France in the 1930’s Part VIII
Internally, the work of the last ministries, in the fight against the economic crisis, had tired the country with the sacrifices necessary, but not sufficient for themselves, imposed by a policy of strict deflation. The decrease in exports and the rise in unemployment, the rise in interest rates, the loss of gold in reserves, the increase in public debt, are the fruits of a policy that seemed to lead to economic and financial asphyxiation. The elections took place on April 26 and centered on a duel between the left parties united in the “popular front” and the groups of the center and the right which – while remaining autonomous – proceeded in agreement. The left forces conducted the electoral campaign on the equivocal formula: neither deflation, nor devaluation, but an increase in the purchasing power of the masses. Both in the first ballot and in the ballot, the “popular front” obtained a resounding success: 381 seats, against 237 in the center and on the right. Pending the opening of the new chamber, the Sarraut ministry remained in office, but already Léon Blum, designated head of the future government and leader of the Socialists (SFIO), made programmatic statements in newspapers and in party meetings, affirming the need “to defend and develop democratic freedom in the country”, to pursue in the international field a strengthening of collective security through the solidarity of the states adhering to the Lega and through the progressive implementation of a general disarmament plan. The Communists declared that they would give the government of the left loyal and unreserved support (in reality the reservations and limitations were far from slight), but they refused direct participation in the responsibility of power.
According to Philosophynearby.com, the new Blum ministry was established on June 5, 1936, while a general strike was spreading, with the occupation of the factories, that it was possible – with difficulty – to compose by granting workers a variable wage increase from 15% on the minimums to 7% on the maximums. Having obtained the confidence of the parliament (384 votes against 210), L. Blum quickly approved (11-18 June) a group of laws of a social nature (40-hour week, paid holidays, collective labor agreements, improved salaries for state employees) which constituted a greater burden on the budget without ensuring, if not in a transitory and ephemeral way, a higher standard of living for the benefited classes. However, the government of L. Blum enjoyed, in the first few months, a fairly wide favor even in certain sectors outside the blockade of the left. The novelty of the attempt, the accelerated pace given to the legislative work, a visible will to do, reviving the parliamentary machine with continuous initiatives, they gave the impression of a positive force that could beneficially react to the compression policy of previous years. But if the government was able to enjoy effective security on parliamentary grounds, the difficulties came to it, externally, from some unsuspected resistance of the bosses and – above all – from the growing and heterogeneous tide of followers, from the masses who, set in motion, complaints and requests multiplied. And the government, for its part, aggravated this impression, that is, that the organized masses ruled the country, reaffirming every day that it wanted to account for its work to the workers’ unions and ask for their approval. In such an atmosphere it is no wonder that the law of 40 hours, conceived to heal the scourge of unemployment, it would be distorted to the point of becoming a reason for paralysis of the nation’s productive activity, and that the theory of greater purchasing capacity, put forward to justify wage increases, revealed – to the test of facts – his inner weakness. On the other hand, the worsening of the financial and monetary situation, the failure of the issue of the “Auriol” Treasury bills (17 July-23 September 1936), the alarming rate of the exodus of gold from the Bank of France, tackle the problem of the devaluation of the franc, in the confidence of promoting an economic recovery that would restore equilibrium. It was a renunciation of electoral commitments and more recent declarations; furthermore, there was a fear of a reaction from the saving middle classes, which in fact did not happen. This explains the hesitations of the government which only on 25 September 1936 declared that it wanted to “adjust the value of the franc to the existing economic situation”. The bill was announced as part of an Anglo-Franco-American monetary agreement (September 26).