Léon Jouhaux


Léon Jouhaux

Dean of the French labor movement for forty-five years, Léon Jouhaux (July 1, 1879-April 28, 1954) was born in Paris, heir to the radical beliefs of his grandfather who had fought in the Revolution of 1848 and of his father who had been a part of the Commune that had controlled Paris for a brief time in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. Seeking higher wages, Léon’s father left his low-paying municipal job in 1880 to join the labor force of a match factory in Aubervilliers. Léon attended primary school there until the age of twelve; studied at the Lycée Colbert on a scholarship for nine months before he was taken out of school when his father’s earnings were stopped by a strike; spent a year at the Diderot Vocational School, again abandoning his studies to help support himself and the family.

In 1895 at the age of sixteen, he entered the match factory, and even before becoming a full-fledged union member, prepared the minutes of the union meetings. After a period of military service in Algeria, from which he was recalled because his father had gone blind as a result of years of working with volatile white phosphorus, Jouhaux returned to work in the factory. In 1900 he participated in his first strike, a protest against the use of phosphorus, was blacklisted, and dismissed. Unable to find steady employment, he held a succession of jobs in a sugar refinery, a fertilizer plant, and on the docks, meanwhile attending classes at the Sorbonne, and the Université Populaire at Aubervilliers.

Reinstated in the factory through the intervention of the union, he embarked upon his life career as a labor leader, rising rapidly to positions of responsibility because of his intelligence, industriousness, organizing ability, impressive personality, and talent as a speaker. In 1906 his local union elected him as their representative to the Confédération générale du travail (C.G.T.); in 1909 he was named interim treasurer of the C.G.T.; and, a few months later on July 12, 1909, was appointed to the post of secretary-general of the C.G.T., a position he held until 1947 and from which was derived his nickname, «the General».

Although Jouhaux gradually moved from a radical philosophical position to a more moderate one in his four decades of labor leadership, he nonetheless preserved a remarkable consistency in the programs of action he espoused. He first strove to bring to realization the demands of labor commonly proposed during the first third of this century. In 1936 he was a signatory of the Matignon Agreement giving French workers the eight-hour day, paid vacations, the right to organize and to bargain collectively. The larger conception of trade unionism to which Jouhaux devoted his life can be found in the pages of La Bataille syndicaliste, the main organ of the C.G.T., which he edited from 1911 to 1921, and in his speeches and extensive publications. It included principles of inclusiveness, solidarity, political independence, democratic procedure, and international concern.

He was himself a confirmed internationalist. Alarmed by the crisis in international relations prior to World War I, Jouhaux spoke in England, Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium, urging labor unions to unite in the cause of peace. With the opening of hostilities, however, he declared his support for the war effort and accepted membership on several governmental committees.

Meanwhile, he led the C.G.T. in developing a peace program calling for arms limitation, international arbitration, an end to secret treaties, and respect for nationalities. In 1916 at the Leeds Conference, Jouhaux presented a report laying the groundwork for what later became the International Labor Organization (ILO); in 1919 at the Paris Peace Conference he was one of those influential in getting the constitutional basis of the ILO incorporated in Article XIII of the Versailles Treaty; in that same year he was chosen as one of the worker-representative members of the ILO’s Governing Body.

Jouhaux filled other trade union positions of international significance. He was elected first vice-president of the International Federation of Trade Unions in 1919, retaining that office in 1945 when this organization was reconstituted as the World Federation of Trade Unions. When various of its members later found the World Federation politically repugnant, he joined the heads of trade unions in other nations in forming the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, becoming one of its vice-presidents.

Active also in international political affairs, Jouhaux was from 1925 to 1928 a member of the French delegation to the League of Nations, where he played a part in drafting proposals on various aspects of the question of arms control, and from 1946 to 1951 to the United Nations, where he sought to obtain, among other things, the universal recognition of the human right to free association. In 1949 he became president of the European Movement, whose Council of Europe was established as a first step toward federated Europe.

For some thirty years Jonhaux struggled to keep the C.G.T. free of political domination. Under intense attack by the French Communists from 1918 on, Jouhaux maintained the integrity of the C.G.T. by forcing the Communists to split off in 1921. He reunited the two groups against fascism in 1936, but after the outbreak of World War II in 1939, once again dissociated himself from the Communists.

After the fall of France, the C.G.T. was dissolved. Jouhaux joined the Resistance, was arrested in December, 1941, and held in house custody until April, 1943, when he was sent to the Buchenwald prison camp in Germany. He was liberated in May of 1945, still a healthy man at the age of sixty-six despite his imprisonment of twenty-five months.

