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What are the lessons from the Popular Front against fascism in 1930s France?

The Popular Front shows the need for unity against fascism—and the political independence of the working class and revolutionary organisation, writes Charlie Kimber
Issue 2910
A crowd shot of a socialist demo against fascism during the period of the Popular Front in France

A Socialist demonstration in 1934 ahead of the formation of the Popular Front in France . The placard reads, ‘Down with fascism’ (Picture: Agence de presse Meurisse via Wikipedia)

In France the calls for a Popular Front, an electoral alliance on the left, to take on the rise of the fascists consciously echo developments in the 1930s. 

From 1934 to 1938 there were mass strikes, factory occupations and workers’ self-defence against fascism and left wing governments.

There are two key lessons—all the most energetic, determined and hopeful elements came from the activities of workers themselves. In contrast, relying on the politicians did not block the victory of fascism.

Fascist organisations used the deep economic crisis and mass unemployment in France to build large organisations. The Croix de Feu—Iron Cross—boasted that its membership of 13,000 in 1930 rose to 30,000 in 1934.

Ruling class politics was in turmoil with no stable majority for any party or group of parties in parliament and corruption scandals tearing apart the forces that stood for “stability”.

On 6 February 1934, several thousand fascists demonstrated violently near the National Assembly. They forced the centre left government from office and MPs replaced it with a more right wing regime.

The fascist assault acted as an urgent wake-up call to the best elements of the working class. It was like an electric shock jolting the movement into life.

Workers’ political parties were sharply divided. The Communists were at a stage when they described the Labour-type organisations such as the French Socialist Party as “the left wing of fascism” and “twins” of the Nazis. And the Socialist Party leaders denounced the Communists as reckless adventurers.

But at the base worker activists from both these parties, and those who had no political affiliation, began to organise mass anti-fascist resistance. At first disunity at the top continued. The Communist Party called a demonstration on 9 February without involving anyone else. The cops attacked it and killed six protesters. 

Forced onto the defensive, the Communist leaders backed a trade union day of action supported by the Socialists.

The general strike on 12 February was an outstanding success as more than 4 million strikers responded to the CGT union federation’s call. In Paris 30,000 out of 31,000 post office workers stopped work. Transport did not run.

Building sites were empty. The Citroen car plant shut down. Newspapers did not appear. The same pattern was repeated in many provincial cities. Overall some 4.5 million workers struck and 1 million demonstrated.

In Paris, the Socialists and Communists marched separately to the Place de la Nation square. According to one observer, “After a silent, brief moment of anguish, to the astonishment of the party and union leaders, this encounter triggered off a delirious enthusiasm, an explosion of shouts of joy. Applause, cries of ‘Unity, Unity’.”

The future Socialist prime minister, Leon Blum, who was on the march, recalled, “By a sort of popular groundswell the people’s will had imposed unity of action on the working class.”

Local anti-fascist committees sprang up across France. Most involved Communists, Socialists and others, regardless of what their national leaders wanted. These committees were far more important than bureaucratic pacts painfully negotiated between the Communists and the Socialists.

Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who had been exiled by Joseph Stalin, wrote in June 1934, “Led by the big bourgeoisie, France is foundering in the disintegration of the capitalist world. In the ruling circles of society, in all the institutions of the regime, scandals are multiplying. The corrupting influence of the rich is spreading.

“Dying capitalism is bankrupt. And the ruling class has only one plan for trying to get out of this historical bankruptcy: still more misery for the labouring masses! Suppression of all reforms, even the most trifling! Suppression of the democratic regime. 

“Throughout the entire world, the iron heel of fascism is becoming the last resort of desperate capitalism.” 

He demanded, “The workers’ alliance of parties and trade unions must be organised, uniting all the forces of the labouring people without exception.

“In the struggle against fascism, reaction and war, the proletariat accepts the aid of petty-bourgeois groupings (pacifists, League for the Rights of Man, the Common Front, etc.), but such alliances can be only of secondary importance. 

“Above all, the task is to secure the united action of the working class itself in the factories and the workers’ neighbourhoods of industrial centres.”

Trotsky was pointing towards a united front against fascism, the involvement of workers in action against the fascists focused on mobilisation on the streets and at work. He didn’t mean blurring the differences between various parties or giving in to the most right wing forces. 

He urged unity to smash fascism, and to show the need for revolution.  He wrote of Committees Of Action–Not People’s Front. And he continued the arguments he had made in 1931 against Hitler and the Stalinists which included saying, “Election agreements, parliamentary compromises concluded between the revolutionary party and the Social Democracy serve, as a rule, to the advantage of the Social Democracy. Practical agreements for mass action, for purposes of struggle, are always useful to the revolutionary party.” 

But the Communist Party was going in completely the other direction. As a belated response to the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, Stalin insisted on a complete about-turn. He demanded the Communists agree to deals not just with Labour-type parties but liberal and capitalist forces, as a supposed defence against fascism.

