Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The darker the night the brighter the star

9. Trotsky on France

FOLLOWING THE defeat of the German proletariat, argued Trotsky, France became the key to the international situation. It was there that the fate of the world revolution for many years to come would be decided.

In 1934 French society was entering a period of general crisis. On 6 February the French extreme right – principally fascist and royalist – gathered in Place de la Concorde on the opposite bank of the river to the Palais Bourbon, the lower chamber of the French parliament. They were attempting to overthrow the government. Battles raged the whole evening on Place de la Concorde, leaving 15 dead and 1,435 wounded. Although the 6 February protest was unsuccessful as a coup, it managed to drive from office a government headed by the Radical, Edouard Daladier. It was replaced, to the applause of the previous day’s rioters, by a Government of National Unity, headed by the right winger Gaston Doumergue. The response of the bourgeois liberal party of the Radicals was to rally round the Doumergue government, which presented itself as the last bulwark against anarchism. This began a train of events which would radicalise the French workers and prove a major focus of attention for Trotsky.

On the morning of the 7th, the CGT – the main French trade union federation decided to call a 24-hour general strike for Monday 12 February, ‘against the fascist threat and in defence of civil liberties’. The Communist Party-controlled trade union federation, the CGT-U, joined the strike and its success exceeded the most optimistic expectations. An overall estimate of the number of workers on strike was 4½ million, with one million participating in demonstrations. That afternoon the Socialist Party demonstration took place in Paris. The previous day the Communist Party had decided to take part. In one dramatic moment the two columns joined together to cries of ‘Unity! Unity!’ For the first time for years Socialist and Communist workers were marching side by side. [1] A historian of the event, Julian Jackson, writes: ‘The spectacular and spontaneous manifestation of unity in Paris was duplicated in the provinces: there were demonstrations in 346 towns (19 of which contained more than 5,000 participants); 161 of these involved both Socialists and Communists.’ [2]

Until then, and for some time even afterwards, the French Communist Party (PCF) continued with its sectarian attitude towards the Socialist Party (SFIO). The Communist Party’s tactics were those set out by Maurice Thorez, General Secretary of the PCF, at the Central Committee in February 1933:

Our united front tactic assumes: 1) action; 2) proletarian democracy in struggle; 3) the leadership of the Communist Party; 4) attack on social-democracy (etc.). That means: no sharing of leadership between us and the Socialist Party. In short our tactic means: never any agreement at the top. [3]

In January 1934 the resolution from the Central Committee repeated the point:

The Central Committee resolutely rejects any tendency which proposes, at this point, a united front to the leadership of the SFIO.

On 24 January Maurice Thorez told the Central Committee of the PCF: ‘We will in no circumstances pursue an agreement with the leadership of the Socialist Party which we consider ... as an enemy ... We want to organise a common struggle with the Socialist workers, in spite of and against, the Socialist leaders.’ [4]

The fascist attack initially made no difference. On 7 February, L’Humanité wrote:

Fascists, rulers of ‘democracy’, which is rapidly turning fascist, manoeuvres ... by the Socialist Party in its interest – all these are going to increase.

The workers ... have no intention of submitting to the dictatorship of the cudgel and machine-gun ...

Against fascism, against the fascisisation of the democratic state, against the treacherous manoeuvres of the Socialist Party and the CGT, we must move to action!

The following day L’Humanité continued to call for action ... against the socialists and the CGT as well as against the fascists. [5]

Even after the 12 February strikes and demonstrations, the PCF continued with the line of social-fascism, and the policy of ‘united front from below’. Thus, a 19 April editorial in L’Humanité written by Thorez was entitled, Against the Bloc with Social Fascism. [6]

However the PCF could not stick to this position. As Jacques Danos and Marcel Gibelin, historians of the June 1936 mass strikes in France write:

... pressure from the working class was to prove irresistible. It would sweep away all hesitations, and force the two leaderships to accept unity in action ...

