French History @ IHR: Caroline Campbell, Transforming the Radical Right in France and North Africa

Date & Place: Monday 1 February, in the Wolfson Room NB02, IHR Basement, North block, Senate Housecaroline campbell

Speakers: Caroline Campbell (University of North Dakota)

Paper Title: Transforming the Radical Right in France and North Africa: Gender, Race, and Religion in the Croix de Feu and Parti Social Français, 1927-1945

Chair: Iain Stewart (UCL)

Click HERE to listen to an mp3 recording of the paper (right click to save).

The idea that France needs to transcend its artificial social divisions to attain a state of pre-lapsarian harmony is at least as old as the Revolution. In the hands of far-right interwar leagues such as François de La Rocque’s Croix de Feu and its successor organisation the Parti Social Français (PSF), it became in many respects the ideological foundation of a modern mass movement. The PSF had 1.2 million members by 1939 – a figure that outruns not only the Popular Front, but also the Nazis and Italian Fascists before they gained power. It is this innovative character of the interwar right which particularly interested our speaker, Caroline Campbell. Her paper drew attention to the surprising cross-fertilisation of political ideas and practices between left- and right-wing groups in a period that is simultaneously marked by their polarisation and mutual enmity. In particular, Campbell wanted to show the special position of women – 300,000 of those 1.2 million members – within La Rocque’s organisations. French women, she suggested, not only occupied an important ideological role within the PSF’s vision of a ‘rechristianised’ France, but were also unusually prominent activists within the movement.

As Campbell noted, early Croix de Feux imagery (most notably the Death’s Head emblem) in the late 1920s evoked a violent, paramilitary and hypermasculine world dominated by male veterans of the First World War. Despite this, La Rocque and his associates believed that women should be mobilised; some women had, after all, won the croix de guerre for their wartime activities. In 1934-6 over 300 women’s sections of the Croix de Feu were founded, including around a hundred in Paris and fifty in North Africa. Women’s sections were strongest in urban bourgeois areas and weaker in North Africa. In places such as Algeria, Campbell suggested, male activists were less open to the idea of women’s sections, and the organisation took on more the character of a sectarian institution of the settler right than a beacon of social cohesion.

As the Croix de Feu evolved during the mid-thirties, these women’s sections played a crucial function in the La Rocque’s new ‘Social First’ mission within metropolitan France. According to this, the PSF was to nationalise and rechristianise the French working-class through the provision of social services. Strategically located in working-class areas of major towns and cities, the Croix de Feu and later PSF provided lecture halls, spaces for women to take children and, importantly, attractive ‘SPES’ centres for physical education. Of special significance to these centres was the effort directly to undermine secularism. The PSF took censuses of children’s religion and aimed to rechristianise Catholics who had fallen away from the faith. PSF media made great play of Catholic motifs – France as the Oldest Daughter of the Church and fantasies of national resurrection. These social services were heavily subsidised by the Vichy government, up until the leadership recognised the turning tide and sided with the Resistance. But despite Resistance fears that people would flock to the PSF following the Liberation (describing it as ‘a social welfare organisation run mainly by women’), the organisation was dismantled by the postwar government.

As a historian more familiar with the vicissitudes and gender politics of nineteenth-century Catholicism than the interwar period, I was struck by the picture Campbell painted of women’s involvement in these far-right organisations. The tunes of PSF ideology had a familiar melody: on the one hand, the idea of women as uniquely positioned to ‘save’ and ‘rechristianise’ a France that was becoming dangerously indifferent; on the other hand, women’s own pursuit of autonomy and purpose through the provision of social services. The PSF’s relationship to the Catholic Church was raised by another dix-neuviémiste, Pamela Pilbeam in the questions. Campbell noted that La Rocque was keen to make sure sections did not hold events that overlapped with local religious ones, but also that the Croix de Feu and PSF offered women a vehicle for explicitly political engagement that traditional Catholic associations could not provide. This fusion of tradition and modernity was no doubt a powerful ingredient in these organisations’ remarkable appeal, which Campbell so richly illustrated.

Rob Priest



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