Pierre Mendès France and the politics of milk

School milk – header image

The philosopher Roland Barthes believed that wine was a ‘totemic drink’ in France. In Mythologies (1957), he claimed that ‘wine is seen by the French as something that belongs to them, as much as their three hundred and sixty types of cheese’. Indeed, Barthes considered wine so integral to French culture that he thought anyone who spurned it would never truly be accepted by society.

Barthes’ last claim may seem hyperbolic, but it reflects the prevalent mood in mid-century France. Although wine and other alcoholic drinks had long been associated with Gallic culture, it was not until the state began subsidising vineyards and distilleries during the Depression that alcohol developed a hold on society itself. Subsidisation kept the alcohol industry secure and profitable during economic uncertainty and by the 1950s it employed one fifth of French workers. With so many lives linked to its production (and a government keen to promote consumption to cover subsidy costs) alcohol rapidly became a vital component of French society.

However, alcohol’s inflated socio-cultural importance made it hard for governments to end subsidisation. This became problematic in the early 1950s when supply (despite the best efforts of French drinkers) overtook demand, resulting in an annual unsold excess of 37 million gallons. The government thus faced a dilemma: although the alcohol industry was a huge drain on state finances, it had become so deeply embedded in society that withdrawing support would incur a backlash.

To Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France (in office June 1954 – February 1955), continuing to subsidise the bloated alcohol industry was ‘economic madness’. Not only were alcohol production subsidies a waste of money, he argued, but the state’s alcohol consumption drive was cultivating an endemic lethargy among workers. To save money and create a healthy, productive workforce, Mendès France proposed a radical strategy to break the bond between French society and alcohol. At the heart of this plan lay the drink Barthes called the ‘anti-wine’: milk.

Mendès France began by pushing beet sugar producers to sell their crop to sugar refineries, rather than alcohol distilleries. To guarantee a market for beet farmers, the prime minister decreed that schoolchildren, soldiers and labourers would be provided with state-funded sugared milk. Mendès France even led the milk-drinking crusade himself, sipping it in front of cameras at formal events.

Although he expected resistance from a country so wedded to alcohol, Mendès France could not have predicted the violence of the response. The prime minister’s plan invoked the wrath of what writer Michel Dion calls la France profonde, or ‘Deep France’ – rural provinces both politically and psychologically removed from the metropolitan centre. In Deep France, the milk campaign was seen as an attack on traditional French culture by an out-of-touch urban elite.

Protests were widespread and often tinged with antisemitism. To rural conservatives, Mendès France’s Sephardic heritage made him culturally foreign and his hostility towards the French alcohol industry was thus interpreted as an assault on France itself. As populist leader Pierre Poujade exclaimed:

If you had a single drop of Gallic blood in your veins, you would never … let yourself to be served a glass of milk at an international summit! That would be a slap in the face, M. Mendès, for all Frenchmen – and not just the drunk ones!

Poujade was not alone in questioning Mendès France’s Frenchness. The extreme right, which already considered Mendès France a traitor for ending colonial rule in Indochina, saw the milk campaign as another Jewish plot to undermine French national prestige. To future Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, Mendès France’s actions were so opposed to the cultural values of France that they made him feel a ‘patriotic, almost physical repulsion’ towards the PM.

The vitriol directed at Mendès France demonstrates the cultural symbolism attached to ‘totemic’ objects. To provincials, alcohol was an integral part of daily life and any perceived threat to it (especially from a cultural ‘foreigner’) had to be resisted. To the state, it was financially and culturally harmful and needed to be removed from society. Mendès France’s programme exposed these differing cultural mindsets of province and centre, triggering a conflict between them.

The reaction to Mendès France’s milk campaign may seem absurd today, but it cannot be dismissed as anecdotal. ‘Totemic’ objects feature throughout modern cultural conflicts in France, particularly in those concerning Islam and French society. In 2010, a group of Parisians organised a sausage and aperitif-based street party in protest against the perceived ‘Islamification’ of their district, while in 2015 several small-town schools stopped serving an alternative to pork at lunchtime, thereby forcing Muslim students to conform to French cultural standards.

