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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.

Courtesy of the Archives nationales d’outre-mer (ANOM, France), Collection La Martinique, R ANOM COL D2C 319

To notice the interactions between the prohibition and creation of these armed groups by the state on the one hand and the state and regime changes on the other,  is very inspiring to understand organized violence. Of course, this project focuses on the Belle Époque and on the pre-World War One conjuncture (1870-1914). However, historical continuities are observable before and after the Great War, especially regarding nationalist ideology. Thus, these continuities cannot be dissimulated in a teleological way corresponding to the persistence and metamorphoses of the aforementioned, deshistoricizing and violent ideology.

Nationalist ideology was precisely at the core of the second and third types of associations retained as case-studies, and which were especially active on metropolitan territory. First, the local gymnastic and shooting clubs were more and more common and networked around the nationalist organization of the Ligue des Patriotes created in the 1882 and whose organ was Le drapeau. In these kind of associations, which also owned their own newspapers such as Le Tir National, violence was highly ritualized. To some extent their members “trained for violence”, while in these networks the political idea of a revenge against Germany was highly widespread.

Second, at the turn of the century were created two nationalist organizations heavily involved in organized violence. In the spring of 1898 Action Française was formed. It was soon followed in 1899 by an eponymously named monthly periodical. In 1908, the publishing project expanded, with the addition of a daily newspaper. This is precisely when the armed group of the Camelots du Roi was created. Its members acted more and more through violent practices, especially in the capital’s streets.

In addition, in 1901 the Fédération Nationale des Jaunes de France (or Union Fédérative des Syndicats et Groupements Ouvriers Professionnels de France et des Colonies) was formed. On 7th October 1899, in a context marked by big strikes which especially touched the industrial poles of the national territory, by disturbing the big family owners’ interests, an arbitral decision allowed for the creation of counter-syndicates. This sentence arbitrale was signed by the Minister of Home Affairs and chief of government Pierre Waldeck Rousseau, who was also behind the laws of 1884 and 1901 on syndicates and associations. Consequently, these complex organizing dimensions inherent to the French case are in many complex ways linked to strike-breaking violent activities, which marked the entire European reality.

To summarize, three kinds of armed groups’ cases have been defined and are under analysis: imperial militias which were active during all the period considered (1870-1914), “small” cases of shooting and gymnastic clubs especially developed immediately after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and “big” cases of nationalist organisations aiming to have a massive impact and created at the turn of the century. Who were their members? How old were they? What was their social status and background? What were their social practices? How were these practices revealed by symbols, rituals and languages? To what extent do a comparative method and a transnational approach allow us to better understand them within their entire European context? Here we have the main questions raised by this case-study-based analysis. In agreement with the latter methodology combined with comparative and transnational approaches, in line with the collective dimension of this European project, a range of several cases of each of the three types of armed groups is set to be empirically analysed and integrated into individual and collective outputs (articles, monograph, chapters in collective books, etc.).


This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 677199).

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