Fascism and Medicine in Interwar and Vichy France

By Caroline Campbell

Why might a country with strong democratic traditions embrace fascistic forms of governance? How does the history of medicine shed light on the critical question of how radicals undermine popular support for democratic principles?

France provides us with an ideal example. During the 1930s, it was one of the few European democracies left before it fell to Nazi invasion in 1940. The French themselves replaced the secular, parliamentary Third Republic (1870-1940) with the authoritarian, Catholic, antisemitic Vichy regime (1940-1944). Famously, the Vichy government not only collaborated with Nazi Germany and rounded up and deported Jewish and Romani people by the tens of thousands, but, irrespective of Nazi demands, passed harsh antisemitic legislation, instituted the death penalty for abortion providers, abolished all competing political parties, and created a militia to search out and kill those who supported the French resistance. A key reason for the transformation from liberal democracy to authoritarian rule was that public support for democratic precepts eroded in the 1930s. As we shall see, medicine played an important role in this process, as the radical right used it promote a xenophobic nationalism that centered around a rigid conception of the ideal body.


The Radical Right in France: the Croix de Feu/Parti Social Français

The critical player in France’s transformation from democracy to authoritarianism was the Croix de Feu/Parti Social Français (CF/PSF, 1927-1945), a radical right group that included many conservative Catholic supporters. One of the largest and most powerful political movements in French history, the goal of CF/PSF leaders was to take power through the electoral process (similarly to the Nazis and Italian Fascists). To do so, its leaders claimed they needed to garner the support of the majority of the French people, and they relied on several approaches to accomplish this. One central strategy was the use of medicine.

The CF/PSF’s approach to medicine was not as extreme as Nazism’s negative eugenics, which consisted of forced sterilization and the murder of people the government deemed genetically inferior.[i] Nor did the CF/PSF promote a biological conception of race and identity similar to the one prominent among the fascist groups of Eastern Europe. Instead, the CF/PSF embraced positive eugenics and a soft form of social Darwinism. For CF/PSF leaders, rather than eliminating individuals with supposedly inferior genes it was more effective the improve the environment in which they lived, thereby creating conditions for genetic perfection through reproduction. In this vein, a nation was not defined by a biological race. Indeed, the CF/PSF asserted that national strength depended upon classifying people in a hierarchical manner and using medicine to heal and strengthen the bodies of those who supposedly endangered national vitality.

This relative moderate position has led some scholars to argue that the CF/PSF was not fascist. But focusing solely on whether the movement was fascist undermines a thorough consideration of how medicine functioned to champion xenophobic nationalism. Indeed, it is critical for scholars to analyze the processes by which a group creates hierarchies of human difference in order to understand better how such processes undermine support for egalitarian principles.


Croix de Feu/PSF Social Programs: Healing and Strengthening French Bodies

Figure 1: Croix de Feu/PSF leaders organizing the movement’s social programs. Note the map of Paris in the background. Photograph by Jean Roubier, appearing in Georges Suarez, Le document: Que veulent, que peuvent, les Croix de feu?, numéro spécial, June 1935, page 20. © fonds photographique Jean Roubier.

One of the most distinctive features of the CF/PSF’s approach to medicine was how central it was to the movement’s social programs, which included health initiatives, welfare services, and youth development programs. Designed and implemented by bourgeois Catholic women beginning in 1934, CF/PSF social programs were not marginal but drove the movement’s strategy to take power (Figure 1). Indeed, one of its primary slogans by 1936 was “Social First!” The slogan not only reflected the CF/PSF’s goal of bringing the French together through social unity but downplayed the significance of political activities like parliamentary debate and public discussions over individual rights such as voting (women in France earned the right to vote late, in 1944). Led by Antoinette de Préval – one of the three most powerful leaders in the CF/PSF – the movement developed a massive network of social services. Of particular note were two that Préval helped create and lead: the Joan of Arc Medical Association (JAMA) devoted itself to healing French bodies through health care, while the Sporting and Preparatory Education Society (SPES) focused on strengthening French bodies through physical education.

