Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Popular Front

The Popular Front was one of France's many inter war governments. A mix of hard left socialists, true Moscow instructed communists, Radicals and usual 1930's assortment of International Socialists and Marxists that today would comfortable sit with the looney left tag.

The great crash of 1929 had not at first done much to harm France. In fact, there was a boom. But that soon faded and France fell into the same depression as everyone else, only worse. Wages, which were already low by British standards and abysmal by American did not keep pace with prices. Working conditions in private sector factories were poor. Deep mistrust of unions and workers by the ruling classes existed. Revolutionary prone France was always worried about the next peasants revolt and many factory owners operated as 19th century industrialists keeping workers in their place through fear of dismissal for even minor infringements and anti trade union legislation  Working relationships were very poor.

  Scandal, misappropriation, incompetence, lies and anti-Semitism had been hallmarks of the many previous inter war governments of both left and right. By 1936 people wanted a real change and so, spurred on by the thought that 'it can't get worse than this' and lots of the popular socialist imagery and communist beliefs of the day the people voted in a coalition of assorted ultra lefties led by the brave, and honourable Léon Blum, the first socialist Prime Minister of France and the first Jewish one.
 It was a triumph for the left and a savage blow to the right. As if Owen Jones and Bob Crow had become Prime Ministers. 

Immediately disgruntled workers occupied factories in the first sit ins. They just moved into the factories and lived there. Doing no work and preventing work from being done.There were daily speeches by popular left wing agitators.The singing of fraternal songs and the usual art and culture poetry and pamphleteering beloved of solidarity movements. The daily demands for a fair day's pay for a fair day's work and better working terms and conditions were cheerfully delivered to the management. And as the occupied factories were mostly in the arms industries, the bosses were told if they didn't pay up, then the factories would be blown up. The Renault factory was a major occupation site as were steelworks.

At the time many many left wing intellectuals and writers and poets and academics were extolling the virtues of the all new Soviet Union. Stalin was showing the world how his worker's co-operatives had transformed the USSR into a major manufacturing power. Avoided the depression and leapt ahead 50 years in just 10. The reports from Western intellectuals confirmed these claims, which were, as we now know, bogus at best. The reality of the mass murdering regime remained mostly secret and what little reports of the terrible atrocities taking place in the people's paradise that did emerge were disbelieved. . 

So there was much excuse for the workers to take to the streets and occupy the industries in the summer of 1936 National Strike. To defy government and law and threaten even themselves with loss of income by revolution. their list of grievances was long, their leaders incompetent and out of touch and popular front government seemed to be working elsewhere, whilst capitalism was failing everywhere and looked like it was doomed to be remembered only as a brief early 20th century phenomenon.

 The government and the people and the unions duly signed the Matignon Agreements that paved the way for modern socialist France and Europe.

Wikipedia records that "Despite its short life, the Popular Front government passed much important legislation, including the 40-hour week, Paid 2 weeks holidays for the workers, collective bargaining on wage claims and the nationalisation of the arms industry."

And there was much more . Legal rights to strike and removal of any obstacles to union organisation. Shop Stewards. Forms of employment tribunals.And a 10-20% blanket wage increase with some of the very lowest paid, especially women, getting up to 400%. Pensions were increased and right wing, semi-fascist, organisations were banned. It was a great achievement for the popular front government. 

This, nowadays normal seeming, progressive agenda and bounteous give away to the taxpayers should have seen the Blum government in power for a decade. But it fell in under a year. The usual mix of lefty infighting, complete cabinet disagreement over what to do about their Republican comrades in the Spanish civil war and ..all the money ran out.

 French society was deeply divided. extra taxes were promised on businesses and agriculture that were reluctant to pay them. Many of the wealthiest moved abroard. And capital flowed out of the nation at an alarming rate.
The popular front had gambled that by giving workers higher wages they would become more productive and spend more. Instead production fell as workers actually put in fewer hours.
Employers could see no point in investing in their industries that might be nationalised at any moment. The arms industries, the rail roads and even the bank of France had been part or wholly nationalised. And besides, what point in generating greater profits if they were to be taxed away?
And during the summer of 1936 alone, prices across the entire country rose by almost a fifth.

