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Souvenir of the Right: Reexamining Twentieth-Century French Politics

The French Right Between the Wars: Political and Intellectual Movements from Conservatism to Fascism, to be published this month, re-opens the history books on  France between World Wars I and II. In this collection of essays, scholars take a look at the polarized political scene, especially the right, within the country. Below, in an interview with editors Samuel Kalman and Sean Kennedy, the scholars speak to the challenges of compiling the collection as well as the potential controversy of writing on such a politically charged topic.

 

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Berghahn Books: What aspect of compiling an edited collection did you find most challenging?  Most rewarding?

 

Sean Kennedy: When we began this project I was anxious that coordinating thirteen different contributions – in terms of deadlines and ensuring consistency in format – would be a major challenge. I should not have worried so much. Our contributors did a fine job of sticking to the production schedule and carrying out editorial work.

 

As the process comes to a close I would say that it was the opportunity to read the various chapters “hot off the presses,” appreciate the exciting contributions that they are making, and situate them in relation to early work through co-authoring the introduction, that proved most rewarding for me.

 

Samuel Kalman: As an editor, you always worry about cohesion: the collection looked great on paper, but how will it translate in practice?  All of the contributors are the best in the business—that’s why we wanted to publish their work—but will all of the diverse strands of thought come together in a comprehensive and unified whole.  In that regard, the final product exceeded our expectations.  Every single chapter contains top-notch scholarship, wonderful prose, and provocative ideas.  But just as importantly, the final product is fluid and seamless, providing both a literal panorama of the state of scholarship on the French right, and also a pleasure to read.

 

BB: To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates among current and future academics within the field?

 

Kennedy: I think that this volume will spark considerable debate in a few ways. For one, it illustrates the extent to which far-right views penetrated various segments of French society, ranging from colonial policemen to veterans to establishment academics. To a hitherto unprecedented degree it highlights the importance of gender as a conceptual category in understanding the fundamental goals and everyday activities of various conservative and extremist movements. It will also encourage a rethinking of methodologies – for example, several chapters employ a cultural history approach that has not been all that common when studying the French right between the wars.

 

Kalman: Sean’s last point is critical.  For far too long the study of the Gallic right has been determined by the debate over French fascism: were the leagues and right wing political parties fascist?  Was there a mass movement in France along German or Italian lines, or was France “allergic to fascism”?  After decades of debate, the scholars in this collection (along with many others who write on the topic) have decided to attempt a different approach, instead adopting diverse methodological perspectives, from gender and cultural history to colonialism/postcolonialism and collective psychology.  In effect, we are trying to recast the terms of debate altogether.

 

BB: Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?

 

Kennedy: Absolutely! As Sam indicates, we are trying to re-frame the debate, and that in itself is bound to be seen as provocative by some. The interwar period still attracts a lot of interest, and there are also plenty of contentious issues which the contributors address. For instance, there is still a lot of debate concerning to what extent French intellectuals became increasingly susceptible to fascist views during this period; this issue is tackled in the book. Another long-standing debate concerns whether the largest right-movements of the period, the Croix de Feu and Parti social français, were fascist – there are a few chapters that explore these movements from fresh perspectives. Other contributors explore concepts of masculinity and femininity in various movements, as well as their attitudes towards matters such as physical culture; in doing so they challenge conventional ways of studying the interwar French right. The final chapter questions how meaningful conventional distinctions between right- and left-wing politics during this period really are, a position that is sure to generate debate.

 

Kalman: Any time that a collection or monograph goes against the grain of prevailing academic scholarship, the editors/authors run the risk of controversy.  But it became clear at a conference that we co-organized on a similar topic in Paris in November 2008 that it was time for a fresh perspective.  The response was overwhelmingly positive, we attracted very large crowds for an academic gathering, and the overwhelming sentiment was that the fascist/non-fascist debate had run its course.  If that is a controversial statement, or if the alternatives presented in this volume are perceived as dubious or polemical, then so be it!

 

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Samuel Kalman is Associate Professor at St. Francis Xavier University. He is the author of French Colonial Fascism: The Extreme Right in Algeria, 1919-1939 (Palgrave, 2013), The Extreme Right in Interwar France: The Faisceau and the Croix de Feu (Asghate, 2008), numerous book chapters and journal articles, and editor of the 2010 special issue of the journal Historical Reflections/Réflexions historiques devoted to the theme of colonial violence.

 

Sean Kennedy is Professor of History at the University of New Brunswick. He is the author of Reconciling France against Democracy: The Croix de Feu and the Parti Social Français, 1927-1945 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007), The Shock of War: Civilian Experiences, 1937-1945 (University of Toronto Press, 2011), and several scholarly articles.