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Ian Birchall

The right resistance

(April 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.86, April 1986, p.33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

From Munich to the Liberation
J.P. Azéma
Cambridge University Press

THE SHADOW of the German occupation still lies heavy on the French political scene. The Gaullists trace their legitimacy from the war-time leader of the Free French. François Mitterrand began his political career in a resistance organisation for escaped prisoners. Even Le Pen’s organisation, the National Front, bears the same name as the body set up by the French Communist Party to fight for the ‘independence of France’.

Azéma’s history of France from 1938 to 1944 contains some illuminating insights into the period and its implications. One can only write really good history by taking sides, and although Azéma clearly believes, like Albert Camus, that ‘one cannot be on the side of concentration camps’, he generally retreats into a stance of academic objectivity. Nonetheless, his scrupulously documented account contains much of the raw material for an analysis.

World War II was a conflict between rival imperialisms which the allied side succeeded in passing off as an anti-fascist struggle. The situation that enabled them to sell that swindle has deep and complex roots. Azéma shows how, by 1938, the traditional left/right line-up on war had become thoroughly confused.

The Communist Party was invoking the spirit of Joan of Arc in its call for military resistance to Hitler, while the nationalist extreme right – the sort who chanted ‘Death to the Jews’ in the chamber of deputies – had adopted a ‘pacifist’ line on the grounds that war would help the Communists. As a result, when the war came, it was seen, quite falsely, as a ‘left wing’ cause.

The contradictions continued with the defeat of France in 1940 and the establishment of the Vichy state under Marshal Pétain. Azéma shows in some detail that Vichy enjoyed considerable independence from its Nazi patrons. All its crimes cannot simply be blamed on the foreign invader. For example, the Vichy measures against Jews were taken entirely on the initiative of home-grown French anti-semites, without any pressure from the German occupiers.

The classic French right rallied to Vichy. The traditional nationalists became the most fervent apologists for the Germans. But Vichy also drew on many other sources. A whole group of technocrats believed Vichy offered the opportunity for economic modernisation without any worries about democracy. Others simply believed that the ‘enemy within’ (the working class) was a greater threat to their interests that Hitler. And Vichy did not lack ‘left-wing’ support. Three quarters of the Socialist Party deputies voted for Pétain in 1940, and numerous ex-Communists and ex-syndicalists offered their services to the marshal. Azéma reminds us just how many so-called ‘democrats’ will flock to the banner of fascism if it suits their book.

The resistance was, equally, a contradictory body. Many individual right-wing nationalists joined it out of commitment to French patriotism. But when they turned to those of their own class for financial support, they got short shrift. And it was, of course, the working class who suffered the main burdens of the war – hunger and cuts in real wages.

It was above all the politics of the French Communist Party that ensured that the resistance did not become a class-based movement, but was harnessed to the cause of military victory for the allies. In so doing, they produced the final paradox. The left’s war against fascism paved the way for Charles de Gaulle to take over at the war’s end, guaranteeing the survival of French capitalism. Yet de Gaulle had more in common with the classic right, even though he could on occasion adopt a bit of radical rhetoric.

In World War I the organisations of the left betrayed the workers openly and callously. In World War II they did it more subtly but no less disastrously.

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