The Life of Leon Blum

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Paik, Kwan Woo
Term Paper, AP European History Class, December 2007

Table of Contents

I. Background and Childhood
II. History Shapes Men : Entrance into the Political World
III. Men Shape History : Activities as the Leader of the Socialist Party
IV. History Shapes Men : The Creation of the Popular Front
V. Men Shape History : Blum's First Cabinet, 4 June 1936 - 22 June 1937
;     1. The Matignon Accords and Additional Reforms
;     2. The Spanish Civil War
;     3. The End of Blum's First Cabinet
VI. Blum's Second Ministry, 13 March - 10 April 1938
VII. Blum's "Caretaker" Cabinet, 16 December 1946 - 22 January 1947
VIII. Conclusion
IX. Bbliography

I. Background and Childhood
            Leon Blum was born to a well-to-do Jewish family in Paris on April 9th 1872. He received a very privileged education, attending and graduating from Lyc?e Henri-IV (Paris) and is one of France's most prestigious high schools; and entering Ecole Normale Superieure (Paris) and is one of France's most prestigious universities. However halfway through his course he dropped out of university and worked on "La Revue Blanche", an avant-garde literary review with anarchist tendencies. After its publication, Blum wavered between studying law and literature, but instead of choosing between the two, he decided to study both at the Sorbonne. He graduated in literature in 1890 and graduated in law four years later with the highest honors. Blum then worked as a government lawyer but also made a name of himself as a literary and dramatic critic, which he worked as a side job.

II. History Shapes Men : Entrance into the Political World
            As a youth, Leon Blum was not interested in politics. However, the Dreyfus Affair of 1894 had a traumatic effect on Blum, who was Jewish and a firm believer justice. His activities as a Dreyfusard brought him in contact with Jean Jaures, the leader of the Socialist Party at the time. Blum came to greatly admire Jaures and eventually joined the Socialist Party, SFIO in 1904. He began by contributing to the socialist daily, L'Humanite, but soon became the party's main theoretician.
            On July 31, 1914 Jean Jaures was assassinated at a caf?. Although this event was a great shock to Leon Blum, it also served as a stimulus; he began to become more active in the Socialist party leadership.

III. Men Shape History : Activities as the Leader of the Socialist Party
            Just five years later in 1919, Leon Blum was elected to the chamber of deputies as the representative of Paris and was chosen as the chair of the Socialist Party's executive committee. However, before he could be properly settled in, Leon Blum was faced with a party crisis in 1920. A branch of the Socialist Party wanted to follow the rules set by the Comintern whereas L?on Blum believed that there was no such thing as a "good dictatorship", even one set up by the proletariat, and thus opposed participation in the Third International.
            Although Blum tried his best to reconcile the differences and prevent the party from splitting; the radicals won the majority at the party's Congress of Tours and so, succeeded in seceding from the Socialist Party in December 1920. Also, because they had won the majority, the new Communist Party inherited the party machinery, funds, and press. Consequently, Leon Blum's first task became reorganizing what remained of SFIO.
            The Socialist party under the leadership of Blum was able to make a speedy recovery. In fact the new Socialist party was able to obtain 100 seats in the 1924 parliamentary elections, not much different from their number of seats in the previous election. Blum also founded the new Socialist journal, Le Populaire.
            Blum led the SFIO through the 1920's and the 1930's. Being a Marxist, he was opposed to directly participating in "bourgeoisie" cabinets. He continued this policy of not letting party members join the cabinet but was willing to cooperate witht the Radicals, a policy which resulted in the 1924 victory of the Left Cartel, a coalition of Radicals and Socialists.

IV. History Shapes Men : The Creation of the Popular Front
            While the Left Cartel was able to achieve unity for an election, it could not retain it to govern. Due to a combination of problems, most notably economic, the first Left Cartel disintegrated in July of 1926 without having accomplished notable changes. The government gave way to a broad coalition government headed by Poincare, a center-right politician.
            Poincare had to retire in July 1929 because of deteriorating health, but the center-right coalition continued to dominate the nine governments that followed. However, the tides changed in the 1932 elections. The left achieved its greatest electoral success since 1914, obtaining 334 deputies compared to the right 257: 160 Radicals and 131 Socialists included. As a result, a second Left Cartel government was created headed by Daladier, the leading member of the Radicals.
            However, much like the first Cartel, the second did not last very long nor did it make any lasting changes. Daladier was forced to resign in 1934 because of continuous riots organized by the far-right leagues. The parties of the left immediately interpreted these often violent street rallies as an attempted coup d'etat by the right..
            This sudden threat from the Fascists within the nation in addition to the Fascist threat posed by Hitler, who gained power in 1933, was enough cause for the left to organize a united front. The Communists, who had always viewed the Socialists as Social-Fascists, decided to change their previous policy of animosity. With the endorsement of the Comintern, the Communist party and the Socialist party reconciled their differences and together with the Radical Party created a new electoral block known as the Popular Front in 1935. L?on Blum, being the leader of the largest party with 146 deputies, was elected as head of the electoral block.

V. Men Shape History : Blum's First Cabinet, 4 June 1936 - 22 June 1937
            The Popular Front won a sweeping victory in the 1936 elections. Leon Blum was the first Socialist and Jew to serve as Prime minister in France. This fact caused many different responses from different sectors of society.
            The Catholic and Anti-Semitic right despised Leon Blum. They showed open resentment and did not show any attempt to control rising fervor within their party. Xavier Vallat, a right wing Deputy, was bold enough to even publicly denounced Blum in the National Assembly. Shortly after the electoral victory, Blum was also dragged from his car by an extreme-rightist group and almost beaten to death. Consequently, the Right parties suffered from a number of restrictions and extremist groups such as the one that beat Blum were dissolved by the government.
            Meanwhile, the industrial workers responded to the electoral victory by occupying their factories, confident that "their revolution" was imminent. Just within two weeks of victory, over two million French workers spontaneously filled their factories expressing a festive hope that their problems would finally be addressed. However, as the movement grew, panic rose among the bourgeoisie and the bosses of the companies. Blum was nervous as well because he knew that the SFIO did not have the ability to control the workers any more than the managers did.

