With the victory of the Popular Front it was time to completely transform French society, to fix all of the problems they had identified in the previous years….right? RIGHT?!
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 65 - The Third Republic Pt. 5 - Popular Front in Power. This week a big thank you goes out to Matthew for the Donation and to Daniel 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. The French elections of late April and early May 1936 resulted in a majority for the Popular Front coalition, with 378 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, versus just 236 seats for the opposition. Within the Popular Front, the SFIO would have the largest number of deputies at 149, then the Radicals with 110, and the Communists at 72, the rest of the seats were made up of smaller leftist groups and then some independent centrists who voted with the Popular Front. The resulting government that was formed put Socialist leader Leon Blum as the first Socialist Prime Minister of France, and the first Jew as well. This government would be in place for just over a year and during that time it would attempt to both satisfy its supporters with the social reforms that were part of the Socialist and Communist political platform while also maintaining support from the center parties that were a critical part of the Popular Front coalition. During this episode we will track the developments during this year of Popular Front control, from those social reforms, to foreign policy, relations between the government and the army, and finally the fall of the first Popular Front government.
Shortly after the Popular Front took office something that might surprise you happened, France would experience one of the largest series of strikes during interwar France. Over the course of the month of June there would be over 12,000 total worker strikes, and it would involve 1.8 million workers. This was right after the Popular Front, theoretically a government sympathetic to their interests, had taken control. These strikes would frequently seem quite different than what had happened previously, and often took the form of occupation of the work places. They would then make their demands, which were frequently not radical or extreme, and then they would occupy the workplace until those demands were met. One of the workers, from a Renault factory, would explain why this path was chosen: ‘our tactic is to occupy, to hold out at any cost, as in a besieged city…Outside the factory we would be nothing more than unemployed, incapable of maintaining our unity against the company unions and fascists’. Over the first week of June the number of workplaces under worker control continued to increase, in Paris there would just be a handful on the first of June, but by the end of June 2nd it was over 150. This raised fears of a revolution in the making, with that possibility being seen as a good or a bad thing depending on who you were in France. All of this happening in the weeks after the Popular Front government formed is attributable to the fact that almost all of these actions were driven and sustained by the workers themselves. There were attempts by the unions to control the strikes, and even to stop them in some cases, but these efforts were unsuccessful. The strikes that were prompted and supported by the unions were soon totally out of their control. It really set the stage for the coming year, with the workers, finally having brought a Socialist government into power, wanting the government to begin immediate and drastic changes. They wanted to radically upend the relationship between employers and workers, and they wanted those changes to happen quickly. There would be some changes made, easily the most famous and long lasting being the introduction of the 40 hour work week in France. This concept of a 40 hour work week had been a talking point by the French Socialists for quite some time, and beyond just the reduction in maximum time that a single person could be made to work in a week, there were other benefits as well. The first related to unemployment, with the idea being that if a single person could only work so many hours, the rest of the hours would have to be filled by somebody else, which would naturally reduce the total number of unemployed. This in turn, again in theory, would increase the demand for many good as it would provide more people with the ability to purchase goods. These were the reasons why the Popular Front introduced the 40 hour limit, but it did have some downsides, for example some businesses simply closed up shop for a period during the week instead of hiring more people to fill those hours. It would also cause problems once rearmament started up in later years, but we will discuss that here in a bit. We have to be careful with how we judge the introduction of the 40 hour week in all instances though, because it was not really in place with a universal way very long. It did not become a widely adopted and enforced policy before March 1937, and then by the beginning of 1938 it was already under attack with large exceptions being carved out for various industries. This relatively short period of adoption makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the benefits or downsides of the change. What does seem clear is that the Socialist economists were probably underestimating how much of an increase in labor costs the change would cause, while also having an overly optimistic view of how quickly the economy would recover. The rate of recovery was crucial because the rise in overall costs was expected, with the theory being that the benefits would outweigh the costs. The introduction of the 40 hour week also did not properly take into account the effects it would have on skilled industries, where it was just not possible to take an unemployed worker and the directly insert them in the position, such skilled industries took months and even years to bring their worker pool up to the necessary level.
