To many of our readers the fall of France is now past history. But there are far too many elements of parallelism in the industrial situations here and over there before the war for us to pass up the opportunity to profit from this tragic example. And so we asked the author, our former French correspondent, and an American who lived through 15 years of industrial disintegration in France. to tell the story of the background of one of the greatest tragedies in modern history. Mr Lamarche has not confined his article to the aviation industry but has told the full story of the demoralization of all French industry and the political reasons behind it. He has sounded a warning that every leader of industry or labor should read and heed.
France suffered the most terrible defeat in her history after five weeks of actual conflict. Why did France collapse so quickly? There are a number of reasons, about which much has already been written and said, but two outstanding causes were political disunity and lack of arms. Germany's weakest enemies have been nations who were neither united in purpose, nor sufficiently armed. The defeat of France shocked the world.
To many it was a surprise. To some, including the writer, who had lived in France over a period of years, and watched political and social decadence reduce that great nation to impotency, it seemed inevitable. Political turmoil, and labor troubles that paralyzed national defense industries during the years when the Germans were building up a powerful war machine, rendered France virtually helpless to defend herself. A lesson can be learned from the fatal mistakes that led to bitter defeat.
The spring of 1936 was the time for general elections in France. War clouds hung over Europe. The Germans had already occupied the Rhineland without resistance. This was regarded as ominous. The Italians had completed the conquest of Ethiopia. For more than fifty years the Radical-Socialists had been the strongest party in French politics. Of the Left Center, it always had the greatest number of seats in the Chambre des Deputés. The vote of the masses is more numerous than that of the ruling classes. Left Wing agitators have for years denounced capitalists as enemies of the masses. Socialists and Communists have always championed the workers. Working conditions in France have for years been backward. Labor had some real and also some fancied grievances. Agitators of both "isms" have always promised a change in the social order in which we have lived for generations. Both "isms" appealed to the workers as being pacifist, and anti-mi1itarist.
The results of the elections showed that France had adopted a Government of the Extreme Left. To many people in France and throughout the world it was a shock. The Socialist Party had increased its strength from 101 seats to 148. The Radical-Socialists had dropped from 159 seats to 108 in the Chambre. Communists, who until then had 10 seats, now had 73. Parties of the Right and Center remained about the same. Thus the strongest party in the French Government became the Socialists, and as a result, their leader, M Leon Blum, was asked to form a Government. This he did forming a government that included Socialists and Radical-Socialists, and excluded Communists. This Government of the first Socialist Premier of France was known as the Front Populaire, or Popular Front Government. Their leader, M Léon Blum, a wealthy Jew of an Alsatian family, was born in Paris in 1872. As a lawyer, he participated in the celebrated Dreyfus case, and was elected to the Chambre in 1919. He has been a member of the Socialist Party since 1899. There are Frenchmen who will tell you that as a deputy, his ideas have always been more destructive than constructive. A pacifist, he always favored disarmament. Thus the setup for a social revolution was complete. Socialists and Radical-Socialists were in complete disaccord. The Communists were annoyed because they were left out of the Government.
There is an outer fringe of suburban Paris that is highly industrialized. Thousands of workers live there. Many of them are Communists. The region is known as the Red Belt of Paris. Fear has often been expressed that the masses of this belt might some day march on Paris and overthrow the Government. But now France had a Government of the Extreme Left that was expected to champion their grievances and launch a social revolution.
Hardly had the Front Populaire Government come into power than the workers illegally occupied factories and started an epidemic of sit-down strikes. The first factory to be so occupied was the Nieuport aircraft factory, where pursuit monoplanes were being constructed for the French Air Force. In no time, the metal works of Lavalette were occupied. The workers demanded a 40-hour week, higher wages, a closed shop, vacations with pay, and collective contracts. These first strikes occurred in May of 1936 and served to attract the Government's attention. However, subsequent strikes in June gave every indication that a social revolt had started. At first the directors refused to bargain until the workers came out. They maintained that there was little difference between occupation of the factories by sit-downers and seizure of the employer's property. The police, under control of the Minister of Interior, did not interfere with the strikers. The Government did not interfere. M Salengro, Minister of Interior at the time, insisted that force would not be employed against the working classes. Employers held out for a while, argued against the illegality of sit-down strikes, but unable to obtain any satisfaction from the government, and feeling mass sentiment against them, yielded to their demands. Some employers immediately gave forced vacations with pay in order to evacuate their factories. All agreed, however, to give vacations with pay, a 40-hour week, in spite of the fact that the 48-hour week had been effective since 1919, and to allow collective bargaining. The fact that a 40-hour week would be disastrous to industry did not interest the labor unions or the Front Populaire Government. Industrialists, however, realized too well that the 40-hour week would not increase the purchasing power of the masses, and that it would reduce production and thereby raise comparative prices. They understood the meaning of the vicious circle. Thus began an era of destructive politics that lasted for two years while Germany rearmed.
