Blum in May 1937
|76th and 83rd Prime Minister of France|
4 June 1936 – 22 June 1937
|Preceded by||Albert Sarraut|
|Succeeded by||Camille Chautemps|
13 March 1938 – 10 April 1938
|Preceded by||Camille Chautemps|
|Succeeded by||Édouard Daladier|
16 December 1946 – 22 January 1947
|Preceded by||Georges Bidault|
|Succeeded by||Paul Ramadier|
|Vice-Premier of France|
29 June 1937 – 18 January 1938
|Prime Minister||Camille Chautemps|
|Preceded by||Édouard Daladier|
|Succeeded by||Édouard Daladier|
28 July 1948 – 5 September 1948
|Prime Minister||André Marie|
|Succeeded by||André Marie|
André Léon Blum
9 April 1872
|Died||30 March 1950 (aged 77)|
|Political party||French Section of the Workers' International|
As a Jew, he was heavily influenced by the Dreyfus affair of the late 19th century. He was a disciple of French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès and after 1914 became his successor. As Prime Minister in a Popular Front government of the left 1936-37, he provided a series of major economic reforms. Blum declared neutrality in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) to avoid the civil conflict spilling over into France itself. Once out of office in 1938, he denounced the appeasement of Germany. When Germany defeated France in 1940, he became a staunch opponent of Vichy France. Tried by Vichy on trumped-up charges, he was imprisoned in Buchenwald concentration camp. After the war he resumed a transitional leadership role in French politics, helping to bring about the French Fourth Republic, until his death in 1950.
Blum was born in 1872 in Paris to a prosperous, assimilated Jewish family. His father Abraham, a merchant, was born in Alsace. Blum attended the École Normale Supérieure and The University of Paris and became both a lawyer and literary critic.
While in his youth an avid reader of the works of the nationalist writer Maurice Barrès, Blum had little interest in politics until the Dreyfus Affair of 1894, which had a traumatic effect on him as it did on many French Jews. Campaigning as a Dreyfusard brought him into contact with the socialist leader Jean Jaurès, whom he greatly admired. He began contributing to the socialist daily, L'Humanité, and joined the Socialist Party, then called the SFIO. Soon he was the party's main theoretician.
In July 1914, just as the First World War broke out, Jaurès was assassinated, and Blum became more active in the Socialist party leadership. In August 1914 Blum became assistant to the Socialist Minister of Public Works Marcel Sembat. In 1919 he was chosen as chair of the party's executive committee, and was also elected to the National Assembly as a representative of Paris. Believing that there was no such thing as a "good dictatorship", he opposed participation in the Comintern. Therefore, in 1920, he worked to prevent a split between supporters and opponents of the Russian Revolution, but the radicals seceded, taking L'Humanité with them, and formed the SFIC.
Blum led the SFIO through the 1920s and 1930s, and was also editor of the party's newspaper, Le Populaire. In 1925, Blum gave a speech in favour of France's mission civilisatrice arguing that it was "the right and even the duty of superior races to attract those who have not arrived at the same degree of culture and to call them to the progress realised thanks to the efforts of sciences and industry ... We have too much love for our country to disavow the expansion of its thought, of the French civilisation".
Blum was elected as Deputy for Narbonne in 1929, and was re-elected in 1932 and 1936. In 1933, he expelled Marcel Déat, Pierre Renaudel, and other neosocialists from the SFIO. Political circumstances changed in 1934, when the rise of German dictator Adolf Hitler and fascist riots in Paris caused Stalin and the French Communists to change their policy. In 1935 all the parties of left and centre formed the Popular Front. France had not successfully recovered from the worldwide economic depression, wages had fallen and the working class demanded reforms. The Popular Front won a sweeping victory In June 1936. The Popular Front won a solid majority with 386 seats out of 608. For the first time, the Socialists won more seats than the Radicals; they formed an effective coalition. As Socialist leader Blum became Prime Minister of France, the first socialist to hold that office. His first cabinet consisted of 20 Socialists, 13 Radicals and two Socialist Republicans. The Communists won 15 percent of the vote, and 12 percent of the seats. They supported the government, although they refused to take any cabinet positions. For the first time, the cabinet included three women in minor roles, even though women were not able to vote.
The election of the left-wing government brought a wave of strikes, involving two million workers, and their seizure of many factories. The strikes were spontaneous and unorganised, but nevertheless the business community panicked and met secretly with Blum, who negotiated a series of reforms, and then gave labour unions the credit for the Matignon Accords. The new laws:
The government legislated its promised reforms as rapidly as possible. On 11 June, the Chamber of Deputies voted for the forty-hour workweek, the restoration of civil servants' salaries, and two weeks' paid holidays, by a majority of 528 to 7. The Senate voted in favour of these laws within a week.
Blum persuaded the workers to accept pay raises and go back to work. Wages increased sharply; in two years the national average was up 48 percent. However inflation also rose 46%. The imposition of the 40-hour week proved highly inefficient, as industry had a difficult time adjusting to it. The economic confusion hindered the rearmament effort, and the rapid growth of German armaments alarmed Blum. He launched a major program to speed up arms production. The cost forced the abandonment of the social reform programmes that the Popular Front had counted heavily on.
By mid-August 1936 the parliament had voted for:
It also raised the pay, pensions, and allowances of public-sector workers and ex-servicemen. The 1920 Sales Tax, opposed by the Left as a tax on consumers, was abolished and replaced by a production tax, which was considered to be a tax on the producer instead of the consumer.
Blum dissolved the far-right fascist leagues. In turn the Popular Front was actively fought by right-wing and far-right movements, which often used antisemitic slurs against Blum and other Jewish ministers. The Cagoule far-right group even staged bombings to disrupt the government.