The 'living' wage increases won in the summer were all wiped out by 1937. The Franc had to be devalued by 10%, which was not enough. Workers then demanded higher wages to keep pace with the new prices and industry resisted every attempt to pay them. 

Division, bitterness constant stoppages, strikes, indiscipline and a continuing loss in productivity plagued France until 1940 when the Germans crossed the Meuse and the nation that had withstood and then defeated the Kaiser's army in 1914 were themselves defeated in a week.

Some can argue that all this was a long time ago. Has no relevance to us today and times have changed and anyway this time it will definitely work out differently if the popular front ideas are implemented.  This time, in the modern world,  25% pay rises for all, a freeze on energy prices, food price controls, more social housing, higher benefits, longer holidays, greater employment rights..
Its all going to be a huge success.

However we are lucky. Because modern France has partially gone down this route again for us.
And if we want to see how a Popular Front style government would work out today, we can just look across the channel at the most unpopular French premier since Julius Caesar.

"More than 70 per cent of the French feel taxes are “excessive”, and 80 per cent believe the president’s economic policy is “misguided” and “inefficient”.
 By 2014, France’s public expenditure will overtake Denmark’s to become the world’s highest: 57 per cent of GDP. In effect, just to keep in the same place, like a hamster on a wheel, and ensure that the European Central Bank in Frankfurt isn’t too unhappy with us, Hollande now needs cash. Technocrats, MPs and ministers have been instructed to find every euro they can rake in – in deferred benefits, cancelled tax credits, extra levies. As they ignore the notion of making some serious cuts..."


James Higham said...

That's a most interesting article, Bill - the cocktail in France in particular, the UK and America's QE3 and the outflow of gold to Asia takes some nutting out, to see where it's all going.

Swiss Tax Exile said...

A good summary of the Popular Front but I'm not sure of the comparison to the government today.

Blum brought in holidays, pay rises, workers' rights and more. Many felt tangible benefits.

Today workers along with the rich and the poor are being stuffed. Everyone feels put upon, there's no group getting a boost.

Taxes are going up for everyone as the government cackhandedly tries to meet its promises to cut the deficit.

You might remember Osborne's "Omnishambles budget". Well this is France every day. New taxes are announced almost every week only for the government to back down on many. Hollande's pledge of a 75% income tax collapsed because it when was announced astonishingly they forgot you don't tax individuals in France but households. So a married couple could avoid it and the tax was thrown out. It's the same, VAT is going up, they announced a retrospective savings tax that was supposed to make people liable for a tax on investment gains since the 1990s. A scheme to make the hefty payroll taxes less burdensome is via a credit system where firms must pay the tax as usual but can they reclaim the money later, in other words yet more bureaucracy and still a drain on business cashflow. Fine for Renault perhaps but useless for a business employing, say, 40 people with a lumpy orderbook.

Now the French are slowly understanding they've given up monetary policy to Frankfurt and after decades of deficit-funded spending, they've lost control of fiscal policy to Brussels and the bond market.

But because the state is so big no turkey will vote for Christmas. The number of public sector workers is now so large that they and their entourage form an electoral rump that cannot be alienated.

So France has reached a dead-end. The only question for me is whether they slowly unwind in dismal decline or whether society explodes with another revolution. A big word to use but we constantly see acts of violence with workers ransacking motorways, kidnapping employers, hijacking their factories.

It's fascinating to watch.

dearieme said...

Part of the Popular Front's legacy was the remarkable performance France put up in 1940.

Nick Drew said...

it's endlessly depressing how the lefty instincts are never really eradicated, just biding their time (prop E.Miliband 2013)

parallel to the centralisers / nationalisers in the energy industry - the old CEGB / British Gas Corp enthusiasts are all out there, just waiting

"it's so much more efficient if you just create a monopoly and leave it all to the engineers - well it must be, it's obvious ..."