The sit-down strikes were instigated by the Confédération Générale de Travail, better known as the CGT, of which big, burly M Léon Jouhaux was the leader. Some of the strikes were spontaneous, and some in defiance of CGT orders. There was little disorder connected with them. Policemen at the gates allowed the wives of workers to bring in food. Non-unionists were not allowed out. Agitators came and went. In some instances foremen and even shop managers were forced to stay in by the workers.
The CGT was not a new labor organization born of the Front Populaire. It had existed since before the last war as a Federation of French Trade Unions. M Léon Jouhaux, whom some Frenchmen will tell you, started life as a street sweeper, became leader of this Federation in 1910 following a dockyard strike in which the French Navy was the principal victim. A huge increase in memberships occurred during the war of 1914-1918, as well as new formations of federations of unions. In 1920 the CGT attempted a General Strike, to which the Government replied by seizing their headquarters and dissolving it. There was no strike. The CGT suffered much loss of face.
But to come back to 1936, the CGT was again a powerful Federation of Unions, and with the success of the first sit-down strikes, its power increased. They could count on little opposition from the Government. Memberships grew by leaps and bounds until they reached an alleged peak of 5,000,000. However, there were many thousands of workers among them who were not in sympathy with either the Front Populaire, or the CGT. Many belonged to militant groups of the Right, as the Croix du Feu, but had joined the CGT to keep their jobs. The CGT insisted on a closed shop. Non-union workers were coerced into joining up, occasionally bludgeoned into change of thought. Work of non-unionists was sabotaged, tools were lost, they were refused entry to their workshops. Employers were threatened with further strikes if non-unionists remained on pay rolls. Millions of francs in dues were paid into the coffers of the CGT. Corruption was rife and rampant. Jouhaux is said to have moved into a big chateau on an estate of many acres. The Government was embarrassed. Fights were frequent between the Socialists and Radical-Socialists. The people of the Center and Right were indignant, and these included thousands of workers. Employers unions protested in vain to the Government. They were able to gain little by mediation. It was always a one-sided business. M Leon Blum was giving France a New Deal. He called it "the greatest social movement since the founding of the Third Republic." And, we might add, that it virtually finished the Third Republic. The German Army furnished the knockout blow.
After the success of the first sit-down strikes in May other strikes broke out everywhere. Hotchkiss, manufacturers of automobiles and machine guns, was occupied. Amiot, Farman and Dewoitine, aircraft constructors working on government contracts, were occupied. The Renault factories, the largest in France, who employed 34,000 in the manufacture of aero engines, automobiles, trucks, and war equipment, were occupied. The employees locked themselves in with M Louis Renault, the President, who gave in to their demands. Automobile factories as Citroen, Licorne, Panhard, Fiat, Hispano-Suiza, Rosengarten and Salmson were occupied. Hispano-Suiza and Salmson were also builders of aero engines and working for National Defense. Gnome & Rhone had their sit-down strike. So did Goodrich Tire, and Alsthom, two American plants. At one time as many as 70,000 workers engaged on armament contracts were on strike. On June 15, after the workers had received pay increases of 10 percent and 15 percent, an estimated 1,000,000 employees were on strike. The automotive, aircraft, textile, metallurgical, munitions and mining industries were paralyzed. M Jouhaux informed the press that he never wanted the strikes.
Until the fall of the Front Populaire Government there was hardly a time when there was not a strike in some key industry. When one was settled others broke out. Metal workers struck early and often. Taxi drivers struck, so did waiters, shop employees, government clerks, bakers, truck drivers, masons, race track employees, street cleaners, carpenters, bus drivers, loom operators, press room gangs, electricians, brick layers, laundry workers, stevedores. During June, for example, some 8,000 workers in the abattoirs struck. Department store employees staged a stay-in strike. Employees of the American Hospital in Neuilly had their strike, much to general consternation. There engineers, kitchen help, scrub women, laundry workers and lift operators demanded lunch, a 40-hour week, recognition of CGT benefits, and added a demand for three-day honeymoons. Several times the barge men went on strike. They were more drastic in action than sit-downers. At first they tied up their barges and tugs, and quit work. But Communist agitators, so it is alleged, showed them a new form of transport paralysis. Barges were tied up in rows many deep across the Seine, the Oise, and tributary canals, thus effectively blocking all river traffic.