The Communists now accepted the principle of defending the French state, abandoned anti-colonial agitation and put aside the fight for the right to abortion. They put forward the “defence of the family”—because human material was needed to defend the homeland.

The French tricolour flag was now displayed next to the red flag and the Communists did deals with the Radical Party, a thoroughly mainstream and non-socialist organisation. Its name was a lie and its claims to radicalism a fraud.

The Popular Front electoral alliance was extremely moderate. But workers flocked to back it at the polls. The Socialist Party won an extra 20 seats, the Communists a further 60—and the Radicals lost 46.

In May 1936, while Blum waited a month before forming a government—as required by the usual way of proceeding—workers set out to change society themselves. Strikes broke out in Le Havre and then Toulouse. Activists didn’t just picket, they occupied their factories.

In Paris workers in the metal industry, automobile and aeronautics sectors walked out. One Renault striker said, “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.” 

Another worker spoke of the mood inside her occupied workplace. It was, she wrote, “Pure joy. Unadulterated joy. Joy at entering the factory with the smiling authorisation of a worker who guards the entrance. 

“Joy at freely passing through these workshops where everyone had felt so alone at their machine. Joy at forming groups, chatting, eating together. Joy at hearing, instead of the pitiless din of the machines, music, singing, laughter.” 

During June 1936 between two and three million strikers occupied their factories. Historian Julian Jackson describes how “the strikes spared almost no section of industry”. It ranged “from Renault’s huge Billancourt plant with its 32,000 workers to tiny workshops, from the relatively highly unionised mines and docks to the totally un-unionised employees of department stores.”

Bosses made concessions, but the Popular Front was determined to restore calm. Blum organised talks between bosses and unions. He wrote later, “We had to manage honestly, loyally, the society placed in our hands, it is our duty as holders of power.”

Bosses made huge concessions over pay and holidays and workers’ rights—in order to save their system. But instead of using this to build further organisation and escalating struggle to workers’ councils, the trade unions and the politicians shut down the action.  

Jackson wrote, “Blum remarked of this period that the employers had viewed him as a ‘saviour’ who had ended the largest strike movement in French history. But the bourgeoisie’s real saviour was the Communist Party leader, Maurice Thorez.”

At a mass membership meeting of the Communist Party in the Paris region on 11 June, Thorez declared, “So what next? … So, we must know how to end a strike when satisfaction has been obtained. 

“We must even know how to accept a compromise when all demands have not yet been met but victory on the essential points has been achieved.” He went on, “Not everything is possible now.”

The Popular Front government finally fell apart in April 1938, and power shifted back to the right.

Once the strikes subsided, the capitalists went on the offensive, using all their financial power and their control of investment to attack workers and the government.

In October 1936, the gendarmes expelled workers who occupied the Gourmet Chocolateries in Paris. And Blum in February 1937 declared a “time for pauses” in the reforms. In March 1937, the police of the Popular Front government repressed an anti-fascist demonstration in Clichy—killing five and wounding hundreds, including socialist activists.

All the compromises and pledges given by Blum to employers and the big corporations came to nothing and in the face of a flight of money he resigned in June 1937 and handed over to the radical Camille Chautemps. 

The right became more and more confident. In November 1938, Paul Reynaud, minister of finance, declared, “We are living in a capitalist system. The capitalist system being what it is, if it is to function, its laws must be obeyed. These are the laws of profit. Do you think, in today’s Europe, that France can at the same time maintain her way of life, spend 25 billion francs on arms, and rest for two days out of seven?”

The government tore away the gains won by the strikes. It re-established, for example, the six-day working week and brought back penalties for refusing to work overtime in military production. 

When strikes broke out the government attacked them with cops and paramilitary squads. Too late, union leaders called action, but workers now had no confidence.

Renault workers suffered the worst humiliation. “At the end of the Renault strike there was a sinister inversion of the celebration which had marked the factory occupation in June 1936. The defeated workers were forced by the police to march out of the factory, making the fascist salute, to cries of, ‘Long live the police’, while a policeman banged an iron bar.”

Severe repression followed. And the way was cleared for the Nazi invasion in 1939 and the establishment of the fascist-supporting government of Marshal Petain in much of France after the Nazi victory. 

“Of all the errors committed, the most harmful was to make the workers believe that the Popular Front government with socialist leadership and active radical participation was in some way their government,” wrote the revolutionary Daniel Guerin.

“Because prestigious leaders had installed themselves in a number of ministerial offices, the illusion was widespread that this state was no longer a class state, but a welfare state. We told the crowds, ‘Wait, be patient, refrain from bothering with immoderate reflexes the great comrade who is going to rain down his blessings on you’.”

The Popular Front and the strikes of 1936 reinforce the need for workers’ unity—but also class independence and revolutionary organisation.

In France it’s necessary to use the elections to go beyond the elections.

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