The events of February 6th 1934 would result in a new unity on the French Left, enter the Popular Front.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 64 - The Third Republic Part 4 - Left Left Left Right Left. This week a big thank you goes out to Sam, Daryl, and Alex for choosing to support this podcast on Patreon, where they now get access to ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special Member only episodes released roughly every month. You can find out more at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. On February 6th, 1934 thousands of people were marching in Paris. In wht would be the bloodiest political event since the Paris Commune, various Right Wing political groups had decided that it was time to protest the government. The target of these protests wsa the government under Daladier, which had been supported by a coalition of Radical and Socialist ministers. In clashes with the police 14 would be killed, 236 hospitalized, and over 400 injured, they would in turn kill a policeman, hospitalize 92, and injure almost 700. The exact goal of these protests would later be identified by a government inquiry as an attempted coup, but there is some doubt that they were quite that organized and ambitious. A true coup would have required a unity of purpose and action from all of the various groups involved, which was not really present, the participants were from a wide range of right wing groups, such an Action Francaise and Croix de Feu, and in retrospect the protests are regarded as a bit more spontaneous and less focused on one goal. Regardless of their exact purpose, the protests woudl achieve the toppling of the Daladier government, and when Daladier resigned he was replaced by Gaston Doumergue, who was stil a member of the Radicals, but one far more acceptable to those on the right. The most important outcome of these rights was actually not this new government, but instead the reactions to the events on the French Left. Up until 1934 the French Socialists and Communists were deeply divided, just like they were in most other countries. But the events on February 6th began to change this, and over the next several months a unity would develop between the two groups. This would first manifest in a joint strike action that was staged on February 12th, then during the summer they signed a Unity pact, in October they would then coordinate their electoral strategy to try and prevent one from stealing seats from the other. The final outcome of this cooperation would be the Popular Front government, which is where we will end this episode today. But first we have to focus on the whole spectrum of French politics, starting with the various right wing groups that were involved in the February 6th movement. It would be their actions that would push the disparate groups on the left to create the popular front. Then in the back half of this episode we will discuss the formation of that Popular Front before we look at the actions of the Popular Front government after they came to power in June 1936, although that story will have to wait until next episode.
On the surface level, French politics during the interwar years seems incredibly chaotic, with governments rarely lasting more than a year, and several only lasting a few months. But underneath that chaos was a solid level of stability as the governments mostly just cycled between the same groups over and over again. What this points to is that many of the groups in French politics largely agreed within one another on many of the most important topics. This allowed for a government creating majority to continue to bounce just slightly around the center with largely the same group of supporters, usually members of the Radical party, at its core. On the Right there were a group of parties that would be categorized as conservative, but in no way revolutionary. These groups had a broad base of support among French society, from the upper and middle classes which was their core support group, but also among various groups of workers. During the 1920s the majority were close to, or at least considered themselves, close to the center of French politics. Over the course of the interwar period some of the parties would become more radical, the largest example being the Republican Federation party, which along with the Democratic Alliance was the two largest parties on the right during the mid 1930s. The Republican Federation party would be the bridge between the parties on the very far right, the revolutionary type of parties, which chose a non-participatory course of action in official French politics, and the more mainstream political groups. There were some similarties between the shift in French politics and those that would occur in nother nations. One of these was the growth in support for the left and the erosion in support for the Right throughout the 1920s. In France the elections directly after the war in 1919 would be the high water mark for the groups as they formed the Bloc National and they were able to ride high on the victory. The postwar unity of these groups would erode in the following decade, as the support for the Socialist and Communist parties grew stonger, the groups on the right would fracture, with those closer to the center choosing a conciliatory path and colaboration with those on the center left. This would set up the Radical Party into its very important position that it would hold for multiple successive elections, allowing it to form multiple center right governments. Meanwhile those parties on the further right would start gaining more support, and they would be the groups that would welcome any person that did not support the Left, ultranationalists, monarchists, religious groups, and anybody else.
