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13. The End of the Popular Front

The shifting attitude of the Radical party, which was often the key to parliamentary majorities in the latter years of the Third Republic, caused the rupture of the Popular Front. Although Radical deputies depended on the votes of Socialists and Communists to win elections, many Radical constituents remained skeptical of the leftist coalition’s economic policies.[1] Peasants, owners of small firms, and members of the middle classes who accepted the Radicals’ defense of anticlericalism and republican liberties had never fully consented to the Popular Front’s economic program, particularly the forty-hour week. Employers resented being forced to close two days per week or being unable to adapt the shorter workweek to their seasonal needs. In the spring of 1937, Radicals complained of union power and violations of the right to work. In June 1937 immediately before the fall of the first Blum government, Edouard Daladier, the Radical leader who had promoted the formation of the leftist coalition, reflected increasing anti–Popular Front sentiment in his own party by calling for the reestablishment of “order”—which was, significantly enough, an anti–Popular Front code word. Although Camille Chautemps, a veteran Radical politician who succeeded Blum in June 1937, was committed to maintaining the Popular Front, he nevertheless established an investigatory commission on production with the goal of modifying the forty-hour week. At the party congress in October 1937, Chautemps, Daladier, and other Radical party officials agreed to remain in the leftist coalition only if it maintained “order” and defended the middle classes.

After the fall of the second Blum government in April 1938, Daladier became prime minister. His government gradually shifted further to the Right as it faced accelerating internal and international pressures on production to overcome the stagnation of the French economy and prepare for the coming war. Domestically, this shift reflected the estrangement of the middle classes whose anger over the forty-hour week intensified as inflation did. Rising prices resulted from the constant wage increases, the slowdown of production in many industrial branches, and the successive devaluations of the franc, which had lost almost 60 percent of its value in less than two years. If unionized workers were largely able to keep up with the 75 percent rise in wholesale prices and a 47 percent increase in retail prices, retired persons on fixed incomes, rentiers, and even many fonctionnaires were economically injured by inflation they blamed on the Popular Front.[2] In addition, many owners of small businesses became increasingly receptive to the anti– Popular Front positions of large employers’ organizations and moved toward “republican authoritarianism.”[3]

Supplementing the economic grievances of important Radical constituents, the French and their allies who wanted a strong defense were concerned with the sluggishness of military production. In April 1938 General Armengaud complained of the low rate of aircraft production and cited as one of its causes “the quantity—relatively inadequate—of the weekly labor of each worker.”[4] The general lamented that the productivity of French aviation workers was considerably below that of German workers, and he called upon his fellow citizens to sacrifice for the patrie.

The general’s fears were shared by many bourgeois and industrialists. Low aircraft production compelled the government to purchase American planes, despite objections from organizations of employers and workers alike. At the end of September 1938, the newly elected president of the SNCASO declared that the closing of the factories on Saturdays and Sundays was “unacceptable” during a period of international tension.[5] He cited the “very serious” problem of output and urged more incentives for production. The employers’ periodical, La Journée industrielle, blamed the lack of qualified personnel, the disappearance of incentives, and the erosion of the authority of the maîtrise for what it claimed was a 30 percent decrease in aviation productivity.[6]

Toward the end of the Popular Front, the Inspecteur général du travail alluded to the hostile social climate in a speech to representatives of management and labor. This high government official was certain that no employer wanted the return of a patronat du droit divin (divine-right bossism) but that on their side the union militants should “strive to make their comrades understand” the obligations and advantages of a collective bargaining agreement. Yet the militants “were not always understood as they should have been. Their directives were sometimes not respected because those to whom they spoke were not conscious of collective responsibility.”[7] The Inspecteur général argued that working-class organizations must make workers comprehend that the collective bargaining agreement was a “pact of non-aggression”; once it was signed, they should labor as hard as possible for their employers:

The unions must use every opportunity to demand that the collective bargaining agreement be obeyed [by their members]. No work is possible without discipline, and there is no discipline without authority. Now after the bargaining agreement has defined this authority, which must rule in the workplace, the workers must submit to it.

In November 1938 Daladier appointed a conservative, Paul Reynaud, to the Ministry of Finance. Throughout the Popular Front, Reynaud had opposed the forty-hour week and had fought to increase French production. He had continually warned that the constraints imposed on the French economy would lead to stagnation and weak defense. In June 1937 Reynaud declared, “We have progressively tried to diminish labor, but we have forgotten output, and we have raised simultaneously the cost of living and the costs of production.”[8] As minister, Reynaud quickly attacked the application of the forty-hour week and destroyed the weekend. He established a six-day working week, authorized overtime up to nine hours per day within the limits of a forty-eight-hour week, and reduced overtime pay by 10 to 25 percent.[9] To encourage a longer workweek, Reynaud’s decrees forbade the five-day week of eight hours per day without the authorization of the Ministry of Labor. He also declared null and void collective bargaining agreements that banned piecework, and he envisaged sanctions for workers who refused to work overtime in defense industries. In a radio address, Reynaud, who had opposed the Munich agreements and argued for a tough stance against Germany, told his countrymen:

In 1933 France produced more cast iron than Germany. Today it produces four times less [than Germany].…Our production must increase 30 to 40 percent. Now, all the unemployed together, even if they could be hired tomorrow, could only increase our production 7 to 8 percent. Therefore the workweek must be lengthened. Do you believe that in Europe today France can simultaneously maintain its standard of living, spend 25 billion on arms, and rest two days per week? No. You want action. I tell you that the week of two Sundays has ceased to exist.[10]

Reynaud’s attack on the weekend along with other aspects of his program aroused great opposition among workers. The Socialist Jules Moch remarked that the minister’s address provoked “amazement and fury in the working class.”[11] The industrialists noted “strike threats” in factories that planned to work on Saturday 26 November; nevertheless, many entrepreneurs were grateful for Reynaud’s assault on a labor-free Saturday, which had quickly become a cherished tradition in the Parisian working class.[12]

