CHAPTER 5 : THE FINE ART OF DEMOCRACY
Paris, the Assemblée Nationale, February the 6th 1934, 8:00 PM
More than ever, France's National Assembly was a mess - this time for a good reason. Speeches, insults, hushed conversations and rumors were swirling madly around the Hémicycle, the semi-circular room where the country's parliamentary debates took place. The Congressmen had been trapped by the protests a few hours after having convened in an emergency session about the Stavisky scandal. The death of the businessman - more like a con man, actually, albeit one with powerful protectors - had plunged France into chaos, and was now threatening to tear down the democratic fabric three generations of Republicans had patiently woven.
For most of the day it had been nothing but scathing attacks on the government, both from the Left and the Right, punctuated with vitriolic comments from the main speakers.
What is keeping them, for God's sake?
Sitting uncomfortably in the Right part of the Hémicycle, Congressman Etienne Riché looked at his watch for the thousandth time, half listening to a Congressman from Languedoc who was trying to harp on the scandal du jour to secure some subsidies for local winegrowers.The circumstances couldn't have been better : many seats were empty on the Left's benches, largely because Communists leaders had wanted to give public speeches to their partisans outside, when they hadn't been leading columns of protesters themselves. Even the Socialists and the Radicals were lacking some of their best speakers. For the first time he could remember, Riché was looking at an Assemblée Nationale which, with the right impulsion, would give a strong majority to a Conservative governmental program. Inside the red folder Riché had put on the empty seat next to him was precisely the kind of program that could wake France from her 15-year slumber and stop her continuous drifting to the left.
Riché, deep in thought and lulled into slumber by the droning and accentuated voice of his Languedocian colleague, hadn't noticed the usher that had come to his bench. The elder man, his black vest barred by a golden chain, respectfully handed him a folded note Riché barely looked at, for it was the message he'd been waiting for all afternoon. The congressman took a deep breath, casting a meaningful look at his colleagues. The moment they had hastily prepared over the last few weeks had finally come. In a few hours, France would be changed forever - or the Croix de Feu would disappear.
As soon as the Languedocian speaker sat down, and without waiting for the usual answers and comments to follow what had clearly been a purely agricultural matter with no relation whatsoever with France's most pressing issues, Riché rose.
"Monsieur le Président, I demand the right to speak!"
"Order! Order! Let us hear Monsieur Etienne Riché, Congressman from Paris" replied the Président de la Chambre, who thought it was the best way to prevent more agricultural digressions when Paris was indeed burning.
"Monsieur le Président, dear and esteemed colleagues! While this assembly has been debating the latest consequences of our parliamentary folly and governmental ineptitude, the French nation itself has taken to the streets of Paris. For those who want to listen, our citizens are telling us clearly : no more! No more governments falling because some congressman - no disrespect to the esteemed colleagues who addressed this assembly earlier today - couldn't secure some undue advantage for whatever lobbying group actioned him. No more ex-Prime Ministers selling their name, their fame, and often their honour, to help some expert "traders" whose main trade is usually taught in our prisons instead of our schools or banks! No more politicians using their honorability to help some embezzlers who lure citizens into investing a lifetime's savings before closing shop and heading for the Riviera! No more police officials looking the other way when a mayor, a Congressman, or a Senator, are caught the hand in the proverbial cookie jar!"
Approving comments rose from both wings of the Hémicycle, giving Riché more momentum.
"Yes, my dear and esteemed colleagues, France is exasperated! France is through with the little games that have marred the work of this Assembly since the end of the Great War! France is tired of seeing its elite undoing what was accomplished by a million and a half dead soldiers! And, as is always the case when a large and hitherto silent majority finally reaches the point where it can bear no more outrage, there are people, shrewd people, ambitious people, who think they can use it to their advantage. There are those who, enjoying the comfort and safety of their own position, think they can push the poor, the destitute, the suffering, into rejecting the institutions, into rejecting morality, and finally into embracing blind sectarian violence. I swear, gentlemen, now is the time to tell these self-serving Rastignacs : no more! It is our duty to tell them : no more!"
Again, congressmen smelling governmental blood shouted their approval. If nothing else, this was good political show, and Riché was expressing feelings that many harbored in the secret of their conscience. His scathing attack gave voice to the never-formulated question in parliamentary politics : "what if we went too far this time?"
"And " added Riché, in a softer but venomous tone, "indeed we could address these people, in this here assembly, in this very room, if the worst offenders like Mr Thorez or Mr Duclos hadn't seen it fit to be absent today, if they hadn't seen it fit to ignore their democratic duties so they could preach violence to the workers, violence to the employees, violence to the jobless!"
