Thursday, February 18, 2010


Two fascinating articles from last month's History Today dealt with subjects dear to our hearts here at C&S (and I don't mean booze and women).

James Nicholls explores attempts to reform the drinking habits of the British people(s) over the past five centuries:

In Britain, concerns over drunkenness go back a long way. The first Licensing Act, passed in 1552, required alehouse-keepers to acquire a licence from local justices on the grounds that ‘intolerable hurts and troubles’ arose from drunkenness in ‘common alehouses’. The following year rules were introduced strictly limiting the number of wine taverns that could open in any one town. This legislative distinction between common alehouses and more exclusive wine taverns reflected a long-standing social stratification of drinks in Britain. Lack of native viticulture made imported wine an elite drink,while ale, and later beer (made with hops,which were only widely used from the 15th century),were associated with more popular drinking cultures.

Social distinction played a key role in early licensing law, but many early complaints against drinking framed the issue in terms of national identity. In 1576, the poet and courtly aspirant George Gascoigne,who had fought in the Netherlands,wrote a pamphlet describing drunkenness as ‘a monstrous plant, lately crept into the pleasant orchards of England’. For Gascoigne, drunkenness was not an indigenous trait but the result of recent contact with heavy drinking north Europeans. Furthermore, its spread demonstrated how fashion could become entrenched as tradition if not swiftly checked. Thomas Nashe made a similar claim in his verse satire of 1592, Pierce Pennilesse, observing that drunkenness was ‘a sin that ever since we have mixed ourselves with the low-countries, is counted honourable’, but which previously had been held in the ‘highest degree of hatred’.

While the drinks industry were notoriously supporters of the Tories, at least they weren't supporting fascism, unlike the Taittingers in France, as revealed in this article by Annette Finley-Croswhite and Gayle K. Brunelle, which tells the story of the murder of police informer Laetitia Toureaux in 1937 and her involvement with the fascists of the Cagoule movement.

The Cagoule’s leaders and backers in Paris comprised a number of prominent Frenchmen, such as the distinguished naval engineer Eugène Deloncle, Eugène Schuller, the founder of the cosmetics company L’Oréal, and the industrialist Pierre Pucheu. Most of them hailed from the wealthy 16th arrondissement. The Cagoule also had branches in major French cities, most notably Nice, Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulouse and Pau.

The real goal of the Cagoule was to break the power of the French trades unions and to overthrow the newly-elected Popular Front government of socialist leader Léon Blum and install in its place an authoritarian regime allied with Mussolini. The organisation received funding from Schuller, as well as the tyre manufacturer Michelin, the aperitif maker Byrrh and the oil company Lesieur.

During 1936 and 1937 the Cagoule committed a series of crimes that included two bombings in Paris, at least seven murders and the destruction at Toussusle-Noble near Paris of several aeroplanes bound for anti-Franco forces in Spain. They incited public riots and on more than one occasion attempted to assassinate Blum. The Cagoule also formed militias throughout France, amassed huge stockpiles of weapons purchased through arms dealers in Belgium, Switzerland and Italy, trained terrorists and built underground prisons. They sought to make their crimes as high-profile, gruesome and thus as frightening as possible in order to destabilise the government by showing it incapable of maintaining security.

The French police had been tracking the operations of the Cagoule throughout 1937. The previous year they had succeeded in infiltrating the organisation and were aware of the Cagoule’s activities. The interior minister Marx Dormoy also knew that the Cagoule had gained the support of some of the most powerful men in France, including Marshal Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun and former war minister who, through intermediaries, had been in contact with leaders of the Cagoule, and from industrialists such as Jacques Lemaigre-Dubreuil, head of Lesieur; Pierre Taittinger,who owned the Champagne house of that name and was to run the Paris municipal council during the German occupation; Jean Coutrot, founder of the sinister secret business lobby X-Crise; and Schuller’s protégé and future son-in-law André Bettencourt. They knew also that the Cagoule had infiltrated the ranks of the police and garnered some support in the armed forces.

On the night of November 15th, 1937 the Cagoule overreached itself in a disastrous effort to provoke a Communist uprising on the streets of Paris that, the Cagoule leaders hoped,would force military intervention and the downfall of Blum’s government. If all went well, it might even lead to a military coup that would end the Third Republic. But the plan went awry as the Cagoule troops spent a night roaming the Parisian streets searching for the non-existent uprising while the Communists prudently stayed at home. The fiasco, however, finally gave Dormoy and the police the opportunity to make a plausible case that the Cagoule was a real danger to French security.Over the following weeks the French police swooped on the Cagoule and arrested those among its leaders who did not flee to their safe houses in San Remo, Italy, and San Sebastian, Spain. They also uncovered and destroyed many, although by no means all, of the weapons stockpiles the Cagoule had amassed throughout France.

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