The Popular Front - 1936-1938
France, plagued by governmental instability (between 1932 and 1940 there were no fewer than 16 coalition governments in Paris) and acute internal political divisions that culminated in the defeatism and collaboration of 1940. From 1936 on, France never displayed the will and military capacity necessary to convince potential Eastern allies (or even Belgium, for that matter) that, in the event of war, it was prepared to defend them by attacking Germany. There was the feeling in France at the time of pouriture, meaning rottenness, that had caused France's defeat. It had been rotten in the Popular Front Governments of the 1930s and further weakened by pacifism and Communist infiltration. But the military, by and large, were very French -- not pro-English but anti-German.
Pierre Laval had been minister for justice (1926), and minister of labor (1930), when he was responsible for steering the Social Insurance Act through both of the National Assembly chambers, he became premier for the first time in 1931. He early displayed a tendency to act over the heads of his ministers, especially in regard to foreign affairs. Defeated in 1932, he became minister of colonies and then minister of foreign affairs in 1934 under Gaston Doumergue and then under Pierre Flandin. Becoming premier again in 1935, Laval also took the portfolio for foreign affairs. Concerned to create a stable Europe, he made the cornerstone of his policy a strong Franco-Italian rapprochement, which eventually collapsed over the Ethiopian crisis in 1936.
A committed supporter of appeasement, Laval nurtured the dream of an alliance with Mussolini's Italy. Four times foreign minister during 1932-1936, he steadfastly sought accommodation with Mussolini's Italy against resurgent Germany. Coauthor of the abortive Hoare-Laval Agreement, which was meant to appease Mussolini at the expense of Abyssinia, he was overthrown when the British Cabinet repudiated the arrangement. For the rest of his life Laval hated the British. Realizing that a united Franco-Italian front against Germany had been rendered impossible by the British action, he did an about-face and began to urge the necessity of reaching an understanding with Hitler. France, Laval argued, could not survive the ordeal of another war.
The Depression in the Thirties, financial and social problems and the worsening international situation, with Fascists coming to power in Italy and Nazis in Germany, deepened the divisions in France and fostered the rise of many nationalist conservative or extreme right-wing anti-parliamentary movements ("Leagues"). These held an increasing number of violent demonstrations, including the one on 6 February 1934 which prompted the formation of an anti-fascist alliance of Socialists, Communists and Radicals, and gave birth to the Popular Front.In the early 1930's the Communists had a theory called the "third period." The third period in Communist ideology, which was espoused by Stalin from the top, was that capitalism is entering its third and final period of decay and collapse. Moreover, since people could see that the capitalists were up to no good, the only serious obstacle to this transformation to a great new world of the communist dictatorship was the Socialist International (SI), which was still listened to by workers and which prevented workers from getting into the struggle. That was the theory of the third period.
When Hitler came to power and destroyed the Communist movement in Germany, Stalin saw that a new force -- fascism -- had emerged. It wasn't so-called "British and American imperialism" that was the main threat but a new force that could be a danger to his power in Russia. He changed gears real quickly and adopted the concept of the popular front. "We will join together with Socialists and those that we can get to fuse into [a popular front] and anybody else."
The reunited Left won the 1936 elections, and the first popular front government was established in France in 1936 with Communist support under Leon Blum, who was a socialist. The elections took place the April 26th and May 3rd, 1936. With 146 deputies, the Socialist Party became the first French party. The Communist party, which had made a very moderate campaign and had given up its revolutionary image, triumphed with 56 new deputies (72 elected officials). On the other hand, the radicals lost 51 seats (116 elected officials). For the first time in its history, France has a Socialist government. On June 4th, 1936, Léon Blum, directing SFIO, has to form the cabinet, which included only socialist ministers and radicals. Indeed, the Communists refused to take part in it, but they promised their support. The far right conducts heinous campaigns, often anti-semitic, against the Popular Front.
