The first socialist party formed in France was the Workers Party in 1880. Its first leader was Paul Lafargue, the son-in-law of Karl Marx. The party suffered from internal divisions and by 1895 had split into five different parties.
In 1900 a congress was held where socialists attempted to obtain a united party. This proved impossible but two new grouping did emerge, the revolutionary Socialist Party of France and the French Socialist Party that advocated a parliamentary route to power.
The Socialist Party of France, led by Jules Guesde and Edouard Vaillant. This party failed to make much progress and in 1905 it merged with the French Socialist Party under the leadership of Jean Jaurés.
The new Socialist Party grew rapidly at the beginning of the century but split over the correct response to German militarism. Jean Jaurés advocated a policy of international arbitration whereas others supported the Triple Entente. During the war fever that swept through Europe during the summer of 1914, Jaurés continued to argue for peaceful negotiations between European governments. On 31st July, 1914, he was assassinated by a young French nationalist who wanted to go to war with Germany.
After the First World War the French Socialist Party split again over the issue of the Russian Revolution. In 1920 Marxists left the party to form the French Communist Party.
Concerned by the emergence of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, some members of the Communist Party began to urge the formation of a coalition against fascism. In 1934 a group of politicians, led by Leon Blum, Edouard Daladier, Maurice Thorez, Edouard Herriot, Daniel Mayer formed the Popular Front in 1934. Parties involved in the agreement included the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and the Radical Party.
The parties involved in the Popular Front did well in the 1936 parliamentary elections and won a total of 376 seats. Leon Blum, leader of the Socialist Party, now become prime minister of France. Once in power the government introduced the 40 hour week and other social reforms. It also nationalized the Bank of France and the armaments industry.
Leon Blum lost office in June 1937 but returned to power in March, 1938 until April 1938 when he was replaced by Edouard Daladier, leader of the Radical Party.
After the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in July, 1939, Edouard Daladier banned the Communist Party. Maurice Thorez, leader of the party, went to live in Moscow. Jacques Duclos, now became the main spokesman of the underground party in France.
After Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain signed the armistice in 1940 the Gestapo began hunting down communists and socialists. Most of them went into hiding. The obvious place to go was in the forests of the unoccupied zones. Eventually these people joined together to form the Maquis. As they grew in strength they began to organize attacks on German forces. They also helped to get Allied airman, whose aircraft had been shot down in France, to get back to Britain.
The communist underground newspaper, L'Humanité, edited by Pierre Villon, called for a "National front for the independence of France." In May 1942, Villon established the communist-based resistance group, Front National.
In May 1943, the Front National agreed to join forces with Combat, Comité d'Action Socialiste, Liberation, Francs-Tireur and the Armée Secrete to form the Conseil National de la Resistance.
When France was liberated in the summer of 1944 the country's new leader, General Charles De Gaulle, acknowledged the important role played by communists by permitting Maurice Thorez to return from the Soviet Union.
In the 1945 elections the Communist Party became the strongest political group in France when it won 25 per cent of the vote. The following year the party entered the government with Maurice Thorez as deputy prime minister.
The communists left the cabinet in May 1947 but the party continued to do well in elections and for the next twenty years normally obtained over 20 per cent of the vote.
The Socialist Party was less successful during this period and embarked on a strategy of electoral union with the communists and other left-wing groups. This proved highly successful and the Federation of the Left was able to get Francois Mitterrand elected as president in 1981.
The Communist Party also benefited from this arrangement and in 1984 received four cabinet posts. The left-wing government was able to introduce a series of radical economic and political reforms. This included nationalizing financial institutions and several large corporations, raising the minimum wage, improved welfare benefits and abolishing the death penalty. However, after the 1986 elections the left-wing parties lost its National Assembly majority and Francois Mitterrand was forced to work with a right-wing coalition government.
(1) George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938)
The whole of Comintern policy is now subordinated (excusably, considering the world situation) to the defence of U.S.S.R., which depends upon a system of military alliances. In particular, the USSR is in alliance with France, a capitalist-imperialist country. The alliance is of little use to Russia unless French capitalism is strong, therefore Communist policy in France has got to be anti-revolutionary. This means not only that French Communists now march behind the tricolour and sing the Marseillaise, but, what is more important, that they have had to drop all effective agitation in the French colonies. It is less than three years since Thorez, the Secretary of the French Communist Party, was declaring that the French workers would never be bamboozled into fighting against their German comrades; he is now one of the loudest-lunged patriots in France. The clue to the behaviour of the Communist Party in any country is the military relation of that country, actual or potential, towards the USSR In England, for instance, the position is still uncertain, hence the English Communist Party is still hostile to the National Government, and, ostensibly, opposed to rearmament. If, however, Great Britain enters into an alliance or military understanding with the USSR, the English Communist, like the French Communist, will have no choice but to become a good patriot and imperialist; there are premonitory signs of this already. In Spain the Communist 'line' was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that France, Russia's ally, would strongly object to a revolutionary neighbour and would raise heaven and earth to prevent the liberation of Spanish Morocco. The Daily Mail, with its tales of red revolution financed by Moscow, was even more wildly wrong than usual. In reality it was the Communists above all others who prevented revolution in Spain. Later, when the right-wing forces were in full control, the Communists showed themselves willing to go a great deal further than the Liberals in hunting down the revolutionary leaders.
(2) Maurice Buckmaster, Specially Employed (1952)
It has been customary, since the war, to blame the Maquis for every misfortune and hardship that France has now to undergo. It is almost an unpopular thing in France in 1952 to have fought for France's liberation in 1940-45. And if one fought and perhaps died in company with British officers, it is now considered almost unpardonable. None of the 'best people' did it. Of course, they were not collaborationists - nor supporters of Petain - just the best type that waited to see what would happen. I wonder what, in fact, would have happened if all these brave men and women who continually risked life and property to save our liaison officers had waited on the fence?
A rather similar and equally unfounded prejudice also exists in France today. It is that the members of
the French resistance groups were nearly all Communists or, at any rate, that the Communist groups -
the FTP (Franc-tireurs et Partisans) and the Front National - were the only groups to do any effective
work. This theory is strongly advanced by Communist propaganda, but I can say with authority that, so far
as the groups were concerned who worked with British liaison officers, we were only interested in their patriotism and their ability to carry out such tasks, and not at all in their political opinions.
(3) MUR Directing Committee, leaflet (16th April, 1943)
The courage of the communist militants in action against the enemy, the brutality of the repression of which the Communist Party is the object, finally the success - particularly in the northern zone - of the resistance organized by this Party, generally make us forget that from September, 1939 to June, 1941, the policy of the SFIC was defeatist.
We must not have such a short memory and if needs be we shall use this argument, for we ask the Communist Party to prove that its present patriotic attitude is indeed a profound transformation of its conceptions and not a momentary tactic.