Le Grand Jacques

R.W. Johnson

  • Jacques Doriot: Du Communisme au Fascisme by Jean-Paul Brunet
    Balland, Paris, 563 pp, August 1986, ISBN 2 7158 0561 6

When Mussolini was making his last desperate flit from Milan in April 1945, Nicola Bombacci, his old comrade – the two men had been revolutionary socialist schoolteachers together thirty years before – climbed into the Duce’s car carrying only a small suitcase. ‘What else would I need?’ he said. ‘I am an expert in such matters. I was in Lenin’s office in Petersburg when the White troops of Yudenitch were advancing on the city and we were preparing to leave, as we are doing today.’ In the space of a quarter-century Bombacci, an old Communist and Comintern hand, had progressed right across the ideological spectrum, beginning as an intimate of Lenin’s and ending as an adviser to Mussolini: by fluke he stood next to both men in their supreme hour of crisis.

Probably only the 20th century, with its rapid and immense revolutionary convulsions, has produced biographies as extraordinary as this. But even in our century floaters who drifted across from Communism to Fascism were oddities. On the other hand, how does one understand the process by which a major Communist leader became a major Fascist leader? To anyone who has pondered this question the career of Jacques Doriot has always had a special fascination. Now Jean-Paul Brunet has ransacked just about everything – including police files – in order to put the full story together. He has an amazing story to tell.

Doriot was the only child of a working-class family, his father a blacksmith forced into factory work and a man of anti-clerical views, his mother a devout Catholic who ensured that her son became an altar boy. Jacques, a tall, painfully thin boy, left school early to become a factory worker in St Denis, the most proletarian suburb of Paris. This perfectly ordinary career was changed for ever by his call-up in 1917. He fought heroically at the front – an experience which scarred his life – and was then retained in the Army after the war, to be sent with a French expeditionary force to put down Bela Kun’s Soviet republic in Hungary (and instal the noxious Admiral Horthy in power), to help D’Annunzio in Fiume, and then to put down partisans in Albania. By this stage he had had more than enough and was jailed for a month for indiscipline.

Returning to St Denis, Doriot became a moderate member of the Young Socialists, but his strong autodidactic urge found expression in an endless diet of Western penny dreadfuls rather than in the political classics. Politicised by war, but also confused by it, he earned a greater reputation for a love of adventure and drama than for radicalism. When the Socialist Party voted to become the Communist Party, Doriot moved with the majority and, growing prominent in the Young Communists, was sent to Moscow in 1921 for the Comintern Youth Congress. The experience transformed him. He met Lenin, received extensive training in Marxism, learnt speech-making, German and some Russian, and generally went through an accelerated Communist higher education. Selected as a promising young cadre, he spent 20 months in Moscow, working closely under Trotsky, who became his friend. Above all, Doriot venerated Lenin and took it very much to heart when Lenin chided him in fatherly fashion for becoming too dogmatic. When Lenin died Doriot cried publicly and unashamedly.

By the age of 23 Doriot was a member of the Presidium of the Comintern Executive. Zinoviev, harassed by the endless leadership squabbles of the French Communist Party (the PCF), looked on the ascetic young Doriot as a dependable revolutionary, commendably tough and cynical in his involvement with the covert side of the Comintern’s activities, and quite understanding about difficult comrades who had to be ‘disappeared’. Here was the PCF leader of the future – a view Doriot shared.

Returning to France, Doriot devoted himself to a series of anti-militarist campaigns, first among French troops in the Ruhr and then in the Rif. These campaigns – aimed at getting soldiers to desert and to show solidarity with the occupied populations – earned him considerable notoriety, the unrelenting hatred of the French military establishment, and a series of prison sentences for treason. He became, as it were, the Scarlet Pimpernel of the PCF – leading the PCF Youth, sitting on the Party’s Politburo and addressing meetings, all while on the run from the Police, using a series of aliases and sleeping where he could. Finally caught and sentenced to 34 months’ jail in 1923, he continued to write incendiary anti-military articles (earning him further sentences) until the PCF put him up as a candidate in the 1924 elections. An embarrassed President had to release him when the working-class voters of the Paris banlieu, among whom he was already a popular hero, elected him by a very large majority. He immediately became a parliamentary enfant terrible, proudly announcing that he considered himself a soldier of the Red, not the French Army, and generally seeking every occasion to provoke paroxysms among bourgeois Deputies and the non-PCF press. A powerful and charismatic speaker, he gloried in sheer intransigence, drew large crowds wherever he went, and, noticeably more than any other PCF leader, was always in the midst of the violent confrontations which quite routinely occurred in the course of PCF marches and demonstrations. On one such occasion Doriot was so badly beaten by police that he had to be hospitalised while in jail – but one policeman also died after, so it was claimed, Doriot had kicked him.

Doriot raised eyebrows within the PCF as well. His revolutionary fervour was exemplary but his style was undeniably self-advertising and his ambition was clear. It was noted, too, that when, in between jail sentences, he got married (to a PCF militante), the ceremony – amazingly for a PCF leader – took place in church. He moved his now-widowed mother into the new marital home, where she became a Catholic materfamilias to his two daughters.

Besides running the PCF Youth section, Doriot had responsibility for colonial questions, exercising a wide influence on young revolutionaries throughout the French Empire. One young Vietnamese who came under his wing carried the alias of Nguyen O Phap (‘the peasant who hates France’). Doriot suggested that this be changed to the more diplomatic Nguyen Ai Quoc (‘the patriot’). This protégé became better-known as Ho Chi Minh.

Doriot himself had originally been a protégé of Trotsky, but transferred his loyalties to the Comintern chief, Zinoviev, as Trotsky’s star waned. Returning to Moscow in 1925, he was quick to abandon Zinoviev for Stalin, who invited him to a private supper in the Kremlin and advised him to build a political base of his own. It might seem that being high up in the Comintern was enough, said Stalin, but one had to realise that in Soviet eyes Comintern operatives were mere employees. A man who could command the loyalties of a whole town or district was bound to count for more. Doriot returned home in cynical mood, reflecting that his meteoric career in the Comintern was counting for less than he’d hoped and that the PCF leadership to which he aspired would be settled by men in Moscow with their own peculiar set of criteria.

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[*] Fabre-Luce writes today in Le Monde, and has done for many years, while Duverger is still one of the great luminaries of French political science. He was bitterly disappointed that Mitterrand didn’t appoint him a member of the Constitutional Council. But everyone on the left holds against him the fact that one of his earliest academic articles was an examination of the Vichy law to deprive French Jews of citizenship. It was a prelude to all that followed: once they weren’t citizens, you could do anything to them. Duverger, in his article, took the attitude that the law was no bad thing. This will never be forgotten. So while he is the author of a best-selling book on political parties and of another now on Cohabitation, the shadow of his PPF period has scarred his whole life. Most French academics think it is a great shame and that a young man should be forgiven his follies – a view not shared by French Jews.