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The Confidence Man

1.

France’s Third Republic lasted for seventy years and ended in tragedy and fiasco in June 1940. Military defeat and the death of the Republic were followed by the death of democracy. The final act of the Third Republic’s last National Assembly, gathered together on July 10 in the ornate casino of the provincial spa of Vichy, was to place supreme power in the hands of the eighty-four-year-old Marshal Pétain. The Republic had been born in the turmoil of an earlier humiliation: the Franco-Prussian War, the loss of the border provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, and the butchery of the Paris Commune. It had seen the consolidation of France’s colonial empire, the Dreyfus Affair, the triumph of anticlericalism over monarchist Catholicism, the Battle of Verdun, the Pyrrhic revenge of November 1918. By the time it died it was by far the longest-lived republic in France’s history, and remains so today.

For much of the time the Third Republic gave the impression of being a prosperous and optimistic place. In its heyday, with its parliamentary constitution and democratic institutions, it appeared to have resolved the country’s bitter conflict between sovereign and assembly, privilege and poverty, church and state. France could at last concentrate on its self-appointed, worldwide, rôle civilisateur. The Third Republic was not only the center of a global civilization, it provided the setting of the Belle Époque, of the worlds of Pagnol and Proust, of the art of Rodin and Renoir and Braque, of the music of Fauré and Debussy.

But behind the glittering show there was something empty and menacing in the Republic’s social contract. For a land of sophisticated frivolity the birthrate was disastrously low. And for “a republic of virtue” it had a surprising number of affaires, or political scandals. The Dreyfus Affair, perhaps the most famous of all political scandals, in which a Jewish army officer was framed and convicted of espionage, took twelve years to resolve and revealed the true strength of French reaction. But it was followed by the persecution of religious orders by the anticlerical Radical Party leader Emile Combes, and by the secret blacklisting of Catholic army officers. In some ways progressive prejudice was shown to be as deeply entrenched as anti-Semitism.

By May 1940, when the Germans attacked, the French had had enough. Many of them went to war unwillingly, munichois in their hearts, grumbling and sullen, sabotaging their own war effort, ready in many cases to throw down their arms. Léon Werth in his great journal of the debacle described seeing a disciplined French unit preparing to shell a German position and being abused by women bystanders shouting, “Lâches! Lâches!” (cowards). One reason why Pétain was initially regarded as a national savior was the widely held view that his term of office could not possibly be as bad as the Third Republic.

For the historian Richard Cobb the Republic’s turning point came with the Stavisky Affair, a political scandal which is now the subject of a definitive study by Paul Jankowski, associate professor of history at Brandeis University. Cobb considered that “Stavisky,” which reached its climax in February 1934, was a watershed, dividing the years of light from the years of darkness, the joyful vision of René Clair from the defeated world of Georges Simenon.* It sounded the death knell of the republic of virtue and led directly to Vichy. It was because of the futile and politically irrelevant activities of the fraudulent financier Serge Alexandre Stavisky that the bitterest enemies of the Republic chose to unmask and launch an armed uprising that brought France to the brink of a fascist coup.

The storm broke on Christmas Eve, 1933, with the news of the arrest of the director of the Crédit Municipal (municipal pawnshop and loan office) in the southern town of Bayonne, who was accused of issuing over 200 million francs’ worth of false negotiable bonds. The bonds were valueless since they were secured against emeralds supplied by a jeweler, “Monsieur Alexandre.” Some of these emeralds did not exist, others were made of glass. Most investors had supposed that municipal bonds were backed by the state, but when the Bayonne bank collapsed nobody stepped in to negotiate payment. The second man to be arrested was the mayor of Bayonne, who was also the town’s deputy in the National Assembly. At the same time an arrest warrant was issued for the founder of the bank, the same “Monsieur Alexandre”—the alias of a notorious con man, Sacha Stavisky.

Following the first news of the scandal, events moved quickly. Initial inquiries showed that a number of prominent politicians, all well acquainted with “Monsieur Alexandre,” appeared to have some connection with the bank. All the names disclosed were supporters of the Parti Radical, the party that had been in office for most of the previous sixteen years. Stavisky’s lawyer was a Radical deputy; a Radical minister had been peddling the Bayonne bonds, and the Paris public prosecutor, who was the brother-in-law of the Radical prime minister, Camille Chautemps, had allowed Stavisky to defer his trial on earlier fraud charges nineteen times. For the pol-itical press the sale of phony bonds was not a simple matter of a well-connected fraud. It was a story that disclosed the corruption lying at the heart of the Republic.

