Nowadays, “fascism” is mostly a misused and little understood word. In particular, it has become a byword for anything in uniform or even remotely right-of-center. But no matter how many times it is howled from megaphones or splashed across banners and signs, fascism is a political ideology that hasn’t had any real power in Europe, its birthplace, since it was summarily defeated during World War II. Sure, neo-fascist political parties still have black-shirted adherents sprinkled throughout major urban centers and on the Internet, but the likelihood of a fascist takeover is slim to nonexistent.
This was not the case in the 1930s. During the decade-long economic depression that affected most of the world, fascism, along with socialism, anarchism, and communism, became popular with two kinds of people—those who saw capitalism and democracy as alien systems forced upon them by the US and Great Britain and those who were disenfranchised with the status quo and sluggish economic recovery. Fascism, no matter what form it took, whether urbane and corporatist or volkisch, combined a hostility to both capitalism and communism with personality cults, grandiose displays of paramilitary (and later military) power and prowess, and a predilection for violence.
While almost all fascist groups were ardent nationalists, fascism as a whole transcended national boundaries. In some places, fascism came to dominate the entire political landscape. Fascism flourished past the 1930s in places like Italy (where Benito Mussolini oversaw the creation of the first true fascist state in history), in Germany (where the model of Italian fascism blended with racialist science, militarism, and populism in order to form an idiosyncratic belief system called national socialism), and in South America (where authoritarian dictatorships became disarmingly common during the Cold War). Elsewhere, fascist movements threatened standing governments and elections but never managed to hold onto power for any real length of time.
Historically speaking, French right-wing groups have always been some of the most active and ideologically driven. Led by intellectuals, former military men, and their own media empires, the French right during the interwar years (1919–39) was particularly powerful and posed a real challenge to French democracy.
On February 6, 1934, the Third Republic was rocked by a violent right-wing demonstration that killed 15 people outside of the Chamber of Deputies in Paris. Spurred on by a financial crisis known as the Stavisky Affair, the riot was widely seen by the French left as an attempted coup d’etat. The major players in the riot were the much older and more cerebral French Action group and the militarist, veteran-heavy Cross of Fire. Alongside these groups was the Francist Movement, an anti-Semitic fascist organization bankrolled by Benito Mussolini, led by a World War I veteran named Marcel Bucard, and defended by a paramilitary organization known as the Blueshirts.
While other right-wing groups in France were somewhat unique in their mannerisms and style of politics, the Francist Movement was a carbon copy of Italian fascism, right down to their use of the Roman salute, the use of the fasces as a symbol of their ideology, and their unequivocal support for Germany, Italy, and a fascist France. By 1936, the Francist Movement and other “anti-parliamentary leagues” were banned by the new left-wing Popular Front government. However, when Nazi Germany invaded France and split it between the German-occupied north and the collaborationist south, followers of the Francist Movement found themselves in power for a short time in Vichy France.