1936

Popular Front Factory Occupations

1936 saw a dramatic rise in working class confidence

By 1930 the growing advance of Taylorist management in France’s larger workplaces against the backdrop of the 1919 48-hour week law meant that their workers’ annual hours had fallen to about 2,300, a reduction echoed elsewhere in Europe. Working time then, however, dropped dramatically and uniquely in France by another 400 hours a year between 1935 and 1937.

This was the result of a wave of mass factory occupations, that were legitimated by the Matignon agreements and the Law of June 24 1936. What was significant about this reduction was that while it reflected the temporary weakening of the hold of French employers, it was essentially politically-driven rather than the outcome of  worker demands.

Election, Factory occupations, Matignon agreement, Blum Popular Front Government – in progress

The factory occupations that followed the 1936 Popular Front election victory initially called upon local mayors to arbitrate the reinstatements of workers fired for striking on the May Day that fell between the two rounds of elections. Other workers then used the same defensive tactic (to prevent non-strikers from working) over wages.

Factories occupying – in progress

As the movement spread occupying workers began first to call for trade union rights and the recognition of shop stewards and, less frequently, for two weeks’ paid holiday and, even more rarely, for the 40-hour week. The reduction of the working week without loss of pay, however, had been included in the Popular Front’s 1936 election programme.

What difference did the factory occupations make?

The reformist CGT leader, Jouhaux, had campaigned vainly for years for a 40-hour week agreement, and in 1935 a measure proposing two weeks’ annual paid holiday was brought before the Senate. But these were not major rallying issues for French workers devastated by the loss of 1.3 million industrial jobs between 1931 and 1936. Between 1919 and 1935 only 1.3% of single-issue strikes and 13.1% of multi-issue strikes recorded in France concerned a shorter working week.

When faced with employers who, even as thousands of their factories were being occupied, still refused to negotiate with the unions, the new prime minister Léon Blum saw the opportunity to go considerably further than had the 1919 Law in reinforcing the collective bargaining machinery that had been increasingly ignored since the mid-1920s by the employers. 

The 1936 Law gave the Minister of Labour powers to convene ‘joint commissions’ of ‘the most representative’ of employers’ associations and trade unions in a regional or national ‘branch’ of any industry to negotiate collective agreements. It reintroduced a First World War procedure whereby the Minister could order all the employers in the branch to comply with the agreements – whether or not they had participated in them – if their workers were trade union members.

And it prescribed a minimum substantive content (the 40 hours, two weeks’ paid leave, minimum wages for different job classifications and periods of notice) and minimum procedures (recognising workers’ rights to trade union membership, the election of workplace delegates). Labour inspectors were, however, also granted powers to make exemptions, powers that were used more and more frequently as the slow economic growth from 1937 was blamed by the employers on the 40-hour week.

The law of June 24 1936 was the most important pre-Second World War advance in state intervention on wage formation. It specified that the collective agreements negotiated should lay down minimum wages for each level of worker in the sector and included the possibility that the agreements reached between the negotiating parties could be extended by Ministerial order to all firms within the particular industry or region. It thus created a state mechanism for generalizing standard minimum rates for all workers.

Rue des Archives

Arrondissement 3

Numbers: 48, 58, 76

The Brasserie du Commerce and its Auger Restaurant at No. 48 were a regular meeting place for left groups in the mid and late 1930s. The Young Socialists (Jeunesses socialistes), ‘Bolshevik-Leninists around ‘Truth‘, and the Communist-dominated Secours Rouge (Red Cross) that changed its name to Secours populaire (People’s Help) all used to meet there.

It was at the Brasserie du Commerce that Marceau Pivert, Daniel Guérin and the Luxemburgist René Lefeuvre drew up the constitution of the ‘Revolutionary Left’ tendency within the SFIO on September 25 1935.

No 48 was also the place where Pivert’s new left revolutionary socialist party, the PSOP, decided to exclude the small numbers of Trotskyists including Lambert who had started to ‘enter’ it in 1939.

In 1808 the National Archives were placed in the Hôtel de Clisson at No. 58. It was built first in 1371 (its turreted gateway survives) and then acquired by the Duke of Guise who changed the name to the Hôtel de Soubise.

