Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

Jean Lacouture’s study of Léon Blum is entertaining and has been very well translated by George Holoch. The book’s frequent references to French names unknown across the Channel could put English readers off: but curiosity may prevail with a British public which finds itself abruptly transported into the unfamiliar territory of French political life under the Third and Fourth Republics. The book was written during the 1970s, in the climate created by the Union of the Left, and all that that implies. It shows Blum as a fascinating, attractive and appealing personality, less easily classifiable than Jaurès.

Léon Blum stands at the meeting place of greatness and guilt in French politics. A Jew, he was one of the very few members of his community to rise to the highest offices of state in a Western nation (but we should not forget Disraeli, whom he admired). At the same time, the French reader cannot look without shame at Lacouture’s account of debates in the Chambre des Députés between 1920 and 1930, when every speech Blum made was interrupted by cries from the extreme Right, all of them coming down more or less to the two words: sale Juif. For the moment, we can pass over this distasteful episode in our history: anti-semitism is now taboo in France, at least in intellectual and political circles, and such incidents would be inconceivable today. Blum was born in 1872, to a Parisian family which originated in an intellectual and spiritual élite, the Jewish community of Alsace. After 1870, a minority of this minority emigrated to France, among them the parents of the Socialist leader, and it was to give the country some outstanding intellectual figures. Blum’s parents went into business in Paris and surviving photographs show the sons and the mother in iconographical terms remarkably close to those prevailing in Catholic or lay families of the period. France may have been superficially divided, but it was, without knowing it, an anthropological whole united at the level of its middle classes by the shared outlook of its bourgeois families. Young Léon attended the Ecole Normale, studied law, and married a girl from a Jewish background who had converted to Catholicism: thus confirming the impulse towards integration and the affirmation of ‘Frenchness’ which would typify his career, though it was quite lost on the nationalists of the far Right. Who could have been more genuinely French than Blum?

The heyday of Lacouture’s hero was la Belle Epoque, nostalgically recalled as a heyday for the country as a whole. In the years around 1900, he would spend his day as a conseiller d’Etat, leafing through legal papers. In the evening, he would go off to the theatre, to a light comedy or to a play written by one of his friends, before reviewing it for some literary magazine: this is not the summit of his literary achievement. He was part of fashionable society, the Tout-Paris, fought the odd duel with an author he had offended or wounded by an excessively unkind review, made friends and fell out with writers, including Barrès whose talent he admired while resenting his ultra right-wing opinions. He appears to have been a good husband and a model father, though he wrote an ironical book on the institution of marriage for which, though it anticipated later social attitudes, conventional minds were never to forgive him. Anti-Judaism was ingrained in France during the 1900s, despite the enlightened efforts of part of the Left and of some liberal Catholics, as well as Protestants, of course. Did he suffer from it? The artistic, musical and literary circles he frequented were generally quite ready to welcome Jews, and while racism was not entirely absent even there, it was less aggressive than elsewhere.

For a long time he was unenthusiastic about the Left, though circumstances made this the socio-political milieu towards which he would naturally gravitate. However, the Dreyfus affair had already made him a ‘militant’. He was acquainted with Lucien Herr, the Socialist librarian at the Ecole Normale in the Rue d’Ulm, who became the mentor of a whole generation. In defending Zola and the Dreyfusards, he got to know the Socialist orator Jaurès and expressed both admiration and affection for him. He took an interest in Karl Marx, whose work excited in him an admiration inversely proportional to the amount of it he had actually read. It was not difficult for the two circles, Socialist and Jewish, to meet, since both were on the fringes of French life up to 1914: the same is true of French Protestants who have always found a natural home in Republican movements. But it was the 1914-18 war which, more even than the Dreyfus affair, brought Léon Blum belatedly into politics – he was already over forty. The Union Sacrée, uniting Left and Right in a wartime coalition against Germany, put him at the head of a department in collaboration with Marcel Sembat, Minister of Public Works. As a Frenchman from Alsace, Blum’s sympathies were fully behind the struggle. He felt the assassination of Jaurès on 31 July 1914 as a personal tragedy, and, ironically, the event was to create a vacuum which would be filled over the next thirty years by a new Socialist leader, who would be Léon Blum. Still young enough to take over Jaurès’s mantle when the time came, Blum was too old to be called up and after the Great War, when so many young people had perished, he stepped into an empty seat. His generation was to find its opportunity in the inter-war years, in what is sometimes called ‘the country of old men’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in