The Strike Wave of ’36
An Almost Revolution
As long-time Unpopular Front subscribers will now, I’ve written in the newsletter quite a bit about the history of the French Third Republic, from the Dreyfus Affair to Feb 6 1934. I decided not to do a long series on the Popular Front years, when the Socialists governed France in coalition with the Communists and Radicals, but I’d still like to look from time to time at specific incidents from that era that I think are particularly interesting. This time, I’m going to write a little bit about the Left rather than the far Right for change; specifically, the wave of sit-down strikes that swept the nation in 1936, before the famous Flint sit-down strikes in the U.S.A.
Since the riots of February 6 1934, when the leagues of far Right besieged the French capitol, the French Left, divided since the Russian Revolution between Socialist and Communist wings, had moved closer in the face of what they believed was an imminent fascist threat. Organized labor was a key component of this new anti-fascist alliance. A general strike for February 12 was called by the C.G.T, the largest trade union and the one closest to the Socialists, and joined by the entire labor movement in France. Léon Blum, head of the S.F.I.O, the Socialists, and Maurice Thorez, the leader of the P.C.F., the French Communist Party, appeared together during the demonstrations. “When the republic is threatened, the word ‘republican’ changes its meaning. It takes on its old historic and heroic significance,” Blum wrote from his column in Le Populaire, invoking the tradition of the left bloc that dated back to the earliest reactionary intrigues against the republic.
It might appear a bit ironic to see Communists marching in defense of the republic, if you remember that a contingent of Communist veterans had been among the rioters on Feb 6, but to be fair to the Communists they did not know how that night would unfold. A violent police attack on a Communist demonstration on February 9 that killed six workers also helped rehabilitate the Party’s image. Public displays of unity aside, the relationship between the two parties was still quite hostile, with the official line of the P.C.F. being that joint activity would be in order to win Socialist workers away from the older party. The Communist party leadership declared they would “never tolerate a policy of entente at the top.”
But, with word from Moscow, things started to change. The previous policy favored by Stalin of isolating Social Democratic parties with the charge of “social fascism” had only left Communists themselves defenseless and isolated, with their leaders imprisoned or shot, and the Soviet Union facing a Europe of militant anti-Communist powers. A May 1934 article in Pravda, translated in the French Communist newspaper L’Humanité, now urged united action against fascism. Negotiations began between the leaderships of the S.F.I.O. and the P.C.F. Young members of the liberal Radical party also pushed their party in an anti-fascist direction, and began to collaborate publicly with the S.F.I.O. The Rassemblement Populaire, the Popular Front was born, with the somewhat contradictory goals of resisting war and fascism.
On February 13, 1936, Blum was dragged from his car, beaten and nearly lynched after being recognized by members of the Camelots du Roi, the youth wing of Action Française. In the organization’s newspaper that day Charles Maurras had urged the “knife” be used against deputies that had voted for sanctions against Mussolini. Pierre Gaxotte, in the right-wing newspaper Je suis partout, wrote of Blum: “He incarnates everything that turns our blood cold and gives us goose flesh. He is evil, he is death.” Photographed in his bandages, Blum became a martyr and the Popular Front held its largest demonstration to date. As Joel Colton writes in his biography Leon Blum: Humanist in Politics:
The success of the Popular Front in the elections of April 26 and May 3 stunned even its leadership. Together, the Popular Front parties had taken 57% of the popular vote. The Socialists became the largest party in the Chamber of Deputies with 149 seats. But before Blum could organize his cabinet, a massive wave of strikes overtook the country. Two weeks after the electoral victory, metalworkers at a Bloch plant outside of Paris sat down on the factory floor and refused to leave, spending day and night in the plant. Desperate to resolve the situation quickly, management yielded all points to the workers, giving them paid vocation, higher wages, and compensation for the strike. This was quickly followed by several other brief strikes in the Seine region.