On the other side, René Belin, the leader of the anti-Communist group within the CGT, had wondered in August 1938 if Daladier would cross the Rubicon by terminating the forty-hour week.[13] The PCF which, it was claimed, was initially hesitant to defend the forty-hour week became more determined “when it realized that the masses were resolutely hostile to [Reynaud’s] project of mutilation”; some unions even charged that Daladier’s program was fascist.[14] As early as September 1938, the National Federation of Paper Workers equated Daladier’s radio speeches, which called for more work, with those of Hitler and Mussolini. CGT militants in the paper industry insisted that Daladier’s program was a replica of that of the right-wing PSF of Colonel de La Rocque. According to La Vie ouvrière, Daladier was a representative of “big capital,” which was in turn connected to fascism. One CGT leader, H. Raynaud, charged that Daladier had “yielded to the wishes of internal [French] fascism.”[15] The same issue of the CGT publication displayed a cartoon in which Hitler and Mussolini advised the French prime minister to use “our methods with the workers.” In the pages of Syndicats, R. Froideval, secretary of the CGT Construction Union of Paris, accused Paul Reynaud of plagarizing Hitler.[16]

At the CGT’s congress of Nantes the Confédération’s three principal factions—Communist, anti-Communist, and the small number of revolutionary syndicalists—unanimously agreed on the need for union actions to prevent enactment of Reynaud’s decrees. They planned a general strike on 30 November that “expresses the protest of the working class against the decrees that especially hurt it both by terminating the day off on Saturday without any reason and without any benefit for the national economy and by establishing a reorganization of overtime that is totally unjustified.”[17] E. Jacoud, the secretary of the Federation of Transportation (CGT), noted “the general indignation that the decrees aroused shortly after they appeared” and asked, “What federation could have resisted such a justifiable response?”[18] Anti-Communist militants asserted that “sportsmen” also would “defend the week of two Sundays,” which was “the most satisfactory reform of all.”[19]

Even before the planned date of 30 November wildcat strikes erupted against the six-day week. New schedules that obliged personnel to work Saturday or Monday generated intense opposition among a multitude of workers, many of whom, including Catholics, were not known for their militancy.[20] At the Hutchinson tire factory in Puteaux, at the chemical firm of Kuhlmann in Aubervilliers, and at Matières colorantes of St.-Denis, workers engaged in grèves sauvages protesting the new work schedules.[21] Other major chemical, aviation, and metalworking firms in the suburbs were hit by wildcats, and the CGT was forced to appeal to its militants to restrain the strikers. On 24 November at aviation plants in the Paris region, wildcat strikes occurred before Reynaud’s decrees were applied.[22] The president of the nationalized aviation sector declared that “after the establishment of the contract and the social laws, recourse to a strike is a revolutionary measure that risks arousing the majority of the nation against the workers.” He announced, “According to the statistics, fifty-five hours per week of work are necessary to ensure the existence of the country.”

On 24 November the largest and most violent wildcat strike erupted in Renault. Although the PCF and its followers claimed that Renault workers were not responsible for the violence or attributed it to Trotskyists, the automobile workers did engage in sabotage and physical aggression. Some foremen and superintendents were beaten, and forty-two bludgeons or blackjacks and one dagger (which had been made in the factories) were found in the workshops occupied by the strikers.[23] Workers used new cars and trucks to construct barricades, broke windows, and destroyed a clock. Strikers left the basement of the infirmary full of gasoline. Police had to evacuate the factories by force and were greeted by a barrage of various automobile parts ranging from carburetors to pistons. Forty-six policemen and at least twenty-two strikers were injured in the confrontations. Many works in progress were ruined, and management claimed almost 200,000 francs in damages.[24]

Approximately two hundred eighty workers were arrested, mainly for failure to respect the right to work (entraves à la liberté du travail).[25] From the available police reports on thirty-one workers, only five were described as “political” and members of the PCF. Twenty-one were judged “nonpolitical” (pas s’occuper de politique) by police inspectors, and reports on five others contained no mention of political activity.[26] Only two out of the thirty-one workers had a criminal record. Three of the thirty-three persons whom the Renault management accused of violating the “right to work” and engaging in violence and sabotage were women.[27] The female suspects sometimes equaled their male counterparts in violence. One threw a pot of benzine at a widow who continued to work during the strike; the two others threatened to “smash in the face” of their female colleagues who failed to stop work.

The Renault statistics are extremely significant because they contradict the claims by the management and the Daladier government that the 24 November strike was “political,” that is, a protest by PCF militants against the government that had signed the Munich accords. These statistics roughly mirrored the percentage of PCF members in the Renault factories; according to the militants’ unofficial numbers, the PCF had four thousand adherents out of thirty-four thousand workers.[28] The figures thus reflect an unexpectedly low rate of PCF membership among some of the presumably most militant workers and tend to refute assertions by historians that the PCF controlled Renault during the Popular Front.[29] The police reports indicate that nonpolitical workers were the essential force behind the 24 November strike to defend the weekend against Reynaud’s decrees. The lack of criminal records among the workers who committed violent acts against both people and property implied that violence in a huge, rationalized plant like Renault was caused not by criminals, or even PCF militants, but by a disgruntled minority that was outraged by the longer workweek.

Indeed, throughout the Popular Front, the PCF and the CGT—like their counterparts in Barcelona—were well aware of the generally low degree of political militancy among the majority of French workers. The PCF had difficulty finding devoted militants to lead its cells and lamented the passivity of its Renault adherents who usually neglected to purchase party publications.[30] Generally, the bulk of PCF members were less interested in the party’s politics or projects for the future than in its defense of their bread-and-butter demands. The CGT itself was careful to give priority to specific economic grievances rather than political demands during the most important strikes. The Syndicat des métaux even denied that the one-hour strike of Monday, 7 September 1936, in solidarity with Spain was exclusively “political.” Of course, the union did not dispute that a major purpose of the work stoppage was to elicit support for the Spanish Republicans, but it also demanded wage hikes and protested the “violations of the collective bargaining agreements,” “firings of personnel,” and “nonpayment of vacations.”

