French Labor, World War II

views updated

French Labor, World War II

France 1940-1944


In 1940 the German forces of Adolph Hitler's Third Reich occupied France, and the Third Republic collapsed. The puppet Vichy regime dissolved French labor unions, forced collaboration with the Nazis, and deported Jewish workers to Germany. France was divided into free and occupied zones. In 1942 the pro-Hitler regime of Marshal Pétain made French labor available to the German invaders, and French youth were forced into mandatory labor service. From the beginning of the occupation, workers of the disbanded trade unions played a key role in the growing French resistance movement. Starting with individual acts of sabotage against Nazi installations, the French populace developed a network of resistance movements. A strike by Paris police and subway workers preceded the liberation of Paris in August of 1944. The postliberation government restored the labor unions and established the Fourth Republic.


  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1925: Released from Landsberg Prison, Adolf Hitler is a national celebrity, widely regarded as an emerging statesman who offers genuine solutions to Germany's problems. This year, he publishes the first volume of Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which he dictated in prison to trusted confederate Rudolf Hess. The second and final volume of Hitler's opus, a mixture of autobiography, "history," and racial rant, will appear two years later.
  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 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.
  • 1941: The United States initiates the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb and signs the Lend-Lease Act, whereby it provides aid to Great Britain and, later, the Soviet Union.
  • 1942: By executive order of the U.S. president, some 120,000 Japanese Americans are placed in West Coast internment camps.
  • 1943: To offset the costs of war, the U.S. government introduces income tax withholding—which it claims to be a temporary measure.
  • 1944: International Monetary Fund and World Bank is created at Bretton Woods Conference.
  • 1945: At the Yalta Conference in February, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin make plans for Germany after its by now inevitable surrender.
  • 1950: United States begins developing the hydrogen bomb.
  • 1955: Over the course of the year, a number of key items are added to the pantheon of American culture: the 1955 Chevrolet, the first of many classic models; Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Marilyn Monroe's performance in The Seven-Year Itch; Disneyland; and Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock."
  • 1961: U.S. President Eisenhower steps down, warning of a "military-industrial complex" in his farewell speech, and 43-year-old John F. Kennedy becomes the youngest elected president in U.S. history. Three months later, he launches an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.

Event and Its Context

Labor at Its Pinnacle

French labor unions in the years immediately prior to the Nazi invasion were perhaps at one of the most privileged points in French political and labor history. The first-ever socialist government, led by Prime Minister Léon Blum, had been elected in 1936. The Popular Front of 1936-1938 undertook major reforms. After a wave of demonstrations and strikes, organized labor won a major battle with the Matignon Agreement of 1936. The agreement, which became law in 1937, established a social safety network (paid holidays and pensions), a 40-hour work-week, and a framework of industrial relations that recognized the right to internal and local representation and to collective bargaining. The new law also paved the way for the minister of labor to make collective agreements binding on all employers, regardless of their employer association affiliations.

Nazi Occupation and Collapse of the Third Republic

French labor's gains came to an abrupt end with the Nazi invasion of May 1940, which displaced millions of civilians. The German Army occupied Paris on 14 June 1940. Although some members of the French armed forces refused to surrender and fled to continue to fight from exile, Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain signed an armistice with the Germans on 22 June. The Third Republic collapsed, and on 10 July the parliament granted full powers to Pétain as head of state. France was divided into free and occupied zones, and the collaborationist government set up its provisional capital at Vichy. The Pétain government was authoritarian, corporatist, and discriminatory (particularly against Jews), substituting the fascist Travail, Famille, Patrie (Work, Family, Fatherland) for the republican trinity of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity). Pétain and Hitler met in the town of Montoire on 24 October 1940, thus officially beginning French collaboration with Nazi Germany. That month the overtly fascist Vichy government, on its own initiative and without prodding from Germany, ordered Jewish ID cards and forced Jewish businesses to identify themselves as such. Meanwhile, General Charles de Gaulle, in a BBC radio address to his compatriots from London on 18 June 1940, called for resistance to the occupation and for the French to keep fighting on the side of the Allies, because "whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not and shall not die."

