The Swing to the Left in France
THE reputation which the French have acquired for being individualists is too well established to be questioned. To give a true picture of France one should discuss the affairs of each individual Frenchman.
In every Frenchman there is the tendency to say to himself: ‘I am France.’ To him the destinies of the country are intimately linked with his own. He has a physical sensation of being a microcosmic expression of the whole nation and of the soil on which he lives. He is a man whose reference is a landscape.
There are forty million Frenchmen who think and feel exactly alike on this point. The unity of France is founded on the incredible diversity of its citizens. The result is that when the French begin to be dissatisfied with their own affairs the whole country is immediately transformed into a huge debating society where, to the observer, nothing seems to matter but the necessity of winning one’s point.
That the French are eminently conservative in their habits of life is equally true, but in the realm of ideas they are born adventurers. French logic is the best machine yet devised for the performance of individual stunts.
This must be borne in mind when trying to understand the confused evolution of ideas which has kept France in a state of chaotic unrest for more than two years and brought about the swing to the Left which has marked the recent elections.
The picture is not clearly defined. The whole story cannot be told to-day. Time alone will show which among the conflicting forces now at play have permanency and which are only symptoms of a passing fever.
The spontaneous growth of the militant factions which followed the riots of February 6, 1934, was immediately regarded as the expression of Fascism or incipient Fascism, although their leaders denied and still deny that they have any other intention than the protection of the Republic and the restoration of the principles of Order, Authority, and Honesty within the country.
The reaction was immediate. The proletarian elements, remembering the Vienna massacres under Chancellor Dollfuss and what happened in Germany when the Nazis came into powder, organized themselves into a defensive front. For the first time the Communists agreed to join hands with the Socialists and with other sympathizers of the Left. Men who were neither Communists nor Socialists, but to whom Fascism was more repellent than any other danger, rallied around the leaders of the Leftist parties. Thus the Popular Front was formed.
This movement at first had no other programme than to constitute a barrier against Fascism. Nearly two years ago Gaston Bergery, one of the founders of the Popular Front, told the writer that this first objective had then been reached and that the second phase, the offensive, would soon start.
It did. For two years a bitter struggle has been raging between the forces of the Left under the banners of the Popular Front and the forces of the Right whose alleged collusion with such movements as the Croix de Feu, the Jeunesses Patriotes, and similar organizations convinced their opponents that certain powerful elements in France might not object to the establishment of some form of personal dictatorship.
The attacks launched against the Right by the Popular Front were made more effective because the Croix de Feu and similar factions had discredited by their own denunciations the moderate elements which stood as a protective screen between the extremes of the Left and the Conservatives.
This moderate element had been best represented in France for over fifty years by the Radical-Socialist Party. Proclaiming itself the heir to the true principles of the French Revolution, it embodied the aspirations of the middle classes. It fought for enlightenment, freedom of thought, and progress. It denounced the interference of the Church in the affairs of the State. In practice the Radical-Socialists concentrated much of their activity toward gaining control of the machinery of the State. The powerful party gave millions of jobs to its followers. The enormous bureaucracy of France lived under its protection. In the hundred Cabinets of the Third Republic there have been more Radical-Socialist ministers than men of any other denomination.
The success of this party was its undoing. Having been too long in power, its members became accustomed to compromise on all points of their doctrine for the sake of maintaining their domination. TheStavisky scandal proved that, besides making political compromises, some of the leaders were also careless in granting protection to ordinary swindlers.
The parties of the Right and the Leagues seized this occasion to discredit Radical-Socialism, in which they had detected for many years the source of all evils. They denounced its outworn philosophy and its methods as the symbol of corruption, negligence, and weak opportunism.
Divided among themselves, the Radical-Socialists were demoralized by the violence of the attacks. They could not change their tactics or offer to their partisans any new inspiration. They still clung to their conception of a Byzantine State in which favoritism flourished and in which the threadbare slogan of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ was still the only formula proposed to the idealism of the people.
