Did the dark years represent the ultimate culmination of France’s interwar conflicts and divisions?
In 1940, French commentators believed that the conflicts and divisions of the interwar years amounted to the collapse of the Third Republic and installation of the Vichy government. Drawing a straight line from the events of the 6 February 1934 and the introduction of Vichy, such contemporaries concluded that Vichy was inevitable.[footnoteRef:1] With the Third Republic being blamed for the defeat, Marshal Philippe Pétain aimed to revitalise France through Vichy’s National Revolution. However, whilst Vichy differed in some respects to the Third Republic, this essay will illustrate that, although Vichy was more extreme, continuities existed between the two regimes. Therefore, France’s interwar conflicts and divisions did appear to have culminated during the dark years, but this was not inevitable as Vichy would not have existed without defeat. After 1942, France was fully occupied and Vichy’s policies were no longer predominantly French-controlled. Therefore, this essay will focus on the continuities between the Third Republic and Vichy from the 6 February 1934 until full occupation. [1: See quote by Robert Brasillach cited in Brian Jenkins and Chris Millington, France and Fascism: February 1934 and the Dynamics of Political Crisis (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), p. 149]
Throughout the 1930s, there were signs of a public desire for political change. Some historians argue that the outcome of the ‘fascist’ riots on 6 February 1934 proved the resilience of France’s democratic culture.[footnoteRef:2] This resilience was sustained by the Popular Front coalition winning the May 1936 election. Despite this, a number of contemporaries were turning against the democratic Third Republic and supporting other political agendas. For example, two veterans’ groups – the Union Fédérale (UF) and the Union Nationale des Combattants (UNC) – who were seen to represent general public opinion, supported the Popular Front in 1936, despite their traditional anti-parliamentarian roots, as they believed it would bring positivity to France. This support diminished by 1938 as international tensions grew, France’s economic situation worsened, and the aims and clarity of the Popular Front’s agenda disappeared.[footnoteRef:3] French Catholics were also attracted to other authoritarian regimes in Europe because of their nationalism and anti-communism, and it is fitting to believe that they would have preferred a similar regime in France.[footnoteRef:4] Also, the government’s inability to recover France from depression, which affected every member of society, was highlighted in the mainstream press and thus influenced a mass desire for change.[footnoteRef:5] Therefore, people’s growing distrust in the late Third Republic influenced their desire for political change which became a reality under Vichy. [2: Jenkins and Millington, p. 150; The 6 February 1934 riots w...