From June 1934 onwards the Communist Party executed a political turn involving both a reappraisal of the tactic of the united front, and a more moderate tone in polemics with the Socialist leaders. [7]

On 2 July the SFIO Fédération de la Seine held joint meetings with the local PCF federation. On 27 July a joint Socialist-Communist pact was signed, and two days later a joint demonstration of Socialists and Communists took place to commemorate the anniversary of the assassination of Jean Jaurès (the pre-war socialist leader). On 9 October Maurice Thorez proposed the extension of the Socialist-Communist pact to include the Radicals. Thus the Popular Front policy was ushered in.

In October Trotsky wrote his first great essay on developments in France: Whither France? He pointed out that sections of the French bourgeoisie had begun to give serious consideration to the fascist alternative. The threat of fascism is real and urgent, he argued:

Of course in France, as in certain other European countries (England, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries), there still exist parliaments, elections, democratic liberties, or their remnants. But in all these countries the class struggle is sharpening, just as it did previously in Italy and Germany. Whoever consoles himself with the phrase ‘France is not Germany’ is hopeless. In all countries the same historical laws operate, the laws of capitalist decline ... In the various countries the decrepitude and disintegration of capitalism are expressed in diverse forms and at unequal rhythms But the basic features of the process are the same everywhere. The bourgeoisie is leading its society to complete bankruptcy. It is capable of assuring the people neither bread nor peace. This is precisely why it cannot any longer tolerate the democratic order. It is forced to smash the workers by the use of physical violence. The discontent of the workers and peasants, however, cannot be brought to an end by the police alone ... That is why finance capital is obliged to create special armed hands trained to fight the workers, just as certain breeds of dogs are trained to hunt game. The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.

The fascists find their human material mainly in the petty bourgeoisie. The latter has been entirely ruined by big capital. There is no way out for it in the present social order, but it knows of no other. Its dissatisfaction, indignation and despair are diverted by the fascists away from big capital and against the workers. It may he said that fascism is the act of placing the petty bourgeoisie at the disposal of its most bitter enemies. In this way big capital ruins the middle classes and then with the help of hired fascist demagogues incites the despairing petty bourgeois against the worker. [8]

At present the Doumergue government represented an incipient Bonapartism.

The Doumergue government represents the first step of the passage from parliamentarism to Bonapartism. To keep his balance, Doumergue needs at his right hand the fascist and other bands which brought him to power. [9]

French fascism does not yet represent a mass force. On the other hand, Bonapartism finds support – neither sure nor very stable but nevertheless a mass support – in the Radicals. Between these two facts there is an inner link. By the social character of its base, Radicalism is the party of the petty bourgeoisie. Fascism can only become a mass force by conquering the petty bourgeoisie. In other words, fascism can develop in France above all at the expense of the Radicals. This process is already under way, although still in its early stages.

Now capitalism offers no future at all to the workers or the petty bourgeoisie.

Capitalism not only cannot give the toilers new social reforms, nor even petty alms. It is forced to take back what it once gave. All of Europe has entered an era of economic and political counterreforms. [10]

French society faces a stark choice:

Revolutionary socialism or fascist reaction – which will be first to boldly and broadly present to the middle classes the most convincing program and, what is most important, win their confidence by demonstrating in words and deeds its ability to smash every obstacle on the road to a better future? [11]

The last thing to prevent the petty bourgeoisie from moving towards fascism is to adopt a policy of moderation, to adapt to the policy of the bourgeois party of the Radicals. Hence the enormity of the crime inherent in the policies of the Popular Front. ‘An alliance with the Radicals would be an alliance against the middle classes.’ [12] The workers’ united front should not accommodate to the Radicals, but he used to organise the struggle of the masses against fascism and capitalism. Very radical steps must be taken: a workers’ militia must be built, the proletariat must he armed. The aim of the united front must be workers’ power: ‘If the revolutionary proletariat does not take power, fascism will inevitably take it!’ [13]

