French but other peoples belonging to that Catholic Christendom of which the land that would become the United States was once part, though the United States never was, and whose last vestiges have disappeared in recent years as the governments of nation after nation legalized divorce, abortion, same-sex “marriage” and enacted other measures that would have been unthinkable when it still existed.
On the night of February 6, 1934, eighty years ago, there was fighting in Paris in Place de la Concorde. It was between demonstrators — adherents of the political right — and the police. The police eventually used live ammunition. Sixteen demonstrators were killed and nearly 2,000 injured. The French political left remembers this as an occasion when “fascists” came close to overturning the institutions through which France has been governed since the Revolution of 1789 save for the period when monarchy was restored after the downfall of Napoleon in 1815 and again between 1940 and 1944 when Marshal Philippe Petain was Chef de l’etat (Chief of State).
The leftists are correct, except there were no fascists in Place de la Concorde, not real ones. Members of several rightist groups were present, but the demonstrators were predominantly young men of Action Francaise, a movement which was royalist and Catholic and the most influential on the French and European political right between the two World Wars. Its recognized leader was a man of letters, a classicist, Charles Maurras.
Although still able to marshal men enough to shake the Third Republic, Action Francaise in 1934 was not the force it had been eight years before. February 6 can be seen as a glorious Last Stand. When it was over, some adherents did turn truly fascist and others drifted away in other directions, further diminishing the movement. However, many of its ideas would be taken up and realized by Petain and others who became France’s leaders in 1940. In a few moments we shall come to the reason why the movement was not as strong in 1934 as it had been.
As for February 6, in the preceding months France was rocked by a series of financial scandals involving top officials of the Radical government of the day. The scandals culminated in what became known as the Stavisky Affair, named after an especially unsavory fraudster, Serge Stavisky. Action Francaise, the newspaper of Maurras’ movement, published documents proving that Stavisky had operated under the protection of no less a personage than the Minister of Justice. When Stavisky was then found dead before authorities could question him, the government claimed he committed suicide, nobody believed it. In fact, there was an explosion of public outrage. The Prime Minister was forced to resign, but only to be replaced by another Radical leader.
It was then, on February 6, when the new government was to present itself at the Palais Bourbon, seat of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the French parliament, that the royalists of Action Francaise and other rightists swarmed into Place de la Concorde and attempted their own version of the storming of the Bastille. Only, this time the objective was not to take over a prison but seize control of the Palais Bourbon.
When the demonstrators, with royalists in the vanguard and after hours of back-and-forth hand-to-hand fighting with the police, surged onto the bridge spanning the Seine between Place de la Concorde and the Palais Bourbon, the police opened fire. The demonstrators fell back. How could they not? Unarmed demonstrators are no match against rifles aimed not over their heads but directly at them. With the demonstrators on the run, police reinforcements from all sides of the Place waded in with truncheons, cracking skulls and breaking collarbones. The royalists were defeated. Even as the entire world was changed by the events of July 14, 1789, it would be different today had the royalists prevailed on February 6, 1934.
They were defeated, but their principles, as we said, were not dead. What were they?
It is impossible here to examine in detail the political doctrine of Charles Maurras, the only political doctrine in the twentieth century so complete it could contend against the century’s dominant one, that of Karl Marx, and actually triumph in some places. (For example, Dr. Antonio Salazar, the very great Catholic Prime Minister of Portugal from 1932 to 1968, defined himself as a Maurrasian.) However, some of its tenets can be sketched, ones of particular interest to Catholics because of their compatibility with the Church’s historical social teaching.
+ Action Francaise upheld both authority and freedom. Maurras wrote: “To those with the legitimate right to exercise it absolute authority. For everybody else anarchy.” This was analogous to the motto of Gabriel Garcia Moreno in Ecuador: “Freedom for everything and everybody except evil and evil-doers.”
+ Maurras saw the family as the heart of society. In fact, family was so important to the men of Action Francaise they wished to be ruled by an identifiable one instead of by corrupt politicians and faceless bureaucrats. As a father is the natural head of his family, so a monarch is head not simply of the royal family but the family of the nation. (As with so much else wrong with modernity, decline of the family as a social institution can be seen to begin with the Revolution of 1789. The nineteenth-century novelist Honore de Balzac recognized this. He wrote: “When it beheaded Louis XVI, the Revolution beheaded in his person all fathers of families. The family no longer exists today; there are only individuals.”)
