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Crisis in the Third Republic
FRANCE IN THE mid-1930s experienced conflict between political factions and the collapse of governments. The most volatile disturbances rocked Paris on February 6, 1934, in which police and the Mobile Guard (garde mobile) — helmeted horsemen wielding pistols and sabers — opened fire on civilians, killing eighteen, while one policeman was killed. Among other repressive measures, clamping down on civilian gun ownership appeared to politicians to be a remedy.
This was the era of the Third Republic, born at the defeat of France in the Franco-German War in 1871, and now nearing its death throes, finalized by its subsequent defeat by Nazi Germany in 1940. The 1932 elections brought the Cartel des Gauches (Leftist Coalition) government to power. The Great Depression struck France hard in 1933, and the resulting lower wages and unemployment sparked violent strikes and political unrest. The French Communist Party (Parti Communiste Français, or PCF) welcomed the opportunity for insurrection.
A scheme involving false bonds in large amounts by a swindler named Alexandre Stavisky, who had connections in high places and who died mysteriously after the scandal broke, led to allegations of corruption and the replacement of the prime minister by Édouard Daladier, the leader of the Radical-Socialists, on January 27, 1934. Action français and other rightist groups prepared to take to the streets.
The pot boiled over just days later, after Daladier dismissed the right-leaning Police Prefect Jean Chiappe from office. On February 6, some 4,500 members of the Croix de Feu (Cross of Fire) marched in front of the Ministry of the Interior, proceeding from the Madeleine to the Arc de Triomphe, when the Mobile Guard assaulted them at the Place Beauvau. Self-described as a patriotic veterans' organization, Croix de Feu included anti-Communists, far-rightists, and French-style fascists.
Demonstrators rushed onto the bridge of the Concorde to storm the passage that led to the Chamber of Deputies. Soldiers shot machine guns over their heads into the air, but one bullet found its mark in the head of a woman. One account described riots by Communists leaving twelve dead and hundreds wounded, while the police prefecture said ten demonstrators were killed and up to 700 were injured. It was later estimated that 1,664 were injured, mostly by use of stones, broken glass, sticks, and hand weapons.
The Croix de Feu did not carry arms. Private possession of firearms was highly regulated, and military arms were banned to civilians, but the group hoped to obtain them from like-minded military commanders if needed to meet a Communist threat.
The Daladier government was accused of provoking a civil war by shooting demonstrators, while Minister of Justice Eugène Penancier announced an investigation into the plot against national security, incitation to murder, assault and battery, and arson. The Croix de Feu placed posters all over Paris asserting that "[a] government controlled by the red flag attempts to enslave you. ... Sectarian dictatorship is trying to establish itself here."
The next day, February 7, a delegation of veterans petitioned the president of the Republic, complaining that they marched unarmed and peacefully, but were attacked without provocation with sabers and revolvers by the Mobile Guard on the order of the minister of the interior and of the police chief. They demanded a new government. Daladier resigned at 1:00 p.m. that same day. Communists demonstrated that day and the next, provoking riots that resulted in injuries to both police and demonstrators. A run on every gun shop in Paris sold out firearm inventories.
Pierre Laval acted as head of a group made up of members of parliament and Parisian municipal councilors in a visit to President Albert Lebrun urging the appointment of ex-president Gaston Doumergue. Doumergue formed the National Union government of rightists and Radical-Socialists. (The Radical-Socialists were moderate leftists, but the far left saw them as a bourgeois party that was neither radical nor socialist.) Laval was appointed minister of colonies, and Philippe Pétain was appointed minister of war. Pétain and Laval would later head Vichy France, the puppet government of Nazi Germany.
Pétain, known as the Lion of Verdun for halting the German advance there in 1916, was a national hero. After the Great War, his urgent proposals to enhance military service and to build strong air and tank forces came to naught. He would try again as minister of war, but the Great Depression, now in full swing, frustrated his plans. By contrast, Laval was a professional politician who had been a socialist during the war and was now what might be described as an independent opportunist. His drift from left to right as a populist would be politically expedient as he served in various legislative and ministerial roles.
Prohibiting the Carrying and Sale of Arms
On February 7, invoking an 1834 law, the government decreed a ban on the carrying of pistols and revolvers of all models, calibers, and sizes, together with edged and blunt weapons. On February 8, the new Police Prefect Adrien Bonnefoy-Sibour issued this proclamation: "The sale of arms and ammunition is prohibited in Paris and in the Seine department." The proclamation began by reciting as authority a litany of firearm restrictions dating from 1790 through 1885, including decrees as far back as the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. Asserting a need to prevent private individuals from obtaining arms, it proclaimed:
Article One. — The sale of arms and ammunition of any kind shall be prohibited from this day on, and until further notice, in Paris and in the Seine department.
Article Two. — The gunsmiths shall be closed, and the arms and ammunition shall be kept in a locked place, and shall not be accessible to the public.
Article Three. — Arms and ammunition shall be removed from the existing gunsmith department in department stores, bazaars and cutlery shops, etc.
