The Popular Front: a 'révolution manquée'
King's College London | Faculty of Arts & Humanities
-- Modern French History --
The term 'révolution manquée' was firstly introduced by Daniel Guérin , historian and Marxist ideologist, who claimed that the Popular Front 'lacked' a revolution. The interpretation of this last word is key for this question. In a wider approach, it can be defined as 'an important change in an area'. If a more 'communist' point of view is taken, a revolution can be considered 'a successful attempt by a large group of people to change the political system of their country by force' . Nevertheless, it does not matter which of these definitions is considered because the Popular Front was indeed a 'révolution manquée'. This thesis will be supported by two arguments: firstly, the failure of tackling the Depression, and secondly, the non-intervention policy in the Spanish Civil War.
The Depression started in France in 1932, later than in most Occidental countries, and it lasted until the start of the Second World War. It struck mercilessly all the sectors in the French economy, which really needed a 'revolution' to overcome this difficult situation. The Popular Front won the elections in May 1936 under the motto 'pain, paix, liberté'. This coalition would provide 'pain' by initiating an economic plan that would finish once and for all with this crisis that had been dragging the country for the last four years. However, these policies did not achieve their objective.
One of the reasons behind this lack of success may have been the lack of expertise inside the Socialist Party. It is quite surprising to find out that the SFIO did not have many 'technicians' until the early 1930s, when a number of members had become specialists in various subjects. Such is the case of Jules Moch, specialised in railways and transport, and who was Under-secretary of State and Minister of Public Works, or Georges Monnet, head of a large farm in Picardy, and Minister of Agriculture. In this case Vincent Auriol is especially significant, a lawyer who was the Minister of Finance, and was responsible for the devaluation of the Franc , which will be discussed later. It is arguable that the Popular Front should have put an actual economist as head of the Ministry of Finance, particularly if it is taken into account that they had an economic crisis to solve.
Among the policies implemented, there was a considerate wage increase due to the Matignon accords (June 1936), the implementation of paid holidays, the forty-hour working week and the strike wave in the spring of 1937. In less than a year, there was an aggressive raise in the cost of labour of approximately a 61% . The idea was that if people had more money, they would increase their expenditure, stimulating production.
Nevertheless, the most important economic measure during the Popular Front's government was the aforementioned devaluation of the Franc, which took place in September 1936. The consequences for the economy were favourable at the beginning but there was a sudden stop by the spring of 1937, when the negative consequences of inflation started to be felt. The fact that, of the 86-milliard spent by the Government in 1937, 42 were provided by inflation and borrowing , reflected the reality of a hugely deficitary France. The combination of devaluation and increase in world prices made imports more expensive, experiencing an increase in the prices of foreign raw materials by around a 60% .
The growth in the costs of labour and of imports, plus the loss of value of the franc, made investments leave the country in order to find cheaper means of production, causing the opposite of the desired outcome. There is no doubt that these measures were a great achievement socially speaking, but economically they were not what France needed to tackle the depression. France needed to stimulate its economy but at the end of the day, the reality was that Blum's government barely created 70,000 jobs  while unemployment rates were way more elevated. They did not succeed in their objective of providing 'pain' to all the French.
The second argument to be developed is the decision of not taking part in the Spanish Civil War. It is true that Blum decided to secretly send aid to the Spanish republicans after consulting with Daladier (Minister of War) and Delbos (International affairs). This consisted of aircraft, but this help did not last very long. The filtration of this information by a Franquist spy , caused a huge controversy in France, where they feared that participating in the Civil War would lead to another European bloodshed. Even the President of the Republic himself warned Blum: 'what you propose to do, to supply weapons to Spain, it can lead to a European war or to a Revolution in France' .
Nevertheless, the aid stopped after the signing of the Non-intervention Agreement in August 1936, led by Great Britain mainly, but by France itself as well. There were different opinions between the two biggest parties inside the Popular Front regarding this Pact. On the one hand, the Socialist Party, second to none with 147 seats in the Parliament, was pacifist, being faithful to the Popular Front's motto 'Pain, paix, liberté'. On the other, the Communist Party was willing to send aid to the Spanish Republic with the aim of fighting against Fascism and achieving the social revolution in Europe. The socialists ended up imposing, as they were the majority. However, this did not impede the communists to send some help through the International Brigades, formed by volunteers from all across the Globe rather than professional soldiers.