+ Decentralization of political power was vital. Napoleon, who incarnated the Revolution, concentrated it in the central government in Paris, where it remains unto this day even as in the U.S. it has been centered in Washington since the War Between the States. Restoration of the monarchy in France would have entailed the revival of regional parliaments, professional and workers’ guilds, and similar organic associations. The King’s authority might be absolute but these intermediary bodies, together with the teachings of the Faith, would limit its scope. As for the Faith, making Catholicism the religion of the state was another of the goals of Action Francaise.
+ Maurras saw that men need work, not mere jobs, and it is best done when done where they live. That is, Action Francaise wished France to remain as she still largely was before World War II, primarily an agricultural country. Rootedness was desired, not the restlessness of industrial society, let alone one in which men who know nothing are so afraid of missing something that they carry around little computers the constant monitoring of which leaves them without the time or inner tranquility for reading, reflection or even conversation undistracted.
Despite the defeat in Place de la Concorde on February 6, 1934, these principles of Action Francaise, without restoration of the monarchy, were put into practice – i.e., enacted into law – by the government that existed in France between 1940 and 1944. It made abortion, for instance, a capital offense and required religious education in state schools with a crucifix in every classroom. This government came into power when the parliament of the Third Republic, acting in the aftermath of the army’s retreat before advancing German troops, voted itself and the Republic out of existence, at the same time calling on World War I hero Marshal Philippe Petain to assume leadership of the nation. Petain then gathered around him such men as Catholic apologist and close Maurras disciple Henri Massis, who served the Marshal as a one-man think tank and speechwriter. Now usually referred to disparagingly as the “Vichy regime” and execrated as “collaborationist,” Petain’s government replaced France’s national Masonic motto of liberte, egalite, fraternite with travail, famille, patrie (Work, Family, Country).
Apart from the fact of France being “liberated” in 1944 by the liberal democracies of the U.S. and England and a Communist-dominated so-called Resistance movement that set about the elimination of as much of the country’s political right as possible (Petain and Maurras were both sentenced to life in prison), why did no trace of Vichy’s achievements remain after World War II?
It was due to one of the worst mistakes a Pope has ever made. Misled by powerful French prelates, notably the Archbishops of Bordeaux and Algiers (then a French city), Pope Pius XI issued a ban against both Action Francaise and its newspaper in 1926. Though he held that Catholicism was a bulwark of the traditional France he loved, Maurras did not himself practice the Faith until the final years of his life (he died fully Catholic). However, the great majority of the movement’s followers were Catholic to the core. The papal ban, taken seriously in those days when a Pope was still reverenced and his judgments not lightly dismissed, split their ranks precisely because they were. The newspaper’s subscribership soon fell by half.
Not as soon, but eventually, Pius XI realized he had made a mistake. He charged Msgr. Alfredo Ottaviani, future head of the Holy Office, with the mission of negotiating a face-saving agreement with Action Francaise that would allow him to lift the ban. Ottaviani succeeded, but Msgr. Giovanni Montini, the future Pope Paul VI and an ardent disciple of the French liberal Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, kept the agreement bottled up in the Vatican bureaucracy until the Pope died in 1939. Thus it was left to his successor, Pope Pius XII, to lift the ban. It was his second official act as Pope, his first being his assumption of the Throne of St. Peter, but it still came too late. World War II began less than three months later – not time enough for the rehabilitation of Action Francaise to register in the minds of very many before the hell of war broke loose.
The point to be grasped is that when Europe’s most important movement of the authentic right, Action Francaise, was condemned and its strength diminished, others, notably the Nazis who came into power in Germany in 1933, could fill the vacuum, falsely claiming to be of the right. In fact, they said, they were superior to the old-fashioned royalists. Not merely were they anti-Marxist and anti-democratic, they were modern – i.e., unencumbered by Christian belief.
Maurras in his newspaper aptly described Nazism as “northern Islam” on account of it being anti-Christian, but liberal media, anxious that the authentic right be kept as impotent as possible, abetted the Nazis by characterizing them as right-wing. Most persons still think of them that way. As a result, when Nazism was finally and rightly discredited, so was the authentic right, including what remained of Action Francaise. Everybody who disagreed with liberalism was labeled “fascist”. Further, when the victorious Allies superintended the installation of liberal regimes in Western Europe after World War II even as Communism was imposed by the Soviets on the rest of the Continent, there was no opening for the authentic right to rebuild anywhere.
Europeans and Americans, all of us, are still living with the consequences.