1914-1962: War, War and more War

The French left was as divided as ever in 1914 at the onset of France’s half century of devastating and divisive wars.

There were those in the footsteps of Blanqui and Babeuf who wished to orchestrate a revolutionary seizure of power and use the state to dispossess the capitalist class; many of Proudhon‘s supporters believed workers should take state power and then run society through the workers’ own organisations; and there were those like Jaures who believed that workers’ political parties could represent their interests and change capitalism without a bloody revolution.

None of these strands had fully anticipated the damaging impact war would have on their hopes and organisations. Most of the Left, with the notable exception of the then-assassinated Jaures, began by supporting the war as a war against ractonary Prussian imperialism and as an opportunity to recover Alsace-Lorraine.

World War 1

During World War 1 Germany used aircraft, Zepplins and a huge gun to bomb and shell Paris. The photograph shows the limited damage done at 5 boulevard de Grenelle on May 22 1915

By the end of World War 1, however, several of the different socialist strands came together after under the influence of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. This coincided with the eclipse of the peasant-worker economy and emergence of a mass working class, particularly strong in Paris and other growing cities. The 20 arrondissements of central Paris attained their all-time peak population of 2.9 million in 1921.

France was then staggering under the loss of 1.25 million soldiers with half a million civilian casualties and three-quarters of a million permanently injured in World War 1 out of a total population of 39 million. The horrific experience gave new impetus to the still present ideas of class conflict and fraternité.

In 1919 the passage of new laws to enforce sectoral collective negotiations in industry and the eight-hour working day to ‘reward’ workers for their wartime sacrifices led French employers to set up the first national multi-industry employers’ organisation, the General Confederation of French Production (CGPF).  

In the ”soldier blue’ national election of November/December 1919, two -thirds of the Parisian National Assembly deputy seats were won by the anti-Communist nationalist Bloc National. In the Municipal Elections held at the same time the Parisian socialists of the SFIO won 20 seats to the Bloc National’s 47.

The Left that survived the war was totally reshaped by World War 1 and the Russian Revolution. A French Communist Party (PCF) was formed in December 1920 by the majority of delegates at the French Socialist Party (SFIO) congress at Tours. However, only 13 of the then 68 Socialist deputies joined the new party.

The 1920 Christmas-time congress of the Socialist Party at Tours splits with the majority setting up the French Section of the Communist International

In the 1924 Paris municipal elections the now divided left won just 15 seats, with eight being won by the Socialists and seven by the Communists. By the 1928 municipal elections the Communists were doing better than the Socialists, but both were doing much worse than four years earlier: the PCF won five seats, the SFIO just two, and in addition there were two radical-socialists compared to the centre-right Union National’s 30 seats.

While some of the left supporters of the PCF quit it in the mid and late 1920s, largely in sympathy with the Russian Left Opposition, the PCF declined more significantly in the early 1930s. This decline largely resulted from its adopting the ‘Third Period’ policy of Stalin’s Communist International. Social democrats everywhere were attacked as ‘social fascists’. In France this meant attacking the socialist SFIO, both politically and sometimes physically.

Fighting for the 39 municipal councillor seats in the elections of 1932 the Communists won just one, a far left Party of Proletarian Unity (Parti de l’Unité ProlétariennePUP) won three, and the Socialists won 12.

Popular Front

The Communist Party’s sectarianism ended after a French fascist demonstration on February 6 1934 caused a massive riot outside the National Assembly, leaving 15 dead and 1,500 wounded. The reformist-led CGT called a one-day general strike and the Communist-led CGTU trade union confederation and PCF joined in, demonstrating together against the semi-military fascist groups being created.

Militants from both the SFIO and the PCF took up the slogan ‘Unity’ on the march and within months negotiations had begun that led to an agreement between the Socialists, Communists and Radicals not to split the vote in the Second Round of the next elections.