After 1936, workers generally responded without great enthusiasm to other political movements. Despite the strong support of the Syndicat des métaux, the demonstration of 24 June 1937 against the Senate—which had blocked Blum’s financial initiatives and contributed to the fall of his first government—generated a relatively low turnout.[31] Yet at certain moments many workers mobilized for political causes. After all, the Popular Front coalition had been propelled in 1934 by the mass political strikes and demonstrations of 12 February that protested against the right-wing riots of 6 February. A Bastille Day unity demonstration in 1935, May Day marches in 1936 and 1937, and the commemoration in 1936 of the 1871 Paris Commune drew several hundred thousand on each occasion. Tens of thousands of Parisian workers also participated in a demonstration against the fascist attack on Léon Blum in February 1936. In November 1936 hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest against the right-wing press whose slanders had caused the suicide of Roger Salengro, the Socialist Minister of the Interior.

The strike following the Clichy massacre was one of the rare occasions during the period of Popular Front governments when impressive numbers of workers participated in an essentially political work stoppage. In the evening of 16 March 1937, six thousand to ten thousand left-wing demonstrators met to protest a gathering of La Rocque’s Parti social français (PSF), which was the largest and most rapidly growing formation of the extreme Right. The crowd clashed with police who had been sent to separate the two hostile groups. The confrontations caused the deaths of five or six antifascists and injuries to approximately two hundred persons. The deaths and injuries aroused “a profound emotion in working-class circles.”[32] On the morning of Thursday 18 March, large numbers of Parisian workers responded to a CGT strike call. The protest against the fascist movement of La Rocque and against the police shootings became the most important political strike of the Popular Front.[33]

The political character of the 30 November 1938 general strike was less important than its defense of the forty-hour week, but it, nevertheless, failed decisively. Employers were well prepared, and they warned their personnel that strikers would lose seniority and paid vacations.[34] Some industrialists declared that striking would constitute a clear violation of the contract and that those who did not come to work would be fired or rehired on an individual basis after an examination of their records. The government also acted with force and shrewdness to end the strikes in the most vital public services. In Parisian public transportation, the walkout was a failure.[35] The strike was supported by only a few railroad and postal workers. Troops were stationed in the métro, train, and bus stations to ensure traffic circulation, and employers asserted that where a service d’ordre (police force) protected the right to work, participation in the general strike was minimal.[36] René Belin reported that Daladier had effectively prevented a walkout in public services by threatening potential strikers with military tribunals.[37]Humanité asserted that the state had created “an atmosphere of terror” by placing soldiers in the centers of public transportation. The revolutionary syndicalists charged that “the fascistization of the French state continues rapidly.”[38] Even the relatively moderate Léon Jouhaux concluded that “Daladiert…wanted to demonstrate that he could take the same attitude toward the working class as Hitler.”[39]

Whether fascist or not, the Daladier government foreshadowed contemporary practices by an astute manipulation of the state-controlled radio that intimidated strikers and potential strikers. As were other government workers, radio employees were requisitioned. News broadcasts, which the radio monopolized since newspapers failed to appear during the strike, openly encouraged strikebreaking.[40] One railroad union official admitted that the “bombardment of the airwaves was unquestionably effective.” Other union leaders concluded that the government’s use of the radio had aided the bosses and confused the workers.[41] Coercion by military and police supplemented a clever employment of the means of communication to break the 30 November general strike. During the Popular Front, the radio became an outlet for the propaganda not only of consumption but also of production.

The advanced industries examined actively participated in the movement in defense of the forty-hour week and against the Reynaud plan. In the suburbs, where the most important aviation and automobile firms were located, the percentage of strikers was relatively high. Figures varied widely according to sources: the Fédération des métaux declared that 80 percent of workers participated in the strike, whereas the government and employers estimated 25 percent.[42] A document in the Renault archives reported that 30 to 40 percent of the workers and 2 to 3 percent of the office workers of the Paris region participated; it stated that at Citroën 35 percent of the workers were absent and at SIMCA 70 percent.[43] In private aviation companies at Issy-les-Moulineaux, more than 33 percent of the workers participated in the general strike.[44] In nationalized aviation the strike was nearly total in the SNCASO factories at Villacoublay, Suresnes, and Courbevoie, and the walkout continued in these plants until 9 December when management reported that only 20 to 50 percent of the personnel were working.[45] The president of the firm was especially disappointed by the workers of the CGT-dominated Courbevoie factory who, he said, had broken their promises. Aviation strikers threatened nonstriking personnel and refused to respect their right to work (liberté du travail). Buses that carried laborers to the Villacoublay plant were sabotaged, and over 50 percent of the aviation personnel reportedly participated in the strikes.

An effective, if controversial, repression followed the failure of the general strike. Workers who had caused production problems during the Popular Front were dismissed. Leftist historiography largely regards this post-November repression as an almost irrational act of vengeance by employers.[46] It presents the dismissed workers as innocent passive victims who wanted only to exercise their legal union rights. Yet considering the workers’ fight against work and factory discipline, the employers’ repression seems exceedingly rational. An estimated eight hundred thousand workers were either locked out or laid off immediately after the failed strike of 30 November. According to management, “only” thirty-four out of one hundred forty Citroën delegates were fired.[47] At Renault, management dismissed those “troublemakers” (meneurs) who had limited production in the workshops; after these workers were fired, productivity jumped 10 to 25 percent in many workshops.[48] Despite a general reduction of personnel from thirty-four thousand to thirty-two thousand, production did not decline.[49] On 1 December 1938 Louis Renault noted that during the Popular Front the power of the working class had prevented layoffs of several thousand workers, many of whom had been hired in the autumn and winter of 1936. Frequently, these newly employed laborers were poorly qualified, inadequate producers who were “insufficiently adapted” to the factory. Yet Renault had been unable to dismiss them because he feared retaliatory strikes and other actions. The failed strikes of November provided him with the opportunity to trim his payrolls, reinforce discipline, and increase productivity. In the body assembly workshops, fifty-four out of approximately seven hundred workers were dismissed, but production remained stable.[50] In the woodworking atelier, the work force was reduced from seventy-one to fifty-eight, yet production did not fall. In these and other Renault workshops, wages actually increased since workers were no longer able or forced to limit their piecework production.[51] During the Popular Front, Renault workers had often sacrificed higher pay for a less intensive work pace. At the end of 1938, factory discipline was reinforced by the reestablishment of turnstiles and inspections to prevent thefts, which had increased since the spring of 1936. In addition, workers were no longer able to exercise their “right” to leave the factory for a snack.[52]

