In the 140th anniversary year of his birth on April 9, 1872, the French Jewish statesman Léon Blum is more timely than ever. In April, during France’s latest presidential election, Les éditions Albin Michel reprinted a short exhortatory text, “In Order to be a Socialist,” which Blum wrote in 1919 when he was 42. It was dedicated to his son Robert and in stately, decorously literary prose – Blum also published a book of his thoughts on the 19th century author Stendhal – counsels young people to be optimistic civic activists.
This kind of resolve displayed at the conclusion of World War I’s butchery would come in handy later when ex-Prime Minister Blum faced the further challenge of imprisonment, followed by a Nazi-ordered show trial in Occupied France. The notorious Riom Trial, named after the city in central France where it was held in 1942, would also include among its defendants the Jewish politician Georges Mandel, who would later be murdered by the French collaborationist milice. Seventy years on, the trial has been commemorated by attorney and author Jean-Denis Bredin, onetime law partner of Robert Badinter. “Infamy: the Riom Trial,” out from Grasset in May, is a concisely cogent historical overview, worthy to set beside Bredin’s previous compelling studies of the French Jewish polemicist Bernard Lazare, the wartime trial of French Jewish statesman Pierre Mendes-France, and the Dreyfus Affair, of which only the last-mentioned has been translated into English so far.
Having been allowed at age sixteen to witness part of the 1945 trial of Marshal Pétain, Bredin has a close connection to the events of the war and its aftermath. He cites at length Blum’s “superbly written” speeches in response to the surreal charges of having, as leader of France’s Popular Front government in the 1930s, caused the war between Germany and France by being militaristic. Bredin explains how while remaining “always courteous and smiling” when addressing his French judges, Blum “put the trial itself on trial.” Although the testimony of Blum and fellow defendants was censored before it reached the newspapers, the Nazis got wind of the prosecution’s complete failure and had the trial cancelled. Even Benito Mussolini mocked the Riom Trial as a “farce typical of democracy.” Yet Bredin stresses its tragic context as well as its ultra-Gallic flavor, asking whether “this parody of justice instigated by the Vichy government in its eagerness to dishonor democracy might be, sad to say, an ordinary physiognomy of France?”
Watch a presentation of Léon Blum’s “Pour être socialiste” by philosopher André Comte-Sponville, who wrote the preface for the new reprint of Blum’s text here.
Along with Léon Blum, Pierre Mendès France (1907-1982) was the only Jewish statesman ever allowed to serve as Prime Minister of France. Mendès France held that office from 1954 to 1955, following years in the wartime French Résistance. Like Blum, Mendès France was targeted for a multitude of anti-Semitic insults, which made him resolve not to run for President of France, fearing his candidacy would lead to a further upswing in Gallic hatred for Jews.
Historian Gérard Boulanger’s 2007 study from Les editions Calmann-Lévy, “The ‘Jew’ Mendès France: a Genealogy of Anti-Semitism” documents the statesman’s forbearance during these lifelong attacks, while a book out from Les éditions Robert Laffont in October, offers more evidence of Mendès France’s patience and wisdom.
French government officials are rarely known for their sense of poetic justice, but the French Jewish statesman Robert Badinter, born in 1928, is an exception to the rule.
Former Minister of Justice in François Mitterrand’s government, Badinter published a Mitterrand-related memoir with Les éditions Fayard in March, with the wry title “Thorns and Roses” (Les épines et les roses), in reference to the symbol of a clenched first holding a red rose employed by Mitterrand’s socialist party.
Badinter writes of the 1982 death of former French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France, of Portuguese Jewish origin, bemused by the unanimous praise lavished on the newly-deceased statesman.
When the leftist French Jewish singer/songwriter Jean Ferrat (born Tenenbaum) died last March at the age of 79, the outpouring of affectionate tributes surprised some. After all, Ferrat had been retired to an Ardèche village in south-central France for a number of years. A detailed new biography has appeared from Les éditions Fayard, “Jean Ferrat: Singing is No Pastime for Me” (Jean Ferrat, Je ne chante pas pour passer le temps) by journalist Daniel Pantchenko, to explain the lastingly galvanizing emotional power of Ferrat’s songs.
