Leon Blum
Leon Blum; drawing by David Levine

Léon Blum, who became in 1936 the first socialist and the first Jew to govern France, aroused feelings whose virulence seems out of all proportion to his scholarly, mild demeanor. For the right, he was a red ideologue who moved nationalist deputies to declare that “only Hitler can save France from the Left,” and “the choice is for Stalin or for Hitler.”1 For communists, he was a bourgeois reformer who, except for a few months in 1936, was treated more as an enemy than as a friend.2 For the rampant anti-Semites of 1930s France, he was the essence of foreignness, the corrupter of all things French, who sprang from some Eastern ghetto and ate from golden plates while setting the French people against their natural leaders.

In fact, the Blums were an Alsatian family settled in Paris since 1848, and it would be difficult to imagine Léon Blum anywhere but in Paris. Born into a prosperous family of silk and velvet wholesalers, the young Léon blossomed in the hot-house intellectuality of the Lycée Charlemagne and began to be noticed in his early twenties as a critic and essayist. He chose to earn his living in the law, however, and from 1896 to 1919 (when he resigned upon election as Socialist deputy for Paris) he was a member of the prestigious Conseil d’Etat, the highest French administrative court; but he did not cease to write literary criticism and to frequent a world that included Gide and Proust. Drawn into political militancy by the Dreyfus affair, Blum became a disciple of the socialist leader Jean Juarès and emerged in 1919 as Juarès’s political heir and leader of the wing of the French Socialist Party that refused to join Lenin’s Third International. Until his death in 1950 he was the leader of French parliamentary socialism.

Blum’s career was remarkable in several respects. While it was not unusual in the French Third Republic for young men of literary aspiration to wind up in politics (one thinks of figures as disparate as Clemenceau and Barrès), it was rare to resign a secure place in a prestigious public service for the parliamentary rough and tumble. Simultaneous distinction in all three spheres was even rarer. Then there was the matter of Blum’s Jewishness. Blum gave up his family’s occasional observances early, and though he expressed pride in his Jewishness when confronted with anti-Semitism, he considered it irrelevant, humanist and socialist that he was, to his universal project. Few of his contemporaries would forget it so easily. Not only had there been no French Disraeli; there had not even been a Victor Adler or a Rosa Luxemburg in French socialism. Before becoming premier, Blum had first to impose himself on a French socialist movement that had its own anti-Semitic roots. A man whose intellectuality was infused with great human warmth, Blum could arouse love as well as hate. Jean Lacouture, author of the best biography of De Gaulle as well as studies of Ho Chi Minh, Nasser, Malraux, Mauriac, and Mendès-France, treats Blum with affection and admiration even without denying his failures.

Now the name of Blum has taken on a new polemical edge in France. “I never believed in the success of [Mitterrand’s] experiment, kin [parente] to that of the Blum government,” wrote Raymond Aron in a recent article entitled “The Second Experiment.”3 Are Mitterrand’s troubles4 a replay of Blum’s troubles in 1936, and are we to conclude that in 1982 as in 1936 the very circumstances that permit the left to reach power in France make it impossible for the left to govern?

The comparison with Blum is not one that Mitterrand himself seeks. And not merely because Blum failed in three of his main endeavors—to contain Hitler, to revive the French economy, and to reunite the French left around democratic socialism—or because Blum’s name, as any canny politician senses, evokes the meanest decade of modern French history. Mitterrand was never the personal disciple of Blum in the way that Blum was of Jean Jaurès, nor does the Popular Front seem to have provided the political awakening for Mitterrand at twenty that the Dreyfus affair provided for Blum at twenty-five. Indeed, like many others of his generation who suffered the ignominy of a prisoner-of-war camp in 1940, Mitterrand seems to have rejected Third Republic leaders and parties in general.5 Mitterrand’s journey to socialism was long, indirect, and some would say opportunistic, quite unlike the intellectual and moral unity that Jean Lacouture traces throughout Blum’s three careers as theater critic, magistrate, and politician. Since Mitterrand took over the Socialist Party in 1971, his self-image has been that of a party-builder who stresses the discontinuities between his vigorous new Parti socialiste and the tired old sfio (even the name is gone).


