On Saturday night, a mob of forty far-right militants, carrying iron bars, baseballs bats and batons, rampaged through the city of Le Mans, France attacking the city’s only gay bar, as well as well-known left-wing haunt, Le Lézard. The riot followed a demonstration in the town by far-right monarchist group Action Française.
While Action Française were quick to distance themselves from Saturday’s violence, fascist hooligan group Ouest Causals (West Casuals) were more than happy to claim responsibility for the carnage. In a post on their public Facebook page, Ouest Casuals describe the attack as a deliberate retaliation against Collectif Antifasciste de la Sarthe who had opposed them earlier in the day.
Saturday’s demonstration was organised by Action Française to ‘commemorate’ the 1793 War in the Vendée and to demand that the French state officially recognise it as a genocide. For those unfamiliar with this particularly bloody moment of French history: The War in the Vendée was a counter-revolutionary uprising against the Jacobin revolutionary government launched by Monarchist and Catholic forces in western France. After a series of early victories, the uprising was forcibly put down by the armies of the revolutionary government, including the infamous colonnes infernales (infernal columns) led by General Louis Marie Turreau. The actions of these columns have long been the subject of heated debate, with a small but vocal number of historians – supported by the most backward sections of the French far right – claiming that it constituted a ‘Franco-French genocide’. Indeed, Saturday’s demonstration was publicly supported by local National Rally (née Front National) candidate Louis de Cacqueray-Valmenier.
For far-right groups like Action Française, the struggle over the memory of the Vendée is part and parcel of a wider struggle against the legacy of the French revolution(s). Founded in 1899, Action Française is a Catholic nationalist organisation that seek the ‘return’ of a hereditary monarchy in France. Once the most powerful force on the French nationalist right, AF’s fortunes waned after WW2, with its chief idealogue, Charles Maurras, sentenced to life in prison for his support of Pétain’s Vichy goverment.
In recent years, however, the organisation has seen an influx of new members, including students and young people drawn into their orbit by ‘les manif pour tous’ campaign against same-sex marriage. Bolstered by these new members, Action Française have sought to become a much more visible presence in towns and cities outside of Paris. Indeed, at the same time as the mob rampaged through Le Mans, in the nearby town of La Roche sur Yon, a bust of the French philosopher, mystic and radical political activist Simone Weil was defaced and plastered with AF stickers.
What these events make clear is that, whether or not Action Française is, strictly speaking, a fascist organisation (a point on which the noble profession of political science is reportedly divided), they can – and do – mobilise a milieu of violent, far-right supporters who pose a real and present danger to minorities and anti-fascists across France.
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