HIST 276: France Since 1871

Lecture 17

 - The Popular Front


A plethora of Far Right and fascist organizations emerged in the wake of World War I. Economic depression, nationalism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia all played a part in this upsurge. On the left, the tension between communist revolutionaries and socialist reformers was reconciled, for a time, in the Popular Front government of Leon Blum. While the Popular Front would eventually fall, it pioneered many of the reforms and progressive measures that French workers enjoy today.

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France Since 1871

HIST 276 - Lecture 17 - The Popular Front

Chapter 1. Rise of the Right in Interwar France [00:00:00]

Professor John Merriman: Okay, obviously France in the 1920s and ’30s has to be seen in terms of the international situation in Europe, and particularly the rise of fascism. It’s easy to describe the 1920s and 1930s as the Europe of extremes, and that is certainly the case with the Soviet Union, but above all with the rise of the extreme Right in Europe. By 1939 only in central and eastern Europe, only Czechoslovakia, which would soon be munched by Germany, had not — only Czechoslovakia remained a parliamentary regime.

And when you think of fascism, you obviously think of Mussolini and you think of National Socialism in Germany, but one must also remember that all of the other states in central and eastern Europe became authoritarian states and parliamentary regimes disappeared one after another. And then, of course — I’ll mention this in awhile — but the Spanish Civil War brought Franco to power and we could debate long into the night whether Franco was a fascist or just an authoritarian, rightwing murderer. But it was part of the general scheme of things.

And even in countries in which democracy survives, such as Belgium, the Netherlands, France, which we’re going to talk about obviously, and Great Britain, there were active fascist movements; although that in Britain, led by Oswald Mosley, was quite small. So, what I want to do today is discuss the rise of the Right in France, and then talk about the Popular Front, which some people still view today as sort of a magic moment in French history, and the efforts of Léon Blum to create a new political world, and finally its failure. And, so, for the political details of the national block that came to power immediately after the war and the cartel des gauches, the cartel of the Left which won the election in 1924, I will leave that to your reading.

But one must remember that in all of these countries, and in France among them, the 1920s seemed to be — the temptation of the far Right was certainly there. Mussolini was on the cover of Time Magazine eight different times in this country. He became known as the man who got the Italian railroads to run on time, even if they only ran on time to the ski resorts to which American journalists tended to go. Hitler doesn’t come to power until January 1933. And, of course, Hitler was the most successful of a whole bunch of rightwing leaders in Germany, all determined to overthrow the Weimar Republic.

So, to many people tempted, for example, by corporatism, the idea that somehow you could eliminate social strife by organizing industries in a vertical way — Mussolini talked a good game about that, and they actually made some efforts — there was this flirtation, this temptation with the extreme Right. In the case of France, what happens in the 1920s and 1930s, and particularly culminating on this day that I’ll talk about, February 6th, 1934, you can see the origins of that before World War One, in Boulanger and in the case of the anti-Dreyfusards.

So, fascism is a European phenomenon and it became a French phenomenon as well. The kind of official spokesman who represented sort of the canon of fascist thought was Drieu la Rochelle. There’s an extremely good biography of him, or several of him. He was a novelist whose work was obsessed, whose life was obsessed with suicide, and he became the first sort of spiritual leader of French fascists. He wrote an autobiographical novel called Gilles, in which he praised fascism as being capable of affecting a spiritual revival of what he considered to be medieval Christianity. And this would be a scene that would be very important under Vichy, in the collaborationist years of World War Two as well.

Charles Mauras, whom you’ve read about, who was the founder of Action Française and who was a monarchist, he also gets into the act and he urges France to expand to what he considered its truly natural frontiers, that is including the left bank of the Rhine River. Action Française is not really a mass movement the way that some of the other ones would be — the Croix-de-Feu — there were plebian members of Action Française, it was more tied to monarchism than it was to the quest for the kind of Mussolini or Hitler kind of dictator, but nonetheless it had considerable influence. And in France the extreme Right and Catholicism were closely linked, though obviously all practicing Catholics were not members of the extreme rightwing movement.