The rise of the Popular Front

IN OCTOBER 1934, as we have mentioned, Maurice Thorez invited the Radicals to join the united front of the PCF and SFIO. This was the launching pad for the Popular Front, even though it was formally inaugurated only in July 1935. An event taking place in Moscow gave a fillip to the new policy: the Foreign Minister of France, Pierre Laval, was in Moscow for the signature of the Franco-Soviet mutual assistance pact. He had various political conversations with Stalin from 13 to 15 May. The official communiqué that followed declared that both countries had the duty ‘to see that their national defensive capability was in no way weakened’, and added: ‘In this respect, Mr. Stalin understands and fully approves the French national defence policy which requires a level of armed force sufficient to meet the needs of her security.’ Faced with this unexpected declaration, which stupefied a number of Communist Party members, the party immediately issued a poster hearing the motto ‘Stalin is right’. [14] And Thorez explained in a speech on 17 May:

If war ... broke out against the Soviet Union, and an imperialist state, for the sake of some interests of its own, ranged itself on the side of the Soviet Union, the war would not he a war between two imperialist camps, for it would be monstrous to treat as an imperialist camp the camp in which the country of socialism, the country of the working class, finds itself. [15]

On 14 July, Bastille Day, a massive joint demonstration of some 500,000 Communists, Socialists and Radicals took place in Paris, led by Blum, Daladier and Thorez. The tricolour flew alongside the Red Flag, and the Marseillaise was sung along with the Internationale. Throughout the rest of France, countless meetings and demonstrations took place. Following this a common committee of all three parties began the elaboration of a joint programme for the 1936 general elections. In January 1936 the Popular Front programme was agreed and published. In the following general election, the first round of voting on 26 April, the second on 3 May, the Popular Front came out victorious. The number of Communist MPs rose from 10 to 72, of Socialists from 97 to 147, while the number of Radicals went down from 159 to 106. Altogether the Popular Front had 376 MPs, a majority of 156. The Socialists were the largest group in parliament.

A new Popular Front Government, headed by the Socialist leader, Léon Blum, was established. It was made up of 18 Socialists, 13 Radicals and 4 Independent Socialists. The Communists did not take office; they realised they could better serve the new government by remaining outside.

Trotsky was very critical of the strategy of the Popular Front. It differed from the united front which he proposed in a number of crucial ways. The united front linked working class parties; the Popular Front included bourgeois parties. It was thus a class collaborationist policy. Whereas the united front constituted a practical agreement to fight for specific aims, the Popular Front involved a common electoral programme and support for a bourgeois government. Again, whereas in the united front complete ideological independence and freedom of criticism were to be preserved, in the Popular Front they were abandoned. Trotsky pointed out that the Popular Front policy was brought about by the PCF and the Comintern as part of Russia’s foreign policy. Stalin wanted an alliance with France and Britain against Nazi Germany, and the Popular Front was intended to aid this. The Popular Front would see to it that the Communist Parties would he reliable allies in a war of national defence.

On 28 March 1935, some three months before the Popular Front was declared, Trotsky was already warning against the dangers of such a policy:

The parliamentary bloc with the Radicals, which was a crime from the point of view of the historical interests of the proletariat, has at least a certain practical value in the restricted domain of parliamentarianism. The extra-parliamentary alliance with the Radicals against fascism is not only a crime but an idiocy. [16]

The argument that the Popular Front was an improvement on the united front because it added unity with the petty bourgeoisie to the unity of workers was completely false. The only way to win the petty bourgeoisie was through offering a decisive workers’ leadership. Support for the bourgeois party of the Radicals was suicidal, as it would lead only to the growth of fascism in the conditions of the general crisis of the economy and society:

The ‘People’s Front’ represents the coalition of the proletariat with the imperialist bourgeoisie, in the shape of the Radical Party and smaller tripe of the same sort. The coalition extends both to the parliamentary and to the extra-parliamentary spheres. In both spheres the Radical Party, preserving for itself complete freedom of action, savagely imposes restrictions upon the freedom of action of the proletariat. [17]

Revolutionary strikes

12 FEBRUARY 1934 saw, as we have noted, one million workers on strike in Paris. This was followed by a rising tide of strikes in 1934 and 1935. A renewed wave of mass strikes followed the election victory of the Popular Front in March-April 1936. According to official statistics there were 12,142 strikes and 1,830,938 strikers in June 1936 alone. The previous highest annual total of strikes, in 1920, was 1,316,559.

