During World War I the French had temporarily put aside the great political and social conflict they had inherited from 1789. After the war the “sacred union” of political parties that had carried France through the struggle soon dissolved, and the traditional conflict was resumed.
This is sometimes termed the conflict between the “two Frances”—the republican France of the left and the rovalistic or authoritarian France of the right. The conflict was not a simple struggle between rich and poor. On the right the wealthier classes, many of them openly hostile to the existence of the parliamentary state, were reinforced by conservative peasants and by small business people and investors. Many of these petit bourgeois were not hostile to the Third Republic as such but were determined to resist any attempt to extend the social services of the welfare state.
On the left were the champions of the welfare state, the socialists and the communists, backed by the more radical workers, by many white-collar people, especially in the bureaucracy, and by some intellectuals. The postwar left was hampered by the split between the communists, who followed the Moscow line, and the socialists, who did not, and by a comparable schism within the major trade-union organization, the CGT (Confederation Generale du Travail, the General Confederation of Labor).
Still nominally part of the left, but actually in the political middle and not anxious to extend the welfare state, was the Radical Socialist party, long the main party of the Third Republic. The Radicals were strong among the peasants of southern France and among white-collar and professional workers.
In the late 1920s, the Third Republic seemed to be getting the better of its internal difficulties. The world economic crisis that began in 1929 was late in striking France, and for a while it looked as though the French economy, less dependent on large-scale industry than that of the United States, Britain, or Germany, might weather the crisis much more easily. But France, too, depended on international trade, particularly on the export of luxuries. By 1932 the depression had struck, and the government was in serious economic and political difficulties.
The political crisis came to a head in February 1934 as a result of the Stavisky case, a financial scandal reminiscent of the Panama scandal of the 1890s. Serge Stavisky was a swindler with influential connections, particularly in Radical Socialist circles. He was finally exposed in December 1933 and escaped to an Alpine hideout, where he committed suicide—or, as many believed, was killed by the police lest he implicate important politicians.
France was rocked by the event and also by the mysterious death of a judge who had been investigating the case. On the extreme right, royalists had long been organized in a pressure group known as the Action Fran (wise and were gaining recruits among upper-class youth. The Camelots du Roi (King’s Henchmen), strongarm squads of the Action Francaise, went about beating up communists, who responded with violence.
Less fascist in character yet also supporting the right was a veterans’ organization, the Croix de Feu (Cross of Fire). During the agitation following the Stavisky case, the Camelots du Roi, the Croix de Feu, and other right-wing groups took part in demonstrations against the government. The left countered with a brief general strike. Fourteen demonstrators were killed, and many feared that France again faced revolution.