But Mauras’s sort of view was that a monarchy would restore that kind of Christian medieval virtue that was largely imaginary and that all this would come to pass, hopefully in his lifetime. And so they begin to create a paramilitary unit — that’s exactly what happens with the Nazis and with the squadris of Mussolini, in the early 1920s, that bring him to power in 1922. And, so, these soldiers, as in the case of the German freikorps, continue basically just to march. And, so, the Action Française takes the kind of tactics that were associated in the early stages with the Boulanger movement, an argument I made earlier, and carry them now into the streets.

And with the growth of trade union members, in France and in other countries with this sort of flocking of people to the CGT, the Confédération Générale du Travail, the General Confederation of Labor, you had the growth of these rightwing groups who, as the German counterparts, wanted to end parliamentary rule in France. This, by the way, the Action Française is so over the top that it even scares the Pope, and Action Française is condemned by the Pope in 1926. And indeed, lots of members of Action Française who were faithful Catholics leave the movement, fearing that they’re going to be excommunicated.

And a number of other groups who are even more radical start up. There’s one group called Faisceau, f-a-i-s-c-e-a-u, which had begun in 1919 but increases its membership and believes in violent struggle, this kind of action, this kind of will to power that characterized national socialism as well. Another, the Croix-de-Feu, the Cross of Fire, attracted war veterans. Not all of the war veterans ended up supporting the radicals, or the socialists, or the communists, a good number of them go into rightwing groups, and this is certainly the case with the Croix-de-Feu. It was founded in 1928 as a nonpolitical organization and its membership swells to about 60,000 members. Now, there has to be money behind these movements, as well as ideology. And it’s kind of interesting that some of the sort of big money people behind these movements were in luxury production.

Coty, for example, the perfume maker was a big donor and believer in these far-rightwing causes and anti-Semitic causes. So was Taittinger, Taittinger the champagne producer — obviously another luxury good. I once took a bunch of Yale alumni, we went to Épernay and to Reims because they wanted to taste champagne; it was one of these Yale trips. And they were a very nice group, and we were being taken around the cave of Taittinger and I couldn’t stand it, they were telling us about what a great patriot Taittinger was and all this business, and his portrait up there. And I said, “well, what happened during the 1930s?” I couldn’t contain myself any more, what happened in the 1930s in World War Two? And the woman looked terribly embarrassed and passed on to see if we would like to taste yet another glass of champagne, and the answer was a resounding yes.

But, so the money, a lot of the money came from folks like that. And then because the newspapers, as in the case of Germany and most places, were controlled by the Right, they have lots of ability to reach a large public. Taittinger himself — the name, the spelling is t-a-i-t-t-i-n-g-e-r — he founds the Patriotic Youth Movement in 1924, which has by the end of the decade 100,000 members. So, these are not small groups. Now, you have to — the attraction of particularly middle-class people to the far Right is characteristic of Germany and Italy as well. And this too has to be seen in the context of the hard times of the 1920s and the 1930s, that Europe is basically in depression during the whole time, except for 1924 to the big crash in 1929. Eastern Europe is in depression, agricultural depression, very severe agricultural depression during the entire time.

And, so, with the kind of rampant inflation — in France you didn’t have anything similar, nothing comparable to what happens in Germany. Everybody’s seen pictures of people pushing shopping carts down the street full of millions, and millions, and millions of deutschmarks, and attempting to buy one single turnip. But the people who get burned in inflation are particularly — are middle-class people who are on pensions and who have saved their whole lives for retirement, and with inflation their savings are wiped out in one single moment. In the case of Germany it’s quite clear because in the early, hyper-inflation of ‘22 and ‘23 you had these German bourgeois families who had to sell silver that had been in their families for generations, or had to sell antique armoires that had been in their families for generations, in order to have enough to eat, and they hate, and they’re going to blame somebody for this.

And who they’re going to blame are the Weimar Republic and, in the case of France, they’re going to blame the very existence of the Republic. And this lapses in, this elides into, moves into various components of fascist ideology that were shared by all of these movements everywhere, is that they’re virulently anti-socialist, anti-communist. Hitler began by hating — before he hated Jews he hated social democrats. They’re anti-Bolshevik, they’re anti-socialist. They’re frightened by the revolution in Russia, they’re frightened by the fact that these communist parties are doing very well in these states.