One of the barricades erected during the brief insurrection of May 12 1839 by the Seasons Club led by Blanqui and Barbes was based at No. 76, across the road at what was then the junction of 18 Rue du Grand Chantier with the Rue Pastourelle.

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PLACES

Rue Mouffetard

Arrondissement 5

Numbers: 23, 89, 140

One of Paris’ oldest streets traced onto an earlier Roman road it dates back to the 3rd century AD when the old Roman town on the left bank was being abandoned in favour of the safer, fortified smaller location on the île de la Cité.

The road falls away on the south side of the Sainte-Genevieve hill. Its name could come from a corruption of the place name, Mont Cétard, to Mont Fétard and eventually becoming Mouffetard. Alternatively, the old French word ‘moufette‘ used to mean an awful smell, and it could be that this is its origin.

No. 23 was an important address for the interwar left in Paris. In 1933 Daniel Guérin  organised meetings there for antifascist German refugees.

The Rue Mouffetard was still a busy shopping street in the 1930s when this photograph was taken. Today No. 23 is a bar, and, still busy, the old road now has dozens of restaurants.

In 1935 it housed the offices of Marceau Pivert‘s Revolutionary Left newspaper, and in 1936 the anarchist journal ‘Spartacus’ Notebooks’ where Victor Serge published ‘16 shot: Where is the Russian Revolution going?‘.

In June 1848 a barricade went up across the road at No. 89. On June 23 1848 a company of the Mobile Guard was disarmed here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given it was a very cheap area in which to live, and the numbers of political refugees coming to Paris, for nearly two decades from 1885, No. 140 was strongly associated with anarchist publications.

Rue Mouffetard with No 140 on the left, photographed around 1900. The market is in front of the Saint-Médard church.

On 1 February 1885 Jean Grave launched a French-based edition of Kropotkin‘s anarchist journal Le Révolté at this address. After its presses were seized it changed its name to La Révolte. Among those who wrote for it were the exiled Élisée Reclus and Émile Pouget. Among its readers was Pierre Monatte.

From 4 May 1895 it changed its name to become Les Temps Nouveaux (New Times), which continued to publish up to August 1914, when almost all its writers supported the First World War’s ‘Holy Unity’ against Germany.

On 24 February 1889 Pouget launched the weekly anarchist newspaper Le Père Peinard from the same address. This was frequently raided by the police and the last number of its first series appeared on 21 February 1894, when Pouget escaped to London.

In 1871 Élie Reclus, who had been director of the National Library in Paris under the Paris Commune was hidden in the rue Mouffetard by a family friend for several weeks before escaping to London.

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PLACES

Avenue de Wagram

Arrondissements 8, 17

Number: 37/39

Looking up the Avenue to the Arc de Triomphe around 1900

One of 12 broad radial roads that leaves the Arc de Triomphe from what used to be called the ‘Square of the Star’ (Place de l’Étoile) and was renamed Place Charles-de-Gaulle in 1970. The road was first opened on January 16 1789 when the section of the Farmers’ tax wall was completed between the Etoile (Neuilly) and Roule (Ternes) customs posts. It became de Wagram on March 2 1864 during the Second Empire to honour Napoleon I’s significant victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Wagram on July 6 1809.

The Salle Wagram at No. 37/39 witnessed some key meetings in the history of the Left in France. On the site of a guingette (open air café) run by a Napoleonic war veteran since 1812 on a country lane outside the city walls (and so providing cheap wine), under the restoration he developed it into dance hall, the Bal Dourlans.

In 1865 a new covered hall designed by Fleuret was inaugurated surrounded by two rings of seats. In 1899 the hall was given in a legacy to one of the five academies grouped within the Institut de France, which continued to run it as a dance hall, concert hal, exhibition halll and venue for political meetings.

Immediately after the 5th Congress of the Second Socialist International was held at the Salle Wagram from September 23 to 27 1900, leading to the establishment of a permanent international committee, an even more important development took place.

From September 28 to 30 1900 the Second Congress of French Socialist organisations took place at the Salle Wagram. Jules Guesde (P.O.F.), Jean Allemane, Jean Jaurès and Aristide Briand were all present. During it Guesde’s Parti Ouvrier de France decided to leave the unity meeting.

The entrance that led to the Salle Wagram around 1900

On March 28 1910 Vera Figner presided at a fund-raising concert at the Salle Wagram to support Russian revolutionaries escape from prison. Among those who attended were Lenin and Maxime Gorky, although Lenin avoided meeting Gorky since he didn’t wish to have a political argument with him.

