In 1934 a resounding scandal shook the already-contested regime of interwar France, the ThirdRepublic, toitsfoundations. The Stavisky affair combined the financial scams of a swindler and his accomplices, the weaknesses and susceptibilities of government regulators and elected representatives, the perversion of a free press, and a violent explosion of popular anger that assumed the seditious form of an antiparliamentary riot. The Republic survived. But by how much? And how corrupt a regime did the scandal reveal?
Serge Stavisky (1886–1934), known as "Sacha" or "handsome Serge," was a Ukrainian Jew who arrived in France at the age of three. Nothing in his background or upbringing predisposed him to a life of crime; he grew up in comfortable surroundings and attended one of the Republic's best secondary schools. But by early adulthood he had migrated forever into a marginal milieu of theft, counterfeiting, and confidence games. A stint in prison from 1926 to 1927 left him with an enduring terror of confinement and a determination just as enduring to protect himself from the vengeance of the law by a carapace of personal connections.
Stavisky wove his web of influence assiduously, placing generals and ambassadors on the boards of shaky corporations and insinuating himself by virtue of their goodwill and his own charm into the company of naive and impecunious politicians. Sometimes he retained deputies from the Chamber as legal counsel, granting them handsome honoraria; sometimes he enlisted the support of ministers by wheeling out his hard-won friends from the lesser daily newspapers and the scandal sheets of a chronically indigent press; and sometimes he discouraged the attentions of the law through his ostensible celebrity. Few asked him questions about the source of his riches.
His house of cards finally collapsed on Christmas Eve 1933, when Treasury Department officials uncovered an elaborate system of forged savings bonds that Stavisky had orchestrated behind the innocuous facade of a Basque country bank, the Crédit Municipal de Bayonne. The revelation, coupled with the fleeing swindler's death in a chalet in the Alps as police closed in, set off a scandal that quickly engulfed the country's representative institutions, its free press, its judiciary, and its police. Stavisky, the outcry went, had corrupted the deputies, the magistrates, the journalists; he had purchased influence and immunity; he had paid, in the end, with his life for knowing too much and too many. In fact, he had compromised perhaps six deputies and senators, and then mostly by retaining their legal services; had delayed rather than subverted the hand of justice; had bought a few friends only in the lesser press; and had committed suicide rather than face the renewed prospect of a lonely incarceration. But few wished to believe such mundane truths, and from their incredulity sprang scandal.
The most strident outcry came from the far right, from the xenophobic and anti-Semitic newspapers Action Française and Je Suis Partout, but also from veterans organizations such as the Croix de Feu and from a less incendiary right wing that deplored the weaknesses of the parliamentary regime and yearned for a strong executive branch. The affair did not so much create as intensify such yearnings, but the varied laments at the lost victory of World War I, economic stagnation, and diplomatic impotence made for a powerful mix that finally exploded on the night of 6 February 1934, after six weeks of almost daily headlines about Sacha Stavisky and his accomplices. A violent antiparliamentary riot on and around the Place de la Concorde left 15 dead and 1,435 wounded. For the only time in the history of the Third Republic, sedition forced out a sitting government, that of the Radical Édouard Daladier.
So strong was the belief in the "Republic of cronies," as Robert de Jouvenel had called it in his pamphlet of 1914, that when a magistrate who had once investigated Stavisky, Albert Prince, was found dead the following month on the railroad tracks near Dijon, the cry of murder rang out again. He too had committed suicide. But his death relaunched the affair, which finally petered out in the longest trial in French history, the prosecution of twenty of Stavisky's accomplices, in the winter of 1935–1936.
Stavisky had revealed a gray world of influence rather than a black one of corruption, but in the deteriorating climate of the 1930s fancy trumped fact and invective drove out discussion. When Léon Blum formed his Popular Front government in 1936, he endured some of the calumny that the affair had injected into the body politic. Later, Vichy propaganda resurrected the swindler's memory to poison that of the defunct regime. The Third Republic had not been perfect. But it had never been as vile as Stavisky had briefly and unwittingly allowed its enemies to paint it.
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