Was post-war France a pretty fascist country?

I was recently reading the Day of the Jackal and was struck by how fascist France seemed. I gather that you had freedom of speech, but the police (what does “flics” mean) could do pretty much what they wanted to you. Was it really like that? How far have they gotten away from that today?


“flics” is a slang word used in french pretty much as “cops” is used in english.
Can’t really comment on post-war France

“flic” is a slang word that’s pretty much equivalent to “cop” ; i.e. a little bit insulting/disparaging but only mildly so. Its etymology is uncertain - the three main theories are a) it comes from a German word meaning “young man”, b) it comes from a Latin word meaning “to strike, to beat up”, c) it comes from a German word meaning “fly” (as in the insect) and was adopted because the *French *word for fly itself used to be a slang term for cops.

And yes, Gaulliste France was… well, maybe not fascist per se, but pretty darn authoritarian (albeit populist - De Gaulle himself didn’t like the judicial branch having much power, he claimed that “the people is the only supreme court”). Press censorship was not Stalin-level but not altogether unheard of, out of the notion that the entity called “France”, as well as its unity regardless of the political bent of its citizen, was more important than the opinions of this or that individual - this idea itself was very much born of the strife between Resistant France vs. Collaboration France in the post-war era. Police brutality wasn’t quite “they could do what they wanted to you”, but it was still purdy harsh by modern standards (and went on being harsh all the way into the 70s).

On the whole though, I think we’ve moved back down from those tendencies in most contexts, even if a sizeable portion of the population still believes them days were better (compare with those Americans who still think the 50s were AWESOME - same deal, more or less same reasons). A lot of it is due to the combination of both the counter-culture movements of the 60s, and the Algerian war/decolonization ; as well as a general move towards economic liberalism during the 80s. On the whole we’re less nationalist, less statist, less militarist, more democratic, less centralized, the judicial branch has more influence than it had back then, and so on.
Don’t get me wrong - the country as a whole is still pretty right-wing, or at least more than I’d personally like. But not as right-wing as it used to be.

Authoritarian is probably a better word, but yes.

First, bare in mind France has a completely different legal system to the US (or the UK), it is inquisitorial rather than adversarial so the whole way of questioning a suspect is different - does not mean they are “fascist”. Also the French state has always had a pretty robust view of what is legitimate in the protection of the interests of the country (think the Rainbow Warrior). But most important I would have thought was that the France depicted in *Day of the Jackal *is right in the middle of a real terrorist campaign that had already tried to assassinate the President.

In those sort of circumstances even the most open and human rights concious country starts to play dirty.

Not so much fascist as paranoid. They’d been overrun 3 times in the last 70 years (1870, 1914, 1940) and even before that in 1815 (“Hey, but you started it!”)

The original Day of the Jackal makes a point of the security measures - providing passports when you check into hotels, and the police come by to check them. One person I recall discussing this (I think it was a Canadian writer expat) who said “it was weird moving back to Canada. I had to stop and realize that I did not have to register with the police when I moved”. Apparently foreigners living within 50 miles of the border had to register their address with the local police.

Also, France was bureaucratic and (I guess the best term is…) officious. People in positions of authority assumed they were entitled to respect and deference and acted that way. Government controlled some things with licenses.

That strikes me as odd, since right-wing is not an adjective I think of when I think of France. Do you mean authoritarian? Third-positionist? Gaullist?


As an aside on the period, in the '50s things got so bad that France proposed a union with the United Kingdom (an idea also tossed around at the start of the war).

Which is the most important thing I’ve ever learned from Axis Powers Hetalia.

The Fourth Republic constitution clearly did not work, and France’s revolving door governments, that only lasted weeks or months before shuffling the pack of cards again, were the butt of numerous jokes around the world. The Algeria issue was tearing the country apart. De Gaulle came back from his self-imposed exile saying, “Back me and I’ll save France from revolution, because no one else can”. Mollet seems to have lost his nerve temporarily in 1956, but soon preferred to forget it.

Two elderly French MPs are sitting in the back of the chamber. One of them wakes up and asks his colleauge if he misted anything important. The other MP says “No, but you were Prime Minister twice”.

I meant somewhat authoritarian, yes. We’re also pretty socially conservative, all things considered. Economically speaking however, yeah, we swing much more towards the left.

No, not fascist, actual fascism is something else indeed. Not so much a police state either. But definitely authoritarian in some aspects, yes. I think a very fitting comparison would be the way how the USA has strict security since 2001 regarding air travel, getting into the country and certain other things. I guess that for a lot of Europeans, the current restrictions by US can be seen as authoritarian, the same way as certain practices in post-war France may seem authoritarian to a modern reader.

I don’t know much of this particular history, but I’ll try to add a few points.

