Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the Honors College, University of Houston. His latest book is “Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.”
When French revolutionaries proclaimed the founding of the First Republic in 1792, they couldn’t have chosen a more propitious date. On September 21, the day of the fall equinox, the planets, quite literally, aligned, and just as the length of day and night would be equal, henceforth, so too would the lives of French (male) citizens.
On May 3, 1936, the planets seemed to align once again, if only figuratively, as it was on this date that the Popular Front, an alliance of the Socialist, Communist and Radical parties — each convinced it was the true standard bearer for the revolution — decisively won the second round of France’s legislative elections, heralding a political and social seism that appeared to be just as revolutionary as the birth of the First Republic.
It’s with one eye on this not-so-distant past and the other on next month’s legislative elections that the parties on the French left — until now bitterly divided and consequently impotent — have all glommed onto the anniversary’s significance. Yet this earlier alliance effort offers hints as to whether this current one — the New Popular, Ecological and Social Union (NUPES) — might actually reach its desired destination.
At first glance, historian Gilles Martinet’s recollection of the political and ideological tensions of 1936 seems all too relevant for 2022. “The two political traditions of France, which had never renounced their old passions, revolutionary or counter-revolutionary, once again confronted each other. I don’t think they were unhappy about it,” he wrote.
Then, just as now, France was battered by a global economic and financial crisis, it faced the threat of a European war, and it confronted the growing ambitions of totalitarian powers in the east. But perhaps most critically, just as now, France had also witnessed the rise of authoritarian and fascist movements, known as ligues, at home.
And in response to what was widely interpreted as a fascist bid to overthrow the republic in 1934, the left — riven between Socialists and Communists since 1920 — created a Common Front that, with the participation of the Radicals, morphed into the Popular Front two years later.
Bearing this in mind, fast forward to 2022, and the most important takeaway from last month’s presidential election was the strong showing for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right National Rally (RN), who was backed by 41 percent of French voters who cast a ballot. There was, of course, much spin to her post-election claim that the loss was, in fact, a “brilliant victory,” but she did attract 13 million voters — 3 million more than she did in 2017, and 8 million more than her father Jean-Marie Le Pen did in 2002.
Indeed, the seemingly irresistible rise of racist and nationalist forces over the past several years has spurred the same fears that gave birth to the Popular Front. And while the RN may not have marched on the buildings of parliament, as did the ligues, Le Pen was one of the only two national leaders to support the violent protests of the Yellow Jackets during the winter of 2019-20.
The other leader — and here’s the ironic rub — was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left France Unbowed. He had praised the protests as a “citizens’ revolution.” In fact, as an amateur of French history, he also favorably compared one of its leaders, Éric Drouet, to a certain Jean-Baptiste Drouet, who had discovered and turned in Louis XVI during his failed attempt to flee France in 1791.
But Mélenchon has invoked the Popular Front as an ideal for the France’s fragmented left as far back as his failed presidential run in 2017. During a fiery speech in Marseilles in 2018, he urged a crowd of several thousand “to form the Popular Front our nation needs.” The principal enemy then, though, was not the authoritarian Le Pen but instead the newly elected President Emmanuel Macron, whom Mélenchon accused of “authoritarian liberalism.”
Of course, this also parallels the experience of the Popular Front, which was as hostile to the laissez faire policies of conservative governments as it was to the xenophobic policies of the far right. And in a speech two weeks ago to mark the launch of the legislative NUPES campaign, Mélenchon took aim at both. More subtle, though, was the rally site itself: the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers — not only an historically working class and communist area, but its principal metro stop is … Front Populaire, with the street leading to the rally named in honor of its Socialist leader Léon Blum.
However, the resemblance between these two men may well end there. Blum was, as late historian Tony Judt argued, less an ideologue than a moralist, and less interested in power than curious about it. And though his party talked the talk when it came to class struggle and revolutionary rupture, Blum made certain it never walked the walk. He was a reformer, not a revolutionary, who rather than seeking the position of prime minister had it thrust upon him.
These qualities explain, in part, the reasons for the short and chaotic Popular Front. But they also reveal Blum’s unwavering humanity and hard-earned wisdom. And while much can be said in favor of Mélenchon, one wonders if even his most fervent supporters would grant him these qualities — qualities the French most need today.