THE "Front Populaire" Government of Léon Blum will be a year old by the time these words appear in print -- which is already a respectable lifetime for any government of the Third Republic. And what a year! It came into office on June 4, 1936, a day when about a million workers were on strike, most of them "occupying" their places of work -- factories, workshops, department stores. It was the greatest labor upheaval that France had ever known. The movement, which had been spreading like an epidemic since May 26, was partly revolutionary in character, but the economic motives behind it were more important still. The French working class had suffered severely from four years of economic depression, marked by falling wages, increasingly arbitrary labor conditions, and (despite the repatriation of several hundred thousand foreign workers) growing unemployment. In June 1936 came what amounted to a bloodless revolution. Not only were wages increased, but the whole economic and legal status of the French working class was profoundly modified. A further result was the establishment of a powerful trade union organization, which ever since has been playing, for better or for worse, an increasingly important rôle in French public life. The C.G.T. (Confédération Générale du Travail), which combined the old C.G.T. and the Communist C.G.T.U. (Confédération Générale du Travail Unitaire), had scarcely a million and a half members in May 1936. Soon after the great strikes the figure rose to nearly 5 millions. Thus, almost at a stroke, the French trade unions had to absorb some three and a half million new and undisciplined members, many of whom -- for example those in the building trades -- were extremists. Such a tremendous influx naturally created a shortage of trained union officials. The deficiency can be remedied only gradually as new leaders emerge and acquire experience.

The principal gains of the French working class were embodied in: (1) the "Matignon Agreement" of June 7 (which granted them complete freedom of trade union rights, the recognition by the employers of workers' delegates, a 12 percent increase in wages, the establishment of a minimum wage, and the principle of collective bargaining); and (2) the labor legislation passed during the subsequent weeks by an enthusiastic Chamber of Deputies and a terrified Senate. The most important of these laws were the Collective Contracts Act, the Holidays with Pay Act, and the 40-Hour-Week Act. Of the three, the 40-Hour Week Act, though the Government was given full freedom for its practical application, was considered by many observers the most dangerous of all. It actually went beyond the Front Populaire program, the official program of the government. This had provided only for "reduction in the time of work," without specifying 40 hours; and in May, before the great strikes, even M. Jouhaux, the trade union leader, still spoke of the 40-hour week in terms of international agreements to be negotiated at the International Labour Office in Geneva. Without the pressure of the strikes, this law, at any rate, would not have been passed.

Although the more conservative bourgeoisie, as well as the Senate, were horrified by the principal revolutionary feature of the great strikes -- namely, the "stay-in" method -- public opinion was, in the main, extremely sympathetic to the strike movement, for it was fully aware of the legitimate grievances of the French working class. With a sound instinct, the workers arranged to affect the ordinary man's everyday comforts as little as possible. Thus the strike did not spread to transport, gas, lighting, and the supply of food (except for one day of uncertainty), with the result that the general public scarcely felt the great strikes on their own skin. This greatest of French labor upheavals passed off with the minimum of unpleasantness, with much good humor, and without the loss of a single life.

Everywhere collective labor contracts were signed, and the summer of 1936 was marked by an unprecedented exodus to the sea and mountains of the working-class public, many of whom had never had a proper holiday in their lives. As for the 40-hour week, its application was delayed by the Government for the time being, and it was introduced for the first time (in coal mining) on September 25, the day of the devaluation of the franc.

September 25, 1936, was the day of the Three-Power Declaration and the devaluation of the franc. It marked the end of the first stage and the beginning of the second stage of the Blum Government's career. Until then "increased purchasing power" was the slogan of the Government, and, in particular, of M. Vincent Auriol, the Finance Minister. Until then, the Government had expected that economic prosperity could be revived simply by stimulating the internal market by means of higher wages and higher agricultural prices; and although innumerable observers (including practically all foreign observers) claimed that France could not pull through without a devaluation of the franc, M. Blum proclaimed from the outset that there would be "no monetary coup d'état," while M. Vincent Auriol was even more persistent in maintaining that there would be no devaluation. Afterwards he claimed that negotiations for the Three-Power Declaration had been in progress since June; though M. Blum at the same time admitted that "certain events" had precipitated the "alignment of currencies" (he never used the word "devaluation"). Doubtless the most important of the events alluded to by M. Blum was the necessity to increase the military expenditure enormously after Germany's decision to double the term of her military service.

