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
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..."