Chapter 2. Xenophobia and Anti-semitism in France [00:11:54]

They’re also virulently anti-Semitic, and they’re, as I’ll argue in awhile, xenophobic, and they run those two together because there was a large percentage of the people who have come into France, particularly into Paris before World War One are Jews from Eastern Europe and from Russia. And in the 1930s, of course, during the Spanish Civil War, you have a huge immigration of Spanish refugees fleeing Franco’s death squads, and the civil war. And, so, they share those characteristics as well. Moreover, the French Right — I’ve already made it clear — they hate parliamentary regimes. The Europe of the 1920s and the ’30s was the Europe of dictators, and they wanted one.

And if Charles Mauras and the other Action Française people wanted a king, there weren’t very many likely candidates. It wasn’t — there were pretenders in both lines but it wasn’t going to just happen through some act of God, and they too could come to believe that dictatorship was the only way of solving the social and economic problems. And they’re all virulently nationalist; when you’re talking about the annexation of the left bank of the Rhine or when Hitler’s talking about elbow’s room, lebensraum, elbow room, expansion room, for the German population, it is part of this theme of aggressive nationalism, and that also ties into the kind of xenophobia that is behind this entire movement. And, so, xenophobia emerges as a characteristic of the far Right in France, as well.

Now, because the French population had stopped growing — constant theme — it only grows by 72,000 between 1931 and 1936; and, as I said before, two-thirds of the départements in France had a smaller population in 1939 than they did in 1851. France has relatively few people under the age, under twenty years of age; only about thirty-one percent, which is an extremely low percentage compared to countries that have really a high rate of population growth, and relatively more people who were elderly. And beginning in 1935, more people die each year in France, and not just in big cities, than are born there. So, who makes up the difference? Well, Italians, 720,000 in France in 1936; Poles, 425,000; Spaniards, 255,000, and there’ll be lots more by 1939, for obvious reasons; and Belgians, 195,000. But also Jews, the Jewish population of France is about 320,000, and half of them had come to France since 1918.

So, this immigration of very poor Jews from Poland and from Eastern Europe continues. And, so, 7.5 percent of the French population in the late ’30s consists of immigrants — it was the highest populate percentage of any country in Europe. Now, if you want to also argue why, with the exception of Oswald Mosley strutting around Hyde Park in his black military-like uniform, Britain doesn’t have much appeal to the far Right, and one of the reasons was that immigration, which is always this sort of lightening rod for xenophobia, was relatively small in London, in England, compared to these other places, despite the fact that it was only in London and not in Paris where, as early as the eighteenth century and even before that, you would run into people of color, because of the British empire; so, xenophobia is seized upon by these parties as an issue to rally support, in elections, but also on the streets.

Chapter 3. The Stavisky Affair [00:16:17]

And if you think that’s not the case now, look at the success of the National Front in the 1980s and 1990s in France and the kind of violent discourse of the far Right in France today, something to which we will come back to. Now, also let me just say and let me just add that it’s not — the parties of the Left, too, are not exempt from xenophobia, but not anywhere to the same extent that the parties of the far Right built their base upon xenophobia. I have a former dissertation student who now teaches at Penn State who has a wonderful thesis on the police, the way they tracked immigrants who were supporters of the Communist Party in Paris in the 1930s, particularly people from West Africa and from Guadalupe. And, so, the flirtation of some immigrants to Paris, particularly people of color, with the far Left, intensifies the hatred by the parties of the far Right of immigrants.

And their idea of what they called “true France,” that is this true, Catholic, medieval France rooted in the soil did not include, in their fantasies of aggressive nationalism, did not include immigrants. This is, it’s an obvious theme from the 1920s and 1930s; though Hitler with his own not uniquely but over the top, pernicious, biological view of race was the one who took it to its extreme, saying that he, the Fuhrer, the leader, the equivalent of the Duce, that’s what they called them in Italy, or the Cadillo in Spain, he would have the right to say who lives and who dies, who is part of the Germanvolk, the German people, and who is not. And, of course, Hitler runs into some difficulty, very minor, with German populations because he begins to use euthanasia as a tool of the state and to kill people who are handicapped or mentally retarded, as well as Jews, and gypsies, and gays, right along the way.

