Sofie Buckland looks at the events which led to the French Popular Front government in France 1936
On February 6, 1934, France saw the bloodiest night of violence since the crushing of the Commune in 1871.
Fascist leagues, formed over the previous few years of economic depression, staged anti-parliament demonstrations in Paris. Clashes between armed demonstrators and police led to 15 deaths and over 1000 wounded. Inside the besieged Place de la Concorde, seat of the lower chamber of French parliament, Eduoard Daladier received a no-confidence vote and resigned. The fascist bands had succeeded, through street violence, in bringing down the Cartel des gauches government (composed of various Radical Party and socialist splinters).
Despite a common understanding that the anti-parliament demonstrations could easily have become a coup, the French left was split over their response. Between the (Stalinist) Communists (PCF) and the (reformist) Socialists (SFIO), unity in action was rare. Following the Stalinist Comintern line that led to disaster in Germany earlier in the 1930s, the PCF drew no distinction between the right-wing parties and the SFIO. It would not form an alliance with them in the face of the fascist threat. The division was replicated in the trade union movement by the rift between the (reformist-syndicalist) CGT and (communist) CGTU.
And so the Radicals rallied round the new broader coalition government of Gaston Doumergue which presented itself as the last safeguard against the overthrow of democracy. (Or, as Trotsky put it, actually the “senile Bonapartism of capitalist decline”).
The idea of the left alliance developed from this point, though it was not until July 1934 that an unity pact would be signed. This was a sharp contrast to the PCF’s previous line of denouncing the SFIO as “social fascists”. But in this respect they were simply following Moscow’s orders.
The PCF called a demonstration for February 9, the CGT for a general strike on February 12 and the SFIO for demonstrations on the same day. The general strike was a huge success, and at the last minute the PCF joined the SFIO mobilisation, marching separately to Place de la Nation where their between the officials of the two groups.
WRITING in June 1934 Trotsky was sharply critical of the leadership of the PCF and the SFIO. At this time Trotsky’s sympathisers tried to appeal to the rank and file of both parties, but, the subjects of viscious slanderous attacks, they were very isolated from the Communist activists. In 1934-5 they went into the Socialist Party. In his Program of Action for France Trotsky addressed activists: “On February 12 you displayed your power and your determination not to submit to this violence. But on that day your leaders betrayed you; they outlined no concrete slogan, no serious perspective of struggle for you”.
This lack of a program or perspective was central to the eventual squandering of a potentially revolutionary situation in France, even before merging of the alliance between the Communists and Socialists into a “Popular Front” coalition with the bourgeois Radicals. There was, said Trotsky, no program to speak of beyond the “immediate demands” of the PCF. This at a time when French capitalist society was experiencing a profound economic, social and political crisis.
Resolutely opposed to a struggle for power to create a workers’ state on the basis the situation was “not revolutionary”, the Stalinist demands against wage cuts and for collective bargaining were meaningless, said Trotky. The PCF-SFIO united front pact led the working class movement into a state of dangerous stagnation.
It was the Stalinist PCF who were the driving force behind creating a coalition with the bourgeois Radicals and the Popular Front was born on January 11, 1936 with the stated aims of “defending democracy” and disarming the fascist bands. Of course, defending democracy by subordinating working class politics to the interests of bourgeois coalition partners meant propping up the bourgeois state.
The PCF were once again following orders from the Comintern. The misleadership of the Stalinist bureaucracy, invoked passivity among the Communists as Hitler’s party grew stronger and eventually came to power. The lessons learned? That Communist parties were to avoid any activity that could destabilise “democratic” imperialist countries, on the basis that the defence of the Soviet Union depended on these bourgeois states.
As Trotsky recognised in 1934 the political alignment of the petty bourgeoisie was crucial to the fight against fascism for a workers‚ government; “The side to which millions of French peasants, artisans, small merchants and minor officials turn to will determine whether the present pre-revolutionary situation will develop into a revolutionary or counter-revolutionary situation”. Therefore a political lash-up with the Radical party, consistent defenders of the interests of the big bourgeoisie despite drawing its ranks from the petty bourgeoisie, spelt disaster. A socialist strategy would have focused on splitting the disillusioned Radical supporters from their leaders.
