Popular Front in France: A Deception in 1936, A Deception in 2024

We can't counter capitalism's attacks by voting for parties that claim to manage it! We counter them through class struggle and internationalism!

The French government’s rout at the last elections has brought the political impasse of the bourgeoisie to light. Since the announcement of the dissolution of the National Assembly, electoral manoeuvring is in full swing. Macron sings once more the praises of “the Republic’s values”, which can barely hide the system’s sinister reality: social regression across the board, rise of nationalism and anti-immigrant laws, and finally march to war and militarisation of society. The far-right is already largely surpassed by the parties that govern us!

On the left, the ghost of the 1936 Popular Front is deployed to offer an alternative in defence of “democracy”. Let’s get the facts straight! The “social gains” of the Popular Front were merely necessary concessions to channel a powerful movement of spontaneous strikes. With the trust it partly had from the working class, the left-wing government fulfilled a considerable function on behalf of the bourgeoisie. These social concessions and the campaigns in defence of democracy assured the regime the population’s support, while it was moving ever more towards a new world war.

Here is a lucid assessment of this experience, written in the midst of 1938(1):

The Triple Deception of the Popular Front

Political Deception
The Popular Front was formed to “fight against fascism”. However, the goal of fascism consists in reinforcing capitalist exploitation and dominations thanks to an extreme concentration of economic and political power; any real resistance to this worsening of capitalist dictatorship is possible only by attacking the very basis of the capitalist regime, that is to say by struggling hard against exploitation by the bosses and the state through mass direct action.
But the Popular Front was not created on this basis. On the contrary, the leaders of workers’ organisations deliberately renounced any action by the class and set about carrying out tasks on behalf of the bourgeoisie which in other countries had been accomplished by fascist organisations. And so began the new period of democratic deception which has resulted currently in a greater exploitation of the proletariat, until workers are delivered, bound hand and foot, to the dictatorship of the army, which will be no different from fascist dictatorships.
Social and Economic Deception
If we go back to its origins, we will notice that the work of the Popular Front is nothing but an uninterrupted chain of betrayals of the interests of the working class. The first result under its belt was without a doubt the law-decrees of Laval on the 17 July 1935.(2) While they rationally organised the first grand tricolour 14 July parade, the leaders of the CGT, CGTU and the workers’ parties were not ignorant of the importance of these decrees that were about to be enacted. Rather than prepare a large movement of the masses in reaction to this, masses which were going to be so harshly hit, the leaders on the contrary worked to disorient the workers.
The trade union gurus of the two union leaderships then responded to the state employees, rail workers, postal workers and dockers, who were eagerly awaiting orders for action and were protesting and beginning the struggle, with appeals for order. And then followed the repression of the riots of Brest and Toulon, for which the Popular Front share responsibility, alongside their accomplice Laval. From 1935 to May 1936, all of the workers’ organisations’ activity was channelled towards parliamentary agitation with the goal of ensuring the triumph of the Popular Front in the elections. The trade union unity that was achieved in this period was immediately used for this purpose. Class collaboration became the charter of the united trade union movement. Propaganda for the CGT’s plan replaced any program for action. Trade union activity was drowned in electoral agitation.
In June 1936, workers, in a magnificent burst of energy, nevertheless took extra-parliamentary action. An unprecedented strike wave threatened to completely overwhelm the union leadership. But the first government of the Popular Front managed to strangle this formidable movement and through the Matignon Agreements limited the damage for the bosses. Workers obtained the 40-hour work week, paid holidays, the recognition of union delegates, wage increases, etc. But the union leaders accepted a series of conditions in collective agreements that would only ensnare workers’ action in complicated procedure. This was the starting point for other measures that the Popular Front would later flesh out in the law on compulsory arbitration until arriving at the current Work Statute.
After the great wake-up call of June 1936, the Popular Front progressively took back from the wage-labourers all that, by their action, they had ripped from the hands of the bosses. A first monetary devaluation reduced the wage increases to nothingness. A second brought wages to a lower level than before June 1936. And the current third devaluation feeds the continuous increase in prices and reduces more and more the workers’ purchasing power. Through arbitration, workers only obtain a pittance. […] Let us only remember that all these measures realise the progressive integration of trade unions into the state apparatus of capitalist dictatorship.
In short, from the Laval decrees to the Work Statute, with in-between the conciliation procedure provided in the collective agreements, the Matignon Agreements, compulsory arbitration, there is perfect continuity. The Popular Front has put the workers in a straitjacket. This was not without its difficulties however, and the strikes in December and January prove it. The Popular Front was able to accomplish this formidable social and economic deception by unfortunately conserving its grip on the majority of its victims. And with its 5 million members, the CGT is perhaps the most solid basis of this grip, which the influence of the political parties completes.
Imperialist Deception
Despite the importance and seriousness of the operation of subjugation of the workers to the capitalists and to their class state which the Popular Front executed, it is nonetheless the preparation for war that constituted its essential task and which in reality conditioned all others.
From the moment Stalin declared he “understood and approved” the policy of French imperialism, the Communist Party only had one objective: the unity of the French nation. Unity of action with the Socialist Party became possible and reconciliation with the reformist Jouhaux as well.(3) Within the Popular Front, communist leaders, socialists, and radical gurus(4) collaborated to dupe the working class. The red flag was raised next to the tricolour one in the great parades organised with the intention of glorifying the Republic, army, country, etc.
The Popular Front was then able to vote for the allocation of tens of billions for armaments, to organise passive defence, to maintain the two-year military service, to push the youth towards the preparation for war, in sum, to realise all the tasks that would have been difficult for a reactionary government to fulfil in such a rapid manner and without violent reaction from the workers.
The culmination of all of these efforts will be this plan for the mobilisation of the nation that the current government has just submitted for approbation by Parliament. The Popular Front had promised to defend bread, peace, and freedom. It gives the workers misery, subjugation, and war. A triple deception. It is time for eyes to open.

Henri Chazé

The true struggle starts with the defence of our livelihoods and working conditions, uniting workers beyond all sectorial divisions, nationalities, etc. This is the lever which can repel the attacks and build, tomorrow, a world rid of exploitation and the threat of war!

Groupe révolutionnaire internationaliste
15 June 2024


For further reflection, we recommend reading the following articles from Bilan (in French): “Free, Strong and Happy” France Assassinates Proletarians, Towards a Consolidation of the Capitalist Front in France, The French Proletariat Has Replied To The Popular Front, The Victory of the Popular Front in France.

(1) Published in Le Réveil syndicaliste, n°6, Monday 28 March 1938. The first two introductory paragraphs are not reproduced here. It can be found in French here: archivesautonomies.org

(2) The decrees (actually on 16 July) reduced all public spending by 10%. Pierre Laval, originally a social-democrat of Blanquist inspiration and a pacifist, was the right-wing Prime Minister at the time and would later be a major figure of the Vichy regime, for which he was executed at the end of the Second World War.

(3) Léon Jouhaux was the reformist trade union leader of the CGT, as opposed to the communist-aligned CGTU. He had previously rallied the CGT to the “sacred union” in support of the war effort during the First World War, a major reason reconciliation with the communists was difficult. The two unions reunited in 1936. During the Second World War, Jouhaux was imprisoned at Castle Itter with other notable French figures and was present at the battle of the same name, sometimes called the strangest battle of the war. In 1947, he would split from the CGT and be a founder of the trade union Force Ouvrière, a move which was indirectly funded by the CIA. He would also later receive a Nobel Peace Prize for his pacifism.

(4) The Radical Party was the centre-left party at the time.

Sunday, June 23, 2024