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France's ultra-conservatives: Action Française

The political organization in France that Mussolini admired, Action Française, had little support among the French, and its newspaper had only a very modest circulation. Action Française was a movement that first appeared in the late 19th century. Its leader, Charles Maurras (1868-1952) described it as favoring traditional values, as monarchist and as favoring a return to pre-industrial society. Maurras opposed what he saw as the corruption of modernity, the move to democracy and what he called parliamentary chatter. He claimed that democracy in the name of abstract liberty suppressed individual liberties and ended in despotism.

People belonging to Action Française favored a unified and exalted France, which they believed could be accomplished by recognizing France as a Catholic nation. Membership was largely Catholic, but they were only a small minority within the Church. And they tended to be anti-Semitic, at least a few of them complaining about Jewish gold. About 25 to 30 percent of the movement's members were from the lower middle class, and some in this group felt threatened by the competition from big business and Jewish merchants. Some of Action Française's 200,000 supporters in the early 1920s were school teachers, librarians, traveling salesmen, white collar workers and civil servants, some of whom felt that they were being held back because of their sympathies for monarchism and the Church.

Maurras remained concerned about the wellbeing of rural France. He saw rural poverty as driving peasants to the wicked cities in search of work – to the factories where his support was weakest. But this concern for the peasants brought Action Française little support from France's many small farmers, who saw little benefit in turning back socially or politically to the 19th century.

Maurras was most comfortable as an intellectual and as a critic, but his movement prided itself on its action. The movement engaged in protest demonstrations, and occasionally Action Française engaged in street brawls. Some of its brawlers were veterans of World War I, and a few were priests. But its brawling was not on the same scale as that of Mussolini's Fascists. And Maurras had no hope of gaining power through a rising in the streets. Instead, he hoped that military leaders would come around to his point of view, overthrow the republicans and arrest those he considered subversive. If the elite acts, he claimed, the crowd will eventually follow, knowing in their heart that he, Maurras, was right.

Action Française was a dying movement. Too few wanted a return of the monarchy – including the Church's younger priests. Leaders of Action Française attacked opponents within the Church with great vehemence, and the Vatican became disgusted with the movement. In 1926, Pope Pius XI condemned the writings of Maurras on the Index, leaving Action Française more isolated. And competing with Action Française for support among the dissatisfied was a small organization called the Young Patriots (Jeunesses Patriotique), which was attracting young men interested in fascism.

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