Historical Figures

Leon Blum - Biography

Leon Blum was a politician and figure of French socialism in the interwar period. After the split at the Tours Congress of 1920, he embodied democratic and legalistic socialism. Following the victory of the Popular Front in the legislative elections of 1936, he became chairman of the council and launched a vast program of social reforms. Faced with an uncertain international context and financial difficulties, he was forced to resign a year later. Imprisoned by the Vichy regime, he was held responsible for the defeat of 1940 during the Riom trial, against a background of anti-Semitism.

Origins and first step in politics of Léon Blum

Léon Blum was born in Paris on April 9, 1872, to a wealthy bourgeois Israelite family. He entered the École Normale Supérieure, which he quickly left to study law and became an auditor at the Council of State in 1895. At the same time, he made his debut as a literary critic at La Revue blanche and at Gil Blas . He was the theatrical chronicler at Comœdia and attracted attention from his first book Nouvelles Conversations de Goethe avec Eckermann (1901). Like many men of his generation, it was during the Dreyfus affair that he began to get involved in political struggles, and the influence of the librarian of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Lucien Herr, the oriented towards the socialist party, to which he brought his skills as a lawyer.

In 1899, he participated for the first time in a socialist congress, and he was, with Jean Jaurès, a of the founders of L'Humanité. However, from 1906 to 1913, he practically stayed away from politics, devoting himself to his functions at the Council of State and to his literary career. Master of Requests in 1907, he published his book On Marriage the same year, which caused a scandal by developing the thesis of the natural polygamous instinct and by advocating sexual experience for young girls before legitimate union. Chief of staff of the socialist minister Marcel Sembat in the government of sacred union (1914-1916), he was charged in 1919 with drafting the action program of the socialist party and he was elected deputy of the Seine (1919-1928).

Leader of the Socialist Party SFIO

At the Congress of Tours (1920), Blum was one of the leaders of the minority hostile to the Bolsheviks and, after vainly trying to maintain party unity, he became, without occupy other functions than those of secretary of the parliamentary group, the undisputed leader of the new socialist party, the French Section of the Workers' International. A listened to and respected speaker in Parliament, he nevertheless remained an intellectual, inclined towards abstract analyses, moral and idealistic attitudes. A Marxist, he was above all a disciple of Jaurès and he always identified socialism with the feeling of human solidarity and the deep demands of conscience. Finally, he is an aesthete, who has become party leader without having really been an activist, who has had little contact with the working world and whose scruples will always rule out the compromises sometimes necessary for the man of action.

Hated by the anti-Semitic right, which contributed to his defeat by Duclos in the 1928 elections, Blum returned to the Chamber in 1929, thanks to a by-election, and he will remain deputy of Narbonne from 1929 to 1940. From 1924, during the formation of the Cartel des gauches, he oriented the socialist party towards collaboration with the radicals, but he will stick until 1936 to "support without participation" . While proclaiming his revolutionary will with as much ardor as the Communists, Léon Blum, in the 1920s, already clearly separated himself from the latter by his refusal of centralism and by his thesis according to which the conquest of power could not be the of a revolutionary minority, but must be preceded by reforms which "increase not only the well-being of the proletariat but its force of extension, that is to say its revolutionary capacity".

In 1926, notably during a speech at the extraordinary congress of the S.F.I.O. à la Bellevilloise, he formulated his famous distinction between the conquest and the exercise of power. The conquest of power, i.e. revolution, is indispensable for the realization of socialism, and Blum rejects the idea that the S.F.I.O. can be content with managing the capitalist state in a reforming and social sense. However, socialists can also be led to the exercise of power, that is to say, to the management, for limited objectives, of the republican legal order; in this second case, the socialists, brought to power not by the revolution, but by a parliamentary majority, will have to act in accordance with the established constitutional rules, "legally, loyally, without committing this kind of swindle which would consist in taking advantage of our presence within the government to transform the exercise of power into the conquest of power”. These are the principles that were to inspire Blum's conduct when he came to power in 1936/37.

