History – France – US – “Better Obama And Leon Blum” – 2 September 2013


A few weeks ago I was reading some things about the Depression/WWII-era French prime minister Léon Blum. As the Syrian insanity continues to develop, I find myself reflecting a lot on what I had read in those sources.

Blum was the first Socialist prime minister of France – he was elected to lead the shortlived but highly effective “Popular Front” government in 1936, which achieved in France much of the same legislative package that FDR achieved in the United States. In other words, he was the architect of the French version of the “New Deal”. (It is indeed fitting that I should take some time on Labour Day to speak about Blum – his “Matignon Accords” were and remain the backbone of the tradition of France’s labour regulations and protections.)

Though comparisons are much more often made with FDR in terms of finding an American cognate for what Blum represented, there are some fairly obvious parallels to be drawn between Léon Blum’s experience and that of Barack Obama. Both Blum and Obama were/are hated by the political Right with an obsessive and often violent hatred. (In Blum’s case, he was actually physically attacked by a right-wing mob, and nationally-known right-wing Frenchmen encouraged this – Charles Maurras famously and very publicly suggested that Blum should be shot in the back.) Blum also, like Obama, was the first “of his kind” to assume the leading executive office – not only was he the first Socialist, but also the first Jew; like Obama, he attracted special scrutiny because bigoted people felt he wasn’t a “real” citizen of his nation.

However, it wasn’t only those parallels which prompted me to write something today about Léon Blum. The debate over the Syrian Civil War, into which Barack Obama has been dropped, reminds me very much of the debate over the Spanish Civil War into which Léon Blum was dropped.

In the late 1930s, the legitimate and elected republican government of Spain was attacked by the fascistic/reactionary Nationalists, led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco. There was an international outcry and numerous calls to intervene and defend the government against an extremist right-wing coup, particularly from those on the Left. Blum was sympathetic, and at first smuggled small amounts of weapons to the Spanish republicans. However, intervening at a larger scale would most certainly have touched off a general European war, and the war-weary people of Europe, still smarting from the unpopular and destructive Great War, wanted to prevent that at all costs. So Blum, in consultation with the British and the Americans, decided against full-scale intervention.

Now, let’s compare. Here in the 2010s, the illegitimate and only-farcically-elected Ba’athist government of Syria, led by Bashar al-Assad, attacked unarmed protesters and groups of perceived opponents. There has been an international outcry and numerous calls to intervene and defend the protesters against its extremist government, though notably not so much from the Left. Obama has been sympathetic, and has been trying to smuggle small amounts of weapons to the Syrian opposition. However, intervening at a larger scale is likely to touch off a wider war in the Middle East, and the war-weary people of the West, still smarting from the unpopular and destructive Iraq War, want to prevent that at all costs. So Obama is now consulting with the US Congress. It’s unclear what will happen next.

The cases are clearly not exactly the same, but there are enough parallels to make this a quite interesting comparison.

One major difference is that in the 1930s, moderate Left leader Blum was being bullied into _supporting intervention_ by those representing a more extreme Left, whereas moderate Left leader Obama is currently being bullied into _not_ supporting intervention by today’s firebaggers. Another relevant difference is that the Spanish had an elected government to defend whereas today’s Syrians have only had decades worth of staged plebiscites and Assad winning with more than 90 percent of the “vote” – so it’s hard to make a case for defending a democracy that actually exists.

But I’m struck by the more numerous parallels. In both cases, a leader representing the moderate Left is assailed by violent extremists on the Right and dogmatists on the Left who accuse him of selling out their cause to the enemy. In both cases, the need to protect innocents being attacked abroad was acknowledged, but so too was the need to avoid a greater and more destructive general conflict.

Blum ultimately decided not to act to spark that more general conflict by assertively aiding the Spanish republicans. Was that the right choice? Actually, I’m not sure. That general conflict happened anyway, and perhaps there might have been some tactical advantage to be had in assertively confronting the Spanish Nationalists (and their German and Italian allies) in 1936 rather than waiting until Hitler had taken the Rhineland, Czechoslovakia and Poland before saying “Enough!” Certainly Hitler took the world’s lack of interest in Spain as a sign of weakness.

Obama may also decide not to act to more assertively aid the Syrian opposition. If so, will that be the right choice? Again, I’m not sure.

Probably the most compelling reason Blum had for the choice he made was that he was not going to be able to lead a unified France behind him had he chose to aid the Spanish republicans. Certainly absolutist pacifists, numerous in France at the time, would have organised to punish him had he done so, even if his support for the republicans would have pleased the Communists and others on the more authoritarian and extreme Left. And the Right already declared “Better Hitler than Léon Blum”, so certainly Blum would have been wanting for allies.

If anything, the main difference this time around is that the authoritarian and extreme Left join the absolutist pacifists and the xenophobic/racist Right in opposition to Obama.

I think, as did Blum, that the current facts before the world argue, at the present time, against intervention. But I don’t pretend to be sure about this – indeed, anyone with a _serious_ opinion about Syria would have to concede there is little to be sure about here. There are downsides to any policy.

There are only two things about which I am sure – first, that as much as Hitler delighted in the existence of absolutist pacifists in Europe, so too does Assad delight in the existence of absolutist pacifists in the West; and second, that it was far, far better to have had Léon Blum than Hitler, and it is far, far better to have Barack Obama than Assad.

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