Action man

Known to thousands as "Le Maitre", Charles Maurras was an intellectual giant of the French canon. A

In the years following the Second World War, General de Gaulle orchestrated a mythology about the role of France after its defeat by Germany in June 1940. His vrai France was entirely and always opposed to the German occupiers, and the minuscule size of the Resistance and of his own Free French army was obscured. It is now many years since the French rejected this Gaullist myth and faced up to their past. Journalists, historians and academics have minutely chronicled the collaboration of France with Nazi Germany. The Catholic hierarchy has acknowledged guilt and, once Francois Mitterrand was dead, the new president, Jacques Chirac, also apologised.

Some lacunae remain, however. One of these is the role of the French intellectual in those years. Not so much the literary fascists - Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Robert Brasillach, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle; they, like all the writers of genius or talent who collaborated, have been brought forth and dissected, as have the artists, actresses and singers, poets and film stars, entertainers and sportsmen who enthused about Germany. Less attention has been paid to the French philosophers of fascism. Foremost among these was Charles Maurras, whose works and whose movement, Action Francaise, and its newspaper shaped the minds of the French generation who collaborated with Nazism.

Maurras was a poet, a philosopher, a writer of elegant, classic French, a formidable journalist and polemicist, and thus an intellectual giant within the French canon. He represented everything that was then, and is still, held to be France's great gift to the world - its culture and civilisation. Attending to Maurras today would involve recognition that this gift could be, and was, as racist and perverted as Hitler's Aryan obsessions. Outside academe, Maurras is not attended to. None of his works is in print in English, and only three in French.

Maurras was born on 20 April 1868 in Martigues, then a picturesque fishing village on the edge of the Etang de Berre in the Bouches-du-Rhone, near Marseilles, a strange, watery end-piece of France. He was christened Charles Marie Photius, the last name well chosen for the life he was to lead, Photius being a noble and learned patriarch of Constantinople in the ninth century, a distinguished teacher of classical and Christian prose, and a noted instigator of controversies and disputations. Maurras's father was an irreligious tax collector, his mother a pious royalist. When Charles was six, his father died and the family moved to Aix-en-Provence, where Maurras was educated amid priests. At the age of 14, he almost entirely lost his hearing, and entirely lost his belief in God.

Maurras moved to Paris in December 1885 and plunged into the world of letters. On his arrival, he was disturbed to find the street names of Paris so foreign and Jewish. There were, he observed, too many names with too many Ks, Ws and Zs. Later, during the German occupation, Maurras campaigned successfully to change many of them. He wrote lyrical poetry and essays on aesthetics for various periodicals and studied the philosophy of Auguste Comte, the French positivist philosopher. He took on Comte's ideas about order, individualism and scientific reasoning, and added to them his vision of authority and hierarchy, the classical values of ancient Greece and Rome.

This civilisation, absorbed and reinterpreted by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, lived at the time only in the Latin races. Of these Latin races, the classical tradition of France, with Paris as its centre, was the greatest the world had ever seen, and this inheritance was indigenous to France, to la France seule, France alone. For Maurras, the great disaster was the French revolution of 1789. So firm was his belief that everything engendered in 1789 was an aberration, an outcome of English and German influences with Jewish overtones, that he refused to call the revolution "French". Any claim that Germany might have a Kultur of any value was also rejected. Not for Maurras the blue flowers of Novalis.

Though Maurras felt himself to be quintessentially French, he had much in common with the Cambridge Apostles. He spent his life almost entirely among men, usually those who held him in high regard as a teacher and guru. He did not marry and kept no mistresses, making use of women for sexual encounters as required, if at all. He feared the destruction of beauty, and he feared effeminacy.

He transformed this fear into literary theory. For him, romanticism was the expression of selfish individualism and also had something of the woman in it. "Woman's tendency is to exaggerate what she is, much more than to correct and embellish it. She discovered, from the beginning, the aesthetic of Character, to which was opposed that aesthetic of Harmony which the Greeks invented and brought to perfection, by the fact that male intelligence was dominant amongst them. The Greeks made the general and rational sense of the beautiful the principle of their whole civilisation, which has been prolonged by Rome and Paris. Other peoples, East and West, that is all the Barbarians, have kept to the principle of Character, as revealed by feminine sentiment."

This crucial exposition, though it centres on women as a source of sensibility rather than sense, was in fact the key to all Maurras's ideology in the public sphere. What women represented, in this instance, were all those who could not participate in his French, Hellenic, classical vision. They became the unsubmissive of this world; they became foreigners, Jews and communists, the English and the Germans, resistants and Gaullists and, in due course, a large proportion of the French people. On occasion, Maurras condemned the republic as "Protestant and Jewish", but for him the republic was primarily a woman, lacking "the male principle of initiative and action".