Figure 2: Two nurses serving a working-class family at a Croix de Feu/PSF medical center in Neuilly, a suburb of Paris. Note the nurse on the left consulting medical files and the photograph in the background of the Croix de Feu/PSF’s leader, François de La Rocque, framed by two French tricolor flags (a staunch symbol of nationalists). Photograph by Jean Roubier, appearing in Georges Suarez, Le document: Que veulent, que peuvent, les Croix de feu?, numéro spécial, June 1935, page 21. © fonds photographique Jean Roubier.

Nurses and social workers played a key role in CF/PSF social programs, running their daily operations. After less than a year in operation, four thousand families were registered with JAMA’s health clinics and over 400 supporters were recuperating from illness at the organization’s convalescent home in the south of France (Figure 2).[ii] Pleased with such success, Madeleine Ducrocq, the nurse who directed JAMA, declared in 1936 that the services “increasingly radiate the social and beneficial spirit each day.”[iii] Social spirit, many CF/PSF supporters argued, was the key to rejuvenating and unifying a French nation that was divided by political crisis brought about by various political parties advocating for their own agendas. As another nurse put it, the medical association helped the CF/PSF stem social chaos by bringing about the “great work of French reconciliation.”[iv]

Figure 3: Two Croix de Feu/PSF women organizing and classifying member files. Photograph by Jean Roubier, appearing in Georges Suarez, Le document: Que veulent, que peuvent, les Croix de feu?, numéro spécial, June 1935, page 12. © fonds photographique Jean Roubier.

Préval and nurses like Ducrocq shared membership forms and medical files with the supervisors of the movement’s social programs (Figure 3). It was critical, they believed, to help participants – mostly the youth – reach certain standards of health. For example, Préval instructed nurses and social workers to keep a “strength index file” on each child by using medical exams to calculate each individual’s fitness level. Based on these findings, nurses placed each child into a category : “strong, medium, or weak.”[v] Comparing children against one another, the criteria that nurses used included medical history, urine analysis, measurements and visual exams (of teeth, tonsils, adenoids, degree of nasal blockage, hearing, sight, skeletal analysis, respiratory and cardiovascular rates, blood pressure, pulse, digestion, reflexes), and strength testing on parts of the body that health professionals deemed important (the neck, shoulders, pectorals, abdomen, both arms, and both thighs).[vi] Children that nurses assigned to the “strong” category would be those that propagandists depicted in Figure 4.

Figure 4: A Croix de Feu/PSF physical education center in Neuilly, a suburb of Paris. Croix de Feu/PSF propagandists emphasized the role of exercise in creating a perfect body that would strengthen what they called “the French race”: a slim torso, fit arms and legs, and a white body. Photograph by Jean Roubier, appearing in Georges Suarez, Le document: Que veulent, que peuvent, les Croix de feu?, numéro spécial, June 1935, page 24. © fonds photographique Jean Roubier.

Collaborating with JAMA, the movement’s physical education group was wildly popular, becoming one of the largest in France by 1939. CF/PSF supporters created 2,800 SPES groups that served 64,000 youth through physical education centers and sports teams (Figure 5).[vii] The medical files were especially important as they guided the supervisors in SPES groups how to classify the youth in a way that served the organization’s overall purpose. The SPES leader, Gaëtan Maire, explained the group’s mission in this way:

Bodily ugliness is often due to negligence…Our body doesn’t have to be ugly if we have the will to correct the imperfections. Not to devote oneself to these efforts is the mark of a great weakness of character…physical degeneration is the defect of civilized people who neglect the culture of the body.[viii]

Figure 5: A Croix de Feu/PSF basketball team for young men, age 13-16. CF/PSF propagandists depicted these individuals – and their healthy bodies – coming together for the purpose of the team – a metaphor of the relationship between the individual and the nation. Photograph by Jean Roubier, appearing in Georges Suarez, Le document: Que veulent, que peuvent, les Croix de feu?, numéro spécial, June 1935, page 28. © fonds photographique Jean Roubier.

Rejecting diversity of ability, the CF/PSF became the premier organization in France to assert that there was an ideal human body and that it was perfectible through proper exercise. For Maire, exercise improved an individual’s genes and prepared them for reproduction. In this way, SPES served as the vector for the CF/PSF to promote positive eugenics.