Bill Quango MP said...

James Higham : Hello, how have you been?
What is interesting about the current 'big crash' is that the world has been here before. And the Democracies of France, Britain and the USA are broadly following the same paths they trod in the 1930s.
France tried to social welfare its way out.
Britain tried to do as little welfare as possible and cut back all expenditure as much as possible.
And the USA tried to spend its way out of depression.

Swiss Tax Exile: Thanks for your comment. Very interesting and informative.
The Popular Front does not compare directly with the Hollande disaster.
It was more the unintentional consequences that I wanted to illustrate. Ordinary working people in France in the summer of 1936 were probably as happy as they had ever been. Good summer. Holidays. Leisure time. More pay.
There is some statistic somewhere that shows a huge, huge increase in bicycle sales at this time. And it was the beginning of the Riviera holiday. { I read that in 1936, 57% of French people visiting the Riviera had never seen the sea before. That's the sort of statistic that UK might have had for its coastal towns in the 1900s...France was lagging behind economically,industrially and socially.}
But wishing to make life better isn't enough to make it happen. And what was unusual about the PF was how quickly the gains were all inflated away and turned into greater hardships than before. That is a bit Hollande ?

Almost no coverage of France in the UK. Which isn't that unusual for our broadcasters who are permanently Middle East focused.
But it is always satisfying to see our Entente Cordiale colleagues in difficulty.

Bill Quango MP said...

Dearieme: That is an undoubted fact.
The infantry bunkers at Sedan, to protect the vital river crossing, and begun construction in 1938, had only just had their steel doors delivered in 1940. The blast doors were lying alongside the bunkers, still waiting to be fitted when the Germans turned up.
They proved less than effective that way.

Just one example from the many, many available.

ND: Indeed. I wanted to get on our pages a potted history of the Popular Front, even though as a minority, short lived, pre-war and French coalition government, few would have heard of it.

Blum was a genuine, good hearted, fair minded,charitable, socialist who genuinely wanted to improve the lot of the french working classes.
Hated by the Right because of this.
But he was wrong.
His ideas and social legislation, which have all come to pass into the minimum basic rights today, were far in excess of the nation's ability to pay for them, then.

And, as you spotted, I do fear the decent, concerned, well intentioned Miliband will take us down that same path.

Its pretty clear that the only thing that saved France from its own 1970's era of strikes and inflation, unrest, violence and decline was the German invasion.
Which was hardly a good swap.

Demetrius said...

When in France and Germany in the mid 50's my immature impression was that Germany was doing a lot better than France. Perhaps it was why France was so anxious to shackle Germany to the European project.

Kayter said...

And now

Le Downgrade

Blue Eyes said...

I am reading a book which claims that our current predicament is more like the 1870s crash than the 1930s.

Anyway, what are you talking about? Everything is fine. Bring in a living wage and a plastic bag tax and everything will be fine.

Meanwhile irksome capitalists such as myself are renting their spare rooms out to jobless Spanish workers looking to escape their infinite misery.

Bonjour la classe.

TheNameIUsedToUse said...

Youre very easy to read BQ. Nice subject too, I knew nothing of Blum until today.

@Swiss Tax Exile - France - I'm hoping for a managed outcome but I'm betting on social upheaval.

@Blue Eyes - Manchester is choc-full of Spaniards atm. Schools are filling up with Spanish kids too. Theres so many even the poles are getting pissed off.

Is it just me or, with this background, isnt gold a screaming buy?

Bill Quango MP said...

There was a TV program about some journalist and their young family who were moving to Germany to find out why the Huns were doing so much better than everything else.
Thought it might be worth a watch.

but it was such a dumbed down piece of junk that I learned only that the average Briton spends a minute longer in the toilet.
Maybe, over a 7 day/ 52/ week/ 50 year period that explains everything?