Yet the employers’ response was not totally unrestrained. When M. G. Claude of Action française advocated a return to a forty-eight-hour week with wages based on forty hours, Usine objected that, given the workers’ struggle for the forty-hour week, Claude’s proposal was unrealistic.[53] The management of Caudron calculated that 65 percent of its workers had participated in the 24 November wildcat but stated that many would be rehired, and on 12 December 1938, “work began again normally.”[54] According to one report, the Ministry of War “definitively” fired only 209 workers out of 100,000, and those dismissed—many of whom had worked in aviation—were soon reemployed by private industry.[55] At the beginning of January 1939, 10,000 workers remained without jobs, but many of them were rehired in the following weeks as renewed economic expansion increased industrial production, which climbed 15 percent from November 1938 to June 1939 as unemployment fell from 416,000 in January 1939 to 343,000 in June 1939.[56]

In nationalized aviation, selective dismissals eliminated those workers who had hindered production. On 9 December 1938 the president of the SNCASO noted that all would be rehired “except for those persons having committed violations of the right to work, or serious errors, or those not having a normal output before the strike.” According to the chief administrator of the same enterprise, fewer than 10 percent of the personnel would be suspended but even some of them would be reemployed in the following weeks. A high executive of the SNCAN declared that wage earners who had not violated the right to work would be recalled as quickly as possible.[57] The president of the SNCAN fully approved the executive’s position, which he explained:

An examination of all the important cases must be undertaken in an extremely serious manner, with the goal to avoid the slightest injustice. For the personnel who can be reproached with serious errors, their individual records will be constituted and submitted to a commission composed of persons who are independent of the nationalized company and who will make the final decision.

By January 25 1939 the SNCAN executive desired “to make humanitarian gestures as quickly as possible,” and he told the administrative council that he had, “studied for certain cases, the possibility of reemployment in a different factory than the one where the concerned person was working before 30 November. Already several positions have been offered and accepted under these conditions.”[58]

In addition to selective dismissals, management now tied wages more closely to production by increasing the weight of monetary incentives. On 9 December 1938 the president of SNCASO stated that “the reduction of the base salary must be compensated by bonuses or production incentives.”[59] In addition, employers probably reduced the CGT’s control over the hiring of new personnel. The poststrike policies of aviation management were at least partially effective, since the monthly delivery of airplanes doubled within several months after the disturbances of November 1938: “From the end of 1938…production increased considerably.…The effort to equip the industry, the augmentation of the number of suppliers, the lengthening of the working week…were fruitful.”[60]

Thus the rapid increase in production did not derive entirely from the end of the forty-hour week since aircraft production depended on long-term planning and large-scale capital investment. Paradoxically, as the Popular Front governments rearmed and rationalized the defense industries, pressures increased to end the forty-hour workweek, which was, of course, one of the workers’ major gains in the Blum period. During 1938, as the machinery of mass production was put into place, industrialists lobbied intensely to lengthen the workweek.[61] Reynaud and Daladier responded positively, and a month after the failed strike of November, the official week of motor manufacturers was six days of eight hours. At the end of 1938 productivity increased 6.4 percent. In February 1939, workers in all nationalized firms were laboring at least forty-four hours, and Gnôme et Rhône employed three shifts, each working forty-eight hours. If the end of the forty-hour week was not solely responsible for the gains in production and productivity, the post-November climate of longer hours, tightened discipline, and union busting undoubtedly contributed to the increases in output.

Once a climate of work discipline had been reestablished, the great majority of dismissed workers, whose skills were frequently needed, was reintegrated into the labor force. Private firms seem to have been more punitive than the nationalized sector or the arbitration courts, however. Capitalists saluted the “return of good sense, of calm, and of the only doctrine that is healthy—work.” It should be noted that striking foremen and agents de maîtrise, who were a small minority of this stratum, were, exceptionally, not rapidly rehired.[62] In nationalized aviation, of the approximately 835 dismissed workers who remained jobless in the spring of 1939, only 7 were foremen (contremaîtres) and 25 were technicians or engineers. Aviation management believed that it was not possible to reopen the factories without a sufficiently powerful police force. In December 1938 the foremen and supervisors of Renault wrote to the Socialist daily, Le Populaire, protesting its article of 23 December, which claimed that the demand for dismissals of the meneurs was the work of a “minority of malcontents.” The foremen asserted that the firings were supported by almost all their colleagues; their petition against the meneurs had collected 2,500 signatures of supervisory personnel. The foremen claimed to be satisfied by the “restoration of order” that followed the November strikes.[63]

As for the fascist political tendencies of employers and their immediate subordinates, these ideological impulses grew during the Popular Front at least partially in response to the workers’ challenge of authority, their refusal to work diligently, and the government’s inability to reestablish order in the factories or on the construction sites. The extreme right-wing Parti social français made CGT control of hiring one of its major issues during the electoral campaign of early 1937.[64] At Renault, large numbers of foremen and agents de maîtrise gravitated toward right-wing unions. Among collaborateurs, a category that included not only foremen but also white-collar sales and administrative personnel, the CGT lost support. In December 1936 in elections for delegates, the Confédération had obtained 64.2 percent (3,248 votes) while other unions had received 35.8 percent (1,812 votes).[65] Two years later in November 1938, CGT votes fell to 45 percent of the total, whereas that of the other unions rose to 55 percent. Support for right-wing professional unions was greater among foremen and supervisory personnel than other collaborateurs. In November 1938 all the sections of the agents de maîtrise elected non-CGT representatives. Supervisors and foremen chose ten delegates of the SACIAT, an authoritarian and anti-Communist organization that had complained about the loss of authority of the cadres throughout the Popular Front. While heatedly denying it was in the bosses’ camp, the SACIAT claimed that it defended “the only means by which we can assure our future: our work.”