The "Dreyfus affair" began in 1894, when the Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly accused of selling national secrets to Germany, and those who defended his innocence - Dreyfus was framed - lined up against the representatives of France's ancien regime - Church, army, conservative France. In the early years of the affair, Maurras was writing for the royalist Gazette de France, which sent him to Athens in 1896 to cover the first modern Olympic Games. There, he observed the crowds demonstrate national frenzy, and learnt that France could be outdone by despised foreign countries. He contemplated the great beauties of ancient Athens and the democratic falsities that had destroyed them and that were now destroying France.

Maurras returned to France a monarchist, and this ideology was to synthesise his earlier beliefs into the political philosophy by which he became known: integral nationalism. Two years later, in January 1898, Emile Zola published his famous defence of Dreyfus, "J'accuse". In September, Maurras published "The First Blood", an article analysing the affair, in which he insisted that the innocence of one individual, Dreyfus, was of no importance when prejudicial to the good of the patrie. Thus, in confronting Zola, the emblem of everything in literature he most detested, Maurras moved his aesthetics of the right into politics, which, he said, he entered "like a religion". Now it was politique d'abord - politics before all else.

In January 1899, Maurras met Henri Vaugeois, a philosophy professor, and the journalist Maurice Pujo of the anti-Dreyfusard Comite d'Action Francaise (whose son Pierre runs what is left of the movement today). Both these men were republicans. The first public meeting of Action Francaise took place on 20 June 1899 with an audience of 15 people. The first edition of the fortnightly Revue de L'Action Francaise appeared three weeks later. In 1905, the Ligue d'Action Francaise was formed, the organisational and fundraising body of the group. The Institut d'Action Francaise followed, holding its first congress in 1907, and, on 21 March 1908, the first issue of the daily paper Action Francaise was published.

By 1903, a small intellectual coterie had transformed itself into a powerful and vociferous movement. From a minority of one, Maurras had converted his colleagues to his monarchist point of view. The royalism Maurras espoused, his integral nationalism, divided France into pays reel and pays legal. The latter represented parliament and democracy, the "grotesque masque" imposed on the real life of the people. Monarchy, the mother of the nation of France, was his pays reel, the true France, reigning supreme above democratic chaos. Confronting the tyranny and anarchy of democracy with a reasoned presentation of royalism based on order, Maurras reconquered the intellectual territory for monarchism.

Maurras was a man of paradox. Opposed to modernism, with its democratic emphasis on the individual, his approach to politics, literature and philosophy was intellectual and scientific, and thus modernist. For a classicist, his passion for a king and monarchy was a romantic illusion of the first order. His stubborn insistence on his own infallibility was a form of independence quite out of kilter with his anti-individualism. Maurras is in many ways a black mirror of George Bernard Shaw, whose zeal to educate, journalistic output and span of life - Shaw, 1856-1950; Maurras, 1868-1952 - were almost identical. Maurras, however, had no wit (although his French admirers claim it for him), and definitely no irony.

Even though Maurras considered the idea of a "Jewish Christ" unpalatable, his Catholic childhood and monarchist creed automatically led him to approve and acclaim the Catholic Church, whose views on authority and hierarchy he shared. The French Church appreciated this alliance for many years, printing articles from Action Francaise to disseminate to its flock, and using their arguments in sermons. The Church hierarchy gave Maurras, his movement and his newspaper active and loyal support in public and in private. As Pius X told Maurras's mother: "I bless his work." This Catholic inheritance also led Maurras to a lifelong hatred for, and persecution of, Jews, Protestants, Freemasons and meteques, a word invented by Maurras, and speedily absorbed into the French language, to describe all foreigners who lived in France. This concept of the meteques was Maurras's Aryanism. Outsiders could never become French; only the French could understand, intuitively, the essence of France.

The journalistic genius of Action Francaise was Leon Daudet, a man of much charm and a consummate master of yellow journalism. In his large, front-page daily column, "Politique", Maurras also exhibited a fine line in invective, defamation and slander. Encased always in an armour of intellectual respectability, Action Francaise turned the language of hatred into common currency and enthusiastically encouraged physical violence. Murder, assassination, the use of riots and explosives, marches and demonstrations - all were advocated by Action Francaise in its war against the French state. The paper was very successful. It was well written, often anecdotal and gossipy.

In the years before the First World War, the Ligue d'Action Francaise spread throughout France with its rituals and meetings, dinners and banquets, student groups, public lectures, books and pamphlets. Maurras was, crucially, a talented propagandist who understood the theatrical potential of public events. In November 1908, the young royalists of the movement, the Camelots du Roi, went on to the streets to sell the newspaper and, as wandering bands armed with bludgeons and lead-tipped canes, to do the dirty work for Action Francaise. Vetted for homosexuality, the Camelots prepared for the revolution at an athletics training ground on an island in the Seine. They policed Action Francaise meetings, disrupted the meetings of almost everyone else, and forcibly prevented theatre performances, lectures and court cases. They defaced statues of prominent Dreyfusards all over France and were also much given to surprising their enemies by slapping their faces in public.