And then a lot of Germans say, “wait a minute, but these poor people who are mentally retarded that you’re killing or that you’re letting your doctors experiment on, they’re real Germans. Do what you want with the others, do what you want with the immigrant Jews or the Jews who were born there and assimilated, but leave the real Germans alone.” So, this is an awful kind of discourse even to consider but it is really part of this great movement, this groundswell, in France as well as in other countries, against parliamentary rule. Now, this culminates — this is making a very long story short — but this culminates, of course, February 6th, 1934, in the Front Populaire, the Popular Front.

A political scandal gives the extreme Right an opportunity for action. Now, this is a country that had all these political scandals before, that they’d survived; and not just the Dreyfus Affair but the Wilson Affair and all of this business that we talked about; and the Panama Canal scandal that we talked about before that discredited the Republic. And, so, now the Republic is accused of not only being soft, not virile, full of sort of quarreling, rotating ministries, a weak system without a strong executive authority, but again of being corrupt. And Drieu la Rochelle boasted, he says the France of camping out, that is getting up in the morning and plunging into frozen ponds in the Auvergne and being a boy-scout and all of this stuff, will conquer the France of the apero, that is the drink after, drink before meals.

And the Rightists shouted, “down with the France of the aperitif!” — what an idea — down with the France of the before-meal drink. And, as a matter of fact, during 1934, during the heyday there were signs posted in cafés around the Chambre des Deputés, around the Palais Bourbon, that said no deputies served here, we just want — we want people who are against the Republic to come in and drink here, we don’t want people who represent the Republic. And the police make it very difficult to — they look the other way as these sort of rightwing groups mobilize their forces in the streets. And again, I said this before but it’s true, if you look at the whole period, 1914 to 1944 or ‘45, it’s a thirty years war because basically Europe is still at war and it’s a war waged on different levels — on the intellectual level, the newspaper violent headlines level, and battles in the street. And these people are playing for keeps.

A very shady character called Serge Stavisky, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo in the film, was a Ukrainian Jew who had come to France with his family as a small boy. He made his living basically by cheating people. He was a con guy. His father committed suicide out of shame for the way that his son made his income. One of his cleverest projects, but most ill fated, was involving the sale of municipal bonds in that Basque town of Bayonne, down near the Spanish border in the Pyrénées-Atlantique, in the Basque country, in southwestern France. There was a dummy company that had been created to cover up the operation and lots of reputable insurance companies had invested and lost a lot of money.

Stavisky had a lot of money, because of this, and he loved the good life. He loved fast cars, he loved fancy women and he loved spending other people’s money. He loved great restaurants, having thirty-six roses delivered to his chosen lover of the evening, et cetera, et cetera. But gradually it all collapses on his head and in December 1933 he flees to the Alps, near Chamonix, and he rents a villa — he didn’t just flee to a small room in Lavancher or someplace like that; you had to have a villa and let people know that you’re still living very well — and revelations pile up, one after another. A minister of the government had written an enthusiastic letter recommending the bonds, but Stavisky had been protected by an obliging State prosecutor who happened to be the brother-in-law of the Prime Minister, a forgettable character called Camille Chautemps.

And, so, Action Française’s newspaper has a big headline on the 7th of January, 1934, “Down With the Thieves,” or urging a large protest against the Chamber of Deputies. The police are on Stavisky’s trail. They arrive in Chamonix, they find out what man carrying lots of flowers and dressed in white has rented a villa up in the hills. And they get — as they’re moving into arrest him at this villa he blows his brains out. And this bursts into a full-fledged political crisis that came close to bringing down the Republic. Now, the police didn’t bother to call a doctor until they were sure that Stavisky was dead; and this raises all sorts of concern because of the obvious issue that he might reveal highly-placed people with whom he was working. He left a suicide note, to his son, signed Your Unhappy Daddy — and it might have been forged, there was something not quite right about the writing.

