Conflicting Conceptions of France
Stoddard Martin reviews a new life of Léon Blum
Léon Blum; Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist, by Pierre Birnbaum, Yale University Press, 2015, HB, 233pp
We have recently observed a French election in which the choice seemed to be clear: between a nationalist and an internationalist conception of the meaning of ‘France’. The divide on this issue may go back to the first French revolution – i.e., whether that event was meant to emancipate the People as French or the People as, in effect, of the world. There was a messianic, universalist message in the Enlightenment ideals of the Rights of Man, as in the Francophile Jefferson’s earlier iterations in the American Declaration of Independence. ‘All men are created equal’; ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness [chasse au bonheur]’; ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ became battle cries sounding often since 1789 elsewhere than in one nation. Napoleon conquered Europe not just as a Frenchman (Italo-Corsican) but as exporter of the revolutionary idea. An outre Rhin conception of France’s destiny was plain in Emmanuel Macron’s use of the ‘Ode to Joy’ as he walked in front of I. M. Pei’s Louvre pyramid to deliver his victory address. The Marseillaise came only after.
The crux of Léon Blum’s struggle, as Pierre Birnbaum sees it, was between these vying visions: France as a nation of laws treating all under its authority as equal, or France as a nation grounded in ethnicity, long-held custom and hierarchy. Blum’s antagonists of Action Française wanted to rip up the Rights of Man, discard Rousseau and revitalize the country’s ancient, monarchical, Catholic roots. The present-day National Front is said to be heir to this strain in French politics and Vichy the genealogical link connecting back to the anti-Dreyfusards and Boulangists of Blum’s youth and forward to Poujadists of his old age. Blum and the Popular Front government he led are taken as pathfinders of a now widely-accepted modern version of the Revolution’s ideals. Birnbaum describes how they incepted a hybrid in which socialism, respecting established structures of the Republic, could effect by democratic process the emancipation of an oppressed proletariat and others held back by entrenched interests, bourgeois or feudal, capitalist or clerical, civil or military, racist or sexist. This is seen as a continuation of the opening out and moving away from strictures of an ancien régime which had led to revolution in the first place, not incidentally including Napoleon’s opening of the ghettoes and emancipation of western Europe’s Jews.
Who are ‘the French’ is an essential query in all this, as the equivalent would be in any debate about nation. In the period when Blum flourished, racial theory was in flower. Count Arthur de Gobineau had been a prominent exponent of it; early Zionists as well as German nationalists were quick on the uptake. In France, the époque in which Blum came of age saw its main ethnic battle between what was seen as Ur-French – agrarian, Catholic, many-generationed – and Semitic – urban, Jewish, recently assimilated from lands to the east. Blum’s father was Alsatian, the family of long-standing in that fought-over province. He came to Paris with his brothers, settled in the Jewish district of the Marais and made money in silk merchandising. The Blums were not of the Proust class of grande bourgeoisie, but young Léon was clever and made it to the Lycée Henri IV and later the École Normale Supérieure. Though he dropped out of the latter, it established his connection to elements of the urban elite. After a spell at the Sorbonne and law school, he found his way to a place at the influential Council of State. Thence he rapidly progressed as what Birnbaum calls a ‘state Jew’.
Blum’s career was simultaneously propelled by his activities as author, ‘socialite’, lover and dandy. He wrote for Revue Blanche among other literary journals and came to know not only Proust, but also Mallarmé, Gide, Barrès, Daudet and Charles Maurras, some of whom would oppose him politically due to animus arising from the Dreyfus Affair. Blum penned theatre reviews, commentaries on his times from the point of view of Goethe, observations on love and marriage à la his favourite Stendhal. He advocated something like what later would be called ‘open marriage’ and seasoned his own marriages with adultery. Two of his wives predeceased him. Though caricatured by detractors as effeminate, he was sharp-tempered, given to duelling when young and anything but a coward as he aged. He went into politics following World War I to continue, as he believed, in the footsteps of his political idol Jean Jaurès, who had been assassinated by a nationalist in 1914. By the later ‘20s, he had become leader of the Socialist Party. When beaten bloody by rightwing thugs in the ‘30s during ructions following the Stavisky Affair, he hardly flinched. From this point forward his story becomes a profile in courage for many, Birnbaum not least.
