“Leon Blum: For All Mankind”

The news of the day is that the French government is planning on raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 (alors!), and that the French unions plan to oppose the move with strikes and street protests.

Now, the 60 retirement age was instituted in France in 1982 it appears by Socialist Francois Mitterand, but the concept of workers’ benefits in France goes back to the time of Socialist Prime Minister Leon Blum, who in the 1930s instituted the 40 hour work week and the concept of paid vacations for French workers.

I viewed the new documentary on Blum’s life at the Library of Congress today. Directed by Jean Bodon and written by Blum’s grandson Antoine Malamoud, the movie (along with a recent documentary on the life of Pierre Mendes-France) will soon be shown on the History Channel. Blum and Mendes-France, of course were the two prominent Jewish leaders of the country.

Blum, coming of age during the time of the Dreyfus trial, became a champion of social justice, socialism, workers’ rights and women’s rights. A leader of the Popular Front (the combination of all of the parties of the left, including the French Communist Party) to fight Facism, he became the Prime Minister in 1936. After the fall of France, he was arrested by the Vichy government and transported to Buchenwald, where he was given separate, albeit spartan, quarters, and where he lived until the war ended in 1946.

Blamed by the right as the cause of all of France’s troubles between the two wars and after the Second World War, as a Socialist and of course more so as Jew, and castigated by the far left by failing to rearm France sufficiently or intervene in the Spanish Civil War, Blum stuck to his centrist/leftist positions, and became Prime Minister of France once again after the war, successfully negotiating the reconstruction plan with the United States. He retired exhausted in 1947 and died three years later, at the age of 77.

A lawyer by training, a democrat and socialist by conviction, Blum had the strength to stand up for what he believed in spite of the tenor of the times. Clearly, he is a figure to be studied and honored.

That brings up the question, however, as to whether he is so studied and honored in France, and the answer seems to be: “no”. Bodon was asked, afer the screening, about his connection with Blum, and why he chose to make this particular film (Bodon has made a number of films). He said that there wasn’t much about him the general French curriculum, that he became interested in Blum when he discovered (to be sure at a late age) that his own father was Jewish, and that once he got into the subject, he realized what a rich subject it was.

Why he is not a more central figure in French schools is not clear to me, but another member of the standing-room only crowd at the Library of Congress today said that she had recently been to the Jewish Museum in Paris and noticed that there was no mention of either Blum or Mendes-France. When she asked a museum official why that was, she was told that it was because they were “socialists” and not really “Jewish”. Bodon did not appear surprised at this, but said that his movie has been shown at the museum, so that there was at least a little movement there for greater inclusivity.

The story is once worth knowing, which makes the film worth seeing. The hour long film, though, contains some old footage, but more contemporary interviews with historians, writers and former French politicians. As often seems to be the case with French intellectuals, they do a lot of talking and I am afraid that the subtitles do not pick up all of the nuances, making the film much more useful for Francophones than for us poor monolingual Americans.


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