Mitterrand used to make occasional references to Blum as a precursor: the champion of reconciling socialism with liberty, who nevertheless insisted upon governing with communists, not against them in a “Third Force” between far left and far right.6 But I am not aware that Mitterrand has written or spoken the name of Blum publicly since 1975. On the day of his installation as president of the Republic on May 21, 1981, when Mitterrand mingled with joyful crowds in the streets of Paris, a rose in his hand, he visited two tombs: those of the Resistance leader Jean Moulin, to mark his ties with the Resistance, and of Jean Jaurès, to mark his roots in democratic socialism. It was left to premier-designate Pierre Mauroy to go out to Jouy-en-Josas to pay homage alone at the tomb of Léon Blum.

The Blum-Mitterrand parallels are seductive, of course: two men with literary training who had been brought to power in a dramatic shift of political forces at the head of socialist-communist coalitions and were confronted with an economic crisis which conservative predecessors had failed to remedy by deflation, who proposed major reforms in French society and economy, encountered bitter resistance from business and financial interests, and were forced to devalue the franc twice within a year. But one gets a sharper focus both on Blum’s frustrations and on Mitterrand’s opportunities by setting the differences against the similarities. For France has undergone profound changes since the 1930s. The two “experiments” differ greatly: in their pace and tension, the nature of revolutionary expectations, their economic values and economic techniques, the relative weight of communists in each coalition, the saliency of foreign affairs, and the power at each leader’s command.


Even if Blum had assumed office in a calm climate after his electoral victory of May 1936, the arrival in power of a party whose revolutionary purity had heretofore been affirmed not only by the principled refusal of office but also by ritual votes against defense budgets would have strained the legitimacy of the Third Republic. As it was, Blum’s legal mandate was given a revolutionary aspect by a new and provocative strike technique, as a record 1,500,000 celebrating workers occupied their factories and shops. The far right mounted compensatory demonstrations almost weekly in the streets. If Blum enjoyed any “état de grace” at all during his first rush of legislation, it was the product more of fear than of acquiescence, as panicky businessmen clung to him as the only person likely to get them back into their premises. In any event, the honeymoon ended in six weeks with Franco’s July Putsch. After nine months, Blum was forced to declare a “pause” and install a conservative economic advisory team. In just over a year, he was out.

Mitterrand’s assumption of power was tranquil by contrast. What civic violence there has been (mostly terrorist acts against Jews) unified national feeling rather than polarized it. The new president proceeded as if he had years before him. Important legislation, such as the nationalization of certain banks and industries, were just taking effect after nine months, when Blum had already “paused.” However deeply alarmed businessmen have become (and the opposition seems stronger from small businessmen, artisans, and rentiers than from captains of industry and entrepreneurs long accustomed to working with the state), there has been nothing like the collective bitterness of strategically placed organizations (the army, the Church) in 1936, or the same sense of leap into the void. Perhaps, as René Rémond remarked in Le Monde on Mitterrand’s installation day, the battle of the Republics is over.


It is only logical that Blum’s febrile year made more changes than did Mitterrand’s tranquil one. Lacouture justly calls the legislation of the summer of 1936 “one of the great seasons in the history of modern France.” It was Blum who put into place the basic scaffolding of the status of French labor within which Mitterrand works today: the principle of paid vacations (Blum’s proudest achievement), the recognition of trade unions as legitimate partners in collective bargaining, the forty-hour week. Yet there is irony in this comparison, for Blum, a former magistrate and legalistic to a fault, considered himself bound by the “contract” of the Popular Front program to work within the capitalist system, while Mitterrand talks more grandly of a “changement de société,” of a “new experiment capable of offering a socialist model to Europe different from, even contrary to, the Soviet model.”7

The expectations and imagery associated with the effort to change society today, what it means to call oneself socialist, bear little relation to the vivid immediacy of the revolutionary project in 1936, however. Blum governed only nineteen years after the first enduring Marxist state had been established by mass action. However vigorously Blum struggled to uphold the validity of a Western way to socialism, the image of storming the Winter Palace exerted an irresistible pull. While Blum’s own view of revolution was an idealistic one—it meant for him the change of values that follows a seizure of power, the seizure itself being capable of ambivalent results—he never doubted that there had to be a sharp transition and that socialism could not be achieved piecemeal.


One of the major issues to which Blum devoted his great juridical and analytical skills was whether socialists could accept any governmental responsibilities before the revolution. Having discovered socialism as a means of righting the injustice done to Captain Dreyfus, Blum always judged that socialists must come to the defense of democracy. Hence the celebrated distinction between the “exercise of power,” the kind of nonrevolutionary administration that was justified for socialists in the interest of a broad coalition against Hitler, and the “conquest of power” that would move France to socialism when conditions were ripe.