Upon his return to active leadership in a reconstituted C. G.T., he shared the office of secretary-general with the Communist Benoit Frachon. Opposing the Communists on both ideological and tactical grounds and dismayed by their unwillingness to support the Marshall Plan, Jouhaux reluctantly withdrew in 1947 from the central organization of the C.G.T. to form, along with other leaders, the C.G.T.-Force Ouvrière, of which he became president. The C.G.T.-F.O., advocating freedom from political control, the establishment of a United States of Europe, the pursuit of unity among the workers of the world, and action to increase the status of labor, grew rapidly in membership in the next few years.

One of Jonhaux’s most important offices was that of president of the French National Economic Council to which he was elected in 1947. The Economic Council, whose objective was to integrate the economic forces within the structure of France, had long been advocated by Jouhaux. Speaking of Jonhaux’s association with the Council, Paul Pisson, the first vice-president, described him as «a creative force», a man «full offervor end vitality», the possessor of a «store of enthusiastic idealism» who had a «ringing voice and expressive manner»1. It was during a session of the Council that Jouhaux first sustained the symptoms of the heart trouble that was to bring his career to a close. Before he died on April 28, 1954, he was informed that he had been elected to the presidency of the Council for the seventh consecutive time.

Selected Bibliography

Bouvier-Ajam, Maurice, Histoire du travail en France depuis la Révolution. Paris, Librairie générale de droit et de jurisprudence, 1969.

Bron, Jean, Histoire du mouvement ouvrier français. 2 Tomes. Paris, Les Éditions Ouvrières, 1968.

Dale, Leon A., Marxism and French Labor. New York, Vantage, 1956. Contains a long bibliography.

Dictionnaire biographique francais contemporain, 2e éd.

Dolléans, Édouard, Histoire du mouvement ouvrier, 3e éd. 3 Tomes. Paris, Colin, 1947-1953.

Georges, Bernard, et Denise Tintant, Léon Jouhaux: Cinquante ans de syndicalisme. 2 Tomes. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1962.

Godfrey, E. Drexel, Jr., The Fate of the French Non-Communist Left. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1955.

Jouhaux, Léon, À Jean Jaurès: Discours prononcé aux obsèques de Jean Jaurès. Paris, La Publication Sociale, 1915.

Jouhaux, Léon, Le Désarmement. Paris, Alcan, 1927.

Jouhaux, Léon, The International Federation of Trade Unions and Economic Reconstruction. Amsterdam, IFTU, 1922.

Jouhaux, Léon, Le Mouvement syndical en France. Berlin, Fédération syndicale internationale, 1931.

Jouhaux, Léon, Le Syndicalisme: Ce qu’il est, ce qu’il doit être. Paris, Flammarion, 1937.

Jouhaux, Léon, Le Syndicalisme et la C.G.T. Paris, La Sirene, 1920.

Jouhaux, Léon, Le Syndicalisme français: I, Le Syndicalisme francais-Conférence faite à la Maison du Peuple de Bruxelles le 6 décembre 1911; II Contre la guerre-Conféréncefaite à Berlin. Paris, Rivière, 1913.

Jonhaux, Léon, «The Work of the General Conference», International Labour Review, 5 (March, 1922) 381-384.

Jouhaux, Léon, avec la collaboration de M. Harmel et J. Duret, La C.G.T.: Ce qu’elle est, ce qu’elle veut. Paris, Gallimard, 1937.

«Léon Jouhaux, 1879-1954», in International Labour Review, 70 (September-October, (1954) 241-257.

Lorwin, Val R., «France», in Walter Galenson, Comparative Labor Movements, pp. 313-410. New York, Prentice-Hall, 1952.

Lorwin, Val R., The French Labor Movement. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1954.

Lorwin, Val R., «The Struggle for Control of the French Trade-Union Movement, 1945-1949», in Modern France: Problems of the Third and Fourth Republics, ed. by E.M. Earle. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1951.

Louis, Paul, Histoire du mouvement syndical en France. 2 Tomes. Paris, Valois, 1947- 1948.

Marun-Saint-Léon, Etienne, LesDeux C.G.T.: Syndicalisme et communisme. Paris, Plon, 1923.

Millet, Raymond, Jouhaux et la C.G.T. Paris, Denoël et Steele, 1937.

1. Quoted in «Léon Jouhaux», International Labour Review, p. 250.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1951-1970, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1951

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