There was a new quality to the strikes. Over three quarters of the June strikes (8,941), consisted of factory occupations. [18]

The strikes spared almost no section of industry from Renault’s huge Billancourt plant with its 32,000 workers to tiny workshops ... from the relatively highly unionised coal mines and docks to the totally un-unionised employees of department stores. [19]

The first step of the Blum government was to stop the strike wave. On 7 June Blum called for ‘public security’ and invited union and employers’ representatives to the Matignon Hotel, his official residence, for negotiations. This led to an agreement the terms of which were: wage increases ranging from 7 to 15 percent; a 40 hour work week (down from 48) with no loss of pay; two weeks paid vacations; de facto recognition of the principle of collective bargaining.

All the workers’ organisations except the Trotskyists supported the Matignon Agreement – not only the PCF and SFIO, but even the Left of the Socialist Party, Gauche Revolutionaire, led by Marceau Pivert. On the evening of 12 June the government seized at the printworks all copies of the Trotskyist newspaper, La Lutte Ouvrière, and announced legal proceedings against the leaders of the organisation. A few days later the Socialist Minister of the Interior, Roger Solengro, announced that the ‘government would not tolerate further factory occupations’. [20] The historian Julian Jackson writes: ‘Later Blum remarked of this period that the employers had viewed him as a “saviour” who had ended the largest strike movement in French history. This was probably true but in fact the Matignon Agreement had little impact on the strikes. The bourgeoisie’s real saviour was the Communist Party leader, Maurice Thorez.’ [21]

At a mass membership meeting of the Communist Party in the Paris region on 11 June, Thorez declared:

So what next? ... So, we must know how to end a strike when satisfaction has been obtained. We must even know how to accept a compromise when all demands have not yet been met but victory on the essential points has been achieved. [22]

A similar tune was played by the Radical leaders. One of them stated in October 1936: ‘ ... the occupation of factories, shops and firms was not in the programme of the Popular Front ... It is not only illegal, it is something worse: a humiliation for the patron. The occupations must cease ... ’ [23] However it was the voice of the PCF that counted, far more effective than that of the SFIO or the Radicals.

Massive growth of the Communist Party

THE RISING industrial wave led to a massive growth of the PCF, as can be seen from the following membership figures:



































The membership of the PCF more than trebled in 1936. The rise in membership of the Young Communists was even steeper:


























The Socialist Party also grew significantly but far less than the Communist Party. The membership of the SFIO, 131,000 in 1933, rose to 202,000 in 1936; and of the Young Socialists, 11,320 in 1934, rose to 54,640 in 1937. [25]

The power of the PCF increased massively, not only because of the increase in membership, but even more because it became the dominant force in the unions. The membership of the CGT grew from 785,700 in 1935 to about four million in 1937. [26] Although the explosion of union membership in 1936 took place in every section, the largest increase was in the manufacturing section, where the PCF was far better implanted than the SFIO. Among metal workers the proportion of trade unionists in the total workforce was 4 percent in 1935, and jumped to 71 percent in 1937; among railway workers the corresponding figures were 22 and 73.5 percent; among building workers 6 and 63.5; textile workers, 7 and 55; and in mining 13 and 81. [27]

With the Popular Front the PCF emerged as the decisive force because of its massively expanding working class base.

Trotsky’s reaction to the June events

ON 5 JUNE Trotsky wrote an article entitled The Decisive Stage, analysing the strength and rhythm of the sharply accelerated class struggle in France. He ended the article with this conclusion about the immediate tasks ahead:

The French workers have once more shown that they are worthy of their historical reputation. We must have faith in them. The soviets have always been born out of strikes. The mass strike is the natural element of the proletarian revolution. The committees of action cannot he at present anything but the committees of those strikers who are seizing the enterprises. From one industry to another, from one factory to the next, from one working class district to another, from city to city, the committees of action must establish a close bond with each other. They must meet in each city, in each productive group in their regions, in order to end with a congress of all the committees of action in France. This will be the new order that must take the place of the reigning anarchy. [28]

Then on 9 June Trotsky wrote an article the title of which says everything: The French Revolution has Begun!