It is important to point out that, of the main European powers, only Great Britain and France respected the Non-Intervention Agreement. Fascist Germany and Italy, as well as the Communist Soviet Union, were part of it as well but they were not faithful to it, sending aid to general Franco and to the Spanish Republic, respectively. The fact that they did not respect the Agreement left France in a very uncomfortable position as one of the main arrangers of a Treaty that nobody followed .
This situation was a failure from a series of different angles. First of all, the Popular Front gave a weak image internationally with this diplomatic fiasco. Secondly, it was a failed attempt of being the leaders of the pacifist movement in Europe, as this idea of peace did not succeed. This can be clearly seen in the widely extended European intervention in the Spanish Civil War, as well as in the constant tension arising between the antagonist ideologies of Fascism and Communism, which would lead to the Second World War three years later. This pursuit of peace had also negative consequences inside the coalition, weakening the Front. The communists saw the Non-intervention policy as a missed chance for France to show itself in the international context as a strong left-wing country who fought against fascism and for the social revolution. However, they ignored the Government official position and sent aid through the International Brigades . This insubordination made the Government look weak, as not even the members of its own coalition respected their decisions. It also was the confirmation that the Popular Front was tearing apart due to its excessive polarization. The utopic idea of a coalition of parties that fought against fascism and for democracy hit against reality, as inside differences started to become obvious.
In conclusion, it can be affirmed that the Popular Front was a 'révolution manquée', as they had the chance to turn around the complicated situation that France was suffering during the 1930s, but they were not able to change it. Firstly, their economic policies were more focused in the social aspect rather than in actually tackling the Depression. Paid vacation and a forty-hour working week were great achievements at the time, but these measures were not quite effective if we take into account that a big percentage of the population did not have a job. Secondly, the Non-intervention policy in the Spanish civil war came out to be a fiasco because it weakened the Front internal and internationally, as both the French communists and most of the countries sent aid to the Spanish contenders, ignoring the governmental decision and the Non-intervention Agreement, respectively. The Popular Front won the elections with the promise of 'pain, paix, liberté' but the reality is that this was not as easy to fulfil as it seemed.
1. Julia Nichols, The Politics of Extremes? Left and Right in the 1930s, viewed 19th October 2020.
2. Collins English Dictionary, viewed 27th October 2020 https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/revolution
3. Julian Jackson, The Politics of Depression in France 1932-1936 (London: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 36.
4. Michal Kalecki, 'The Lesson of the Blum Experiment', The Economic Journal, 48 (1938), 189 (p.27).
5. Robert Marjolin, 'Reflections on the Blum Experiment', Economica, 5, (1938), 18 (p. 182).
6. Michal Kalecki, Op. Cit., p. 26.
7. Julia Nichols, Op.Cit.
8. Enrique Moradiellos, 'La Intervención Extranjera En La Guerra Civil: Un Ejercicio De Crítica Historiográfica', Ayer, 50 (2003), p. 206.
9. Geoffrey Warner, 'France and Non-Intervention in Spain, July-August 1936', International Affairs, 38 (1962), 2 (p. 207).
10. Pierre Vilar, La guerra civil española (Madrid: Crítica, 2010), p.47.
11. Enrique Moradiellos, 'Un Triángulo vital para la República: Gran Bretaña, Francia y la Unión Soviética ante la Guerra Civil española', Hispania Nova, 1 (1998), p. 22.
- Collins English dictionary, viewed 27th October 2020, https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/revolution
- Jackson, Julian, The Politics of Depression in France 1932-1936 (London: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 35-38.
- Kalecki, Michal, 'The Lesson of the Blum Experiment', The Economic Journal, 48 (1938), 189 (pp. 26-41).
- Moradiellos, Enrique. 'La Intervención Extranjera En La Guerra Civil: Un Ejercicio De Crítica Historiográfica', Ayer, 50 (2003), pp. 199-232.
- Moradiellos, Enrique, 'Un Triángulo vital para la República: Gran Bretaña, Francia y la Unión Soviética ante la Guerra Civil española', Hispania Nova, 1 (1998).
- Mouré, Kenneth, Managing the Franc Poincaré, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
- Nichols, Julia, The Politics of Extremes? Left and Right in the 1930s, viewed 19th October 2020.
- Vilar, Pierre, La guerra civil española (Madrid: Crítica, 2010), pp.45-50.
- Warner, Geoffrey, 'France and Non-Intervention in Spain, July-August 1936', International Affairs, 38 (1962), 2 (pp. 203-220).