In the 1935 Paris municipal elections the Left won a majority of votes and 23 of the 39 seats.

Popular Front Election manifesto for the Radicals, Socialists and Communists April 1936

The following year saw the elections for the National Assembly. In the first round on April 26 1936 the Communists, Socialists and Radicals won 57% of the vote on a programme calling for Bread, Peace and Freedom. All the conservative parties offered was anti-communism. But many of the Radicals and some of the Socialists who were elected could only be described as ‘of the Left’ if the term was stretched a very long way.

The composition of the National Assembly in May 1936 changed considerably without, however, being anchored strongly to the Socialist and Communist left.

Leon Blum became the new prime minister of France. And working class militancy was once again uncorked.

The 1936 election victory triggered huge happy demonstrations on May 1 and a dramatic rise in working class confidence

Huge joyful demonstrations on the Friday 1 May 1936 led many employers sacking some of the strikers. This was followed by mass protest strikes and factory occupations. Many of the two million workers taking part occupied their workplaces to prevent the employers from introducing strike-breakers.

Under this pressure Léon Blum’s first Popular Front government brokered an agreement between the employers and the CGT that introduced the 40-hour week, two weeks’ annual paid holidays and granted trade union recognition and limited employee representation in large firms. The government then passed these measures into law.

Blum’s government of Socialists and Radicals and Left Republicans was immediately faced with the crisis created by German and Italian support of General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Non-intervention became its official policy, although it turned a blind eye to the work the Communist Party did to facilitate Russian weapons transiting France to support the Republican government.

French employers also sharpened their teeth after the strike wave and factory occupations of 1936. They then changed their organisation’s name to the General Confederation of French Bosses (Confédération générale du patronat français), most of whom collaborated more or less closely with Vichy and spurned De Gaulle’s Free French resistance movement during World War 2.

In June 1937 Blum, faced by an intransigent right-wing Senate, was forced to resign and was succeeded first by one Radical-Socialist and then by another before the Popular Front was dissolved in the autumn of 1938.


In 1940 the German occupation of Paris and Northern France and the Vichy government in the South put the cork back in the bottle.

German soldiers parade down the Champs Elysée in June 1940

Vichy fascism and German economic demands played an important role in preparing French capitalists for post-war state direction of the economy. The Vichy Government, through its local préfets, not only directly dictated wage rates, but also required all employers to join the ‘family’ corporatist trade organisation relevant to their sector.

The fascist Milice Francaise was formed in 1943 to fight the Resistance

Communist Party

The FTP Snipers and Supporters (Franc-Tireurs et Parisans Francais) was formed by the Communist Party in 1942. the poster states: The French partisans shed their blood for the People of Paris.

From the May 1941 northern coalminers’ strike until the Liberation the PCF played a major role within the resistance movement inside France. This cost the left dear: up to 75,000 of its members and sympathisers were executed.

French communists gained great prestige for their sacrifices in the resistance after 1941

But the PCF massively broadened its support. In the October 1945 elections for the Constituent Assembly of the Fourth Republic the PCF attracted 25% of the vote. It won 28% of the first ballot vote for the National Assembly in 1946. Communist Party members then entered the government.

On April 29 1945 the first municipal elections took place with women voting. Nine were among those elected. In Paris, where there were then 90 salaried councillors, voting was for 108 lists drawn up by different groups.

The Communists won 27 council seats, the Socialists 12, the Radicals 5, the ‘Resistance’ list 8, the Christian-Democrat MRP 14 and the right-wing ‘Moderates’ 22. A socialist Parisian deputy who had defended Blum at his 1942 trial, André le Troquer, was elected to chair the council.

After the Second World War

The presence of a substantial Communist party articulating a discourse of capital-labour conflict made it more difficult after 1944 for those sections of the employers who were looking for dialogue to find accommodating worker representatives, and reinforced anti-trade union attitudes among the employers.

