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 Auguste Comte

Arrondissement 6

Number 3

In 1885 this section of the Rue de l’abbé de L’Epée was given the name of the French mathematician and founder (1798-1857) of the positivist philosophical school

A flat in the imposing No. 3 belonged to the parents of Simone Weil, and this was where she met with Trotksy on 30 December 1933 and hid him for a few days during a clandestine visit to Paris. Trotsky took the decision that night to move to found the Fourth International.

A plaque on the wall states only that Simon Weil lived there from 1929 until 1940 and that she was a philosopher.

The property at No. 3 where Simone Weil’s parents owned a flat now has a plaque commemorating her presence there.

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Rue Clovis

Arrondissement 5

Number 23

In June 1848 Rue Clovis was the site of one of the dozens of workers’ barricades defending the national workshops that were attacked by troops

The Lycée Henri-IV  at No. 23 stands on the site of the  Abbaye-Sainte-Geneviève canteen, cellar and garden hut which, after the fall of Robespierre in 1794, became home to the  Panthéon Club. This was established on 17 November 1795 as a broad assembly of those who wished to carry forward the revolutionary spirit. Babeuf and Buonarroti were among those who took part.

On February 28 1796 the club was closed down by the authorities, with General Bonaparte personally supervising the operation. Babeuf and Buonarroti then pursued the struggle through less legal channels.

The Abbey became the Lycée Napoléon from 1804 to 1815 and again from 1848 to 1870. During the Commune it became a workshop for making uniforms for the National Guard that was defending Paris.

The Abbey finally took its present name in 1873. Among Henri-IV’s alumni are Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, André Gide, Léon Blum, Simone Weil, Baron Haussmann and Emmanuel Macron.

Plus d’informations

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Rue d’Ulm

Arrondissement 5

Number: 45,

The Rue d’Ulm, going south from the Panthéon, was opened on January 6 1807. It was named after the crushing defeat of the Austrian army by Napoléon at the Battle of Ulm between October 15 and 20 1805.

It is largely known because since November 4 1847 it hosted France’s most prestigious higher education selective university, the École normale supérieure (ENS) at No. 45. This special institution was initiated by Napoléon on March 17 1808 when he created a ‘standard boarding school’ (Pensionnat normal) within Paris university to train arts and science teachers. The students had to follow military rules and wear uniforms and were chosen from those who performed best in the secondary schools.

Louis Pasteur‘s laboratory was based there from 1864 to 1888, and was where he discovered a vaccine for rabies. The photgraph above shows the ENS in 1905.

From 1888 to 1926 the socialist Lucien Herr was the director of the ENS general library, with one of the students he influenced being Léon Blum. Herr also convinced Jaures there in 1898 of the innocence of Captain Dreyfus.

Students who studied at ENS included Maurice Halbwachs (who died at Buchenwald), Marc Bloch (executed by the Gestapo on June 16 1944), Raymond Aron, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone Weil, Georges Pompidou, Aimé Césaire, and Alain Touraine.

Perhaps the ENS’ most well-known left resident was Louis Althusser. He entered the ENS in 1945. Having passed the final exams with the highest marks, he began to work there from 1948, living in a staff flat provided by the ENS. This was where in 1980 in a fit of manic depression Althusser strangled his partner of 54 years.

In the aftermath of 1968 the Maoist group, La Gauche Prolétarienne (The Proletarian Left), held regular meetings in the Cavaillès lecture theatre. Among their leaders was Benny Levy. On October 21 1970 they used the ENS building to make Molotov cocktails.

PR

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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