Popular Front

views updated Jun 11 2018

Popular Front

France 1934-1938


Alarmed by the expanding fascist menace both at home and abroad, the main components of the bitterly divided French left—that is, the radicals of the Radical Socialist Party, the socialists of the Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvriè re (French Chapter of the International Workers' Party or SFIO), and the communists (Parti Communist Français, PCF)—began in early 1934 to discuss proposals for united action. These discussions resulted in an electoral alliance (the Front Populaire or Popular Front) and victory in the 1936 parliamentary elections. The communists supported the formation of a coalition government of radicals and socialists, with the socialist Léon Blum as prime minister.

In the wake of the election result, sit-in strikes occurred all over France, to the terror of employers and the propertied classes in general. In June 1936 agreements, reinforced by the new government's legislation and signed by the employers' representatives, made numerous concessions. In the following months, however, a combination of internal and external pressures divided the components of the Front, permitted an employers' counterattack, and eventually led to the fall of Blum's government in June 1937. This constituted the effective end of the Popular Front, but its memory remained a rallying symbol for the French labor movement.


  • 1920: League of Nations, based in Geneva, holds its first meetings.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1930: Naval disarmament treaty signed by the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan.
  • 1933: Newly inaugurated U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt launches the first phase of his New Deal to put depression-era America back to work.
  • 1935: Italians invade Ethiopia, and the response by the League of Nations—which imposes sanctions but otherwise fails to act—reveals the impotence of that organization.
  • 1935: Second phase of New Deal begins with the introduction of social security, farm assistance, and housing and tax reform.
  • 1936: Germany reoccupies the Rhineland, while Italy annexes Ethiopia. Recognizing a commonality of aims, the two totalitarian powers sign the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. (Japan will join them in 1940.)
  • 1936: The election of a leftist Popular Front government in Spain in February precipitates an uprising by rightists under the leadership of Francisco Franco. Over the next three years, war will rage between the Loyalists and Franco's Nationalists. The Spanish Civil War will prove to be a lightning rod for the world's tensions, with the Nazis and fascists supporting the Nationalists, and the Soviets the Loyalists.
  • 1937: Japan attacks China, and annexes most of that nation's coastal areas.
  • 1937: Stalin uses carefully staged show trials in Moscow to eliminate all rivals for leadership. These party purges, however, are only a small part of the death toll now being exacted in a country undergoing forced industrialization, much of it by means of slave labor.
  • 1940: Hitler's troops sweep through Western Europe, annexing Norway and Denmark in April, and in May the Low Countries and France. At the same time, Stalin—who in this year arranges the murder of Trotsky in Mexico—takes advantage of the situation to add the Baltic republics (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) to the Soviet empire, where they will remain for more than half a century.
  • 1945: April sees the death of three leaders: Roosevelt passes away on 12 April; the Italians execute Mussolini and his mistress on 28 April; and Hitler (along with Eva Braun, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, and Goebbels's family) commits suicide on 30 April.

Event and Its Context

Prelude to the Popular Front

The Popular Front of the mid-1930s emerged from a conjunction of French historical circumstances and broader European developments. The French Third Republic, though it had survived for over 60 years, was an unstable political entity that was torn by bitter political and social divisions. It was hated by the extreme right, which loathed democracy on principle, and was detested no less by the extreme left, which dreamed of a Soviet-style republic.

The bedrock of the republic was the independent lower middle class—peasant farmers, shopkeepers, small independent producers, civil servants, and lower-ranking professionals (although not all of these were committed republicans)—which was mainly represented by the Radical Party (also known by its formal title, the Radical Socialist Party), a politically diverse group that contained both right-and left-wing elements. Its supporters were said to "wear their hearts on the left and their wallets on the right." Only on the condition that their leaders could control the republic did the moderate right, which passed under a variety of political guises, accept the republic (although with no great enthusiasm). The moderate right drew its support from some of the same social elements as did the radicals, together with the majority of the upper bourgeoisie. They had the support of all the major national daily newspapers.

Of the industrial workforce, the greater part was nonunionized. The unions themselves were divided into two rival federations, the socialist Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and the communist Confédération Générale du Travail Unitaire (CGTU). The division was the outcome of the split in French socialism in 1920, when the PCF was formed; the movement's non-Bolsheviks, continuing to adhere to social democracy, formed the Socialist Party. This attracted the majority of the industrial workforce as well as a minority of left-wing middle class elements.

