Popular Front (France)

Popular Front (France)

The Popular Front (French: "Front populaire") was an alliance of left-wing movements, including the French Communist Party (PCF), the Socialist SFIO and the Radical and Socialist Party, during the interwar period. It won the May 1936 legislative elections, leading to the formation of a government first headed by SFIO leader Léon Blum and exclusively composed of Radical-Socialist and SFIO ministers.

Léon Blum's government lasted from June 1936 to June 1937. He was then replaced by Camille Chautemps, a Radical, but came back as President of the Council in March 1938, before being succeeded by Edouard Daladier, another Radical, the next month. The Popular Front dissolved itself in autumn 1938, confronted to internal dissensions relative to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), opposition of the right-wing and the persistent effects of the Great Depression.

The Popular Front won the May 1936 legislative elections three months after the victory of the "Frente Popular" in Spain. Headed by Léon Blum, it engaged in various social reforms. The workers' movement welcomed this electoral victory by launching a general strike in May-June 1936, resulting in the negotiation of the Matignon agreements, one of the cornerstone of social rights in France. The socialist movement's euphoria was apparent in SFIO member Marceau Pivert's "Tout est possible!" (Everything is possible). However, as the economy continued to stall during the Great Depression, Blum was forced to stop his reforms and devalue the franc. With the French Senate controlled by conservatives, Blum, and thus the whole Popular Front, fell out of power in June of 1937.

The Popular Front was supported, without participation ("soutien sans participation") by the French Communist Party, which did not provide any of its ministers, just as the SFIO had supported the "Cartel des gauches" (Coalition of the Left) in 1924 and 1932 without entering the government. Furthermore, it was the first time that the cabinet included female ministers (Suzanne Lacore, SFIO; Irène Joliot-Curie, independent; and Cécile Brunschvicg, also independent), although women would acquire right to vote only in 1944.

The origins of the Popular Front

The idea of a "Popular Front" came from two directions: first, the left-wing view, following the February 6, 1934 riots, that the far-right had tried to organize a coup d'état against the Republic. Second, the Comintern's decision, before the increased popularity of fascist and authoritarian regimes in Europe, to abandon the "social-fascist" position of the early 1930s and replace it with the "Popular Front" position, which advocated an alliance with the social-democrats against the Right. Thus, both the consequences of the 1934 riots, which had removed the second "Cartel des gauches" from power, and the new Comintern policies had seen anti-fascism as the main imperative of the day.

Henceforth, Maurice Thorez, secretary general of the PCF, was the first to call for the formation of a "Popular Front", first in the party press organ "L'Humanité" in 1934, and subsequently in the Chamber of Deputies. The Radicals were at the time the largest party in the Chamber, governing throughout most of the Third Republic. Following the fall of the second Cartel des gauches, which united Radicals with the SFIO (the PCF maintaining a "support without participation" position), the Radical-Socialist Party had turned toward an alliance with the right, in particular with the Democratic Republican Alliance (ARD).

There are various reasons for the formation of the Popular Front and its subsequent electoral victory; they include the economic crisis caused by the Great Depression, which affected France starting in 1931, financial scandals and the instability of the Chamber elected in 1932 which had weakened the ruling parties, the rise of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, the growth of violent far-right leagues in France and in general of fascist-related parties and organisations (Marcel Bucard's "Mouvement Franciste", which was subsidised by Mussolini, Neo-Socialism, etc.)

May 1936 elections and the formation of the Blum government

The Popular Front won the general election of 3 May 1936, with 386 seats out of 608.For the first time, the Socialists won more seats than the Radicals, and the Socialist leader Léon Blum became France's first Socialist Prime Minister as well as the first Jew to hold that office. The first Popular Front cabinet consisted of 20 Socialists, 13 Radicals and 2 Socialist Republicans (there were no Communist Ministers) and, for the first time, included 3 women (women were not able to vote in France at that time).