Shortly before Lenin left Paris he attended an event at the Salle Wagram on April 15 1912 to honour the centenary of the birth of Alexander Herzen, the founder of Russian socialism.

On the third anniversary of the Russian Revolution, November 7 1920, Pierre Monatte, the anarchist Caroline Rémy and Boris Souvarine were among those who attended a celebration meeting at the Salle Wagram.

Caroline Remy, the anarchist journalist who joined the Communist Party in 1921 shown here painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

André Malraux attended at least two meetings organised by the Communist Party in the Salle Wagram. One in 1933 was support of ErnstThälmann, the jailed leader of the German Communist Party, and on December 23 1935 he spoke at the second anniversary of Dmitrov’s acquittal of setting fire to the Reichstag.

On July 30 1936 Malraux was given huge applause at the Salle Wagram when, returning from Spain, he spoke at the first major solidarity meeting with Republican Spain.

Under the Occupation the fascist French Popular Party mounted a ‘Bolshevism against Europe’ exhibition at the Salle Wagram that opened on March 1 1942. On March 8 three resistance fighters failed to set off a bomb in the exhibition. The Romanian-born Jew André Kirschen (aged 15 and a half), Karl Schoenhaar and Georges Tondelier were arrested. They were tortured and the two older men were executed. Kirschen was sent to a concentration camp because of his youth, and survived.

After the Second World War the Salle Wagram was hired by the extreme right on October 28 1948 to hold a meeting for ‘Peoples oppressed by the Bolsheviks’. A counter demonstration by 12,000 communists was attacked by the police, involving 1 death and 300 wounded.

After the war it was also the major Paris jazz venue, with musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Bud Powell and Django Reinhardt all playing there. Sidney Bechet performed his last concert there in 1958.

On September 1 1950 a communist meeting in support of the Vietnam liberation movement was held at the Salle Wagram. Its principal speaker was Léo Figuères, a resistance fighter who had visited Vietnam and whose arrest had been ordered by the military.

The Algerian liberation movement whose president was Messali Hadj, the Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques, held huge meetings at No. 37 on June 13 1950 and, in protest against police violence on May Day, on May 5 1951.

The Algerian war for independence that began in 1954 saw a joint protest meeting of the SFIO and Marceau Pivert‘s recently founded (June 1955) Mouvement pour la justice et les libertés outre-mer (Movement for Justice and Freedom in the Colonies) taking place at the Salle Wagram on October 7 1955. The meeting called on the government to stop sending military reinforcements to Algeria.

Socialism

Accused of being drunkards in several areas of France the early SFIO campaigned against alcoholism as well as against capitalism

French socialism began to distinguish itself both from Proudhon’s anarchistic appeal to humanity’s moral responsibilities and from Blanqui’s insurrectionism in the 1890s. Founded by Blum, Jaures and Vaillant in 1905 in the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair, the SFIO united left reformist republicans and Marxist sectarians. The alliance broke up in 1920 when a majority at the Tours Conference voted to affiliate to the new Communist International.

Despite being a minority at that SFIO conference, the SFIO of left reformist socialism became the leading left political current through nearly all the interwar period. After the Communist Party ended Stalin’s ‘class against class’ propaganda against the Socialists and proposed a Popular Front alliance, Blum became prime minister in 1936.

Under the Fourth Republic its internal divisions over Algerian independence, with Mendes France and the challenge of the stronger Communist Party allowed De Gaulle to take power. In 1981 Mitterrand won a decisive majority on a left platform that he abandoned three years later. From then the Socialist Party became largely a party of elected national and local officials, without any real mass membership. In 2017, following five politically disastrous years under Hollande, the Socialist Party suffered a major defeat in both the presidential and National Assembly elections. A new left party, La France Insoumise (France untamed), did relatively well, with the Left Front’s presidential candidate getting 19.6% of the vote in the first round.

The vote for the La France Insoumise leader Mélenchon in the first round of the 2017 presidential elections shows stronger support in the less wealthy parts of Paris

Like the Socialists, though, Melonchon’s La France Insoumise has still virtually no local membership base. In the European elections of 2019, its share of the vote fell to 6%.

Work in progress