The fact remains that, despite the opposite views held by a large number of ministers in the Blum Government, M. Vincent Auriol attempted at first to carry out his "New Deal" without devaluation. The truth is that he, like certain important trade union and Communist elements, was not unfavorable to a closed economic financial system, which they considered to be more favorable to anti-capitalist legislation and to a vast public works program. The drain of gold had again become acute in September, and had brought the already greatly reduced gold reserve to a figure below the "war-chest minimum" of 50 billion francs set by the French General Staff. That the Government decided on devaluation rather than on exchange control was at least partly due to international reasons, for the development of the closest possible relations with England and the United States was the fundamental feature of Premier Blum's foreign policy. Exchange control and autarchy in France would automatically have led to an estrangement with England. An almost identical situation was to arise again in March 1937.

So on September 25 (or rather on October 1, when the bills were finally voted) France at last decided on devaluation. Most foreign observers considered it at least a year overdue. The gold reserve had sunk from over 70 billion francs to under 50 billions between June 1935 and September 1936, which meant that the profit to be derived by the state from the revaluation of this gold was considerably smaller. Indeed, after setting aside 10 billions for the new exchange equalization fund, the Government had very little money left over to play with. At the same time the labor legislation of June and July had sent up French costs by some 30 percent, and these were increased still further by the rise in the prices of raw materials (to which was to be added their increased cost in francs after the devaluation); all of which meant that France's export trade would not greatly benefit from the devaluation.

Even so, after the abandonment of Vincent Auriol's pure "purchasing power policy" without devaluation -- Caillaux had scathingly described it in July as "Rooseveltism for Lilliputians" -- a feeling of renewed confidence and of relative optimism pervaded the country. The devaluation was followed by a spectacular rise on the Bourse, and the monetary reform itself, which successive governments with a singular incomprehension of public opinion had denounced in advance as a national disaster, was accepted with resignation and even with good grace by the general public. The prevalent feeling was that it might at last help to "improve business." It had a good psychological effect; and during the last three months of 1936 the signs of an economic reprise became increasingly tangible. The labor unrest of the summer months and the violent agitation of the extreme Left against Blum's non-intervention policy in Spain were visibly dying down; and the expulsion by the police of some stay-in strikers from a number of Paris hotels and restaurants on October 4 and, a few days later, from a chocolate factory, was calculated to appease the middle classes and the Senate, which had been protesting with great violence against the Government's "toleration of illegality." M. Blum's own view was that although stay-in strikes were illegal, they must be handled with discretion and without brutality. The working class, "so loyal to the Republic, might otherwise turn against it." Even so, he consented to make the required gesture.

During the last months of 1936 it looked as though France were steadily regaining her equilibrium as a democratic republic. The new year opened in an atmosphere of optimism, marred only by the Spanish Civil War. Business was improving; not for years had more champagne been consumed at Christmas in the Paris restaurants; even the grimmest enemies of the Government among the Paris bourgeoisie admitted that they were financially better off than they had been a year or six months earlier; and the newly-voted compulsory arbitration law promised to reduce labor disputes and strikes to a minimum. True, there were two big problems ahead: the financial problem, and the rise in prices and in the cost of living -- a rise accentuated since the devaluation of the franc and since the growing generalization of the 40-hour week. But with business steadily improving, it was somehow assumed that if only the Treasury could bridge over the first three or four months, "prosperity" would help France through her financial difficulties. The optimists even assumed that by borrowing £40,000,000 in London in January, Vincent Auriol was safe. And yet the fact remained that the Treasury was faced with a deficit for the year of about 40 billion francs, or an amount almost equal to the whole "ordinary" budget; and it soon became clear to everybody that if Vincent Auriol borrowed his four billion francs in London, it was because he could not find them in Paris, where stories of a "new devaluation" were becoming more and more general.