Initially, France was affected less than other industrially developed nations by the Great Depression, but by the mid-1930s, economic depression was increasingly evident in rising unemployment and plummeting agricultural prices. This created conditions favorable for political advance by both the extreme left and the extreme right. The extreme right, moreover, had its morale and confidence improved by events abroad, especially with Adolf Hitler's assumption of power in Germany in January 1933.

The fascist-minded right was organized in paramilitary leagues, rather than in political parties. One of these, the Croix de Feu (Cross of Fire), possessed a substantial supply of arms, motor vehicles, and even some aircraft. On 6 February 1934 a demonstration by the leagues became an attempt to storm the Assembly building. The police repulsed the attack with great difficulty and considerable bloodshed. Less than a week later, the Austrian socialists were crushed by military force, and a clerical-fascist regime was imposed on that country. The French left was galvanized by these events, and a massive, spontaneously unified demonstration was staged in Paris on 12 February. Before any effective long-term joint action could be possible, however, a major obstacle had to be surmounted.

The Communists and the Comintern

The PCF6#x0027;s first loyalty was to the Communist International or Comintern, which by the late 1920s meant, in effect, Moscow and Stalin. Considerations that were in reality specific to Soviet developments caused the Comintern to demand in 1928 that its parties pursue a strategy of "class against class" by vehemently attacking and denouncing all other working-class parties. This action was fueled by the expectation that the proletarian masses would then rally to the communists. Social democrats were even pilloried as "social fascists." Such policies practiced in Germany assisted, if not ensured, Hitler's ultimate victory.

The developments of early 1934 brought about a reassessment on the part of Soviet and Comintern leaders. In addition, Stalin, finding that Hitler spurned his initial efforts to continue German-Soviet cooperation, concluded that the latter was an implacable enemy of the USSR and began to seek rapprochement with Britain and France. In May 1935 the USSR and France signed a mutual assistance pact (to the consternation of the right wing), and in July the Seventh and final Comintern Congress marked a total turnaround in policy (though it was never acknowledged as such). There is reason to believe that the French events and the French communists provided the major impetus behind the reversal in policy. The PCF leader, Maurice Thorez, dwelt at length on his party's work after February 1934 and noted that the disasters of the previous three years had been caused by "the isolation of . . .and division in the working class." He went on to declare that "we have formulated definite demands, but we have not hesitated to take over those that were launched by other organizations, even those hostile to the Communist Party." It was not only divisions within the working class that needed repair; all democrats were invited to rally to the antifascist struggle.

All was thus changed utterly. The detested republic—once characterized as the seedbed of fascism—and the tricolor were now embraced passionately. The PCF rank and file appeared to have little difficulty in adjusting to the switch and indeed approved it. As historians Bernard and Dubief have noted, "It was as if a long-suppressed patriotism burst out with extraordinary force, to the immense satisfaction and relief of the militant rank and file, happy to leave their isolation."

Formation of the Popular Front

Starting in February 1934, a series of developments culminated in the political coalition of early 1936. As early as July 1934, communist and socialist leaders signed a pact for electoral cooperation. An enormous show of unity on the streets at the 1935 Bastille Day celebrations included some of the Radical Party leaders. In the autumn the more left-wing elements prevailed inside the Radical Party, and Edouard Daladier, their principal spokesperson, took over as party leader. At the end of that year and beginning of 1936, the centrist government then in office, responding to public pressure, set about the suppression of the fascist paramilitary gangs. The three parties concluded an agreement on an electoral alliance in January 1936. This comprised a fairly minimalist program with parameters set by the radicals rather than either of the other two parties. In the event of the Front's widely expected victory, it would most likely be the radicals who would lead the new administration.