Labor and Leftists Under Attack

Once Pétain became head of state, he immediately attacked his political opponents. In July 1940 came the prohibition of political parties and in August the dissolution of the labor unions. The communist Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and the French Christian Workers' Confederation (CFTC) were banned. The new regime, beginning in 1942, began to make French laborers available to the Germans. Young men were rounded up for mandatory labor service (Service du Travail Obligatoire, STO). Some 75,000 Jews were murdered after deportation to Auschwitz (mostly in the summer of 1942). A similar number of non-Jewish French citizens died in Germany or occupied Poland as POWs, concentration camp inmates, and workers drafted for Germany industry.

The militia hunted down the men who avoided STO (as well as Jews, members of the Resistance, and anyone else opposing the regime). The Milice, Vichy's version of the German SS, boasted 150,000 militia members who fought alongside the Nazis. As in Germany, they swore allegiance to the head of state and uttered the oath, "I swear to fight against democracy, against Gaullist insurrection and against Jewish leprosy." Likewise, the Legion of French Volunteers against Bolshevism joined Axis forces on the eastern front. For the next four years, the French worked and lived in dire conditions.

As a leftist of Jewish origin, former prime minister Léon Blum was an immediate target of the Vichy government, which arrested him in 1940. In his war-guilt trial at Riom in February 1942, Blum defended his labor policy. He told his accusers that the Matignon Agreements were, apart from a means of stimulating demand for goods and services, a necessary price to pay to end strikes. His powerful defense made the Vichy government uneasy and so irked the Germans that the hearings were suspended and he was sent back to prison. U.S. troops freed him from a German concentration camp in 1945.

Worker Resistance

Opposition began almost as soon as the occupation, with a few thousand active insurgents in December 1940. At first, isolated individuals sabotaged Nazi installations. As the Gestapo began rounding up socialists and communists, many former trade unionists fled to forests or unoccupied zones and gradually formed into units of internal resistance, which were based on geographical location and political beliefs. As a new French army formed in French North Africa (liberated in November 1942), internal resistance groups known as Maquis joined into a network that gained increasing popular support. With 6 percent of the French population made up of foreigners, many thousands of immigrants were also active in the struggle.

One important resistance group was the Armée Secret (oriented toward the Socialist Party), whose primary objective was the execution of traitors and Gestapo agents. The group's second goal was to cut railway lines so as to derail enemy trains. It also aimed to cut enemy telegraphic installations. To stop production at key factories or groups of factories, the group defended cutting high-tension networks and engaging in industrial sabotage. In January 1941 radical Socialist Party members formed the Comité d'Action Socialiste.

Although the French Communist Party (PCF) leadership was originally stalled by the German-Soviet nonaggression pact, thousands of rank-and-file party members and trade union militants (more interested in revolutionary struggle than in defending the status quo of the republic) were taking up arms against the Nazis and their French collaborators. The PCF leadership, which viewed the conflict as being between French and German imperialisms, often had these party dissidents assassinated by the Organisation Secrete. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, however, the PCF adopted an overtly anti-German stance. That year, the Francs Tireurs Partisans (Partisan Snipers, FTP) resistance movement formed, comprising mainly trade unionists who were tied to the PCF. The FTP engaged in sabotage of industry and infrastructure. The group, led by Charles Tillon, later formed the military wing of the Front National, which appeared in May 1942.

Members of the PCF/FTP and the CGT had been pioneers in late-nineteenth-century revolutionary syndicalism and thus had a history of revolutionary activity. FTP units in rural areas were practically isolated from PCF leadership. Their grassroots political activities often put them further left than the PCF (which nonetheless advocated resistance through direct action and sabotage). In the Haute-Vienne area of Vichy France, FTP Maquis actively involved local peasants and encouraged local political activity (thus defying PCF leadership). Stealing dynamite from mines, local units blew up bridges, railroads, and telephone lines. They also targeted the hay bailing machines that peasants used before shipping hay. The Maquis fought the wartime black market by setting price ceilings and fined those who violated them. Following the dissolution of the Comintern in 1943, the PCF's Stalinist leadership dealt the ultimate blow to rank-and-file militants: they joined the (right-leaning) Gaullist Conseil National de la Resistance (National Resistance Council, CNR).

