Stavisky Riots Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The public violence known as the Stavisky riots helped polarize political life in the Third French Republic and weakened the centrist parties’ capacity to resist the growth of Fascism at home and abroad.

Summary of Event

The French governmental crisis of 1934 began in late 1933, when newspapers noted that Serge Alexandre Stavisky, a member of the underworld, had been accused of defrauding hundreds of investors using municipal bonds in the city of Bayonne. Stavisky had been a police informer, a cabaret backer, a theater promoter, and a peddler of political influence. Called “King of the Crooks,” he was actually a petty gangster. The legal protection he had received from both judges and police was not uncommon in the Third Republic, where officials frequently protected men of Stavisky’s caliber in return for information. He had also made major contributions to the dominant Radical Party Radical Party (France) (officially called the Parti Républicain Radical et Radical-Socialiste, or Radical Socialist and Radical Republican Party). [kw]Stavisky Riots (Feb. 6, 1934) [kw]Riots, Stavisky (Feb. 6, 1934) Stavisky riots France;Stavisky riots Riots;Stavisky [g]France;Feb. 6, 1934: Stavisky Riots[08600] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 6, 1934: Stavisky Riots[08600] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb. 6, 1934: Stavisky Riots[08600] Daladier, Édouard Stavisky, Serge Alexandre Chiappe, Jean Chautemps, Camille Blum, Léon

Further revelations that Stavisky had been protected by Radical Party politicians created a scandal that was trumpeted by right-wing critics. Long active as a financial swindler, Stavisky had been indicted for fraud in 1927, but nineteen attempts to try him had mysteriously failed. He fled the warrant issued for his arrest in 1933, and was found shot to death in January, 1934. Many French people doubted the police reports of suicide and asked two questions: Who had protected Stavisky? Who had killed him? The political scandal forced the Radical premier, Camille Chautemps, to resign in January, 1934, after reports revealed that he had indirectly supported Stavisky.

France’s problems helped to turn the scandal into a crisis. The French normally suspected public officials of incompetence or dishonesty. The right-wing press normally ranted about conspiracies to destroy France. It took the economic and political failures of the Republic to convert myths and half-truths into politically potent beliefs. Adolf Hitler’s Germany was challenging French dominance in Europe, which had been gained at a terrible price in World War I, and the Great Depression overwhelmed the Third Republic’s politicians. Foreign threats and economic insecurity created an atmosphere in which radical propagandists could use the Stavisky scandal as an excuse to challenge republicanism. France’s woes made the rightist version of the Stavisky affair credible.

Numerous political organizations wanted to destroy the Third Republic and replace it with a republican or monarchical authoritarian regime. Foremost among these groups was Action Française, Action Française a rightist and monarchist movement whose daily newspaper, L’Action française, had exposed the Stavisky affair. Action Française also encompassed a violent youth movement, the Camelots du Roi. Camelots du Roi Other rightist organizations made Action Française seem moderate by comparison: There was the semifascist Croix de Feu, Croix de Feu whose tendencies were exceeded only by the openly Fascist Francistes. Politically embittered veterans had formed leagues, some of which sought an “honest and authoritarian” regime. Rightists led the opposition in 1934, and the Communists played only a minor role.

Right-wing papers inflamed the public’s suspicions. Perhaps the police, who were embroiled in politics, had Stavisky killed to protect unknown politicians. Perhaps Germans, Jews, Communists, or all three groups, had planned the entire affair. These opinions, and the government’s silence, caused riots in January, in which the Camelots du Roi and similar young toughs gleefully participated.

Édouard Daladier, a relatively unknown moderate Radical politician, finally promised to investigate the case and restore order. His initial moves, aimed at forming a coalition government, provided the pretext for the February 6 riots. Unable to gather sufficient support from the rightist deputies, who often supported Action Française, Daladier turned to the Left, appointing a Socialist, Eugène Frot, to be minister of the interior. In a further bid for support, he dismissed the head of the Paris police, Jean Chiappe, a tough Corsican with a reputation for meting out harsh treatment to leftist demonstrators while treating rightist demonstrators with relative care. Chiappe refused to accept his dismissal gracefully, and L’Action française declared him a martyr to the “rotten” Republic.

