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Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist 
by Pierre Birnbaum, translated by Arthur Goldhammer.
Yale, 218 pp., £14.99, July 2015, 978 0 300 18980 3
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The​ newspaper Action française habitually referred to Léon Blum, France’s Socialist leader, as the ‘warlike Hebrew’ and the ‘circumcised Narbonnais’ (he represented a constituency in Narbonne). On 13 February 1936, Blum was being driven away from the National Assembly when he encountered a group of ultra-right-wing militants who had gathered at the intersection of the rue de l’Université and the boulevard Saint-Germain for the funeral procession of Jacques Bainville, one of the founders of Action française, a reactionary political movement as well as a newspaper. Glimpsing Blum through the car windows, the militants began shouting: ‘Kill Blum!’, ‘Shoot Blum!’ They forced his car to stop and began rocking it back and forth. Blum’s friend Germaine Monnet, sitting with him in the back, tried to shield him with her body. Her husband, Georges, who had been driving, ran to look for police. But one of the militants managed to tear a fender off the car, used it to smash the rear window, and then beat Blum repeatedly over the head. Only the arrival of two policemen saved his life. They dragged him to a nearby building, where the concierge gave him first aid. The next day pictures of Blum, his head heavily bandaged, appeared in newspapers around the world.

The story might easily be used to illustrate the extent and virulence of anti-Semitism in interwar France, and as a harbinger of the persecutions to follow under Vichy. And yet, immediately after the attack, the assembly voted to outlaw Action française and its youth movements. Three days later, a massive rally in Paris expressed support for Blum. When, in the spring, the editor of Action française, Charles Maurras, wrote that Blum ‘should be shot, but in the back’, he was sentenced to eight months in prison. That same spring, Blum became prime minister. As has been the case throughout the history of modern France, spectacular anti-Semitic violence coexisted with remarkable successes for French Jewry. As Pierre Birnbaum writes in the introduction to his new book, part of a series called ‘Jewish Lives’, France ‘is virtually the only country in the world, apart from Israel, that has several times chosen as its leader a Jew openly proclaiming his identity’.

Blum is the most important of these leaders, having served as prime minister three times, most importantly in the Popular Front government of 1936-37. Already a prominent writer and government lawyer before the First World War, he led the French Socialists (officially called the French Section of the Workers’ International) for most of the interwar period. And he achieved his success despite appearing to French gentiles more conspicuously Jewish than nearly all other prominent Jewish politicians, then and since. Unlike the highly assimilated, largely non-religious Pierre Mendès-France, prime minister in 1954-55, Blum grew up in an Orthodox household and had an unambiguously Jewish name (anti-Semitic opponents nonetheless spread the story that he had changed it from Karfulkenstein). A Parisian with no ties to the French countryside, an intellectual frequently mocked as effeminate, a committed Zionist and a socialist who spoke the language of class struggle, Blum was tarred as the paradigmatic ‘rootless cosmopolitan’. Birnbaum begins his book by citing the attack on him in the assembly by the right-wing deputy Xavier Vallat (who later served as Vichy’s commissioner-general for Jewish affairs): ‘For the first time, this old Gallo-Roman country will be governed … by a Jew … I say what I think … which is that in order to govern a peasant nation like France, it is better to have someone whose origins, modest though they may be, lie deep in the entrails of our soil, rather than a subtle Talmudist.’ During the war Blum was imprisoned, first in France, then at Buchenwald and Dachau. He died in 1950.

Birnbaum, a well-known historian and sociologist of French Jewry, has written a short biography that focuses on Blum’s identity as a Jew, as the series requires. It cannot substitute for the more substantial studies by Joel Colton, Ilan Greilsammer and Serge Berstein, but it’s lively, witty and draws effectively on Blum’s massive and eloquent correspondence. Arthur Goldhammer has, as usual, produced a lucid, engaging English text. Birnbaum seems to have written the book in some haste: he repeats facts and quotations, and makes a few historical slips – France was not a ‘largely peasant nation’ in 1936; Hitler did not annex the Sudetenland in the summer of 1938, before the Munich Agreement. The chapters proceed thematically, highlighting Blum the writer, Blum the socialist, Blum the lawyer, Blum the Zionist and so forth, which produces occasional confusion as Birnbaum leaps backwards and forwards in time. But overall, the book offers a knowledgeable and attractive portrait. If there is a serious criticism to be levelled at it, it doesn’t concern the portrait itself, so much as the way Birnbaum draws on it to make a broader argument about French Jewish identity.

