Maurras, Charles (1868–1952)

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MAURRAS, CHARLES (1868–1952)


French nationalist.

For more than five decades Charles Maurras attempted to delegitimize the French Revolution and the Third Republic (1875–1940). He was born on 20 April 1868 in Martigues in Provence, near Marseille. His father was a secular civil servant; his mother was an observant Catholic and royalist. Maurras's harsh view of life can be traced to childhood traumas—the death of his father when the boy was only six and a severe hearing loss at fourteen that eliminated the possibility of the naval career he had planned. In 1885 he moved to Paris to be a literary writer and journalist.


Literature led Maurras to politics. He disliked Romanticism but admired the rationalism of ancient Greece and of French classicism. He blamed what he saw as nineteenth-century "barbarism" and "decadence" on the French Revolution, which had replaced hierarchy and authority with individual rights and democracy.

The Dreyfus affair was the driving force behind the rise of Maurras's organization, the Action Française. After Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain on the General Staff of the French army, was falsely accused of providing French military secrets to Germany, France split into defenders of individual rights (Dreyfusards) and nationalists who placed the nation above the individual (anti-Dreyfusards). A leader of the anti-Dreyfusards, Maurras argued that any means were justified in the defense of France and that "politics came first" (" politique d'abord "). Integral nationalism and monarchy would unite the country and eliminate Jews, Protestants, Freemasons, and métèques (a derogatory term for resident foreigners). While awaiting a coup d'état, he championed a reactionary political consciousness. Thus the Action Française established a newspaper, a league, and the Camelots du Roi, a group that disrupted universities, law courts, and theaters. By the outbreak of World War I, Maurras had already found a considerable following among students, royalists, nationalists, conservatives, and Catholics.

During the war he expressed limited support for the Union Sacrée (Sacred Union), and the Action Française's extreme nationalism raised the organization's prestige even further. But Maurras's vituperation against internationalists played a role in Raoul Villain's assassination of Jean Jaurès, the Socialist Party leader, on 31 July 1914, and allegations by Léon Daudet and Maurras against alleged foreign spies, based on little or no evidence, ruined many lives. Their partly unsubstantiated accusations against the Radical politicians Louis-Jean Malvy and Joseph Caillaux helped bring about the collapse of the Union Sacrée. They also contributed toward the climate of public opinion that brought the radical republican Georges Clemenceau to power in November 1917.

During the postwar period, the Action Française advocated a hard peace with Germany. Maurras praised Premier Raymond Poincaré's occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923 but castigated Aristide Briand's rapprochement with Germany at mid-decade.

The violence of the Action Française had a significant impact on domestic French politics in 1923. After the anarchist Germaine Berton assassinated Marius Plateau, head of the Camelots du Roi, in January, the Camelots destroyed opposition newspapers. In May, openly mimicking Italian Blackshirt methods, the Camelots physically assaulted four prominent liberal democratic and moderate socialist political figures (two of them deputies). In response, the Radical leader É douard Herriot reoriented his party toward the Cartel des Gauches, a coalition with the Socialists, against "fascism." Premier Poincaré, who had carried on a secret correspondence with Maurras, refused to break with the Action Française.


Maurras suffered a severe setback in 1926 when Pope Pius XI (r. 1922–1939) condemned the Action Française. An agnostic, Maurras nonetheless incorporated the Catholic Church of order, authority, hierarchy, and discipline into his integral nationalism. The pope wanted young Catholics to militate in the Catholic Action movement instead of the Action Française. The condemnation strictly forbade Catholics from belonging to the organization and from reading the Action Française's newspaper and Maurras's other writings.

The Action Française also faced a challenge from within its own ranks. Georges Valois wanted to fuse integral nationalism and syndicalism and to attract workers and veterans. For Maurras, Valois's creation of a newspaper and a fascist political party (the Faisceau) in 1925 opened an irreconcilable breach.

Some scholars regard the Action Française as an "early fascism," while others characterize it as reactionary but also as a link between earlier nationalism and 1930s fascism. Both the Action Française and fascism display a hostility toward liberal democracy, socialism, and communism; both embrace nationalism, call for violence, and eject groups from the national community, particularly Jews. Unlike fascist leaders, however, Maurras was an elitist, did not seek a mass following, lacked a will to action, and favored decentralization on the model of the ancien régime.


