A nation reeling from unprecedented economic and political crises votes into office a left-leaning government promising change. When the promises are thought by many to be too little, and many others too much, popular unrest surges toward the extremes of the political spectrum. Citizens on the left and right turn away from traditional parties and labor organizations and take matters into their own hands. Spontaneous strikes and occupations break out across the nation, and all eyes turn to the political leader who had promised change his supporters could believe in.
It is déjà vu all over again. The Occupy Wall Street movement has pirouetted onto the political center stage just as France is marking the 75th anniversary of the mass strikes that accompanied the electoral victory of the Popular Front government led by Léon Blum. The many parallels between then and now, particularly in the personalities of Blum and Barack Obama, cast the OWS movement in a new and intriguing light.
To better understand them, we’d do well to look at France in the mid-1930s. The country’s economy, still staggering under the weight of the Great Depression, was in a shambles. The policies of France’s deficit hawks had come home to roost with a vengeance. Entrenched conservative distrust of deficit spending had catastrophic consequences for French workers: By the summer of 1936, at least 2 million men and women—one out of six citizens—were unemployed. The lives of those who still had jobs were flushed with anxiety. The French philosopher Simone Weil, who worked for a spell as a power press operator at a Paris factory in the 1930s, was ordered at the end of her first day at work to double her output if she wished to keep her job. The employer, she told a friend, “makes a favor of allowing us to kill ourselves and we have to say thank you.”
In order to underscore the nation’s economic inequality, leftist politicians denounced the power of the nation’s “two hundred families.” While the phrase at first designated the 200 shareholders who ostensibly oversaw the monetary policies of the Bank of France, it came to crystallize the popular anger of those who suffered the consequences of a global financial meltdown. At the same time, the Taxpayers’ Federation, an organization funded by the manufacturer François Coty—a great fan of Mussolini—declared that France could recover only if the government cut taxes on the wealthy. Given the abysmal state of national debt, successive centrist governments concluded that they had no choice but to retrench. As credit tightened, the building industry cratered, as state and municipal bureaucracies began to shed workers.
In May 1936, a series of strikes upended France. Business and industrial interests were horrified, claiming that the strikes were the work of communists. But the communists were terrified as well: The leaders of the French Communist Party, along with those of the trade unions, were caught flat-footed by the speed and magnitude of the strikes. As the social media of the era—newspapers, radio, and letters—carried news of the rapidly unfolding events, workers elsewhere were mobilized to follow suit. By June, nearly 2 million French workers had either walked out of their workplaces or simply sat down: Along with Edith Piaf and Pastis, interwar France also gave the world the sit-down strike.
By early summer, as the nation lurched to a halt, the party began. The events of May and June had far more in common with Mardi Gras than with Molotov cocktails. Far from establishing soviets along the Seine, workers instead dressed in drag and did the jig on factory floors. Instead of taking the Bastille, millions of protesters took a break. It was a revolution only insofar as the world was, if only temporarily, turned upside down.
The vast and unruly movement known as Occupy Wall Street is yet another American remake of a French original: OWS has grown in political, ideological, and economic circumstances that echo those 75 years ago in France. The character of the strikes is also remarkably similar. Just as American unions and some Democratic politicians have been playing catch-up with OWS, so too were French Communists, Socialists, and trade unions. As for the carnival-like behavior, it is hard to decide which wins first prize for outrageousness: OWS protesters wearing Superman suits (or nothing at all), or muscular Renault workers donning skirts and bras.
There are, of course, differences. The French workers had specific demands: a 40-hour work week, paid vacation, and higher wages. Yet, like the OWS, French workers expressed a more systemic dissatisfaction with the economic and social inequities tolerated by their republican state. And, like America’s Occupiers, they suddenly saw themselves as actors, not passive bystanders, in a political process indifferent to their material needs and social aspirations. Both then and now, protesters were flush with hope and believed, in the famous French phrase of the era, that “tout est possible.”
Perhaps one English translation of that slogan would be “We are the change we are waiting for.” Which brings us to the most striking parallel of all: the two men leading their nations at these critical moments.
Léon Blum, the French prime minister, was a formidable intellect trained in law and a remarkably eloquent writer. He was a committed socialist, but cautious and consensual to a fault. He was, in brief, a humanist who lacked a human touch, a man who embraced the left less for reasons of the heart than of the mind.
Much of this portrait resembles Barack Obama: His sharp analytical mind, his tendency to didacticism, and his attachment to deliberation match Blum’s character. So too does his ethnic background. Blum was not just the first socialist to become prime minister, but also the first Jew. He immediately became the target of the interwar equivalent of our own “birthers.” French pundits and politicians questioned Blum’s Frenchness, insisting he was instead Hungarian. Their accusations and attacks proved so distracting that they forced Blum to publish an open letter in a newspaper, with documents at hand, titled “I am French.”
The novelist and political observer André Gide’s remark about Blum—“He is never sure, he is always seeking; too much intelligence and not enough character”—has also been echoed by supporters of the current American president. But as historian Tony Judt noted, this was Blum’s strength as well as his weakness. Allergic to dogma, Blum recognized the provisional nature of most political truths, yet never lost sight of his particular brand of socialism, believing that all human beings have basic rights, including that of dignity.
Yet Blum’s moment was short-lived. In June, he used the strikes as a stick, forcing French industrialists to accept all the demands made by the striking workers. It was a remarkable moment—too remarkable, tragically. Historians take Blum to task for doing both too much—by hiking up wages and shortening the work week—and too little by refusing to devalue the franc until it was too late. It’s a very similar situation to the reaction of our own left and right to Obama’s $787 billion stimulus plan. Ultimately, the resistance of French banks and the massive flight of capital overwhelmed Blum’s reforms. A year after he came to office, France’s first Jewish prime minister was forced to resign. It turned out that everything was not possible.
The institutions that challenged Blum are, of course, the very same ones whose power and apparent immunity are now being challenged by the carnival we call OWS. Just as the expectations stirred by the strikes in France were probably too great an aspiration to be met by any government, so too might this be the case with the hopes raised by the men and women, young and old, employed and unemployed now occupying public spaces across the country. But as Blum might have told Obama, this is no reason not to take a stand—one more forthright and determined than he himself took.