Beside the three main left-wing parties, Radical-Socialists, SFIO and PCF, the Popular Front was supported by the "Ligue des droits de l'homme" (LDH, Human Rights League, formed during the Dreyfus Affair), the Movement Against War and Fascism, the "Comité de vigilance des intellectuels antifascistes" (Committee of Antifascist Intellectuals Watchdogs, created in 1934), and small parties such as Paul Ramadier's Union socialiste républicaine (USR, right-wing of the SFIO), the Party of Proletarian Unity (PUP, created in 1930 and opposed both to social democracy and to the Third International), the "Parti radical-socialiste Camille Pelletan" (created in May 1934 by members of the left-wing of the Radical Party), etc. . The PUP, Camille Pelletan's Radical-Socialist Party, the leftist Catholic "Jeune République" ("Young Republic") and others joined together to form the parliamentary group of the Independent Left ("Gauche indépendante") which supported Léon Blum's government.

The Popular Front in government

Through the 1936 Matignon Accords, the Popular Front introduced new labor laws. It:
* created the right to strike
* created collective bargaining
* enacted the law mandating 12 days (2 weeks) each year of paid vacations for workers
* enacted the law limiting the workweek to 40 hours (outside of overtime)
* raised wages

Léon Blum dissolved the far-right leagues.

The Popular Front was actively fought by right-wing and far-right movements, which often used antisemitic slurs against Blum and other ministers. The Cagoule far-right group even staged bombings to disrupt the government.

Although Léon Blum (as well as the PCF) wanted to intervene to help the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Radicals were opposed to it, and threatened to quit the government if he helped them. Thus, a policy of non-intervention was adopted, although it did not stop Mussolini and Hitler supporting Franco's troops.

The Popular Front and cultural policies

The Minister of National Education and of the Beaux-Arts, Jean Zay, proposed as soon as August 1936 a draft law concerning intellectual property right, based on a new philosophy which did not consider the author as an "owner" ("propriétaire"), but as an "intellectual worker" ("travailleur intellectuel"). Jean Zay voluntarilly located himself in the continuation of Alfred de Vigny, Augustin-Charles Renouard and Proudhon, who had opposed themselves to Lamartine during the 19th century, and defended the "spiritual interest of the collectivity". Article 21 of his draft divided the 50 years post-mortem protection period into two different phases, one of 10 years and the other of 40 years which established a sort of legal licence suppressing the right of exclusivity granted to a specific editor. Zay's draft project was particularly opposed by the editor Bernard Grasset, who defended the right of the editor as a "creator of value", while many writers, including Jules Romains and the president of the "Société des Gens de Lettres", Jean Vignaud, supported Zay's draft. The draft did not succeed, however, in being voted before the end of the legislature in 1939.Anne Latournerie, [http://multitudes.samizdat.net/spip.php?article168 Petite histoire des batailles du droit d’auteur] , "Multitudes" n°5, May 2001 fr icon]

The Popular Front, sports, leisures and the 1936 Olympic Games

With the 1936 Matignon Accords, the working class could enjoy for the first time two weeks holiday a year. This signaled the beginning of tourism in France. Although beach resorts had existed since the beginning of the family, for example in Biarritz or Deauville, they had been restricted to the upper and inactive class. But the Popular Front's policy concerning leisures ("otium" in Latin) was limited to the enactment of two weeks holiday. If on the one hand, this measure was thought as a response to the workers' alienation, on the other hand, the Popular Front gave Léo Lagrange (SFIO) responsibility for organisation of the use this leisure time, and of all aspects concerning sports. Thus, Lagrange was named Under-Secretary for Sports and the organisation of Leisure, a newly created post and a forerunner of the current position of Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports. Léo Lagrange's position was placed under the authority of the Minister of Public Health Henri Sellier.

Sports was an important question in 1936, as Fascist ideology had used it in order to make it a substitute of war and a propaganda tool for spreading militarist ideas in society. Furthermore, youth organisations such as the Hitler Youth or Mussolini's "Balilla" and "Avanguardisti", created in 1926 for boys and girls, prepared to entrance in the SS and in the "fasci" organisations. In Italy, Mussolini had assigned Renato Ricci, deputy-secretary of Education, the task of "reorganizing the youth from a moral and physical point of view"," for which he sought inspiration from Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting.