Central to the platform was the protection of democracy by suppression of fascist leagues, reform of the antidemocratic press, and strengthening the secular character of the education system (though the communists had been making overtures even to the Catholic church). Other elements of the platform included raising the age for leaving school to 14, reform of the Bank of France to make lending easier, and nationalization of key war industries. Social measures included reduction of the working week, institution of public works to reduce unemployment, and enhancement of agricultural prices by creating an Office Interprofessional du Blé (denounced by the right wing as "agricultural Bolshevism") to handle the marketing of wheat. Proposed financial reforms took aim at the "200 Families" that were said to control the existing system and to be holding all honest citizens to ransom. The communists, anxious to secure agreement at all costs, backed the Radical Party at every turn against the bolder economic preferences of the socialists.

When the rival trade unions restored their unity in March 1936, an event with long-term significance, it illustrated a similar accommodating disposition on the part of the PCF. The CGTU conceded to all of the demands of the CGT. The reunified federation drew its top leaders from the noncommunist side and retained the CGT title. It looked like a complete capitulation for the sake of unity, but the communists, thanks to their superior discipline and commitment (and the popular surge behind them), in due course secured their dominance of the reunified organization. Their unstated agenda was to do the same to the SFIO, so here too they pressed for organizational unity. The socialist leaders, however, were well aware of the likely outcome and avoided drawing any closer to their new allies.

The Popular Front Government and the General Strike

The results of the elections, held at the end of April and beginning of May (in a two-round system with the two leading candidates from the first round contesting the second), conformed to expectations in producing a decisive victory for the left. The distribution of votes and seats between the partners of the Popular Front was more unexpected. The Radical Party, far from coming out ahead, suffered significant losses in both votes and seats. This left the socialists as the largest component. The communists gained most spectacularly with a leap from 12 to 72 deputies. There were also a number of smaller groupings in the alliance. Overall the left held 376 seats. The combined representation of the center-right by contrast shrank from 259 to 222, with votes and seats shifting from the center to the right.

The socialists thus became the senior partners in the Front. Their leader, Léon Blum, assumed the premiership and took office on 5 June with Daladier as his deputy. Blum invited the communists to participate in government but they declined, preferring to give their support from the floor of the Assembly. They chose this approach so that they could share the credit for the government's achievements yet remain free to criticize it for any unpopular measures.

During May, however, events ran far ahead of anything that had been anticipated by the party leaderships. A series of sit-in strikes, commencing in several aircraft factories, spread throughout most of French industry. The strikers, fired with hopes of dramatic improvements to their life conditions, took spontaneous action to pressurize their employers. The strikes took place in a carnival atmosphere, with the public bringing in food and other resources and all sorts of impromptu cultural events being staged inside the occupied premises. Notions that the PCF was responsible were unfounded, though the communists hastened to acclaim the action and organize it where they could. Union membership rocketed from around a million to about five million, with 80 percent of these in the CGT. PCF membership expanded from fewer than 50,000 to more than 350,000.

On 7 June at the Hô tel Matignon, the premier's residence, Blum met four terrified employers' representatives, who hastened to make unprecedented concessions. The parties reached an agreement to implement wage increases from 7 to 15 percent, and they agreed on trade union recognition, a 40-hour week (with exceptions), and holidays with pay. In the following weeks bills to entrench the concessions in law were voted through the Assembly and Senate. Above all, as the historian Braunthal has commented, the "aim was to smash the absolute rule of the employers in the factories." Ending the strikes once these concessions were made was not easy, and Thorez had to work very hard indeed to persuaded the strikers that "it is necessary to know when to end a strike as much as when to begin it."

That event was the peak of the Popular Front's success; thereafter it was downhill all the way. The parties in the front were united only by antifascism. In every other respect their agendas were wholly divergent. The radicals remained committed to private property and the free market, given the support of small businesses; the socialists aimed at pervasive state control of the economy. The communists continued to support the radicals against the SFIO, to soothe middle class fears. The government restructured the management of the Bank of France and nationalized railways and some armaments manufacture as per the platform and the Grain Office recommendations.

Difficulties, Decline, and Aftermath

Within weeks the new administration was beset by unmanageable internal and external problems. Once the crisis was over, the employers recovered their nerve, got rid of the representatives who had signed the agreements, and, with support in the indirectly elected and conservative-dominated Senate, set out to regain as much of their lost authority as they could. Strikes ensued as the workforce resisted. The workforce's gains did not, contrary to many hopes, reinvigorate the economy. Instead, increasing production costs put the economy under additional strain. Unemployment increased, and in the autumn the government was, contrary to its initial promises, forced to devalue the currency (admittedly overvalued in the first place).