In the last Chambre, the RadicalSocialists were still the most numerous party, but, lacking the support of the Socialists, they had to accept the effective domination of a series of socalled National Union Cabinets in which their spokesmen lost the last shreds of political individuality they had. Doumergue, Flandin, and Laval represented in fact the policies of the minority, but the Radical-Socialists had no other choice than to support them grudgingly.
That the party of moderation should eventually be crushed between the more aggressive forces of the Right and Left was unavoidable. But the defeat, in the elections of 1936, was even greater than expected. They lost more than forty seats. They also lost their prestige.
The electoral system in France prescribes that the deputies to the Parlement shall be elected in two polls which take place on two consecutive Sundays. The rules applied on the first ballot are those of the absolute majority. Only the candidates who receive 50 per cent of the total votes, plus one, are elected. If none obtains this majority, they must run a second time, but on the second ballot the candidate who receives the plurality of votes is elected.
In this year’s elections, 618 deputies had to be chosen from among the largest list of competitors ever known in the history of the Third Republic, a fact which is not without irony when one hears from all sides that the parliamentary system is supposed to be on its last legs. Nearly five thousand candidates presented themselves before the voters. On the first ballot less than a third of the seats were provided for.
During the week that followed, the usual negotiations between competitors of similar complexion took place. The parties of the Left, having made their plans long beforehand, had no difficulty in agreeing that whichever candidate appeared to have the better chances at the runoff should present himself alone, the others withdrawing in his favor.
Their opponents applied the same tactics, but with less discipline. Parties of the Right have always a tendency to be more obdurate in maintaining their respective candidates against one another.
The result was that the coalition of the Left, the Popular Front, triumphed and that the moderate parties were either absorbed or conspicuously weakened. But even the parties of the Right, or National Front, gained some strength. In other words, caught between the two extremes, the Centre collapsed.
The following chart shows the gains and losses of the principal groups in comparison with 1932: —
These figures call for a number of observations.
First, an exact distinction between Left, Centre, and Right is always more or less arbitrary. The Radical-Socialists, who in the previous Chambre could really be considered the bulwark of the Centre, must now be classified with the Left, as they have formally allied themselves with the Popular Front. The question, of course, is whether they will remain faithful to this allegiance as a group or individually. Past history has shown that they were inclined to change sides rather easily.
As can be seen, the figures in themselves do not indicate a landslide. The losses are concentrated in what used to be considered the intermediary parties, but the crystallization of the groups of the Left under one denomination, the Popular Front, makes a solid block of 378 votes, which is impressive.
An analysis of the returns shows that the struggle was extremely close in most districts. The margin of votes is very often less than 100. The Popular Front on the whole received approximately 5,500,000 votes, and the Opposition (Right and Centre) slightly over 4,000,000.
The most important fact is that the most numerous party in the new Parlement is now the Socialist, S. F. I. O. Its leaders become automatically the leaders of the victorious combination. This means that for the first time in history France will have a government in which the Socialists will predominate.
Will the Popular Front remain united in the future as it has been in its successful effort to obtain power?
The Communists have already indicated that they will abstain from participating in the government but will support the policies of their allies. In this they follow the precedent of the Socialists themselves. As to the Radical-Socialists, there is no doubt that at first they will take the largest share possible in the mutual victory; but, if the Popular Front shows too great a tendency to follow the advice of the Communists, defections will undoubtedly occur.
For the present, however, harmony seems to reign between the confederates. A minimum programme of action has been outlined which M. Léon Blum, leader of the Socialist Party, has declared he would apply with utmost vigor and speed.
This programme comprises the following points: reform of the Bank of France, which is to be made more democratic, or perhaps completely nationalized; nationalization of the railroads and public utilities; nationalization of the key industries, and first of all the armament industry; abolition or reform of a number of private monopolies such as the Insurance Trust, the Consortium of the Press, the Havas Agency in its dual capacity of news and publicity distributor, and possibly the Hachette organization for the distribution of newspapers, books, magazines, and so forth.