M. Blum himself was aware of the danger. Already at St. Nazaire, on February 21, before a working-class audience, he asked for a "pause" -- a pause in the execution of the Front Populaire program and in increases in the financial burdens of both the state and of private industry. The Government, he said, should be allowed to consolidate itself on the ground already conquered, though he added that "the Government would, as soon as possible, resume its work of social reforms in agreement with all the parties and organizations belonging to the Front Populaire." This was an assurance to the Radicals that nothing new would be undertaken without their consent. Despite this assurance the speech had a bad effect. The Right press found that M. Blum had spoken not as a responsible statesman but as a "100 percent Socialist," while the Communists, suspecting the beginning of a Government retreat, burst into a series of extremist speeches. Thorez, the Communist leader, who only a few weeks earlier had claimed a share in the credit for what the Government had done, now painted in a blustering speech at Lens a gloomy picture of the economic situation, spoke of the "terrifying rise in prices," and prophesied that "the mines, factories and banks would soon become the property of the people. We are convinced," he concluded, "that we shall soon govern this country." All these speeches resulted in a new slump on the Bourse; and on February 26 for the first time since the General Election the Opposition, led by M. Flandin and M. Reynaud, launched a triumphant frontal attack on the Government. M. Fernand-Laurent, the Right Wing deputy, caused a sensation by disclosing on the strength of financial reports from London that France had been losing a billion francs of gold a week. Vincent Auriol, the Finance Minister, mumbled an ambiguous denial. Blum himself looked tired and exhausted that night. He said that the country was "returning to economic health," and repeated the argument he used at Lyon on January 24 that, as distinct from England and Belgium, "economic restoration would precede and prepare, rather than follow, financial restoration." He declared the "pause" in the increase of public expenditure inevitable, and again assured the Radicals that nothing new would be undertaken without their consent. In conclusion, he declared the Blum Government to be the genuine "national government" of France, which, he said, was entitled to the coöperation of capital; and he ended on a note of warning: " I do not wish to think of the solutions that might be necessary if the Government fails to receive either from capital or from labor the support to which it is entitled." This meant that if the "sabotage" of capital continued, exchange control might become necessary.

"Capital" was not intimidated by this threat; and during the following days innumerable people in Paris -- and not only big capitalists -- bought all the dollar bills and pound notes they could lay their hands on. With the franc pegged to 105 to the pound, such "speculation" was a safe bet. Suddenly on March 4 there was a spectacular rally on the Bourse, which learned that the Government was about to take a number of momentous financial decisions. On the following day the cabinet met, and as a result of its decisions financial confidence was largely restored. The "demagogic" legislation of October 1 against "gold speculators" was to be abolished; the Government pledged itself to reduce the outstanding Treasury deficit for the year from 32 billions to 26 billions, which meant, above all, the shelving of the public works program. M. Rist, an orthodox economist, who had just proclaimed his hostility to the artificial creation of purchasing power through public works, was appointed a member of the new committee in charge of the exchange equalization fund; and it was decided to launch a 4½ percent garantie de change loan. All these measures were approved by Parliament during the following week, and the new loan, of which the first two tranches of 8 billions were subscribed in a few days, was a startling success.

As in September, international considerations had again determined Blum's choice between the exchange control he had threatened in his speech of February 26 and the "liberal" solution. A clear warning had been given that week by the British Treasury to the French Government that if it abandoned the Three-Power Declaration it would lose all the sympathy and coöperation of England. Blum yielded; and, indeed, more willingly than a few of the other members of his Cabinet. After the success of the loan he declared that France had never been in a stronger position and never had the outlook seemed more promising. Production was increasing, factories were crowded with orders (albeit mainly home orders), unemployment had fallen from 480,000 to 380,000, and partial unemployment, general a year before, had been completely absorbed. But it was at this point that serious trouble began to brew on the extreme Left. It is true that M. Jouhaux, the trade union leader, admitted rather grudgingly in an article in the newspaper Vendredi that "economic liberalism" should be given "its last chance." But he sounded rather skeptical about it all, and was visibly annoyed by the shelving of the public works program. More extreme Left elements in the C.G.T. and elsewhere felt all this even more strongly; and on the night of March 16 there happened something which became symbolic of this Left revolt against the Blum Government. It was the riot at Clichy, the Paris suburb, in the course of which five workmen were killed by police bullets and over a hundred demonstrators and a large number of police injured. M. Auffray, the left-wing Socialist mayor of the town, M. Honel, the Communist deputy, and M. Naile, a General Councillor, who had been competing among themselves in "Left-Wing extremism," had called on "the laboring masses" to hold a vast protest demonstration at Clichy on the night of March 16 against Colonel de La Rocque, whose troops, the poster said, were going to "occupy Clichy." And another poster had announced that La Rocque in person would be in Clichy that night, and that such a provocation to the working-class population was intolerable.

