Léon Blum

An Atlantic portrait
More
I

Léon Blum a man of the past, of the present, of the future. Last June he resigned as Premier of the Popular Front Government, but his personal prestige as the most influential political figure that France has known since Briand remains unimpaired.

He now occupies the position of Vice President in the Chautemps Popular Front Cabinet, exerting the same active influence as he did when he first came to power over a year ago. He must be reckoned with as one of the few statesmen who direct the course of world affairs to day

M. Blum's year in power has been morally healthy for France. It has restored the mental balance of a great many people who were beginning to believe that, because a few nations had gone mad, there was no other solution than to follow their example.

Léon Blum is an idealist and a logician, a poet and a critic, a diplomat and a revolutionary, a politician and a gentleman. He is a Frenchman and a Jew. Complex, subtle, eclectic, he presents a problem which baffles his admirers as much as it irritates his enemies, It is difficult to place him in any category of men. He\ is an intellectual, but he is also a man of action. He is exceedingly sensitive, and so sincere that some of his speeches sound like public confessions; yet he is not a blind fanatic. Ho is thoroughly faithful to the doctrine which he defends, but remains critical of himself as of others. He is a discreet messiah.

His qualities sometimes complement his defects and sometimes lead him into apparent or real contradictions which he tries to mitigate by a constant effort of rationalization. As a reformer he thinks in terms of the future, but as a scholar and an erudite he is more than an equal match for any practical realist. He has no false humility; neither does he seem personally ambitious. I le knows how to retreat and how to compromise. When he sidestepped last June to save the Popular Frost, experts agreed that as a piece of political manoeuvring his fall was a graceful one.

Compared with other modern leaders, especially those of the dictator type, he is unbearably civilized. Judged by the standards of the Nazi or Fascist creeds, or by those of many Frenchmen who are neither Fascists nor Nazis, he is a superb example of liberal democratic decadence. The sanguine typo usually dislikes him violently, not so much for his political ideas as for the refinements of his logic and his repugnance for any form of grossness, either in speech or otherwise.

A friend of mine, who is sanguine, said tome that he granted every quality of the statesman to M. Blum, including energy and prudence, but that it was impossible to call him a statesman because he lacked the necessary weight for his size  both physically and intellectually.

Yet Léon Blum is solid and this solidity lies in his intelligence, in the precision of his dialectics, which are over-powering, Whether he speaks in the Chambre for three hours on the most complicated subject without consulting any notes, or addresses thirty thousand people on the state of the nation, his method never varies. It is not to the emotions that he appeals, but to the power of logic. This, more than anything else, is what distinguishes him from other national leaders at the moment.

I recall the speech he made last September before a huge crowd at Luna Park in Paris to justify his nonintervention policy in the Spanish civil war. The crowd was hostile; it was profoundly anti Fascist end could not understand why France had refused help to a friendly government. Blum was greeted by the slogan of 'Planes for Spain!' he spoke for an hour, handicapped as usual by the fact that his voice does not carry well, and at the beginning of his speech he had difficulty in obtaining enough silence to be heard. The arguments he used were purely rational. He demonstrated that French intervention, however justifiable from the point of view of international law, would inevitably encourage the Germans and the Italians to give assistance openly to tile other side, an act that might lead to war. The crowd went on shouting, 'Planes for Spain!' But gradually, as his demonstration of ideas progressed, the shouts subsided. Finally applause broke out. The excited audience had been won over to peace when it wanted war  and that through the sheer force of persuasion of a man who apparently still believes in reason and says so.

Whether Lion Blum is sound in his philosophy and in his political conceptions is a matter of personal judgment. But it is probable that few men in these clays have tried with such earnestness to explain what they were driving at. If his 'experience' is considered a failure - as it is by many - he has nevertheless demonstrated a fact which in the present state of the world seems to me important; that the huge popular audiences which react elsewhere so blindly to the demagogic appeals made to their collective stupidity are able to listen to a leader who addresses them, not at if they were a dumb horde, but as intelligent human beings.

II

Before M. Blum became the head of the government, over a year ago, my ideas about him were rather hazy. I had lunched with him several years before at the house of friends. He was then the head of the Socialist Party, and my very definite impression after this luncheon was that if this party was ever to accede to power in France it would not be under the leadership of this affable but apparently undynamic gentleman.

M. Blum spoke very pleasantly and interestingly of whatever may have been the topics of the day. Like many others at that time, I went by the legend that he was a millionaire collector of works of art, and in seeing him it was much easier indeed to picture him surrounded with rare books and precious china than standing on a platform preaching the Revolution to the proletariat. Quite tall and thin, he gave an impression of frailty. His features were definitely those of a man devoted to the spiritual side of life, he himself has remarked that he does not look like a Jew, which is true. All his attitudes were those of ease and even nonchalance. When he spoke, he placed his thumbs in the armholes of his waistcoat, crossed his long legs, leaned backwards in his chair, His voice was that of a cultured man, but soft and curiously pitched  one of those voices which one may imagine might charm women and not men; no mannerism of speech, but a perfectly precise choice of words and faultless diction, as is used by only a limited number of Frenchmen among the thoroughly learned.

He was very well dressed, but not overdressed. He wore spats, which in Franco is as much a sign of sipper class smugness as carrying a cane in New York. When he went out, however, he put on a wide brimmed black felt hat, which is another kind of symbol; it means either radicalism in politics or artistic leanings, like long hair thirty years ago.

I thought that art rather than politics explained that hat of M. Blum's. Amen whose manners were so obviously aristocratic was hard to identify as the authentic heir of the great Socialist leader, Jean Jaurès, who had a thick neck, a beard, a powerful accent of the Midi, and who spat in his handkerchief.

In fact I associated M. Blum with only one of the groups to which he did indeed belong, at least in his youth; the intelligentsia of the Proust-Gide-Valéry variety. And for this reason I made a serious mistake; I pigeonholed the future leader of the Popular Front as a man of the past of a rich and delightful but forever lost era that came to an end some fifteen years ago in France and during which a number of men of talent wrote a number of great books.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In