In 1936, for the third time since the turn of the century, France was host to another wave of national unrest. This time, however, in contrast to former social movements, victory was on the agenda. New forms of protest emerged, such as 'factory sit-ins'. The strikes of May and June 1936 started in the private sector, in the aircraft factories of Bréguet inLe Havre, and Latécoère in Toulouse - a reactionto arbitrary management decisions, supporting demands for greater freedom and dignity in the workplace. The strike and factory sit-in were immediately successful. The second wave of strike action, which took place from 2nd through to 12th of June 1936, saw action involving laborers and employees in industries that typically did no thave strong union presence (the chemical industry,construction, textile, department stores). This movement was considered a huge victory.
The Popular Front government, headed by Léon Blum, implemented major reforms: the 40-hour working week, collective bargaining, paid holidays, the first nationalizations and a change in the status of the Bank of France. However, internal divisions had not disappeared, and external difficulties still less so.
Blum's foreign policy included an abiding concern with the defence of Czechoslovakia. The Front populaire was active in negotiations with Central European allies: Poland, and Czechoslovakia, Roumania and Yugoslavia, the three countries of the Petite Entente. Government instability helps to explain French impotence in the face of the Hitler threat. While many officials were figures of legendary permanence, such as Maurice Gamelin and Philippe Petain, the instability of individual ministries created destructive impressions abroad. Blum's brief Government reflected aspects of the acute domestic social crisis in 1936-7.
In the Spring of 1938 the social, parliamentary and foreign policy crises of France fused into a general crisis which ultimately ended in the Second World War. Strikes increased in number, in a period marked by crisis, thus blocking the further social reforms for which the CGT had been hoping. Austria fell under Hitler's command, attacks against the Spanish Republic led by the putschist General Franco - with the military support of both Hitler and Mussolini - intensified, Czechoslovakia was under threat. War seemed unavoidable.
In March 1938, Hitler occupied Austria. Leon Blum formed what would be the second and last Popular Front government, but he was immediately confronted by a series of factory occupations that swept accross the metals industries. Premier Edouard Daladier was put in power in April 1938 by the votes of the Popular Front (his own Radical Socialists, Socialists, Communists). Daladier ruled France in a manner more pleasing to the French Right than that of the preceding Popular Front cabinets. A Radical Socialist, for two uninterrupted years Minister of National Defense, M. Daladier showed a strong inclinations to please the Right. The new president of the Council, Edouard Daladier, initially believed that concessions to Hitler at Munich in 1938 would make it possible to avoid hostilities. The Munich Conference of October 1938, attended by representatives of France (Premier Edouard Daladier), Great Britain (Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain), Germany (Adolf Hitler), and Italy (Benito Mussolini) was held to address German demands for the incorporation into the Third Reich of those areas of Czechoslovakia, known as the Sudetenland, harboring German population majorities.
At the beginning of the civil war in Spain, the French government had been in the hands of Léon Blum, a socialist, who had evidenced much sympathy but little tangible support for the Republican regime in Madrid. The last Republican hopes for a military victory that might have produced a negotiated settlement to the Spanish Civil War evaporated in November 1938, as General Franco's armies beat back a desperate Republican offensive on the Ebro River and stood poised to invade Catalonia.
It was in this context that the Front Populaire experienced its death throes. On 12th November 1938, the decrees of Reynaud, announced under the banner 'enough of the working week with two Sundays', called into question the 40-hour working week, as well as the existing wage policy and tradeu nion freedoms. The Confederation called for a 24-hour general strike to take place on 30th November 1938 - even though the protest movement was already gathering steam of its own accord. The strike's objectives were numerous, hazy, with none having unanimous support. The strike failed to meet its objectives, repression abounded. The CGT lost about a quarter of its members, and disagreements worsened.
Premier Daladier's Popular Front support cracked after Munich. After he broke the December 1938 general strike, it washed out. After this defeat, an era of calm dominated on the social front until July 1939.
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