That Stavisky was a Jew caused all of the — and he might’ve been something else but he happened to be a Jew — caused the rightwing organizations to go wild, and the demonstrations became nothing less than an attack on the Republic and demonstrations turned into riots, particularly after another minister is implicated in the scandal; and Chautemps bags it on the 27th of January. And there’s another coalition government, yet another one that’s caused to come into existence. Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus, a play that has strong authoritarian implications, was wildly applauded at the Comédie Française and the young patriots vow to sweep away the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and dirty Jewish finance. The Prefect of Police is a guy called Jean Chiappe, c-h-i-a-p-p-e. He appeared quite unconcerned with the rightwing riots in the streets, but he ordered the bashing of any leftwing heads that could be seen.

When the new head of the government, Daladier, whom you can read about, called Chiappe telling him of his dismissal the policeman refused to be sent to Morocco and promised that he would be in the street, suggesting to Daladier not a fear of unemployment, that he was going to be in the street because he is unemployed, but a promise to lead the overthrow of the Republic. And on February 4th, 1934, every rightwing group plans to meet before the Chamber of Deputies. They march down the Champs-Elysées or come from another direction. My favorite group in this is one small group of people are marching down the street, down, and they’re all ready to go and join the others, and they look at — somebody looks at his watch and says, “well, it’s 7:30, il faut manger quand même.” And so they leave, they say it’s time to eat, and so they leave the demonstration to go eat, and then they miss the whole thing because they’re having some sort of lavish meal someplace. I wouldn’t have been in a rightwing demonstration, but I would have left to go eat as well.

And, so, what happens is they go charging across the Seine River, they’re trying to literally overthrow the Republic. There are debates whether it was just a — it was a real coup d’état attempt, an overthrow, or whether just demonstrating. The police batter them back. I have an uncle who was a communist who was doing his psychoanalytic training in Berlin in those days, and was a very active communist, and he claims to have been in a counter-demonstration and to have been grazed by a bullet because the communists were there as a counter-demonstration; and I don’t know, his stories became more and more lavish over the years. But he was a wonderful man, and he probably was there. So, there were fourteen demonstrators killed and several thousand injured.

So, this is a very big event, and several hundred policemen also were hurt. Daladier resigns on February 8th. But the big significance of this event was that this is a real attempt to overthrow the Republic. And on February 12th the largest demonstrations in French history, until 1968, occurred in every single prefecture in France, outside of two or three, in defense of the Republic. And the Popular Front, that alliance between the radicals — whom you’ll remember are socially moderate but very anti-clerical, but they had lost their raison d’être a little bit — the socialists and the communists. This alliance to save the Republic against fascism emerges out of this fait accompli of these popular demonstrations of people pouring into the street — millions of French men and women and children march in France. It’s followed by a twenty-four-hour strike.

Chapter 4. The Reassertion of the Republic: The Victory of the Popular Front and Leon Blum [00:28:22]

The Stavisky Affair was kept alive by the discovery of the mangled body of the public prosecutor of the Paris Court which had been tied down on the railroad tracks so that he was caught by the 5:12 train between Paris and Dijon and cut in half. The Republic seemed to have a new lease on life but, as one of its critics said, it could also be called a new lease on death. But something had been changed because the three major parties had been frightened. Now, in 1920 you will know, you will remember, that at the Congress of Tours the Communist Party split away from the Socialist Party. And the Communist Party retained some elements of that old Guesdist Party, that you remember me discussing before World War One — I wasn’t discussing it before World War One, but we discussed it before we got to World War One — in that it was sort of a top-down organization. The democratic centralism, decisions made at the top and then informing the party faithful of what they would be was an essential part of that.

In 1921, ‘22 and ‘23, mostly ‘22, ‘23, if I remember correctly, the Communist intellectuals were thrown out of the party. The Communist Party quite slavishly obeyed every order that came from Moscow. Its leaders were miners like Torrez or industrial workers, but because they provided very good social services, particularly in the Red Belt, those suburbs around Paris, had the prestige that long predated the heroic role of communist resistance in World War Two. But they considered Léon Blum and the Socialist Party to be anathema — for one thing, Blum was a bourgeois himself — and the Socialist Party was willing to compromise with other parties, was a reformist party in the tradition of Jean Jaurès.