For Birnbaum, Blum is a ‘great man’, ‘the quintessence of Frenchness’, a figure of ‘courage’, and even ‘a thoroughgoing feminist avant la lettre’. The book deals indulgently with the irregularities of his personal life, including a twenty-year affair and the virtual abandonment of his first wife. Birnbaum also plays down the slipperiness with which Blum seemed, on the one hand, to advocate revolutionary action – at one point endorsing ‘the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ – while insisting, on the other, that he would never use undemocratic means to achieve power. Birnbaum instead highlights a 1922 speech in which Blum criticised Soviet repression, calling it ‘one of the most impressive exposés of the logic of totalitarianism’, on a par with the work of Koestler and Solzhenitsyn. As for the Popular Front, Birnbaum acknowledges the compromises and frustrations that accompanied it, but still calls it a ‘giant step forward for the happiness of the individual and society’.

Despite the occasional exaggeration, Birnbaum is largely convincing on these points. Blum was not a major thinker, but his carefully constructed ambiguities on the subject of revolutionary action helped to keep the French Socialists together during the crucial years leading up to 1936, when they came to power in a broad left-wing coalition that included the Communist Party. And the Popular Front, although in office for scarcely a year, achieved an enormous amount, instituting paid holidays, a forty-hour week and extensive collective bargaining rights, while extending state control in key economic sectors and increasing wages. Today, few people would agree with Blum that ‘only in a centralised, unified, levelled nation are individuals truly liberated.’ But in France in the 1930s, it’s hard to imagine how reformers could have overcome entrenched economic interests (notably the ‘two hundred families’ who controlled the Banque de France) and created the first serious system of social protection in French history without the use of centralised political power.

Birnbaum applauds Blum’s political achievements but saves his strongest praise for the way he epitomised a certain French Jewish ideal. He calls him a ‘state Jew’, which he defines as one ‘who took advantage of the universalistic and egalitarian values of the post-revolutionary French state … to achieve emancipation through public service’. Such Jews accepted the bargain that the French Revolution offered them: equality of rights and opportunity, in exchange for renouncing virtually every trace of a communal Jewish identity. This meant keeping religion a strictly private matter, and never acting in defence of Jewish interests, unless they coincided with national interests (as during the Dreyfus Affair). It also meant fully embracing French culture. Birnbaum devotes considerable space to Blum’s early literary productions, to his lifelong infatuation with Stendhal, and to his similarities with the half-Jewish Marcel Proust (who knew Blum and thought poorly of his writing). He carefully notes what Blum read in captivity during the war: Cicero, Shakespeare and Goethe, but also Rousseau, Musset, Mme de La Fayette, La Rochefoucauld, Gide, Stendhal, Flaubert, Molière, Racine and Choderlos de Laclos. Blum, he tells us (twice), had no ear for foreign languages, and indeed ‘boasted of his inability to express himself in any tongue other than his native French’. When the right-wing newspaper Gringoire claimed Blum had been born in Bulgaria, the prime minister published a response, including information about his parents’ birthplaces, and added: ‘As far back as it is possible to go in the history of a family of exceedingly modest means, my ancestors are purely French.’ Birnbaum calls this statement (which anticipates the ‘Kenyan’ Barack Obama’s release of his birth certificate) a ‘moving evocation of his ancestors’. When he calls Blum the ‘quintessence of Frenchness’ he means it as high praise.

Birnbaum only becomes disapproving of his subject when considering a ‘fierce and unjust critique’ that Blum made of high-ranking Jewish officials during the Dreyfus Affair for not protesting more forcefully, for fear of losing their positions or their non-Jewish patrons. He chides Blum for attacking the ‘character of the state Jews in whose ranks he himself belonged. He strangely ignored the steadfastness of many of his colleagues.’ For Birnbaum, French Jews had no acceptable choice other than to embrace the bargain the republic offered, and its model of assimilation.