As can be seen, this plan of action is more socialistic than communistic. ‘Our programme,’ said M. Blum, ‘will be placed in the framework of capitalistic society. Our task will be to obtain from that social system all that it contains of justice and welfare for working people. We desire to succeed in that aim because it may be the decisive factor in the dawn of a new society. We must obtain quick results without exceeding popular wishes, which we must respect.’
The Communists, it is true, are agitating for a drastic soak-the-rich taxation the limits of which are not quite clear. But it is interesting to note that during the whole campaign the Socialists and the Communists themselves have made superhuman efforts to dispel the fear that the word ‘Communism’ creates. Through pamphlets, through the radio, and by all means of propaganda, the voters have been told that the Popular Front would respect the family, the home, the flag, and the sacred savings, not only of the proletariat, but of the small tradesman and the petit bourgeois.
Even in the matter of religion, M. Thorez, Secretary-General of the Communist Party, broadcasted an appeal to his ‘Catholic Brethren.’ In other words, and from the point of view of the average Frenchman, nothing was less sanguinary than the platform of the Popular Front.
But even such a lamblike attitude could not in itself have ensured the success of the Left if a large section of French voters had not voted more in protest against the Conservatives and the Moderates than in approval of M. Blum and the Communists. If the reasonable and usually skeptical Frenchman has chosen to overthrow his leaders of yesterday, no one is to blame but these leaders themselves and those who supported them.
Psychologically the situation had reached a point comparable to the end of Mr. Hoover’s term in the United States. But in France the grievances against those who had held power were more numerous and deeper; they involved the whole problem of whether the country was really governed by its institutions or by the powerful and more or less veiled influence of strong private minorities.
Attacks against feudal capitalism and the monopolistic system are not new. A hundred years ago, for instance, Balzac denounced the dual monopoly of news and publicity enjoyed by the Havas Agency as a potential danger for the freedom of the press. The system of interlocking directorates which prevails in the big industries and the banks is neither new nor peculiar to France; but the centralized character of all French institutions, whether public or private, has made the abuse more glaring and the attacks more concentrated.
Orators have said that the Bank of France was the Bastille of to-day and that the present elections could be compared to the storming of this citadel of Uncontrolled Capitalism by the people impatient to reassert their sovereignty.
The organization of the Bank, founded by Bonaparte, makes it vulnerable to such attacks. Its shares are held by some 40,000 individuals, but only the first 200 on the list1 — that is, the largest holders — have a right to vote in the General Assembly and to elect the fifteen Regents who govern the Bank. The control of its Regents is practically without restriction, in spite of the presence on their Council of a governor and three auditors appointed by the government.
The hereditary character of succession to the Council of Regents, the fact that the members are among the wealthiest bankers and industrialists of the country, and the multiplicity of their affiliations — these factors have fostered the idea that the Bank of France controlled de facto the economic life of the nation and exerted pressure on its government through the principle of the ‘spider web.’
Innumerable books and pamphlets have been written to demonstrate the mechanism of the Real Powers that rule France. Generally they are written in a spirit of partisanship which gives the reader the impression that the Comité des Forges, the Consortium de la Presse, the Agence Havas, such as they are described, belong to the realm of legend rather than to this very realistic world. But the fact remains that public opinion in France now demands that something should be done to reform a system which is open to so much suspicion at home as well as abroad.
The five million men who voted for the Popular Front voted also against the foreign policies followed by the recent French Cabinets. Confusion is profoundly distasteful to the national temperament, and for two years or more the French have known nothing but confusion.