On the furthest right were groups that would not even participate in normal politics, as discussed in the Dr. Chris Millington interview that was released a few weeks ago. They saw participation as an admission of legitimacy, and so they refused. There were several of these groups, and they all had different sets of beliefs and agendas. For example, Action Francaise would be a monarchist group for most of the interwar period, whereas another group, the Croix de Feu, would begin life as a veterans organization before morphing into a fascist, or at the very least a fascist adjacent group. Fascism in France is a bit of a topic for discussion. As we discussed during our episodes on the rise of Italian fascism, which many fascists in France saw as an inspiration, or the rise of Nazism in Germany, their blend of political ideas was often rooted in the identification and vilification of an enemy, but France was in a different position due to the fact that it kind of won the war, and took care of many of its grievances with Germany in the process. Or as Eugene Weber would say in The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s “Fascism had a low ceiling in France, it was a sated national; it had no territories to reclaim, no oppressed minorities to redeem, no lost honor to reconquer.” That did not mean that nobody tried to create those type of fascist parties, there were several different groups modeled after Mussolini’s fascists, often bankrolled by a few rich individuals, who almost universally failed to gain too much traction. One of the problems would be Action Francaise, which was large enough to kind of suck the air out of the room on the French far right, making it difficult for other groups to grow beyond a certain size, but also far too monarchist to really go down the fascist path. This would all somewhat change during the mid 1930s with the rising popularity of more radical right wing groups, which Action Francaise saw as a threat to their position. One of these groups, and the one most frequently referenced as the leading fascist group in France was the Croix de Feu, here is Kevin Passmore from The Right in France: From the Third Republic to Vichy “The Croix de feu was the major beneficiary of the successive failures of centre and right. The league combined attacks on state intervention in the economy with schemes for an authoritarian ‘organization of the profession’ through which it mobilized groups that considered themselves-rightly or wrongly-unrepresented in parliamentary conservatism.” The official statement of the party program, or at least the one from October 1933, seems less than radical. Typical conservative line items from this period are present, less taxation, fewer state monopolies, a reduction of nationalized industry. There was also strong corporatist support within the Croix de Feu, which was one of the foundational principles of Italian fascism. Unstated within the program, but certainly a very real part of the group’s belief system was anti-semitism. Other similarties with fascist groups in other nations were an inclination towards fashioning the party around paramilitary imagery and the presence of a constant struggle among the group’s rhetoric. But I have to end the conversation on the Croix de Feu, and the Radical French Right with the disclaimer that whether or not these groups should be put in the basket with other fascist groups is still open for debate. It really depneds on who you talk to, with some claiming that they were simply authoritarians and nationalist, not fascist. My opinion generally agrees with a fascist categorization, but I will quality that categorization by stating quite clearly that I take a very broad definition of fascism, instead of a more exclusionary one that you will get from some other sources.
The Popular Front that would be created in the mid 1930s in France depended on two groups, the Socialists and Communists. The French Communists represented the far left of politics in France during this period, and they also for a good chunk of the interwar period before 1934 refused to collaborate with other on the Left due to their revolutionary beliefs. The split would begin in late 1920, and as so often was the case would be in response to events in Russia. On December 29th 1920 the Tours congress would take place with one of the major topics of discussion being the 21 conditions that Lenin had placed on entry into the Third, or Communist, International. There were many at the Tours conference that agreed with the conditions and wanted to join the International, but there were also others who did not. This disagreement, which was fundamentally a disagreement about how influential international groups should be in charting the path for the French left, would cause a party split to occur. The cause for this split is explained by Thomas Beaumont in International Communism in Interwar France, 1919-36 “During his celebrated speech at Tours in which he rejected membership of the Communist International and pledged to watch over the ‘old house’ of French socialism, Léon Blum made clear his concerns that communists in France would serve as nothing more than Moscow’s ciphers. Blum attacked the Bolshevik tactic of revolution, criticising Lenin’s French enthusiasts for seeking to introduce ‘dictatorial terror on the Russian model willy-nilly to France’ and ended by underlining the communists’ ‘slavish, unquestioning obedience to Moscow … [which] distinguishes you from us [the SFIO] and always will’.” On one side would remain the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière or the SFIO which had been the French Socialist party since its foundation in 1905. On the other side, and the one that agreed with the 21 conditions was the Section Française de l’Internationale Communiste or better known as the Parti Communiste Français, or as I will refer to them moving forward the PCF. The split into two groups setup what would be the structure of the French Left for the remainder of the interwar period. On the far left were the Communists, then the Socialists of the SFIO, and then the Radicals. There were other smaller parties, but these were the three primary players. There would be many electoral coalitions between the Socialists and Radicals, but there were constant problems in turning these coalitions into real political action. The Radicals were themselves split and had many members who would not agree to changes that many Socialists felt were essential. Then within the SFIO there were also differing opinions, and the disagreements between the various factions would cause many coalitions to collapse. Meanwhile the PDF was a bit off in the wilderness, and then in 1927 the Communist International would push for a concerted policy of refusing to collaborate with other parties which would be the path pursued by other Communist parties all over the world, and in France that would last until 1934. While this would be one policy where the French Communists would agree with and go along with Russian policies, that was not always the case. The relationship between the Communist leaders in Russia and International Communist groups is often simplified into one of leaders and followers, but as is usually the case that is an oversimplification. Due to the long period that many Communist leaders spent either in exile or at least in other foreign nations the web of relations and connections was both dense and confusing. This would continue after events in Russia resulted in the ofrmation of the Communist International. While the International, largely controlled by Russian leaders, could dictate changes, it also had to take into account a variety of local reality if it wanted to grow the support for Communism in other nations. If those local conditions were not considered, support would be lost to other groups, and so many national Communist parties were stuck in a constant balancing act of international and national concerns, including the French PCF. Events elsewhere around the globe would then also play into these calculations, like what would happen to the German Communist party when the Nazi party took power in 1933. Domestic events were also important, and in France none would be more important than the events of February 6th, 1934.