A centrist party in government, the Radicals had formed short-lived coalitions with both the left and right, losing its core supporters to both extremes whilst becoming mired in political and financial scandals. Although the fascist bands recruited to a large degree from these petty bourgeois ex-Radicals in rebellion against their own “upper” classes, this political transformation was by no means inevitable. Trotsky wrote that whilst the demise of the Radicals as a party of political reform was unavoidable under capitalist decline, the parties of the proletariat must win the petty bourgeoisie over; “the proletariat says to the peasants and petty bourgeoisie of the cities: We are struggling for power. Here is our program. We are ready to discuss with you changes in this program. We will employ violence only against big capital and its lackeys, but with you toilers, we desire to conclude an alliance on the basis of a given program.”
However, in order not to upset the fragile unity amongst the leaders of the Popular Front, the increasingly right-wing Stalinists opposed the raising of revolutionary demands. While Trotsky called for anti-fascist action committees, and workers’ militias to defend workers‚ organisation from the fascist leagues, the PCF remained so opposed to physical struggle it called for unarmed workers to counter-demonstrate against trained and armed fascist gangs!
The PCF leadership concentrated on winning elections and propping up bourgeois democracy as a strategy against fascism. The idea of smashing the decaying economic base that capitalism springs from was anathema.
Between the official launch of the Popular Front in January 1936 and their election victory in May 1936, two events sparked anti-fascist sentiments; the assault on the SFIO leader Leon Blum by fascist thugs and the Nazi Germany’s reoccupation of the Rhineland, declared a demilitarised zone by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. A massive protest march through Paris demonstrated the potential of the mass movement; the Popular Front acted to curb this potential, directing workers into class collaboration.
Upon the clear majority of the Popular Front in the election of May 1936, Leon Blum formed a government consisting of 18 Socialists, 13 Radicals and 4 independent socialists. The Communists refused to join the cabinet, but gave full support to Blum. By the time that government took power on 6 June, France had been brought to a virtual stand-still by an almost total general strike; thousands of factories were occupied, with nearly two million workers across virtually every industry stopping work.
The Stalinists’ claims that the situation was not revolutionary fell flat. Trotsky, writing on 9 June, declared “The French revolution has begun — this colossal mass cannot be stopped by words. The struggle must be consummated either in the greatest of victories or the most ghastly of defeats”. Calling for the revolutionary workers, the majority of whom followed the PCF, to resume their once untimely agitation for “Soviets Everywhere!” he recognised the need for a program, a plan and organisation of workers.
The bourgeoisie were spooked enough to bring an end to the strike with a wave of substantial concessions; the 40-hour week, wage increases and two-week paid annual leave. Later Blum, the so-called socialist leader, remarked that the employers viewed him as a “saviour” for ending the largest strike action in French history. That dubious honour rightly belongs to the PCF leader, Maurice Thorez, who declared on June 11: “It is necessary to know how to end a strike”. Far from calling for the creation of soviets, the Stalinists chimed in with the bourgeois government. From this point the movement receded; by the end of July it was largely over.
Short of a working-class struggle to take power, he economic reforms were in large part unsustainable in a period of capitalist decline. Workers returning from their first ever paid holidays in the autumn of 1936 found many gains eaten away by inflation, and by February 1937 Blum has announced a “temporary” pause in reforms as a response to the continued flight of finance capital. The working-class parties continued to participate in the Popular Front as an electoral coalition, despite its increasingly right-wing nature. More and more ministerial positions were passed to centre-right politicians, until in November 1938 Daladier, the premier whose 1934 resignation in the face of the fascists lead to waves of labour movement protests, moved to extend the 40-hour week.
A resulting strike wave was brutally repressed by the government, using troops, police and teargas to break the occupation of the Renault factory.
The Popular Front, responsible for the demoralisation of the working class and the buffering of the bourgeois parties previously in decline, was dead.