France Under Two Flags


HISTORY never quite repeats itself, but it does issue from time to time ‘new’ editions which have a striking family resemblance. While the style may vary, as well as the type and the binding, the substance remains the same.

One of those revised editions is now coming out in France. The political situation in that country is indeed similar in many respects to the conditions that existed during the revolutionary days of 1848. To start with, a government divided against itself. The Provisional Government which came into power after the downfall of Louis Philippe was in fact a sort of Popular Front combination of men a world apart on fundamental principles. On one side, idealists and humanitarians such as Lamartine and Arago, who sincerely sought the welfare of the masses, but intended to maintain the established social order and would under no consideration march under any flag but the Tricolor. On the other side, militant socialists such as Louis Blanc and Ledru-Rollin, whose aim was to destroy the bourgeoisie and bring about a social revolution, with the red flag as their emblem. But together they had to face the fierce opposition of a group of anarchists led by Blanqui and Proudhon, and particularly that of secret organizations in command of the Parisian workmen.

Their policy was perforce one of perpetual compromise, the left wing, however, scoring most points. The main cause of the revolution had been the refusal of the monarchy to extend the electoral franchise to the masses (there were then only 250,000 voters in a population of over 30,000,000 inhabitants), and the first decree of the new government, concerning which there was no difference of opinion, established universal suffrage. But the problem that overshadowed all the others was then, as now, the unemployment problem. And certain social reforms had to be enacted to pacify the working class.

Decrees were hastily drafted and issued providing for a shorter working day, freedom of association, and the opening of ‘national workshops’ in Paris, coupled with a proclamation of the ‘right to work’ and a guaranty by the State of employment for all citizens. This public-works programme proved to be the government’s undoing, as hordes of provincial workers invaded the capital, and since it was not possible to employ all of them they merely increased the ranks of the disorderly elements.

Hardly a day passed without a riotous demonstration in front of the Hôtel de Ville, which was the government’s headquarters, and bloodshed was avoided only through the magic of Lamartine’s eloquence. When an infuriated mob once demanded that the red flag be hoisted on the government building, he not only resisted their threats, but convinced them that there could be no other national flag but the Tricolor, an oratorical triumph which has perhaps never been equaled in history. But other demands were clamored day after day, and even the police forces raised their voice, which resulted in the National Guards being disbanded (just as the ‘National leagues’ recently), but to be reorganized along democratic lines.

Meanwhile, the government’s financial situation was growing worse every day. A loan of 250 million francs was obtained from the Bank of France, but import and export duties were dwindling at a rapid pace, as well as the tax receipts, while the burden of the national workshops and the dole was steadily becoming heavier. In order to satisfy the masses, a certain number of indirect taxes bearing upon the cost of living were abolished (the present Finance Minister has announced a similar proposal), while direct taxes were increased by 45 per cent.

This tax increase incensed the peasants, and, as business conditions were not improving, the middle classes also began to protest. The consequence was the election of a conservative Chamber of Deputies. Whereupon a revolt broke out in Paris, and for four days, from June 23 to 26 (historically known as the June Days), desperate fighting took place behind barricades, making thousands of victims.

A little later Louis Bonaparte was elected President of the Republic by a huge popular majority. The Revolution of 1848 had lasted only four months. Its outstanding achievement had been to open the door to the Second Empire.


What is the Popular Front Government now in power likely to achieve? And, in the first place, has it a longer lease of life than the Provisional Government of 1848?

There are indications that the leaders of the Socialist Party themselves are skeptical of the solidity of the existing coalition. In a speech delivered on July 8, Paul Faure, Minister of State and General Secretary of that party, said: ‘If the measures we have taken do not produce the expected results within the next three months, we [the Socialists] shall come forward with a programme of our own.’

He had already declared in a previous speech, which did not, however, fix any time limit: ‘In the event, of the failure of our measures, we shall conclude that the Popular Front platform is inadequate, and we shall therefore not hesitate to ask that the Chamber be dissolved, in order to allow the people to send us back in greater number, which would enable us to apply our Socialist programme.’

