France's first socialist government was elected in May 1936, against a backdrop of economic crisis, the rise of populist nationalism in France and fascism in Germany and Italy.
"Bread, peace and freedom," was the utopian slogan of the "Front populaire", comprised of socialists, communists and the now nearly defunct Radical and Socialist Party.
Within days of the election, two million French workers went on strike, occupying factories for the first time. Business owners beseeched the socialist prime minister, Léon Blum, to intervene.
Unlike today’s Socialist government, which has faced down protests and strikes in defiance of a new labour law since March, Blum was clearly sympathetic to the workers. He mediated the Matignon accords on their behalf.
The historic agreement, passed by a majority in the National Assembly on June 12th, 1936, gave all Frenchmen the 40-hour working week, two weeks paid holidays and the right to collective bargaining.
Today's prime minister, Manuel Valls, had to pass his new labour law by decree because he could not muster a majority of votes in the assembly. By prioritising in-house agreements over broader trade union accords, the law seriously dents the right to collective bargaining.
No wonder the 80th anniversary of the Front populaire is an awkward one for today’s socialists.
CGT on wane
The communist CGT union has long used obstructionism to compensate for its waning power. Article 2 of the labour law is intended to prevent the union from blocking whole sectors of the economy. That’s why the unions have scheduled days of national protest on June 14th, 23rd and 28th.
French president François Hollande commemorated the Front populaire in a speech at the Jean Jaurès Foundation on May 3rd. Alluding to his adversaries on the left of the left, including communists and ecologists, Hollande said a socialist government should never give in to those who “would rather denounce the system than have to change it”.
History shows the left can only come to power in France when it is united, as in the Front populaire and François Mitterrand's Programme commun.
Blum was from an upper middle-class Jewish family and held degrees in literature and law. He frequented salons, the theatre and concerts. Right- wing anti-Semites claimed he ate from gold-plated porcelain. Were Blum alive today, he’d be labelled caviar left.
Valls is, like Blum, from a refined and cultivated family. But today's left of the left accuse him of being a "social traitor" and of siding with "capital". He celebrated the 80th anniversary of the Matignon accords in a low-key ceremony dedicated to the foundation of the Cinémathèque Française under the Front populaire government.
Hollande, Valls and economy minister Emmanuel Macron embrace free markets and supply-side economics. A concern for social justice and the redistribution of wealth are vestigial markers of their left-wing heritage.
Eighty years on, the divorce between social liberals and the left of the left is complete. We are unlikely to see a Front populaire again. A leftist victory in next year’s presidential and legislative elections is virtually inconceivable.
On June 6th, Macron was pelted with eggs by communist protesters when he unveiled a stamp commemorating the Front populaire. Two days later, a demonstrator shouted at Valls, “You’re a dictator.”
“Democracy is voting, not the street,” Valls responded.
In 1936, striking workers danced in factories and sang in offices. The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson recorded their first paid holidays.
But the joy was short-lived. Blum watched helplessly as Franco crushed the republicans in neighbouring Spain. The economy was gutted by capital flight and increased production costs. The Front Populaire died out in 1938.
Socialist Party founder Jean Jaurès exhorted the left to “understand reality but strive for the ideal.” With its demands for a 32-hour working week and to “work less and better,” the CGT embodies the ideal, but not reality.
French socialists smash into the wall of reality every time they have governed – what the commentator Alain Duhamel calls "the curse of power". The 1954 and 1956 governments of Pierre Mendès France and Guy Mollet, respectively, were short-lived. Lionel Jospin was the only socialist prime minister to last a full five-year term, and he was defeated by Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections.
The Hollande administration has 11 months to run. It has broken records of unpopularity. France’s summer of discontent is far from over, the heady days of the Front populaire the dimmest of memories.