Léon Blum

An Atlantic portrait

For many Frenchmen, of course, the idea of considering M. Blum as a great democratic leader is preposterous. They are as unable to understand why the rest of the world entertains that idea as are many Americans when they learn that Mr. Roosevelt enjoys the same reputation abroad. Apparently the title of Great Democratic Leader can only be applied to the head of a foreign country, preferably a very distant one.

In the case of 1\I. Blum, the fact that he is not only a Socialist but also a Jew constitutes a handicap which the President of the United States has not had to suffer. Nevertheless, M. Blum has succeeded in overcoming this difficulty by explaining his position as a Socialist end as a Jew with consistent sincerity.

Designated to assume power after the victory of the Popular Front coalition at the polls, he explained that although he intended to remain faithful to his Socialist creed he realized perfectly well that France was not a Socialist country. Besides, in the Popular Front itself, the Socialists were merely the most numerous of a triple alliance including the Radical Socialists and the Communists. He made it clear also that, the democratic rule being the rule of the Socialists themselves, he had no intention of departing from it. And he did not

But naturally this was not believed by the opposition. And the alliance with the Communists to whom M. Blum remained loyal in spite of their frequent attempts to make his task impossible could not dissuade many honest citizens from thinking that he was playing into the hands of Moscow, whether he wished it or not.

Many pleas were made to M. Blum to abandon his compromising allies, and there is no doubt that he could have found a new and solid majority with the more moderate elements who were most anxious to win over the only really popular leader that France has had in many years. But M. Blum said that he would never go the way of Ramsay MacDonald and betray the laboring classes.

It maybe argued - and it was - that the laboring classes are not the whole of France, and that to govern in their interest alone is not according to the democratic process. But here we come to defining what is meant by the laboring classes, - a source of more confusion in the world to day than all others pist together, - and the only answer is that, practically speaking, the laboring classes in France are those who voted for the Popular Front. Nevertheless it would appear that the words laboring classes' contain some kind of mystical value, in M, Blum's mind, and he has said and shown that he would willingly sacrifice himself to preserve their 'unity.'


Besides proving that he had great gifts as a popular leader during the twelve months that he was in power, Léon Blum also showed that he had the requirements of a statesman, and that his management of the government a task entirely new to him  may have been open to criticism from the political point of view, but not otherwise.

This unsuspected ability was quite a revelation, even to most of his friends, but it can be explained if one remembers that for seventeen years he belonged to the Conseil d'Etat (this nearest equivalent to the Supreme Court). It is a phase of his career that is usually over-looked by his critics, but in this office he acquired a knowledge of the State and of its laws that few political men in France possess. This side of M. Blum's training, his juridical competence, may be the real reason why he is not a mere intellectual or prophetic reformer. It explains also why he has succeeded in creating an undercurrent of confidence even in the minds of his bitterest political opponents.

As for the question of his race, he has himself said that the dual conscience of his French nationality and of his Jewish origin created no conflict. in him, but that he recognized both. A minority of his enemies, who suffer from a prejudice which the Nazi propagandists sire doing their utmost to encourage in France and everywhere else, have taken great pains to show that Léon Blum may be a great figure but that he could not be a true Frenchman. They have denounced certain traits of his character as being distinctly Jewish, and therefore un French, but strangely enough these traits which are picked on are among those which the French usually claim as their own such as his passion for justice, his ideal of universal tolerance (clearly manifest in the incredibly generous offers of cooperation which he made to Hitler, for instance), the power of his logic, and his unshakable attachment to the cause of peace.

The basic reason for these self defeating objections, leaving out prejudice, may be that there is indeed something in Blum's personality which is  I will not say un French  but unusual in a political leader; and that is a capacity for intellectual sincerity blended with a quasi feminine sensitiveness, an idealism the doors of which are always left open to enable him to seek an escape from the harsh contradictions of reality and soar above them, a general attitude of optimism and faith in the future of humanity which clashes very often with the common sense of a people whom a long history and many adventures have taught that skepticism is not a bad philosophy of life. It may be that Lion Blum is too far removed from the spirit of Montaigne or Voltaire.


Since last June, M. Blum has ceased to be the head of the government. He resigned after the Senate refused to grant him plenary powers to remedy a financial situation which had become alarming. The Sonata revolted against the idea of letting a Socialist, however great his popular prestige, take upon himself this kind of responsibility. Naturally the opposition blamed M. Blum for having brought the Treasury to the threshold of bankruptcy, and he in turn accused the capitalists of having practiced a sit down strike to get him out of office. In fact both were right, but some of M. Blum's partisans thought that he should resist the verdict of the 'reactionary' Senate in order to save the Popular Front. M. Blues refused to resort to such a coup d'état. Instead he accepted the post of Vice President in a Cabinet the head of which is M. Chautemps, a Radical-Socialist in whom the Senate has confidence. The Cabinet is still a Popular Front Government, in which M. Blues remains as a sort of guardian of the spirit of the movement.

There are other reasons why M. Blum cannot be dispensed with at the moment, and the most important is certainly the prestige he enjoys in other countries, In the international field, at least, even his enemies are obliged to recognize that be has improved the moral position of France, who has demonstrated her ability, under his management, to operate some fundamental social readjustments without betraying any of the principles which she herself has spread throughout the world. In so doing Léon Blum has been a tremendous factor in strengthening the forces of freedom and liberalism which are so violently attacked by Fascist and Communist ideologies.

An unsolved question is whether Léon Blues, during the year that he was in power, advanced permanently the socialization of France, or whether he merely profited by the periodical swing of the pendulum which, having gone left, has now a tendency to swing back towards the right. In other words, is M. Blues to be judged as a great Socialist or as a greet national figure, or both?

This question cannot be answered now, but it is interesting to read to day a passage of the New Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann in which, some forty years ago, Lion Blum seems to have had a prophetic vision of what would happen when a Socialist leader came into power. In this curious passage, Léon Blum has imagined that Goethe has conceived a Second Faust and that this Second Faust is a Socialist leader living in the modern world:

To this Faust [says Goethe-Blum] I have given eloquence, prestige, and this magnetic power which compels everyone to believe immediately and in spite of himself in his strength, in his sincerity, in his kindness. I have made him energetic end candid. He is an optimist… He believes that man is just and that only poverty end a faulty civilization have corrupted him… He holds, against Mephistopheles (who is also n Socialist, huts mischievous demagogue), that it is possible to convert those who are happy in this world to the sentiment of their injustice and that they can he made to renounce their privileges through persuasion. Bemuse this Faust is tender, he hates blood. He wants the Revolution to be peaceful and fraternal.

Several scenes are described. In one of them an engineer proposes to Dr. Faust an invention by which cotton mills could dispense with two thirds of their workers. Socialist Faust hesitates. He sees that in the present state of our society science creates unemployment. Mephistopheles the agitator, encourages the workers to destroy the now machines. Faust is horrified, but he cannot stop this criminal destruction.

In another scene Faust, who has become n Deputy, is trying to put some order into the methods of work of Parliament. In vain. He tries to do everything alone he is harassed with responsibilities, while Mephistopheles who is also an M.P., mocks him and says: 'Now you have become a bourgeois business man!'

And how does this all end? asks Eckermann.

What you want to know, I presume, answers Goethe, is whether enterprises analogous to that of my Faust have a chance to succeed, Personally, I am thoroughly convinced that they can. But personal convictions have nothing to do with this mutter. All that we can do today is to ask some questions clearly and accurately. Time alone will give us the answers.

Thus, forty years ago Léon Blum know that the better world of his dreams would be slow to come. But there is no reason to believe that, with ago, he has lost patience.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

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

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In