The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
THE election of April 26 and May 3, 1936, was France's depression election. Great Britain had a comparable election in 1931, the United States in 1932, Canada in 1935; and in each case the party in power was swept out of office. So it was in France. The chief victims were the Radical-Socialists; the victors were the Socialists and Communists.
Political Parties: The French people are divided into two great political camps: the Right and the Left. This is the fundamental fact underlying all French politics and it should never be lost sight of in the multiplicity of parties. The number of parties has been over-emphasized. True, there were in the last Chamber 17 different political groups; but many of these exist only on the parliamentary terrain and for tactical purposes. Two outstanding authorities on French politics, Charles Seignobos and Georges Lachapelle, list only 10 or 11 parties which have real roots throughout the country. The Ministry of the Interior uses a similar number in classifying electoral returns. These parties acquire meaning if one arranges them in a hierarchy extending from the monarchists on the extreme Right to the communists on the extreme Left.
On the extreme Right are the Conservatives, i.e., monarchists. Next to them, proceeding from Right to Left, are two groups of what might be called dyed-in-the wool tories: the Independent Republicans and the Republican Federation. As parties they accept the Republic, although various members do not. Pierre Taittinger of the Republican Federation is not only the leader of the Jeunesses Patriotes but an outstanding Bonapartist and an advocate of some form of strong-man rule. The Popular Democrats are difficult to classify. They have two fundamental tenets which in the practice of French politics have always been contradictory: a strong defense of the Church and a fairly extreme social democracy. The deputies of this party vote quite conservatively. The two remaining parties of the Right are the Left Republicans of Pierre Etienne Flandin -- André Tardieu once belonged to this group -- and the Independent Radicals. The latter are former Radical-Socialists who have become mildly conservative. These two groups constitute what is known as the Right Center of the Chamber.
The most moderate group on the Left is the Radical-Socialist Party. This is the great party in the history of the Third Republic. It has included such men as Clemenceau and Poincaré (in their early days); its present outstanding members are Daladier, Herriot, Sarraut, and Caillaux. Further to the Left are the socialist parties: the orthodox Socialists, generally known as the S. F. I. O. (Section française de l'internationale ouvrière), and the various groups of Dissident Socialists. In the early twentieth century Jean Jaurès was the leader of the orthodox group; Léon Blum is its present leader. The Dissident Socialists are "dissident" because they have been willing to participate in bourgeois cabinets. Aristide Briand and Paul Painlevé were two of their great men; Paul Boncour is outstanding among contemporaries. On the extreme Left are the Communists, led by Marcel Cachin in the Senate and Maurice Thorez in the Chamber, and the small group of Dissident Communists.
Party Platforms: The Right in general controls the economic destinies of the Republic. It is the stronghold of Big Business and finance. In foreign policy the more conservative groups are strongly nationalist and pay only lip service to the League of Nations. Until the past year the Right was bitterly anti-German; but lately its hatred of communism has caused many of its members to direct their rage on Russia. The Left represents the small independent proprietor, Thomas Jefferson's "small man." It is opposed to economic bigness in all forms. It is anti-clerical, though not necessarily unreligious. Its foreign policy is one of international conciliation and defense of the League.
The electoral campaign of April 1936 was waged on these general issues, and on certain specific issues.
The parties of the Left combined to form the Popular Front. At first glance there seemed to be nothing new in such tactical procedure. It was merely another Cartel des gauches which the Radical-Socialists and Socialists have always formed for electoral purposes. But the Popular Front is something more. Unlike previous Cartels it includes not only the Radical-Socialists and Socialists but the Communists also. To be sure, it was formed to guarantee victory at the polls. But unlike the earlier Cartels it has a program of reform which its successful deputies are to enact when the Chamber reconvenes. The program of the Popular Front is as follows: politically, it is opposed to what it calls the fascist tendencies of the Right; it deprecates the existence of armed leagues such as the Croix de Feu and the Jeunesses Patriotes. Economically, it seeks to promote recovery by liberalizing the Bank of France and "breaking the power of the 200 families who control the economic life of the nation." Rather than curtailing production it will endeavor to stimulate it. All groups within the Popular Front declared themselves opposed to any devaluation of the franc. Internationally, it desires a strong League of Nations and has intimated that under it the Foreign Office will be more pro-British than it has been under Laval and Flandin.
Confronted with the unified force of the Left, the parties of the Right combined to form the Republican Front. But Right parties have rarely had the cohesion, the organization, the discipline which have characterized the Left. As a result, the Front républicain had by no means the strength of the Front populaire. Politically, it stood as the defender of democracy against the menace of a socialist-communist dictatorship. Economically, it defended the existing régime and contended that the Laval budget economies were restoring equilibrium. It criticized the economic program of the Front populaire as necessarily involving devaluation.
The Electoral System: Since 1928, French representation has been based on single member constituencies. Each department and the colonies are divided into a varying number of constituencies in proportion to the population. In the present election, continental France, including Corsica, had a total of 598 deputies, Algeria 10, and the remaining colonies 10. The right to vote belongs to all men over the age of 21 who can fulfill the basic requirements of nationality. Men doing their year of military service cannot vote. There is no female suffrage. In the election of 1936 there were some 12 million inscribed voters. More than 10 million, or about 84 percent of the population, appeared at the polls; in 1932 and 1928 the figure was 83 percent.
In going to the polls, the average Frenchman is confronted with a galaxy of candidates. This year André Tardieu refused to run for reëlection, contending that the actual powers of a deputy had become so distorted as to be meaningless. But few followed his example. There was an unprecedented total of 4,815 candidates for 618 electoral districts -- an average of 8 candidates per constituency. In 1932 the total was 3,617 and in 1928 it was 3,735. The great number of candidates is due to two factors. There are about a dozen political parties in France and if each presents a candidate the total is bound to be large. Second, any Frenchman over 25 years of age and in full possession of his political rights can offer himself for election. He need not present a minimum number of signatures supporting his candidacy, nor need he deposit, as in Britain, a fee which is forfeited unless he obtains at least ⅛ of the votes actually polled.
