August 10, 2009

Review: The Extreme Right in France: From Petain to Le Pen

Roger Griffin's review of:

The Extreme Right in France: From Petain to Le Pen. By James Shields. London, Routledge, 2007. xx + 412 pp. Pb £21.99.

Now in its thirty-sixth year on the French political scene, the National Front (FN) of Jean-Marie Le Pen has become probably the best documented form of post-war right-wing radicalism in the world. It is thus all the more remarkable that, against all the odds, James Shields has managed to produce a truly original, scholarly and valuable book on the subject which significantly enriches French Studies. It is not just that he organizes the fruits of meticulous research into the vast panoply of the far-right in France over some seventy years with narrative and stylistic clarity, reconstructing the various itineraries with considerable tenacity in the process. He also supplies Anglophone students of France with a truly historical understanding of the Le Pen phenomenon that is denied to conventional political scientists and contemporary historians. Shields has a thesis which he resolutely works through with impressive scholarship, namely that Lepenism cannot be understood without a deep familiarity with the Vichy collaborationist government and its legacy, the significance of Poujadism as a manifestation of populist disillusion with the Fourth Republic, and the bitter reaction of the far-right to the nation’s defeat in the Algerian war. An equally important factor was the disillusionment experienced by many unrepentant fascists whose mindset was forged in the 1950s and 40s in the face of the general consensus for liberal Republicanism in the 1950s and the rise of a powerful youth movement of left-wing radicalism in the 1960s. Some fascists went underground to form shadowy avant-garde groupuscules with national and pan-European linkages, and others abandoned activism altogether to concentrate on the battle for establishing the cultural hegemony of right-wing ideas of pan-European cultural renaissance. However the founding fascist fathers of the FN deliberately set out to create a new form of parliamentary politics which would disseminate radical right ideas in a non-revolutionary, euphemized and electable format. Shields’s complex and fascinating story is mercifully unencumbered by lengthy excursi on the definitional issues raised by his topic. It nevertheless offers lucid, well-informed judgements on the thorny taxonomic problems posed by the various phenomena under discussion which eschew the simplifications of left and right, and demonstrates how well he understands not just European fascism but its remarkably extended family of anti-liberal siblings that thrived throughout twentieth century France. Perhaps an introductory chapter on the far-right in France before Vichy, and a concluding chapter to spell out the radical implications of his history for evaluating its contemporary importance would have made the book more complete. However, they would also have made it alarmingly long for his publishers if not for his readers. As it stands, it still manages to be simultaneously a history textbook and a perceptive interpretation of the Le Pen phenomenon which deserves a wide readership by students and researchers in this area. It would not do some FN voters any harm to read a reconstruction of their movement which exposes in such irrefutable detail its fascist roots and subtext, even if Shields is on the ‘wrong’ side of the ‘English’ Channel. In fact, it is a book not just begging for importation into France, but translation into French.

Roger Griffin
Oxford Brookes University

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