Article Four. — The Superintendent of the City Police, the colonel head of the Republican Guard, the colonel head of the Gendarmerie of the Seine, and the officers placed under their command are in charge of carrying out this order.
On February 9, the Communists demonstrated again, clashing with the police. Allegedly armed provocations prompted armed reaction by the police, and blood flowed again in the streets of Paris. Citizens wishing to obtain arms to protect themselves still could not do so ten days later, when pleas were made to allow the reopening of the gunsmith shops.
Former President Daladier denied any government order to shoot during the February 6 disorders, and the Chamber of Deputies named a commission of inquiry to find those responsible. The Croix de Feu and others wrote to Council President Doumergue that they had peacefully demonstrated and did not carry weapons, as the police prefect admitted. They considered themselves patriotic workers who were not to be confused with looters, robbers, and enemies of the nation.
Seizing Arms from Alleged "Communists"
A bill to ban associations whose leaders advised their members to violate the law by carrying arms or committing other crimes was introduced in mid-March. Existing penalties for manufacture or sale of illegal arms under an 1834 law were revised to impose incarceration of ten months to two years and a fine of 500 to 5,000 francs if the arms were carried in a group or at a public meeting.
On March 28, Paris newspapers blared with sensational reports of arms seizures. L'Echo de Paris carried this headline: "Searches Lead to Weapons Caches in Paris and Suburbs: Arms Owner, Husband of a Communist Teacher Is Arrested." Rumors had spread about arms caches for extremist groups, and the commission of inquiry of the February 6 events invited the government to take the necessary police measures. Police Prefect Roger Langeron instructed the Renseignements Généraux Department (the RG, or Police Political Security Branch) to conduct searches for arms.
State Prosecutor Gornien brought an indictment under the 1834 law, which made it unlawful to manufacture, sell, or even possess a "war weapon" or ammunition therefor. A communiqué from the justice minister announced an investigation about arms caches and possession of war weapons. Four judges led searches beginning at 7:00 a.m. on March 28. Further, the justice and interior ministers submitted a regulatory decree to the Council further restricting arms sales.
One search warrant was executed by Judge Roussel, along with Police Superintendent Pradier, at the home of a Mr. Léopold Dancart, an apartment at 25, rue Godillot in St-Ouen. The dining room was an immense aviary where hens, finches, and other birds were feeding and flying from one piece of furniture to another. The search revealed about fifty military rifles, shotguns and Lebel carbines, Mauser rifles, German parabellum pistols, Brownings and other automatic arms and cartridges hidden under the bed and in the armoires.
Mr. Dancart declared himself to be a nonpolitical collector with no intent to harm anyone. He added that he did not even vote and had never been to an electoral meeting. As he spoke, his wife walked in, criticizing her husband for his hobby, which put her job at risk. She was a schoolteacher supposedly affiliated with the French Communist Party.
Dancart, who was born in 1879, had previously been convicted for an illegal arms cache. On this occasion, he was interrogated by Police Superintendent Pradier, who arrested him under a warrant issued by Judge Saussier. In searches elsewhere, police confiscated clubs, sword canes, bayonets, and cartridges. Some war weapons were confiscated at the homes of people who otherwise were licensed to sell arms.
L'Homme Libre published an editorial lauding the searches for caches of arms in private homes, which had increased since February 6. The regime was based on freedom and majority rule, the editorial argued, and should avoid dictatorship based on force, as had occurred in neighboring states. Regrettably, gunsmiths allegedly made a gold mine in sales the day after February 6. Ignoring that law-abiding people may have been arming for defense, the editorial continued that extremists, whether from left or right, would be able to prepare for civil war. It praised the judicial proceedings and the introduction of a decree to the Council of State severely limiting the sale and possession of arms.
Le Figaro published the same communique by the justice department prefaced with this commentary: "Finally the government takes care of the war weapon caches set up by Communist organizations!" It provided more details on the raid at the home of Léopold Dancart, described as a former mechanic and race-car driver who now was a flea market vendor. "Mr. Dancart has a small hobby, which is collecting weapons, can you imagine! For this reason, the police searched his home yesterday, and confiscated 48 rifles and shotguns, 86 revolvers and pistols, a few clubs and daggers, and about a thousand cartridges."
The article alleged that Dancart had provided war weapons to Colonel Francesc Macià when he was preparing his Catalan plot, for which Dancart had been imprisoned for four and a half months. He now "acts as an innocent angel," stating that "collecting guns is no more reprehensible than merely collecting stamps, and moreover he was not hiding anything since we can see from the street the arms hung up on nails in his bedroom."
Describing Dancart as "a bird catcher," the article continued: "When one knocks on his door, a concert of chirping sounds answers, and from the street, one can see cages more than display of guns." Turning to his wife, it added that "Mrs. Dancart is an elementary school teacher precisely at the school on Rue du Château ... where subversive theories seem to have been favored at times." Under the subtitle "Bolshevik agent?" it asked, "Could the bird catcher–flee market vendor be one of those agents named by the Communists to carry out their plan of secret armament, which has been indubitable over the past few days?" Hopefully, the police search at his house, resulting in his arrest under Article 3 of the 1834 law forbidding arms caches, would only be the beginning of operations against others preparing for revolution.
