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The Friendly Fascist

Communism and Collaboration: Simon Sabiani and Politics in Marseille, 1919-1944

by Paul Jankowski
Yale University Press, 240 pp., $27.50

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 could get his friends’ sons out of the dreaded Labor Service by enrolling them in the PPF or in the Anti-Bolshevik Legion. These rewarding activities were suddenly treated as criminal when Marseille was liberated by French and Allied troops in August 1944. Sabiani managed to escape, and died in 1956 in exile in Barcelona. Many of his clients, however, were tried. Among their crimes were giving away Jews in hiding to the Germans. Some were executed. Documents from their trials form the heart of Paul Jankowski’s evidence about Sabiani’s following.

Sabiani’s tale, told by Jankowski with wit and erudition, sounds at first like a grade-B movie with a leading role for a politicized George Raft conceived by Marcel Pagnol (but without Pagnol’s sentimental nostalgia). Then one hears echoes of a real movie, Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien. Malle’s antihero, a boy in rural southern France, wants to join the Resistance, is rejected as too young, and winds up working enthusiastically for the pro-German auxiliary police, the Milice. The fate of Simon Sabiani’s son François was strikingly similar. François Sabiani was preparing in late 1940 to escape to London to join De Gaulle. Simon drove all night to Port-Vendres, on the Spanish frontier, to bring him back. Later François expressed his eagerness to fight by joining his father’s other recruits in the Anti-Bolshevik Legion. He was killed on the Russian front in June 1942, wearing a German uniform. François Sabiani was not the only one of Simon Sabiani’s followers to have spent some time on both sides of the barricades; seven of seventeen Sabianistes tried after the Liberation for working with the German police had also been in the Resistance at one time or another. Some of course had turned coat to save their lives, but not all.

Paul Jankowski’s gritty street-level perspective on collaboration and resistance plants us in the middle of a hot debate about who sided with the Nazis in occupied countries such as France, and why. Malle’s film was execrated by French guardians of pious memories, for whom collaboration and resistance stood for conscious and antithetical political commitments. To find so much ambiguity and accident in the way some people arrived on one side or the other seemed to them sacrilege. Ideology alone gives us a poor road map to Sabiani’s political journey. It was not a fixed political creed that led Sabiani to work for the Nazis, but a mixture of ambition, opportunity, circumstance, and the closing of other profitable choices in the particular political itinerary he followed.

Anticommunism was the first decisive fork in the road Sabiani took. Next he encountered a new pattern of power: the old politics in which a local boss such as Sabiani built up a group of clients was being supplanted in Marseille by mass movements using national organizations and propaganda to recruit voters. Sabiani, in fact, tried to play both the new politics and the old, and to be both a party leader and a boss. The rise of the Popular Front could be seen in Marseille as a victory for national politics over clan politics as much as a shift from center to left; it shunted Sabiani outside the charmed circle of people with real power. Only the destruction of the Third Republic would let him back in.

It is not Jankowski’s intention to define either fascism or collaboration. His book is about the particular form of Mediterranean “clientelism” that Sabiani relished and excelled in. Clientelism, whether as practiced by Sabiani or, in its gamier underworld form, sometimes identified with the Mafia, had, of course, no more necessary connection to fascism than to parliamentary regimes. It antedated them both, and both parliamentary liberalism and fascism penetrated local clan politics in places like Marseille and Sicily only partially and by compromise. Jankowski calls Sabiani’s Marseille clientele “le village en République,” a nice play on Maurice Agulhon’s classic book La République en village. Agulhon showed how republican values of electoral democracy, social equality, and secularism penetrated into the little towns of Mediterranean France in the 1840s, aided by a network of working-class clubs and cafés. Jankowski reminds us that the “sociability” of Mediterranean neighborhood life could cut more than one way.

Mass national politics came to Marseille from the right as well as from the left. Colonel de La Rocque’s nationalist conservative movement Croix de Feu did as well as the Communist party in the late 1930s, and for a time in the mid-1980s, until his bubble burst, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s anti-immigrant Front national looked capable of taking over City Hall in the vacuum left by the death of longtime socialist boss Gaston Defferre. Though he doesn’t mention Le Pen, Jankowski makes it plain how thoroughly Sabiani’s neighborhood favor giving differed from the Front national‘s televised campaign centered on xenophobia. Although Marseille was already “the most cosmopolitan city in France” in the 1930s, Sabiani did not play the racist card. He did favors for his Algerian clients as well as for others, and he rarely indulged in the widespread anti-Semitism of that era until it became public policy after 1940. Although his followers turned over Jews to the Germans, Sabiani’s own violence seems to have been exclusively verbal.

The Mafia in Sicily, following a course quite different from Sabiani’s, wound up on the anti-Fascist side during the Mussolini era. Fascism had little following in the south of Italy, and had to be imposed there from above. The young Sicilian Fascist party could establish itself only by displacing the old Liberal party politicians, who had practiced clientele politics like Sabiani, and who in some cases had strong-arm helpers whom their enemies called “Mafiosi.” Between 1925 and 1929, the Fascist authorities made a highly publicized assault on the Sicilian “Mafia” under the strong-willed and self-dramatizing prefect Cesare Mori. In his recent study, Fascism and the Mafia,* however, which created a stir when its Italian version appeared two years ago, Christopher Duggan doubts that any single all-powerful “Mafia” organization existed in Sicily or anywhere else except as a myth. Referring to the “Mafia,” according to Duggan, has been an intellectual shortcut to understanding client politics in regions where the state is an interloper and where, by deeply ingrained tradition, men settle their disputes privately. The term Mafia gained wide currency after the new Italian state tried to impose its rule on the south after 1860, because denouncing an enemy to the thinly stretched Italian police as a “Mafioso” was an excellent way to get revenge. Duggan believes that Fascist Italy made little headway in supplanting clienteles and personal vengeance with national law in Sicily. The roots of the clientele system lay deep in social and economic privilege—for example, in the relations among large (often absentee) landowners of big estates, estate managers, and the local villagers. Fascism was reluctant to attack the system for fear of estranging its conservative allies. According to Duggan, Fascism compromised with “Mafia” leaders just as the liberal state had done before and was to do after. But there was no automatic link between the lawlessness of Fascism, with its parallel police squads that acted outside normal state bureaucracy, and traditional bosses whose clients lived outside the law, either in Sicily or in Marseille.

Jankowski makes it clear that he is talking mainly about one experience of collaboration, not collaboration in general. He thinks that only about 1 percent of the Marseille population worked actively with the Germans. He classifies the various kinds of collaboration practiced in Marseille as “hard” and “soft,” and then seems to suggest that the “soft” kind—for example the activities of intellectuals in the Groupe Collaboration, which amounted to taking part in the right-wing salons, or the German contracts accepted by businessmen that saved their employees’ jobs—was “harmless.” It could perhaps be objected that Jankowski chose to study a form of collaboration that was more picturesque than decisive. One yearns to learn more about the social and economic leaders of Marseille, here visible only just offstage (about half of the building contractors in Marseille worked for the Germans, under duress, Jankowski says, and, on balance, to the community’s benefit). And of course the leaders of the Vichy regime made it all respectable, by giving official sanction to collaboration d’état. Without the cover provided by Vichy, however, Sabiani might well have led fewer people into giving active assistance to the German police and army in Marseille in 1942–1944. The choices made by Vichy’s ministers and leading businessmen mattered more in the long run than what the little people and even the local bosses did in places like Marseille, though it was little people who usually bore the brunt—whether on the Russian front or later, when scores were settled after the Liberation.

  1. *

    Yale University Press, 1989.

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