France's Déjà Vu: We've Seen This Economic Disaster Before

Why the unemployment, racist rhetoric, and disenchanted public Hollande currently faces is reminiscent of 1938.
Sad Hollande banner.jpg
France's President Francois Hollande studies his notes before appearing on France 2 television prime time news broadcast for an interview at their studios in Paris, on March 28, 2013. (Reuters)

Ten months ago, the Socialist government of François Hollande swept into office on the promise "Le changement, c'est maintenant" (Change is now). Given this week's opinion polls, however, the only change French voters now wish to see is Hollande and Co. swept back out of office. According to the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, just 27 percent of respondents are "satisfied" with the president's performance. Never has public confidence in the president of the French Fifth Republic fallen so far, so fast. For even the most blasé of observers, it is shocking that Hollande beats the political figure the French love to hate, Nicolas Sarkozy, in this race to the bottom: the former president hovered at a 40 percent approval rating at the same point in his term of office.

Hollande's reputation, along with his government's, is unraveling on the 75th anniversary of an earlier great Socialist unraveling in France, the Popular Front. What's more, the political, economic and social contexts between early 1938, when this first Socialist exercise in power collapsed, and now are remarkably similar. So similar that one can imagine Hollande in the role of Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day," waking up to find that today is yesterday. The question is whether he will manage to shift both his government and country into tomorrow.

Two republics later, the extreme right, now represented by the Front National, still threatens, but not because it is massing in the streets. Instead, it is mobilizing a growing base of voters.

The Popular Front, a coalition of the Socialist, Communist and liberal Radical parties under the leadership of Léon Blum, was heaved into office in June 1936 on a vast swell of hope that they would pull France from its dire economic situation. According to official sources, the unemployment rate in 1936 was 10.8 percent. Given the French government's narrow definition of "unemployment," however, the reality was far grimmer: as many as one out of five workers were, in fact, out of work. Moreover, French heavy industry was increasingly falling behind its competitors -- in particular, Nazi Germany. France's GDP trailed other west European countries and were it not for tourism, its balance of trade would have spun out of control. Yet, at the same time, Blum's government shunned the very idea of deficit spending. Instead, they reduced the workweek from 48 to 40 hours and raised workers' wages -- all long overdue, but catastrophically timed reforms.

From the Great Depression, France now finds itself mired in the Great Recession. This week the French government acknowledged that more than three million men and women are now out of work -- a number that all parties agree is heavy with symbolism. Should the trend continue -- unemployment has hemorrhaged without stop for 22 straight months -- France will soon break the record of 10.8 percent. (Here, too, the reality is much darker: unemployment among those between 18-25 is two to three times greater, while long-term unemployment grows wider and deeper.) One of the few sectors where jobs are being created is Pôle Emploi, the government agency tasked with supporting and advising the unemployed.

Last year's wave of optimism was slowed by the sand bars of unemployment, and then shattered against the great seawall of EU fiscal austerity. As Germany looked on sternly, Hollande's government scrambled madly at year's end to make good its vow to reduce the national deficit to 3 percent of the GDP. Sans succès. With a stalled economy -- zero growth is predicted for 2013 -- the government lost both the tax revenues of its earlier projections, but also the financial oil to prime the domestic pump. It hardly helped the government's effort to justify its austerity measures when the budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, resigned last week after being formally charged with keeping an illegal bank account in Switzerland.

All of this is the perennial grist for the maws of populism. The Popular Front was born under the shadow of extreme right movements bent on overthrowing the Republic. Like the Croix de feu (Fiery Cross), which claimed nearly a million members in 1938, these movements trumpeted nationalist and authoritarian solutions to France's predicament. Xenophobic and anti-Semitic elements to their worldview were especially prominent. The Jew, irredeemably cosmopolitan and rootless, not only directed the forces of communism, but also controlled the vaults of capitalism.

Presented by

Robert Zaretsky

Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston. He is a contributor to The Occupy Handbook and author of the forthcoming A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Pursuit of Meaning.

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