After the above operation, investigating Judge Roussel and Police Superintendent Pradier proceeded to Number 47 of the rue Ordener, the shop of another flea market vendor named Gruyer. His wife opened the door, explaining that he was at a scrap metal fair. Police confiscated twenty-seven revolvers, some automatic pistols, eight military rifles of different calibers, and two large bags filled with cartridges. The load was transported to the Renseignements Généraux Department (the RG, or police political security branch).
Other searches were carried out by investigating Judges Saussier, Cuenne, and Verdier, assisted by Police Superintendents Oudard, Noetz, and Gianvilti from the RG Department. At Mr. Burgeroux's home at 52 rue du VertBois — Burgeroux was also a flea market vendor — investigators confiscated a German military rifle and some cartridges. They went to several other businesses but found no violations.
Keeping Track of Gun Buyers
Details on the proposed new law punishing the carrying and sale of prohibited arms were reported by L'Echo de Paris. At the general assembly on March 28 presided over by Théodore Tissier, the Council of State passed a decree bill proposed by the minister of justice and the minister of interior revising the law of May 24, 1834, Article I of which punished the manufacture, sale, or transfer of prohibited arms with imprisonment of one month to one year and a fine of 16 to 200 francs. The law would be amended as follows:
Article 1 of the decree reported by Mr. Peyromaure-Debord, in charge of petitions, lists all arms for which the above Article 1 sanctions shall be applied: any models of pistols or revolvers, daggers, dirks [couteaux-poignards], clubs, sword canes, leaded and steeled canes (at one tip only), as well as any object liable to constitute an arm dangerous to public safety.
In addition, in Article 2, the decree-law enacts that anyone involved in the commerce of arms prohibited to be carried and the ammunition thereof, must have a special register, each page of which shall be numbered and signed by the Prefect or his delegate, and without blanks or alterations. For each arm sold, it must include its features, as well as the full name and home address of the buyer, with an indication of the picture identification document provided by the said buyer to demonstrate his identity.
A further proposed law considered by the Chamber of Deputies on May 17, 1934, provided that the sale, transfer, or trade of weapons of unregulated models or designs would require the presentation by the purchaser of a written, approved authorization prepared after an investigation by the prefect or the subprefect. The bill did not pass, but the subject would be addressed again the following year.
Pierre Etienne Flandin was named prime minister on November 8. He proposed a bill to restrict private possession of firearms, which did not pass. His presidency ended on June 1, 1935, after which Pierre Laval took over.
After serving in the Parliament, Laval would head the French government three times during the 1930s, and would assume a primary leadership role during the Vichy regime in the 1940s. In all four of these periods, he would serve as prime minister, minister of foreign affairs, and at times other positions. His policies were French-style socialism and fascism.
A Conscripted Army or a People in Arms?
As France experienced internecine conflict, Hitler was preparing for war. On March 15, 1935, the Führer announced the creation of the Luftwaffe and the introduction of conscription of young men into the armed forces. That same day, the Chamber of Deputies debated whether to require young Frenchmen to serve for two years in the military. The Socialists and Communists voted against it.
However, Socialist leader Léon Blum noted, "Jaurès declared here, twenty-two years ago, that the true military protection of a country lies not in permanent strong forces, or in numerous troops in barracks, serving as the basis of defensive strategy. Rather that it is to be found in what Revolutionaries have called the levying of the masses, in what our old master Vaillant called the general arming of the people...."
Blum was referring to Jean Léon Jaurès, who in 1910 had proposed a bill in the Chamber requiring all able-bodied citizens from age twenty to forty-five to provide military service. Besides promoting widespread rifle practice, the plan proposed that "[i]n the departments of the Eastern region, each soldier will keep his arms at home." As he explained elsewhere, this was a scaled-down version of the democratic Swiss militia army in which all citizens served and kept their arms at home. Responding to those who may have feared a revolution of the proletariat, Jaurès stated, "I do not believe that the universal arming of the citizens, everyone keeping at home their sabers and their rifles, has the social consequence that one imagines." The Swiss experienced no upheaval from having citizen soldiers keep their arms at home.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Gun Control in Nazi-Occupied France"
Copyright © 2018 Stephen P. Halbrook.
Excerpted by permission of The Independent Institute.
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Table of Contents
1 Crisis in the Third Republic 9
2 Pierre Laval Decrees Firearm Registration 21
3 Blitzkrieg, Defeat, and Twenty-Four Hours to Turn in Your Gun or Be Shot 35
4 Occupation and Collaboration 65
5 Weapons Possession: The Core of Criminal Activities of the French 91
6 Amnesty or Execution 125
7 Arms for the Resistance 161
8 Liberation 195
Concluding Thoughts 211
Credits for Illustrations 225
About the Author 241