You might be surprised to learn that the French Republic has had not one but two Jewish prime ministers. This is the story of one of those men: Léon Blum.
Blum was born to Alsatian Jewish parents in Paris in 1872. An excellent student, he attended the fanciest schools in town including the elite école normale supérieure and the Sorbonne, where he studied law. Although agnostic, Blum respected his mother’s religiosity and Jewish heritage; he considered himself both a proud Frenchman and Jew.
This self-identification would be a challenge when he was a young man, when the Dreyfus Affair scandalized France while Blum was in his early twenties. The infamous case saw French Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus wrongly accused of treason. It served as a lightning rod for virulent anti-Semitism, which convinced one observer, the founder of modern Zionism Theodor Herzl, that Jews had no future in Europe.
The case shook Blum, too. Similarly to Dreyfus, who came from Alsace-Loraine like Blum’s father, Blum believed his Jewishness no impediment to being a good Frenchman, much less to serving the country of his birth. And with its egregiously spurious evidence the affair also offended Blum as a lawyer who believed in the justice of the French Republic. Like many others, Jewish or not, he considered the case a threat to the very idea of France as an enlightened republic.
The Dreyfus Affair dragged on from 1894 to 1906, during which time Blum campaigned as a pro-justice Dreyfusard alongside the leader of the French Socialist Party, Jean Jaurès. The two got on well, and Blum joined the Socialist Party in 1904, becoming a trusted adviser to Jaurès. Ten years later, in the build up to World War I that Jaurès strongly opposed, the Socialist leader was assassinated. Blum, who was editing the Socialist Party’s newspaper Le Populaire, became increasingly involved in the party’s leadership after the murder of his mentor. Blum worked his way up through the party’s ranks until he was elected to parliament in 1929. He was reelected in 1932 and 1936.
The early 1930s was a volatile time in French and European politics: socialists and communists faced off against fascists. Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Mussolini had led Italy since 1922, and civil war between leftists and rightists was about to break out in Spain. To safeguard against the dangers of the political right, Blum encouraged the various leftwing groups in French politics to unite in a coalition known as the Popular Front.
For his efforts, in early 1936 a number of rightwing thugs dragged Blum from his car and beat him within an inch of his life. Undeterred, Blum remained France’s most prominent Socialist (and Jew) and his Popular Front alliance swept to electoral victory in 1936. With the victory, Blum became prime minister—both the first Jew and the first socialist to hold the office.
If he drew the ire of right-wingers and anti-Semites as a Jewish socialist leader, you can imagine the furious hatred Blum attracted as Jewish socialist prime minister. “Your coming to power is undoubtedly a historic event,” said one rightwing parliamentarian. “For the first time this old Gallo-Roman country will be governed by a Jew. I dare say out loud what the country is thinking, deep inside: it is preferable for this country to be led by a man whose origins belong to his soil […] than by a cunning Talmudist.”
Despite fierce opposition and a fraught political climate, however, Blum was able to pass legislation to secure workers paid vacation and a 40-hour workweek, among other reforms. Yet Blum’s government fell in 1938, as the leftwing Republicans in Spain were about to lose to the rightwing quasi-fascist nationalists and two years later, Nazi Germany took just over a month to comprehensively defeat France.
Despite the immense danger he was under as a prominent socialist and Jew, Blum refused to leave France in 1940. He did however leave Paris for the South of France, where French authorities ordered his arrest and imprisonment. He was eventually put on trial in 1942 for treason—the same charge Dreyfus had faced almost half a century before. But Blum used the courtroom to eviscerate French collaboration with such brilliance that the pro-German Vichy regime ordered the trial called off. Victory for Blum was short-lived, though, and he was transferred to the French authorities’ bosses: the Germans.
It might seem strange for a country to give up one of its citizens—its former prime minister, no less—to another, but in total some 76,000 Jews from France, including 11,000 children, were deported to the East. Of them, only 2,500 returned alive.
While the majority of French Jews were deported from the French concentration camp at Drancy to the death camp at Auschwitz, Blum was sent to a German concentration camp, Buchenwald. There he was imprisoned in a special barracks reserved for high-ranking political prisoners. Meanwhile his brother René, whom Prince Louis II of Monaco hired in 1931 to found the Ballet de l’Opéra in Monte Carlo, was sent to Auschwitz where he was killed.
Blum only survived the Shoah when orders to kill him were ignored and at the end of the war he returned to French politics, where he played the role of an experienced elder statesman. He even briefly served as prime minister of a transitional postwar government. Blum also continued to write for the socialist paper Le Populaire until his death outside Paris in 1950 aged 77.
Blum participated in Zionist movements after World War II and a kibbutz in Israel, Kfar Blum, was named for him in 1943, although at home a large part of the French Jewish population considered him a politician like any other. But in truth he wasn’t. For as the first socialist and the first Jew to serve as the head of the government of France, he was a pretty big deal. As such, his name should live on in history—both French and Jewish alike–for many years to come.