Born in 1930, Ferrat experienced first the hopes of France’s Front Populaire movement led by the statesman Léon Blum, and then the rise of European Fascism. In an interview quoted by Pantchenko, Ferrat recalled how in German-occupied Paris, his Russian Jewish father, Mnacha Tenenbaum, returned from his job as a produce peddler with yellow stars which all Jews were henceforth required to wear:
We felt as if we were branded. In fact, there was no feeling involved, we were indeed branded! Like an animal! But we didn’t know the animal was being sent to the slaughterhouse.
The Moroccan-born Israeli historian Michel Abitbol is a possibly surprising source for savvy perspectives on the strained relations between Jews and France. Up until now he has produced cogent, concise works about North Africa such as “The Jews of North Africa during the Second World War” from Wayne State University Press as well as others so far untranslated into English. Now an emeritus Humanities professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, Abitbol has just produced a revised edition of his 1989 study, “Two Promised Lands: France’s Jews and Zionism,” from Les éditions Perrin.
Before the Dreyfus Affair, most French Jews took little or no interest in moving to the Holy Land, and the only Frenchmen who actively argued for it were anti-Semites like the 19th century author Édouard Drumont. Even the Dreyfus Case did not change the minds of many Gallic observers. In 1909, one French journalist, sent to cover the Ninth Zionist Congress in Hamburg, reported back that the whole notion of Zionism seemed a Germanic thing, born in Germany and Austria, inherently “contrary to French thinking.”
The historian Jean-Noël Jeanneney is mostly known as the author of “Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge: A View from Europe” (University of Chicago Press), a 2006 attack on the search giant’s book digitization project.
But Jeanneney, who is the former president of France’s notoriously user-unfriendly Bibliothèque nationale, is also the author of many less-incendiary works, including a biography of the Jewish politician Georges Mandel (Les éditions du Seuil/Les éditions Tallandier), and a 1973 TV documentary about the socialist leader Léon Blum.
Now, Jeanneney has returned to these figures in his latest offering, “One of Us Two,” (Edizioni Portaparole), a play that takes the form of an imaginary conversation between Mandel and Blum when, during Germany’s occupation of France, both were imprisoned at Buchenwald.
Few CD companies might be expected to issue a four disc set of 30-year-old political speeches, but this is just what the enterprising small label Frémeaux & Associés has done with Robert Badinter’s 1981 French National Assembly oratory.
Badinter, who appeared in the 2007 documentary “Being Jewish in France,” was Justice Minister in 1981, when France repealed the death penalty. His eloquent oratory was no small part of the momentous outcome. Seconded by the brilliant French lawyer and activist Gisèle Halimi, of Tunisian Jewish origin, Badinter fervently pointed out that judicial errors are made, and innocent prisoners put to death.
Recently, Badinter came forward with detailed personal reminiscences of his wartime experiences in “Trials of Justice,” a biography from Les éditions du Toucan by historian and sociologist Pauline Dreyfus.
Ilan Greilsammer, who teaches political science and French culture at Bar-Ilan University, is the author of a 1996 biography from Les Éditions Flammarion of the French Jewish Socialist leader Léon Blum, as well as a 1998 “New History of Israel” (Gallimard). After editing Blum’s “Letters from Buchenwald” (2003; also from Gallimard), Greilsammer has just published a new take on Blum in the form of a novel.
The novel tells of a lovely upper class Spanish woman, Maria, whom a teenaged Blum meets at André Gide’s home in 1891. Adding sometimes over-detailed historical background, Greilsammer has Blum explain: “That evening I arrived at the home of Gide, who was three years older than myself.” When Blum describes Maria, the prose rings truer: “Her dark skin tone conveyed Mediterranean origins, she might have been an Arabian Jew or even an Arab.”
Written by Blum’s grandson Antoine Malamoud and directed by University of Alabama Professor Jean Bodon, the film offers a mere sketch of an eventful life, and its English narration is geared to a public largely ignorant of Blum’s remarkable trajectory, as relatively little about him has been translated from the French.
Serge Berstein’s astute 2006 biography “Léon Blum” from Fayard Publishers recounts how Blum became a militant Socialist after the Dreyfus Affair, and despite antisemitic violence, carefully described in “Anti-Jewish France in 1936: the Attack on Léon Blum in the Legislature” (Éditions des Équateurs, 2006) he was elected Prime Minister as leader of the left-wing Popular Front. After the German invasion, Blum was sent to Buchenwald, from which camp he wrote touching letters home, collected in 2003 as “Letters from Buchenwald.”