Communism 1939-1947

From shame to (nearly) game

l’Humanité headline 26 August 1939 demanded a ‘Union of the French Nation against Hitlerian aggression’

The ten-year non-aggression Pact signed in Moscow on 23 August 1939, by the foreign ministers of Germany and the Soviet Union shocked Communist party members to the core. It came less than a year after the PCF had rejected appeasement over Czechoslovakia by France and Britain and five months after Hitler had occupied the whole country. 

The Daladier (socialist-radical) government then banned the Communist daily . In its last legal issue on August 26 it reiterated that France must:

keep its commitments in relation to the threats against Poland… we will consider any attack on her as an attack on all free people, on us. This is the unanimous belief of French people worthy of the name. It’s our belief.

l’Humanité, 26 August 1939

On September 2 1939, the day before France and the UK declared war on Germany, all 72 PC deputies in the National Assembly voted in favour of war credits. They were convinced this was an anti-fascist war. 

Called up, Maurice Thorez (1900-1964), the PCF’s General Secretary since 1930, left Paris to join his military unit as did the young full-time Communist organisers and other militants. 

For nearly four weeks there was no word from Moscow as to how the PC should respond to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Finally, Dmitrioff’s emissary from Moscow arrives in Paris with ‘the line’: the war was an ‘imperialist war’ by France and Britain, and communists should not fight against the Germans. 

Thorez was ordered to desert from the French army, which he does on October 4. He travelled first to Belgium and then moved to Moscow, where he lived until November 1944. A French military court promptly sentenced him to death for desertion. 

In November 1939 the PC opposes both London and Berlin calling for the ‘Vichy pirates to be thrown out’ and ‘France for the French’

‘Only the Communist party,’ the leaflet above claimed in November 1939, ‘fights against all the capitalist warmongers’. 

Repression against the PC 

Moscow’s new position led 25 deputies to resign from the PC along with many of its mayors and councillors. The PC itself was banned by the Daladier government on September 26 1939 and 44 of its deputies were arrested and jailed or deported to Algeria. Some escaped to live clandestinely in France. 

Some activists like Lucie Aubrac (1912-2007) immediately threw themselves into the resistance movement. 

All the communes controlled by the PC had their elected councils dissolved and 2,800 elected representatives had their mandates removed. In the reunified CGT all members who did not condemn the August 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov pact were expelled and 620 trade union branches were closed by the radical-socialist Minister of the Interior. 

By March 1940 there had been nearly 11,000 searches, 3,400 arrests, 459 communists interned without trial, and 100 found guilty by military tribunals of whom 14 were given death sentences. A law was proposed in April 1940 to allow the death penalty for those making communist propaganda. 

In 1940 the PC campaigned both against De Gaulle and his British manipulators, but also against Petain

An underground issue of L’Humanité demanded:

‘No English soldiers with De Gaulle! No German soldiers with Petain! Long live the Union of the French Nation. No British dominion. No German protectorat. Long live the Free Independent and Happy France that the Communists want and will bring about.’ 

Two-sided L’Humanité news sheets were still run off roughly once a week and distributed largely just to PC members and trusted supporters who would reproduce them when possible. The paper regularly included articles signed ‘Maurice Thorez somewhere in France’. PC membership dropped to perhaps just 5,000, of whom several hundred were full-time workers, still being paid from the secret ‘banks’ of money the PC had stored in ‘safe houses’ earlier. 

Phoney war 

During the ‘phoney war’ period from October 1939 to April 1940 a handful of communists in arms factories committed acts of sabotage. This was supposedly for trying to ‘stop, slow down, make unusable the instruments of war’ as one PCF leaflet urged workers to do against the ‘imperialist war’. Some members were shot by the French government for ‘sabotaging national defence’ during the phoney war as a leading communist acknowledged in June 1940. 

The PCF’s contribution to the pacifist anti-war effort was one of the arguments its Paris-based leadership used in abortive negotiations after the German occupation in June 1940. Moscow had ordered its local emissaries to talk to the Germans to secure the reappearance of local trade union newspapers and eventually the banned L’Humanité (as was happening in Denmark, Norway and Belgium). 

A month later Moscow changed its mind and called off the negotiations as ‘dangerous because they could compromise the militants involved as well as the Party’. 

June 21 1941 

In June 1941 the PC calls on France to fight Germany because Hitler broke the non-aggression pact by attacking the ‘home of socialism’

The German invasion of Russia on June 21 1941 led to the PC reversing its line again. A special issue of l’Humanité argues the attack on ‘socialism’ in Russia means the war is now a national and international war against fascism. 