Brought up with respect for treaties, they saw their own government carrying on dubious negotiations with Italy, a country they had condemned under their signature. After Germany had reoccupied the Rhineland they observed the extraordinary phenomenon of the extreme Nationalists showing increasing complacency toward Hitler and a willingness to enter into bargains with him to maintain peace on the installment plan — even if it meant sacrificing half a dozen allies! These same Nationalists attacked the FrancoSoviet Pact, although one of them, M. Barthou, had initiated it. The friendship of England and that of Italy were weighed, not in the scales of national interest, but in relation to internal politics. The Nationalists became pro-Italian and anti-English. The Left and the Right played football first with the principles of collective security, then with the League of Nations, as if the principles involved had no other raison d’être than to provide arguments for internal feuds.
In the meantime complicated realignments were suggested, and dropped. An impossible combination of peaceat-any-price and ominous threats was attempted. No doctrine, no definite line of conduct, was discernible. The man in the street went from anger to disgust. To a race which hates aimlessness and the unprecise, the tension became intolerable.
When the French voters went to the polls, they did not think only of their economic difficulties, the devaluation of the franc, the Bank of France, and the ‘deux cents families’ Each one knew that, however pressing these problems might be, they were always subject to the major question, the situation of France in the world as a living entity. If Frenchmen voted for the Popular Front, it was because, in foreign affairs also, they wanted a New Deal.
The task which confronts the new government is tremendous.
The presence of 72 Communists in the Chambre does not mean that a revolution has occurred in France. M.Léon Blum cannot disassociate himself from the past. He will surround himself with new men, but also with Radical-Socialists. The latter will constitute the link between the past and the present, but the hope of the majority of those who have voted for the Popular Front is that a genuine new spirit will govern the policies of the country.
The question is whether, among the new men who will take part in the government, there are real statesmen. Many Frenchmen are skeptical about this. The Socialists have undoubtedly benefited by their long abstention from active government, but in doing so they have acquired the reputation of being unable to grasp realities. It is one thing to sit on the side lines and speculate, another to be thrown into the midst of a continuous campaign.
M. Blum himself is a delicate, elderly gentleman of culture and refinement. He is not a millionaire, as is usually said, but he has inherited and made enough money as a corporation lawyer to surround himself with the agreeable companionship of books and works of art and to enjoy during the sixty-four years of his life the amenities and protection of nineteenth-century bourgeois comfort.
His first contact with the manifestations of direct action has been, it would seem, the recent street brawl in which a few Royalists beat him over the head with the license plate of the car in which he was sitting. However painful, the incident was fortunate for him because it increased his popularity and brought him, rather brutally, out of the ivory tower from which he had up to then directed the forces of opposition. It is interesting to note that recently M. Blum has found it necessary to reassure his followers by telling them that they could expect from him from now on all the energy, even the ruthlessness, which the situation demands.
Another handicap of M. Blum, and one which may prove dangerous not only for him but for the internal peace of France, is the fact that he is a Jew. There is no active anti-Semitism in France, but, as in every country to-day, it is latent. The personal phobia which Hitler has always had for the Jews and which he has integrated in the Nazi philosophy has proved one of the most successful pieces of long-range propaganda that have ever been devised by a narrow-minded and fanatic leader of an enlightened people. To many persons of perfect good faith, the fact that M. Blum, leader of the Popular Front, is a Jew will only strengthen the conviction that behind Socialism, Communism, and any other radical or progressive movement, Jewish inspiration can be found.
There are other reasons why the Popular Front Government will not find its course plain sailing.
The new leaders are not responsible for the pitiful condition of the public finances or for the muddled situation of European politics, but they have to find a solution to both, or at least give a clear indication of what they intend to do. Reforms of the Bank of France and similar measures can wait, but these two pressing problems must be faced at once.
The question of devaluation of the franc is still pending at the time of writing. Economists outside of France commonly agree that the general economy of the country would be benefited by devaluing the franc. It may be so, but to judge this question from the economic or financial standpoint alone is misleading, because the gold reserve and the gold franc have also a political and psychological value. Moreover most Frenchmen, even if they call themselves business men, are also rentiers, and, however large their business and small their rentes, they think of their rentes first and their profits second.