By far the worst problem emerged in foreign relations. Spain had elected a Popular Front government of a similar complexion to that in France. In July right-wing military officers, led by General Francisco Franco, commenced a revolt against it and soon engulfed Spain in a three-year civil war. Blum's initial impulse to send military aid to his Spanish counterpart evoked the utmost fury among the French right wing and, because the British government was also hostile to the Spanish Republic, he felt obliged to promote a "non-intervention" policy that was intended to deny arms to both sides. The rebels' ideological soulmates, the Italian and German dictatorships, promptly agreed to this approach and just as promptly disregarded it by sending massive amounts of military supplies and reinforcements to support Franco.

The issue created extreme dissension within France and within the Popular Front. The communists vehemently criticized the nonintervention policy, but Blum, though he agonized over it, felt that to change it could provoke civil war in France itself. By the end of the year the Popular Front was in disarray, and in June 1937 Blum, being refused special powers by the Senate to tackle the economic crisis, resigned. His radical colleague, Camille Chautemps, took over. This marked the effective end of the Front's rule, though on paper it continued into late 1938 (Blum even briefly returned to office). In November of that year, further sit-in strikes in defense of the gains of 1936 broke out. Daladier, by then premier and signatory of the Munich agreement, smashed them by military force.

Failure appeared complete, but the episode had important consequences. It raised the PCF to a standing in French politics that it would retain for 50 years. The year 1936 retained an iconic status on the French left in the manner of the commune or the Jacobin republic before it, as a foretaste of what might once more become possible. Suggestions that it might have been the opportunity for a real social revolution, however, are misplaced. The strikers and occupiers were not looking for the establishment of proletarian power. To have pushed further would have splintered the Popular Front immediately and most likely would have led to civil war on the Spanish model, in which the left would have been hopelessly disadvantaged.

Key Players

Blum, Léon (1872-1950): A lawyer by profession, Blum became leader of the Socialists after the split with the Communists in 1920. Being of Jewish extraction, he was ferociously loathed by the right-wing extremists. He survived imprisonment by the Nazis during the war, continued as the Socialist leader after the liberation, and headed a brief caretaker administration in 1946-1947.

Daladier, Edouard (1884-1970): Lawyer and leader of the Radical Party starting in 1927. He held various ministry offices and was premier several times during the 1930s, and, most notoriously, signatory of the Munich Pact. Foreign minister at the fall of France, Daladier survived imprisonment but played no further political role.

Thorez, Maurice (1900-1964): A miner and very able orator, Thorez became general secretary of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) by devoted adherence to the Moscow line. A great deal of his energy was occupied in restraining the enthusiasm of his rank and file, both at the time of the Popular Front and following the liberation. He took part in the post-liberation coalition government until it was ended in 1947 by the onset of the cold war.

See also: French Labor, World War II.



Bernard, P., and H. Dubief. The Decline of the Third Republic, 1914-1938. Translated by Anthony Forster. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press; Paris: Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1985.

Braunthal, Julius. History of the International, Vol. 2:1914-1943. New York: Praeger, 1967.

Brower, D. The New Jacobins: The French Communist Party and the Popular Front. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968.

Greene, N. Crisis and Decline: The French Socialist Party in the Popular Front Era. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969.

Marcus, John T. French Socialism in the Crisis Years,1933-1936: Fascism and the French Left. New York: F. A. Praeger, 1958.

Warwick, P. The French Popular Front: A Legislative Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Werth, Alexander. The Destiny of France. London: H.Hamilton, 1937.

Additional Resources

Claudin, F. The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975.

Graham, Helen, and Paul Preston, eds. The Popular Front in Europe. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.


VII Congress of the Communist International: AbridgedStenographic Report of Proceedings. Moscow: 1939.

—Willie Thompson

Popular Front

views updated Jun 08 2018



In France, the name Popular Front (Front Populaire) refers to three different things: a political strategy, a mass movement, and an experiment in government. Owing to the unprecedented links among them, these elements generated a new political culture that had a lasting influence.

