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1935-1939 - The Popular Front

Hitler, with three years of feverish rearmament completed, decided that the time had come for Germany to act in open defiance of the Versailles Treaty. In March, 1936, he sent the German Army into the Rhineland which, according to the Treaty, was to remain permanently demilitarized. This was the most open and direct threat that could be made to France short of outright attack.

Probably the best explanation for the dismal failure of the French government in that critical hour is the bitter class hatred that existed in France. Leon Blum. Socialist leader of the Popular Front, was on the threshold of coming to power. A great many of the bourgeoisie who controlled the government at the time feared and hated Blum more than they feared and hated Hitler. From this time forward, the march of fascism was accelerated, and war was virtually inevitable.

A union was concretized on July 14, 1935 during a ceremony where delegates of all France lend the oath of the Popular assembly. For the SFIO, as PCF, it was not a question of building socialism. The Popular Front was a great defensive movement which, in an original coalition, gathered socialist, communist, radical and trade unionists of CGT [reunified since March 1936], to which it was necessary to add many associations of the left, such as the League Human Rights. But the Popular Front movement was an evasion of the problem posed by Fascism. It set out to be 'anti-Fascist' in a purely negative way - 'against' Fascism without being 'for' any discoverable policy.

On 13 February 1936, shortly before becoming Prime Minister, Blum was dragged from a car and almost beaten to death by the Camelots du Roi, a group of anti-Semites and royalists. The right-wing Action Francaise league was dissolved by the government following this incident, not long before the elections that brought Blum to power.

Blum became the first socialist and the first Jew to serve as Prime Minister of France after the victorious elections of May 1936. As such he was an object of particular hatred to the Catholic and anti-Semitic right, and was denounced in the National Assembly by Xavier Vallat, a right-wing Deputy and sympathizer of the Action Française (later Commissioner for Jewish Affairs in the Vichy wartime government), who said: "Your coming to power is undoubtedly a historic event. For the first time this old Gallo-Roman country will be governed by a Jew. I dare say out loud what the country is thinking, deep inside : it is preferable for this country to be led by a man whose origins belong to his soil... than by a cunning talmudist."

The government directed by Leon Blum - carried by a large wave of popular strikes - constructed a broad whole of social reforms which some changed the face of France. Despite its short life, the Popular Front government passed much important legislation, including wage increase, the 40-hour week, paid holidays for the workers, collective bargaining on wage claims and the nationalisation of the arms industry. The economic difficulties and rigidities of the apparatus of production led the government to practise a "pause" in social reforms.

The question of the intervention in the war of Spain divided socialist and communist while the first reforms were being realized. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Blum adopted a policy of neutrality, rather than assisting his ideological fellows, the Spanish socialists. He feared splitting his alliance with the centrist Radicals, or even provoking civil war in France. But this policy strained his alliance with the Communists, who followed Soviet policy and urged all out support for the Spanish Republic. The last months of the Blum government saw a degradation of the situation and a reduction in popular confidence. Faced with the impossible situation posed by his coalition, and put in minority in front of the Senate in June 1937, Blum's government resigned. The Popular Front survived with difficulty.

Blum was briefly Prime Minister again in March and April 1938, but was unable to establish a stable ministry. Munich and the failure of the strike of November 1938 signaled its end. The assessment of the Popular front was very positive on the social plan, but it finished badly politically.

The SFIO was left bloodless and divided these two years, losing even its position of dominant organization within the French labour movement with the profit of the Communist party. The defeat saw the distress of the SFIO and only a minority of the parliamentary group, around Leon Blum, in July 1940, refused full powerss with Pétain.

The Socialists organized in 1940 under the leaderhip, in particular, of Daniel Mayer. Present in the resistance networks and the maquis, fighting against the occupant and the collaborators, struck hard by repression until the day of the release, the clandestine Socialist party played a crucial role in resistance. Leon Blum gave the example by his courageous behavior during the lawsuit of Riom, which Vichy stopped in March 1941. Members of the SFIO sat at the National council of resistance (CNR).

The Socialists took part in the government with de Gaulle until January 1946 then, according to the formula of the three-party government (SFIO, PCF, MRP), until May 1947. The reforms of structure carried out with the Liberation and during the three-party government were important and continued to shape the face of modern France: vote women, nationalizations, social security, worker's councils.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2011 20:01:55 ZULU