One month from the election, the strikes erupted again, comprising now the metalworkers among the central automobile and airplane factories of the Seine. Renault’s 35,000 workers struck. Other industries started to join in. The demands included collective bargaining rights, a guaranteed minimum wage, a forty-hour week with overtime pay, paid vacation, and the ability to elect shop stewards. This might all sound very standard today, but the situation looked potentially revolutionary at the time. Workers were directly occupying the factories, raising the specter of expropriation so feared by the bourgeoisie. By June 6, when Blum’s cabinet took power, half a million workers in France were on strike.
What was remarkable about the strikes is that they were totally initiated by the rank and file; the leadership of the C.G.T., the Communist, and the Socialist parties were taken totally by surprise. Labor leaders could not control or lead the strikes, and were worried by their extent and rapid spread, anxious that they might alienate the middle class component of the Popular Front, be crushed by a fascist reaction and take down the whole organized labor movement with them. In power, the Popular Front government moved quickly, even desperately, to resolve the crisis. Meeting with the leaders of the major unions and the employers’ confederation at the Hôtel de Matignon, the Prime Minister’s residence. With both sides concerned about the wild course the strikes were taking, an agreement was hashed out relatively quickly: there was to be collective bargaining, paid vacation, a blanket 12 percent wage increase. Still, the strikes continued to spread. Department store, café, restaurant and hotel workers were now on strike. By June 11, the figure had reached over one million workers, virtually paralyzing the national economy. Leon Trotsky, writing form exile, declared that “The French Revolution has begun” and decried the lack of revolutionary leadership to go with it.
Even after Parliament had passed all the promised legislation, the strikes looked like they might not end. The desperate leadership of the C.G.T. and the Popular Front resorted to “outside agitator” propaganda, blaming fascist infiltrators or Trotskyites for attempting to sink the government. This sounds slightly absurd, but Trotskyists were in fact encouraging the workers to arm themselves. Eventually Thorez, the head of the Communists, calmed the situation by giving a speech to the metalworkers at the vanguard of the strike that warned that they were alienating the petty bourgeois sections of the Popular Front and that the time had not for revolution had not come.
Just in time for Bastille Day celebrations, the strikes began to abate. The red flag of the Left mingled with the republican tricolor in the public parades. “The cause of the workers struggling for social justice and and the cause of republicans struggling for civic and political liberties must be indissolubly linked,” Blum declared in his triumphant June 14 speech. “Every effort, every advance towards social justice attaches the workers of France to the republic and to the country. The very object of the Popular Front is to furnish them with new reasons to defend it.”
Still, one might ask why did the leaders of the French Left just not “go for it” and launch the revolution when momentum and the working class was on their side. That was the stated purpose of the Communists and although Blum was not by nature a rabble-rouser he still lead an avowedly proletarian and revolutionary party, at least on paper. The entire object of the Popular Front was to expand the Left’s coalition into the middle class, as it was based on an analysis of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s successes with that same section of society. The Popular Front leaders sincerely believed they received a mandate to lead the country in a legal government, not to initiate an overthrow of the existing order. After all, even though it the largest party, the S.F.I.O had less than 20 percent of the vote and the P.C.F. around 15 percent, much of which had come from their efforts to moderate and join in constructive work with “bourgeois parties.” All of the major participants in the Popular Front believed, with good reason, that the likely outcome of a revolutionary situation would be a bloodbath and a reactionary regime. In addition, the P.C.F. was as much directed by Moscow’s foreign policy needs as the domestic situation of the French workers and Stalin’s goal—in the short-term—was to surround Nazi Germany with friendly powers.
It felt as if a revolution of sorts had taken place. The entire atmosphere in the country brightened over the summer of ’36. With mandatory paid vacation, many workers took their first time off in their adult lives. With the assistance of the new undersecretary for leisure and sports, hotels and resorts in the Alps and Riviera offered vacationing workers reduced prices. A spirit of national jubilation took hold. “I was 20 years old in 1936,” one writer reflected. “But everyone was 20 years old in the summer of 1936.” Although it was perhaps not a revolution in the classic sense, nonetheless the pattern of people’s lives radically changed. With the cautious nature and limited aspirations of the Popular Front’s leadership, it all probably would not have happened without the workers’ flexing their collective power. The Popular Front would not weather its future crises as deftly, but for the moment, the future looked bright.