Léon Blum (April 9, 1872 – March 30, 1950) was the first socialist, as well as the first Jewish Prime Minister of France. Blum presided over the Popular Front coalition government in 1936-37.
The son of a distinguished millinery supplier, Blum achieved a distinguished academic record at the École Normale Supérieure and at the faculty of law at the Sorbonne, graduating with honours in 1894. After another year at the Institut des Sciences Politiques, he became a government legal advisor in the Council of State (1896-1919). He began a long friendship in 1896 with the Socialist leader Jean Jaurés. In 1899 he joined a Socialist Unity group that sought to wield the various socialist factions into one unified party, joining Jaurés’ French Socialist party in 1904. He began contributing to its periodical L’Humanité and developed a centrist theoretical position favouring non violent reformist revolution and leadership based on expertise.
Until 1914 Blum was known principally for his literary activities, including drama criticism and a book, ‘’Du Marriage’’ (1907), but the assassination of Jaurés and the buildup to World War One drove him into active politics. After the war, in 1919, he entered the Chamber of Deputies and Ministry of Public Works. He refused to adhere to the Third International, an association of Socialist parties from many nations, contending that the Russian demands for revolution were inapplicable to France and denouncing Communist hierarchal leadership and emphasis on war as a revolutionary tool. At the party’s Congress of Tours (December 1920), the Communist faction prevailed, and in 1921 Blum founded the Socialist daily Le Populaire, based on Jaurésian theory. He opposed Allied occupation of the Ruhr Valley and favoured aid to Germany and general disarmament. Aware of the rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany during the 1920s, he believed that such dangers would recede with an economic recovery.
Despite the Socialists winning 104 seats in the 1928 elections, Blum himself was defeated. He was successful in 1929, however, and in 1932 he developed a Socialist program of pacifism, industrial nationalization and measures against unemployment. Despite the party’s gains in the 1932 elections, Blum refused to cooperate with Édouard Daladiers Radical Socialist government. Right wing demonstrations in 1934-35, however, impelled him towards coalition. A pact was concluded among Socialists, Radical Socialists, and Communists, making possible the formation of his Popular Front government in June 1936. Within six weeks he achieved a series of labour reforms, including a 40 hour week, paid holidays, and collective bargaining, and the nationalization of arms industries and the Bank of France. By the following June, however, the unpopularity of his devaluation of the Franc and his pro English policy of non intervention in the Spanish Civil War led to the Senate’s refusal to grant him emergency financial powers, forcing his resignation. He served in Camille Chautempss modified Popular Front government as Vice Prime Minister again in March 1938, but he refused office under his successor Daladier and opposed the outcomes of the Munich Conference.
With the outbreak of World War II, Blum supported French defense efforts. After Germany’s defeat of France, Blum disavowed the collaborationist Vichy government and in July 1940 urged the Socialists towards opposition. Blum was indicted in October by the Vichy government as a danger to French security. At his trial (February 1942), he and his co-defendants put up such a powerful defense that the trial was suspended. He remained in prison in France and Germany until the end of the war, contributing to the Resistance through his correspondence.
After his liberation in May 1945, Blum increasingly withdrew from political activity, although he acted as special ambassador to the United States early in 1946 and negotiated a 1.3 billion dollar loan for reconstruction. He consented to form a caretaker government the following December, pending the election of a President of the French Fourth Republic. He lived in retirement thereafter at his estate at Jouy-en-Josas and died in 1950.
- Berstein, Serge, Léon Blum (Paris, 2006)