Communism and Collaboration: Simon Sabiani and Politics in Marseille, 1919-1944
Simon Sabiani was a Corsican neighborhood boss in Marseille from the 1920s until the end of the German occupation in 1944. Emerging from World War I having lost an eye but having gained many decorations along with a passionate hatred for war and the establishment, the young immigrant found his first political home in the Marseille branch of the new Communist party. He was the first Communist elected to a city office, that of neighborhood assemblyman, in 1922. Like many other unruly first recruits, Sabiani grew restive under the Party’s increasing rigidity and dogmatism. He left it in the spring of 1923, taking along his neighborhood following to found his own Parti socialiste-communiste, half a party and half a personal clique.
With the covert aid of conservatives (any enemy would do against the Communists) Sabiani consolidated his electoral hold on a poor quarter of Marseille, established a newspaper, and eventually, as assistant mayor, became a power in City Hall in the early 1930s. He even sat in the Chamber of Deputies in Paris from 1928 to 1936. In Marseille, he presided over a little empire of clients and friends, many of them natives of the same Corsican village, some of them involved in protection rackets, smuggling, and prostitution. He held court every day in a favorite bar, dispensing jobs and favors. Sabiani was personally ascetic, generous to his friends, a man of “honor” in the sense of repaying scrupulously every service rendered to his family or clan, and violent only within the limits of the usual Mediterranean political roughhouse. He is still remembered with affection by his followers from those days.
The Popular Front coalition, allying the progressive middle class of Socialist and Radical voters to the Communists, captured City Hall in 1935 and put an end to Sabiani’s power to dispense favors. In the political wilderness, he grew closer to Jacques Doriot, another former Communist, whose personal following in the Paris working-class suburb of Saint-Denis had provided part of the original constituency of the Parti populaire français (PPF), the closest thing France had to a fascist party in the 1930s. Insofar as Sabiani had a program, he stood now for Doriot’s mixture of neutralism, nationalism, antiparliamentarism, and anticommunism.
The defeat of 1940 and the end of the Third Republic opened up new possibilities for Sabiani as the PPF’s man in Marseille. As long as Marshal Pétain’s Vichy regime (which was more conservative than fascist) controlled the south of France without a direct German presence, however, Sabiani remained an outsider. Like his mentor Doriot, he openly criticized Vichy for joining Hitler’s New Europe too lukewarmly. In November 1942, the Germans occupied the south of France and Sabiani became their most useful go-between in Marseille. He had favors to dispense again. He built a new clientele—proportionately less Corsican and less lower-middle-class this time and with more unemployed drifters—by supplying goods, services, and agents to German arms buyers and the German security police. He …