Léon Blum Chairman of the Board

After the victory of the Popular Front in the elections of May 1936, Blum, as leader of the most powerful of the leftist formations, became President of the Council. His first ministry (June 4, 1936 - June 21, 1937) was marked by important economic and social reforms:Matignon agreements (June 7, 1936), institution of paid holidays (June 8) and the 40-hour week (June 12) , establishment of direct state control over the Banque de France (July 24), nationalization of large war factories (August 11), creation of the Interprofessional Wheat Office (August 15). However, due to financial deterioration, Blum was forced to devalue the franc and announce a “social break” (Feb. 13, 1937).

It was the beginning of the dislocation of the Popular Front, which the somewhat hesitant attitude of Blum opposite to the Spanish Civil War will precipitate:in fact, while proclaiming his sympathy for the Republicans, the President of the Socialist Council took the initiative, from August 1, 1936, to invite your great powers to practice a policy of non- intervention that will soon turn to the benefit of Franco, openly helped by Germany and Italy. The worsening of the social climate and the hostility of financial and industrial circles prevented the continuation of the Blum experiment:the financial plan of June 1937, which was to result in particular in a control of capital movements, came up against opposition of the Senate, where the chairman of the Finance Committee, Caillaux, is attacking the government.

Blum thinks for a moment of asking the President of the Republic to dissolve the Chamber and, for the new elections that would follow, to bring together the majority of the Popular Front on a revision program constitutional law that would diminish the powers of the Senate. But due to the seriousness of the international situation and the assured opposition of the Radicals to such a project, Blum gave up and, on the night of June 20 to 21, 1937, resigned, leaving an immense hope disappointed; relying on a heterogeneous and limited majority, he had only been able to carry out a certain number of social reforms while remaining in a context of liberal economy.

End of career

Vice-president of the Council in the Chautemps cabinet from June 1937 to January 1938, he tried, in March 1938, in the face of growing external dangers, to form a large ministry of national union going "from Thorez to Louis Marin", but, faced with the hostility of the moderates, he was able to set up only one last Popular Front government, which lasted less than a month (March 13/Apr 8, 1938 ):faced with the Senate's hostility to his capital tax bill, he resigned. Blum will no longer be part of any government of the Third Republic. After having authorized two socialists to participate in the first Pétain ministry (June 1940), he was one of the eighty parliamentarians who refused full powers to the Marshal (July 10, 1940).

Soon after, the Vichy government had him administratively interned at the Château de Chazeron, then at Bourassol and on October 15 1941, he is imprisoned at Fort du Portalet. Brought to justice at the beginning of 1942 at the Riom trial, he courageously faced the accusation and forced the government to suspend the trial. Again detained at Portalet, he was delivered by Vichy to the Germans after the invasion of the southern zone and transferred with his wife to Germany, where he was liberated by the Americans in May 1945.

Having returned to France, he renounced to stand for election, but continued to lead the socialist party S.F.l.O. and to write in Le Populaire, while his book On the Human Scale (1945) underlines everything that separates his conception of socialism from that of the communists. At the end of 1946, at the request of Vincent Auriol, he formed a provisional government, which was only a transitional cabinet (Dec. 13, 1946/Jan. 16, 1947), and ceased its functions after Vincent's election. Auriol as first president of the Fourth Republic. The main measure taken by Blum during this last stint at the head of business was an authoritarian reduction of 5% on all industrial, agricultural and commercial prices (January 2, 1947). He then resumed his post as editorialist at Le Populaire, where he notably denounced the dangers that the R.P.F., founded by General de Gaulle, posed to the parliamentary regime. Illness then kept him out of power until his death on March 30, 1950 in Jouy en Josas.


- Léon Blum, biography of Jean Lacouture. History Points, 1979.

- Léon Blum - Morality and Power, by Frédéric Monier. Colin, 2016.