Even earlier some individual members had joined the very small numbers in the resistance. In May-June 1941 PC members had played a key role in the coal miners’ strike in the North of France. In the biggest wartime strike, around 100,000 miners struck for improvements in working conditions and wages 

German motor cycles ride up the Champs Elysee after Paris is occupied on June 14 1940, four days after the French government had fled South

The German troops who had been parading down the Champs Elysée every morning since France was occupied on June 14 1940 became some of its targets. 

The PCF’s nearly two years’ experience in clandestine work made it central to the developing resistance movement within France. Its armed resistance began on 21 August 1941 when a 21-year-old member, Pierre Georges (1919-1944), later known as Colonel Fabien, shot and killed a German officer at the Barbès metro station. 

On October 22 and 24, after three more resistance killings of officers and several bombings, the Germans took mass reprisals for the first time: they shot 100 people, including Guy Moquet, the 17-year-old son of a PCF deputy. 

The taking of these hostages had been strictly ordered: in first place were former elected communist or anarchist representatives; in second place, people who helped the diffusion of communist propaganda. 

Communist resistance 

From late 1941 the PCF set about creating an arms-length, independent armed organisation, the FTPF.

The FTP Snipers and Supporters was formed by the Communist Party in 1942] Benefiting greatly from the two years’ experience PC activists already had in operating in clandestinity the FTP, as it became known, soon became one of the more effective resistance organisations. 

In the Paris region fewer than a hundred members of the CGT’s earlier organisation of migrant workers, the Main-d’oeuvre immigrée (MOI), are organised into the FTP-MOI from March 1942, with its orders coming via the PC from Moscow. 

The MOI was made up mainly of exiled Italian and Spanish communists, former members of the International Brigades, and Jewish resistance fighters. 

The Manouchian group of the FTP-MOI of migrant workers and Jews were finally executed in 1944

The MOI led a major armed resistance campaign with attacks taking place every two days from the end of 1942 until November 1943, when its last surviving section was arrested and executed early in 1944 after a show trial. 

Despite thousands of police searches and arrests, the PC’s clandestine organisation survived through to 1944. 

Paris in 1944 according to police files that show (in red) the resistance (mainly communist) homes searched and the location of open and hidden police stations. The actual addresses can be found at

National Resistance Council 

In January 1943 a former PCF deputy who had escaped from jail took a fishing boat to cross the channel to represent the Communist Party with De Gaulle in London.

On 27 May 1943 Jean Moulin’s efforts to unify the eight main resistance groups across France with the anti-fascist trade unions and political parties led to a key meeting take place in a Parisian first floor flat at 48 rue du Four

The PC, the FTP and the now reunified CGT all participated in this founding of the National Resistance Council along with representatives of the SFIO, the Radicals, the Christian-democrats and the conservative catholic Republicans. 

The PC’s involvement was directed by Stalin who earlier that same month had dissolved the Komintern (the Communist (Third) International), to demonstrate goodwill to his British and American allies. No longer the French Section of the now non-existent Communist International, the party then removed the SFIC from its name, becoming just the Parti communiste français (PCF). 

The three main groupings of resistance fighters totalling about 100,000 were brought together under the banner of the FFI (Forces françaises de l’intérieur) on February 1 1944. The FTP, while fighting as the FFI, nonetheless kept its own structures. PCF resistance fighters played a major role in the liberation of Paris in August 1944. 

Communist ministers 1944 

In September 1944 two communists are named ministers by De Gaulle in his French Provisional Government. Charles Tillon, the commander of the FTP, was named Minister of the Airforce. The former PC deputy elected in 1936, François Billoux, was named Minister of Public Health. He had been released from jail in Algeria after the allies landed in North Africa in 1943 and served on the Provisional Consultative Assembly. 

At the same time, the communist trade unionist Benoît Frachon (1893-1975) launched a call for the ‘battle of production’, urging workers to produce more for the war effort. 

Frachon was one of the PCF’s leading triumvirate who lived clandestinely just south-east of Paris from 1941-1944. He had been one of the CGT’s six negotiators with the government and the employers who ended the 1936 factory occupations with the Matignon Agreements

In November 1944 De Gaulle finally granted a pardon to Thorez for his 1939 desertion and he returned to France, although the PCF did not acknowledge his absence from the country for some years for fear of tarnishing his image. 

The PCF’s reputation as the ‘party of 25,000 executed activists’ was sky high at Liberation. By December 1944 it claimed 370,000 paying members and within two years it claimed 800,000. 

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

In October 1945 the PCF attracted 26% of the vote for the First Constituent Assembly. This compared to 23% for the Socialists and 24% for a progressive Catholic party close to De Gaulle. 

In January 1946, after De Gaulle resigns as President of the Council of Ministers, Thorez then became a deputy president, and seven PCF members were made ministers: Tillon at Armaments, Marcel Paul at Industrial Production, August Lecoeur at Coal, and most importantly Ambroise Croizat (1901-1951) and Marius Patinaud at the Ministry of Labour and Social Security. 

