The French statesman Léon Blum (1872-1950) was the first Socialist, as well as the first Jewish, premier of France. In 1936 the government he headed enacted the most extensive program of social reforms in French history.
Léon Blum was born in Paris on April 9, 1872, into a wealthy family of Alsatian textile merchants. Although trained as a lawyer, he first gained public attention as a drama critic. Influenced by the Dreyfus Affair and by the socialist theories of Jean Jaurès, Blum joined the Socialist party in 1902. After the assassination of Jaurès in 1914, Blum was regarded as his spiritual and political heir.
After serving as executive secretary to the Socialist leader Marcel Sembat during World War I, Blum was elected to parliament in 1919. When the Communists broke away from the Socialist party in 1920, Blum became the leader of the weakened party and worked tirelessly to restore its fortunes. He also led the opposition to the conservative governments of Alexandre Millerand and Raymond Poincaré, and in 1928 his efforts were impressively rewarded when the Socialists won 104 seats in the parliamentary elections.
Alarmed by the threat of fascism after the Paris riots of February 1934, Blum worked for an antifascist alliance of Radicals, Socialists, and Communists—the Popular Front. This coalition won in the May 1936 elections, and Blum, as leader of the largest party in the Chamber, became premier in June. During the following 10 weeks his government accomplished a social revolution by enacting into law the 40-hour week and paid vacations for workers, nationalizing the major armaments industries, and bringing the Bank of France under public control.
But Blum's government was soon paralyzed by rightist dissidents, who feared social reform, and leftist critics, who denounced his nonintervention policy during the Spanish Civil War. Blum resigned in June 1937, when the Senate refused to grant him full powers to deal with the deepening fiscal crisis. After serving as vice premier in the succeeding government of Camille Chautemps, Blum headed a second, short-lived Popular Front Cabinet in March 1938.
In 1940 Blum refused to vote full powers to Marshal Pétain as head of the Vichy government, and he was indicted on charges of war guilt. When he was tried in 1942, his defense was so eloquently persuasive that the trial was indefinitely suspended. Subsequently deported to Germany with other prominent French Jews, he was freed by Allied troops in 1945. While in Nazi captivity Blum wrote Àl'échelle humaine (For All Mankind), which summarizes the philosophical bases of his lifelong effort to reconcile the fundamental tenets of Marxism with the moral and intellectual exigencies of humanism.
After the war Blum was in poor health and declined to run for reelection to parliament. However, he presided for a month, beginning on Dec. 16, 1946, over an all-Socialist caretaker Cabinet that installed the Fourth Republic. Although officially in retirement after January 1947, Blum served as André Marie's vice premier in August 1948. He also retained leadership of the Socialist party and contributed a daily column to the party organ, Le Populaire, until his sudden death on March 30, 1950.
Further Reading on Léon Blum
The definitive biography is Joel Colton, Léon Blum: Humanist in Politics (1966). Less sympathetic but useful is the essay in James Joll, Three Intellectuals in Politics (1960). For Blum's place in the history of the Third Republic see D. W. Brogan, The Development of Modern France, 1870-1939 (1940; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1966).
Additional Biography Sources
Bronner, Stephen Eric, Léon Blum, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Colton, Joel G., Léon Blum: humanist in politics, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press 1974.
Lacouture, Jean., Léon Blum, New York, N.Y.: Holmes & Meier, 1982.