It is difficult to imagine Mitterrand and his associates pondering long over that kind of doctrinal conundrum. It is not that Mitterrand is less Marxist than Blum (they are both democrats armed with an occasional Marxist turn of phrase), nor is it that Mitterrand lacks Blum’s power of sustained analysis.8 Mitterrand simply inhabits an altered universe of expectations. He expects to make major changes, and he has written repeatedly that Swedish socialism, for example, has not gone far enough in limiting corporate power. But he means to govern, to govern pragmatically, and at the head of the largest catch-all party possible. The world is long gone when Blum could insist that the sfio was the arm of one class, and accept the compromises of government only because Hitler was at the gates.

Lacouture attributes Blum’s hesitant and inadequate measures against the Depression to Blum’s conviction that the terms of the Popular Front agreement limited him to adjustments within the capitalist system.9 Beyond that, the capitalist system in 1936 was still a substantially individualist affair. Mitterrand, while applying some of the same policies as Blum (increased purchasing power, nationalization), does so within a highly concentrated economy where extensive state direction is taken for granted, even by his opponents. Blum, for example, never had the power of exchange controls, which any government nowadays would apply at once to speculative capital flight on the scale of that of the spring of 1937. It is hard to imagine Blum having either the desire or the capacity to impose price and wage controls such as those adopted by Mitterrand when he shifted to austerity in June 1982.

Blum was not even a “planiste,” as Lacouture pertinently reminds us. Economic planning was a vogue of the right in the 1930s; insofar as socialists were tempted by it, they were neosocialists, followers of Henri de Man or Marcel Déat, who believed that only authoritarian state action within single states could remedy the Depression. Blum regarded national economic planning (at least before World War II) as a prop for capitalism, and one likely to veer toward protectionism, a point on which Mitterrand may prove him correct. Blum’s one foray into economic management was the wheat marketing board, the Office du blé, and it was not one of the steps he enjoyed talking about later as he enjoyed talking about the first paid vacations. Blum was more interested in a civilized and spacious life for workers than in organizing productivity.

Mitterrand inhabits an economic universe where 1930s neosocialism has become second nature. The state is expected to organize productivity and has the means to do so. Mitterrand nationalized a number of major industries in order to concentrate investment on winning technologies, though he clearly has an emotional distaste, too, for concentrations of private economic power. Blum’s nationalizations were limited to part of the armaments industry and the Bank of France. Although Mitterrand has failed to remedy his country’s economic ills, so has every other Western leader. Blum’s economic performance, by contrast, was significantly poorer than that of other Western industrial nations, which were showing signs of recovery in 1936, in large part because he had no power to block huge transfers of capital abroad.


Foreign affairs were both more preoccupying and more divisive in 1936. Indeed the Popular Front was a response to fascist expansionism rather than a socialist program. It consisted of an agreement among three participating parties—Communists, Socialists, and Radicals (laissez-faire democrats)—not to seek revolutionary social or economic change the better to unite in defense of democracy against fascism. As premier of the “front-line” democracy facing Hitler and burdened with the national self-image of a great power, Blum could not pick and choose among diplomatic issues. Any available strategy for dealing with Hitler risked infuriating half of France: the country was divided over whether to confront Hitler or to compromise with him; and if to confront him whether with Stalin’s help or with Mussolini’s. Franco thrust a foreign crisis upon Blum almost at once, and it was here, more than in economic matters, that the élan of the Popular Front was broken when Blum capitulated to Radical and British pressures to send no help to the Spanish republic.

Mitterrand, by contrast, can play for much more modest stakes in foreign policy. He faces neither the risk of imminent European war, a direct threat from a pathologically aggressive neighbor, public polarization over foreign-policy issues, nor the burdens of great-power status. The Gaullist legacy requires him to conduct a successful autonomous diplomacy in the interstices between the superpowers, but at the same time it provides him with a comfortable near-unanimity around Gaullist premises. Thus Mitterrand has been able to pick his moment for initiatives in the Middle East or in the third world without bearing responsibility for the basic structure of the international system.