Strikes continued without abatement to the general detriment of business. Production was so reduced that many contracts had to be canceled. Delivery dates meant nothing. There was much bad faith on the part of labor. Foreign business houses refused to deal with French firms. What were the strikes for? The workers had been granted their original demands. But the CGT in many cases ordered further strikes for reasons of self-interest, or to increase their power. Some strikes were spontaneous. Some beyond the control of the CGT. There was a strike for a better lavatory in one factory. There were strikes against employer reprisals, and there were strikes demanding that married women be refused in factories where husbands were employed. In the Goodrich Tire factory there was a strike because a delegate was discharged for tapping telephone wires from the manager's private office. If an employer fired a union man for rank inefficiency, there was a strike. If he employed non-union men there was a strike. It would seem as if the employer was always wrong. It would seem as if the employer had little to say about the management of his own business. There were strikes in the late summer in sympathy with the Spanish Reds. The Blum Government held out for non-intervention, Red workers struck for open intervention. The French liner Normandie was held up by a strike of stewards on the day of departure from Havre. The fact that the big liner was the pride of France, and that non-departure meant that foreign liners would carry her passengers to America meant nothing to the strikers. I recall watching hotel employees playing cards and drinking aperitifs in a cafe behind their hotel. Through kitchen windows across the street the directors and clerical staff could be seen trying to prepare and serve dinner for their guests.
Naturally the 40-hour week had a disrupting effect on industry and business in general. In many instances the workers did not like it. Its application brought confusion throughout France. Banks, for example, were forced to close on Saturdays, and yet all department stores, as well as many food stores were closed on Mondays. Pork butchers were closed on Friday, poultry dealers could remain open on Monday. Bakers had their day off. Subway newsstands were obliged to close every day between 9:30 AM and 11:30 AM. I recall a plumber grumbling over the 40-hour week, and the fact that it made no allowance for weekend accidents. Plumbers had agreed to the 40-hour week, asked to employ men in rotation, but this was refused by M Jouhaux. Thus plumbers were obliged to close down from Friday evening to Monday morning.
The extra time resulting from the 40-hour week was not altogether used for leisure. Many performed "black labor", that is, they earned extra money during free time by working at odd jobs. I know of one factory worker, who used factory paint in doing over apartments. According to the CGT this was illegal, but even their delegates could not prevent it.
The 1937 Paris Exposition was under construction when the Blum Government and the CGT came into power. With the advent of sit-down strikes work ceased immediately. The Red flag was unfurled over unfinished pavilions. It became a question of pride for the Front Populaire Government that the Exposition be ready on time. M Blum made a personal appeal to the workers asking them to work on Saturdays and Sundays. But they paid no attention to him. They only worked for 40 hours a week. They wished to prolong the work as long as possible, knowing that they would be laid off on completion. Meanwhile work continued without interruption on the Belgian, German, Italian and Russian pavilions. They had imported their own workers for that purpose. On the opening day no French pavilions were ready. Bunting and shrubbery screened uncompleted work. The workers loafed through the summer months, finishing one pavilion after another and construction was virtually finished by the closing day. Demolition work took even longer. The workers were in no hurry. and M Blum's Government could not make them work any faster. The prices agreed to by the contractors included erection and demolition, and most of them found themselves paying the demolishers out of their pockets since payment was slow in coming from the Government.
The battle cry of the workers under the Front Populaire was "Le Pain, La Pair, La Liberté," that is, Bread, Peace, Liberty. In due course the old vicious circle caused the workers to grumble. Prices were catching up to their wage increases. Bread went up in price. There was as much peace in France as in the time of the Revolution. There were frequent clashes between Right and Left groups. Patriotic societies were forming everywhere to fight the Front Populaire. The Royalists hated the Socialists. Even workers protested restrictions made by the CGT, proclaimed that their liberty was being taken away. In due course, workers in some factories became fed up with strikes. In the Peugeot automobile factory there was actually a strike against strikes. As prices went up, there were strikes for further increases in wages. Garbage collectors left refuse on the streets for several days during such a strike. In 1937 a reaction began to take place. There were murmurings of discontent. The worker's victories seemed less glamorous. The menace of war hung over France.