In July 1934 the French Communist Party (PCF; Parti Communiste Français) and the French Socialist Party (SFIO; Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière) ratified a pact of unity of action to combat fascism. In October, Maurice Thorez, secretary-general of the PCF, became worried about the Right's advances and the "fascist threat" and proposed extending this pact to the Radicals, in the form of a "popular front for freedom, labor, and peace." The Socialists and the Radicals were initially reluctant but agreed to the pact after the municipal elections of May 1935. A national committee of the Rassemblement Populaire (Popular Assembly; this official title never supplanted the earlier name) was constituted just after a powerful mass demonstration on 14 July 1935. The Socialists, Communists, and Radicals agreed on the principle of reciprocal withdrawals from the upcoming legislative elections. These withdrawals were conditional upon a common program, which was also ratified by the labor unions (reunited in March as the Confédération Générale du Travail, or CGT) and numerous associations (the Human Rights League, the Vigilance Committee of Antifascist Intellectuals, and so on). This was in all respects a first. The Comintern, initially hostile, upheld this strategy as a model during its Seventh Congress (July 1935)—although this did not bring about its widespread acceptance. In fact, this strategy was only viable in combination with the mass movement that had preceded it and that it helped amplify and modify.

That movement was embodied in the antifascist reaction to the antiparliamentarian offensive of 6 February 1934. It then grew in response to the crisis (demonstrations against government decrees) and the paramilitary leagues and changed in nature with the demonstration of 14 July 1935, in which "the folds of the red flag and the tricolor, the strains of La Marseillaise and the Internationale" were mingled all over France. This description was not gratuitous. At work was a symbiosis among antifascist, republican, and class cultures that allowed for the emergence of a completely new kind of political and popular culture. This nascent culture was also expressed in the working-class municipalities that were gained or preserved in 1935, which became laboratories of the avant-garde in the cultural, political, and social order. Their modern management style was an argument in favor of the accession of the Popular Front to head the country.

This dynamic obviously influenced the results of the legislative elections on 26 April 1936, as the economic crisis raged on. During the first ballot, a slight leftward shift of votes from the Right resulted in victory for the Popular Front. The Socialists outpaced the Radicals, strengthening their status as France's foremost party. The French Communist Party, ranked third within the coalition, made the most progress of all. In the second ballot the electoral system magnified the victory. The Popular Front won with a gain of some forty seats: 149 Socialists, 111 Radicals, and 72 Communists were elected. This shift in the balance of power, both unprecedented and unexpected, put Léon Blum, leader of the majority party within the victorious coalition, at the head of the government, although his party, since after World War I, had objected to the principle of "participation" in a bourgeois government. Because the Communists had opted for support without participation, the government was made up of Socialists and Radicals. Twenty-five of its members had never held positions of ministerial responsibility, and some were very young. For the first time, three undersecretariats were given to women (although the Popular Front's program had not retained the idea of giving them the right to vote). A Ministry of the National Economy was created to allow for the state to intervene more effectively in "all problems of an economic nature." The state further extended its sphere of influence by creating an undersecretariat for Sports and Leisure (prohibited, however, from any reductive subjugation of culture to politics). All of these were instruments of a new government culture. However, it soon became necessary to make compromises in light of an unprecedented situation.

The popular movement that had hastened the victory and helped delineate the new balance of power, far from disappearing with the victory, instead expanded and changed in nature. Léon Blum, immediately charged with constituting the new government, chose to wait for the expiration of the mandate of the Chamber of Deputies on 2 June to obtain his investiture in parliament. An unprecedented "social explosion" occurred in the interim. Between the two electoral ballots, employers fired workers for participating in a work shutdown on 1 May. Immediately after the victory, strikes broke out demanding that the workers be rehired. The strikes began on 11 May in the Breguet aeronautics factories in Le Havre, and from 14 to 20 May spread to various other aeronautics and metallurgical companies, with workers demanding salary increases, the institution of worker delegates, and protection of the right to strike. On 26 May the traditional homage to fallen Communards swelled to unprecedented proportions and became a catalyst. The strikes spread to other industries until only the public sector and the banks were spared—all without any directive from the labor unions beforehand.