Léon Blum, who was born on the Rue Saint-Dennis, in Paris — there’s still a plaque there — was an intellectual. He was a literary critic, he was a writer. He had written a pamphlet called “On Marriage” which was considered scandalous before World War One in which he said it was okay not to marry but simply be with somebody and all of that, for a long period of time; it was a recognition of the fact that in many places people weren’t married, simply lived together, and particularly in large cities and particularly in Paris. And when Jaurès was killed on the 31st of July, 1914, Léon Blum was the logical successor of Jaurès. He had an ability to bring people in a room and to get them unified, and he becomes the dominant figure in the Socialist Party.

But Léon Blum, there was something else about him that mattered as well, in the Popular Front in France before that, is that Léon Blum was also Jewish. And one thing that you heard from 1934, 1935, 1936 is well-dressed students, probably from the fac d’Assas, in Paris, rightwing students, shouting, “better Hitler than Blum.” And at one point Léon Blum was pulled out of his car, on the Rue des Écoles, near the Sorbonne, and almost beaten to death by rightwing thugs. Léon Blum was Jewish, and he was an intellectual. So, the Communist Party — in a way it was the case of the tail wagging the dog because it was the Communist militants that really demanded that there be a block against Fascism; but the Communist Party finds itself allied the Socialist Party.

And these are not small numbers. The number of people in the Communist Party, by 1936 there were 330,000 members of the Communist Party. And, again, they’re particularly powerful in the Red Belt around Paris but big influence in places like the Allier and the Nièvre, in the Bourbonnais essentially, in the industrial regions of the north they do very, very well — places where the Guesdists had done well in the nineteenth century. So, they do really well among industrial workers and above all among railroad workers. And that’s still the case today. The cheminaux, the railroad engineers and the railroad workers still — the Communist Party has lost most influence, but the influence of the party in the General Confederation of Labor is still seen whenever there’s a big train strike in France, and you’re stuck in the station for hours and hours because the train is not coming.

And, so, in the meantime government after government follows. And, so, in June 1934 the Communist Party repudiates what they called class versus class strategy, that is making possible — the alliance now was the bourgeois party, that is the Socialist Party; lots of workers supported the socialist parties, but the Communist Party, it was the Socialist Party, was inevitably the bourgeois party, that was their discourse. And the three parties meet and prepare a compromised program that incorporated tax reform, a shorter work week, increased unemployment benefits, international disarmament, support for the League of Nations and the dissolution of the fascist leagues — you can get this out of the book but basically that’s it.

So, on the 7th of March, 1936, German armies moved into the Rhineland, and now the threat to the Republic inside France seemed to have been marked by Hitler’s winning the big bluff against the League of Nations and against the Allied powers after World War One. And, in fact, Hitler’s generals said “mein Fuhrer, I wouldn’t do this because army is weak now; we’re re-building.” They were already — their pilots are being trained by Soviet pilots already, way before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. They said, “mein Fuhrer, I wouldn’t do this because the Belgian Army and the French Army” — it’s hard to imagine the Belgian Army very strong, but the German Army, remember, had been demobilized essentially. And Hitler says we’re going to do it anyway, and he gets away with it.

So, what this does is it leads to, in the elections of May of 1936, a victory of the Popular Front — fifty-seven percent of the vote, with the Socialist Party now the largest party in France. And they have 386 of 608 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Now, the Communists refused to participate in the cabinet because they don’t want to be associated with any failure, but yet their adding to this mix of three has made the victory possible. And, so, Léon Blum becomes prime minister on the 3rd of June, 1936, under threats all the time because of the fact that he was a Jew. Now, what happens next is that the largest wave of strikes in France until, that year again, 1968, breaks out, because workers, encouraged by the Popular Front’s pre-election promises now go on strike. In June 1936 there are 12,000 strikes involving 2,000,000 workers, more strikers than any time.