Et Oui - Le Downgrade..alors

Thenameiusedtouse : Thankyou
Even the Poles are getting pissed off made me laugh. A Polish dad I know slightly from the school run was with another man who I asked "Are you from Poland too?"

"No says 1st Pole, in his thick eastern EU accent and broken English.
"He is not Pole - He is immigrant!"

Blue Eyes said...

There's a strange contradiction in Britain right now. British politicians and the media tell us all the time how awful everything is, and yet our continental cousins are flocking here in droves to escape their countries' meltdowns.

My current lodger is a Spanish guy in his early 40s who lost his job and says that there isn't even any point in looking for a new one in Spain. He reckons the Spanish economy will take 20 years to get back to normal. He has moved to London speculatively as his best hope of finding *something*.

Maybe it's not quite so awful here as we think.

BQ: shades of the Sikhs who get all antsy about the Bangladeshis coming over here...

Bill Quango MP said...

BE - And I was talking with an ex-pilot who used to fly Gibraltar-London, who has just come back from a holiday in Spain.

He says the Gib border is like the Berlin Wall. Long queues and excessive state police bureaucracy at the checkpoints.
And the Spanish side is desolate. With abandoned shopping centers and shops and bars and houses. All just boarded up. And the Gib side is West Berlin with neon signs, businesses, phone shops, too many cars.. etc etc.
One of those satellite images at night might be revealing. A bit like a Seoul and Pyongyang shot?

I like the Poles and Romanians who are here. 1st generation immigrants. Hardest workers I've ever seen. I always feel lazy {lazier!} around them.
We should never have let them in!

Blue Eyes said...

Did you see the Top Gear where they drove through broken Spain?

Budgie said...

Hmm, yes, I know someone just back from a non-tourist area of Spain. He said it was desolate and broken. Who said Osbameron was useless? Was it me?

Dan H. said...

To my mind all that really remains is the end-game. Angela Merkel works so well as a German politician because she is more or less amoral, and not all that emotional either. What she wants to do is stay in power, and she knows that the only way to do so is to keep the German people happy.

End-game for the EU comes when Germany/Merkel decides that the EU costs more to stay with than to leave. At that point Germany will leave, and use the suddenly strong Neu Deutschemark to pay for a raft of border strengthening measures, to keep out the EU riff-raff.

At this point we get to watch, once again, what happens when a Socialist regime runs out of money. We also get to enjoy the schardenfreude (how come the Germans have such lovely words?) of France collectively having to face reality for the first time since about 1920. The initial reaction will certainly be for the ENTIRE nation to go on strike, government included, and this state will last for months until it slowly, slowly dawns on everyone that without a government to revolt against, striking doesn't actually do very much.

ericmarseille said...

France lost > 270 000 MILITARY ALONE during WWII, which is perhaps more than UK residents military losses (meaning, excluding the colonies army personnel).

For you see war was declared in 1939 and France was largely alone on the West Front at the time, but let's not digress.
Thanks to the UK and the US for liberating us, although next time it would be great if the cavalry didn't come AFTER the battle (and please don't throw Dunkirk into the debate).

What made me jump from my chair when I read your post is that you seem not to have understood, as no one in the Anglo-Saxon world, that we were defeated by a much better equipped, much better trained, much larger army than ours...AND how do you think Germany did manage to outarm us and to outtrain us so well? Because they were germans, hence superior, maybe? Just make a tour under the Arc de Triomphe then...Balooney.

EYE OPENER REVEALED : They got their power from embezzling the (fair-based) reparations they owed to the allies of WWI, France in particular, that they had ruined, and dedicating all this due money to making their formidable war effort, all the while protesting of their misery and best intentions under the benevolent eye and money of the USA.

France, on the contrary, had to pull itself alone (remember : no Ruhr in France), without the due reparations to start with ; and when it invaded Saarland in retribution, it was the same cry everywhere : don't touch Germany!