Around 500 French fascists met at the Olympia cinema in Clichy, a suburb just outside of Paris, on 16 March 1937 for a screening of La Bataille. This was either the 1933 French film starring Charles Boyer or the 1934 British remake, which also starred the very popular French actor. They seem to have bought out the cinema that night, and the audience included any number of women and children. But as with so many gatherings of the far right in and around Paris during the 1930’s, this event was not simply planned as a chance to meet and mingle with like-minded ideologues. Communists had gathered around the cinema as a protest, and early in the evening, perhaps even before the movie started, fighting began between the fascists and police on one side and the communists on the other. Several died and many more were injured.
The violence of March 1937 came three years after the February 1934 fascist uprising in Paris, which may well have been a failed attempt at a coup d’état. And that crisis came three years after an earlier, 1931 attempt by fascists to flex their muscles in the city. The 1934 rebellion focused on the famous landmarks of Paris—ground zero was the Place de la Concorde, while there was also rioting at the Elysée Palace, the residence of the French president. The actions of 1931 and 1937 dealt with more modest and everyday aspects of Parisian architecture, the theatre and the cinema. All three were driven, wholly or in large part, by François La Rocque, the leader of one of the more significant (of many) far right groups in France during the pre-war period, the Croix du Feu.
In mid-February, 1931, the Théâtre Nouvel-Ambigu began presentations of L’Affaire Dreyfus. This was an adaptation of a German play about the most charged political and cultural event in France since the Franco-Prussian War, and that, according to the press at the time, emphasized Dreyfus’ innocence. The Ambigu was a distinguished theatre in Paris, in operation on 2 boulevard Saint-Martin in the tenth arrondissement since 1828. By the 1930’s it was part of a significant entertainment district, just down the street from the Folies-Dramatiques cinema, which typically showed films that had just left their first-run, exclusive locations. Indeed, the Ambigu would become a cinema itself in 1938, and then just a few years later reestablish itself as a theatre.
By early March, the reliably anti-semitic La Rocque and his Croix du Feu had had enough. They wrote to the Prefect of Police in Paris, Jean Chiappe, expressing concern that L‘Affaire Dreyfus opened up old wounds that had “placed Frenchman against Frenchman for thirty years,” and urged him to shut the play down. Chiappe, really, with his own far right politics, needed little convincing, and he followed La Rocque’s instructions. L’Affaire Dreyfus was replaced at the Ambigu by L’Homme qui assassina, based on a novel by Claude Farrère—and I’ll get back to him later.
For good measure, that same week in March 1931, Chiappe also put a stop to an evening of classical music at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, because the conductor would be the German Félix Weingaertner, who during the Great War had cast aspersions on the French. Here Chiappe acted on the orders of the fascist champagne mogul Pierre Taittinger.
Chiappe had guaranteed himself at least a minor place in film history just a few months before; it was he who in 1930 banned L’Age d’or from the city after the fascist Ligue des Patriotes had destroyed the screen and attacked viewers at the Studio 28 cinema in the eighteenth arrondissement, where the film had been playing (for a discussion of this and related incidents, see the post from 21 November 2015).
Chiappe was long gone by 1937, having been fired in 1934 (an event that may have helped inspire the fascist rioting that year). In any event, his jurisdiction wouldn’t have extended to Clichy, the northwestern suburb of Paris that shares its southern border with a part of the city.
It was no accident that La Rocque chose Clichy for his group’s movie night. Clichy was one of the “banlieues rouges” of Paris, a “red suburb” known for its communist leadership. In 1936, France’s leftist coalition Popular Front government had banned the Croix de Feu, after which La Rocque reconstituted it as the Parti Social Français, which had as many as half-a-million members by the beginning of World War Two. La Rocque almost certainly hoped to embarrass or intimidate Clichy’s radicals on their own turf, and so tensions were already very high by the night of the screening.
Knowing the details of the movie that night, and, really, knowing much at all about the cinema in Clichy, is extremely difficult. The available materials tell us very little about the Parisian suburbs from the period, with newspapers and other sources giving us only occasional information. But there are some things we can piece together.
The Olympia cinema was on the rue de l’Union in Clichy, just in back of the town hall, situating it perfectly for a political gathering that tried to pass itself off as a benign evening’s entertainment. Clichy had a population of about 55,000 in 1937, normally enough people to support three or four cinemas. It’s possible, though, that because of Clichy’s proximity to Parisian cinemas in the neighboring seventeenth and eighteenth arrondissements, that the Olympia may have been the only exhibition site in the suburb (even today, with about the same population, Clichy only has one cinema, Le Rutebeuf).
The Olympia itself served not only as the gathering place for the fascists, but as a significant space in the battle. Newspaper reports indicate that the police, siding with La Rocque, placed themselves in formation behind the town hall, effectively making it impossible for the communist protestors to go anywhere, blocked on one side by the police and on the other by the cinema. The police attacked, and there was little the communists could do.
The movie that night, La Bataille, had had a long history in the area. The UK version had premiered in January 1934 at the Marignan cinema in the eighth arrondissement, and then in March moved to the Max Linder in the ninth. After that, it was in fairly steady reissue, for instance at three important Parisian cinemas in July 1935 (the Majestic Brune, the Mozart, and the Gambetta-Etoile), and at the very glamorous Louxor in the tenth arrondissement later that same year, as well as the Fério in the twelfth. Charles Boyer, the star of the film, had a large following in Paris, and even while the fascists were gathering in Clichy he was appearing not only there, but at the Marignan and Max Linder cinemas, in the 1936 Selznick film Le Jardin d’Allah (The Garden of Allah), with Marlene Dietrich.
For the fascists in Clichy, though, Boyer was only one of the stars of the night. La Bataille had been based on a novel by Claude Farrère, the same man who wrote the source material for L’Homme qui assassina, the play at the Ambigu that replaced L’Affaire Dreyfus. In addition to being a well-known novelist, Farrère was also a fascist, a contributor to Le Flambeau, the newspaper of the Croix de Feu, and someone who might give La Rocque’s group an imprimatur of cultural respectability. La Bataille may not have had much of a political charge when it typically played in Paris or throughout France during the 1930’s, but it certainly did that night in Clichy.
The violence in Clichy in March 1937 is well known to historians. The place of the cinema in that violence tends to remain peripheral, if mentioned at all. This may in part be due to the difficulty of finding information about cultural events in the Paris suburbs, or just to a general dismissal of the significance of popular culture to prewar French political movements. But the events of 1931 and 1937, as well as those around L’Age d’or in 1930 that I’ve written about before, make it clear that rightwing violence in and around Paris was often significantly connected to the cinema and other cultural venues, for plays or for music, for example. The incidents surrounding the Théâtre Ambigu and the Olympia cinema, no less than those in 1934 at the Place de la Concorde, demonstrate the dangers posed by the French far right, and their understanding of the importance of a range of symbols of Parisian life, from the most elite to the fully mundane.