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La conversion politique : Doriot, le PPF et la question du fascisme francais.

La conversion politique : Doriot, le PPF et la question du fascisme francais by Laurent Kestel. Collection Cours et Travaux. Paris, Editions Raisons d'agir, 2012. 236 pp. 20,00 [euro] (brochr).

In the last decade, the study of fascism has undergone a major renewal. The objective in the field of "generic fascism" was once to elaborate a "model; a correct definition would sum up the essence of fascism and would permit adjudication and classification of individual manifestations--such as the Parti populaire francais (PPF). Debate focused largely on the whether or not such and such a characteristic should be included in the definition, but never overcame the problem of circularity: the definition depended on preconceived notions of what fascism was. The result was irresolvable debate about questions such as "is antisemitism essential to fascism?"

Laurent Kestel's lucid and wickedly witty book cuts through this confusion. Its methodological roots are in the political science of Michel Dobry, in turn influenced by the concepts of Pierre Bourdieu. More broadly, Kestel's approach owes much to research on social movements, which starts from the ideas and actions of protagonists and the unpredictable outcomes of the resulting conflicts. Rather than measure the PPF against an ahistorical definition of fascism, Kestel asks how the term was used by protagonists and what was at stake in its use. Not all readers will like the theoretical turns of the argument, but they actually serve a resolutely historical method, as Kestel exposes some of the distortions produced by the imposition of preconceived ideas on the history of the PPF.

Kestel's specific purpose is to understand the journey of the Communist activist and deputy, Jacques Doriot and lieutenants in the Saint-Denis section of the Party, to the far right. In the PPF, formed in July 1936, these activists co-operated with "non-conformist" bourgeois intellectuals, such as Pierre Drieu La Rochelle and Bertrand de Jouvenel.

Kestel rejects ideological explanations for Doriot's conversion--the idea that it resulted from the gradual realisation of the true nature of communism or from the alleged proximity of communism to fascism. Instead, Kestel writes a social history of political conversion, focussing on the strategies and choices available to actors in specific situations. Rather than describing the internal logic of ideas, he examines the use of political ideologies for specific purposes, especially to identify friends and to discredit enemies through the use of categories.

In the first part of the book, Kestel provides fascinating insights into the nature of communist politics, showing that activists gained through the communist party a status to which they could not otherwise have aspired, especially as the party embarked on "'workerisation.'" Kestel then rums to the intellectual members of the PPF. He suggests that their "non-conformism" and rejection of "the system" of the Third Republic was the product of declining opportunities to join the university professoriate at a time of expanding higher education and competition between inheritors and diplomes. Those who were not resigned to teaching in provincial lycees often turned to politics and middle-brow journalism.

Kestel really gets into his stride in the next chapter, in which he shows that Doriot was a victim of his own success within the party. His activism brought the mayoralty of Saint-Denis and its parliamentary seat, but possession of his own powerbase earned him the distrust of the leadership. The "fascist riots" of 6 February 1934 seemed to provide Doriot with an opportunity to head the emerging antifascist forces, but the party leadership would not tolerate dissent, however perspicacious. Doriot left the party and total investment in it became total hatred, but that did not explain his turn to fascism. More importantly, Doriot's options narrowed. The Socialists did not want to offend their Communist allies and so would not accept him, while Trotskyism promised obscurity. Meanwhile, the non-conformists were looking for a political outlet. After participating invarious marginal meetings of dissidents, they failed to capture Colonel de La Rocque's Croix de Feu. They placed their hopes in Doriot largely by default, and even then it took the upheaval following the election of the Popular Front, mass strikes and dissolution of the leagues to bring them together. Kestel emphasizes the logic of contingencies and he sees nothing inevitable about Doriot's conversion.

In the next chapters, Kestel explains how the fascist label came to be applied to the PPF. The communist press led the way, claiming that Doriot's treason against the people and the PPF's constitution of arms depots proved its fascism. Simultaneously, the party systematically isolated Doriot from potential support outside Saint-Denis. The Right largely denied that the PPF was fascist, but gave the PPF little coverage, and so the fascist label prevailed because nobody imposed an alternative. Kestel drives home his anti-essentialist point by showing that although both protagonists and historians were less likely to see the Parti social francais (PSF) as fascist, there was actually little difference in terms of programme and structure (and sometimes membership) between it and the PPF. He adds that the rivalry of the two parties was due to a desire to occupy the same political space a battle in which the PPF as a latecomer was resoundingly defeated.

Doriot's loss of his position as mayor and deputy confirmed the marginalisation of the PPK Subsequently, it radicalised, as Doriot sought to compensate his declining personal position by reinforcing dictatorial control over the party, and embraced rabid antisemitism in an attempt to make a comeback through the party's foothold in Algeria. Meanwhile, the social prejudice of reactionary intellectuals came to the fore. However, the loss of money from business and from Italy (more than ideological disagreement) caused many leading figures to abandon the party. Only the new situation in the summer of 1940 rescued the PPF from total obscurity.

Kevin Passmore

Cardiff University
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Author:Passmore, Kevin
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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