Léon Blum (9 April 1872 - 30 March 1950), French socialist leader and Prime Minister, was born in Paris, into a middle-class Jewish family. He studied law at the Sorbonne and graduated in 1894. He worked as a government lawyer while developing a second career as a literary critic, in particular as an authority on Goethe. He soon became one of France's leading literary figures.
Blum had little interest in politics until the Dreyfus Affair of 1894, which had a traumatic effect on him as it did on many French Jews. Campaigning as a Dreyfusard brought him into contact with the socialist leader Jean Jaurès, whom he greatly admired. He began contributing to the socialist daily, L'Humanité, and joined the French socialist party, then called the SFIO. Soon he was the party's main theoretician.
In July 1914, just as the First World War broke out, Jaurès was assassinated, and Blum became more active in the party leadership. In 1919 he was chosen as chair of the party's executive committee, and was also elected to the National Assembly as a representative of Paris. In 1920 he worked to prevent a split between supporters and opponents of the Russian Revolution, but the radicals seceded, taking L'Humanité with them, and formed the French Communist Party.
Blum led the SFIO though the 1920s and 1930s, and was also editor of the party's new paper, Le Populaire. As an orthodox Marxist, though not a Leninist, he was opposed to participating in "bourgeois" governments, though he was willing to support Radical Party governments from the sidelines. In any case the election of a socialist government was impossible without the co-operation of the powerful Communists, who followed Stalin's orders in treating the SFIO as "social fascists."
Circumstances changed in 1934, when the rise of Adolf Hitler and fascist riots in Paris caused Stalin and the French Communists to change their policy. In 1935 all the parties of left and centre formed the Popular Front, which at the elections of June 1936 won a sweeping victory. Blum became the first socialist and the first Jew to be Prime Minister of France. As such he was an object of particular hatred to the Catholic and anti-Semitic right.
The industrial workers responded to the election of the Popular Front government by occupying their factories, confident that "the revolution" was imminent. For Blum, as a Marxist, this was an agonising moment. He did not believe that socialism could be achieved by parliamentary means. But he could not encourage the workers to launch an attempt at a revolution: he knew that the army would intervene and the workers would be massacred as they had been at the Paris Commune in 1871. He persuaded the workers to accept pay rises and go back to work.
Similarly, when the Spanish Civil War broke out, Blum was forced to adopt a policy of neutrality rather than assist his comrades, the Spanish socialists, for fear of splitting his alliance with the centrist Radicals, or even precipitating a civil war in France. But this policy strained his alliance with the Communists, who followed Soviet policy and urged all out support for the Spanish Republic. The impossible dilemma caused by this issue led Blum to resign in June 1937.
Despite its short life, the Popular Front government passed much important legislation, including the 40-hour week, paid holidays for the workers, collective bargaining on wage claims and the nationalisation of the arms industry. Blum also passed legislation extending the rights of the Arab population of Algeria. In foreign policy, his government was divided between the traditional anti-militarism of the French left and the urgency of the rising threat of Nazi Germany.
When the Germans occupied France in June 1940, Blum made no effort to leave the country, despite the extreme danger he was in as a Jew and a socialist leader. He was arrested by the Vichy authorities in September and held until 1942, when he was put on trial in Riom on charges of treason, for having "weakened France's defences." He used the courtroom to make a brilliant indictment of the French military and pro-German politicians like Pierre Laval. The trial was such an embarrassment to the Vichy regime that the Germans ordered it called off.
In April 1943 the Germans deported Blum to Germany, where he was kept in prison. In the last weeks of the war the Nazi regime gave orders that he was to be executed, but the local authorities decided not to obey them, and he was rescued by Allied troops in May 1945. While in prison he wrote his best known work, the essay À L'Échelle Humaine ("For all mankind").
After the war Blum returned to politics, and was again briefly Prime Minister in the transitional postwar coalition government. He also served as an ambassador on a government loan mission to the United States, and as head of the French mission to UNESCO. He continued to write for Le Populaire until his death near Paris in May 1950.
|Prime Ministers of France|
|Prime Ministers of France|
|Head of the Provisional Government of France|