Léon Blum vs. the Senate
"We Socialists Are In Favor of Abolishing the Senate"
In a previous post, I wrote about the election of the Popular Front in France, the sit-down strike wave of 1936, and the subsequent sweeping social legislation ushered through by Léon Blum’s government: the 40-hour week, paid vacation, and collective bargaining. In the next ten weeks, the Popular Front enacted a total 65 laws, including nationalization of the arms industry and a reform of the Bank of France, placing substantive government and labor control and oversight over what previously been essentially a cartel of the largest financiers in the country. Almost over night, France, the nation which gave the “bourgeoisie” its name, appeared to be turning into a modern social democracy, backed with the combined power of the popular franchise and the collective action of labor. The immobilisme and instability that had plagued the Third Republic’s governments since its inception appeared finally to be overcome. There would be no such luck.
For one thing, there were the aggressive moves of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Then there was the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, which placed Blum’s government in the devilishly difficult spot of whether to aid its ideological compatriots in the besieged Spanish Republic and possibly create an international incident and more unrest at home or to betray its commitments to internationalism, anti-fascism, and alienate its left-wing voters who wanted to stop the fascist advance in Spain. There was also the continued agitation of the far Right I’ve discussed, terrorism, provocations, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations that lead to a sense of instability and disorder. But the Popular Front ultimately was to founder neither on the fascist threat abroad nor the turbulence of the fascist street nor a coup by conservative elements in the military, who never had fully resigned themselves to the Republic, let alone one lead by a Socialist Jew. Instead, Blum’s experiment would break against one of the old pillars of republican order, an order he was devoted to upholding.
The Constitutional Laws of 1875, the product of a compromise between Republicans and Monarchists, established a two house legislature consisting of a directly-elected Chamber of Deputies (a parliamentary body) and an indirectly-elected Senate. Executive power would lie with the cabinet of ministers and whoever was “Monsieur président du Conseil des ministres,” the prime minister. There was also a president of the Republic, elected by both bodies and with powers like a constitutional monarch. In one confusing detail, the cabinet, at least on paper, was responsible to both the Chamber and the Senate. There were 314 Senators, who had to be over 40 years of age and were selected for nine-year terms electoral colleges in each department, one third of which met every three years. These electoral colleges consisted of a variety of elected officials in the departments and communes, two levels of administrative division. Intended as a check on the popularly elected Chamber, the system ended up heavily favoring smaller and rural communes:
Manifestly, the small communes can dominate the electoral colleges….With a population of something over four millions, the Department of the Seine [Paris and environs] has ten Senators. That is one-half the representation of ten Departments with two Senators each and an aggregate population of two millions.
The governments of the communes, which supplied the majority of electors, were dominated by local elites. This lead the father of the Third Republic Léon Gambetta to remark: “The Senate is elected by seventy-five thousand bourgeois.”If you are confused and dismayed by the system I am outlining here, you are not alone. So were many of its would-be masters, the great statesmen of the Third Republic. Never one to mince words, Clemenceau declared that the electoral college system was “the most absurd and disparate” institution “in this country that has seen so many absurd and disparate things.” In 1934, Léon Blum wrote in his column in the Socialist newspaper Le Populaire, “We Socialists are in favor of abolishing the Senate.”
While the Chamber had become significantly redder and pinker in the Popular Front wave election of 1936, the Senate remained a body dominated by the political Center, including many Radicals of conservative bent who were not as enthusiastic for the Popular Front coalition as their younger colleagues. Would this hide-bound chamber frustrate the agenda of Blum’s government? At first, no: the clear mandate of the election as well as the awesome scale of the sit-down strikes made the body complaisant. But it was waiting for its moment. Already at the end of 1936 and the beginning of 1937, the Senate started getting difficult with Blum, holding up his labor arbitration bill and new budget. Soon they would be coming after portions of the 40-hours law. Still, compromises were made and the government functioned.