On the 18th of March in 1937 a General Strike was called in Paris. For Jouhaux, it was a test of strength. It was called in defiance of M Blum. The embarrassed Premier seemed to fear the CGT, and was unable to cope with it. He dared not take any drastic action, though the nation clamored for it. He was under obligations to labor. As a result all means of transportation in Paris came to a standstill, garbage cans lay about, street cleaners left the streets in disorder. Banks, shops, and factories were closed. Many of the smaller shops closed for fear of Red demonstrations. The mass of honest workers was disgusted. They adhered to the CGT to hold their jobs, but when their labor delegates so desired, they were forbidden to work. This was not liberty. The strike produced no disorders, but it was a labor victory, and a demonstration of power. The Government did not like it but failed to act. Industry did not like it but was powerless to act.
While Labor disrupted economic life on one side, the Front Populaire Government was making drastic changes on the other. In the first ten weeks of their regime the Blum Government passed no less than 65 bills of revolutionary character affecting the economic life of France. These ranged from new taxes, decentralization of the aircraft industry, nationalization of railways and the aircraft industry, partial nationalization of the Banque de France, and many others. Minister of Interior Salengro, who later committed suicide, urged action against the oligarchy of 200 families, who owned the voting stock of the Banque de France. The Board of Regents was therefore supplemented by a committee of men appointed by the Government. One of the new regents was M Léon Jouhaux, who lost no time in requesting a loan for the Spanish Reds.
Normally national defense factories are not nationalized except in time of war, but among the sweeping reforms introduced by the Blum Government was nationalization of munitions and aircraft factories engaged in government business. This reform took control from private ownership and gave it to the Government. Its effect on the aviation industry is described in succeeding paragraphs. The immediate results of nationalization of industry was inefficient management in cases where Government men replaced experts who had worked for years in their respective industries. With production at low ebb as a result of strikes, reorganization served as a further setback. The Front Populaire Government was not only trying to tell the Frenchman how to run his business, but it was trying to run his business for him. In spite of pre-election promises of the Socialists that they would not devaluate the franc, it was nevertheless devaluated by 33%. The financial crisis provoked frequent and bitter fights between Socialists and Radical-Socialists. Verbal attacks were sometimes followed by a display of fisticuffs. There was a panic-flight of capital and even members of the Blum Government felt that their money and investments were safer abroad. As the situation grew worse, the Blum financial wizards decided that money must be borrowed from the people, hence a huge loan in the form of small bonds. The public subscribed, but feelings rose rapidly against the government as the franc was devaluated.
The Parties of the Right were becoming stronger and more menacing to the Government, and clashes between workers occurred from time to time. Groups, such as the Parti Social Francais, the Croix du Feu, and others openly defied the Government. Extremist groups of the Right worked for the overthrow of the Government by force. Some of these were of a military character such as the UCAD (Union des Comites d'Action Defensive) and the CSAR (Comite Secret d'Action Revolutionaire.) Important industrialists and retired military leaders were connected with these two organizations. A huge cache of arms belonging to the UCAD was uncovered in the Michelin Tire Factory at Clermont-Ferrand. The arms were of German and Italian manufacture. An investigation followed, many arrests were made. Extremist groups of the Right were ordered dissolved, others were forced to declare their intentions. Feeling became more bitter. Leftists who were destroying France seemed immune from arrest.
As 1937 wore on more and more dissatisfaction was evident among the workers. Their higher wages had meant higher prices. Their victory had been worthless. Their faith in the CGT was shaken. But it was not discontent of the workers, or protests from the Right, or pressure from abroad that caused the first Front Populaire Government to resign. It was the ever present financial crisis and the menace of war. The huge loan had temporarily relieved the situation, but it was not a solution. The Blum Government resigned on June 21, 1937. M Camille Chautemps. a Radical-Socialist, then formed a second Front Populaire Government, but it was not equal to the task. The franc suffered a further devaluation of 14%. Chautemps was forced to resign on January 14, 1938. He had been unable to repair any of the damage caused by the preceding government. The Socialists and Communists had refused to support his Government and his hands were tied. M Chautemps formed a second Government, but this was no more successful than his first, and he resigned on March 10, 1938. M Blum was called upon to form a new Front Populaire Government, which he did. It enjoyed exactly 28 days of lost time before being forced to quit. This resignation marked the end of the Front Populaire, but its effects were not yet at an end.
