That’s the way it was… in 1936.
A fascinating thing in electoral geography and the study of voting patterns is to take the study back in time, to look at wider trends and evolutions in a nation’s voting patterns. What better time than right before World War II, in an era where democracies fell and those who stood on faced serious threats from both left and right? What better place than France in 1936, the historic election which saw the victory of the Popular Front, the historic alliance of the left from the Communists to the Radicals?
France is a third-world country when it comes to making old election returns easily accessible to the wider public through the magic of the interwebs. As a result, getting your hands on election results from those days requires friends and lots of wily hunting around. Through help of Alain Lancelot’s old Atlas des circonscriptions électorales en France depuis 1875 and the online database of parliamentarian from the National Assembly, I’ve managed to put together a map which shows the winning party in each constituency in the French legislative election of 1936. The map certainly isn’t perfect, and more likely than not contains more than one mistake. Yet, this map, probably the first of the type on the magnificent series of tubes called the internet, reveals fascinating things about how French politics were shaped back then and how voting patterns have changed since then.
Explanation of this map requires a few comments about the nature of French parliamentary politics during the Third Republic and other general comments about the political forces of the era and how they operated.
The basic thing to remember about French parliament during the Third Republic was that, unlike in some other countries, individual parliamentarians retained considerable autonomy while there were few organizations which could really be qualified as ‘political parties’ in our modern conception of the term. Especially on the right, parties were loosely structured and often nothing more than a coalition of different local elected officials and local committees. Though both the Republican Federation (FR) and Democratic Alliance (AD) adopted some form of structure in the interwar years, they remained the epitome of the partis de notables for which the Third Republic is famous for. In reality, only the PCF and the SFIO were structured party with a membership and caucus which largely adhered to the party’s platform, the PCF of course being centralized along Moscow’s democratic centralist lines. The Radicals had a national structure as well, and held yearly congresses where resolutions expressing the party’s mood of the day were passed, but in reality the party remained dominated by local committees and local elected officials (the famous Radical notables or barons in the small towns of rural France). And despite adhering to the party, a number of Radicals in reality ran against the party’s electoral platform. Once elected, a number of parliamentarians elected under one theoretical label ended up joining the parliamentary group of another faction or party. Often times, they joined a group which was more left-wing than they were, in the process hijacking the group and slowly transforming it into a more right-wing outfit.
The transformation of the notions of left and right are another key point in understanding the politics of the era. Known as sinistrisme, political forces evolved from the left to the right. Parties which emerged on the far-left (such as the Radicals) ended up on the centre or centre-right in 1940. Yet, the parties which were in reality right-wing by 1936 did not actually claim the label ‘conservative’ or ‘right’. The reluctance by the right to assume its conservative ideology is another aspect of sinistrisme. As a result, members of parties such as the centre-right AD sat in groups often known as ‘Left Republicans’. The FR’s members were originally known as progressives, when in reality they were everything but progressive. The reason for this reluctance of the right to identify themselves as such is that conservatism and the right in France have been associated, perhaps forever, with the ‘far-right’ legitimists and ultramontane Catholics. As a result, the right of the 1930s, which had its roots in early republicanism, did not identify as right-wing. But even the Ralliés, those Catholics who rallied the Republic, shrieked away from the appellation and became known as the Popular Liberal Action, when in reality they represented anything but economic liberalism. The fascinating concept of sinistrisme didn’t die with the Third Republic, and it was carried through to the Fourth Republic (with the right-wing Rally of the Republican Lefts) and even to the Fifth Republic where modern right-wing politicians, while identifying with the right, rarely use the term ‘conservative’ and instead use terms such as Gaullism, radicalism, liberalism or Christian democracy.
As a result of the above comments, one will understand the difficulty of placing deputies, especially those on the right, into a particular party. For purposes of this map, I have privileged parliamentary group affiliation over partisan affiliation. Thankfully, by 1936, partisan affiliation lined up a bit more closely with parliamentary group membership than it had in the early years of the century. Indeed, the Radicals sat, after 1914, in a unique group. The members of the FR often sat in one group clearly identified with the party. However, there are still a good number of blank spots when it comes to partisan affiliation and all that. A brief review of the various parliamentary group is thus indispensable.