A concert of shocked protests rose from the Communist benches, but soon petered out in face of taunts and heckling rising from Conservative congressmen. The Communists particularly were in deep trouble. Their most prominent leaders had gone away without giving clear instructions, and they hadn't expected today's debate to take that kind of direction. To their immediate right, they could see by their closed faces the Socialists weren't in the mood of helping them out. As for storming off the building in a huff, another of their favorite tactics, it lacked considerable appeal since there were armed Camelots du Roy out there who would like nothing more than catch Communist congressmen and test their underwater capacities in the Seine river.
"My dear colleagues, as we spoke today, me and my colleagues received report after report showing that every city and town in France is, by and large, experiencing some unrest. Lyon and Marseilles, Nantes and Bordeaux, Lille and Clermont-Ferrand, all of France has taken to the streets. All of France is watching us closely. All of France has heard of the murderous mobs that now roam Paris. All of France has heard of our feeble attempts to pass laws while the country is burning. But there is also hope, for all of France has also heard this very building would have been taken by storm an hour ago, and put to the torch with this here Assembly, if it hadn't been for the bravery and dedication of a particular group of citizens. I say brave, because these veterans of 4 long years of conflict, despite their greying hair and the often grievous wounds they received in the trenches, haven't feared to face armed mobs many times their numbers. I say dedicated, because these men, who have already done their duty and beyond for France , have once again come to the rescue of the Republic."
Mumbled protests began to rise to the Left. It was no secret, after all, that Riché was a Croix de Feu, and so the identity of the "brave and dedicated men" he was talking about was quite obvious.
"My dear colleagues! My dear colleagues!" bellowed Riché, his voice rising to cover the ruckus. "We have heard an hour ago our distinguished and eloquent colleague Léon Blum, speaking for the Socialist group, who told us how dangerous and undemocratic the Croix de Feu were! We have been told in no uncertain terms by Monsieur Blum how the Croix de feu were fanatical Fascists, ready to hop in Hitler's or Mussolini's bed! We have been told by Monsieur Blum, who admires Lenin and often finds his inspiration in Josef Stalin's Soviet Russia, that the Croix de Feu - men who have fought for France in 4 years of trench warfare - were petty criminals, the scum of the earth, a stain on France's honor! Well, Monsieur Blum, my most esteemed colleague, please know that while you were busy tarnishing their honor these men were, along with the police, protecting you and this very building - just like they did in 1914! While you were busy telling us what threat they posed to the Republic, these men were protecting the Elysée Palace along with the Republican Guard and police forces! While you were busy telling us what criminals they were, these men were protecting the public's property and the public's life!"
"Mr Blum," concluded Riché, finally winding down as the distinguished Socialist leader was white with rage, "please do not tell us who the Croix de Feu are. These men are close personal friends of mine, the kind of friends you can only make on the frontline, in life-and-death situations. You, Léon Blum, do not know these men. And to tell you the truth it doesn't surprise me you don't know them, Léon Blum, for I sure don't remember seeing you in the trenches. My dear colleagues, I must now appeal to your sense of honour, to your sense of justice, to your common sense actually ! Regardless of what misguided commentators might say, blinded by their own prejudice and oftentimes by their own selfish ambitions, we have all seen today who were the real enemies of the Republic, and who were those who put their life on the line to defend it. I say : let us hear those men, dear colleagues. Let us hear how men who fought for France yesterday, who fought for France today, now propose to fight for France tomorrow."
When he sat down amidst applause and insults, Riché knew he had won the day, regardless of what arguments a clearly shaken Blum could muster. When they arrived this morning, most Conservative and Centrist congressmen had only been ready to topple the government over the Stavisky affair. Small potatoes. Now he had raised the stakes considerably higher, and he was sure they would follow his lead as soon as they realized they were enjoying an overwhelming majority.
Just like Richemont promised, mused Riché, still intrigued at why so many opponents hadn’t showed up that morning. That’s not important. Focus, Etienne. Focus.
In a few minutes, Colonel de La Rocque would appear in front of the Congressmen - at their own request of course. Along with whatever police officer he'd have recruited on his way, he'd describe today's events and describe the Croix de Feu's efforts to maintain civil peace.
The government falling, the Conservatives would call for general elections, and the Croix de Feu - under the name of the Parti Social Français, its political wing - would most probably win big, as every sign showed this time it had been a close call for the French Republic. The PSF program, a mix of much-needed social programs and of even more crucial institutional reforms, under a firmly Republican basis, would be next to irresistible to the French middle-class. In a few months, a wholly new State would emerge.
Let's hope it emerges in time thought Riché, thinking about the somber intelligence reports the Assemblée Nationale's Defense Commitee had been given the previous week.