These are not just strikes. This is a strike. This is the open rallying of the oppressed against the oppressors. This is the classic beginning of revolution.

The entire past experience of the working class – the history of its exploitation, miseries, struggles, and defeats – comes to life under the impact of events, rises up in the consciousness of every proletarian (even the most backward), and drives him into the common ranks. The entire class has been set in motion. This colossal mass cannot he stopped by words. The struggle must he consummated either in the greatest of victories or the most ghastly of defeats. [29]

The gains of June 1936 were important, but the laws of capitalism dictated that they would soon be whittled away. The whip of reaction would force the workers to take a further step forward. A new wave, a struggle for power, would begin:

... one thing is clear in advance: the second wave will not have by far the peaceful, almost good-natured, spring-like character that the first has had. It will be more mature, more stubborn and harsh, for it will arise from the disillusionment of the masses in the practical results of the policies of the People’s Front and their own initial venture. [30]

The June days, Trotsky maintained, gave us a glimpse of the future; completely new possibilities were laid on the historical agenda. France stood at the crossroads between revolution and catastrophe, Trotsky argued a month later in an article entitled Before the Second Stage:

The workers in June exerted colossal pressure upon the ruling classes, but they did not carry it to its conclusion. ‘They evinced their revolutionary might but also their weakness: the lack of a program and of a leadership. All the props of capitalist society and all of its incurable ulcers remain intact. Now the period is unfolding of preparations for a counter-pressure: repressions against the left agitators, the increasingly envenomed agitation on the part of the right agitators; experimentation with rising prices; mobilisations of manufacturers for mass lockouts. [31]

The present pause, the beginning of the counter-attack by the employers, could lead to the following alternatives:

... either a rout for many years to come, with the inevitable triumph of fascist reaction, or only a severe lesson on strategy, as a result of which the working class will mature, renew its leadership, and prepare the conditions for future victory. [32]

Trotsky’s words were prophetic. As events will show, his analysis brilliantly stood the test of time. No one among the great Marxist thinkers surpassed him in the ability to use the historical materialist method, to synthesise the economic, social and political factors, and to grasp their inter-relationship with the mass psychology of millions, and the import of the subjective factor – the role of workers’ parties and workers’ leaders in the great events.

In the years 1937-38 the capitalists, in cahoots with the Popular Front Government, and assisted by the leaders of the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and the trade unions, rolled back many of the workers’ gains of June 1936.

The wave recedes

FROM 13 JUNE the factory occupations started being given up. The Matignon Agreement was a very effective weapon to contain workers’ struggle and then force a retreat on them. The new law on collective bargaining was effective in bring disputes rapidly under control. The average number of collective contracts signed annually between 1930 and 1935 was 22; between June and December 1936 the number rose to 2,336. [33]

As disputes often arose in the interpretation of the collective agreements, at the end of 1936 the government introduced a compulsory arbitration bill requiring all industrial disputes to go through newly created arbitration procedures: ‘ ... of 9,631 conflicts reported to prefects between January 1937 and March 1938, 6,199 were submitted to arbitration, and of these 2,610 (27 percent) were settled in four days by departmental arbitration commissions, and 3,589 (37 percent) by more lengthy conciliation procedures. The relative industrial peace of 1937 probably owed something to the working of the law.’ [34]

The decline of workers’ activity encouraged the employers’ offensive. The CGT Congress recorded in 1938: ‘From the summer of 1936 the employers began to organise resistance. It grew from month to month’. [35]

The employers opened up an offensive against the 40-hour week and were aided in this by the government. Shortly after the passing of the first orders bringing the 40 hour law into effect, the employers demanded the working of days in lieu of the Christmas and New Year holidays. There was also the imposition of extra hours in industries where there was a fall-off in activity at certain times of the year. Following this there was the authorisation of overtime in key sectors of the economy.