Actually, the "Fascist occupation" of Clichy consisted in a cinema show attended by 200 or 300 members of the Parti Social Français (the successor of the dissolved Croix de Feu) together with their wives and children. Since the meeting was authorized by the Government -- for the P.S.F. was not illegal -- it had to be protected by cordons of police. Hence the riot.

M. Blum, wearing full evening dress, was at the Opera that night listening to a concert of English music conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. It was there that he learned that his secretary, M. Blumel, whom he had sent to Clichy to investigate, had been wounded by a police bullet while trying to restore order, and that the riot had taken on disastrous proportions. Blum was dumbfounded by the news. It is said that while he drove to the Clichy hospital to see the wounded -- he arrived there in full evening dress which made a painful contrast with the bloodstained clothes and bandaged heads of the rioters -- he kept murmuring: "And to think that they could have done this to me."

It was a shocking business. The optimism and financial confidence were suddenly checked. Clichy became symbolic of the revolt of the "Left Extremists." The cinema show attended by the Parti Social Français was obviously only a pretext. Two days after Clichy a six-hours general strike was held throughout the Paris area. It is said that some of the trade union leaders tried to prevent it, but in vain. In a way, it gave the extremists an opportunity to "let off steam," but the fact remained that it was a political strike, and one that was, indirectly, aimed against the Front Populaire Government. Already the crowds at Clichy had demonstrated against M. Dormoy, the Socialist Minister of the Interior, shouting: "Dormoy, démission!" On the night of the strike the Communist leaders held a meeting at which Thorez, though proclaiming the solidarity of the Front Populaire, nevertheless attacked the Government for its surrender to "the Banks," and said that "there had been too many governments of the Left pursuing a policy of the Right," and that "this must not be allowed in France under the Front Populaire."

Ever since Clichy there has been great uneasiness in France. The threat to hold up the Paris Exhibition has been a constant weapon of blackmail against the Government; while the building trade (which is, admittedly, the worst hit of the French trades) has been clamoring for a ten-billion franc loan with which to finance a vast public works program, despite Blum's "pause," his pledge to cut down the deficit by six billions, and the practical impossibility of raising such an amount. The argument is that the men who made the Exhibition will be out of work once it is finished. Actually, such methods are likely, in the long run, to cause the building trade more harm than good, for they can only discourage private enterprise from building houses. Apart from that, the workers of the Exhibition have not only been constantly demanding (and getting) higher wages, but they have also caused much irritation in Paris by flying revolutionary flags on the buildings of the Exhibition, which is admittedly a "national" and not a "working-class" institution. These flags have been fully exploited against the government by the Right press. Other "Exhibition blackmail" strikes have been threatened -- for instance, a strike in the hotel, restaurant and café trade. And on April 16, despite the award by M. Mistler, the super-arbiter accepted by the workers themselves, a strike suddenly broke out in the Paris cinemas. Worse still, the Metal Workers' Union, affiliated with the C.G.T., has been claiming the right to control the enlistment of labor by the metal works; in other words, it desires an exclusive right to employ and dismiss workers.

The assumption is widely held, also, that it was not without C.G.T. pressure that legal action was taken, soon after Clichy, against Colonel de La Rocque and other leaders of the P.S.F., and there is a danger that, in the eyes of the middle classes, Colonel de La Rocque, whose importance had dwindled away almost to nothing since May 1936, may be resurrected as a hero and a victim of arbitrary and undemocratic action. The constant demands made by the C.G.T. on the government -- such as the demand for the vast public works loan -- take no account of parliamentary possibilities. In other words, the Left extremists no longer think in parliamentary, democratic terms.