On the eve of his parliamentary investiture Blum had obtained assurances that employers were prepared to make significant concessions to end the conflict. On 4 June he was invested by 384 votes against 209. On 7 June he brought representatives of the employers' federation, the Confédération GénéraledelaProduction Française (CGPF), and the CGT together at Matignon. The agreement that was ratified represented a first in the history of social relations in France. It guaranteed a significant increase in salaries, union freedoms, and the institution of shop delegates in establishments with more than ten workers. Collective agreements by branch were to be established. A few days later the parliament adopted the law mandating the forty-hour work week and paid vacation time. It extended compulsory education by one year. But the strikes went on, spreading to additional companies, many of which had no union members, and peaking on 11 June.

The theory of Communist "double dealing" has fizzled out. But the fact that the labor unions were not necessarily behind each of the strikes, and that there was only a weak correlation between unionization and the decision to strike—the railway workers, 22 percent of them unionized, did not strike, while metalworkers, 4 percent of them unionized, spearheaded the strike and made up the largest contingent of strikers—is not enough to prove the opposite hypothesis of the strikes' "spontaneity." The postwar Taylorization of French industry and the resulting de-skilling and intensified pace of production were no doubt the root cause of the strikes, as is evident from their epicenter: the big, rationalized factories that were the anchor points of the general workers' union, the Confédération Générale du Travail Unitaire (CGTU), and which had felt the effects of the union's initiatives in the major conflicts of the 1920s. Employers' response to the crisis, in the form of increased production and, as a corollary, a rise in fatal accidents, intensified the malaise but did not generate a reaction. The electoral victory, and the hopes that it raised and the fears that it dissipated (relating to intervention of the forces of law and order) were the necessary detonator. The working class, fearful of being deprived of the fruits of the victory, did not wait. The strikes, experienced as a kind of liberation, became an affirmation of restored dignity. They ended only with the signing of collective agreements, some of which came in July or early August. This brought the risk of conflicts of interest with the middle classes involved in the alliance.

Léon Blum's economic choices were inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. His intent was to "prime the pump" by boosting consumer spending and implementing a program of large-scale public works. The strikes, which forced him to act quickly and under pressure, at least led to the adoption of measures consistent with his initial aims in that they generated a tangible rise in purchasing power (the bankruptcy rate soon took a downturn). The few structural reforms included in the program were adopted along with the other measures: reform of the status of the Bank of France for increased state control, a National Wheat Office guaranteeing farm revenues, and nationalization of the armaments industry to bring it out from under the control of the arms dealers. The electrification of rural areas and the construction of roads, schools, and stadiums were supposed to expand the market, respond to new social needs, and modernize the economy. The essential part of the program was carried out in eighty days. Devaluation of the franc, although not included in the program, was meant to boost exports.

The beginnings of a recovery in the autumn were soon quelled by a counteroffensive on the part of employers. Small-scale employers, repudiating their negotiators, put on a show of strength around the question of the forty-hour work week. Further conflicts ensued, and tensions increased. The law on conciliation and arbitration, passed in 1937, was not enough to reverse the trend.

In July 1936 General Francisco Franco's military rebellion and the Spanish civil war increased the tensions: antifascism and pacifism, which had previously seemed to reinforce or be identified with one another, entered into a conflict of interests. Partisans and opponents of nonintervention clashed. On the nonintervention side were the Radicals, on the other the Communists, and between them was a line of demarcation sundering the CGT and the SFIO. Blum, worried about cutting off the country from Great Britain, decided in favor of nonintervention. This did not prevent the Radical senators from repudiating his government, which fell in June 1937. The Popular Front for a time tried to outlast Blum, then disappeared in April 1938 with the constitution of É douard Daladier's government, which expanded toward the Right and took up the offensive against the forty-hour week, a symbol of the "ray of sunshine." The failure of the strike of November 1938 led to the liquidation of the remaining social gains, except for paid holidays. Just a few months later, Marshall Philippe Pétain blamed the defeat on the "spirit of enjoyment" to which the Popular Front had given free rein.

According to some studies, there was truth to this accusation. The victory of the Popular Front, perceived at the time as putting a brake on the rise of fascism in Europe, eventually created the conditions for a reaction. Young people, women, and immigrants, excluded from universal suffrage but transformed during these months into actors in a new mode of political life, and the world of labor, strong in its restored dignity, were the pivotal elements in the Resistance against the Vichy regime and the Nazi occupation in World War II.