The PCF, SFIO and Radicals are clearly defined groups which merit no explanation or clarification. That being said, there were a small number of members of the Radical Party who did not join the party’s group after the election, joining another, often more right-wing, group.
Starting from the farthest left, the first party we fall on is the Party of Proletarian Unity (PUP, or Parti d’unité prolétarienne), a party founded in 1930 as a slightly right-wing split of the PCF. It had an ambivalent ideology, mixing some sort of early reformist communism with international pacifism. In reality, it was a representation of local French communism which didn’t appreciate the fact that they were supposed to be sheep controlled by Stalin in Moscow.
The Socialist Republican Union (USR, Union socialiste républicaine) was a heterogeneous political coalition composed of a plethora of small, new and old left-wing parties which supported the Popular Front. The biggest component of the USR was the old Republican-Socialist Party (PSR) which was formed by those independent socialists who refused to join the SFIO (and thus its internal party discipline) in 1905 and who represented a moderate, reformist socialism in opposition to the SFIO’s original Marxism. Though largely a minor party with a loose structure and independent parliamentarians, it did include some famous figures of the contemporary left, notably Aristide Briand or René Viviani (France’s first Labour Minister in 1906). The two other components of the USR were two small right-wing splits of the SFIO, the French Socialist Party and the Socialist Party of France-Jean Jaurès Union (PSdF). The latter was a 1933 split of the SFIO’s right-wing, represented by the neosocialist tendancy of Marcel Déat (whose name will live in infamy, for his active collaboration with Vichy). Déat believed that the revolution would not happen, and thus socialists should use the state to control capitalism. From this basic idea, close to fascist corporatism, Déat later morphed into a full-blown fascist with his slogan ‘order, authority and nation’. That being said, the PSdF also included a moderate wing, led by Paul Ramadier, who was one of the Vichy 80. The smaller and older French Socialist Party was also a right-wing splitoff, though amusingly it included at the outset in the early 20s Marceau Pivert, later the leader of the SFIO’s revolutionary left-wing.
The Frontiste Party was a small fringe party on the left known only by its two members. Seine-et-Oise deputy Gaston Bergery was a former Radical, a member of the party’s small left-wing fringe (he was known as a ‘radical-Bolshevik’), later evolved towards the right and hard-core collaboration with Vichy. Its other deputy, Georges Izard (Meurthe-et-Moselle), was a Christian leftist and close to Emmanuel Mounier’s non-conformist personalist theory of the 1930s. Izard later became a resistant.
The Radical-Socialist Party Camille Pelletan (PRCP, or Parti radical-socialiste Camille Pelletan) was a 1934 left-wing split of the Radical Party at the party’s Clermont-Ferrand Congress. Led by Gabriel Cudenet, it opposed the Radical Party’s participation in Gaston Doumergue’s centre-right ‘national union’ cabinet in 1934 following Daladier’s fall after the February 6, 1934 riots. The party’s name was a reference to early Radical thinker Camille Pelletan, the main leader of the early party’s most leftist wing (known as the radicaux avancés) in the early twentieth century.
The Independent Left or gauche indépendante was a parliamentary group including a plethora of pro-Popular Front left-wing independents and the members of a few fringe left-wing one-man parties. Though represented on the map as separate, the Frontistes, PRCP and PJR all sat in this group. The group had existed under the same name in the 1932 legislature, but it is not to be confused with the Independents of the Left group in the 1932-1936 legislature which was one of the centre-right’s groups.
The Party of the Young Republic (PJR or Parti de la jeune république) was a small Christian left party originally founded in 1912 as a continuation of Marc Sangnier’s progressive Catholic/social Christian Le Sillon movement which had been disavowed by the Pope. The PJR supported a ‘personalist socialism’ along the line of Emmanuel Mounier’s aforementioned theory of personalism which sought a humanist third way between Marxism and capitalism. The PJR stayed around in the post-war era, but remained a fringe party squeezed by the larger right (MRP) and left (SFIO, PCF). In 1957, the PJR merged with two small groups to form the Union of the Socialist Left which later evolved into the Unified Socialist Party (PSU), a party which despite its perpetual weakness in the 60s had a profound effect on France’s electoral geography and party structure.