It also strengthened workers’ sense of class identity and kept up pressure on the Socialists and centre-left Republicans to promise significant reforms. There was (and remains) a constant threat of strikes and street demonstrations if workers’ distinct interests are overlooked.

In 1947 the right consolidated its hold on Paris. Voters chose from 74 lists this time/ De Gaulle’s conservative RPF won an absolute majority with 52 seats. The Communists won 25, the Socialists 8 and the MRP just 5. De Gaulle’s brother, Pierre, became president of the largely powerless municipal council.

After 1950, the size of the PCF and the growing strength of the conservative right outside and inside the National Assembly after it had recovered from its collaborationist role during the Second World War, created considerable government instability.

The 1953 Paris municipal elections showed the continuing hold of the Communist Party over most of working class Paris. They were against the largest party with 28 elected alongside 9 Socialists, but the independents and right-wing parties held a clear majority.

None of the political parties were prepared to dismantle the French empire at the speed with which the colonised peoples of Asia, the Middle East and Africa were demanding it.

Military attempts under the Fourth Republic (1945-1958) to preserve France’s empire and influence in Vietnam, Algeria and Egypt all failed.

Coup d’État

Generals Massau and Salan head the Army Algerian coup d’etat of May 1958

In 1958 the French Army staged a pre-emptive military coup in Algeria to prevent a new French government from negotiating French withdrawal. The colony had faced a nationalist liberation struggle since 1954.

In the subsequent stalemate, when the Algerian-based officers were not sure enough of their conscripts to invade France and the French government lacked the authority to do anything about the military uprising, General de Gaulle announced he would respond to a ‘legal’ summons to return to power.

Socialists and Communists protest against the coup d’etat in May 1958

Despite some left opposition, De Gaulle was voted Premier in the National Assembly on June 1 1958 on his condition that he could rule by decree for six months. In September 1958 he submitted the constitution of a new Fifth Republic to a referendum and won a 78% Yes vote.

Effective legislative power was then transferred from the Assembly to a seven-year term President, who became responsible for nominating the Prime Minister.

In Paris the 1959 six-yearly municipal elections saw Communist (29) and Socialists (9) representation unchanged while the new Gaullist party, the UNR (25), and the less dirigiste right-wing CNI (19) and MRP (6) had a majority.

The cork went back in the bottle.

Fifth Republic

The establishment of the Fifth Republic partly represented the reassertion of the old state bureaucracy over the broader democratic political process. But De Gaulle’s new governing alliance was not just between the right-wing generals, the senior civil service administrators and technocratic modernisers. It also embraced a significant part of the traditional Catholic conservative right.

While initially receiving considerable support as a way of ending the chaos of Fourth Republic politics and the Algerian War, the Fifth Republic was increasingly experienced as a mechanism for freezing French social relations at the very moment when economic growth was threatening to burst them apart.

Tens of thousands marched against the Algerian curfew and for independence on 17 October 1961

In October 1961 a huge peaceful Algerian demonstration in Paris was attacked by the Paris police.

Police attack Algerian demonstrators in Paris killing dozens on 17 October 1961

Dozens of Algerian demonstrators drowned when thrown by the police into the Seine. Many on the left gave unconditional support to Algerian independence. Henri and Clara Benoîts, for example, were CGT trade union activists at the Renault-Billancourt factory. There, they carried out solidarity actions with Algerian workers and on October 17 were asked to be official observers for the FLN.

De Gaulle finally recognised that Algeria could not be forcibly retained as a French colony. So France’s last major war ended with the Evian Peace Agreements signed on March 18 1962.

A closer view

1914-1918: World War One

1918-1936: Rise of the Communist Party

1936: Popular Front Factory Occupations

1936-1940: From the Spanish Civil War to World War Two

1940-1944: Occupation and Resistance

1944-1948: From Liberation to the Marshall Plan

1948-1958: Fourth Republic and Colonial Wars

1958-1968: Coup d’État and De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic