Popular Front (France)

"Front Populaire" redirects here. For other fronts populaires, see Popular front.

The Popular Front (French: Front populaire) was an alliance of left-wing movements, including the French Communist Party (PCF), the French Section of the Workers' International (SFIO) and the Radical and Socialist Party, during the interwar period. Three months after the victory of the Frente Popular in Spain, the Popular Front 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.

Blum's government implemented 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. All employees were assured a two week paid vacation, and the rights of unions were strengthened. The socialist movement's euphoria was apparent in SFIO member Marceau Pivert's "Tout est possible!" (Everything is possible). However, the economy continued to stall; by 1938 production still had not recovered to 1929 levels, while higher wages had been neutralized by inflation. Businessmen took their funds overseas. 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 1937.

Blum was then replaced by Camille Chautemps, a Radical, but Blum came back as President of the Council in March 1938, before being succeeded by Édouard Daladier, another Radical, the next month. The Popular Front dissolved itself in autumn 1938, confronted by internal dissensions related to the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), opposition of the right-wing, and the persistent effects of the Great Depression.

The Popular Front was supported by the French Communist Party, which did not provide any of its ministers (soutien sans participation), just as the SFIO had supported the Cartel des gauches (Coalition of the Left) in 1924 and 1932 without entering the government. The Popular Front 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 not acquire the right to vote until 1944.

The origins of the Popular Front

general election of 3 May 1936

The idea of a "Popular Front" came from two directions: first, the left-wing view, following the 6 February 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.[1]

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 Italian leader Benito 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 the first Socialist Prime Minister of France as well as the first Jew to hold that office. The first Popular Front cabinet consisted of 20 Socialists, 13 Radicals and two Socialist Republicans (there were no Communist Ministers) and, for the first time, included three women (women were not able to vote in France at that time).[2]

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.[3]

The Popular Front in government

Labor laws

Through the 1936 Matignon Accords, the Popular Front government 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 annual leave for workers
  • enacted the law limiting the working week to 40 hours (outside of overtime)
  • raised wages (15% for the lowest-paid workers, declining to 7% for the relatively well-paid)
  • stipulated that employers would recognise shop stewards.
  • ensured that there would be no retaliation against strikers.

The government sought to carry out its reforms as rapidly as possible. On 11 June, the Chamber of Deputies voted for the forty-hour workweek, the restoration of civil servant's salaries, and two week's paid holidays, by a majority of 528 to 7. The Senate voted in favour of these laws within a week.[3]

Domestic reforms

The Blum administration democratised the Bank of France by enabling all shareholders to attend meetings and set up a new council with more representation from government. By mid-August the parliament had voted for:

  • the creation of a national Office du blé (Grain Board or Wheat Office, through which the government helped to market agricultural produce at fair prices for farmers) to stabilise prices and curb speculation
  • the nationalisation of the arms industries
  • loans to small and medium-sized industries
  • the raising of the compulsory school-leaving age to 14 years
  • measures against illicit price rises
  • a major public works programme

The legislative pace of the Popular Front government meant that before parliament went into recess, it had passed 133 laws within the space of 73 days.

Other measures carried out by the Popular Front government improved the pay, pensions, allowances and tax-obligations 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. The government also made some administrative changes to the civil service, such as a new director-general for the Paris police and a new governor for the Bank of France. In addition, a secretariat for sports and leisure was established, while the opportunities for the children of workers and peasants in secondary education were increased. In 1937, direction-finding classes (classes d'orientation) were established in some lycées as a means of helping pupils to make a better choice of their subsequent course of secondary schooling. Secondary education was made free to all pupils, whereas previously it had been closed to the poor, who were unable to afford to pay tuition. In addition, as noted by one study, the wages and salaries of government workers were raised “by abolishing part of the pay cuts voted by one of the previous governments.” In spite of the economic problems faced by the Popular Front government, it succeeded in improving the lives of most workers in France.

Far right

Léon 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.

Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936 and deeply divided the government, which tried to remain neutral. 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.[4] 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 home, the German danger abroad, and the weakness of her own defenses."[5] The Republicans in Spain found themselves increasingly on the defensive, and upwards of 500,000 political refugees crossed the border into France, where they lived for years in refugee camps.[6]

Cultural policies

Radical cultural ideas came to the fore in the era of the Popular Front; they often were explicitly supported by the governments, as in the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne.[7]

An "art for the masses" movement flourished, led by efforts of three of the most influential art magazines to legitimize a visual imagery: Cahiers d'art, Minotaure, and Verve. The prevailing leftist anti-capitalist discourse against social inequality, was a feature of the Popular Front cultural policy.[8]

The government proposed 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). It failed to pass.[9]

New Communist positions

The new cross-class coalition of the Popular Front forced the Communists to accept some bourgeois cultural norms they had long ridiculed.[10] These included patriotism, the veterans' sacrifice, the honor of being an army officer, the prestige of the bourgeois, and the leadership of the Socialist Party and the parliamentary Republic. Above all the Communists portrayed themselves as French nationalists. Young Communists dressed in costumes from the revolutionary period and the scholars glorified the Jacobins as heroic predecessors.[11]

The Communists in the 1920s saw the need to mobilize young women, but saw them as auxiliaries to male organizations. In the 1930s there was a new model, of a separate but equal role for women. The Party set up the Union des Jeunes Filles de France (UJFF) to appeal to young working women through publications and activities geared to their interests. The Party discarded its original notions of Communist femininity and female political activism as a gender-neutral revolutionary. It issued a new model more atuned to the mood of the late 1930s and one more acceptable to the middle class elements of the Popular Front. It now portrayed the ideal Young Communist as a paragon of moral probity with her commitment to marriage and motherhood, and gender-specific public activism.[12]

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

With the 1936 Matignon Accords, the working class gained the right to two weeks' vacation a year for the first time. This signaled the beginning of tourism in France. Although beach resorts had long existed, they had been restricted to the upper class. Tens of thousands of families who had never seen the sea before now played in the waves, and Leo Langrange arranged around 500,000 discounted rail trips and hotel accommodation on a massive scale. But the Popular Front's policy concerning leisure was limited to the enactment of the two-week vacation. While this measure was thought of as a response to workers' alienation, the Popular Front gave Léo Lagrange (SFIO), named Under-Secretary for Sports and the organisation of Leisure, responsibility for organizing the use this leisure time with priority to sports.

The fascist conception and use of sport as a means to an end contrasted with the SFIO's official stance, which had ridiculed sports as a bourgeois and reactionary activity. 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, 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 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."

Langrange also explained that:

"We want to make our youth healthy and happy. Hitler has been very clever at that sort of thing, and there is no reason why a democratic government should not do the same."

Thus, 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 "means 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. 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. 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 fulfillment through education, a Republican ideal founded on the philosophy of the Enlightenment.

The 1936 Olympic Games

The International Olympic Committee chose Berlin over Barcelona for the 1936 Olympic Games. In protest against holding this event in a fascist country, the Spanish Popular Front, decided to organize rival games in Barcelona, under the name People's Olympiad. Blum's government at first decided to take part in it, on insistence from the PCF, but those games were never held because a civil war broke out in Spain.

Léo Lagrange played a major role in the co-organisation of the People's Olympiad. The trials for these Olympiads proceeded on 4 July 1936 in the Pershing stadium in Paris. 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 an accomplice of the torturers...." Nevertheless, on 9 July, when the whole of the French right-wing voted "for" the participation of France in the Olympic Games of Berlin, the left-wing (PCF included) abstained. It passed and France participated at Berlin.

1937 Million Franc Race

Main article: Million Franc Race

In 1937, the Popular Front organized 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 (360 kW) Silver Arrow at the Pau Grand Prix, becoming a national hero.[13]

Colonial policies of the Popular Front

Further information: French colonial empires and Colonialism

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.[14]

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

Further information: French government ministers
  • On 18 November 1936, Marx Dormoy (SFIO) replaced Roger Salengro at the Interior, following the latter's suicide.


  • Andrew, Dudley and Steven Ungar. Popular Front Paris and the Poetics of Culture (Harvard UP, 2005).
  • Brower, Daniel. The New Jacobins: The French Communist Party and the Popular Front (1968)
  • Bulaitis, John. Communism in Rural France: French Agricultural Workers and the Popular Front (London, IB Tauris, 2008).
  • Codding Jr., George A., and William Safranby. Ideology and Politics: The Socialist Party of France
  • Colton, Joel. Leon Blum, Humanist in Politics (1968)
  • Jackson, Julian T., Popular Front in France: Defending Democracy 1934–1938 (Cambridge University Press, 1988)
  • Greene, Nathanael. The French Socialist Party in the Popular Front Era (1969)
  • Gruber, Helmut. Leon Blum, French Socialism, and the Popular Front: A Case of Internal Contradictions (1986).
  • Hoisington, William A. The Assassination of Jacques Lemaigre Dubreuil: A Frenchman between France and North Africa (1980) excerpt and text search
  • Larmour, Peter. The French Radical Party in the 1930's (1964)
  • Torigian, Michael. "The End of the Popular Front: The Paris Metal Strike of Spring 1938," French History (1999) 13#4 pp 464–491.
  • Wall, Irwin M. "Teaching the Popular Front," History Teacher, May 1987, Vol. 20 Issue 3, pp 361–378 in JSTOR
  • Wardhaugh, Jessica. "Fighting for the Unknown Soldier: The Contested Territory of the French Nation in 1934-1938," Modern and Contemporary France (2007) 15#2 pp 185–201.
  • Foundations of secondary education: historical, comparative, and curricular by Donald F. Popham
  • [fau.digital.flvc.org]

See also


  1. ^ Brian Jenkins, "The Six Fevrier 1934 and the 'Survival' of the French Republic," French History (2006) 20#3 pp 333-351.
  2. ^ Julian T. Jackson, Popular Front in France: Defending Democracy 1934–1938 (1988)
  3. ^ a b Jackson, Popular Front in France: Defending Democracy 1934–1938 (1988)
  4. ^ George C. Windell, "Leon Blum and the Crisis over Spain, 1936," Historian (1962) 24#4 pp 423-449
  5. ^ Gabriel Jackson, The Spanish Republic in the Civil War, 1931-1939 (1965) p 254
  6. ^ Louis Stein, Beyond Death and Exile: The Spanish Republicans in France, 1939-1955 (1980)
  7. ^ Dudley Andrew, and Steven Ungar, Popular Front Paris and the Poetics of Culture (2005)
  8. ^ Chara Kolokytha, "The Art Press and Visual Culture in Paris during the Great Depression: Cahiers d'art, Minotaure, and Verve," Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation (2013) 29#3 pp 184-215.
  9. ^ Anne Latournerie, Petite histoire des batailles du droit d’auteur, Multitudes n°5, May 2001 (French)
  10. ^ Julian Jackson, The Popular Front in France: Defending Democracy, 1934-1938 (1988); Daniel Brower, The New Jacobins: The French Communist Party and the Popular Front (1968)
  11. ^ Jessica Wardhaugh, "Fighting for the Unknown Soldier: The Contested Territory of the French Nation in 1934-1938," Modern and Contemporary France (2007) 15#2 pp 185-201.
  12. ^ Susan B. Whitney, "Embracing the status quo: French communists, young women and the popular front," Journal of Social History (1996) 30#1 pp 29-43, in JSTOR
  13. ^ Anthony Carter (2011). Motor Racing: The Pursuit of Victory 1930-1962. Veloce Publishing Ltd. pp. 16–18. 
  14. ^ Martin Thomas, The French empire between the wars: imperialism, politics and society (2005)

External links