One million people marched in Paris on July 14 1936, to celebrate the Bastille holiday and celebrate the victory of Front Populaire in the general election months earlier. Willy Ronis (who took the photo above) called that “It was a party like it had never known before”; soon-to-be a famed photographer, Ronis was just 26 and the above photo was one of his first photos to be sold to a Parisian newspaper.
The photo became the symbol of Front Populaire in that summer of great hopes for social change. The Front, a coalition of Communists, trade unionists, and socialists had won the general election in May and the Socialist leader Léon Blum became the first Socialist — and the first Jewish — Prime Minister of France. He formed a government which included three women ministers at a time when women hadn’t yet gained suffrage. (Women’s suffrage was granted in France only in 1944).
With vigor, Blum’s government set about reforming the French state — many of the measures, good or ill, that we associate today with France where first implemented during his short premiership. He granted the right to strike and collective bargaining, two weeks of paid annual leave (which led to a boom in tourism), and reduced the working week to 40 hours. It was to begin a series of economic intervention that set precedents for the Vichy and postwar governments to consolidate France into a statist nation.
Blum himself was forced out of office in June 1937, as his government divided itself over whether to choose a side in Spanish Civil War. Blum was briefly Prime Minister again twice (for four weeks in 1938 and five weeks in 1946), but his legacy was made during his first ministry. Despite its bravura reforms and widespread popular support, the Popular Front is now judged as inadequate leaders while Europe darkened into war: “Disappointment and failure,” says Julian Jackson in his seminal Popular Front in France: Defending Democracy 1934–1938.
Centre-left Le Nouvel Observateur was a little more enthusiastic: in 2006, for 70th anniversary of the Popular Front, it called Blum’s first months in office, 100 Days That Changed Our Life. On the cover of that issue was Ronis’ photo taken on that Bastille Day brimming with expectations and excitements.