Blum, Léon (1872–1950)

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BLUM, LÉON (1872–1950)


French politician.

Léon Blum tends to be identified with the "ray of sunshine" of the Popular Front reforms of 1936, which he gallantly cited before the Supreme Court when the Vichy government brought him to trial in 1942. A Socialist and a Jew, this president of the Council of State (Conseil d'État) was despised on both accounts by the far right. He was born in 1872 into a liberal middle-class Jewish family. After a short stint at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS), he switched to law, joining the Council of State in 1895 and then leaving the judiciary for the legislature when he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1919. A sensitive aesthete and something of a dilettante, he meanwhile remained active as the literary and drama critic for La Revue blanche, where he rubbed shoulders with members of the avant-garde. His essays include a penetrating analysis of Stendhal (1904) and the audacious "Marriage" (1907).

Like many intellectuals of his generation, Blum entered politics during the Dreyfus affair, and marshaled his legal skills and contacts during the trial Émile Zola (1840–1902). Attracted to Jean Jaurès's synthesis of idealism and materialism, the Republic and socialism, he joined the party founded by Jaurès (1859–1914) after the Dreyfus affair, collaborated with him in the venture of L'Humanité, and participated in the founding congress of the French Section of the Workers' International (SFIO) in 1905.

The war radically changed Blum's priorities. Minister of Public Works Marcel Sembat (1862–1922) called him to serve as executive secretary in his ministry, where Blum remained until 1916, familiarizing himself with the wheels of government. La Réforme gouvernementale (The reform of government), published in 1918, advocated strengthening the role and powers of the president of the Council. It predicted his actions in 1936.

A fierce defender of the policy of national defense, Blum assumed the role of Jaurès's successor, theorized a socialism that would also be "a morality, almost a religion," and drafted the Socialist platform for the 1919 elections. As the brains behind the opposition to joining the Communist International, he tirelessly denounced the fundamental heteronomy between Bolshevism and socialism and asserted himself as one of the main forces in setting right the "old house" after the split. The political editor of Le Populaire, and deputy from Paris until 1928 and then from Narbonne, Blum emerged as leader of the party officially headed by Paul Faure and put his talent for political synthesis and compromise into the service of party unity, which was being threatened by participationists, supporters of economic planning, neosocialists, and the far-left Bataille socialists.

The fight for the defense of the Republic and liberties led to his involvement, during the general strike of 12 February 1934, in forms of mass action foreign to his background, and into an alliance with the Communists, whom he mistrusted as much as they execrated him. It ended in a victory that allowed him to size up concretely the distinction between "conquest" and "exercise" of power that he had theorized in 1926. In exercising his new responsibilities, he combined his habitual legalism with a bold spirit of innovation whose limits were quickly revealed by the Spanish civil war. Aligning of E himself with Great Britain, Blum resigned himself to nonintervention. Having resumed the editorship of Le Populaire after the fall of the government, he took the same stance during the Munich crisis, sacrificing his personal convictions to party unity.

Interned by the Vichy regime in 1940, Blum fought his accusers, forcing the suspension of his trial. From prison he laid the groundwork for a clandestine resurrection of the SFIO and forged links with General Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970). After the occupation of the southern zone, he was deported to the fringes of the camp at Buchenwald, where his status as a potential bargaining chip earned him preferential treatment.

For All Mankind, written during his internment, is a kind of manifesto for the democratic socialism that had always inspired him: a humanist socialism detached from Marxism, capable of reconciling Christianity and socialism. But in 1946 (as in 1920), his reformist advocacy of a French-style labor philosophy was at odds with power relations and their exigencies: the Communist Party had become the foremost party in France, de Gaulle's stature gave him considerable weight, and Blum's partisans within the party were soon defeated by Guy Mollet's neo-Marxists. These reverses did not put an end to his political career. In March 1946 he helped negotiate the preliminary loan under the Marshall Plan and, in counterpoint, the much-decried Blum-Byrne accords on the cinema, which liberalized the entry, previously subject to restrictions, of American films into France. President of a short-lived Socialist government in December 1946, and again approached for political office in the fall of 1947, Blum theorized the need for a Third Force between the Communist coalition and Gaullism, whose constitutionalist tendencies he opposed. Blum died in 1950.

See alsoFrance; Socialism.


Greilsammer, Ilan. Léon Blum. Paris, 1997.

Sadoun, Marc. De la démocratie française: Essai sur le socialisme. Paris, 1993.

Danielle Tartakowsky