Although these acts targeted Muslims, they nonetheless represent a certain division between traditionalist province and progressive centre that was exposed by Mendès France. To French conservatives, Islamic immigration is a ‘problem’ caused by the state’s liberal immigration policy. Echoing Poujade and Le Pen, they argue that an out-of-touch government is fuelling the destruction of society by granting citizenship to those who have no assimilated into French culture. The response is symbolic protest: the performative consumption of ‘totemic’ items to reassert the cultural and political power of traditional France.

These cases (among countless others) show that the province-centre divide in France is far from healed. Whenever it feels threatened by external power, conservative society will always react with symbolic protest. This phenomenon is not limited to France. In the UK, much of the Euroscepticism that contributed to Brexit was based on symbolic politics. Tabloids in particular generated a highly symbolised narrative of illegitimate ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ trying to inflict ‘foreign’ laws on British society (who can forget the great myth of the EU wanting to ban curved bananas?).

Cultural conflict between province and centre is a universal problem that appears to be growing increasingly frequent. Politicians must therefore tread carefully when dealing with matters of provincial tradition. Failure to do so may quickly lead to protest and, as Mendès France discovered, a widespread belief in the total illegitimacy of the state.

Sam Young is an MA Modern History student at the University of Sheffield, where he is writing a dissertation on the 1965 French presidential election. He has a BA Joint Hons. in French & History from the University of Nottingham and is beginning a PhD in Franco-Belgian urban history at Cardiff University this October. Find him on Twitter @Samyoung102

Further reading

Barthes, Roland, Mythologies (Paris, 1957)

Bohling, Joseph, ‘The Mendès France Milk Regime: Alcoholism as a Problem of Agricultural Subsidies, 1954–1955’, French Politics, Culture & Society 32.3 (2014), pp. 97-120

De Taar, Francis, The French Radical Party: from Herriot to Mendès-France (London, 1961)

Dion, Michel, La France profonde (Paris, 1988)

 Howard, Sarah, ‘Selling wine to the French: official attempts to increase French wine consumption, 1931-1936’, Food & Foodways 12.4 (2004), pp. 197-224

Joxe, Pierre, ‘Pourquoi Mendès France ?’, Après-demain 17.1 (2011), pp. 46-48

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French fascists against Jewish women (1930s-1940s)

antoine 8

Image: A female section of the PPF marching through the streets of Paris on 8 August 1943

This is an extract from a paper given by Antoine Godet at the Gender and Antisemitism workshop at the University of Sheffield which was held on June 18, 2019. It dealt with the representation of Jewish women, French or not, by French fascist men, through their texts and drawings in the 30s and the 40s, and the antisemitism of French fascist women. For this blog, Antoine focuses only on the misogynistic antisemitism of French fascist men. They belonged to movements such as the Parti Populaire Français (PPF), the Francisme or the Milice, and were journalists and drawers in the fascist press (Je suis partout, L’Émancipation Nationale, Au Pilori, etc.)

In their writings and iconography, French fascists say little about Jewish women. They prefer to denounce Jewish men, or rather “Jews” in general. Nevertheless, for the Fascists the “Jew” then is devoid of manhood and embodies the counter-model of their nationalist ideal manly man. Above all, the Jewish people in general are feminised and, at the end of the 30s, the racist ethnologist George Montandon, who was later a PPF activist, spoke of the “ethnie putain“, “the whore ethnic group”. According to him, this “scientific name” is justified by the “lust” of the “Jewish ethnic group” and “the fact that this community, instead of serving a country, puts itself, like a streetwalker, at the service of all countries” [1]. For French fascists, this global Jewish femininity weakens and soils the French race, to the point of speaking of France enjuivée (“Jewified France”).

George Montandon, How to recognize a Jew – with ten photographs, Paris, Nouvelle Éditions Françaises, 1940.

In fact, especially from the late 30s onwards, French fascists warn against the danger of interbreeding between Jews and non-Jews, an idea directly inspired by Nazism. For example, in 1938 in the pamphlet L’Emprise juive (The Jews hold), Marcel Bucard, the leader of the Francisme, expresses this fear of racial mixing by taking the example of “Jacob”, who prostitutes his daughter “Esther-Isabelle” with a count, in order to invade high society and voluntarily soil the French race. Bucard concludes that, in a hundred years’ time, “all the countesses and marquises will have eyes in the shape of coffee beans, and the hooked nose of the Rebecca from the rue des Rosiers“, a Jewish street in Paris. In May 1941, Doriot, the leader of the PPF, says it again: “A Jew has no right to marry a French woman. Let him marry with Rachel!”[2].