At this point, we cross the line into the right-wing. The Independents of Popular Action group (IAP, or Indépendants d’action populaire). The IAP was a largely centre-right group made up of Alsatian and Mosellan deputies. Following the war, Alsace and Moselle rejoined France with the specific particularity that the 1905 law did not apply to it (in fact, it still doesn’t). Despite this, interwar politics in Alsace and eastern Moselle were dominated by largely centre-right regionalists who sought to defend the region’s particularism (the Radicals wanted to remove the special status and extend the 1905 law into the region) and win some sort of political autonomy. In Alsace, the strongest regional party was the Popular Republican Union (UPR) while in Moselle the Lorrain Republican Union (URL) was the main part of the regionalist right. The UPR and URL were both clerical, largely Catholic That being said, Alsatian regionalism also included a strong communist contingent. The PCF did well in Alsace in both 1924 and 1928, but most of the party’s organization was expelled in 1929 following a broad alliance with the regionalist right in Strasbourg against the centralist SFIO incumbent. Most of the PCF’s organization evolved into the Alsatian Workers’ and Peasants Party (often known as the Communist Party of Alsace-Lorraine, PCAL). Jean-Pierre Mourer and Charles Hueber, former members of the PCF, were the PCAL’s two main deputies and they sat in the IAP group following the 1936 election. Mourer and Hueber both evolved towards the far-right and became stalwarts of the Nazis following Alsace-Lorraine’s annexation by Nazi Germany. Alsatian regionalism largely died out post-war, from its association with Nazism and the decline of the Alsatian language, which had played a major role in defining the regionalist movement.
The GDRI, or Democratic and Independent Radical Left (Gauche démocratique et radicale indépendante) was a group which stood largely on the centre-right and was composed largely of the old independent Radical nebula. Independent Radicals had been around since 1914, originally composed of largely ‘opportunist’ Radicals who refused the party’s semblance of structure but which expanded in 1926 to include those right-wing Radicals who opposed the alliance with the left, then as part of the Cartel (which the Radicals ran into the ground, for a change) and in 1936 as part of the Popular Front. In reality, the GDRI tended to be a group of swing ‘opportunist’ parliamentarians who liked to whore themselves to governments who needed their votes.
The Democratic Popular Party (PDP, Parti démocrate populaire) was the predecessor of the post-war Christian democratic MRP. Founded in 1924, the PDP was to the right of the post-war MRP. The PDP, which was rather weak and nothing more than a collection of various local notables, faced opposition from the FR, which had integrated in 1919 the Popular Liberal Action (ALP), the pre-war electoral machine of the Catholic Ralliés. Generally speaking, the PDP was slightly more moderate than the FR, whose Catholic base represented the most traditionalist and conservative faction of the clerical electorate.
The Alliance of Republicans of the Left and Independent Radicals (ARGRI, Alliance des républicains de gauche et des radicaux indépendants) was in practice the group which included most of the Democratic Alliance’s parliamentarians. The AD’s parliamentarians had historically been divided between three or four groups, indeed in the 1932 legislature the AD had three groups each representing one faction of the very factionalized AD. That being said, the ARGRI did not include all AD deputies (other continued to sit in the GDRI group, the Independent Left or groups further right) and not all members of ARGRI were members of the AD, far from it in fact. The ARGRI was born out of Pierre-Étienne Flandin (the AD’s president since 1933, and leader of the majority right-wing pacifist faction)’s desire to unite the AD deputies and the plethora of centre-right independent deputies (especially independent Radicals) in one group. This attempt failed, as the AD remained divided and right-wing independents and independent Radicals continued to sit in other groups.