Voting is held on two consecutive Sundays. During the postwar years it has become the practice of voters to mark the first ballot for the candidate they would ideally like to see in office. On the second ballot they vote against the candidate they do not wish elected. For a candidate to be elected on the first poll he must receive an absolute majority of the votes cast. On the second poll a plurality is sufficient. In the recent election, only 185 out of a total of 618 deputies, or 30 percent, were chosen on the first vote. In 1932, 42 percent and, in 1928, 31 percent were successful on the first ballot. But in 1914, when the régime of single member constituencies was last used, 58 percent of the deputies were elected on the first ballot.
The first vote has virtually become a primary and should be regarded as such. Thus the great number of candidates is a perfectly natural phenomenon. Even in the United States several candidates will compete for one office in the primaries. The results of the first vote, or primary, largely determine who will be a candidate on the second Sunday of voting. Many drop out voluntarily; in other cases all the parties of the Left will get together and agree to support that candidate of the Left, irrespective of nuance, who has polled the most votes on the first ballot. The Right in a less formal and effective way has adopted the same procedure. Thus in many constituencies in the 1936 election the number of candidates on the second ballot was two: the official representative of the Front populaire and representative of the Front républicain.
Since 1928 the French electoral machine has functioned increasingly as a two-party system. French politicians are extremely conscious of this trend, but thus far no French writer has commented on it. The galaxy of candidates on the first ballot has obscured the fact that on the second, and crucial ballot, the number of candidates is to all intents and purposes two. If in a given constituency the two leading candidates together receive at least 90 percent, and in many cases 95 and even 97 percent, of the votes cast, the contest may be defined as a two-cornered struggle. On this basis, an analysis of the 424 constituencies of continental France which voted this year on the second Sunday reveals that in 383, or 90 percent of the total, the contest was virtually between two and only two candidates. For the 1932 election this was so of 80 percent of the constituencies and in 1928 for 74 percent.
Results: The election of April 26-May 3, 1936, was a clear victory for the Left or Front populaire. It emerged with 381 seats as against 349 in 1932. Within the parties of the Left, the great victor was the Socialists. For the first time in the history of the Third Republic they constitute the largest single party (146 seats) in the Chamber of Deputies. The Radical-Socialists, with 116 seats, have lost their time-honored primacy. The moral victor was the Communist Party which increased its representation from 12 to 72. As for the Right, excluding the losses of the most moderate party, the Independent Radicals, it held its own. The new Chamber is essentially a Chamber of extremes. This is so because of the actual distribution of seats; and each of the two Center parties, already greatly weakened, will tend to gravitate towards its extreme.
The popular vote (based on first ballot) was given in Le Temps as follows:
Interpretation: The election of 1936 was above all a protest vote. In this respect it corresponds to the American election of 1932. France is no more bolshevist than the United States is permanently Democratic. If the French Socialists at last have their own cabinet under Léon Blum, they are far behind the British Socialists, who formed their first cabinet with Ramsay MacDonald in 1924. France is one of the few great nations which has passed through the depression without any major economic reforms. Impartial observers admit that the credit structure is unduly rigid and that the Bank of France could be changed to serve the economic needs of the country more adequately.
The gains of the Socialists and Communists, both as concerns seats and votes, are not so portentous as they appear. In the first place, the popular vote of the Communists in 1932 would, under a system of proportional representation, have given them 50 seats rather than the 12 they actually possessed. In 1936 they received a popular vote of 1.5 million as opposed to 0.8 million four years earlier; but in 1928 they amassed 1.1 million votes. All that has happened is that the Communists are now strong enough to elect their own deputies rather than giving their votes to a Radical-Socialist, who, in turn, had to take his stand in the Chamber with one eye to pleasing his Communist supporters. Second, both the Socialist and Communist Parties have in recent years become more national and more French. In the recent electoral campaign they called themselves the descendants of Voltaire rather than of Lenin. They perorated with the tricolor beside them, and the red flag often languished in the corner. The recent Franco-Russian pact of mutual assistance allowed them to appear, quite justifiably, as patriotic and truly French parties. France had acquired a new ally in Russia; even many members of the Right approved of it. The Socialists and Communists were no longer the apostles of some international economic régime: they were the friend of France's ally. For the first time in many years one could vote far to the Left and still be patriotic and respectable.
Last, if it is true that the Socialists and Communists have temporarily converted a large part of the country, it is also true that the country has converted the Socialists and Communists. In proportion as the latter have broadened their influence, so have they been influenced by the immediate needs of France. Drastic revolution has been placed in the background. Their present program of reform in many ways does not surpass the reforms actually instituted in Great Britain and the United States during the depression. France is the home of the small independent proprietor. This class constitutes the major portion of the French nation. It is anti-monopolistic and fiercely anti-Big Business. But it is just as strongly anti-collectivist.
The elections of 1924 and 1932 were victories for the Radical-Socialists. But the Radical-Socialist ministries formed by Edouard Herriot remained in office only with the concurrence of Léon Blum's Socialists. Today the rôles are reversed: it is M. Blum who courts M. Herriot. Although the Radical-Socialists suffered great losses at the polls, they are the pivotal group in the new Chamber. Their support is necessary if any Socialist government is to remain in power. Just how greatly a Socialist cabinet with Radical-Socialist support will differ from the former Radical-Socialist cabinets with Socialist support is something which will soon be determined.