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Blum, Léon (1872–1950)

French political leader, premier, and man of letters. Born in Paris on 9 April 1872 into a middle-class republican Jewish family, Léon Blum entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1890 but did not pursue an academic career. After obtaining degrees in law and literature at the Sorbonne, he made his mark in literary criticism and law. Politicized by the Dreyfus Affair of 1894, Blum began writing in the socialist daily L'Humanité and joined the French Socialist Party (SFIO). Soon he was the party's main theoretician.

A staunch supporter of SFIO leader Juan Juarès who was assassinated on the eve of World War I, Blum in 1919 won election to the French Chamber of Deputies as a socialist. Soon thereafter he drafted the SFIO program. After the communists split off from the socialists at the 1920 Socialist Party Congress, Blum devoted his efforts to reviving the SFIO. His leadership was a major factor in making the party into a formidable political force. This is remarkable given that Blum was an intellectual with no great oratorical skills heading a proletarian party. He also established Le Populaire, the new party newspaper.

By the mid-1930s the SFIO was the leading party in the leftist Popular Front, and the 1936 election victory catapulted Blum into the premiership in June. He was both the first Jewish and first socialist premier of France. The Popular Front was not a success, and Blum lasted barely a year as premier, the coalition collapsing under economic pressures and the Spanish Civil War.

Blum's second premiership, March–April 1938, was even less successful. Long an advocate of disarmament, he now championed French rearmament. The defeat of France in 1940 splintered the SFIO. Blum was among those who refused to vote for Marshal Henri Pétain to be premier and courageously chose to remain in France. Arrested by the Vichy government, Blum was brought to trial at Riom, an event that he turned into a major triumph and defense of republicanism that helped inspire the Resistance. He supported General Charles de Gaulle and in 1943 was imprisoned by the German Gestapo at Buchenwald.

After the defeat of Germany, Blum was welcomed back to France, although now his role was that of elder statesman. From December 1946 to January 1947, he headed an all-socialist government. It was during this turbulent period in the new Fourth Republic that events in Indochina reached a point of crisis. A week before taking his position as head of the government, Blum wrote in Le Populaire that independence (later qualified to read "independence within the French Union") was the only solution for Vietnam. Vietnamese nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh sent Blum proposals to relieve Franco-Vietnamese tensions, but French military censors in Saigon held up the cable until it was too late to do any good. Even so, it is doubtful that Blum could have carried this off. Since the Liberation the socialists were but one of three major French political parties, locked in uneasy coalition with the Popular Republican Movement (MRP) and the communists. Center and rightist French political factions opposed colonial concessions. And Blum's government was a stop-gap affair designed to bridge the period until the new constitution took effect.

In any case, it was ironic that a long-standing critic of French colonialism should be French premier when the Indochina War began. In responding to the beginning of the war in December 1946, Blum reacted very much as a centrist or rightist leader would have done. He told the Assembly that France was using military force in self-defense. "Before all, order must be established," he said. In January, fellow socialist Paul Ramadier replaced Blum as premier.

After leaving the premiership, Blum carried out a number of important diplomatic assignments. He also continued to write for Le Populaire until his sudden death during a party meeting at Jouy-en-Josas, near Paris, on 30 March 1950.

Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Bamberg, James. British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950-75: The Challenge to Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.; Bronner, Stephen Eric. Léon Blum. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.; Colton, Joel. Léon Blum: Humanist in Politics. New York: Knopf, 1966.; Logue, William. Léon Blum: The Formative Years, 1872–1914. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1973.
 

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