Crucial questions re Blum revolve around his conduct and achievements as premier of the Popular Front government, which came to power in 1936. The Stavisky scandals and effects of the Depression had nearly precipitated a Right-wing putsch, and the Left’s advent ricocheted off of it. Economic crisis was at hand and expectations high. Strikes proliferated; the government responded with epochal reforms – a forty-hour week, paid vacations, wage increases of 20%, guarantees for collective bargaining, laws limiting price hikes, nationalization of the production of wheat. It was a kind of Marie Antoinette moment in reverse, and all went well for a summer. Then came predictable devaluation, inflation, capital flight and more strikes, this time unsupportive of government agenda. At the same time, two international crises loomed, the Spanish Civil War and the egress of frightened Jews from the Nazi regime. Blum wanted to intervene in the former, but realpolitik – not least recalcitrance of the essential ally, Britain – forced him to keep to what would in normal times be an instinctive pacifism. He wanted to open the doors to fleeing Jews, but the general public and lesser state officials were as reluctant for refugees and asylum seekers in that era as they are now for flotillas of them across the Mediterranean.
Matters deteriorated. Blum fell from, then returned to power. The Sudeten crisis arose and with it urgent calls for rearmament. The pacifist turned advocate for ‘mobilization of the nation’s resources’, causing voices on the Right, notably anti-Semitic, to dub him ‘Blum the warmonger’. A new identity was fixed. Once war began and the government collapsed, his position grew perilous. Those who wished to continue the struggle from North Africa urged him to flee, but he believed that his place was in France. A majority of Socialist deputies at Vichy deserted to the new government of Pierre Laval and gave sweeping powers to Marshal Pétain. Blum pledged support to the Free French and De Gaulle. With others of his kind, he was incarcerated; ‘state Jews’ were banned from office; the Popular Front was blamed for the nation’s capitulation, and Blum put on trial. As lawyer and long-time servant on the Council of State, he was able to mount a spirited defense, arguing that as prime minister he had prevented civil war and implemented conditions improving workers’ capacity to rearm the country. His prosecutors argued, rather contradictorily, that he had enfeebled France by allowing strikes and had later aggravated an international crisis by advocating rearmament. The trial stuttered; events took over and, once the Germans had entered non-occupied France, Blum was transported to Buchenwald.
His potential as bargaining chip assured special treatment. He was housed in a hunting-lodge built by Himmler and allowed to marry his most recent mistress. In ‘sylvan solitude’ he read and wrote, sequestered from knowledge of the fate of less fortunate inmates of the camp. After the war, he was not punitive: ‘I reject condemnation of Germans on racial grounds as I reject it for Jews… Everything that is now being said and written about the Germans and their collective responsibility and ethnic inevitability was said and written about the French in England and Germany after Waterloo… A small change in circumstances is enough to awaken the brute in man, in all men.’ He counselled against reprisals in France and, though accusing Pétain of treason, tried to forestall the execution of Laval, who had helped to facilitate his marriage. At the same time, he increased his support for Zionism, which – all the more in the light of what is now called the Shoah – seemed to him ‘a product of class suffering, [thus] compatible with international socialism’. Not all French Jews agreed, and while one can see how Blum was attracted to an idea of kibbutzim – one was named after him – and could support his friend Chaim Weizmann’s efforts for a safe Jewish home, one can only guess at what he might have made of an Israel of Menachem Begin or Ariel Sharon. He encouraged France in the U.N. to vote for partition of Palestine and argued that concord between Arab and Jew was essential to the region’s prospering.
When Blum died, he had a French state funeral, but Birnbaum is not convinced that his achievements have been properly appreciated in his own country. ‘Some argue that the deep and quasi-messianic reforms of the Popular Front were not enough to overcome the Great Depression or cope with the growing fascist threat,’ he notes, ‘while others mock Blum’s stubborn legalism and pacifism and remain critical of his relatively passive attitude during the Spanish Civil War’. Birnbaum does not share these views. His book is a tribute in the Yale ‘Jewish Lives’ series and, following its template, brief. Much could be delved into with deeper attention – for example, the Stavisky episode, which in some ways seems a Dreyfus Affair in reverse yet rarely is taken as determinative of the political fission that followed. In Blum’s day, commentators of the Right might have argued otherwise, but their voices are now widely discredited. Winners have difficulty in absorbing, let alone respecting, the charges of losers which appear to them to have been slanders, exaggerations or fake news. Plus ça change… We shall see how well President Macron is able to unite a nation in which over half of those who voted chose either no one or Marine Le Pen.