This take on Blum will hardly surprise readers of Birnbaum’s voluminous earlier works: studies of ‘state Jews’ as a type, histories of French anti-Semitism and robust warnings against the danger of ‘communitarianism’ – of ethnic or religious communities putting their particular interests before those of the nation. His warnings have concerned the Jews in the first instance, but clearly apply as well to Muslims, who today outnumber Jews in France by a factor of ten to one. Birnbaum has become one of the chief academic defenders of the French ‘republican model’, which insists on excluding all consideration of ethnic or religious identity from the public sphere, to the extent that even today the French Republic does not collect census data on religious affiliation (making the ten-to-one ratio only a rough estimate). It is this model which, with its commitment to rigid official secularism (laïcité), lies behind the controversial attempts to ban ‘conspicuous symbols’ of religion from schools and public places. While the ban in theory applies to yarmulkes and crosses as much as to veils, in practice it has targeted the latter. In recent years, Birnbaum has accused the state of abandoning its mission to forge a cohesive national community and undermining ‘the long-time unifying logic of the nation on which French exceptionalism rests’.

In fact, the ‘republican model’ he defends so vigorously lost its utility years ago and has become a counter-productive anachronism, both for French Jews and for the republic. As a model, it was shaped under the Third Republic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But that republic, unlike today’s, was threatened by authoritarian and ultra-Catholic forces that came close to overthrowing it on more than one occasion (before finally doing so in 1940 with the help of the Wehrmacht). Precisely because the republic gave such warm acceptance to French Jews, those forces seized on the Jews as symbols of everything they detested about it: its alleged ‘rootlessness’, its love of philosophical abstractions, its supposed hostility to Christian faith and so forth. They called it the ‘république juive’. During the Dreyfus Affair, this hostility erupted into a frightening nationwide outpouring of conjoined anti-Semitic and anti-republican abuse (Birnbaum has written on all of this: one of his books has the title Un mythe politique: La ‘République juive’, another, The Anti-Semitic Moment: A Tour of France in 1898). Faced with such virulent opposition, it is no wonder that the ‘republican model’ became so uncompromisingly rigid, especially in its ‘laïcité’.

But today, despite the swelling electorate supporting Marine Le Pen, the republic faces no comparable threat. The poverty and violence of the heavily Muslim banlieues, and the radicalisation of some alienated Muslim youth, are serious problems, but very different problems from those the young Léon Blum faced more than a century ago. And for the last decade or more, attempts to address these new problems by strengthening the ‘republican model’ – through such measures as the law on the veil, Sarkozy’s creation of a Ministry of Immigration, Integration and National Identity, and the introduction of more ‘republican’ and ‘patriotic’ content into the school curriculum – have done more harm than good. While justified by their promoters in the name of equality, integration and human rights (especially women’s rights), they all too easily suggest to France’s immigrant communities that the French state wants to strip them of their identity, without doing anything to help them overcome material disadvantage and discrimination.

At the same time, the republican model allows strikingly little space for what immigrant communities can contribute to a nation. Visitors to France can see at a glance just how much immigrants have brought to its music, literature, sport and even cuisine. But the republican model treats difference primarily as a threat to be exorcised in the name of an unbending, anachronistic ideal of civic equality. Even in the heyday of the Third Republic, many committed republicans recognised that different ethnic and religious groups could strengthen the republic.

One of them was Blum. As Birnbaum himself repeatedly notes, despite his ‘quintessential’ Frenchness, Blum always expressed pride in his Jewish heritage, often in the highly racialised language of the day. ‘My Semite blood,’ he wrote as a young man, ‘has been preserved in its pure state. Honour me by acknowledging that it flows unmixed in my veins and that I am the untainted descendant of an unpolluted race.’ While he could speak disparagingly of Jewish ritual, he recognised and respected a Jewish ethical tradition. In 1899, in the midst of the Dreyfus Affair, he insisted that ‘the Jew’s religion is justice. His Messiah is nothing other than a symbol of Eternal Justice.’ He went on to identify ‘the spirit of socialism’ with ‘the ancient spirit of the race’ and to comment: ‘It was not a lapse on the part of Providence that Marx and Lassalle were Jews.’ Blum, in short, thought the Jews could change the French Republic for the better by drawing on their own traditions to push it towards socialism.

Birnbaum has nothing but praise for this, at least when it comes from Blum. He calls Blum ‘the first of a new type of state Jew interested in giving greater weight to democratic sentiment within the framework of a socialist project.’ One wonders, though, what Birnbaum might say about a French Muslim politician today justifying an ideological position by reference to Muslim tradition and ethics (or sharia law). Would he have quite so favourable an opinion? Or might he see the move as a ‘communitarian’ threat to ‘the unifying logic of the nation’ and to ‘French exceptionalism’? It is well past time to recognise that a nation can have many different unifying logics, and that a political model forged under the Third Republic fits the France of the Fifth Republic very badly.

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