For purposes of this map, I’ve identified members of three right-wing groups under the etiquette ‘FR’. This is not to mean that all those coloured as such were members of the Republican Federation (FR) but it is largely accurate that way. The three groups are the FR’s central group, which took the party’s name and caucused with the small Independents of National and Republican Union (IURN); the Independent Republicans and the Independent Republicans of Social Action (RIAS). The RIAS group tended to be the most ‘left-wing’ of these three groups in that it condemned the FR’s move to the right after February 6 1934. The RIAS also had a corporatist and social-nationalist undertone. The Independent Republicans was a broad group of right-wing nationalist and borderline far-right deputies, which included the likes of Jean Ybarnegaray, George Mandel and Henry de Kérillis. A lot of its members joined La Rocque’s French Social Party (PSF) in 1938. The FR group also included far-right figures, including the infamous Philippe Henriot (Vichy’s propagandist) and Xavier Vallat (the antisemite General Commissar on the Jewish Question under Vichy).
The Agrarians denote the agraire indépendant group, which caucused with the RIAS but whose members largely came from a small agrarian part, the French Agrarian and Peasant Party (PAPF). The PAPF was close to Henri Dorgères’ rural ‘green shirts’ quasi-fascist league and was largely a hard-right party.
The non-inscrits have been divided for purpose of this map as ‘DVD’ or ‘DVG’. The only which I haven’t classified as such is Jacques Doriot, elected in Saint-Denis (Seine), the former PCF member who evolved into fascist anti-communism through his French Popular Party (PPF, which became one of the two main parties of the Vichy era).
Now that these essential comments are made, some comments can be made on the map itself.
The most striking thing on the map is how the right, in general, is relegated to the fringes of the country; that is Brittany, Alsace-Lorraine, the inner west, Normandy, the Basque Country and Flanders. All these regions have in common a strong history of clericalism, and the conservatism and traditionalism which it insinuates. In fact, the patterns of clericalism and Church attendance seem to correlate almost perfectly with the bases of the right on the map. The regions of the southern Massif Central; that is parts of Aveyron, Lozère, Haute-Loire and Ardèche; are all strongly right-wing and traditional clerical areas. The ‘fringes’ of France, aforementioned, were similarly strongly Catholic and conservative. A lot of these patterns can still be seen to this day, but the secularization of society has turned the old right-wing fortresses such as Brittany into either swing or left-wing regions. In urban areas, the stability of the right’s base between 1936 and 2011 is fascinating. Then and now, the right’s strongholds are in the bourgeois areas of the major cities. In Marseille, the right’s base has always been the wealthy 8th arrondissement (Le Roucas Blanc-Les Goudes) though the right’s hold on the downtown core has become more strenuous in recent years (a trend observed in most of the formerly very right-wing bourgeois downtowns). In Lyon, then and now, the traditional right’s base are the 2nd and 6th arrondissements, the wealthiest parts of the city. In Paris, fairly unsurprisingly, the division of the city between left and right was largely similar to what it is today. Even in the Parisian suburbs, Neuilly (represented by nationalist Henry de Kérillis, the only right-winger to vote against the Munich Accord), Vincennes and Versailles were the right’s base when the rest of the Seine and Seine-et-Oise formed a solid Red Belt. In Lille, the downtown areas and the north were on the right in a city which was, like today, a Socialist stronghold. In Bordeaux, the FR’s Philippe Henriot represented the northern bourgeois suburbs of the city.
The other aspect of interest in this era is the left’s base, which formed a string stretching from north to south and including, crucially, Champagne and Bourgogne which are regions thought of as right-wing in today’s context. Here again clericalism and anti-clericalism is a major point, given that the aforementioned region as well as the Centre are traditionally republican anti-clerical regions. All these regions are largely dominated by small landowners and small town middle-classes, key republican constituencies since the 1870s. These small landowners, not extremely wealthy but averagely well off, in addition to the notables and middle-classes of small provincial towns were key components of the Radical electorate. However, hit hard by the Depression, the 1936 election saw the SFIO make important gains with these voters (in the process becoming the largest party, for the first time). Certainly these folks who had voted Radical in 1932 were disillusioned with the party’s orthodox economic policies when it held power between 1932 and 1934. The Radicals also suffered loses in Lyon, whose large middle-class petit bourgeois electorate made it one of the party’s electoral bases. In 1932, they held all but two of the city’s nine seats. In 1936, the party ended up holding only two. It suffered loses in the wealthiest areas (the 6th) to the right and loses in working-class areas to the SFIO and the PCF.
