What happened in May 1936 in France ?
The Popular Front was a coalition of left-wing parties that won the elections in France in May 1936. But if the event is still so vividly remembered, it's above all because it is symbolic of major workers' victories. Indeed, galvanized by the elections, workers everywhere went on strike to demand higher wages and shorter working weeks. These strikes were true moments of celebration and emancipation. Workers took over their workplaces and danced in the factories. The frightened bosses accepted the demands of the workers, who also won, for the first time, the right to two weeks' paid vacation: les "congés payés".
THE FIRST WORKING-CLASS VACATIONS
In May 1936, unprecedented strikes broke out in France.
For the first time, workers occupied factories under the stunned eyes of their bosses. The movement spread to shopkeepers, waiters, hairdressers and farmers. And soon two million strikers took to the streets. In an atmosphere of gigantic popular celebration, balls were organised in the factories while card games were improvised to the sound of the accordion. Dubbed "the strikers of joy", (les grévistes de la joie) they celebrated the victory of the Popular Front, a coalition of left-wing parties, in the legislative elections.
In October 1929 the New York Stock Exchange collapsed. A serious economic crisis hit the United States before spreading to Europe. Democracies, considered powerless, were challenged and authoritarian regimes developed. The threat of a new world war arose.
In 1931, France was hit in turn. Purchasing power fell drastically. A massive wave of unemployment hit the country. Hundreds of thousands of people found themselves without a job and without compensation. The working class was particularly hard hit and its standard of living fell steadily. Governments came and went but the crisis persisted. Then the rise of fascism reached Hexagone (i.e. France): the extreme right-wing movements gained momentum. They wanted to put an end to this unstable parliamentary regime and restore strong power.
The Stavisky affair
The Stavisky affair soon ignited a political crisis that would change the course of history. On 9 January 1934, Serge Alexandre Stavisky, a wealthy swindler, wanted for embezzlement, was found dead in Chamonix. Public opinion did not believe in the suicide theory. Leading politicians, who were accomplices, allegedly murdered him to silence him. On 6 February, the extreme right-wing leagues took up the case and organised a large demonstration a few steps from the National Assembly to denounce the decadence of the Third Republic. The rally was very violent and turned into a riot (insurrection) with many victims in the days that followed.
The left-wing parties denounced an attempted fascist coup and organised counter-demonstrations. On 12 February 1934, communist and socialist activists joined together in the same procession, despite the political differences between them. The left, until then disunited, came together to form a front. The socialist Léon Blum, the communist Maurice Thorez and the radical Edouard Daladier formed an electoral alliance for the legislative elections of May 1936. Together they wanted to transform society. Their slogan "bread, peace, freedom": the Popular Front was born. On 3 May, unity paid off. The Popular Front won the elections. An immense hope for change swept through the working classes.
The investiture of Léon Blum, the first Socialist to head a government in France, could not take place immediately. They had to wait a month. It was during this waiting period that spontaneous strikes broke out until the Matignon agreements were signed.
On 7 June 1936, the day after his investiture, Léon Blum brought together employers and unions to negotiate the long-awaited social reforms. On 8 June, at 1am, the Matignon agreements (les accords de Matignon) were signed: the advances were considerable. Wages increased, the working week was reduced from 48 to 40 hours, trade union rights were recognised and the first paid holidays were granted. It was soon time for the first holidays and the carefree attitude of a class that was discovering free time and the beach.
But the euphoria was short-lived. Growth was slow in coming and unemployment was on the rise again. Less than a year after the Matignon agreements, the Popular Front faltered. Léon Blum resigned himself to taking a break from reform. On 21 June 1937, he was forced to resign. In April 1938, with the spectre of the Second World War hanging over Europe, Edouard Daladier formed a government with the Right. The Popular Front failed but social progress continued