Like has been said already, those in charge of the state security were pretty paranoid of the country being overrun as had happened just a few years before, which already explains a lot. Additionally, it was the early cold war, the time when the concern of espionage was high everywhere - and France is in a very central position for that. Another big deal was decolonization; it was feared that collapse of French colonial power, especially to communist fighters, would lead to similar struggles in Metropolitan France - a well-founded concern, too.

One thing that should be noted very clearly, is that we are talking about two distinct periods. The first of these periods is the French Fourth Republic which lasted from 1946 to 1958. It was the one with very ineffective constitution and constantly changing governments, which hardly got anything done. In this kind of chaotic environment, it’s no wonder that the police and security organizations got a bit touchy. Losing the Indochina War to the Vietnamese in 1954 was already bad enough, then the heightening of the Algerian War lead to the collapse of the Republic.

The second is the actual Gaullist period which started in 1958 with the recall of Charles de Gaulle from retirement and through the referendum establishing the Fifth Republic constitution. The start of this period were the final years of the Algerian War, which are also the setting of the book in OP: they were probably the most authoritarian times in post-war France. The Gaullist state was based on the strong presidential power, legitimized by the people through direct elections, and a belief in law and order. In those years the biggest threat to the nation actually came from parts of the professional military, so the targets by the security forces could also sometimes be a bit unusual. I would imagine that in those years the police could indeed do quite a lot to you, but still only if they had a demonstrable reason to suspect you of anything. Although the things then started to get more free, the events of 1968 were in many ways a reaction to the Gaullist authoritarianism, which was still going strong. However in my opinion, 1970s brought halt to this governing style and since 1980s France isn’t any different than other western countries in authoritarian tendencies.

An example of how bad things were at times in France decades ago, read about the 1961 Paris Massacre. Probably at least 100 people killed, many while in police custody. Bodies secretly disposed of, etc.

The guy running it was Maurice Papon, your standard Vichy collaborationist. Definitely a lot of old Fascist stuff behind it. Not a lot distinction to be made in terms of ideology for those people.

This was definitely a lot more severe situation than anything the US has seen since the Civil Rights era.

Pretty hysterical, from what I know, as a country. Good job rounding up the collabos, even the very talented (but horribly antisemitic and likely insane) like Céline.

But how can a government do that very good work without getting some undeserving people caught in its net, like the director Henri-Georges Clouzot (barred from entering a movie studio or holding a movie camera for life, later reduced to two years IIRC), in part because of misinterpretation of his anti-collaborationist (IMVHO) [The Crow made sometime in the early 1940s.

First wanted to say that Eurograff’s post is an excellent presentation of the situation in the 60s.

De Gaulle was rather authoritarian at heart. He supported a strong executive and expected to be entirely in charge of about everything when he was holding power.
He resigned twice (in 1946 and 1969) when things weren’t going as he wanted (too much political games for his taste in 1946, a constitutional amendment rejected by referendum in 1969). It was “my way or the highway”, more or less.

He also kept the medias on short reins. There were only public channels on both TV and radio (along with three private radio stations technically not French but broadcasting from France and for the French public, “radio Luxembourg”,“radio Monte carlo” and “Europe 1”). For instance, during the may 68 events, publics stations were famously barely mentioning that something was happening and people had to revert to those private stations.

I recall sitting in on a few classes about resistance in WWII. one point was that after being overrun, most of the French could care less one way or the other… until the Allies won, then all of a sudden the participation rate in the resistance was claimed to be 95% not 5%, and Vichy was a dirty word. So a lot of the mentality of the 1950’s was also a situation of hiding what someone did or did not do during the occupation and fear of being found out.

How the hell did a collaborationist get to be in charge of the police in postwar France, in de Gaulle’s government no less? I thought those people went the way of concentration camp guards.


See my point earlier - most French were ambivalent about the war after occupation. It was only afterwards that everyone claimed to have supported the restance and if they did anything for Vichy it was only because they had no choice. Considering that Vichy ran half of France and every civil servant had to choose between obscure principle and meals, no surprise a lot of people chose food. After the war everyone made excuses for everything, and minimizes the enthusiasm of their participation. it’s the sort of can of worms nobody wanted to open.

I recommend watching “Eye of Vichy,” by Claude Chabrol. It consists almost entirely of Vichy newsreels. It’s astonishing, like a parallel universe. No doubt many French listened to the BBC and other services, but every time they went to a movie they were getting propaganda that was 180 degrees from reality, thanks to Marshal Petain. I find it easy to believe that lots of French people, confused and embarrassed after their shocking defeat, presented with relentless propaganda, simply went along to get along. They may not have been evil collaborationists, just overstressed ordinary folk. And after the war, they all wanted to forget.

As for the Paris police chief, well, don’t forget which country’s slave-labor-using rocket scientists built the American space program.