The Stavisky Affair was a 1934 financial scandal in France by embezzler Alexandre Stavisky. It had political ramifications for the French Radical Socialist moderate government of the day because the prime minister had protected Stavisky, who suddenly died in mysterious circumstances. The political right engaged in large anti-government demonstrations on 6 February 1934. Paris police opened fire and killed 15 demonstrators. A right-wing coup d'état seemed like a possibility, but historians agree that the multiple right-wing forces were uncoordinated and not trying to overthrow the government.
Serge Alexandre Stavisky (1888–1934), who became known as le beau Sacha ("Handsome Sasha"), was a Russian Jew born in modern-day Ukraine whose parents had moved to France. He tried various professions, working as a café singer, as a nightclub manager, as a worker in a soup factory, and as the operator of a gambling den. In the 1930s he managed municipal pawnshops in Bayonne but also moved in financial circles. He sold lots of worthless bonds and financed his "hockshop" on the surety of what he called the emeralds of the late Empress of Germany—which later turned out to be glass.
Stavisky maintained his façade by using his connections to many people in important positions. If some newspaper tried to investigate his affairs, he bought them off, sometimes with large advertisement contracts, sometimes by buying the paper.
In 1927 Stavisky was put on trial for fraud for the first time. However, the trial was postponed again and again and he was granted bail 19 times. He probably continued his scams during this time. One judge who claimed to hold secret documents was later found decapitated.
Janet Flanner wrote:
The scheme which finally killed Alexandre Stavisky, his political guests' reputations, and the uninvited public's peace of mind, was his emission of hundreds of millions of francs' worth of false bonds on the city of Bayonne's municipal pawnshop, which were bought up by life-insurance companies, counseled by the Minister of Colonies, who was counseled by the Minister of Commerce, who was counseled by the Mayor of Bayonne, who was counseled by the little manager of the hockshop, who was counseled by Stavisky.
Faced with exposure in December 1933, Stavisky fled. On 8 January 1934, the police found him in a chalet in Chamonix, dying from a gun wound. Officially Stavisky committed suicide but there was a persistent speculation that police officers killed him. Fourteen Parisian newspapers called it suicide and eight did not. The distance the bullet had traveled led Le Canard enchaîné to propose the tongue-in-cheek theory that he had "a long arm".
Political crisis of 6 February 1934
The affaire Stavisky went public with Stavisky's arrest, escape and death and rumors of murder. Then his long criminal record as an embezzler and confidence trickster became public. The suicide or murder, the losses many of the general public suffered, and his close involvement with so many ministers led to the resignation of President of the Council (Prime Minister) Camille Chautemps amidst accusations from the right-wing opposition that Chautemps and his police had intentionally killed Stavisky to protect influential people.
Chautemps was replaced by Édouard Daladier from the same Radical-Socialist Party. One of his first acts was to dismiss the prefect of the Paris police, Jean Chiappe, notorious for his right-wing sympathies and suspected of encouraging previous anti-government demonstrations. Next Daladier dismissed the director of the Comédie Française, who had been staging William Shakespeare's anti-democratic Coriolanus and replaced him with the head of the Sûreté-Générale, who was as reliably leftist as the Paris police chief had been of the right. He also appointed a new Interior Minister, Eugène Frot, who announced that demonstrators would be shot.
The dismissal of Chiappe was the immediate cause of the 6 February 1934 crisis, which some saw as a possible right-wing putsch. According to historian Joel Colton, "The consensus among scholars is that there was no concerted or unified design to seize power and that the police lacked the coherence, unity, or leadership to accomplish such an end." The historian of fascism, René Rémond, described it as "barely a riot ... a street demonstration". However, the left feared an overt fascist conspiracy. Fomented by several conservative, anti-Semitic, monarchist, or fascist groups, including Action Française, the Croix-de-Feu and the Mouvement Franciste, the demonstration took place on the night of 6–7 February 1934. The police killed 15 demonstrators. Daladier had to resign. His successor was conservative Gaston Doumergue who created a coalition cabinet. It was the first time during the Third Republic that a government had to resign owing to oppositional rioters. Other results were the formation of anti-fascism leagues and the agreement between the SFIO socialist party and the communist party, which in turn led to the 1936 Popular Front.
The scandal engulfed a remarkable range of personalities from politics, high society and the literary-intellectual elite of Paris. Mistinguett was asked why she had been photographed with Stavisky at a nightclub; Georges Simenon reported on the unfolding affair and Stavisky's ex-bodyguard threatened him with physical violence; Colette, referring to the inability of any of Stavisky's high-placed friends to remember him, described the dead con-artist as "a man with no face".
The trial of 20 people associated with Stavisky began in 1935. Printed charges were 1200 pages long. All of the accused, including Stavisky's widow, two deputies, and one general, were acquitted the following year. The amount defrauded was estimated to be the equivalent $18 million at then prevailing exchange rates plus an additional $54 million that came within months[clarification needed] of being attained. The location of Stavisky's wealth is still unknown.
The Stavisky Affair left France internally weakened. France remained deeply divided for the rest of the decade, but the political weaknesses it exposed and exacerbated were not confined to France. The Affair was emblematic of a broader erosion of democratic values and institutions in post-World War I Europe.
Portraits of the affair
Stolen Holiday, a Hollywood depiction made in 1937 starring Claude Rains as Stavisky's fictional counterpart, Stefan Orloff, and Kay Francis as his wife. Stolen Holiday asserted unequivocally that Orloff was shot by police and his death made to look like a suicide.
- Paul F. Jankowski, Stavisky: A Confidence Man in the Republic of Virtue (2002)
- Janet Flanner, Paris was Yesterday (1972)
- Joel Colton, "Politics and economics in the 1930s" in From the Ancien Regime to the Popular Front, ed. Charles K. Warner (1969), p. 183
- Peter Davies, The Extreme Right in France, 1789 to the Present: From de Maistre to Le Pen (Routledge, 2002), p. 96.
- Alfred Cobban, A History of Modern France, vol. 3: 1871–1962 (1965). Penguin Books. (No ISBN)
- Janet Flanner (Genêt), Paris was Yesterday, (1972), articles from The New Yorker, 1925–1939. ISBN 0-207-95508-5
- Paul Jankowski, Stavisky – A Confidence Man in the Republic of Virtue, (2002) ISBN 0-8014-3959-0
- Large, David Clay, Between Two Fires: Europe's Path in the 1930s (W. W. Norton: 1990) pp. 24–58, a scholarly account