National Resistance Council

Jean Moulin, General de Gaulle's envoy to occupied France, arrived in the spring of 1943 to unite key resistance groups into the CNR. The CNR charter, published on 15 March 1944, demanded economic and social reforms for postliberation France. It demanded independent trade unions, universal suffrage, and equality for all citizens (as well as rights for colonial citizens). It demanded social security, a minimum wage, and worker participation in management. The CNR served as the base of the provisional government of the French Republic.

Massive Strikes and the Liberation of Paris

On 10 August 1944 striking railroad workers paralyzed the country. On Tuesday, 15 August, Paris police and metro workers went on strike, thus setting off a series of strikes and mass insurrection. On Wednesday, 16 August, postal workers struck. On Thursday, Radio Paris halted transmissions. On Friday, PTT (Post, Telephone, and Telegraph) workers went on strike and there was no edition of the pro-Vichy press; walls of Paris were covered with posters and notices proclaiming a general mobilization calling for insurrection. On Saturday, 19 August, the first combat of the insurrection began, and Pétain fled Vichy under German escort. Days of street fighting followed. Although many working-class militants wanted class insurrection against both the Nazis and the employing class, the PCF stated that the struggle should be limited to stopping fascism.

On 25 August 1944 General Leclerc and his troops liberated Paris. French and Allied forces that had aided in freeing Paris retook the rest of France and continued on to fight the Nazis until the Germans surrendered the following year. The Vichy government was replaced, and on 31 August the provisional government transferred to Paris, where it attempted to comply with the CNR charter by granting universal suffrage, improved social security, and nationalization of key industries. Labor returned to the national scene. The Confédération Générale des Cadres (CGC), which appeared in 1944, was a moderate, largely apolitical union representing the upper echelon of white-collar workers. In 1945 the Conseil National du Patronat Français (CNPF), the main employers' association, was established. The constitution of 1946 recognized the rights of all individuals to defend their rights and demands through union activity and to join the union of their choice.

Key Players

Blum, Léon (1872-1950): Blum was the leader of French socialism who, in 1936, led the Popular Front coalition of communists and radical and moderate socialists to national power. His short-lived government oversaw numerous advances for labor. His Jewish roots made him a special target of the Vichy government, which imprisoned him from 1940 until the end of the war.

De Gaulle, Charles André Joseph Marie (1890-1970): General and leader of the Free French movement who was the symbol of resistance outside of France, De Gaulle urged the French to continue fighting on the side of the Allies. He served as president of the provisional government in 1945, resigning in 1946. He later became the first president of the Fifth Republic (1959-1969).

Pétain, Henri-Philippe (1856-1951): Marshal Pétain, a French hero of World War I, was prime minister of the pro-Nazi government of Vichy, France (1940-1944). His alliance with Adolf Hitler entailed forced French labor. The Allied victory of 1945 brought him a death sentence, which was later commuted to life imprisonment.

Tillon, Charles (1897-1993): Tillon was a life-long militant in the French Communist Party (PCF). The PCF was dissolved in September 1939, and in June 1941 Tillon led the clandestine Francs Tireurs Partisans (FTP) in guerilla resistance against the Vichy government as chief of the national military committee.

See also: Confédération Générale du Travail; Popular Front.



Jenkins, Gareth. "The Forgotten Fighters." Socialist Review, no. 187 (1995).


"Biography: Leon Blum." The World at War [cited 22October 2002]. <>.

Callaghan, John. "Globalisation: The End of Social Democracy?" [cited 22 October 2002]. <>.

"Chronology of the Liberation." The Paris Pages. 2001 [cited22 October 2002]. <>.

"From the French Revolution to Today." John F. Kennedy Catholic School, Hertfordshire (UK) [cited 22 October 2002]. <>.

Lagrou, Pieter. "Representations of War in Western Europe,1939-1945" [cited 22 October 2002]. <>.

Reshef, Yonatan. "The Evolution of IR/HRM in France."University of Alberta (Canada) Web site [cited 22 October 2002]. <>.

"Tillon, Charles." Biographies des Contemporains. Web site of Charles de [cited 22 October 2002]. <>.

—Brett Allan King

About this article

French Labor, World War II

Updated About content Print Article