The Croix-de-Feu were primarily a group of veterans of the First World War — those who had been awarded the Croix de guerre. It was founded on 26 November 1927 by Maurice d'Hartoy, who led it until 1929; the honorary presidency was awarded to writer Jacques Péricard. Also in 1929, the movement acquired its own newspaper, Le Flambeau. At its creation, the movement was subsidized by wealthy perfumer François Coty, who supported Mussolini, and hosted in Le Figaro's building.
It benefited from the Roman Catholic Church's 1926 proscription of the Action Française which prohibited practicing Catholics from supporting the latter. Many conservative Catholics became members of the Croix-de-Feu instead, including Jean Mermoz and the young François Mitterrand.
Under de la Rocque, the movement advocated a military effort against the "German danger," supporting corporatism and an alliance between Capital and Labour. It enlarged its base, creating a number of secondary associations, thus including non-veterans in its ranks. To counter the monarchist Action française and its slogan Politique d'abord! (First Politics!), de la Rocque invented the motto Social d'abord! (First Social!). In his book, Le Service Public (Public Service, published in November 1934), he argued in favour of a reform of parliamentary procedures; cooperation between industries according to their branches of activities; a minimum wage and paid holidays; women's right to vote (also upheld by the monarchist Action française, who considered that women, often devout, would be more favorable to their conservative thesis), etc. The Croix-de-feu and its satellite organizations gradually took on momentum, reaching 500 members in 1928, 60,000 end of 1933, 150,000 in the months following the 6 February 1934 riots and 400,000 end of 1935.
The Croix-de-feu did not participate to the 1932 demonstrations organized by the Action française and the far-right leagues Jeunesses Patriotes against the payment of the debt to the United States. It did take part in the massive rally of 6 February 1934 which led to the toppling of the Second Cartel des gauches (Left-Wing Coalition), but de la Rocque refused to engage in rioting (although parts of the Croix-de-Feu disagreed with him). They had circled the seat of the parliament (the Palais Bourbon), and remained grouped, several hundreds meters away from the others rioting leagues. As one of the most important paramilitary associations, and because of its nationalist position, the Croix-de-feu and de la Rocque were considered by the left to be among the most dangerous of the imitators of Mussolini and Hitler. However, as a result of de la Roque's actions during the riots, they subsequently lost prestige among the far-right, before being dissolved by the Popular Front government on 18 June 1936.
François de la Rocque then formed the French Social Party (PSF) as a successor to the dissolved league. Moderate estimates place the membership for the PSF at 500,000 in the buildup to World War II — making it the first French conservative mass party ; although its slogan Travail, Famille, Patrie ("Work, Family, Fatherland") was later used by Vichy France to replace the Republican slogan Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, the party had remained eclectic. The party disappeared with the Fall of France, without being able to profit from the immense popularity.
Most contemporary French historians (René Rémond, Pierre Milza, François Sirinelli in particular) do not classify the "leagues" of the 30s as a native "French Fascism", particularly the Croix-de-Feu. The organisation is described by Rémond as completely secret in aims with an ideology "As vague as possible. Rémond, most famous and influential of these post-war historians, distinguishes "Reaction" and the far-right from revolutionary Fascism as an import into France which had few takers. In the 1968 third edition of "La droite en France", his major work he defines fascism in Europe as a "revolt of the declasses, a movement of those on half-pay, civilian and military. Everywhere it came to power through social upheavals ... Although with a handful of fascists [in 1930s France], there was a minority of reactionaries and a great majority of conservatives." Amongst these he places much smaller groups like the Faisceau, a tiny minority compared with the Croix-de-Feu, whose membership peaked at over a million.
Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell, on the other hand, has argued for not only the existence of a native French fascism, but for groups like the Cercle Proudhon of the nineteen-teens being amongst the more important ideological breeding grounds of the movement. He, though, does not include the Croix de Feu in this category: "The 'centrist' right always had its own shock troops that served its own purposes, and took good care that they did not become confused with the fascists. Sternhell, interested in the Fascism as a "anti-material revision of Marxism" or a anti-capitalist, cultish, corporatist extreme nationalism, points out that groups like the Jeunesses Patriotes, the revived Ligue des Patriotes and the Croix de Feu were derided by French fascists at the time. Fascist leaders in France saw themselves as destroyers of the old order, above politics, and rejecting the corruption of capitalism. To them the Leagues were a bulwark of this corrupt regime. Robert Brassilach called them "old cuckolds of the right, these eternal deceived husbands of politics.." and claimed that "the enemies of national restoration are not only on the left but first and foremost on the right.
Other scholars -- Robert Soucy and William Irvine, notably -- argue that the La Rocque and the Croix de Feu were, in fact, fascist, and a particularly "French" fascism. De la Rocque, however, if tempted by a paramilitary aesthetic and initially advocating collaboration with the Germans during WWII, finally came out against the more radical supporters of Nazi Germany.