Calls for the restoration of order and discipline in the workplace were the common denominator among the numerous factions of the Right.[66] The PSF pledged to safeguard “the right to work.” The electricity magnate Ernest Mercier, a promoter of Redressement français, condemned “disorder”; the Ligue des patriotes demanded discipline; the Bonapartists desired “a very firm central authority”; and Francisme wanted a leader who led and followers who did what they were told. Bertrand de Jouvenal, an intellectual in Jacques Doriot’s Parti populaire français, which some historians have called fascist, admired the Third Reich for undertaking “the gigantic task of reconciliating man and his work.” Yet the extreme Right had by no means a monopoly on appeals for order and discipline. Some initial supporters of the Popular Front, such as the neo-Socialists and Frontistes, also complained about the lack of government authority. As has been seen, in November 1938 republicans in the clemenciste tradition, led by Paul Reynaud, reestablished an atmosphere of order that led to disciplined production in certain sectors of the economy.

Yet it should not be inferred that all industries experienced a rise in productivity only after the failure of the general strike and the ensuing repression. As in Barcelona, industrial and political periodizations cannot be completely identified; greater output in a number of firms did not always depend solely on the results of the national confrontation between the CGT and the government on 30 November 1938. For example, productivity increased dramatically in private Parisian bus and transportation companies after the forty-four-day drivers’ strike and occupation at the end of 1937 and beginning of 1938.[67] Furthermore, the Jacomet arbitration of the spring of 1938 had the effect of tightening discipline in certain aviation firms.

Considerably before November 1938, Jules Verger, a patron de combat, adopted what he claimed was an effective strategy against CGT militants. Verger was the president of the employers’ organization, Chambre syndicale de l’entreprise électrique de Paris; of its 700 members only a handful employed more than 100 workers.[68] He replaced about 130 workers who had struck in October 1936 with new personnel who were “very happy to work after a hard period of unemployment.” His loyal workers were heads of households, determined “not to let their jobs be stolen from them because, above everything, they had to provide for their families.” The entrepreneur desired to create a family atmosphere in his firm.

In the electricians’ strike, verbal and physical violence was a near constant. In early November, approximately 2,200 workers out of 3,500 in the Syndicat des monteurs-électriciens struck in solidarity with the 130 whom Verger had fired in October.[69] Verger’s own personnel, who now numbered 166, continued laboring and, along with other jaunes (scabs) became targets for the strikers. Verger “asked his staff to respond to violence with violence.” The police correctly surmised that confrontations would multiply. The strikers were determined to prevent the jaunes and members of the professional union from working, and they made a special effort to halt Verger’s own enterprise.[70] On 13 November police arrested 4 strikers for obstructing the right to work. The following day police intervened when 15 strikers attempted to stop the work of 20 nonstrikers. At a meeting, a certain Thomas, presumably a member of the CGT Electricians’ Union, stated that force was the only way to make the jaunes understand. The union complained that the police were present whenever the strikers were, and it accused the government of being as reactionary and as repressive as the German Social Democrats had been.

The strikers used old and new tactics to achieve their goals. Their intelligence network seems to have functioned well, and they employed rapid modern transportation—cars, trucks, and bicycles—to appear at sites where nonstrikers were active. In one incident, 100 or so grévistes arrived by automobiles, surprised 30 of Verger’s men, injured 3, and disappeared before police arrived. Strikers usually attacked only when they considerably outnumbered their adversaries, as at the Jardin des Plantes where 100 strikers forced 12 electricians to abandon their jobs. At Malakoff 12 strikers, who had arrived on bicycles, fought with 4 workers. Furthermore, as in the nineteenth century, scabs’ tools might be mislaid, materials confiscated, and work sabotaged.

On several occasions, strikers abducted one or two strikebreakers and interrogated them at a union hall for several hours. When militants questioned why he broke the strike, one worker replied that he was the father of five children and had to labor to feed them. The average age of the strikers who were arrested by police was 22.9, whereas the average age of the nonstrikers was 29.3; the latter likely had more dependents than the former. However exaggerated, Verger’s rhetoric about the family did reflect one reality of the conflict. During other strikes industrialists claimed that a parent was less likely to stop work than a single or younger worker.[71]

By the second week of December, familial constraints may have contributed to slowing the strike’s momentum. In addition, the Minister of the Interior, the Socialist Marx Dormoy, was apparently determined to protect the right to work, even at the risk of alienating the CGT:

Regarding the incidents caused by striking electricians who prevent nonstrikers from working and who abduct them: The minister asks them to stop and wishes us to station officers around each site so that the right to work is protected.

The director of the municipal police has been informed.[72]

As in Spain, in France during the first half of the twentieth century a powerful state, ready to employ its forces to guarantee social order, may have been a prerequisite for labor discipline in certain industries.

Unlike its Spanish counterpart, the French Popular Front became the birthplace of the weekend and mass tourism, not of revolution. The Soviet or anarchosyndicalist alternative of workers’ control and development of the means of production had declining appeal for French working-class activists. The core of union and left-wing militants, who were the central force behind the collectivizations in Barcelona, played an entirely different role in Paris. Communists and Socialists in France no longer called for soviets or revolutionary workers’ control, and the remaining anarchosyndicalist and Trotskyist militants were largely ignored. In France, the demand for revolution was superseded by guerrilla warfare against work.

The divergent paths of France and Spain influenced the actions and the desires of militants in working-class organizations in Paris and Barcelona. More than its Spanish counterpart, the French bourgeoisie developed the means of production, created a solid agricultural base, and achieved national unity and independence. In addition, by the twentieth century the state had separated itself from the Church and had replaced the values of tradition and religion with those of science and technology. In short, unlike its Iberian peers, the French bourgeoisie had achieved many of the prerequisites of a modern economic order.

