Robert Zaretsky: Occupy Paris

Roundup: Historians' Take

A nation reeling from unprecedented economic and political crises votes into office a left-leaning government promising change. When the promises are thought by many to be too little, and many others too much, popular unrest surges toward the extremes of the political spectrum. Citizens on the left and right turn away from traditional parties and labor organizations and take matters into their own hands. Spontaneous strikes and occupations break out across the nation, and all eyes turn to the political leader who had promised change his supporters could believe in.

It is déjà vu all over again. The Occupy Wall Street movement has pirouetted onto the political center stage just as France is marking the 75th anniversary of the mass strikes that accompanied the electoral victory of the Popular Front government led by Léon Blum. The many parallels between then and now, particularly in the personalities of Blum and Barack Obama, cast the OWS movement in a new and intriguing light.

To better understand them, we’d do well to look at France in the mid-1930s. The country’s economy, still staggering under the weight of the Great Depression, was in a shambles. The policies of France’s deficit hawks had come home to roost with a vengeance. Entrenched conservative distrust of deficit spending had catastrophic consequences for French workers: By the summer of 1936, at least 2 million men and women—one out of six citizens—were unemployed. The lives of those who still had jobs were flushed with anxiety. The French philosopher Simone Weil, who worked for a spell as a power press operator at a Paris factory in the 1930s, was ordered at the end of her first day at work to double her output if she wished to keep her job. The employer, she told a friend, “makes a favor of allowing us to kill ourselves and we have to say thank you.”...

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