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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: On l’appelait « Front populaire »

by By Michel Étiévent, writer

They called him “Popular Front”: Memories of the France of 1936

Translated by Patrick Bolland

Translated Friday 3 March 2006, by Patrick Bolland

I remember Jean, who the guys in the Savoy region used to call “Popular Front”. As kids, we imagined he got this nickname because of his forehead (a “front” in French) and he was a popular guy. He was known in the whole region by this name. It was much later that we realised that the name came from a fire that was lit in the early spring of 1936.

He talks to us endlessly in the café. There was always something in his eyes that, only much later, we recognised as “dignity”. May 1936: He was just 20 years old at the time. Down at the steel mill, the workers were united and just beginning to shake things up, occupying the workshops, making the machinery dance for the first time ever. And urging the left-wing government towards the great social advances that the poor had been waiting for since the century’s darkest days. Everywhere, they were clamouring “Bread!”, “Peace! ”, “Freedom! ”.

That spring, things were being said that had been utopian dreams the previous year. “I remember, everything turned around in one evening. It was June the 25th, I believe, just after the Matignon Agreements were signed. A guy from the CGT, a local union official offical, climbed up on the stage and opened up, in front of the crowds of workers who had come from all corners of the valley, he opened up his bag of goodies. In a single stroke, paid holidays, a 40-hour work week, collective agreements, wage hikes. Father Christmas was coming six months overdue! The workers’ eyes were like lorries’ headlights. Towards the end of the meeting, an old peasant stood up. From the bottom of his heart he asked: ‘Woa there, Albert, what does that mean, ‘paid holidays’?’ The whole room roared with laughter, but you have to understand, this was a really crazy idea at the time. ‘You’re sure you understood right, Albert? It’s not just that we won’t be working, but they’re going to pay us not to work!’ The old man sat down again and said nothing else the whole evening.”

The news spread like wild-fire down the back-alleys, across the valley’s factories, the glasses of absinthe were raised everywhere. We drank to this. Livio, Joseph or maybe André grabbed the accordion and made the meetings dance. “Between two glasses of absynthe, they all signed up for the union, believing that from now on everything was possible! Next day, the morning shift was sozzled and fell asleep on their lathes. The boss was so scared, he didn’t dare say anything!”
It was later that they started talking about the blue trains, of trips to the sea-side, of reduced fares for those on paid holidays and other sweet things that the struggle had deposited at the foot of the factory chimneys. It was a summer of colours, people in overalls, people who were called the “salopards en casquette” - the guys in overalls and flat caps - with the blues of their working clothes and the radiant blue in their souls, watching the setting of the sun on the coastline, all that until then had been reserved for the suits and cigars.

“As for me, I didn’t go very far”, Jean continues. “Here, for those of us working the land, you didn’t have time to go around flashing your legs to the waves. We used this time to catch up with cutting the hay!” Jean takes out a pay-slip weathered by time. It shows the hourly wage before the raise: “3.10 Francs”, crossed out by the boss’s own hand and suddenly reflecting the new gains: “4.55 Francs”. With a smile, Jean tells us: “Wages went up 32% in a month - that made life twice as good! ... And the collective agreements! ... It was a comrade from here, Ambroise Croizat, who got the law passed in the National Assembly”. In a single shot, the divine right of the bosses - it was only them who had had the right to speak - was replaced by spelling out the working conditions “agreed with the consent of the employees”.

The days of wages according to the whims of the bosses or the politics of the client were over! At the counter in the café, Jean lets his memories pour out. We spot a photo: a group of youths, all smiling. “That’s also from the same time. The first youth hostel in the Savoy. What fun when the Parisians working at the Renault factories showed up! Can you believe it, girls walking around the village in shorts!”

Outside, snow-flakes are falling; the mountain is disappearing into the night sky. Jean’s eyes begin to close but it isn’t the Pernod. “It lasted three years, three years of living the real life and then, using the threat of war as an excuse, Daladier and the Right took it all away from us. He said on the radio one day that we had to get rid of the 40-hours and he called it ‘the law of laziness, the law of national treason’!”

Words which are coming back to haunt us today.

In these dark days of the private business lobby and other Sarkozies...

(*)Michel Étiévent’s most recent book: “Fils d’usines, Un siècle de mémoires industrielle et ouvrière en Savoie. 1850-1950.” [Sons and daughters of the factories: A century of memories of industry and the workers in the Savoy region: 1859-1950] Éditions Gap. Available from the author at Michel Étiévent, 73260 Petit-Cœur (04 79 22 54 69), 44 € including postage.

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