A drawing from Une histoire vraie, 1941

Moreover, from the 30s onwards, French antisemites tend to abandon the stereotype and the fantasy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries of the Belle Juive, to represent these women as hags with hooked noses and frizzy hair, which have now lost all their seduction capacities; or as insolent members of the bourgeoisie covered with jewels. In October 1938, in an article entitled “Jewish Fauna” published in Je suis partout, the writer and journalist Lucien Rebatet attacks “the thick Jewesses with pearls and furs, who try to imitate the charming and voluptuous walk of Christian women and are nothing more than a caricature of obscenity”[3].

Vidi, L’Union Française, 21 November 1942


Ralph Soupault, Le Petit Parisien, 19 December 1941

From 1940, this kind of physical description of Jewish women can be found mainly in the drawings of the collaborationist press representing the “Jewish Republic”. A Republic which, for them, continues to be embodied in “Jewified Vichy” and does not want to die once for all. By contrast, France, or rather the “National Revolution”, is personified by a nice woman, usually a blonde one, who delays aligning with other fascist countries in Europe. However, the myth of the Belle Juive has not totally disappeared and George Montandon, obsessed with the “Jewish nose”, recommends in 1938 and after to “disfigure nice Jewish women by cutting off their nasal ends, because there is nothing uglier than removing the tip of their nose”[4].

‘To save France… we need new blood – I’m the blood-donor’ Hubert, Au Pilori, 21 January 1943


Raph Soupault, Je suis partout, 20 December 1941

Finally, morally and psychologically, the Jewish woman is also the one who embodies or inspires feminine intellectualism and feminism. She is in particular the dangerously modern and left-wing woman, like Cécile Brunschvicg or Louise Weiss, the black beast of Je suis partout[5]. The Jewish woman is also an artist, and often a “greedy artist”, who relies on her fellows to succeed, like the actress Rachel according to the same newspaper. Under the Occupation, she necessarily belongs to the Zazous, this carefree youth vomited by the Nazi collaborationists. At last, under the pen of the collaborationists, the generic Jewish woman is called Sarah, Dalila, Rebecca or Rachel. For example, the writer Céline nicknamed England “Lady Sara Marmelade” to imply that this country is controlled by Jews. In the same line, Sara Roosevelt, the American president’s mother, is suspicious for the collaborationists because of her first name. Once again, she embodies this idea that the United States, and the Allies in general, are controlled by the Jews and devoid of manhood[6].

‘Military purposes: For a swinging France in a zazou Europe…’ Ralph Soupault, Je suis partout, 6 June 1942

Antoine Godet has a PhD in Contemporary History at Angers University, France. His thesis (2017) dealt with “The political and social symbolism of fascist and fascistic movements in France and Great-Britain in the 1930s through the comparative study of the Parti Populaire Français and the British Union of Fascists”. His research themes focus on Fascism, Nazism, extreme right, representations, political symbolism, rites, liturgy, identities, communities.

Related Stories: The Gender and Antisemitism Series

Challenging Heterosexist Readings Of Women’s Holocaust Testimonies by Roseanna Ramsden

George Montandon, “Détermination psychologique de l’ethnie judaïque : “l’ethnie putain”, La Difesa della Razza, 5 November 1939, p. 18-23 ; “Les Juifs démasqués par un savant ethnologue”, La France au travail, 2 July 1940.

[2] Marcel Bucard, L’Emprise juive, Paris, C.D.F., 1938, p. 69, 86, 87 ; Jacques Doriot, Réalités, Paris, Les Éditions de France, 1942, p. 114.

[3] Lucien Rebatet, “Que devient la Roumanie ?”, Je suis partout, 28 October 1938, p. 8.

[4] George Montandon, “L’Ethnie juive devant la science”, Cahiers du Centre d’examen des tendances nouvelles, n° 1, September 1938, p. 22 ; Revivre – Le Cahier jaune. Le grand magazine illustré de la race, 5 April 1943.

[5] For example “La dame aux gants verts”, Je suis partout, 2 May 1936, p. 8.

[6] For example, Je suis partout, 23 May 1942

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