France’s Foreboding 1932 Elections

In April 1932, a struggle over trade policy between France and the U.S. was put on hold for the French election, which would mark a significant shift in the country’s economic and political position.

Although French imports had fallen by about 40 percent in a year, exports had dropped further, yielding a deficit of almost 1 billion francs per month. The French created quotas for incoming goods and raised tariff rates to encourage the purchase of domestic substitutes, retaliating for the 1930 U.S. tariff increases.

Traveling to the Geneva Disarmament Conference, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson stopped in Paris for consultations with French Premier Andre Tardieu.

But no profitable negotiations could be expected until elections for the National Assembly had been completed. Held in two stages -- a May 1 general canvas and a May 8 runoff for each district’s top two candidates -- the elections would either confirm the present policies or overthrow them.

Although the outcome was “bound to have world-wide repercussions,” the campaign had become “inordinately dull,” the New York Times reported. The Times described French candidates as listless, “like actors who lose heart before an audience which is coldly indifferent to their efforts.”

In the provinces, farmers feared a grim future, and sentiment in Paris wasn’t much better, the Times reported. “Even the partisan press cannot get up much enthusiasm.”

Center-left leader Edouard Herriot blamed the slump on Tardieu’s center-right government, which he claimed had lost the people’s confidence. Tardieu predicted a leftist victory would trigger another economic crash.

The first round returns proved inconclusive; 217 deputies secured majorities, with the rest of the 600 seats requiring runoffs. Still, more people voted than expected -- about 82 percent of the qualified electorate, versus the usual 70 percent to 75 percent. The results also showed a shift to the left was developing.

But before politicking for the second round could get into high gear, a lone gunman assassinated French President Paul Doumer, the 75-year-old head of state who was as indifferent to ideology as he was to his personal safety. Doumer, widely beloved partly because he lost four sons in World War I, was shot leaving a book exhibit on war-veteran authors.

His assailant, Paul Gorguloff, described as a “demented foreigner” and first thought to be a German agent, proved to be a Russian monarchist instead, causing some conservatives to assert he “belonged to the regular Bolshevist forces,” the New York Times reported.

Still, the electorate selected more than 340 center-left and socialist deputies. This “extraordinary leftist sweep” surprised international observers who had expected the hard-line nationalism resulting from “Hitler’s challenge” to succeed in France.

Instead, Herriot became premier, leading a Radical Socialist coalition, which the Times noted was “neither radical nor socialist but moderately liberal.” The Times commended France for refusing “to get panicky under provocation.”

France would face provocation aplenty in the months and years ahead, part of it from the Fuehrer but nearly as much from deep internal conflicts. The right would rise again, claiming to battle Bolshevism while admiring the work Adolf Hitler was doing in Germany.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the History of Industry and Technology at the University of Rutgers at Camden and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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