A key driver in the 40 hour work week reform, and in other economic reforms made by the Popular Front were the Popular Front’s economic beliefs. The socialist policies around economics were attempts to solve what they saw as the primary problem with the French economy during the mid 1930s, which was underconsumption. There simply were not enough people with enough purchasing power to make the economy work, or to quote Blum ‘guided by one overriding idea: to use the power of the State to increase the purchasing power of the masses’. The root cause of this problem, which fit nicely into the Socialist belief system, was claimed to be the one sided wealth transfer between the workers and the employers, which was something inherent to capitalism. By reversing some of this wealth transfer, the Socialists believed the entire French economy would be far healthier. To try and ensure that the proper economic moves were made most of the important ministerial positions were all filled by Socialists. This would result in the aforementioned 40 hour work week, as well as reversals of previous government policies like the deflation decrees and the hard caps on government spending. Instead there would be attempts to increase wages, as well as public works programs that were put in place which involved quite a bit of government spending. The results of these policies were mostly negative, but there is once again an important caveat. In September 1936 the decision would be made to devalue the franc, something that had been resisted by French governments since the 1920s out of fears of inflation. The decision to devalue meant that it is challenging to look at the effects of the Popular Front policies during the period before September 1936, because they only had a limited window of being in effect before the franc was devalued, at which point there are so many other economic factors to consider. What we do know is that in the period between July and September industrial production fell slightly and unemployment increased, but again it is hard to draw conclusions here because it is very possible that no economic changes could outweigh the problems caused by continued resistance to devaluation, so we should probably just talk about how that devaluation ended up happening.
Devaluation had been a hot button topic in French politics for all of the years after other nations started to devalue in 1931. Refusing to devalue had been a pivotal part of French economic policy and for many years it was political suicide to even suggest it. This did begin to change after 1933 and 1934, and in fact Blum would himself say that maybe, possibly, devaluation was desireable as early as April 1934. By the time that the Popular Front came into power resistance to the very idea of devaluation had greatly weakened, and during the summer of 1936 it began to be discussed as an inevitability. Focus shifted not to whether or not it should be done but how it should be accomplished. The largest concern was that if the French just announced that they were devaluing their currency, there would be a reaction from the United States and Britain. With how large their economies were, and how important they were to the fRench economy, these countermeasures needed to be avoided. The French financial attache in London, Emmanuel Monick, advised that both of the nations should be contacted and negotiations started. He also believed that the Americans were the most important part of those discussions saying “We would be wasting time by starting with Great Britain. We also lose an opportunity to make our case in the best possible light with President Roosevelt. I know the President of the United States well enough to believe that he will say “yes”; and once President Roosevelt has said “yes” the British government cannot say “no”". The final decision to pursue the devaluation path was made on September 8th, and a note would sent to both London and Washington. It stated that it was the intention of the French government to move the franc to a new exchange level, but both parties proved to be unwilling to enter into any formal agreements and instead favored simple nonbinding agreements that did not limit their actions. Even these simple agreements were enough though, and on October 1st the franc would be officially devalued, it would still not be a floating currency, that would come later,but instead simply reduced the value of a franc from its previous 65.6 milligrams to 43 and 49 milligrams. The changes that this brought about were almost instant, and by the end of the year industrial production figures and increased and unemployment had droped to 1934 levels. French prices were also coming into line with British prices for many goods, which freed up the French economy. Or as Alfred Sauvy a French economic historian would say “Some excellent prospects were opening up for the French economy now that it had jumped over the gold fence holding it down…”
While the initial results of devaluation were good, shortly thereafter the great enemy that had been the reason for so much resistance to devaluation began to rear its head, inflation. Inflation had been a major concern among advocates for the gold standard and deflationary politics, and France would begin to experience it. During the first months of 1937 inflation would continue and would even push the French government into crisis as the French gold reserves continued to drop. As inflation increased almost all of the gains of the early months of devaluation suddenly began to disappear. Industrial production would begin to once again drop after March, and prices began to rise far faster than wages. This caused a spiral of gold reserve depletion as increased prices resulted in more imports which then drained reserves further. Eventually, but after the fall of the Popular Front, further devaluations would have to occur. In July 1937 the decision would be made to just let the franc float a bit, this would be a de facto devaluation would then be put in place in May 1938, again an attempt to stabilize the French economy. During all of this period the franc slipped drastically, in early 1937 a British pound was equal to about 111 francs, by mid 1938 it was 175. Against the United States dollar it would go from 15 francs in early 1936 to 37 in 1938. By 1938 the French import and export balance would greatly improve and it is likely that the value of the franc was showing signs of a strong 1939, which was of course derailed by the war.