Maurras contributed to the intense political polarization of the mid-1930s in France. The Action Française served to publicize the Stavisky affair of 1934, yet the crisis showed once again that Maurras was more a polemicist than a man of action. On the night of 6 February 1934, as leaguers, most of them rightists and many inspired by Maurras's invectives, were seeking to storm the National Assembly, Maurras printed up the next morning's newspaper and wrote poetry. Subsequently, another secession/expulsion rocked the Action Française, as a group of dissident Camelots accused the "maison mère" (mother house) of inaction and formed the Comité Secrèt d'Action Révolutionnaire, or Organisation Secrète d'Action Révolutionnaire, which in 1936–1937 plotted to overthrow the Popular Front government and the Third Republic. In retaliation for their alleged betrayal, the Action Française nicknamed the secessionists "the Cagoule" ("the hooded ones," a derogatory comparison to the Ku Klux Klan). Maurras struggled for turf against other challengers on the extreme right as well, particularly Colonel François de la Rocque's large Croix de Feu/Parti Social Français. Maurras hurled epithets at the Popular Front government, which dissolved the rightist leagues. His death threats against the Jewish and socialist premier Léon Blum and other parliamentarians earned Maurras a seven-month jail sentence in 1936–1937. In 1938, however, he was voted into the Académie Française, and in 1939 Pope Pius XII lifted the Catholic Church's interdict.

During the 1930s, ideology increasingly colored Maurras's assessments of foreign policy. He vehemently opposed sanctions against Benito Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia and favored Francisco Franco's Nationalists during the Spanish civil war. Most significantly, Maurras fervently supported the Munich Treaty and appeasement, since he hated domestic enemies and Stalin's communism at least as much as Hitler's Germany.


After the defeat of France and the advent of the Nazi occupation in 1940, Maurras enthusiastically characterized Marshal Philippe Pétain's policies as a "divine surprise." Although he did not support the ultra collaborationists in Paris, his unwavering defense of Pétain entailed support of Vichy's persistent collaboration with Germany. Maurras and his newspaper, published in Lyon, condemned Vichy's enemies, supported the paramilitary Milice against the Resistance, and continued his vicious rhetorical assaults against Jews. Until the end of his life, he blamed the Jews for the war and the German occupation. Sentenced to life in prison and stripped of his civil rights after the war, Maurras shouted, "This is the revenge of Dreyfus" (Weber, p. 475). He was freed from prison for health reasons shortly before his death on 16 November 1952.

Maurras's Action Française became perhaps the most influential mouthpiece for the reactionary Right in France. And Maurras shaped minds outside France, for example, in Belgium, Switzerland, the Iberian Peninsula, Quebec, and Latin America. His movement lay somewhere between reaction and fascism. He inculcated in his followers hostility to individual rights, to equality, democracy, and parliamentary government. He deepened French political divisions and inspired the Vichy regime and its war against the Jews, sharing in that regime's defeat.

See alsoAction Française; Fascism; Stavisky Affair.


Arnal, Oscar L. Ambivalent Alliance: The Catholic Church and the Action Française 1899–1939. Pittsburgh, Pa., 1985.

Blatt, Joel. "Relatives and Rivals: The Responses of the Action Française to Italian Fascism, 1919–26." European Studies Review 11, no. 3 (July 1981): 263–292.

——. "Action Française and the Vatican." In Encyclopedia of the Vatican and Papacy, edited by Frank J. Coppa, 3–5. Westport, Conn., 1999.

——. "The Cagoule Plot, 1936–1937." In Crisis and Renewal in France 1918–1962, edited by Kenneth Mouré and Martin S. Alexander, 86–104. New York, 2002.

Goyet, Bruno. Charles Maurras. Paris, 2000.

Mazgaj, Paul. The Action Française and Revolutionary Syndicalism. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1979.

Nolte, Ernst. Three Faces of Fascism: Action Française, Italian Fascism, National Socialism. Translated by Leila Vennewitz. Munich, 1965.

Rémond, René. The Right Wing in France from 1815 to De Gaulle. Translated by James M. Laux. Philadelphia, 1966.

Soucy, Robert. French Fascism: The First Wave, 1924–1933. New Haven, Conn., 1986.

Tannenbaum, Edward R. The Action Française. New York, 1962.

Weber, Eugen. Action Française. Stanford, Calif., 1962.

Winock, Michel. "L'Action Française." In Histoire de l'extreme droite en France, edited by Michel Winock. Paris, 1993.

Joel Blatt