The realignment of Champagne and Bourgogne (outside the Nièvre) with the right is often dated to May 1946, when these regions voted against the constitutional project largely supported by the left and opposed by the right. Other realignments occurred later on, most notably the realignment of the Côte d’Azur on the right, which started only in the late 70s.
The 1936 election is also notable for the PCF’s strong showing. The party won 15.3% and 72 seats, when it had won 8.3% and 10 seats in 1932. Part of that comes from the party’s new strategy adopted in 1934. Indeed, the party’s volte-face from the old “class against class” strategy of the pre-Hitler years to the “popular front” strategy of the post-Hitler years played a major role in allowing for the creation of the Popular Front. The strategy of confrontation with the “social-traitors” of the SFIO and of electoral isolation had resulted in the party winning only a handful of seats between 1924 and 1932. Following February 6, 1934 and prior to that, Hitler’s seizure of power in Berlin, Stalin ordered the Comintern’s member parties to create an alliance with the bourgeois parties it had previously targeted with all its venom. The PCF had been a precursor in this regard, as it started overtures to the Socialists and Radicals by February 1934 when Moscow changed its strategy only in May 1934. Certainly the events of February 6 and the real threat of a fascist coup in France hastened the alliance between the PCF and SFIO through a general anti-fascist strike linking PCF and SFIO on February 12, 1934. The PCF and L’Humanité operated a stunning about-face, with grand demonstrations of patriotism unusual for the PCF and later with tons upon tons of flowery rhetoric directed at the Radicals. Maurice Thorez, the Stalinist hack, turned into the defender of democracy from fascism. The electoral alliance with the SFIO and Radicals as part of the Popular Front – whereby all parties could field candidates against one another in the first round, but would drop out to endorse the best placed Popular Front candidate in the runoff – worked wonders for the PCF. One the one hand, SFIO and left-wing Radical votes flowed to it in runoffs, even where it had trailed in the first round, and allowed it to win some spectacular victories. On the other hand, a very good transfer of votes from the PCF to other left-wing parties in the other constituencies allowed the Popular Front to win a major victory.
The PCF made most of its gains, which came largely at the SFIO’s expense, in working-class areas. Workers had been hit hard by the Depression as well. The PCF thus made gains which would stay with it until now (or if not today, until not long ago). The northern suburbs of Marseille elected their first PCF deputies in 1936 (the PCF lost its last seat in Marseille only in 2007). The party made some strong gains in rural areas as well, notably in the Lot-et-Garonne where it had been strong since the Tours Congress thanks to the local leadership of Renaud Jean, a peasant organizer. The PCF’s base in the Limousin (totally destroyed in the 80s by the Marcel Rigout split) is more post-war, but the party did well there by 1936. It won the Cévennol mining basin around Alès, a region which remains one of the party’s strongest areas to this day. Later PCF strongholds in the Lorrain metallurgical basin around Longwy are not yet visible, and in fact they only started voting for the left in 1936. Most workers in these areas were Italian immigrants, and they only got naturalized in the late 30s. The Communists made further gains in the northern mining basin, but again the PCF’s strength in the mining basin was limited to those parts of it in the Nord department while it remained weak in the Pas-de-Calais. The causes for this perpetual weakness of the PCF in the Pas-de-Calais seem to stem from the reformist, rather than Marxist, faction prevalent there, both politically and within the union movement.
However, the PCF’s most striking gains came in the Seine and Seine-et-Oise. The 1936 election is indeed considered the peak of the PCF’s strength in the world famous Red Belt. It would never be that strong in that region as in 1936. All but five seats in the outer Seine department escaped the PCF’s reach (Doriot’s seat was later gained by the PCF in a by-election during the legislature). Communist strength also extended to much of the outer suburbs in the Seine-et-Oise. Unlike today, the Red Belt in 1936 meant something. It was a true working-class faubourg almost all around (except for islands of wealth in Neuilly and Vincennes). Its population had grown rapidly during the First World War, and was largely composed of migrants from other regions of France. Migrant workers from the province, both in Paris and in other parts of France (such as the Loire), voted Communist early on. A mix of poor living and working conditions added on to the stress and awkwardness of adapting to a new environment made these voters particularly open to the PCF’s themes. It is also worth noting that in 1889, Boulanger had done best in those parts of Paris where the population had immigrated to the city recently. Within Paris itself in 1936, the PCF built themselves a quasi-continuous block of support in eastern Paris (the most working-class parts of Paris, then and now) stretching from the 17th to the 15th arrondissements.