The Blum government was in the unenviable position of making nobody happy with what they were doing. From the left they were constantly criticized for not doing enough, while from others they were criticized for doing too much. For example on area where they would be criticized for not doing enough would be in the area of the civil service. From the left the unwillingness of the government to make wide changes to who was in the French civil service would be heavily critized. It meant that there were many within the civil service that, while not actively resisting any government reforms were perhaps not as vigorous at imposing them as they could have been. Instead of a more cautious approach supporters on the Left wanted widescale replacement of the civil service, while those on the right claimed that any such action would be an abuse of power. Another areas where the Popular Front changes were non-existent or confused was around colonial policy. The problem in the case of this topic was general disagreement among the Popular Front parties about the best course of action. Some wanted to maintain the status quo when it came to colonies, for other groups they wanted a more concrete path to independence for the colonies, and others wanted an immediate shift to freedom for all of France’s colonial possession. In this case the disagreements would lead to inactive. Colonial policy would not be the only item on which the constituent parts of the Popular Front found themselves in disagreement, and those disagreements and the tension that they cause would grow after the Popular Front came to power. As would so often be the case, the unity that had brought the coalition to power would begin to erode almost immediately as all of the problems in France were not quickly solved, and some appeared to be getting worse.
While the domestic situation was improving in some ways and not improving in others the Popular Front also had to be greatly concerned with French foreign policy. In this area Blum was well positioned, as he had been seen as the expert on Socialist foreign policy before the creation of the Popular Front. Unfortunately, he would inherit a very problematic foreign relations situation that was mostly incoherent and disappointing. We will cover various areas of those relations in a somewhat random order. After the First World WAr relations with nations in Eastern Europe had been seen as essential to replacing the previous alliance with Russia. However, by the mid 1930s these relations continued to be underwhelming. They would continue to deteriorate after the French decided not to react strongly to the German remilitarization of the Rhineland. The largest problem was simply that the nations in Eastern Europe began to strongly question whether or not they were really going to get anything out of relations with France. These questions came up against the obvious and apparent growth in power of Italy and Germany, who were not yet working closely together but were individually a concern. If the French would have been very proactive in these areas, it might have been possible to make positive developments happen, but instead the French government would continue to delay. This meant that when nations like Romania wanted to sign a mutual assistance pact with France and other nations, but backing would not be provided by Paris. This would setup many of the nations in Eastern Europe to move into German or Italian relationships, with nations signing nonaggression and trade agreements with Germany and Italy in the last years before the war.