In the next government, from June to November 1946, there were nine PCF ministers as well as Thorez. 

In the first November 1946 National Assembly elections of the Fourth Republic, the Communists won 5.4 million votes, 28.6% of the second ballot vote, and 182 seats. 

The PCF had become France’s largest political party in an election in which turnout was a massive 77% of the 25 million men and women voters. 

A French road to socialism 

After the election Thorez publicly argued for the first time that ‘It was possible to move towards socialism in other ways than that followed by the Russian Communists’. The PCF demanded that Thorez be elected president of the council of ministers (prime minister). 

At the National Assembly on December 5 1946 Thorez received 259 votes for the top position as president. But he needed 314 seats to win, and would not have been elected even if 29 Socialist deputies had not abstained. 

Instead, first the former Popular Front head, Léon Blum (1872-1950) for a month, and then Paul Ramadier, another socialist, became president of the council of ministers in a three-party coalition. Between January and May 1947 alongside Robert Schuman and François Mitterrand, the PCF held five ministerial posts in the Ramadier government. 

The achievements of the PCF between 1944 and 1947 were considerable. Its mass support and presence in government, meant that French nationalisations went further than they had in Britain. 

The nationalised industries included the coal industry, certain firms that had been penalised for their wartime collaboration (like the Renault car firm), the merchant marine fleet and leading aviation companies. Paris’ public transport system, the RATP, was taken over to join the private rail network already nationalised in 1938 

Finance was also brought within the public sphere. The Banque de France and the four major deposit banks (including Crédit Lyonnais and Société Générale) and 34 insurance companies all became state-owned. 

Ambroise Croizat (1901-1951) was Communist Minister of Labour and Social Security from 22 November 1945 until May 4 1947. In 1945 the right to elect personnel (sectional) representatives was restored, and in workplaces with 50 or more workers Works Councils were set up. 

In the 18 months Croizat was in office the concept of ‘women’s wages’ was outlawed, marking a step towards equal pay for men and women. The 40-hour week was restored with a 20 hours ceiling on overtime that had to be paid at an enhanced rate. The two weeks’ paid holiday was restored, and extended to younger workers. May Day was declared a paid holiday. 

He also reorganised France’s social security to give contributors a say in the top administrative councils of the different funds. In future social security was to be jointly managed by the unions and the employers. Minimum pensions and a family benefit welfare system were also brought in. 

The end of national unity 

In May 1947 the Communist ministers were all sacked when the PCF finally gave its support to the Renault strikers and so opposed the national wage controls, primarily to avoid getting totally outflanked to its left. 

The Renault factory at the heart of this strike was located on the Île Seguin on the Seine, a part of Boulogne-Billancourt five miles from central Paris. In 1947 some 17,000 of its 30,000 workers were PCF members. 

Renault had been nationalised in January 1945 by De Gaulle’s provisional government because of Louis Renault’s active collaboration with the Germans, in particular because of the wartime management’s active denunciations of trade unionists and communists to the police. 

The Renault factory on the Île Seguin where the 1947 strike resulted in PCF ministers being sacked from the government

By April 1947 there were handfuls of other communists than PCF members inside Renault. There were some ten members of the rebadged Union communiste around the Barta Group of David Korner (1914-1976), a few members of the tiny PCI around Pierre Frank (1905-1984), as well as a dozen anarcho-syndicalists. 

Fortuitously most of these communists were working in key sections of the factory making gearboxes, gears and steering systems. As a result, if they went on strike the whole factory would have to stop production within days. 

When they started holding meetings around the demand for 10 francs an hour wage increase, first raised by the local CGT’s PCF leadership, but then dropped in ‘the national interest’, they got considerable support from other sections of the factory. On Friday 25 April the gearbox section stopped work and put up pickets calling the rest of the factory to strike. 

Despite being denounced by the local CGT as ‘a band of anarcho-Hitlerite-Trotskyists’, some 3,000 workers joined the strike at the Monday mass meeting, and then 10,000 on the Tuesday. 

The April 28 1947 mass meeting at Renault that led to the expulsion of Communist ministers from the government.

On Wednesday 30 April the five PCF ministers spoke publicly in support of the demands made by the strikers. On May 4 Ramadier asked them whether they supported the government’s programme to continue the colonial wars in Indochina and Madagascar and to reject the workers’ demands for higher wages. Thorez responded that ‘We support the demands of the working class’. 

Ramadier, already under pressure from the Americans to exclude all communists from government posts, then fired them. One of the Socialist ministers present at that May 4 Sunday late night meeting reported:

‘The Communist ministers got up, left. There were no more Communist ministers. That was it. It was extremely rapid and absolutely straightforward’. 

Despite having one third of deputies in the National Assembly and over 5 million voters, the PCF would then spend the next 34 years in opposition.