This attitude may be considered foolish by theoretical economists, but it is real enough to have induced the Popular Front, including the Communists, to promise that they would be strictly orthodox in matters of finance and, like their predecessors, to try to ‘save the franc.’
Where, then, will the money come from?
M. Blum has spoken of revising the system of taxation and applying a drastic tax on incomes over 75,000 francs and other taxes on the profits of big corporations. He wants, at the same time, to draw the money out of hoarding by offering to the small investor better protection. To this end the reform of the Bank of France and the regulation of banking practices are supposed to offer an inducement. To combat unemployment a vast programme of public work on the American plan is contemplated.
Will these measures be sufficient to bring about recovery? Perhaps, but only if the new government succeeds in creating confidence, not only among the masses, but also among those who will be expected to make the heavy sacrifices of taxation. That the odds are against M. Blum at the start is obvious. If he fails, devaluation will cease to be a subject of discussion, because it will have become a reality.
Concerning the foreign policy, the Popular Front promises to show utmost realism. ‘All that we hope to do,’ said M. Blum recently, ‘can only be accomplished in peace and by peace. We give war credit for no virtues. We do not even think, like our ancestors of 1792 and 1848, that war can have a liberatory and revolutionary spirit. Of that illusion the last war definitely cured us.’
Although admitting that countries having similar philosophies and institutions will find it easier to understand one another, the leader of the Popular Front is determined to make no distinction between Fascism and Communism when it comes to questions of national policy. In other words, the Popular Front Government will accept as facts the existence of the Soviets in Russia, of Mussolini in Italy, and of Hitler in Germany, and pledges itself not to question the validity or the wisdom of these different systems.
From the constructive point of view, it would appear that the new leaders of France contemplate the reorganization of Europe on a strictly economic basis. The idea of the United States of Europe, first suggested by Briand, is to be revamped, in such a way that each country could be considered as part of an economic unit called Europe instead of pursuing the suicidal policy of self-sufficiency.
As can readily be seen, such a programme implies the curbing of extreme nationalism not only in France but in other countries. The leaders of the Popular Front are unanimous in believing that every other road leads to more armaments and finally to war.
It would be presumptuous to prophesy either the success or the failure of the Popular Front experiment.
France, through her long history, has acquired a tremendous experience of politics, and many times through the centuries has been conspicuous for her adaptability and capacity of recovery. The present hour is serious, but it is not tragic. The French have lived through much worse moments.
Moreover, they are naturally inclined to expect rather less than more from the promises which are made at election time. If this is a New Deal, it has certainly not been welcomed with an outburst of delirious enthusiasm. The elections were calm. The voters were serious. The majority of the French know that the régime under which they live is not perfect. The Third Republic is usually caricatured as an attractive, healthy, and breezy young woman called Marianne. But, after seventy-five years of wedlock with the French nation, Marianne has lost some of her early charm, especially for the young. The love match has turned out to be a mariage de raison.
To many Frenchmen the success of the Popular Front has only one meaning: it is one more step toward Communism and therefore toward the destruction of the existing social order. But, on the other hand, the fact that seventy-two Communists are now sitting in the Palais Bourbon may curb their impatience to upset the institutions through which they have attained power. France has not become Communist, but Communism, in France, has become French.
This swing to the Left is undoubtedly alarming to many interests and to many conservatives at heart, and for good reasons. It offers fertile ground for an aggressive reaction. The extremes are further apart than ever. The opposition on the Right is strong and combative; it may refuse to play the rules of the game and decide that only direct action can now repair the defeat at the polls. The militant factions may find new inspiration and perhaps new and more determined leaders.
France has voted against Fascism because it wants peace within and without. The Popular Front has appeared as offering better guarantees of both. But if it fails to justify this confidence, either by yielding too much to the revolutionary elements within its own ranks or by showing itself incompetent, the ground will have been prepared, not for an economic and moral recovery of France, but for a series of unpredictable adventures.