V.1 The Matignon Accords and Additional Reforms
            In order to prevent the movement from growing any larger, Blum acted swiftly to reconcile the situation. He called the representatives of business and labor to meet at the Hotel Matignon, Leoní»s residence at the time, to create a series of measures for the working class. These measures came to be known as the Matignon Accords and its articles included a wage increase between 7 to 15 percent which was to be implemented immediately; collective bargaining; a 40-hours workweek; and the most famous and innovative two weeks paid vacation. Blum promised to pay for these reforms through tighter government control of the Bank of France and the nationalization of the arms industry.
            Other reforms introduced by the Popular Front government include rising the age of mandatory education to 14, increasing the opportunities for peasant and worker children in secondary education, and the creation of a secretariat for sports and leisure. Blum also established a governmental administration to stabilize and then raise the price of grain, in order to help the countryside.
            Sadly these reforms were rather quickly undone. The raise in wages was quickly wiped out by the accelerating inflation and the 40-hour workweek disrupted production among certain industries. In October 1, 1936 Blum tried to reverse himself by pursuing a policy of deflation but it was too little and too late. Strikes reappeared in the summer of 1937, causing more unemployment and less productivity, and the flight of foreign capital only worsened as time passed.

V.2 The Spanish Civil War
            In addition to the domestic problems plaguing the Popular Front, the Spanish Civil War weakened the government even more. Lacking support from England, the United States, and his Radical allies, Blum believed that he did not have the mandate to interfere in behalf of the Spanish Republican Government. Accordingly, Blum adopted a policy of neutrality even though General Francisco Franco was supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The members of his Socialist Party and the Communist Party were infuriated by this policy. They believed that it was their duty to help their comrades in Spain and thus viewed Leon Blum as a traitor.

V.3 The End of Blum's First Cabinet
            Dissatisfaction with Blum's government steady rose until it exploded in the summer of 1937. Leon Blum, who saw no other way of regaining stability asked for emergency powers in order to handle the numerous problems facing France. Blum had no problem getting assent from the Chamber of Deputies but the Senate ultimately denied these powers. Thus, the prime minister had no other choice but to resign. His government was succeeded by that of Camille Chautemps. Blum continued his life in politics however, and served as the vice-premiere.

VI. Blum's Second Ministry, 13 March - 10 April 1938
            Chautemps proved unable to solve the problems plaguing France as well. He asked for emergency powers but it was turned down much like it had been for Blum. It soon became apparent that Chautemps would be out of office soon and he was eventually forced to resign when he lost the support of the Socialist Party in early 1938.
            Blum briefly resumed the premiership on March 14, 1938, after Chautemps resigned in March 10. Blum tried his best to get legislations and proposals passed the National Assembly, but the Senate ultimately rejected them. As a consequence, his second government ended in less than a month.

VII Blum's "Caretaker" Cabinet, 16 December 1946 - 22 January 1947
            When the German army invaded France in May 1940, Blum managed to escape to southern France. However, the Vichy government indicted him of war guilt and handed him over to the Germans. Blum was deported to Buchenwald and then later to Dachau and then to Tyrol. Although the Nazi government, toward its end, ordered his execution, he was able to survive because the local authorities decided against it and was freed by the U.S. forces in May, 1945. Leon Blum returned to politics after the war. He emerged as one of France's veteran statesmen and thus was given a lot of responsibilities.
            His first mission was to negotiate a U.S. loan to France for her postwar reconstruction during the spring of 1946. Shortly afterwards in December, he was in charge of a month long "caretaker" government. During his premiership, he supported an alliance between the center-left and center right in order to protect the Fourth Republic against the Gaullists, and the Communists. Afterwards, he served as the head of the French mission to UNESCO and continued to write for the Le Populaire until his death on March 30, 1950.

VIII Conclusion
            There can be no doubt that Leon Blum had a tremendous impact on the history of France as well as the history of the world. His Popular Front government came up with innovative reforms which would be followed by other countries in the future, such as the 40-hour work week, and two weeks paid vacation. His decision to keep neutral during the Spanish Civil War may have caused the fall of the left government in Spain, but it saved France and the rest of Europe at that time from what could have easily expanded into a world war.
            However, as can be seen above, Leon Blum was also in turn shaped by history. Had the Dreyfus affair never occurred, Blum would probably have pursued his life as a lawyer or a full time critic. Had Hitler never risen or had the street demonstrations in 1934 never happened, Blum would never have been able to bring the left and center parties together to form the Popular Front.
            Overall, the life of Leon Blum clearly shows that the relationship between history and man is never single sided. Rather, it a symbiotic one where both give and take from each other.


Note : websites quoted below were visited in December 2007.
1.      Article : History of the Left in France : From the Commune to World War I, from : Wikipedia, -
2.      Article : Leon Blum, from Wikipedia, -
3.      Leon Blum , from : Spartacus Schoolnet -
4.      Leon Blum, from : The World at War -
5.      Bernard, Philippe, and Henri Dubief. The Decline of the Third Republic 1914 ? 1938. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988
6.      Haine, W. Scott. The History of France. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 2000

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