Right-wing leaders were willing to take the Stavisky and Chiappe affairs to the people, but they did not predict their followers’ enthusiasm. On February 6, an unplanned demonstration began while the new government presented itself to the Chamber of Deputies. People had filled the vast Place de la Concorde by 6:30 p.m. The crowd unsuccessfully charged police stationed on the Pont de la Concorde, a bridge that led to the deputies’ meeting place at the Palais Bourbon. The police, disgruntled after Chiappe’s dismissal, offered only halfhearted resistance until the mob began to use lead pipes, paving bricks, and even razors fixed on poles to cripple the horses of the mounted police. The struggle raged until midnight, and both sides suffered heavy losses. Thirteen rioters and one police officer were killed, and hundreds were injured.

Significance

The events of February 6 had a major influence on later French politics. Daladier’s resignation on February 7 was a clear victory for the rioters. The right-wing factions were excited by the republic’s weakness, and Fascists argued that a more systematic attack on the government could end the Republic. In the short run, Action Française, whose Camelots du Roi had supplied the most committed members of the mob, gathered support from those who blamed the republic and its police for the rioting. In the long run the crisis damaged Action Française. Its Fascist competitors emphasized that inept Action Française leadership had caused the February riots to fall short of their professed goal of a new authoritarian regime.

This failure pointed to larger shortcomings within Action Française, whose leaders could neither comprehend nor exploit the revolutionary possibilities in France before, during, and after the 1934 crisis. They needed to be mindful of their aristocratic and bourgeois allies, who could not formally approve of any serious disruption of public order. Action Française’s failure to seize the opportunity for a coup drove rightist youth into more activist organizations. After 1934, Action Française declined as more radical rightist movements prospered, and this shift helped to undermine French unity at a time when it was sorely needed.

The Left, frightened by the events of February 6, became less revolutionary. Although its massive antifascist demonstration on February 12 alarmed some legislators, it had actually been intended as a show of leftist loyalty to the republic. Communist workers eventually forced their leadership to support the existing regime. Leftist fear of a Fascist coup helped create the Popular Front coalition of Radicals, Socialists, and Communists in 1936, led by Socialist leader Léon Blum, who had also supported the government during the riots. Workers, realizing that the likely alternatives to a bourgeois republic would probably not have their best interests at heart, intensified their plans to defend themselves if the next crisis became a coup. The riots, then, had the longer term result of strengthening both the Left and the Right and helping to shatter the coalition of centrist parties that had long stabilized the Republic.

Officially, Stavisky’s death remained a suicide, but a new sense of mystery was added when a judge who supposedly possessed papers relevant to the case died under strange circumstances. The police were again accused of political murder, and even the relatively limited corruption revealed by commissions investigating the Stavisky case discredited some Republican politicians and led to charges that others were hiding evidence. The Stavisky affair remained as both a symbolic cause and effect of France’s political sickness in the 1930’s. Stavisky riots France;Stavisky riots Riots;Stavisky

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Agulhon, Maurice. The French Republic 1879-1992. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993. The first half of this prize-winning book offers a vivid, lucid, and comprehensive survey of the history of the Third Republic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Colton, Joel. Léon Blum, Humanist in Politics. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966. This biography of the great Socialist Party leader of the 1930’s includes a discussion of the Left’s reaction to the 1934 crisis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eley, Geoff. Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2002. A sympathetic history of the European Left, arguing that radical movements played the central role in the creation and evolution of democracy in Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horn, Gerd-Rainer. European Socialists Respond to Fascism: Ideology, Activism, and Contingency in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Study of developments in Europe in the years 1933-1936 provides background for the move toward nationalization in France.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lamour, Peter J. The French Radical Party in the 1930’s. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1964. Offers an entire chapter analyzing the impact of the 1934 crisis on the Radical Party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Soucy, Robert. French Fascism: The Second Wave, 1933-1939. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. The author exposes the conservative, traditionalist essence of French fascism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weber, Eugen. Action Française: Royalism and Reaction in Twentieth Century France. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1962. An exhaustive, well-written, and fair-minded study, based almost entirely on original sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Hollow Years: France in the 1930’s. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. A lively, masterfully detailed picture of the riots and their social context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Werth, Alexander. The Twilight of France, 1933-1940. New York: Harper & Row, 1942. Places the 1934 crisis within the general framework of France’s decline.

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