The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936 and deeply divided France. Blum adopted a policy of neutrality rather than assisting his ideological fellows, the Spanish Left-leaning Republicans. He acted from fear of splitting his domestic alliance with the centrist Radicals, or even precipitating an ideological civil war inside France. His refusal to send arms to Spain strained his alliance with the Communists, who followed Soviet policy and demanded all-out support for the Spanish Republic. The impossible dilemma caused by this issue led Blum to resign in June 1937. All the constituents of the French left supported the Republican government in Madrid, while the right supported the Nationalist insurgents. Blum's cabinet was deeply divided and he decided on a policy of non-intervention, and collaborated with Britain and 25 other countries to formalize an agreement against sending any munitions or volunteer soldiers to Spain. The Air Minister defied the cabinet and secretly sold warplanes to Madrid. Jackson concludes that the French government "was virtually paralyzed by the menace of civil war at home, the German danger abroad, and the weakness of her own defenses." The Republicans by 1938 were losing badly (they gave up in 1939), sending upwards of 500,000 political refugees across the border into France, where they were held in camps.
On 13 February 1936, shortly before becoming Prime Minister, Blum was dragged from a car and almost beaten to death by the Camelots du Roi, a group of anti-Semites and royalists. The group's parent organisation, the right-wing Action Française league, was dissolved by the government following this incident, not long before the elections that brought Blum to power. Blum became the first socialist and the first Jew to serve as Prime Minister of France. As such he was an object of particular hatred from antisemitic elements.
In its short life, the Popular Front government passed important legislation, including the 40-hour week, 12 paid annual holidays for the workers, collective bargaining on wage claims, and the full nationalisation of the armament and military aviation industries. This latter sweeping action had the unanticipated effect of disrupting the production of armaments at the wrong time, only three years away from the beginning of war in September 1939. Blum also attempted to pass legislation extending the rights of the Arab population of Algeria, but this was blocked by "colons", colonist representatives in the Chamber and Senate.
Blum was briefly Prime Minister again in March and April 1938, long enough to ship heavy artillery and other much needed military equipment to the Spanish Republicans. He was unable to establish a stable ministry; on 10 April 1938, his socialist government fell and he was removed from office.
In foreign policy, his government was torn between the traditional anti-militarism of the French Left and the urgency of the rising threat of Nazi Germany. The government cooperated with Britain and declared war on Germany when it invaded Poland in September 1939. Eight months of Phoney War thereafter, saw little or no movement. Suddenly in the spring of 1940, the Germans invaded France and defeated the French and British armies in a matter of weeks. The British Expeditionary Force evacuated from Dunkirk, taking many French soldiers along. France gave up, signing an armistice that gave Germany full control over much of France, with a rump Vichy government in control of the remainder as well as of the French colonial empire and the French Navy. The same Parliament that had sponsored the Popular Front program since 1936 remained in power; it voted overwhelmingly to make Marshal Philippe Pétain a dictator and reverse all of the gains of the French Third Republic.
Many historians judge the Popular Front a failure in terms of economics, foreign policy, and long-term stability. "Disappointment and failure," says Jackson, "was the legacy of the Popular Front." There is general agreement that at first it created enormous excitement and expectation on the left, but in the end it failed to live up to its promise.
When the Germans occupied France in June 1940, Blum made no effort to leave the country, despite the extreme danger he was in as a Jew and a socialist leader; instead of fleeing the country, he escaped to southern France, but the French ordered his arrest. Blum was imprisoned in Fort du Portalet in the Pyrenees.
Blum was among "The Vichy 80", a minority of parliamentarians that refused to grant full powers to Marshal Pétain. He was arrested by the authorities in September and held until 1942, when he was put on trial in the Riom Trial on charges of treason, for having "weakened France's defenses" by ordering her arsenal shipped to Spain, leaving France's infantry unsupported by heavy artillery on the eastern front against Nazi Germany. He used the courtroom to make a “brilliant indictment” of the French military and pro-German politicians like Pierre Laval. The trial was such an embarrassment to the Vichy regime that the Germans ordered it called off. He was transferred to German custody and imprisoned in Germany until 1945.
In April 1943, the occupying Government had Blum imprisoned in Buchenwald in the section reserved for high-ranking prisoners. His future wife, Jeanne Adèle "Janot" Levylier, chose to come to the camp voluntarily to live with him inside the camp, and they were married there. As the Allied armies approached Buchenwald, he was transferred to Dachau, near Munich, and in late April 1945, together with other notable inmates, to Tyrol. In the last weeks of the war the Nazi regime gave orders that he was to be executed, but the local authorities decided not to obey them. Blum was rescued by Allied troops in May 1945. While in prison he wrote his best-known work, the essay À l'échelle humaine ("On a human scale").
His brother René, the founder of the Ballet de l'Opéra à Monte Carlo, was arrested in Paris in 1942. He was deported to Auschwitz where, according to the Vrba-Wetzler report, he was tortured and killed in April 1943.
After the war, Léon Blum returned to politics, and was again briefly Prime Minister in the transitional postwar coalition government. He advocated an alliance between the center-left and the center-right parties in order to support the Fourth Republic against the Gaullists and the Communists. Although Blum's last government was very much an interim administration (lasting less than five weeks) it nevertheless succeeded in implementing a number of measures which helped to reduce the cost of living. Blum also served as Vice-Premier for one month in the summer of 1948 in the very short-lived government led by André Marie.
Blum also served as an ambassador on a government loan mission to the United States, and as head of the French mission to UNESCO. He continued to write for Le Populaire until his death at Jouy-en-Josas, near Paris, on 30 March 1950. The kibbutz of Kfar Blum in northern Israel is named after him.
The Blum family has always pronounced its name in a way that indicates its Alsatian origin.
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