The fascist conception and use of sport as a means to an end contrasted with the SFIO's official stance towards it "until the Popular Front". Before, it considered it as a "bourgeois" and "reactionary" activity, something which could be understood due to the social restrictions which weighted on the individual possibilities to take part in such actions: as economist Thorstein Veblen had put it in his "Theory of the Leisure Class" (1899), one first had to be a member of that "leisure class" to be able to take part in such activities. However, confronted with an increasing possibility of war with Nazi Germany, and affected by the scientific racist theories of the time, which had a currency which went beyond the fascist parties, the SFIO began to change its ideas concerning sports during the Popular Front. As shown by the hierarchy of the ministers, which placed the sub-secretary of sport under the authority of the Minister of Public Health, sport was considered above all as a public health issue. From this principle of relating sport to the "degeneration of the race" and other scientific racist theories, only one step had to be taken. It was done by Georges Barthélémy, deputy of the SFIO, who declared that sports contributed to the "improvement of relations between capital and labour, henceforth to the elimination of the concept of class struggle," and that they were a "mean to prevent the moral and physical degeneration of the race." Such corporatist conceptions had led to the neo-socialist movement, whose members were excluded from the SFIO on 5 November 1933, a few months after Hitler's accession to power. But scientific racist positions were upheld inside the SFIO and the Radical-Socialist Party, who supported colonialism and found in this discourse a perfect ideological alibi to justify colonial rule. The PCF, on the other hand, advocated anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist positions from its creation. After all, Georges Vacher de Lapouge (1854-1936) a leading theorist of scientific racism, had been a SFIO member, although he was strongly opposed to the "Teachers' Republic" ("République des instituteurs") and its meritocratic ideal of individual advancement and fulfilment through education, a Republican ideal founded on the philosophy of the Enlightenment.

Although the SFIO had opposed sports as a "bourgeois" activity of the "leisure class," it changed attitude during the Popular Front first of all because its social reforms permitted to the workers' to participate in such leisure activities, and also because of the increasing risks of a confrontation with Nazi Germany, in particular after the March 1936 remilitarization of the Rhineland, in contradiction with the 1925 Locarno Treaties which had been reaffirmed in 1935 by France, Great Britain and Italy allied in the Stresa Front. This new sign of German's revisionism towards the conditions of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles thus led parts of the SFIO in supporting a conception of sport used as a training field for future conscription and, eventually, war.

In this complex situation, Léo Lagrange held fast to an ethical conception of sports which rejected both fascist militarism and indoctrination, scientific racist theories as well as professionalisation of sports, which he opposed as an elitist conception which ignored the main, popular aspect of sport, which should aim, according to him, for the fulfilment of the personality of the individual. Thus, Lagrange stated that "It cannot be a question in a democratic country of militarizing the distractions and the pleasures of the masses and of transforming the joy skillfully distributed into a means of not thinking." Léo Lagrange further declared in 1936 that:

"Our simple and human goal, is to allow to the masses of French youth to find in the practice of sport, joy and health and to build an organization of the leisure activities so that the workers can find relaxation and a reward to their hard labour. "

The 1936 Olympic Games

Furthermore, the International Olympic Committe decided, between Berlin and Barcelona, to choose Berlin for the 1936 Olympic Games. This choice had obvious political and ideological consequences, due to the highly political nature of sport under the fascist regimes as well as the "aestheticization of politics" (Walter Benjamin) that it involved, the funds raised and donated for the organisation of such an event, the advertisement provided to Nazi Germany by hosting such an international event, etc. In protest against this event, the Spanish Popular Front, elected in February 1936, decided to organize anyway the Games in Barcelona, under the name People's Olympiad, which were scheduled to be held from July 19 to July 26, 1936, thus ending six days before the OG in Berlin. Léon Blum's government at first decided to take part in it, on insistence from the PCF.

Léo Lagrange played a major role in the co-organisation of the People's Olympiad. The trials for these Olympiads proceeded on July 4, 1936 in the Pershing stadium in Paris, which has been built in June 1919. Léo Lagrange chaired these days in person, along with the Minister of Transport, Radical-Socialist Pierre Cot, André Malraux, who later fought in the International Brigades, and other figures of the Popular Front. Through their club, the FSGT, or individually, 1.200 French athletes were registered with these anti-fascist Olympiads.