French trade unions and left-wing parties were directly affected by the dynamism of their bourgeoisie. Since the issues of separation of Church and state, jurisdiction of military and civilian power, and regionalism had been largely resolved in the France of the 1930s, conflicts over these matters were less significant for French working-class organizations than for their Spanish counterparts. The understandable resentment and violence that Spanish workers and militants manifested toward a largely Catholic bourgeoisie—which had literally and figuratively abandoned its factories—was less evident in Paris. Parisian employers and industrialists were not forced to flee for their lives. The French political consensus was wide and even permitted a sharing of power with major left-wing and working-class organizations, in the legislature and also in many local governments in the interwar years. Thus, instead of outlawing and repressing the major working-class groups, French society was strong enough to integrate labor organizations to the extent that revolution became more a rhetorical artifice than a real possibility. Communist and Socialist municipalities helped build and modernize the infrastructures necessary for production. French syndicalists slowly dropped their insistence on workers’ control of the productive forces and pushed for greater consumption. Therefore, by 1936, France no longer contained that nucleus of revolutionary syndicalists who in Spain took control and developed the means of production. On the contrary, in Paris union militants would often encourage or acquiesce in the desires of the rank and file who wanted to avoid constraints of workspace and worktime. If the more developed French political and social system limited the revolutionary option, it likewise reduced the chances for a reactionary or fascist coup d’état.[73] Despite all the problems of production and social unrest, extreme right-wing plots failed miserably during the French Popular Front, in direct contrast to the Spanish situation.[74] The French officer class maintained its grudging loyalty to the republic, and sincere republicans proved capable of breaking major strikes and reducing refusals to labor.

Although resistance to work has accompanied all stages of industrialization, the character of the advanced productive forces, which the French bourgeoisie has continually developed from the second half of the nineteenth century, aggravated struggles against industrial labor. Workers wanted to escape from environments pictured in A nous la liberté and Modern Times. Their revolts took forms of indifference, slow-downs, indiscipline, lateness, absenteeism, theft, and even sabotage and outright violence. After the electoral victory of the Popular Front, Parisian wage earners took advantage of the easing of repression by state and police to occupy factories and, later, to greatly intensify their struggles against work. At the end of 1938 a strong government, willing to use the forces at its disposal, was needed to restore labor discipline and to increase production. Thus political changes profoundly influenced both economic performance and social relations.

The examination of the Paris workers’ struggles during the Popular Front questions assertions by some historians that the twentieth-century French working class had “accepted the industrial system” and that it had adapted to the factory.[75] The process of adaptation to the industrial system is, of course, extremely complex. The French working class had adapted to the industrial system to the extent that it did not destroy the factories during its occupations and that it labored to acquire many of the goods and services produced by industrial society. Sabotage and destruction of property did however exist during and after the occupations. Violence was not infrequent at the end of 1936 and throughout 1937 and 1938. Although CGT membership jumped from around 800,000 in 1935 to nearly 4,000,000 in 1937—one sign of adaptation to the factory system—the union was often ignored or disobeyed by its rank and file. As we have seen, apathy toward union leaders and directives was not unknown during the Popular Front. As in Spain, union membership seldom meant ideological commitment but was rather “an expression of a new conformism.”[76] For many French workers, joining the union was a way to realize their hopes to work less and to consume more.

In short, coercion had to supplement adaptation in order to make workers work. At moments during the Popular Front and particularly at the end of 1938, the employers and the state realized that adaptation was insufficient, and they employed force—police, military, dismissals, legal proceedings, and court trials—to make workers labor harder and produce more. The weekend vanished, but only temporarily. Although it has now become a fixture of contemporary Western civilization and appears in the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard as the factory did in the 1930s films of René Clair and Chaplin, the weekend’s painful birth and violent infancy were consequences of the workers’ lack of adaptation to the factory system.

The Communists, the Socialists, and the CGT attempted to control the struggles against work by organizing the weekend and paid vacations and also by fighting for the forty-hour week. These parties and unions argued that the shorter workweek would help solve the problem of unemployment by putting the jobless to work. Nationally, the forty-hour week was only marginally successful in eliminating joblessness. In fact, unemployment began to decline dramatically after the failed general strike of 30 November 1938 when the forty-hour week was eradicated, arms spending increased, and private investment encouraged. It is difficult to determine which factor most stimulated the economy, although it is clear that the forty-hour week disregarded the specific French demographic situation in which the lack of skilled workers impeded production.

If only marginally successful in increasing employment nationally, the forty-hour workweek did force employers in the Paris region in many industries to hire more workers. But this larger work force did not lead to the increased production that the Popular Front assumed would raise the purchasing power of the workers. Indeed, employment of the jobless and corresponding measures limiting worktime led to higher costs that passed to consumers through inflation and heavier taxes. The wage increases won by the workers of the Paris region, which were also partly responsible for rising costs, were largely wiped out by this inflation. Higher prices resulted in strikes for increased pay and ultimately in greater social tensions.

The Left tried to mask the problems of the forty-hour week with productivist ideology. It claimed that the unemployed wanted only to work and that the bosses were sabotaging production. It refused to admit that many unemployed and employed workers too, for that matter, were more interested in securing a steady income than in improving output. Even when, on rare occasions, union and leftist political leaders concurred with the opposition’s charges that the lack of skilled labor was harming output or that production had declined, the leaders’ calls for more work and improved production went unheard. The Left refused to acknowledge the workers’ active resistance to factory discipline and wage labor. Its press ignored the workers’ violence toward their foremen and those colleagues who refused to join the union. The Left attempted to portray the workers as sober, hardworking, disciplined, and willing to sacrifice for the good of the patrie and, of course, production. Many historians of varying political beliefs and scholarly orientations have often continued this tradition and have therefore ignored social realities and essential aspects of working-class life.