The economic policy of the Popular Front government wiped out the gains of the workers in June 1936. In September 1936 a devaluation of the franc undermined workers’ purchasing power. By May 1938 retail prices were 47 percent higher than in May 1936. [36] Inflation went so far that by May 1938 real wages were roughly at the pre-Matignon levels. [37]

In September 1936 Blum announced a rearmament programme on a larger scale than any previous government, and this undermined workers’ living standards. As Blum put it in February 1937: ‘It is difficult to combine a hold policy of social reform with an intense rearmament effort. We have attempted both at the same time’, and the rearmament won. As Robert Frank, the historian of rearmament, comments: ‘In terms of government spending, Blum did more for guns than butter’. [38]

Throughout the period of the Blum government the employers were on the offensive against the workers. Arthur Mitzman, in an article The French working class and the Blum Government (1936-37), writes:

Through a resolute campaign of resistance to organized labor, the new Confédération Général du Patronat Français, was determined to prevent any new gains by labor and to take hack as many of the concessions granted at Matignon as possible. [39]

Dismissals and lay-offs of workers were the order of the day. Those especially prone to dismissal were union members.

Blum went to extremes to appease the right in fields other than the economy. On 16 March 1937 a left wing demonstration took place in the Paris suburb of Clichy to protest against a meeting of fascists that the government refused to ban. Clashes took place between the demonstrators and the police. The police opened fire and killed six demonstrators. [40] Next day the metro and autobus unions called a 24-hour strike for the 18th, and all the unions in the Paris area came out on a general strike, however of only half a day’s duration. [41]

A fortnight after Blum became Prime Minister, Franco rebelled against the elected Popular Front Government of Spain (18 July). On 20 July Blum received an urgent request from the Spanish government for the delivery of planes and other war materials. Blum, and the Socialist ministers whom he consulted, at first made it clear that they intended to comply with the request, which would have been no more than fulfilling the terms of a commercial treaty concluded in 1935. Opposition was immediately expressed by the British government, with whom Blum had contact on 23 July. The French right, including right wing Radicals joined in and threatened to bring down the government. As they dominated the Senate the threat was not an empty one. By 2 August Blum had produced a plan for a Non-Intervention Pact. Hitler and Mussolini found no difficulty in signing this before the end of the month, yet continued more or less openly to supply arms and men to the Spanish fascists. Thus Blum abetted Franco’s victory. Of course the Communists and Socialists could have organised workers in the arms industry and on the railways to ignore government policy and themselves ensure the delivery of needed supplies to Spain. But that would have meant an immediate break with the Radicals, and neither the Communist nor the Socialist leaders were ready for this.

The capitalists did not reciprocate Blum’s aid to them. Blum had pledged to work within capitalism, later claiming that he offered himself as the ‘loyal manager’ of capitalism. In return he appealed at the outset for ‘loyalty’ from the capitalist class. It was not forthcoming. The country entered into a financial crisis, the money markets were seized by panic and the fight of capital intensified. On 22 June 1937 the first Popular Front government led by Blum resigned under pressure from the Senate.

When this happened the workers received the news with complete indifference. The best indication of their mood is contained in the following statement by a conservative opponent of the Popular Front:

It had been commonly admitted that the fall of the cabinet would have as an immediate consequence a general strike of the Parisian working class, indeed, large-scale riots. Some spoke of revolution. Now it is a fact that never has a ministerial fall left the street, the public square, so indifferent. Not a movement, not even a cry. No armed force employed. None of our fellow citizens, even among the most confident, could have hoped for such an easy, regular defeat of the cabinet. [42]

What a contrast with Blum’s euphoria of a few months earlier, when he addressed the nation about the achievements of his government: ‘Hope has returned; once again there is a zest for work, a zest for life. France has a new face, a new appearance. New social relations are being established. A new order is emerging.’ [43]

The government that replaced the fallen Blum government was headed by the Radical Camille Chautemps. It was an even more right wing government than its predecessor. The Ministry of Finance was entrusted to Georges Bonnet, a Radical who had consistently opposed the Popular Front. To start off, in June 1937, the Chautemps government included some Socialist Ministers; but in June 1938 they were excluded. Finally, a government led by Blum, that survived just 26 days, was replaced on 21 April 1938, by a government that was not a Popular Front government, headed by the Radical Edouard Daladier, with no Socialists but with the participation of the right. This government was voted into office by a parliamentary vote of 572 to 5 – practically everybody from the extreme Right to the Communists voted for it.