But Blum finally decided not to vote for the funds to pay the athletes' expenses. A PCF deputy declared: "Going to Berlin, is making oneself complice of the torturers. .." Nevertheless, on July 9, when the whole of the French right-wing voted “for” the participation of France to the OG of Berlin, the left-wing (PCF included) abstained itself — from the notable exception of the particular Pierre Mendès France, who would become Prime minister under the Fourth Republic and negotiate the peace agreements with the Viet-minh in Indochina in 1954.

Nevertheless, several French sportsmen decided to boycott the Berlin OG anyway, and go to Barcelona where the People's Olympiads were scheduled to begin on 19 July 1936. Each stop in the train stations were the occasion of popular joy demonstrations, people singing "The Internationale"... However, on the eve of the opening ceremony, General Franco's military "pronunciamento", declared from Spanish Morocco, started the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

1937 Million Franc Race

The Popular Front organized in 1937 the Million Franc Race, to induce automobile manufacturers to develop race cars capable of competing with the German Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union racers of the time, which were backed by the Nazi government as part of its sports policy. Hired by Delahaye, René Dreyfus beat Jean-Pierre Wimille, who ran for Bugatti. Wimille would later take part in the Resistance. The following year, Dreyfus succeeded in overwhelming the legendary Rudolf Caracciola and his 480 horsepower Silver Arrow at the Grand Prix de Pau, becoming a national hero.

Colonial policies of the Popular Front

The Popular Front initiated the 1936 Blum-Viollette proposal, which was supposed to grant French citizenship to a minority of Algerian Muslims. Opposed both by colons and by Messali Hadj's pro-independence party, the project was never submitted to the National Assembly's vote and ultimately abandoned.

Composition of Léon Blum's government (June 1936-June 1937)

* SFIO refers to membership to the Socialist Party, while RAD refers to membership to the Radical-Socialist Party. The French Communist Party (PCF) restricted itself to a "support without participation" of the government (meaning it took part to the parliamentary majority but did not have any ministers). The Popular Front government coincides with its leadership by Léon Blum, from 5 June 1936 to 21 June 1937.
* Léon Blum (SFIO), President of the Council
* Edouard Daladier (RAD), Vice-President of the Council and Minister of War and of National Defence
*Camille Chautemps (RAD) - Minister of State
*Paul Faure (SFIO) - Minister of State
*Maurice Viollette (USR) - Minister of State
*Yvon Delbos (RAD), Minister of Foreign Affairs
*Roger Salengro (SFIO), Minister of Interior
*Vincent Auriol (SFIO), Minister of Finances
*Charles Spinasse (SFIO), Minister of National Economy
*Marc Rucart (RAD), Minister of Justice
*Jean-Baptiste Lebas (SFIO), Minister of Labour
*Alphonse Gasnier-Duparc - Minister of Marine
*Pierre Cot (RAD) - Minister of Air
*Jean Zay (RAD) - Minister of National Education
*Albert Rivière (SFIO) - Minister of Pensions
*Georges Monnet (RAD) - Minister of Agriculture
*Marius Moutet (SFIO) - Minister of Colonies
*Albert Bedouce (SFIO) - Minister of Public Works
*Henri Sellier (SFIO) - Minister of Public Health
*Robert Jardillier (SFIO) - Minister of Posts, Telegraphs, and Telephones (PTT)
*Paul Bastid (RAD) - Minister of Trade
*On 18 November 1936, Marx Dormoy (SFIO) replaced Roger Salengro at the Interior
* Léo Lagrange (SFIO), Under-Secretary of State for Leisure and Sports (under the authority of the Minister of Public Health)


*Julian T. Jackson, "Popular Front in France: Defending Democracy 1934-1938" (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)
*André Malraux, "Carnets du Front populaire, 1935-1936", Gallimard, 2006, 116 pages, 18 euros.

ee also

*Popular Front in Senegal
*Matignon Accords (1936)
*History of the Left in France


External links

* [http://www.humaniteinenglish.com/article180.html "The Popular Front: A Brief but Crucial Period in History"] , interview with Henri Malberg, translated from [http://www.humanite.fr/journal/2006-04-18/2006-04-18-828267 "Front populaire : une période brève, mais capitale"] , originally published on April 18, 2006 in "L'Humanité"

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