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.
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.
Stavisky himself was curiously irrelevant to the affair that made his name celebrated, since he was dead before it got underway. This irony is acknowledged in Jankowski’s book since we are given only one photograph of Serge Alexandre, taken by the police photographer. His body is lying on the floor of the ski chalet in Chamonix. The shot-away face is hidden and the most prominent feature of the portrait is his carpet slippers. In fact Stavisky, like many confidence tricksters, had a pleasant face. He had large appealing brown eyes, wavy brown hair, and a cheeky expression that made him look like a bright bellhop starting life in the lobby of a luxury hotel. When he was still a young man one of Stavisky’s victims described him as “Russian, effeminate, lascivious” and claimed that none of the women he had seduced and cheated had ever sued him. That was not quite correct but it was no more inaccurate than the stereotypical reaction of the cultivated Etonian diplomat and anti-Nazi Robert Vansittart, who from London in 1934 described Stavisky as “one of those fugitives from Russian pogroms who abused western hospitality, part of the dregs and scum which change places.” Jankowski’s research uncovers a more interesting character.
Serge Alexandre was born in Slobodka, near Kiev, in the Ukraine in 1886. His Jewish parents brought him to France three years later and the family was naturalized by 1900. His father was a dentist who eventually acquired a good address in the 8th arrondissement near the Champs-Élysées and the boy was sent to a prestigious lycée. He was said to be stage-struck but, according to Jankowski, his only known link with the stage came in 1909 when Sacha, aged twenty-three, and his grandfather swindled the staff of a Paris theater out of their wages and went on the run. When war broke out in 1914 Stavisky was twenty-eight and was called up by the French army. He was supposed to march off to recover Alsace and Lorraine but he didn’t march very far. He turned out to be a delicate young man who had to be discharged from the army for a variety of stomach complaints, including appendicitis. Perhaps he was of a nervous disposition; or perhaps the dentist’s son was able to take advantage of the illicit wartime trade in powders that would provoke the symptoms of serious illness. His health improved as soon as the war ended.
In 1915 Stavisky, on military sick leave, made an early appearance in court for swindling an old lady out of 25,000 francs. He received a six-month sentence but jumped bail. In 1916 during the Battle of Verdun, which lasted ten months and involved most of the regiments in the French army, Stavisky was some distance behind the lines selling munitions he had not actually paid for to agents of the Italian government. In 1917 he made his first contribution to the war effort. Using his fiancée’s money he launched a nightclub in the Rue Caumartin and put on musical numbers with titles such as “The Soldier on Leave” or “The Good Patriot.” He was finally arrested in November 1918, just before the armistice, and was locked up for three months in Fresnes prison, only to be released under the general amnesty that celebrated France’s victory.
It had been a long apprenticeship, but when the brave new postwar world was born, Serge Alexandre Stavisky was ready for it. Emerging from the ranks of thousands of petty crooks and swindlers who knew how to alter checks and forge stocks, Stavisky was arrested only once more, and that was for less than two weeks.
Instead he became a virtuoso operator in the world of mirrors that was financial Paris in the 1920s, a capital whose public life was filled with suicidal judges, blackmailing journalists, police officers who were working for swindlers, and swindlers who were assisting politicians to bankrupt insurance companies. Starting out as a police informer, Stavisky soon had policemen who were informing for him. Chauffeurs are frequently the best witnesses of their employer’s private conversations and the official papers consulted by Jankowski are enlivened by his chauffeur’s memories. Stavisky said he liked the stories of Edgar Wallace, “because of the criminals.” He was never on the side of the police. “They bore me,” he said. When he was in a tight corner he would tell his anxious associates, “The big question is to know how to arrange things. There’s always some way to reach an understanding with everyone!”
The talent that put Serge Alexandre ahead of the field was his ability to cultivate and charm. He met some of his most influential contacts through a woman, Arlette Simon, a Chanel model and “Riviera Queen,” the daughter of a provincial notable who was a friend of the lawyer and minister Joseph Paul-Boncour. Arlette met Stavisky at a dinner party in 1925, thought he was a banker, fell for him, and introduced him to her family circle. Stavisky had a genius for using one introduction to procure another. Soon he had acquired a string of deputies and senators who had met him and liked him and who thought they knew who he was. His acquaintances included Colette, the novelist Joseph Kessel, and Pierre Laval, already by 1932 an ex–prime minister. He acquired funds by a similar use of personal contacts. “Investing” money on behalf of A he would “buy” (but not pay for) something from B, which he would sell at a profit to C, who would in turn be persuaded to invest—through Stavisky. Money that had disappeared in the first swindle was replaced by money extracted for the second. Stavisky also specialized in press relations. Paris abounded in scandal sheets that turned a profit by blackmailing public figures whose secrets they had obtained. Even honest bankers paid in order to avoid publicity. Stavisky soon learned to manipulate this system to his advantage so that the probity and future success of “Monsieur Alexandre” were highly recommended by journalists who knew the truth about him all too well.
Not all his ventures succeeded; he himself was once swindled over the price of some racehorses by an eminent Rothschild. But Stavisky had skillfully placed himself at the center of a complex web of loans, investments, partial repayments, and simple thefts where no one could be sure who was holding what on behalf of whom. Anyone who made a fuss was immediately repaid and almost as quickly persuaded to invest some more. If there was no money available for immediate repayment Stavisky would offer dinner instead with some genuinely eminent figure who was apparently Serge Alexandre’s new best friend. This higher form of theft requires a baser form of genius. Stavisky could bamboozle shrewd men without losing the common touch. At least one of the police officers who initially arrested him went to work on his behalf. On another occasion, released from prison and in need of a short-term identity, he assumed the name of his drunken jailer.
