In Drancy, in May 1934, the café manager at the Kursaal cinema had no interest in serving a group of fascists who obviously were looking to start a fight, and so he kicked them out. Sensing trouble, the communist newspaper L’Humanité put the word out for leftists to converge on the Parisian suburb, and around 1,200 answered the call. They sang L’Internationale as they moved through Drancy, and they shouted “Soviets everywhere!” as well as “Down with fascism!” and “Liberate Thaelmann!” (the imprisoned head of the German Communist Party who would be executed by the Nazis in 1944). They met with absolutely no resistance, as the fascists dispersed rather than challenge them.
This would be a small but important victory for a coalition of leftist groups in one of the areas that made up the ceinture rouge, or “red belt,” of typically communist suburbs that surrounded the French capital. For my purposes here, it also marked the use, or at least the attempted use, of a cinema for political purposes, in this case as in so many others from the period by one of many French fascist organizations
In a post from May 16th, 2016, I wrote about the most famous instance of fascist provocation at the movies in and around Paris, at the Olympia cinema in Clichy in 1937. The violence there has been acknowledged by historians, although not the centrality of the space of the cinema. These other cases that led up to Clichy, that indeed led up to the fascist takeover of Paris during the war, have gone unnoticed, perhaps because there are just traces of them, in newspaper articles here and there.
Just a few days after the demonstration in Drancy, members of the fascist organization Solidarité Française met at a cinema in Moulins, a town about 180 miles south of Paris, and this time there was violence. Local workers stormed the cinema, and the police, who would also protect the fascists at Clichy in 1937, fought them off. A few policeman were injured, and a number of workers were arrested, interrogated, and then released.
Still in May 1934, this time in the Parisian suburb of Cachan, fascists and the police combined once again, in what L’Humanité called a “state of siege” (état de siège). The Solidarité Française joined forces with another far-right group, L’Action Française, and about 400 fascists overall, protected by around 800 members of local law enforcement, held a meeting at the Cachan-Palace cinema. Communists protested outside the cinema, shouting, as they did in Drancy, “Down with fascism!” as well as “Action through unity!” The police stood for none of this. Instead, they sent police cars and motorcycles crisscrossing through Cachan without stopping, to prevent any large gathering anywhere near the cinema. A number of protestors were injured; others threw rocks at the police. Meanwhile, the fascists were able to hold their meeting.
That same month, in the leftwing, working class Parisian suburb of Saint Denis, fascists gathered in the Kermesse cinema. L’Humanité called that a clear provocation, and asked that “communists, socialists, and those not aligned with any party protest as vigorously as possible.” Indeed, they did, and they, too, used the spaces of popular culture as their headquarters. Rather than meeting in cinemas, they assembled in two of Saint Denis’ theatres, the Municipal and the Hénaff, and then took to the streets in a show of force that the fascists could do nothing about, because in Saint Denis they apparently didn’t have the support of local police.
In none of these instances were fascists interested in watching a movie. Instead, the cinema functioned as a convenient space for a large gathering. We can see, then, that at least during the 1930s, in and around Paris, the typical cinema could be understood as a multiple-use space, ideal for movies, of course, but also for other things. In fact, in the working-class twentieth arrondissement of Paris, there was a cinema designed in just this way, the Bellevilloise, which showed movies and also served as a community cultural center. There also were larger institutions with cinemas attached. At around the same time as the events at Drancy, for example, the Fascistes Slovaques, a Czech expatriate group, met at the cinema connected to the Maison Catholique in Argenteuil, a northern suburb of Paris, where they were shouted down by workers who had come to protest.
The fascists weren’t the only ones to use cinemas around Paris for political meetings. Occasionally, leftwing groups would gather there. Groups might use other kinds of spaces, too, for example when fascists, in spring 1934, met at the Salle Wagram, which is still around today and even at the time was one of the oldest and most distinguished concert halls in Paris, in the seventeenth arrondissement. Fascists seem to have made more use of these public spaces than any other group, perhaps because the Parisian Prefect of Police at the time, Jean Chiappe, shared their political views (he was the man who shut down screenings of L’Âge d’or in Paris in 1930), or perhaps because they were so well funded, by the likes of champagne magnate Pierre Taittinger.
It’s easy to grasp the importance of cinemas to Parisian cultural life during the 1930s. We might be surprised, though, to learn that during the same period, those cinemas were also central to the city’s various political movements, and particularly to the far right. There were often skirmishes at those sites, and sometimes the left got the better of things and sometimes the right did, especially when they were assisted by the police. Of course, though, in just a few years none of this would matter much. Once the Germans occupied Paris, they made different uses altogether of public spaces.
This would include the July 1942 round-up of Parisian Jews at the Vel d’hiv, a velodrome in the fifteenth arrondissement. But this would also extend to Drancy, the same place where fascists were kicked out of the Kursaal cinema in 1934. Many of the Jews at the Vel d’hiv may well have spent time in that Parisian suburb, because the Nazis established an internment center there in June 1942, a place to hold Jews until they could be sent to extermination camps.