Speaking of Italy, as we have discussed before, relations with Italy were not good in the mid 1930s. The events that began to happen in Spain did nothing to help these relations, with the Spanish Civil War beginning and heavy Italian involvement being a well known part of that conflict. Also in comparison to earlier French governments there was less emphasis put on Italian relations by the Popular Front leaders, who believed that while the relations with Italy were certainly important, they were not as critical for French security. This could have been counteracted by good relations with other nations, or with the Soviet Union, but relations with the Soviets would have be a bit disappointing. The Soviet leaders were quite keen toe stablish more concrete military relations with France, but there was always some hesitancy in Paris. The primary concerns were that the Soviets actually wanted a war to happen in Western Europe to weaken the western European powers. Another concern was that the Soviet Red Army was not actually worth very much when it came to a military alliance. Many of these concerns were amplified and confirmed by a report published in October 1936 which concerned some Soviet military maneuvers that had been overseen by French observers. The report would say “Not only would a war between France and Germany have the advantage of leaving almost all of the Soviet forces outside the conflict, owing to the absence of a Russo-German frontier, but it would leave the USSR…the arbiter of a drained and exhausted Europe.” On these issues there was once again strong disagreements among the Popular Front parties, with the Communists and many Socialists believing that relations with Russia were essential, while those closer to the center pushed back strongly against any changes. Unfortunately such disagreements simply meant that the Popular Front leaders chose what would in retrospect be the worst of all options, which was to do pretty much nothing. In evaluating the entirely of the Popular Front’s foreign policy and its foreign minister Yvon Delbos Robert Young would say in In Command of France: French Foreign Policy and Military Planning, 1933-1940 “Without putting too sharp an edge on it, the fact remains that under his surveillance, French diplomacy made no worthwhile advances to either Russia or Italy, at least partially compromised itself over the Spanish Civil War, stood impotent before Belgium’s run for the cover of neutrality, and neither advanced or retreated in an easter Europe that had been shaken by the restraint shown by France in March 1936.”
When it came to relations with the French military, in generally things could be classified as reasonable. There were many problems with the French military during this period, a lack of coordination between the various military arms, a lack of urgency around improving their performance, and material deficits leading that list..But these were in no way caused by by the Popular Front, and over teh Popular Front period Blum would stick to his general pledge to provide for the French military a reasonable level of support and resources. This support for the French military meant that during the period before during and after the Popular Front the military was able to remain mostly insulated from other changes within France. There were some decisions that would have to be made though, particularly around rearmament which was becoming a larger concern after 1936 as German rearmament efforts first became known and then continued to expand. Rearmament was, in general, a problem for the Blum government because it really wanted to spend money on social programs, both public works and other social spending. However, the demands of rearmament would be forced to take priority. In 1936 the first rearmament plan for the French military would be put in place, with the French army given 14 billion francs for these efforts. However, they were forced into a position of having to upgrade many industries, especially those that were technologically backwards in France, like the aviation industry. Over the course of the next four years most of the money would be given to infantry and artillery rearmament, reinforcing the defensive nature of the army. It was also a little easier from a raw materials perspective, with the French having to import many of the key raw materials needed for a modern mechanized army. Shortly after the end of the Blum government there would also be problems with finding enough people to work in the armament industries, with French unemployment reaching new lows. The support for rearmament went beyond just direct defense requirements and also was part of the Popular Front’s efforts to make France a more attractive ally. The stronger the French military was the better it would be at supporting others, and the less support it would need. Rearmament is a story that was just really getting started during the first Popular Front government, and we will discuss it in more detail in later episodes.
The end of the first Popular Front government would be related to rearmament, but not caused by it. In June 1937, with the financial crisis continuing to deepen due to the continued import and export imbalance the Government requested decree powers to make changes. But the Senate rejected this. When this happened there were many options available to Blum and the government, for example they could have just dissolved the government, they also could have resigned and sought a new election to force the Senate to change its position. However, support from the left had been continually strained by the policies of the government, including the complete refusal of the government to get directly involved in Spain. In the end Blum would simply resign, and the government would be replaced. Blum would claim that he felt that this was th eonly way to avoid a possible constitutional crisis and a continual strain between the Senate and the government. He was unwilling to push into that kind of action, even if he was assured the support of those on the Left, which was questionable and so the Popular Front government came to an end with something of a whimper. Later in the year the destruction of unity on the left was very apparent at the Socialist Party meeing in Marsailles, which resulted in physical altercations during debates. It was a disappointing end to a period of unity, and while the Socialists would be involved in later governments, they would only be in a minor role, except for a short moment in 1938 during which they could not form a stable government. At the time Blum would come under heavy criticism for not pushing for greater reforms that his supporters wanted, with many on the left believing that it was this hesitancy to really make the changes that resulted in the fall of the government and the fragmentation of the Left