On January 8, 1934, after two weeks of political uproar, Stavisky was traced to a chalet in the Alpine ski resort of Chamonix. The police report said that he shot himself in the head when they knocked on his door. The satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné reinterpreted this account in a famous headline, “Stavisky commits suicide with a bullet fired at him at point-blank range.” In other words Le Canard accused the prime minister, Chautemps, of ordering the police to murder Stavisky in order to save himself, his government, and a corrupt republic. In the newspaper of the monarchists of the extreme right, L’Action Française, the headline was “Chautemps, leader of a gang of thieves and assassins.” The Communist Party’s L’Humanité joined the chorus, concluding that the government had murdered Stavisky in Chamonix and that all of the country’s principal leaders were his accomplices. During the following four weeks, two governments fell as a rabidly hostile press egged on the nationalist opposition in the Chamber of Deputies, while the Communist representatives sat chanting “Les Soviets! Les Soviets!“—the mantra of revolution. Communists and the extreme right vied with each other to destabilize the country. The street demonstrations grew in violence and culminated on February 6 in a two-day riot around the Place de la Concorde in central Paris during which seventeen people were shot dead and over 1,500 injured.

In that month France reached the verge of insurrection. The writer Roger Martin du Gard wrote to his daughter in Africa, “On all sides they’re…preparing for an awful civil war.” In fact under Gaston Doumergue—a nominally Radical former president recalled as prime minister, who promised institutional reform—civil war was averted. The republic survived, but the affair continued. Three weeks after the riots the body of Albert Prince, the prosecuting judge who had been charged with investigating Stavisky, was found tied to a railway line. Astonishingly, the official verdict was, once again, suicide. Twenty of Stavisky’s accomplices were eventually tried and nine of them, including a retired army general and two Radical deputies, received prison sentences. In all six men connected with the case attempted suicide and four succeeded, reinforcing the suspicion that there had been a high-level conspiracy.

In a more stable society with strong institutions a case like Stavisky’s might have been quickly settled. But the Third Republic after World War I was running on borrowed time. A nation that was bitterly divided, and had been since the 1789 Revolution, a nation that was over 80 percent Catholic with a solid monarchist minority, was being governed by a masonic, republican, anticlerical elite, many of whose members paid lip service to rational and humanistic principles. The separation of powers, the independence of justice, and the rules of democracy were supposed to guide the conduct of politicians who for much of the time instinctively governed on the basis of personal relations. If the Third Republic had one uniting national cause it was probably a hatred of Prussia and the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine. In 1914 the Republic subscribed briefly to l’union sacrée, the blood tie of war. When in November 1918 France won the war, the Third Republic lost its raison d’être. As the soldiers returned to civilian life they resumed their republican or antirepublican identities, and national unity started to unravel.

It is true that four separate official inquiries eventually established that most of Stavisky’s victims were large insurance companies, that a relatively small amount of money had been lost, and that few of the officials and politicians supposedly involved had committed any offense. But these facts did nothing to calm people down. Millions of long-disenchanted citizens wanted to believe that the entire system of government was corrupt. They convinced themselves that their prime minister had practiced political murder, or that Stavisky had been part of a Jewish conspiracy against la Patrie—and that the police, the judges, and the banks were in his pocket.

The political scandal is of course a well-established French institution. A full-blown French affaire must tarnish the name of a minister or institution; it requires a suicide, preferably one that looks like a political murder; the presence of an attractive woman playing some mysterious role does it no harm at all; and when the affaire is officially resolved many of its most important aspects should continue to be questioned. French society seems frequently to be driven by a need for crisis; crisis brings the promise of revolu-tion, or at least radical change, and in a country that has never shown much talent for reform, the prospect of such change brings hope. Where there is no sign of crisis there is no hope, so society turns to the glimmer of hope offered by the semi-crisis of a running affaire. During the last ten years, two of the late President Mitterrand’s close colleagues, one a former prime minister, were found shot dead by police service revolvers. At a time when Mitterrand’s interminable labyrinth of corruption seemed to offer the French electorate no exit, both these “suicides” were swiftly transformed by the press and political observers into suspected cases of political murder. Today, when the institutions of the Fifth Republic are under heavy fire, there are at least four running affaires. One involves the newly reelected President Chirac; another has already brought down the president of the country’s supreme Constitutional Court.

2.

Paul Jankowski’s study is not concerned with the broader setting either of French political scandals or of “Stavisky” but concentrates on the mechanism of the fraud, the characters involved, and the feebleness of the institutions that opposed them. Previous historical studies left a number of questions open. Did official inquiries get to the bottom of the affair, or were other prominent politicians in the pay of Stavisky? What was the truth about his death? And why did Judge Prince, twice decorated in World War I, tie himself to a railway track? Jankowski sets out to answer these questions working from the original records, many of which were previously closed and which he describes as the most voluminous judicial archive he has ever seen.

  1. *

    People and Places (Oxford University Press, 1985).

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