If one were asked who these Left Extremists are, one would be a little baffled how to reply. Such extremism is a state of mind rather than a definite program of this or that organization. There are, of course, definitely extremist elements scattered through the Paris working class -- Anarchists, Revolutionary Leninists (popularly known as "Trotskyists"), the Revolutionary Left of the Socialist Party itself (its leader is Marceau Pivert). But it is difficult to attribute the great importance which Left Extremism has recently acquired to anybody in particular. It is an attitude that exists among the rank and file of certain trades, e.g. the building trade; it exists in the offices of the C.G.T., where its proponents are far more extremist than the Communists. One hears a great deal of a Left Opposition in the making and of a Fourth International. All this is so far rather vague, even though the Temps recently drew up a whole catalogue of groups and organizations potentially belonging to the "Left Opposition."

But, as just remarked, this "Opposition" is a state of mind more than anything else -- a state of mind that has existed from time immemorial in the Paris working class; that existed among the anarchists and syndicalists before the war; and which is again reflected in the present latent rebellion among certain working-class elements against the Blum Government. Like the Anarcho-Syndicalists of prewar trade unionism, this state of mind is hostile to bourgeois democracy (however progressive) and to normal, regulated relations between labor and capital. Much of this revolutionary temper is spontaneous, as were in June 1936 the two great strike waves which, at times, overwhelmed even the Communist leaders by their revolutionary temper. Trotsky was not altogether wrong on that occasion when he ridiculed Blum and Jouhaux for describing the great strikes as "professional" and "economic," and for trying to ignore or underrate the underlying revolutionary ferment. As things are today the tendencies evidenced in June 1936 cannot be ignored, and the Communist and most of the C.G.T. leaders find themselves obliged to play up to the extremists for fear of being denounced as the flunkeys of capital -- or of Stalin -- and so of losing even the nominal leadership of the working class.

How important the development of this Left Extremism will be, the next few months will show. A notable trade revival accompanying the Exhibition may conceivably lessen its influence; and the leaders, at any rate, if not certain elements in the rank and file, are aware of the growing unpopularity of the Paris working class among not only the upper but also the lower bourgeoisie, and among the defenders of the democratic traditions of the country represented by the Radical Party. The "blackmail of Parliament" by Left Wing extremists has some traits in common with the blackmail exercised by the Fascist elements in 1934. Each is obviously an anti-democratic force. This character of Left extremism may have the effect -- as the Radicals are acutely aware -- of not only breaking the Front Populaire but of driving the small bourgeoisie to the Right. Hitherto provincial France has still been much calmer than Paris, and provincial opinion, as the recent by-elections show, is still as Front Populaire as it was a year ago; but many observers already hold that the time is near when the break-up of the Front Populaire will be accepted by public opinion as an inevitable and even as a desirable change -- whatever that change might bring. New financial difficulties loom large on the horizon, the problem of wages and prices, though less acute, is still present, and with the trade unions in their present state of mind, labor unrest and conflicts of a singularly "undemocratic" kind between Labor and the Government threaten to continue.

On the other hand, Blum early in May reaffirmed his determination to continue the "pause" in the realization of the Front Populaire's proposed reforms. He rejected Jouhaux's more extreme demands, among them the ten-billion franc public works program and the creation of a C.G.T. monopoly of the labor market. The labor truce effected for the duration of the Exposition has helped to restore confidence. On their part, the Left extremists seem to have become aware that they had gone too far; and for the time being at any rate they are less intransigent, thereby temporarily lessening the general tension.

A great question is how the working class would react should there be a change of government, should a more bourgeois coalition take the place of the Blum Cabinet. Will they submit, or will they rebel in the vain hope that a government even more to the Left may seize power, in accordance with the purely demagogic prophecies of Thorez? There is no parliamentary majority for such a government, and its establishment would mean a revolution. The prospect seems fantastic; for no one can run a revolution with at least four-fifths of the nation against it.

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  • ALEXANDER WERTH, Paris correspondent of the Manchester Guardian; author of "France in Ferment" and "Which Way France?"
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