Lacouture is sufficiently immersed in post-Gaullist perspectives to deplore Blum’s preoccupation with British approval and his admiration for Roosevelt’s America—the subjects of Lacouture’s harshest criticism, along with Blum’s “absurd” belief up to 1936 that one could simultaneously disarm and oppose Hitler. This is a further mark of the remoteness of Blum’s world from our own. In 1936, the only alternative to British support was a sweeping settlement with Hitler and Mussolini, while the America of Blum’s affection, so far from having become the Gaullian monster of today, was still the reassuringly distant ally who, eighteen years before, had been able to field a few troops in Europe only with French armaments and advice.

Blum was allied in 1936 with a Communist Party in the full tide of youthful expansion. He needed its votes, but having been unable to persuade its leaders to accept any ministry, he left them with a free-wheeling capacity to criticize and recruit the disillusioned as the “ministry of the masses.” The Communists were the most rapidly growing element of the coalition, a point not lost on those whom Blum frightened. They saw him as a prisoner of the Communists, though Lacouture shows that he was more a prisoner of the Radicals, who had somewhere else to go.

Mitterrand, by contrast, is allied with an aging and hidebound Communist Party which has slipped from over 20 percent to 15 percent of the popular vote since 1978. He does not need its votes, but he exerts some measure of control over it by having granted the Party four minor ministries. (The shade of Blum must have been before him then; the parallels keep intruding.) Mitterrand appears to have accomplished what Blum no doubt longed to do but never expected to see in his lifetime: to draw the Communists into the political mainstream the better to drown them. A major Mitterrand failure, of course, could refloat them. But for the moment it remains a plausible possibility that Mitterrand may succeed in creating the workable left alternative within the French political system that was never within Blum’s reach.

What gives this possibility point is the immense power in Mitterrand’s hands, so different from Blum’s frail grasp on a premiership at the head of a shaky coalition of three un-like-minded parties within which his own Socialists had only a plurality. Mitterrand has not only the awesome machinery of the presidency of the Fifth French Republic until 1988 but an outright parliamentary majority until 1986. The very duration of those powers makes them brittle, of course. Title to office does not automatically confer the legitimacy to exercise it, and it is possible to imagine defections within the majority or a catastrophic loss of basic acceptance that would elevate a government crisis to a crisis of regime. But Mitterrand has already been able to change course radically, from reflation to an austerity more severe than that of Raymond Barre, with only a minor cabinet reshuffle.

Blum’s departure in June 1937 was anticlimactic in contrast to the degree of stress that would be required to terminate the Mitterrand experiment early. When the Senate refused to approve his request for six weeks’ special powers to deal with the flight of capital, Blum chose to resign even though the Senate did not have clear constitutional powers to end a government. Lacouture, always reluctant to accredit persistent stereo-types of Blum as too cautious, indecisive, too “intellectual” to push things through, is forced to his most unconvincing pages at this point when he attributes Blum’s resignation to secret foreign-policy frustrations.

This was always the basic question about Blum: was he decisive and forceful enough for the exceptional challenges he faced? Did he let slip a unique revolutionary opportunity for more radical change, as Daniel Guérin argued? Colette Audry, a disciple of Jean Paul Sartre, put it slightly differently with the argument that Blum, affected by bourgeois “false consciousness,” was too eager to appear the “just man” to fight for his party and followers. Even Joel Colton, along with Lacouture the most sympathetic of his major biographers, remarked of Blum’s decision not to try to reverse the Senate’s vote in June 1937 that Blum had every political virtue except boldness.10

Lacouture’s Blum is not quite like that evoked by other biographers: he is a man of political skill, a fighter, even too stubborn, neither the Hamlet of Joel Colton nor the “intellectual in politics” of James Joll.11 It was the intractibility of impossible circumstances that explain, for Lacouture, why this man of exceptional intelligence and character did not accomplish more. Blum in power is not, in fact, the climax of Lacouture’s biography. It is the Blum of physical and moral courage in adversity, on trial under Vichy and prisoner at Buchenwald, far removed from the frail aesthete of legend.

The life of Léon Blum is well suited to the traditional political biography at which Jean Lacouture excels: a life fully integrated around reasonable discussion of public choices. If there was a complex inner life, Lacouture gives no hint of it. Lacouture’s Blum was a man who wanted above all to persuade, and who paid his interlocutors—even the uneducated or the hostile—the compliment of reasoned explanation. He was an optimist about human nature, a man who believed that economic democracy could be reconciled with individual liberty, and a man almost without guile. Even Mitterrand’s personality is different: more secretive, heavier, less forthright, more pragmatic. Blum was a precursor of Mitterrand in some ways, but the Popular Front was not a dress rehearsal.

This Issue

January 20, 1983