By 1915, Action Francaise had over 300 sections, and the circulation of the news-paper ranged between 40,000 and 150,000 copies, with its many other publications reaching an even greater number of readers. Analysing its support is as mystifying as studying the reasons why such a vast percentage of the German people supported Hitler. Support came from the nobility, the rich and the urban poor, the petite bourgeoisie and the Catholic bourgeoisie, from lawyers, doctors and engineers, and from their wives. Its automatic bailiwick was the army, the conservative right and the Church. (One abbe sent a donation of five francs "for a rug made out of the kike's skin that I can put beside my bed and step on in the morning and evening".)

For Maurras, the Russian revolution of 1917 was "German and Jewish", and therefore the headquarters of Marxism was not Moscow, albeit much hated, but Berlin, hated more. A communal fear of the Bolshevik terror, socialism and modernism kept the French Catholic Church and Action Francaise together until 1926, when, with the advent of the less accommodating Pope Pius XI, the Vatican banned its unruly competitor, dismaying its thousands of Catholic adherents. But by then, it was too late - the language of Action Francaise had entered the Church Militant, and the bonds between Catholicism and Maurrassianism bore fruit in the words and deeds of the men of Vichy.

Although a man of violent words, Maurras never took action himself. He ensured the longevity of Action Francaise by refusing to permit it to change or to move beyond incitement to revolution. Action Francaise did not become a political party, and stopped short of armed insurrection. The Depression came, political scandals abounded. When riots broke out on the streets of Paris on 6 February 1934, Maurras was to be found at the office, writing. Followers began to ebb away. Numerous other leagues, replete with Maurrassian malcontents and activists, were to dominate the political scene in the last days of the Third Republic. Some of his political followers left to form the underground terrorist group La Cagoule. Lucien Rebatet, Robert Brasillach, Maurice Bardeche, Georges Blond, Thierry Maulnier and hundreds of others of the French intellectual world, apostles of Maurras and Action Francaise, went on to create a collaborationist and pro-Nazi alternative to the Vichy state in Paris, regurgitating Maurrassian words as Maurrassian deeds.

A greater cataclysm for Maurras was the parliamentary victory of the Popular Front in May 1936. This grouping of the Radical, Socialist and Communist parties was formed in 1935, in the aftermath of the 1934 rebellion, and its leader, Leon Blum, was Jewish. "La France sous le Juif!" was the Action Francaise headline. Later, in 1936-37, Maurras spent eight months in jail for incitement to murder Blum and a hundred other deputies.

With the German occupation of June 1940, Maurras took the paper to Lyon. By this time, he had adapted his hatred of Germany in favour of submission to Marshal Philippe Petain, whom he hailed as his king. In the earlier days of the Vichy state, Petain, surrounded by men of Action Francaise, called for a "national revolution", and his authoritarian regime became the incarnation of Maurrassian ideas of order, hierarchy and authority. Raphael Alibert, a Catholic convert and fellow traveller of Action Francaise, was Petain's first Minister of Justice and instituted the first Statut des Juifs in October 1940. Xavier Vallat, a Catholic member of Action Francaise, was the first commissioner for Jewish affairs in the Vichy government, and thus the first to implement Vichy's anti-Jewish legislation and to arrange for the despatch of Jews to Auschwitz.

From 1940-44, the Jews of France were stripped of civil rights. Their property was confiscated, they were denied education and work, were confined in concentration camps and, in the occupied zone, had to wear the yellow star. Of these Jews, 75,721 were deported, mostly to Auschwitz, of whom only 2,800 survived. Maurras encouraged even stronger action: "The barbarous occupation of 1940 would not have taken place without the Jews of 1939, without their filthy war, the war they undertook and they declared: our occupiers were introduced by them, it was the Jews who launched us into catastrophe." The newspaper named names, hunted down enemies, and called for hostages, resistants, Jews and Gaullists to be shot: "If the death penalty is not sufficient to put a stop to the Gaullists, members of their families should be seized as hostages and executed."

For these activities, Maurras was arrested in Lyon in September 1944, two weeks after the final issue of Action Francaise. His trial began on 25 January 1945 and culminated in a sentence of national degradation and life imprisonment in isolation. He was 77. He remained in prison until 1951, and died in a private clinic in Tours on 16 November 1952. Maurras called his sentence the revenge of Dreyfus, but it was not. It was punishment for the deaths and torture of ordinary men and women, most of them French.

The British often express envy for the honour bestowed upon the intellectual in France. But contemplating Maur-ras, the warrior and Jesuit priest of the word, suggests that mythologies about culture and intellect can be as self-deceiving as anything else. Thousands of his fellow citizens called Maurras "Le MaItre". He was acknowledged to be the outstanding French thinker of his time, whose words influenced the literary, intellectual and political affairs of France. Today, the opposite is true: it is Maurras's own words which have silenced him - that and his fear of the men and women among whom he lived, and who were not as he wanted them to be. In that way, Maurras was a child, a dangerous child of his time.

Carmen Callil's Darquier's Nebula: a family at war, about the family of Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, the second commissioner for Jewish affairs in Marshal Petain's Vichy government, will be published by Picador and Knopf in 2003