The inner west forms a solid right-wing fortress. The left is shut out of Lower Normandy altogether and holds basically nothing in Maine and Anjou. It does perform a bit better in parts of Poitou, notably around Melle and Niort (which correspond to Ségolène’s electoral base) but also Fontenay-le-Comte in conservative Vendée. Part of the plaine poitevine, an anti-clerical small holder’s territory, these areas have been republican strongholds in contrast to the conservative bocage. In Brittany, the left has always enjoyed isolated islands of strength: Saint-Nazaire, Nantes in Loire-Atlantique, the working-class cities of Brest and Lorient (Brest having voted socialist very early on, and being isolated right smack middle of ultraconservative Léon) and the Trégor/eastern Léon around Morlaix and Lannion. François Tanguy-Prigent was first elected in 1936 in the Morlaix area, which has always been (along with the radical republican Monts d’Arée) an anti-clerical republican stronghold. Also noteworthy is Radical strength, with Albert Le Bail and Jean Perrot, in the Cap Sizun/Pays Bigouden area of Cornouaille. Cornouaille is often wrongly tossed with the Léon as a right-wing stronghold, when it fact it isn’t so. The Cornouaille has actually been traditionally republican, and also an area of small property. It has certainly voted for the right, but it doesn’t make it a right-wing stronghold.
In the right’s other fortress, the southern Massif Central (which remains right-wing to this day), the left breaks through only in predictable areas. In the Haute-Loire, around the Brioude basin (industrial and anti-clerical). In Lozère, where voting patterns haven’t changed since, what, the Middle Ages, the left was and remains very strong in the Protestant and anti-clerical Cévennes while the right won huge majorities in the Catholic plateaus. In the Aveyron, the anti-clerical and industrial (Descazeville, a mining town) areas elected Paul Ramadier while the rest voted for the right. In the Ardèche, the right, which included Xavier Vallat, won solidly in the mountainous and more Catholic parts of the department, confining the left to more industrial and more Protestant areas in the Loire valley. The Cantal, especially the election of a left-leaning independent in the traditionally hardcore clerical Saint-Flour plateau is a bit puzzling, but I think this result shows that a lot of emphasis should be placed on the identities of candidates. In legislative elections, then and now, the notability of candidates and they weight they can carry around as a local mayor, councillor or even public servant, lawyer or provincial town doctor were worth a lot. This is of course especially true in rural areas, and it remains true to this day.
Somewhat surprisingly for a region which is now the most solidly blue region, the Socialists and Communists were particularly strong in Alsace during the interwar period. In 1919, the SFIO won some of its best results in the country in Alsace, with a largely Protestant and working-class base and benefiting from the strong pre-war organization of the SPD in Alsace (which dominated urban areas such as Mulhouse, Strasbourg and Colmar). The 1929 split destroyed the PCF, which nonetheless managed to elect one deputy, Alfred Daul, in Strasbourg’s industrial suburbs around Schiltigheim. The PCAL’s deputies represented downtown Strasbourg, while Camille Dahlet, leader of the liberal secular Fortschrittspartei (similar to the Radical Party, of which Dahlet had been a member), represented the largely Protestant Saverne region. In the Haut-Rhin, only Mulhouse, an historically Protestant city (though largely Francophone and Catholic by 1936), was represented by a member who did not sit with the IAP.
This map probably isn’t fully accurate, but it offers a fascinating peek into the details of electoral politics and political behaviour of the era. And, from another vintage point, it’s one of the first online maps, to my knowledge, showing the results of the 1936 French elections in such a way.