In This Review

French Peasant Fascism: Henry Dorgeres's Greenshirts and the Crises of French Agriculture, 1929-1939
French Peasant Fascism: Henry Dorgeres's Greenshirts and the Crises of French Agriculture, 1929-1939
By Robert O. Paxton
Oxford University Press, 1997, 244 pp.

Once again, Robert Paxton has done pioneering work. His book on the Vichy regime, very controversial in France at first, is now a classic on both sides of the Atlantic. The first to document the extent of Vichy's collaboration with the Nazis, he is now the first -- despite formidable difficulties in finding adequate sources -- to produce a book-length study of a militant anti-republican, authoritarian, and corporatist peasant movement that made a great deal of trouble for the weak cabinets of the Third Republic between 1929 and 1939. Its leader, Henri Dorgeres, was a journalist for a farmers' newspaper in Brittany. His "greenshirts" were especially abundant and vocal in northern and western France, where French peasants were more conservative than in the south. Their desire to rehabilitate, and to restore the preeminence of, the French peasantry was kindled by the steep agricultural recession in the 1930s and their dislike of the paralyzed parliamentary republic as well as of the established peasants' organizations that were run by notables close to the politicians.

As Paxton points out, Dorgeres' methods were borrowed from the fascists abroad, but his program, which was anything but statist, was closer to the authoritarian conceptions of a Salazar or Franco. Dorgeres should have played a major role in Vichy, given his views and Vichy's establishment of a Peasant Corporation replacing all previous associations. But he was relegated to minor propaganda functions -- just enough to get him jailed by the victorious Resistance. Elected to the National Assembly in 1956, thanks to a new wave of rural protest led by Pierre Poujade, he lost his seat when de Gaulle returned to power. He died, at 88, in 1985. Paxton's book provides us with a fine analysis of Dorgeres' tactics, of his relations with his rivals and with the state, and of the reasons why, even before the extraordinary transformation of French agriculture after the Second World War, Dorgeres never succeeded in capturing the bulk of the peasantry.