Inasmuch as the ‘expected results’ include a business revival and the ending of unemployment, M, Faure surely does not believe that they can be attained, even under the most favorable circumstances, in such a short space of time as he mentions. His faith in the Popular Front platform which was heralded as a panacea during the electoral campaign has evidently been shaken since, and it is not, if it ever was, of the kind that moves mountains. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he is preparing his followers for a disappointment, and perhaps for a break with the Radical Socialists who prevented the adoption of stronger measures than those that were agreed upon. Is Léon Blum riding for a fall, hoping to gain strength thereby, Antæus-like? Or is he making of necessity a virtue?

It is an open secret that complete harmony does not exist in the ministerial crew. The bills concerning the nationalization of war industries and the Bank of France had to be toned down, and the proposal of a capital levy has been definitely abandoned, in spite of the insistence of the Communists that the country can be saved only by expropriating the fortunes of the famous ‘200 families.’1

But the greatest cause of dissension is the failure of the government to stop the occupation strikes. The Senate, which is overwhelmingly Radical, has compelled the Minister of the Interior to promise that force would be used, if necessary, to end these strikes and to prevent their recurrence. At the same time the Communists stoutly maintain that force must never be used against workers. The Cabinet thus finds itself between two fires, and its only chance of escape and salvation lies in the willingness of the strikers to abandon their present tactics.

Even then, there is still ahead the formidable hurdle of the financial policy, which must be shaped to the size of the social reforms now in force. This is where the various political parties are most likely to cross swords.


It is not, however, in the Chamber of Deputies or in the Senate that the issue will be effectively decided. The French Parliament has lost a great deal of its prestige in the last decade, and this accounts for the fact that the people are so prone to take the law into their own hands. The average Frenchman has little faith in electoral promises and feels like Robert de Jouvenel, who once wrote: ‘There is more in common between two deputies, one of whom is a revolutionary, than between two revolutionaries, one of whom is a deputy.’

It was therefore an easy matter for the occult organizers of the stay-in strikes to convince the Paris workers that, if the proletariat meant to obtain prompt enactment of the reforms promised in the Popular Front platform, they should show their strength and thereby compel immediate compliance with their demands.

By so doing they dealt a severer blow to Parliament than to the capitalist régime. The fact is, the government no longer governs, but is simply goose-stepping under the clenched fist of a proletarian dictatorship — just the opposite of what is happening in Germany, Italy, and Russia.

How long will the country tolerate this state of parliamentary impotence and subservience? Where and from whom will the opposition come?


What forces can the bourgeoisie muster in a struggle in which it stands as the common foe of the other classes?

Its position to-day resembles in several respects that of the nobility at the end of the eighteenth century. For nearly 150 years the descendants of the bourgeois who engineered the French Revolution, and who were its chief beneficiaries, have grown in wealth and power. They weathered the storms of 1848 and 1871, but they are now facing the fiercest attack that has ever been launched against them. The revolution which is just starting, but which may gain considerable momentum in a comparatively short time, appeals to the same passions and prejudices as did their own revolution against feudalism in 1789, and it is as well organized.

On the other hand, they are better prepared to defend themselves than were the eighteenth-century nobles. Their wealth can be more easily mobilized. Their influence can assert itself in more subtle and effective ways. They are more open-minded and ready to adapt themselves to new conditions than their feudal predecessors. And then the fight is not only against them, but against the capitalist system to which the great majority of their countrymen are more attached perhaps than any other nation. There lies their greatest strength.

There, and in the press, which they so largely control. It is a well-known fact that most of the Paris newspapers, which have readers in every town and hamlet in France, are owned or financed by the big interests, when they are not the property of wealthy individuals. The leading provincial journals also belong to rich families. In the event of a class warfare, it is safe to predict that all these papers, with the exception of the Red party organs, would be found in the conservative camp. But even a unanimous press could not save the bourgeoisie in its present plight, if it did not primarily and earnestly defend the vital interests of the peasants and the middle class.

These two classes have indeed long been out of sympathy with the bourgeois — les gros (the big ones), as they call them. When they vote for Socialist or Communist candidates, it is not because they believe in their doctrines, but because they wish to register a protest against the powers that be. A political revolution does not frighten them, but any encroachment on their property rights would meet with furious resistance.

Proudhon, who was close to the soil, wrote that ‘nobody who knows the French peasant will try to communize him.’ The Communists, who have lately started a campaign to win over the peasantry, are now assuring them that they do not contemplate ever to interfere with the absolute ownership of small farms, but only to do away with large holdings which would, of course, be apportioned in equal shares to the poorer villagers.