1. The following is based on Serge Berstein, Histoire du parti radical (Paris, 1980–1982), 2:455–518. [BACK]

2. See Alfred Sauvy, ed., Histoire économique de la France entre les deux guerres (Paris, 1972), 2:286, for figures. See also Jean-Charles Asselain, Histoire économique de la France (Paris, 1984), 2:66; Joel Colton, Compulsory Labor Arbitration in France (New York, 1951), pp. 82–86. [BACK]

3. Ingo Kolboom, La revanche des patrons: Le patronat face au front populaire, trans. Jeanne Etoré (Paris, 1986), p. 291. [BACK]

4. L’Europe nouvelle, 9 April and 21 May 1938. [BACK]

5. SNCASO, 27 September 1938, SNA. [BACK]

6. La Journée industrielle, 20 November 1938. [BACK]

7. Speech to Congrès national des commissions paritaires d’offices publics de placement, 8 September 1938, AN, 39AS830/831. [BACK]

8. Reynaud quoted in Jacques Delperrié de Bayac, Histoire du front populaire (Paris, 1972), p. 396. [BACK]

9. L’Europe nouvelle, 19 November 1938; Usine, 17 November 1938; Asselain, Histoire économique, 2:68. [BACK]

10. Reynaud quoted in Delperrié de Bayac, Histoire du front populaire, p. 462. See also Paul Reynaud, Pourquoi ferait-on la grève? Discours radiodiffusé, prononcé le 26 novembre 1938 (Paris, 1938). [BACK]

11. Jules Moch, Le front populaire: grande espérance (Paris, 1971), p. 310. [BACK]

12. Procès-verbal, 22 November 1938, AN, 39AS852; on Saturday closing, see letter from Groupement des industriels de la région de Saint-Denis, 8 July 1937, AN, 39AS803. [BACK]

13. Syndicats, 31 August 1938. [BACK]

14. Ibid., 14 September 1938; Le Travailleur du papier-carton, September 1938. [BACK]

15. La Vie ouvrière, 17 November and 3 November 1938. [BACK]

16. Syndicats, 29 November 1938. [BACK]

17. Ibid., 19 November 1938. [BACK]

18. Le Travailleur des transports, December 1938. [BACK]

19. Syndicats, 29 November 1938. [BACK]

20. L’Echo des syndicats, (CFTC) December 1938. During the Popular Front, even working-class organizations had problems making workers appear on Monday. For example, to protest lay-offs from Chausson at Gennevilliers, on 21 August (1937?) Humanité called on all the workers of this firm—including those dismissed—to demonstrate at the company on Monday, 23 August. Only seven arrived (Note concernant l’incident Chausson, AN, 39AS836). [BACK]

21. Usine, 24 November 1938; Humanité, 22 November 1938. Workers considered the new work schedule at Hutchinson—seven hours Monday through Friday and nine hours on Saturday—an insult. [BACK]

22. Humanité, 25 November 1938; La Vie ouvrière, 24 November 1938; SNCASO, 25 November 1938, SNA. [BACK]

23. Report from M. B., 6 December 1938, AN, 91AQ116. Also see the photographs of weapons in this file; report of Préfecture de police, January 1939, AN, F22760 and documents in AN, 91AQ117. [BACK]

24. Guy Bourdé, La défaite du front populaire (Paris, 1977), p. 148. [BACK]

25. Liste des individus arrêtés à l’usine Renault, AN, 91AQ116. Of those arrested, 194 were sentenced to prison terms—in some cases, of two months (Jacques Kergoat, La France du front populaire [Paris, 1986], p. 292). [BACK]

26. Reports by police inspectors, December 1938, AN, 91AQ117. [BACK]

27. Exposé, AN, 91AQ117. [BACK]

28. See the report by a management informer in AN, 91AQ16. Of the five CGT delegates listed in police reports in AN, 91AQ117, only one was a Communist militant and another was known as sympathetic to the PCF; the other three delegates were described as “nonpolitical.” Estimates of PCF membership vary; Jean-Paul Depretto and Sylvie V. Schweitzer (Le communisme à l’usine: Vie ouvrière et mouvement ouvrier chez Renault, 1920–1939 [Paris, 1984], pp. 186, 230) offer figures of 120 members in May 1936, 1,300 in June 1936, 4,200 in September, 5,500 in December, and 7,675 in March 1937. The PCF’s own numbers in Tout faire pour servir le peuple de France, 5e conférence de la région Paris-ouest du PCF à Gennevilliers (16–17 January 1937) and 6e conférence régionale à Argenteuil (4–5 December 1937) put the membership at over 7,650 during 1937 and 6,000 in December 1936. Another firm, the Bouguenais aviation plant, had lower than expected PCF membership: of 700 workers, 60 were members of the PCF, according to Résumé des rapports, (n.d.), SHAA, Z11607. [BACK]

29. See Bertrand Badie, “Les grèves du front populaire aux usines Renault,” Le Mouvement social, no. 81 (October–December 1972); Robert Durand, La lutte des travailleurs de chez Renault (Paris, 1971). [BACK]

30. Henri Heldman, “Le parti communiste français à la conquête de la classe ouvrière: Les cellules d’entreprise, 1924–1938” (Thèse, 3e cycle, University of Nanterre, 1979), pp. 194–213; Sections syndicales Hotchkiss, GIM. [BACK]

31. See file on this manifestation in APP 1867. For an overview, see Julian Jackson, The Popular Front in France: Defending Democracy, 1934–1938 (Cambridge, 1988), p. 115. [BACK]

32. Incidents de Clichy et de leurs conséquences, 19 March 1937, APP 1865. [BACK]

33. Telegrams in APP 1866, dossier, Grève générale du 18–3–37; Historique de l’affaire Clarisse, AN, 91AQ16; Rapport des sections syndicales, AN, 91AQ16 (?); Le Jour, Le Journal, and Action française, 19 March 1937; letter to Le Populaire, 26 December 1938, AN, 91AQ16; Contre-manifestation, 15 March 1937, APP 1865. [BACK]

34. Usine, 8 December 1938; SNCASO, 25 November 1938, SNA. [BACK]

35. Grève générale 30–11–38, 3 December 1938, AN, F60640. This document asserts that only 191 in a work force of 10,842 in Parisian public transport obeyed the strike order; the figure seems too low. [BACK]

36. Grève du 30 novembre 1938, AN, 39AS804. [BACK]

37. Le Travailleur des transports, December 1938; Syndicats, 7 December 1938. [BACK]

38. Humanité, 1 December 1938; R. Louzon, “De l’état démocratique à l’état autoritaire,” La Révolution prolétarienne, 10 December 1938. [BACK]

39. Jouhaux quoted in Bourdé, La défaite, p. 161. [BACK]

40. André-Jean Tudesq, “L’utilisation gouvernementale de la radio,” in Edouard Daladier: chef du gouvernement, ed. René Rémond and Janine Bourdin (Paris, 1977), pp. 256–63. [BACK]

