Modena 18-20 September 2019, panel at Cantieri di Storia X, biannual conference
The case of France
On the eve of the First World War in 1914, the French Empire covered more than ten million square kilometers. This was ten times more than in 1870, when the political regime of the Third Republic was proclaimed in the context of the Franco-Prussian war. The latter violent conflict led to the unification of imperial Germany. Together with France, the German Empire became industrially and demographically the most important state power in continental Europe. During this conjuncture situated between 1870-1914 the French Empire became, after the British, the most important on the face of the earth. Contrary to the case of its southern neighbour Spain, which lost its last Atlantic possession in 1898 when a military defeat to the US industrial army brought Cuba under this latter imperial domination, the French Empire was ascendant during this fin de siècle. It was only for a small part inherited from the old regime. The domination of this oversea Empire was visible in the American (West French Indies), African (Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger, Mauritania, Congo, Gabon, Oubangui-Chari, Chad, Madagascar) and Asiatic (Annam, Tonkin, Laos, Cambodia, Cochinchine) continental spheres.
Such an imposing imperial dimension makes the metropolitan reality of organized violence and armed groups impossible to understand without understanding its reality in the various colonies, protectorates and areas of influence. And indeed, almost everywhere during the period under analysis the French Empire resorted to local militias and organized armed groups. These imperial militias are the first type of case studies retained in this comparative-as-transnational research. Indeed, the said militias corresponded to a form of association involved in organized violence. Their paramilitary dimension, their legitimizing symbols and their actors’ violent practices were related in more or less direct and visible ways to state institutions. Such an ambiguity in terms of legitimacy leads to increasingly complex questions regarding the monopoly of legal violence, which is usually employed to define the state.
For the French case the latter state dimension is inseparable from the Republican regime. The latter, emerged in the revolutionary context following 1789, contrasted with most of the national realities in Europe, that was then dominated by monarchies. For example, we refer to Victorian and Edwardian England, Wilhelmine Germany, etc.
Proclaimed in 1870, the Third Republic maintained its political form until the Second World War. The violent, nationalist and anti-parliamentary regime of Vichy was then installed, in agreement with the corresponding states and dominant regimes inaugurated in Italy immediately after the Great War.
On 25th August 1871, one of the structuring laws, which marked the birth of the Third Republic, was promulgated and corresponded to the banning of the Garde Nationale, an armed group which took part in the Commune. The law dating back to 27th July 1872, which reorganized the army on the basis of massive conscription, stated in some sibylline way that “all corps in arms is submitted to the military law, is part of the army”. It was completed by the law of 24th July 1873 which introduced military regions in the metropolitan territory. One of the structuring laws which marked the death of the Third Republic corresponded to the creation of the Milice, on 30th January 1943.