What is more, the Popular Front occasioned a cultural revolution that profoundly transformed ways of experiencing and participating in French society. In this sense it was far more than a "ray of sunshine." In the political order, it meant that the French Left thereafter defined itself in relation to a twofold heritage of class and democracy, in the sometimes complex but henceforth indissociable relations between them. The ongoing interrelationship between collective mobilization and parliamentary action redefined politics. Individualism in politics declined. Organizations of all kinds, parties of the Left and the Right, unions and associations, all grew larger. The idea that "it pays to fight" became permanently entrenched in the collective consciousness and helped strengthen this culture of struggle.

In the cultural order, an active "cultural policy" in advance of its time allowed for democratic access to culture, which in all its forms—scientific and artistic, popular and scholarly, classic and avant-garde—received government support. The relationships that intellectuals and artists established with the world of labor generated renewed forms of expression, mainly in mass culture, with photography, song, and cinema at the forefront. These forms were neither proletarian nor official but popular, in the image of the experience that gave rise to them.

But "culture" must also be understood in a broader sense. Here, change was expressed in the dignity that was restored to work and, by extension, to the body, its former appendage, through access to free time and the new forms of socialization in this freed time. Workers' relationship to history and to national (and international) consciousness was transformed. The experience permanently marked the collective consciousness. It enabled the union of the Left to maintain a vista of expectations until 1981, and it shaped an image that long served to perpetuate the view of the general strike as the ultimate expression of positive collective action.

See alsoCommunism; Labor Movements; Socialism; Strikes; Trade Unions.


Lefranc, Georges. Histoire du Front populaire. Paris, 1964.

Margairaz, Michel, and Danielle Tartakowsky. L'Avenir nous appartient. Une histoire du Front populaire. Larousse, France, 2006.

Prost, Antoine. Autour du Front populaire. Aspects de mouvement social au vigtième siecle. Le Seuil, France, 2006.

DaniÈlle Tartakowsky

Popular Front

views updated May 29 2018


In 1935 the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) announced the opening of the "Popular Front." The campaign called for an international alliance against fascism and shifted Communist emphasis away from building proletarian revolution. In the United States, the Communist Party responded by reducing opposition to the New Deal, re-concentrating efforts in the mainstream of the trade union movement, and building alliances against fascism in Germany, Japan, Italy, and Spain. Internationally, the Popular Front took multiple forms. In Spain, the Popular Front organized to defeat fascist forces under Francisco Franco. In Chile, the Popular Front political party organized workers against old ruling parties and won the 1938 presidential election. In China, Soviet influence persuaded Chinese Communists to compromise with the Nationalist Party to defeat Japanese imperialism. In August 1939, the Comintern retracted its popular front campaign after Stalin and Hitler signed a nonaggression pact. In 1941, Germany attacked Russia, and a "democratic" anti-fascist emphasis returned to international communism's line.

Its populist undertones and democratic rhetoric made the Popular Front the high point of Communist influence in U.S. history. Earl Browder, general secretary of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), famously declared during the Popular Front that "Communism is Twentieth-Century Americanism." Browder's 1938 book The People's Front invoked mainstream liberal American appeals: support for Roosevelt and trade unions, freedom of the press, democracy and the constitution. Abraham Lincoln was embraced as an American freedom fighter during the Popular Front, and American leftists, including the poet Langston Hughes, volunteered to fight in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain. Black Americans also responded to the Popular Front's appeal for interracial solidarity against fascism. In 1936 the Communist Party helped to organize the National Negro Congress in Chicago and opened its "Negro People's Front," a companion movement to the larger Popular Front. James Ford, the black vice-presidential candidate for the CPUSA in 1932 and 1936, published The Negro and the Democratic National Front in 1938, praising Communist efforts in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the Southern Negro Youth Movement, and the defense of Ethiopia against Italy.

The Popular Front also promoted "people's culture." The American Writers' Congress was created by the CPUSA in 1935 to replace its John Reed clubs. Shortly thereafter the Popular Front League of American Writers was formed. League work was carried on by a broad range of American writers: Nelson Algren, Kenneth Rexroth, Meridel Le Sueur, Franklin Folsom, among others. African-American writers were among the league's most enthusiastic supporters: Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker, Arna Bontemps, and Frank Marshall Davis were members. In the visual arts, the Mexican Popular Front artists Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco, and David Siqueiros and the American populist Thomas Hart Benton impressed folk materials and a progressive representational style on American painting. Swing, jazz, and folk music, particularly the ballads of Paul Robeson, were enlisted against fascism, if not for communism, during the Popular Front.