41. Syndicats, 21 December 1938; La Vie ouvrière, 8 December 1938; Le Travailleur du papier-carton, December 1938. [BACK]

42. See Bourdé, La défaite, pp. 204–5. Nationally, participation was 72.48 percent in metallurgy and 80 percent in construction (Kergoat, France, p. 286). [BACK]

43. Renseignements obtenus, 30 November 1938, AN, 91AQ16. [BACK]

44. Note sur la grève partielle, 7 December 1938, AN, 91AQ115. Another report claimed that at Renault-Aviation and at Salmson, work continued normally on 30 November (Note, 23 January 1939, SHAA Z12947). [BACK]

45. The following is based on SNCASO, 9 December 1938, SNA. [BACK]

46. Cf. Bourdé, La défaite, pp. 223–28; cf. also Richard F. Kuisel, Capitalism and the State in Modern France (New York, 1981), p. 125. [BACK]

47. Usine, 8 December 1938. [BACK]

48. Exemples d’augmentation du rendement, AN, 91AQ116. Depretto and Schweitzer (Communisme, p. 268) assert that 843 union officials were dismissed at Renault. [BACK]

49. Patrick Fridenson, Histoire des usines Renault (Paris, 1972), pp. 270–72. [BACK]

50. Exemples d’augmentation du rendement, AN, 91AQ116. [BACK]

51. Ibid.; Un horaire provisoire, AN, 91AQ15: “The Renault factories were practically shut down from noon on 24 November to 16 December 1938. During this period, backed-up orders could not be filled, and workers lost a considerable portion of their wages that they really needed, especially during this time of year.…A large number of our workers have signed a petition asking for overtime.” [BACK]

52. Réponse au rapport fourni à tous les groupements du front populaire, 20 December 1938, AN, 91AQ116; La Vie ouvrière, 22 December 1938 and 9 February 1939. [BACK]

53. Usine, 16 December 1938. [BACK]

54. Note sur le débrayage du 24 novembre 1938, AN, 91AQ115. [BACK]

55. Robert Jacomet, L’armement de la France (1936–1939) (Paris, 1982), p. 271. [BACK]

56. Bourdé, La défaite, p. 230; Antoine Prost, “Le climat social,” in Edouard Daladier: Chef du gouvernement, ed. René Rémond and Janine Bourdin (Paris, 1977), p. 109; Sauvy, ed., Histoire économique, 2:338; Delperrié de Bayac, Histoire du front populaire, pp. 513–15. [BACK]

57. SNCASO, 9 December 1938, SNA. [BACK]

58. SNCAN, 25 January 1939, SNA. [BACK]

59. SNCASO, 9 December 1938, SNA. [BACK]

60. Jacomet, L’armement, p. 287. [BACK]

61. Emmanuel Chadeau, L’industrie aéronautique en France, 1900–1950 (Paris, 1987), p. 313–22; Robert Frankenstein Le prix du réarmement français, 1935–1939 (Paris, 1982), pp. 237–38. [BACK]

62. SNCASO, 25 January 1939, SNA. For nationalized aviation, see Liste nominative du personnel des établissements de l’armée de l’air exclu définitivement à la suite de la grève du 30 novembre 1938, AN, F60640. [BACK]

63. Letter, 26 December 1938, AN, 91AQ16. [BACK]

64. See various reports of February 1937 in AN, F712966. [BACK]

65. Bulletin du Syndicat professionnel et amicale des agents de maîtrise, techniciens, et employés des usines Renault, February 1937; SACIAT (Syndicat et amicale des chefs de service, ingénieurs, agents de maîtrise et techniciens des industries métallurgiques, mécaniques et connexes), November–December 1938. On SACIAT see L’Indépendance syndicale, August–September 1937. [BACK]

66. Philippe Machefer, Ligues et fascismes en France, 1919–1939 (Paris, 1974), pp. 91–104; Philippe Burrin, La dérive fasciste: Doriot, Déat, Bergery, 1933–1945 (Paris, 1986), pp. 219–93. [BACK]

67. Société anonyme des transports, assemblée générale du 12 juin 1939, AN, 91AQ52. [BACK]

68. Agitation, 4 November 1936, APP 1870; Discours prononcé par M. Jules Verger, 11 August 1937, AN, 39AS843; letter from Verger, président de la chambre syndicale de l’entreprise électrique de Paris, 12 August 1937, AN, 39AS843. [BACK]

69. Grève générale possible des monteurs-électriciens, 10 November 1936, APP 1870; 12 November 1936, APP 1870; Grève de monteurs-électriciens, 19 November 1936, APP 1870. [BACK]

70. The following is based on telegrams of November 1936 in APP 1870. [BACK]

71. Suggestions des adhérents, 14 April 1938, GIM. [BACK]

72. Préfecture de police, cabinet du préfet, 3 December 1936, APP 1870. On this handwritten note the date is partially illegible. [BACK]

73. Cf. Robert Paxton, Vichy France (New York, 1982), which refers to “the incipient civil war” (p. 49), “the virtual French civil war” (p. 245), and “climate of civil war” (p. 246) that supposedly existed during the Popular Front. [BACK]

74. See Delperrié de Bayac, Histoire du front populaire, pp. 407–9, for a description of the failure of the plots of the Cagoule; Martin S. Alexander, “Hommes prêts à tout accepter: The French Officer Corps and the Acceptance of Leftist Government, 1935–1937” (Paper presented at Popular Fronts Conference, University of Southampton, April 1986). [BACK]

75. See Peter N. Stearns, Revolutionary Syndicalism and French Labor: A Cause without Rebels (New Brunswick, N.J., 1971) p. 106; Stearns, Lives of Labor: Work in a Maturing Industrial Society (New York, 1925); see also Edward Shorter and Charles Tilly, Strikes in France, 1830–1968 (London, 1974), pp. 67–75. Many other authors—such as Claude Fohlen (La France de l’entre-deux-guerres [1917–1939], [Tournai, 1972], p. 157)—have written that the forty-hour week was a symbol to workers. [BACK]

76. Michel Collinet, L’ouvrier français, esprit du syndicalisme (Paris, 1951), p. 118. [BACK]

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