In the immediate aftermath of the 6th of February events the PDF and SFIO called for demonstrations. These demonstrations were both protesting what had happened, but also were used as a form of organization and preparation just in case the worst were to happen, which in this case was a fascist coup. On February 9th these demonstrations were led by the Communists and they would result in hundreds of people being injured and several killed. Then on February 123th these would be a joint strike action between the Communists and Socialists. These strikes would also involve violence, but they were also able to show everybody in France the power of a unified Left. Over a million workers would go on strike in Paris alone, and hundreds and thousands would join them in villages and cities all over the country. After over a decade of division this brief period of joint action was a wake up call to everyone. On the right it revealed that perhaps they were not as strong in comparison as they believed, with numerically and in unity. The incredible size and power of the strike dwarfed those of February 6th. Within the broad center of French politics, many just spoke out against the violence, joined by Radical leaders how always pushed back against any violent protests. Between the SFIO and PCF the results were seen as impressive, but it did not in any way immediately heal the gaps and differences between the two groups. What it would do was lay the groundwork for a growing unity that would take some serious strides over the course of the summer of 1934. In May the French Communist leader Thorez would travel to Moscow where in discussions with leaders there the decision was made for united action in France, a policy that he would then announce in the French Communist party conference in late June. During that conference the party would propose and accept a conciliatory approach with the Socialists and negotiations would begin with the SFIO to make this a reality. During these negotiations most of the discussion was around what needed to change in both groups for such joint action to occur, mostly requiring both groups to stop openly insulting the other in public. The unity that this would spawn, and would be made official in July, was a path of common action against Fascism. It did not mean that the groups were joining or that they agreed on all of their policies, but simply that they felt that it was more important in the short term to work together against fascism. It was also the beginning of a relationship that would change and grow over the next two years. What would start as simply a less antagonistic relationship would develop into one where they would collaborate in November 1934 to create a joint political program. The result was a program that was very moderate by Communist standards, but was clearly one of compromise. Then in 1935 they would approach the Radicals to create a Popular Front which was just an agreement of the three parties to work together, with party autonomy retained and protected. During this time the groups would also begin working together to assist each other at the electoral level. For example the Communists and Socialists would agree to withdraw their candidates on second ballots of local elections in favor of the other depending on who had the best support. How this worked in practice is that if in an election no candidate got above a certain threshold the candidates with the lowest totals would drop out and another vote would occur. This could result in some pretty brutal vote splitting between similar parties, like the SFIO and PCF, so the agreement meant that in that second vote either the SFIO or PCF candidate with the lower total would drop out, moving all their votes to the other and making victory much more likely. While this new atmosphere of collaboration was spreading on the left, voters were also changing their preferences. During the May 1936 elections the vote share for those on the parties on the left dropped from 37.35 to 35.88 percent, meanwhile the support for the parties of hte left increased from 44.5 to 46 percent. Then within the left the Communist vote doubled from almost 7 percent to almost 12.5, while the Radical vote fell from 15.88 to 11.88 with the Socialists also dropping a bit from 17.6 to 17. These numbers would set the stage for the creation of the Popular Front government in June 1936, under the leadership of Leon Blum, a government that would almost immediately experience turmoil, which we will discuss next episode.