It happens, however, that France is not, to any considerable extent, a country of large estates. Nowhere in the world are land and wealth so evenly distributed, although less so than before the war. The 1931 census figures show a rural population of about 52 per cent and a total of 2,412,983 farms. Of this total, there are 1,339,926 farmers who employ no outside help, 1,041,988 who employ from one to five workers, and only 163,283 who employ from six to ten. Under these conditions, distributing the other lands can hardly have a nation-wide appeal.

Furthermore, the peasant’s mentality must be taken into account. The land on which he toils in most cases has been held by his family for several generations, and there are instances of farms which have been handed down from father to son since the days of the Crusades. Every square inch of these lands is a sacred possession in the eyes of its owner. The peasant’s ruling passion is land hunger, his constant ambition is to acquire more land, but the thought of sharing any part of his domain with anyone never enters his mind, and woe to the politician who would suggest it.

The French peasant is essentially an individualist. While he does look to the government for its assistance in raising the prices of farm products and blames it when they fall below his expectations, he also resents any prying into his private affairs. He instinctively resists inquisitorial methods and all regimentation. Hence his reluctance to depositing money in the banks, and the persistent survival of the legendary woolen stocking which has meant so much to the country in times of national emergency.

For in spite of his thrift, which frequently borders on avarice, he is intensely patriotic, not to say chauvinistic, and when he feels that the ‘Patrie’ is in danger there is no hesitancy in his response. If asked what he thought of the red flag, he would doubtless try to echo Lamartine’s celebrated speech.


Of equal if not greater importance, so far as the fate of democratic institutions and that of the capitalist system are concerned, is the attitude that will be taken by the middle class — the small manufacturers, tradesmen, and the artisans.

This class has during the last thirty years usually voted, as a whole, the Radical-Socialist ticket. There were many desertions from that party in the recent elections, owing to discontent born of the depression, but the majority remained loyal to the old party colors.

No social revolution is possible without their support. As in the case of agriculture, the small establishments hold a preponderating place in French industry and commerce. Taking again the 1931 census figures, there are 761,171 manufacturing plants in the country, and 1,166,248 artisans working on their own account, including 583,672 women. The manufacturing plants that employ only one to five workmen number over 500,000; those employing from six to ten, nearly 60,000. Commercial establishments number 626,891, of which 61 per cent employ only from one to five persons, while there are 159,200 with no employees except members of their own families, or else none at all.

These figures account for the frequent references recently made in parliamentary debates to the ’petit patron, the small employer. The Radical-Socialist Senators, who have been more vocal than their colleagues in the Chamber of Deputies, have repeatedly stated that the Popular Front reforms (the forty-hour, collective-bargaining, and higher-wage laws) will ruin this type of employer. On the other hand, the government pretends that it will improve their lot by providing cheaper credit and tax reductions — which, of course, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, this petit patron fears that he will be crushed between the upper and nether millstones. Not unlike the peasant, he abhors inquisition and regimentation. Should the new laws work to his detriment, he will certainly compel the Radical-Socialist party to withdraw from the Popular Front alliance. He is, besides, as fervent a patriot as the peasant, and he will not tolerate the displacement of the Tricolor by the red flag.


At all events, the Blum Government’s policies will be judged by their results, which will also decide its fate. The French nation is now in an expectant and apprehensive mood, though not yet ready for any upheaval, either from the Right or from the Left.

Fascism is not likely to rally the majority, unless a leader appears on the scene whose personality will fire the imagination of the crowd — and there is none in sight.

Collectivism is a greater menace, but while it is making a strong appeal to the working class, at least in the great industrial centres, there are abundant reasons to believe that the country will reject it.

Nevertheless, a new social era has been ushered in with state paternalism in the ascendant, and it is impossible to visualize its future progress and destination. That the French bourgeoisie and capitalism will be uncrowned seems to be written on the wall, but they have not yet run their course. Their survival is largely in the hands of the fundamentally conservative middle class and the land-loving, sou-gathering peasantry. It cannot therefore be said that they are in deadly peril.

  1. The Bank of France is controlled by the 200 largest stockholders. — EDITOR