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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Front populaire : une période brève, mais capitale

by Olivier Mayer

The Popular Front: A Brief but Crucial Period in History

Translated Monday 1 May 2006, by Ann Drummond

1936. The PCF wants to make the 70th Anniversary of the Popular Front a time for education, reflection and celebration. Interview with Henri Malberg, who is coordinating the initiatives.

HUMA: The French Communist Party is preparing to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Popular Front. What does this initiative mean for you?

HENRI MALBERG: A great deal in our lives and struggles today is based on that time. The Popular Front was a brief but crucial period in history. Everything about it and that happened then is interesting and gives food for thought. We know that history never repeats itself, but to be ignorant of it is a sure fire way of missing out on something very significant. So it’s certainly not a commemoration we want, but a political moment, an in-depth campaign, a time for both education and celebration.

HUMA: But what in particular are you going to celebrate about the spring of 1936? An electoral victory? The success of a popular, social struggle?

HENRI MALBERG: The creativity and intelligence of the people were central to this time. The working class and the people rediscovered their roots in the Republic, in freedom and in the class struggle. The Communist Party was one of the main actors in all this. A dynamic, creative and mobile force, it managed to grasp the essential nature of 1934, when French fascism, spurred on by what had happened in Germany and Italy, mounted its attack on the Republic. At that time, there was not the co-ordinated view of fascism there is today. There were many on the left who underestimated the danger represented by Hitler in Germany. So when the Communist Party came to the conclusion that the Republic had to be defended against the fascist threat, it taught us a lesson in bravery and political inventiveness. The Popular Front - "for bread, peace and freedom" - that was a political initiative of the Communist Party after 1934 which became a popular concept and a powerful force.

HUMA: For the PCF, did it involve a fundamental revision of its strategy?

HENRI MALBERG: Its policy of unity was augmented by the antifascist struggle, and combined with an uncompromising social approach. Unity was built up during this period. Communists, Socialists and Radicals, the coalition party of the middle classes, uniting together became a reality. So this alliance of united action, trade union co-operation and the programme of the Popular Front was responsible for winning the elections.

HUMA: The Popular Front was also the combination of an electoral victory, the Left coming to power, and the struggle of the working class.

HENRI MALBERG: After the electoral victory on 3 May 1936, a massive strike movement began to roll out, until 12,000 businesses were on strike, with millions of workers and employees occupying factories, on the back of the victory in the elections. And this movement achieved in eighty days practically the entire programme of the Popular Front. Paid holidays, wage rises, trade union recognition, collective bargaining and the 40 hour week... What the workers themselves believed was a utopian dream became a reality with this combination of an electoral victory, the Left coming to power, a popular movement and, at the heart of it, a Communist Party prepared to fight. The Popular Front was to perish as a result of the march to war, the bosses’ counter-offensive and the French Socialist Party’s policy of not supporting the Republican struggle in Spain. But seventy years later, the bosses still have not evened the score with the Popular Front.

HUMA: The Occupation and the Resistance were to follow...

HENRI MALBERG: And with France defeated, it was often a matter of the same people fighting each other as before. Many of those who made up the Resistance were also members of the International Brigades in Spain - Henri Rol-Tanguy, Charles Tillon - or those involved in trade union struggles like Jean-Pierre Timbault and André Tollet. And opposite them stood the big bosses so despised by de Gaulle, in their murky collaboration.

HUMA: For the evening of 3 May, you are inviting along workers from 1936 and anti-CPE young people from 2006. Is this history linking up?

HENRI MALBERG: The Popular Front has a lot to do with what makes us think and act today. After years of social retreat, contempt and injustices, youth and the people are once again looking for ways out, faced with a society which is becoming more and more unbearable. As in 1936, hope is rising in France and in Europe. That is why we want to make 3 May 2006 and other initiatives celebrating 1936 a time for intelligent thought.

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