Throughout the whole period of the Popular Front the workers’ leaders, Communist and Socialist, opposed any fightback. The workers were ravaged by uncertainty and weariness. The hour of the final defeat was approaching.

Workers resisted the employers’ offensive by striking. However, this time the strikes were defensive and fragmented. There were defeats not victories. The Right became more and more confident. On 12 November 1938, Paul Reynaud, Minister of Finance, declared:

We are living in a capitalist system. The capitalist system being what it is, if it is to function, its laws must he obeyed. These are the laws of profit, of individual risk, of a free market, of the incentive of competition ... Do you think, in today’s Europe, that France can at the same time maintain her way of life, spend 25 billion francs on arms, and rest for two days out of seven?

Danos and Gibelin write:

This speech was the prologue to a series of anti-working class decrees. These included the re-establishment of the six-day week, the abolition of wage rate enhancement for the first 250 hours overtime, the abolition of the clauses in the collective agreements which forbade piecework, the imposition of penalties for refusing to work overtime in defence industries, the ‘staggering’ of paid holidays, the imposition of restrictions on foreign workers, and the formation of an auxiliary police force of 1,500 gendarmes ...

Indignant protests came from all sections of the working class ...

From the 21st, strikes broke out in the Nord, in the Basse-Seine, and in the Paris region. Factories were occupied, and then cleared by the police. Renault stopped work on the 23rd. The workers were confronted by a huge police mobilisation-100 squadrons of the Garde Mobile (1,500 men) attacked the plant, where battle raged for between 20 and 24 hours. Amid clouds of tear-gas, hundreds of workers were injured, and 300 imprisoned. [44]

The CGT leadership was forced to do something. On 25 November it called a 24-hour general strike to take place on the 30th, stating:

The CGT declares that the strike will take place without any occupation of any factory, office, or site. On Wednesday 30 November no demonstrations; and no meetings will be held. [45]

The strike was not a success. Danos and Gibelin write:

The strike was widely observed in the mines, in engineering, construction and printing, but by ten o’clock on the morning of the 30th the government was able to announce that ‘the railways are working normally’. On the Paris Metro the strike had to be reduced to eight hours, and to fourteen hours in the Post Office. There was no response from office workers, and a partial strike, rapidly petering out, among taxi-drivers. In some provincial centres there was a good turn-out; but the general lack of response from civil servants, railwaymen and public services had a dampening effect everywhere. The attempted strike was a disastrous defeat. [46]

Renault workers suffered the worst humiliation. ‘At the end of the Renault strike there was a sinister inversion of the celebration which had marked the end of the factory occupation in June 1936. The defeated workers were forced by the police to march out of the factory, making the fascist salute, to cries of, ‘Long live the police’, while a policeman banged an iron bar, shouting ‘One for Blum, one for Timbaud, one for Jouhaux’. [47] [1*]

Severe repression followed in the wake of the defeat. Thorez drew the balance sheet; 40,000 sacked in the aircraft industry; 32,000 locked out at Renault; tens of thousands in Levallois, Colombes, Argenteuil, Courbeveoie, Clichy, St. Ouen; 100,000 in Marseilles (where 100 engineering factories were closed); 100,000 in textiles, 80,000 miners in the Nord and Pas-de-Calais.. [48]

Arthur Mitzman writes:

The failure of the general strike of November, 1938, undertaken at a time when union militants were no longer being followed by the rank and file, led to severe reprisals by employers and a mass exodus from the CGT. By the end of 1938, 3,000 of the CGT’s 18,000 local unions had disintegrated. Nine months later, at the beginning of the war, CGT membership had fallen back from its peak of five million in 1936-37, to what it had been in January 1936 one million. The great workers’ movement that had been spawned by the Popular Front victory in 1936 was broken. [49]