The Popular Front remains the most vexing period in U.S. Communist history: Detractors perceive its ideological compromises as fatal to international proletarianism, while admirers value its capacity for progressive political and cultural alliances.



Browder, Earl. The People's Front. 1938.

Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth-Century. 1996.

Drake, Paul W. Socialism and Populism in Chile, 1932–52. 1978.

Ford, James W. The Negro and the Democratic Front. 1938.

Kelley, Robin D. G. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression. 1990.

Mullen, Bill V. Popular Fronts: Chicago and African-American Cultural Politics, 1935–46. 1999.

Naison, Mark. Communists in Harlem During the Great Depression. 1983.

Bill V. Mullen

Popular Front

views updated May 29 2018

Popular Front

The Popular Front (Frente Popular) was a political coalition of the Communist, Socialist, Democratic, Radical-Socialist, and Radical parties, as well as the Chilean Confederation of Workers, that ruled Chile from 1938 until 1941. Fearing the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe, the Communist International ordered its members to cooperate with democratic elements in order to achieve progressive programs. The Chilean Communist Party complied, forming an alliance, the Popular Front, with the Socialist Party and the more powerful Radicals. The front sought to strengthen democratic government as well as civil rights; institute reforms to redistribute the wealth, stimulate the economy, and foment national industries; and regulate working and living conditions as well as encourage education.

The Popular Front's slate of congressional candidates did so well that it agreed to run a candidate, Pedro Aguirre Cerda, a member of the Radical Party, for the presidency in 1938. A surprise victor, Aguirre Cerda won the presidency by a scant nine thousand votes, and the Popular Front ruled Chile until infighting between the Communists and Socialists, in part precipitated by Stalin's signing of a nonaggression pact with Hitler, destroyed the fragile coalition.

During its brief tenure, the Popular Front passed legislation favoring unionization, increased social benefits for the nation's needy, and called for increased government intervention in Chile's economic development.

See alsoAguirre Cerda, Pedro; World War II.


John R. Stevenson, The Chilean Popular Front (1942).

Richard Super, "The Chilean Popular Front Presidency of Pedro Aguirre Cerda, 1938–1941," (Ph.D. diss., Arizona State University, 1975).

Additional Bibliography

Bravo Lira, Bernardino. Régimen de gobierno y partidos políticos en Chile, 1924–1973. Santiago de Chile: Editorial Jurídica de Chile, 1978.

Moulian, Tomás. Fracturas: De Pedro Aguirre Cerda a Salvador Allende (1938–1973). Santiago: LOM Ediciones, 2006.

                                      William F. Sater

Popular Front

views updated Jun 11 2018


The 1930s French government that was supportive of Arab nationalism.

The Popular Front government came to power in France in June 1936, under the premiership of the socialist Léon Blum, author of the BlumViollette Plan. Tension between the French government and Arab nationalism was alleviated by the new govern-ment's vision of its commitment in the Middle East, particularly of the French mandate over the Levant. Stalled independence negotiations with nationalists of Syria were rejuvenated, and a FrancoSyrian treaty was signed in September 1936, in which France maintained some major supervisory powers. The treaty was never ratified by France, which by June 1937 had a new government with a more conservative colonial outlook.


Khoury, Philip S. Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 19201945. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

charles u. zenzie

popular front

views updated May 23 2018

popular front Alliance of left-wing political parties. In Europe, such alliances were formed in the 1930s partly in reaction to threats from the extreme right and with the encouragement of the Soviet Union. A popular-front government came to power in France, under Léon Blum (1936–37), and in Spain (1936), where it provoked a military revolt and civil war. In more recent times, revolutionary parties in many African and Asian countries have adopted the name.

popular front

views updated May 11 2018

pop·u·lar front • n. a party or coalition representing left-wing elements, in particular (the Popular Front) an alliance of communist, radical, and socialist elements formed and gaining some power in countries such as France and Spain in the 1930s.

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