Stavisky kept a suite in the Hotel Claridge on the Champs-Élysées, and he loved to go shopping; in fact he spent money lavishly, particularly if he could spend it on Arlette. Before he shot himself he said goodbye to Arlette in a small Russian restaurant near the Place de l’Alma. He told her that he had ruined everything, that he was sorry, and that they would never take him alive, since he would not disgrace her or their son by going to prison. His father had suffered from the same horror of being locked up. In 1926, the successful dentist and survivor of the Ukrainian pogroms came under suspicion of assisting his son’s criminal career and committed suicide beside a suburban rail track outside Paris. He was wearing his hat and spectacles and carrying his voter’s card for convenient identification, and he chose to shoot himself in the mouth. That final self-judgment, or fraternal challenge to the mortician, by Stavisky senior is the sort of detail that would certainly have caught the attention of Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.
Richard Cobb was right to date the France of Simenon from the Stavisky affair. Through Jankowski’s generous use of detail one can see how the Russian adventurer could easily have become the central character in a roman dur by Simenon. Jankowski notes in passing that the best-selling author was actually employed to write a popular newspaper series on the Stavisky investigation (the articles do not rank among Simenon’s better journalism). But there were other connections. The honest police officer who investigated the death of Judge Prince, Commissaire Marcel Guillaume, had earlier helped Simenon with practical advice while the novelist was creating the character of Maigret. Commissaire Guillaume, like Maigret, had a dislike of violent interrogations and told Simenon that he had found a more effective method for eliciting the truth. He would make a suspect strip naked in front of a roomful of fully clothed detectives. “They don’t tell lies for long in that costume,” said Guillaume.
One of the murderers Guillaume had already questioned and convicted was an old friend and former colleague of Georges Simenon. Sacha Stavisky seems to have exercised a powerful and possibly malign influence on the imagination of the young novelist. Like Maigret, the detectives who tracked Stavisky unavailingly over the years had to waste hours sitting around in the lobbies of hôtels de luxe being snubbed by a disdainful management. In his well-to-do old age, Georges Simenon, too, kept a suite in the same Hotel Claridge, the building that was eventually to become the scene of his own daughter’s suicide by shooting.
Following the Stavisky Affair, during the last years of the Third Republic, Simenon’s work grew in popularity. In the sordid realities of the novelist’s imagined world, the world of The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By, The House by the Canal, The Night-Club, or Poisoned Relations, novels that deal with alcoholism, lunacy, the coldblooded seduction of domestic servants, suicide, and the association of sex with death or paralysis, Simenon reflected the national cynicism and despair that intensified in the wake of the Stavisky affair and culminated in the military debacle of 1940.
Jankowski’s conclusions are the opposite of sensational—Stavisky did kill himself; no new names were involved; and Judge Prince also died by his own hand. But Jankowski nonetheless succeeds in throwing new light on the affair, and in reestablishing its importance. It is precisely because Sacha Stavisky was less sinister than first appeared to be the case that he is more significant. The best measure of the integrity of the Third Republic was that someone of so little weight could cause so much damage. But Jankowski has largely ignored the wider significance of the episode. To understand the violence of the reaction it aroused in France one has to remember that it took place at a time when European democracy, having been throttled at birth in Russia, was suppressed in Italy and Portugal and was already under attack in Spain. Meanwhile, following the German elections of March 1933, the Nazi Party had gained enough seats to be declared the sole legal party and Hitler had acquired dictatorial powers. During the last nine months of the year 30,000 German refugees, mostly Jewish, entered France. (The anti-Semitic press inflated the figure to “100,000 German Jewish immigrants.”)
Perhaps in these circumstances the most interesting aspect of the Stavisky affair is not that it brought the Republic to the brink, but that the crisis passed. Instead of leading to a French Kristallnacht, “Stavisky” was followed by the Popular Front. Yet in 1934 France, like Germany, had a well-supported, nationalist, anti-Semitic right, angry about what it took to be the raw deal the country had received from the Treaty of Versailles and comforted by the hierarchy of its national Catholic Church. Furthermore, in the Third Republic, unlike in Weimar, anti-Semitism was intellectually respectable. The maîtres à penser of racism were at their desks. Overt anti-Semitism was evident in the work of such leading writers as Céline, Paul Morand, Jean Giraudoux, and Drieu la Rochelle. Both countries harbored armed political bands ready to support a fascist program. Nonetheless, while Stavisky, the perfect Jewish scapegoat, might have been seen as a truly guilty successor to Alfred Dreyfus, there was no coup. In fact, as Jankowski emphasizes, few of those who reported on the Stavisky affair at the time even mentioned that he was Jewish. They usually described him as Russian.
Instead of mounting a coup d’état the leaders of the extreme right called off their dogs. The royalist Charles Maurras, one of the forty “Immortals” of the Académie Française, and founder of Action Française, emphasized his disdain for Hitler’s vulgar antisémi-tisme de peau while himself embodying the antisémitisme de l’esprit that was careful to state its respect for France’s Jewish war heroes. His fastidious distinction helped ensure that, within eight years, dignified veterans in three-piece suits could be seen walking through the streets of occupied Paris wearing both their war medals and the yellow star. They thought themselves safe because they had fought under Pétain at Verdun. It was part of their tragedy that the Third Republic retained just enough life to survive Stavisky, challenge the panzers, and make way for collaboration.
December 19, 2002