Julian Jackson, writing the obituary of the Popular Front, said:

The Popular Front, born out of the general strike of 12 February 1934, finally died in that of 30 November 1938. Ironically, the 12 February strike had initially been conceived to protest against the forced resignation of Daladier, and the strike of 30 November was called to protest against the labour policy of the same Daladier. [50]

Trotsky draws the balance sheet of the Popular Front

A FORTNIGHT after this catastrophic failure Trotsky reminded the reader that on 9 June 1936 he had written: ‘The French revolution has begun!’

It must seem that events have refuted this diagnosis. The question is in reality more complicated ... Recent history has furnished a series of tragic confirmations of the fact that it is not from every revolutionary situation that a revolution arises, but that a revolutionary situation becomes counter-revolutionary if the subjective factor, that is, the revolutionary offensive of the revolutionary class, does not come in time to aid the objective factor. [51]

The policy of the Popular Front sapped the energy of the workers, gave succour to the Right, and thus threw the country into a mood of fatigue and depression. The class collaboration embodied in the Popular Front ran its course. The Popular Front gave a new lease of life to the discredited Radical leaders. As Julian Jackson writes: ‘The political alignments of 1939 already prefigured those of Vichy much more than they carried those of 1936.’ [52] ‘... the same parliament (minus the PCF which had been outlawed on the outbreak of war) which had voted confidence in Blum on 16 June 1936 to save the Republic, voted full powers to Marshal Pétain on 10 July 1940 to destroy it.’ [53]


1*. Jean-Pierre Timbaud, Communist leader of the metal-workers union, Leon Jouhaux, head of the CGT.


1. J. Danos and M. Gibelin, June ’36, Class Struggle and the People’s Front in France, London 1986, pp.33-4.

2. J. Jackson, The People’s Front in France. Defending Democracy, 1934-38, Cambridge 1988, p.29.

3. L’Humanité, 18 February 1933.

4. Jackson, p.22.

5. Y. Craipeau, Le mouvement trotskyste en France, Paris 1971, pp.96-7.

6. Jackson, p.29.

7. Danos and Gibelin, pp.35-6.

8. Leon Trotsky on France, New York 1979, pp.29-30.

9. Ibid., p.31.

10. Ibid., p.33-4.

11. Ibid., p.35.

12. Ibid., p.40.

13. Ibid., p.60.

14. Danos and Gibelin, p.39.

15. Quoted in E.H. Carr, The Twilight of Comintern, 1930-1935, London 1986, p.204.

16. Leon Trotsky on France, p.75.

17. Ibid., p.129.

18. Jackson, p.85.

19. Ibid., pp.86-7.

20. Ibid., p.272.

21. Ibid., pp.9-10.

22. Danos and Gibelin, p.108..

23. Jackson, p.231.

24. Ibid., pp.219-20.

25. Ibid., p.220.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid., p.222.

28. Leon Trotsky on France, p.161.

29. Ibid., pp.163-4.

30. Ibid., p.166.

31. Ibid., p.171.

32. Ibid., p.173.

33. Jackson, p.110.

34. Ibid.

35. Danos and Gibelin, p.181.

36. Jackson, p.184.

37. Ibid., p.170.

38. Ibid., p.180.

39. A. Mitzman, The French Working Class and the Blum Government 1936-37, International Review of Social History, Amsterdam 1964, p.375.

40. Jackson, p.11.

41. Mitzman, p.386.

42. Quoted in Mitzman, p.365.

43. Jackson, p.271.

44. Danos and Gibelin, pp.228-9.

45. Ibid., p.229.

46. Ibid., pp.229-30.

47. Jackson, pp.111-2.

48. Danos and Gibelin, p.230.

49. Mitzman, pp.388-9.

50. Jackson, p.13.

51. Leon Trotsky on France, p.200.

52. Jackson, p.248.

53. Ibid., p.13.

Last updated on 5 August 2009