But the dawn of 1937 brought a fresh wave of challenges for the already-beset government. Now it was capital’s turn to strike: there was a financial crisis brought about by the sharp outflow of capital from the French economy as investors recoiled from the Matignon accords with labor. Exchange controls that would have prevented this sort of capital flight had been part of the Popular Front electoral program, but Blum was dissuaded by economic experts from instituting them during its spring and summer height of power. Now faced with a crisis, Blum had to go to Parliament and ask for emergency powers to deal with the capital strike. He promised not to institute total exchange controls or devalue the franc. But even his allies in the Chamber, the Communist Party, were now being difficult, decrying a proposed tax increase, which they said would raise the cost of living for workers. Nonetheless, Blum wrangled a clear majority for his request in the Chamber.
But the Senate’s moment to frustrate the Popular Front was now at hand. The Senate returned a counter-proposal that would have made the effort effectively useless. Blum could have forced the issue in a number of ways, defied the Senate, and created a situation that would have required new elections that may have brought back an even bigger Popular Front mandate in the Chamber, or even appeal to the masses to demonstrate and strike as some of his supporters encouraged him to do. The sit-down strikes showed the power that the Popular Front could unleash. But the Radical members of his Cabinet did not want to go along with any of these plans. Instead of continuing the fight, Blum decided to resign and let the Radicals try to form a government to solve the crisis. Just over a year into the experiment, the anti-democratic Senate had effectively overthrown the Popular Front.
For many on the Left at the time and in retrospect, backing down against the Senate was a grave error on Blum’s part. But Blum’s believed he had a mandate to govern within strict legal bounds. He also wanted to make the first Socialist government appear normal to the public, not something menacing or radical. As Joel Colton writes in his biography of Blum:
He was convinced a fight against the Senate could not have remained within the political and constitutional bounds. It would have to be a “revolutionary struggle".” There was no “middle ground between yielding and fighting.” Without the support of the Radicals, he would have to turn to the backing of the Communists and the C.G.T [the main labor union.] The Popular Front coalition of the middle classes and proletariat would have been destroyed.
Readers may have detected that I have a great deal of admiration and indeed affection for Léon Blum. This is a long-standing feeling in my family, dating back to my relatives who lived in France before the war and looked up to the first Jewish premier as a man who seemed to combine the universal missions of the French Revolution and European humanism. But nonetheless I wonder if there was a bit of failure of imagination on Blum’s part in this situation. I emphasize “imagination” and not “courage,” because that virtue cannot be in doubt in Blum’s case: he would remain in France to face a Vichy show trial, which he so humiliated with his wit and elan that it directly concerned Hitler. He spent the balance of the war in a German concentration camp. Still, I wonder if another statesman, perhaps one less principled and more flexible, could have found the middle-ground in the situation and pushed the Senate around without risking a revolutionary situation. After all, Roosevelt’s confrontation with the Supreme Court ended in his favor. In Blum’s defense, though, he also had Hitler to deal with next door and he was already causing trouble.
Around the same time as the Senate crisis, Germany engineered a strange precursor of the Gulf of Tonkin incident off the coast of embattled Spain: hydrophone operators on the German cruiser Leipzig claimed to have heard torpedoes in the water fired on them by Republican submarines. There were no submarines and no torpedoes. Hitler was taking advantage of the political difficulties in the France to isolate the Spanish Republic and more openly align with Franco. War was a real possibility and Blum had this on his mind as well. A constitutional crisis or even a civil war might have offered Hitler a tempting opening. Suffice it to say, the Germans would come later
It’s often said that democracy in France was not sufficiently defended. Usually that blame goes to the conservative and reactionary elements of the society that preferred Hitler to Blum. As much as it pains me to say so, I wonder if at this juncture Blum also bears some of the blame, albeit from acting with the best of intentions. Who knows what might have happened if he had insisted on the principle of popular sovereignty over that of republican constitutionalism? With a free hand to deal with the financial crisis and with the popular will behind him, Blum might have accomplished something like his American counterpart Mr. Roosevelt, and lead a strengthened democracy towards its inevitable confrontation with fascism.
Rogers, L. (1937). M. Blum and the French Senate. Political Science Quarterly, 52(3), 321–339. https://doi.org/10.2307/2143380
Colton, J. (1966). Léon Blum: Humanist in politics.