When I was a graduate student, one of the books I read, called, in English, The Three Faces of Fascism, had a profound influence on me.
Published by the German historian Ernest Nolte in 1963, it was a study of three movements, Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) Party, Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist one, and Charles Maurras’ Action Français.
I was reminded of Nolte’s book when reading reports about attempts by some in France to seemingly wish to rehabilitate Maurass’ reputation, as well as that of other interwar fascists and anti-Semites.
From Charles Maurras through the collaborationist wartime Vichy and the Algérie Française eras, reactionary thought has a long history in 20th-century France. It was one of the mainstays of a current which vigorously opposed the revolutionary and Republican traditions.
Since the disaster of the Second World War, in which the country collapsed under the Nazi offensive, though, this reactionary strand has been on the defensive, confined to the fringes of the extreme Right.
But is France forgetting this sordid past?
Charles Maurras was the organizer and principal philosopher of Action Français, a political movement that was anti-Semitic, monarchist, and counter-revolutionary.
Vilifying the French Third Republic as run by Jews, he espoused a “state anti-Semitism.” For Maurras, a Jew could not have French nationality, and Jews could not become civil servants, serve in the military, or become justices. He even voiced death threats in 1936 against French Premier Leon Blum, who was Jewish.
In 1940, he lauded the creation of the wartime Nazi-allied Vichy government as a “divine surprise.” After the war, Maurras was sentenced to life imprisonment and died in 1952.
Despite this legacy, the French government at first included his name in the 2018 edition of the National Commemorations, an annual project to mark the anniversaries of notable figures and events; Maurras was born in 1868. In the text, he was described as an “emblematic and controversial figure.”
There was swift, sharp fallout. Frédéric Potier, head of the French government’s inter-ministerial delegation against racism and anti-Semitism, berated the Ministry of Culture for including Maurras in the commemoration project.
“To commemorate is to pay homage,” he wrote. “Maurras, an anti-Semitic author of the extreme right, has no place in the national commemorations of 2018.”
Maurras was until the end of the Second World War “the most prominent anti-Semite in France” and an enemy of liberal democracy,” remarked Zeev Sternhell, an emeritus professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who is an expert on the history of French fascism.
Maurras was the intellectual leader of French “hard nationalism” until the end of the Vichy government, added Sternhell. “It was no accident that he had been sentenced to life in prison.”
Françoise Nyssen, France’s Minister of Culture, finally announced on Jan. 28 that the entire press run of the 2018 commemorative books would be recalled and reprinted without mention of Maurras.
Another recent scandal concerned the author Louis-Ferdinand Céline. On Dec. 12, Antoine Gallimard, head of the French publishing house founded in 1919, received a letter from Potier, asking the company to justify its decision to publish an edition of three ferociously anti-Semitic pamphlets by him.
Bagatelles Pour un Massacre, L’école des Cadavers, and Les Beaux Draps, were written and released between 1937 and 1941; they called for the murder of the country’s Jews, even before France fell to the Nazis. They have never since been reissued in France.
After the 1940 defeat, Céline became so extreme that he attacked Vichy for its lack of rigor in its pursuit of the Jews. He advocated killing every man, woman and child with machine guns. Vichy did eventually deport more than 75,000 Jews to the Auschwitz death camp.
He fled France for Germany after the Allied liberation and joined the remnants of the collaborationist government in its last redoubt, Sigmaringen Castle in Germany. He returned to France in 1951 when he was amnestied and died ten years later.
Criticism of the decision was swift and loud. When far-right writers, politicians, and comedians are convicted in French courts for incitement to hatred and anti-Semitism, they asked, why should Gallimard be permitted to reissue anti-Semitic diatribes?
On Jan. 11, bowing to public pressure, the publisher reversed its position and suspended publication of the pamphlets.
The country is struggling to maintain and protect its large Jewish population, the third largest in the world, which has been dwindling precipitously thanks to the wave of anti-Semitism that has gripped the country over the past decade.
This is certainly no way to reassure them.