And for the first time ever — now, this happens also in Flint and in Detroit at the same time — workers occupied factories, they occupied factories. They put on guerrilla theater. They do performances in which they play — some guy plays the bad guy, the boss, or the contremaitre, the foreman, or the pinkerton, et cetera, et cetera. So, they’re occupying these factories in places like Nantes and Boulogne-Billancourt, the big Renault factory outside of Paris. And, so, there are pre-existing grievances — conditions of work, Taylorism. A worker remembered, “there are two factors in this slavery that we face — speed and orders. One must, while putting myself in front of the machine, kill one’s soul eight hours a day, one’s thoughts, one’s feelings, everything.”

Workers in France still refer to the factory as a bagne; a bagne is a prison, b-a-g-n-e — again the idea that you’re a prisoner there while you’re there, and you’re under the direct orders of the foreman or the boss, et cetera, et cetera. And what is interesting is that the strikes take the labor federations and the Communist Party by surprise. The Communist leaders say wait a minute, what are you doing, what are you doing, is the tail wagging the dog? And they say, memorably, “everything is not possible.” And the workers reply, “everything is possible.” And they don’t want to lose the influence of the party. And this isn’t the last time this would happen because it happens in 1968, also. The Communist Party said, “why are you people striking? We didn’t give you orders to go on strike. What do you think you’re doing?” What they thought they were doing was representing their own interests.

And, so, L’Humanité, the Communist newspaper, has a huge title, gros titre, “Everything is Not Possible.” But now should Léon Blum have called on the workers and the peasants to initiate a more radical form of Popular Front? Well, probably not. But what he does is he calls the government and the employers, they’re all going to get together and meet, and they form the — they do what are called the Matignon Agreements — I’m sorry I didn’t write this on the board, I should have, m-a-t-i-g-n-o-n — which were a great victory for the workers. The employers accepted the unions as the representatives of their workers, and would negotiate with the unions, and give them a raise of twelve to fifteen percent.

They promised the forty-hour week — and we take that for granted; in France there’s a big issue over the thirty-five-hour week, as I’m sure you know — and they give paid vacations; and the paid vacation of a month, which many people now in France can’t afford to take, comes out of the Popular Front. They also open up the Louvre, free, certain days of the week, on Sunday. There’s sort of a cultural revolution as well. And you see — oh God, there’s some amazing, I wish we had three hours to talk about this; but you probably don’t, but I do. There are these great postcards, pictures of people that had never seen the ocean that live fifty miles or fifty kilometers from the ocean, people from Reims and they go to Malo-les-Bains, which is near Dunkirk, which is a cold, frozen beach, and they’re so proud, and they’re there in their bathing suits, very modest bathing suits, and they have their pictures together with the sea behind them; something they’d never seen before.

And lots of sort of working-class resorts developed during that time. Not everybody could afford to go Saint Tropez, or Deauville, or Biarritz, or San Rafael, or, God forbid, Cannes, places like that. So, the working-class vacation begins then. And that’s a great moment, that’s a magic moment, that’s an important moment. We live in a country in which nobody ever takes vacation. People that are rich can’t afford to take vacations. They make all this money, where are they going to spend it? Well, let’s get another five-hundred video games, or something like that. What are they going to do? In France the right to a vacation, even if you can’t afford to take — now people just take smaller vacations than they could before. But that’s an important conquest, and it came from the Popular Front, and it’s a great, great, great thing.

Now, the wealthy French families don’t like this very much. What happens if these people come to our resorts, speaking like they do, looking like they do? They don’t like it — what kind of Republic is this? Une Republique populaire, after all. And, so, the strikes gradually end. But why does the Popular Front fail in the long run? In a way everything wasn’t possible, it wasn’t possible. One of the reasons it fails is because, of course, the employers have no idea of holding to what they’d agreed to, and they violate every conceivable contract they can as quickly as possible. But the economic crisis — if you’re trying to make France more productive and put people back to work, at the time the strategy of having people work less, or for that matter going out on strike, economically didn’t really work.

Chapter 5. Unraveling the Popular Front: The Depression and the Spanish Civil War [00:41:19]

France was a more agricultural country than, say, Germany, or the United States, or Britain, and so the Depression comes later and it stays longer; though the U.S. doesn’t get out of the Depression really until the armistice of World War Two. And the export of currency, what wealthy people do in France and other countries is they start taking money, cash, gold, silver, out of the country. They take them to Switzerland — they still do that, and especially in the 1990s they were having to control the trains to Switzerland and Brussels, to Belgium, because people were taking money out of the country and all that, and not declaring what they had as income — it just happens all the time. So, Blum does not put controls on currency, constraints on currency, because of opposition from the British and the United States and other places.