M Edouard Daladier took over a divided nation on April 13, 1938. In fact, it almost seemed as if France was ripe for a revolution. However the menace of war and the urgency for national defense work created a feeling of national unity, which was none too strong. The Center and Right were not satisfied with the new Government. known as the Government of National Defense. To them it seemed a reversion of the old form of government that could do little more than muddle along. But this was a time of emergency. It was no time for muddling. They clamored for strong government. France was menaced.
While the Chambre enjoyed a recess, M Daladier was given plenary powers voted by the Senate and Chambre. Immediately he set about to increase the 40-hour week to 50. This produced a stream of protests from the CGT. The workers at Renault declared a strike. M Daladier sent Gardes Mobiles, or State Police, to rout dissident workers from the factory. His swift action was applauded by many. But the CGT didn't like it. Later, M Jouhaux ordered a general strike, but once again M Daladier got tough. France was no longer in a mood to bicker with labor. It was time, if not too late, to make every effort for National Defense. Troops were ordered in readiness. The strike fizzled. The workers were fed up with strikes and remained at work. Their refusal to strike was highly significant. Many maintained that union minorities forced workers to strike.
The story of the French Air Force is linked with politics and particularly those of the Front Populaire. The Air Force, or Armée de l'Air, has always been a defensive weapon. It was created by Government Decree in 1934 and passed under the control of the Ministry of Air. Previously French military aviation came under the command of the Ministry of War and served for army cooperation. French Naval Aviation has always been under the command of the Ministry of Marine. In 1934 plans were made to renovate the air force and bring it up to date. The original plan called for the construction of 1,060 first-line aircraft to be completed by 1936. This number was later increased to 1,500 by General Denain, when he became Minister of Air. It was soon discovered that the French aviation industry was not equipped to handle contracts of such size, and much time was lost while new machinery was being set up. Completion of this plan was further bogged down by technical, political, administrative, and industrial delays, and the program was not achieved until August of 1937, a year late. As three years, or more, often elapse between the drawing board and delivery to a squadron of a new military machine, the French Air Force was then equipped with new but outmoded aircraft. In the meantime Germany had started from scratch and now had almost double the French Air Force.
Strikes and the 40-hour week during 1936 and 1937 reduced production to its lowest ebb, monthly production being at times as low as thirty machines. During this time the industry submitted to a vast decentralization scheme, which further slowed production efforts while reorganization was effected. The Nationalization Act, passed by the Blum Regime, while M Pierre Cot, was Air Minister, gave the Government the right to buy or otherwise acquire factories and construction rights. Purchase automatically gave the Government a two-thirds interest in all aviation firms holding government contracts. Many factory technicians were replaced by government experts, and much confusion and inefficiency resulted.
Under M Daladier, with M Guy La Chambre as Air Minister, a new programme called for 5,000 first-line aircraft including reserves, and 12,000 motors. This was to be completed in two phases, the first ending in the Spring of 1939, the second in the Spring of 1940. Armed with his plenary powers, M Daladier was able to demand a 50-hour week for all employees engaged in government work, as mentioned. But during this time German aircraft workers were said to be working for 68 hours a week.
Between January 1 and September 1, 1938 French production amounted to only 287 aircraft. Between September 1 and December 1, 106 machines were built, Such was production as a result of sweeping reforms, strikes, a 40-hour week, and political meddling. The Daladier program, known as Plan V, called for a production of 200 machines a month by the spring of 1939. At the outbreak of war, the Industry is believed to have reached that total, but it was never enough, and the effort came too late. The Luftwaffe had six machines in the skies to one French during the Battle of France. The French had good machines, such as the Potez, the Amiot, and the Morane-Saulnier, but there were not enough of them. Their force of first-line aircraft had also been augmented by an order for 635 American machines, which was put through in spite of opposition in the Chambre, and by the Industry, who maintained that they could supply the necessary aircraft for National Defense. In 1938 French aircraft factories employed about 48,000 men. The Air Force in 1934 consisted of 2,087 officers and 37,750 men. In 1938 there were 3,085 officers and 59,410 men. Plans were under way to expand the Force to 150,000 men of all ranks.
Now that America is at war it is my fervent hope that all of our production factions will be united, but there are symptoms that perhaps this may not be entirely true. The French lesson is simple and clear. We cannot tolerate any stoppage of work or any relaxation of the supreme industrial effort which is the primary ingredient in victory.
This article was originally published in the January, 1942, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 41, no 1, pp 56-57, 208, 210, 212.
The original article includes 3 photos.
Photos credited to Acme, Press Association.