While SPES leaders were not hard-line social Darwinists who argued, for example, that it was ethical for weak human races to die out in order to strengthen the human race, their rigid conception of the ideal body was nevertheless dangerous. SPES leaders obsessed over bodily traits, argued that such details signified character, and claimed that weak character threatened the French race. This type of social Darwinism became mainstream under the critical influence of the CF/PSF – humanity could be divided hierarchically and those of the lower order needed to receive proper training to improve themselves. Maire put it this way, “the physical perfecting of a race is indispensable to maintain [its place] in the first rank of great modern nations.”[ix]


Eroding the Secular Third Republic, 1934-1940

CF/PSF leaders designed their social programs to nationalize the working classes, and in doing so, they contested initiatives of the Republican state and the leftist Popular Front. For the CF/PSF, imparting a sense of nationalism was based on the fact that France was a Christian civilization. National rejuvenation thus depended upon a revitalization of the Catholic Church itself. Préval explained succinctly to an inspector of CF/PSF social programs in 1939 that “We serve the Church.”[x]

The CF/PSF’s leader, Colonel François de La Rocque, embraced the movement’s “Social First!” strategy. In 1936, La Rocque informed the Cardinal of Paris that the movement would use programs such as JAMA and SPES to create a census of children’s religious allegiances and “work with church authorities in order to compel the children to renew or maintain their religious practice.”[xi] Nurses and social workers regularly bought children their first communion robes and drove them to churches for catechism (Figure 6).[xii] Likewise, Préval sought to bolster Catholic physical education. The current state of bodily vigour, she wrote to one of her adjutants, “is deplorable in all French parishes. International competitions have proved our inferiority.”[xiii]

Figure 6: Nurses in a Croix de Feu/PSF health clinic. The covered head of the nurses signified their bourgeois status and differentiated them from their working-class patients. Photograph by Jean Roubier, appearing in Georges Suarez, Le document: Que veulent, que peuvent, les Croix de feu?, numéro spécial, June 1935, page 29. © fonds photographique Jean Roubier.

In 1937, La Rocque instituted a policy of collaboration with the Church, whereby he listed strict instructions for how CF/PSF social programs would work with it – unusually supplementing rather than replacing its activities.[xiv] Thus, as the movement’s social programs grew in the late 1930s, so too did the CF/PSF’s ability to transmit hard-line Catholic values into French society. Préval repeatedly stated that JAMA and SPES needed to serve the “French first” although youth from all backgrounds were supposedly welcomed.[xv] For the CF/PSF, these programs served as a model for a rejuvenated France: a French-dominated hierarchical society that was guided by a staunch belief in France’s status as a Christian civilization.


The Rise and Fall of French Authoritarianism: the Vichy Regime and its Aftermath

When the French republic fell in 1940 and the Vichy government took its place, Vichy leaders immediately declared that the Catholic Church deserved a more prominent place in education and government. They paired this strict Catholicism with antisemitism, the persecution of Romani people, and a host of other radically exclusionary measures. For their part, CF/PSF programs flourished under Vichy. SPES claimed nearly half a million participants per month from 1941-1944, and the movement’s health services provided aid to hundreds of thousands.[xvi] Emboldened, the CF/PSF’s political director stated in March 1942 that the movement’s goal was to take power for itself and set up an “authoritarian form of government with a dummy parliament having an upper and lower house, the members of which would be appointed rather than elected.”[xvii] Indeed, police stated in 1944 that the movement’s programs continued to increase its support – the CF/PSF was poised to take over France once the Allies liberated the country from Vichy rule.[xviii]

Despite police concerns, it was not CF/PSF supporters but communists and socialists who ended up dominating the provisional government that replaced Vichy when it fell in 1944. While the CF/PSF was tainted by its collaboration with Vichy, many communists and socialists had joined the resistance against the regime and the Nazi occupation of France. Comprised mainly of Free French resisters, the new government was aware of the power of CF/PSF social programs. For this reason, it effectively banned them in 1945. JAMA was forced to close, while SPES changed its program and affiliated with a group less tainted by xenophobic nationalism.