And, so, at this point the Popular Front begins to unravel. Ideologically, the reformist Socialist Party and the Communists remain a world apart. Léon Blum is not going to say, “occupy permanently the factories; take over the means of production, that’s all there is to it” — no, he wasn’t going to do that. In March 1937 the police fire on workers demonstrating against the Croix-de-Feu in the Parisian suburb of Clichy and the Communist Party denounces the government. The French stock market goes into a tumble; various advisors resign reducing confidence in Léon Blum’s economic policies, and the government had to devalue the franc several times because of the flow of gold abroad, and the French financial community denounces Léon Blum.

But there’s another reason, too, that undercuts the Popular Front. And this of course is Spain, because those people who lived in the late 1930s, people who were intellectuals, people who were students at Yale, and Columbia, and Mighty Michigan, and Cal, and other places, the war in Spain was seen as a war of civilization. At the time people realized that it was a dry run for another big war that was going to come along, that sometime fascism had to be stopped.

And Franco, his military allegiance, he was actually number three on the list but the first two were killed, one in combat, I guess, and the other one in a plane accident flying from Portugal into Spain. The revolution, counter-revolution really starts in 1936 in Morocco and then in Spain, and by 1939 in a very bloody atrocity-filled war on both sides, though the atrocities were overwhelmingly on the side of the fascists, no question about that. The question was what was going to happen in Spain? And some of the great literature that came out of that period — obviously George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia or Borkenau or Brennan — there’s all sorts of great books on Spain from people who were there. The International Brigades were full of people from Yale, and Columbia, and Oxford, and Cambridge, and the unions in Detroit going over to fight the good fight against fascism.

But nobody gave arms to Spain, nobody gave arms to Spain except the Germans gave arms to the authoritarians of Franco. The Italians tried out their tanks there. The Guernica, the most famous painting of the period of Picasso — you should visit Guernica some time — came when they strafed and bombed the civilian population — it was German planes doing it on behalf of Franco. And Léon Blum goes to the Place de la Republique and there are thousands and thousands of people, and they’re screaming, “Arms for Spain! Arms for Spain! Arms for Spain!” And with tears pouring down his cheeks he said, “I can’t, I can’t.” Well, why couldn’t he? Because the British and the Americans didn’t want him to do that. They viewed this as being an internationalization of a war which had already become internationalized, and Spain did not get the weapons it needed to survive, and Franco’s regime lasts until 1975, November 1975, when he finally expired.

The War on Spain was one of those moments — you can look back, and I already suggested this, that maybe if they’d stopped Hitler when they invade the Rhineland maybe history would’ve been different — could have been, you never know. And maybe if they’d stopped Franco in 1936 to 1939, and in doing so stopped the Germans and Italians, maybe history would’ve been different and all these fifty — who can count? — fifty million or sixty million people who died wouldn’t have died. Who knows, it’s looking back. But, so far as the Popular Front it survived, but in name only, until 1939. The economic crisis, the strike movement and all of that, which only was counterproductive, and the war of Spain; and the international situation came to represent — to bring about the defeat of this government.

And Léon Blum, as most of you know, ends up in jail. He’s lucky during Vichy not to have been assassinated, he survives — or not to have been murdered or executed; he survives the war and is active in politics again at the very beginning of what would become the Fourth Republic. But we live in a world of nostalgia, of historical nostalgia, too, and people of my generation — I wasn’t born then, I assure you, not even near being born yet then — but we grew up listening to tales of Spain and “Arms for Spain.” And if one lives in France, lots of the things that are good about France and sort of the protective State in giving people the right to decent conditions — decent healthcare, museums that are actually open and paid vacations — are something that came out of that period. And, so, one looks sort of back with a certain bit of nostalgia. So, next Wednesday we will move on to the fall of France and to collaboration of World War Two.

[end of transcript]

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