The rise of Marine Le Pen and her National Front party has alarmed a lot of people, and signalled a new resurgence of far-right populism in France, across Europe, and even across the Atlantic.
In France, however, fascism is hardly a new phenomenon and has very deep roots. Sometimes it has been out in the open, and at other times, especially in the decades following World War II, much more subtle. Whether on not Le Pen wins in Sunday’s presidential election, the movement and the ideology she represents is likely to remain an imposing force in French political life.
This is a timeline of the history of fascism in France.
Late 19th Century – birth of fascism
While the ideology of fascism is usually credited to notorious historical figures like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, its inspiration stems from the work of French socialist thinker George Sorel. His writings highlighting the importance of violence and mythology in history and nationhood, in particular his 1908 book “Reflections on Violence”, would be cited by Mussolini when he set up the first fascist state in Italy 14 years later.
1894 – The Dreyfus Affair
The presence of nationalism and anti-semitism dominated Europe in the late 18th Century, and lead to the trial of French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, a prominent Jewish man. Lead by far-right anti-semitic groups, Dreyfus is accused and convicted of passing state secrets to Germany, with barely any evidence. His trial and false imprisonment shake France, and damage its reputation internationally. It would be known as “The Dreyfus Affair”.
1940 – Vichy France
In the grips of World War II, large parts of France are invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, leaving the rest of the country under the rule of the French state. With the aim of bettering ties with the Germans, a French politician from the Socialist Party, Pierre Laval, sets up a new regime and brings in Marshal Philippe Petain to run it. They openly collaborate with Hitler, and round up thousands of Jewish families all over the country to send to concentration camps. Most die in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
1944 – Colonial fascism
With the liberation of France and the triumphant return of Charles de Gaulle, a leading conservative who had refused to collaborate with the Nazis, many of the Vichy figures retain influential positions. Some, particularly military figures who had served in the SS, turn their focus to colonial ideology, attempting to repress the growing liberation movements in the French colonies, especially Algeria.
1954 – The Algerian War of Independence
This is one of the darkest periods in both French and Algerian histories. The National Liberation Front begins a guerrilla war against French rule. Desperately trying to retain its control over agricultural and oil and gas resources in Algeria, the government uses its colonial troops, the French Foreign Legion, to suppress the fight for liberation. More than one million Algerians are killed.
1961 – The Paris Massacre
On October 17, thousands of French Algerians, joined by many French protesters of European origin, stage a peaceful protest in Paris in solidarity with the liberation movement. The protest is triggered after Maurice Papon, then-head of the Parisian police forces, imposes a curfew on all French Algerians.
In a brutal crackdown ordered by Papon, French police kill between 200 and 300 unarmed protesters, and torture thousands more in police stations across the city. Hundreds of bodies are thrown into the river Seine, while others are dropped from airplanes into the sea.
The event underlines the influence far-right officials retained within the French state long after Vichy: Papon was a Nazi collaborator who had willingly played a key role in the deportation of more than 1,600 Jewish French citizens to concentration camps during WWII.
1961-1962 – The Secret Army Organisation
In the last throes of French resistance to Algerian independence, a group of ex-Vichy militiamen and SS soldiers set up the Organisation Armee Secrete (OAS), a paramilitary group intent on stifling the liberation movement. They set up brutal torture centres all over Algeria.
One of their lieutenants is 29-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen. Yes, that Le Pen.
When the Algerian war is over, many of their members are sent to Latin America, where the methods of torture and killing they perfected are taught to militiamen and soon-to-be generals. They inspire the rise and tactics of figures like Augusto Pinochet.
1972 – The National Front
Now back in France after eventual defeat in Algeria, Jean-Marie Le Pen enters the political arena. He launches the National Front party, built on a foundation of far-right ideals and anti-immigration. The party includes a lot of colonials, as ex-Vichy men and former SS officers. The co-founder of his party, Leon Gaultier, was a French collaborator and Waffen-SS officer.
1987 – The Butcher of Lyon
Four decades after the end of WWII, the former head of the Lyon branch of the Gestapo is put on trial. As the head of Nazi Germany’s secret police in the French town, Klaus Barbie sent nearly 8,000 French Jews and Resistance fighters to concentration camps, and executed 4,000 others.
He is charged with 177 crimes against humanity, and sentenced to life in prison. His trial forces France to confront its WWII history, which many have preferred to leave unexamined.
Like many of the top Nazis, Barbie had been living quietly in Latin America after WWII until he was tracked down – with the support of United States Army counterintelligence, which used him as a paid informer after the war, helping them to track European Communists.
1995 – The death of Brahim Boarram
During a rally by skinhead members of the National Front in Paris, a young Moroccan father is thrown by the crowd into the Seine and drowns. It harks back to the events of the Paris massacre 34 years earlier.
2002 – Jean-Marie Le Pen
As the fiery leader of the National Front, the elder Le Pen, long a pariah, becomes increasingly visible on the French political stage. He contests five presidential elections, and in 2002 shocks the country by making it into the second round.
His campaign swirls in controversy, from his extreme anti-immigration stance to his iron-fisted calls for law and order. He is also accused of anti-semitism, and quoted as saying the use of gas chambers during WWII is a “detail” of history.
The country unites against him, and he is defeated in a landslide election by Jacques Chirac. Though Chirac is a conservative, he follows the Gaullist tradition of being strongly anti-fascist and many left-wing voters support him against Le Pen.
2005 – The banlieues on fire
Sparked by the electrocution of two Muslim teenagers who were being chased by French police, the marginalised suburbs of Paris where many minorities live are engulfed in weeks of rioting. Enraged youth clash with police, and set fire to buildings and cars in protest.
Then-interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy takes a stringent stance on the rioters, pledging a sweeping crackdown on the rioters, and in one televised interview calls them “racaille” – scum. This fuels both the riots and the popularity of the young politician, who is hailed in conservative circles for his “firmness.”
Two years later, riding a wave of popularity as a strong and unwavering candidate, Sarkozy runs for president, and wins.
2009 – Crackdown on Roma
France’s richest woman and 87-year-old l’Oréal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt, is accused of handing out envelopes of money to a number of key government figures, including Sarkozy himself. The scandal takes several years to play out, and casts a shadow over his career.
Yet that summer, mainstream French media is more preoccupied with the crackdown that Sarkozy has conveniently launched against the Roma population in France. Hundreds of unrecognised settlements are dismantled that summer, and more than 10,000 people deported. A European Union commissioner likened the deportations to the treatment of Jewish families by the Vichy regime.
2011 – The rise of Marine Le Pen
As the eldest daughter of the National Front founder, Marine Le Pen rises quickly through the ranks of her father’s party, becoming vice-president in 2003 and entering the European Parliament in 2004.
She quickly begins to distance herself from her father’s anti-semitism, and later excommunicates him from the party he launched decades earlier. She rebrands the party, focusing instead only on Arab and Muslim immigrants. When Jean-Marie Le Pen steps down in 2011, she is the obvious choice to replace him. She stands for the presidential elections for the first time in 2012, and places a strong third, cementing herself as part of France’s new political fabric.