For decades after the war, Préval claimed that the CF/PSF used medicine to help the needy and thus insisted that the movement could not have been fascist. While many CF/PSF supporters who participated in the movement’s social programs made this type of argument, it was seen as dubious by those familiar with the group’s beliefs. Perhaps the most incisive analysis of the CF/PSF’s influence came from one of the leading priests in the French resistance, Father Pierre Chaillet. Of all French Catholics, Chaillet stood out as Vichy’s most persistent critic, speaking with particular vehemence against the regime’s moral depravity in its treatment of Jewish people. Chaillet stated that CF/PSF social programs were “admirable in principle as well as in action,” but he added that the fact that the movement’s “work was able to blossom under Vichy proves that the politics of the PSF were not contrary to it…Colonel de La Rocque represents a particularly virulent form of political action in the country. In France, he is the symbol of fascism.”[xix]

Historical hindsight reveals that xenophobic nationalism can take many other forms, as well as fascism. Whether scholars assign the “fascist” label to the CF/PSF and Vichy regime is perhaps less important than analyzing how the movement and government perpetuated hierarchies of human difference to devastating ends. Many CF/PSF supporters asserted that the French people comprised a race, that French society was in chaos, and that the only solution was national reconciliation along hierarchically religious lines and bodily perfection. Such ideas never could have grown without the work of nurses and social workers who built the social programs of JAMA and SPES, which the movement’s leaders aligned with Catholic doctrine and practices. In this way, the CF/PSF eroded the secular, egalitarian principles upon which the French republic was based and helped pave the way for an authoritarian government that committed some of the worst atrocities in French history.


Caroline Campbell is an associate professor of history at the University of North Dakota. The author of Political Belief in France, 1927-1945: Gender, Empire, and Fascism in the Croix de Feu and Parti Social Français (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015), she has published articles, book chapters in edited collections, and blog postings. Her current book project explores the ways in which colonial methods of warfare (ethnography, violence, and spatial reorientation) circulated throughout the French imperial nation-state from 1890-1945 and transformed political situations in metropolitan France during the 1930s and World War II.


[i] Much has been written on this topic. See, for example, Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

[ii] CARAN (Archives nationales, Paris) 451AP 87, Medical Center Report, 1936

[iii] CARAN 451AP 164, Report, Mademoiselle de Gimard at the JAMA General Assembly, January 31, 1938

[iv] CARAN 451AP 164, Report, Mademoiselle de Gimard at the JAMA General Assembly, January 31, 1938

[v] Caroline Campbell, Political Belief in France, 1927-1945: Gender, Empire, and Fascism in the Croix de Feu and Parti Social Français (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015) 118.

[vi] CARAN 451AP 172, form, “Service des Examens Médico-Physiologiques de Travail et Loisirs,” n.d.

[vii] CARAN 451AP 189, Travail et Loisirs report, “Centres d’Education Physique, “ June 1939.

[viii] CARAN 451AP 153, Med. A. Bleu and Maire, “SPES Education Physique Féminine Technique et Programme,” n.d.

[ix] CARAN 451AP 134, Maire speech at the first PSF Social Congress, “Rapport sur les SPES,” May 1939.

[x] CARAN 451AP 172, letter, questionnaire and responses, J. Bruyas and Préval, February 4, 1939.

[xi] CHSP (Centre d’histoire de Sciences Po, Paris) LR 56, letter, La Rocque to Cardinal Verdier, March 7, 1936.

[xii] CARAN 451AP 184, letter, Préval to Madame Roland-Gosselin, February 8, 1939

[xiii] CARAN 451AP 172, letter, questionnaire, and responses, J. Bruyas and Préval, February 4, 1939.

[xiv] Reprint of a La Rocque circular from April 24, 1937 in “Aux Président de Sections,” Le Flambeau de Franche-Comté et Territoire de Belfort, June 15, 1938.

[xv] CARAN 451AP 172, letter, Préval to Mademoiselle Frandaz, October 19, 1937.

[xvi] CHSP LR 33, unsigned ADP report, 1944.

[xvii] CHSP, LR 35, Confidential Report from J. Rives Childs to the U.S. Secretary of State, March 18, 1942

[xviii] CARAN F7 15284, police report on the ADP, July 18, 1944

[xix] CHSP LR 34, Simone Marochetti, report, “Entrevue de Mademoiselle de Préval avec le Père Chaillet,” June 27, 1945 (emphasis mine).










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