Review: Léon Blum

Top French player in the premier league


By Pierre Birnbaum
Yale University Press, £14.99

Britain has never had a Jewish prime minister - the nearest, Disraeli, though loyal to his roots, had been converted to Christianity by his father. But we have twice come close: in 2005, with the Conservative, Michael Howard, and in 2015 with Labour's Ed Miliband. On neither occasion, however, was their Jewishness a matter for public comment. Indeed, I doubt whether it swung a single vote one way or the other.

In France, things have been quite different. There, since the time of the Dreyfus affair in the 1890s, antisemitism has been a respectable public doctrine, but France remains the only country in the world, apart from Israel, to have elected a number of Jewish prime ministers.

The first was the Socialist, Léon Blum, prime minister of a Popular Front coalition of the left in 1936, among whose achievements was a 40-hour week and paid holidays for all workers.

On assuming the premiership, Blum faced virulent attacks in the Chamber of Deputies, where cries of "Death to the Jews!" were to be heard. One right-wing deputy accused Blum of being a "subtle talmudist" and insisted that he would decide French foreign policy "only after consulting his co-religionists".

He had the misfortune to live during a deeply tragic period of French history

Blum did not seek to hide his identity, telling his accusers: "You do me no injury by reminding me of the race to which I belong and have never renounced and towards which I feel only gratitude and pride".

He had first been drawn into politics by the Dreyfus affair. Until that miscarriage of justice, he had seemed little more than a man of letters on the fringes of Parisian society although his acquaintances included the composer, Maurice Ravel, and Marcel Proust, the half-Jewish novelist, who analysed the Dreyfus affair with great subtlety and skill in À la recherche du temps perdu.

Blum, who lived from 1872 to 1950, was an intellectual in politics, and his generosity of spirit led him to underestimate the forces of evil both in his own country and in Germany in the 1930s.

He was shocked when a majority of Socialist deputies voted for the collaborationist Marshal Petain in 1940, and was lucky to escape with his life after a show trial by the Vichy regime in 1941, which led to his incarceration in Buchenwald.

In contrast to most Jewish leaders in France, Blum was an ardent Zionist, and an admirer of Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president. In November 1943, a kibbutz, Kfar Blum in Upper Galilee, was inaugurated in his honour. The opening ceremony was attended by two future prime ministers of Israel, Moshe Sharrett and Golda Meir.

Blum is an important figure in French history and a number of biographies have charted his political career. Pierre Birnbaum, a sociologist from the Sorbonne, seeks to do something different in this short volume in Yale's Jewish Lives series, by analysing the influence of Blum's Jewish heritage on his politics. His biography forms an excellent short introduction to a heroic statesman who had the misfortune to live during a deeply tragic period of French history.

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