The first socialist party formed in France was the Workers Party in 1880. Its first leader was Paul Lafargue, the son-in-law of Karl Marx. The party suffered from internal divisions and by 1895 had split into five different parties.
In 1900 a congress was held where socialists attempted to obtain a united party. This proved impossible but two new grouping did emerge, the revolutionary Socialist Party of France and the French Socialist Party that advocated a parliamentary route to power.
The Socialist Party of France, led by Jules Guesde and Edouard Vaillant. This party failed to make much progress and in 1905 it merged with the French Socialist Party under the leadership of Jean Jaurés.
The new Socialist Party grew rapidly at the beginning of the century but split over the correct response to German militarism. Jean Jaurés advocated a policy of international arbitration whereas others supported the Triple Entente. During the war fever that swept through Europe during the summer of 1914, Jaurés continued to argue for peaceful negotiations between European governments. On 31st July, 1914, he was assassinated by a young French nationalist who wanted to go to war with Germany.
Concerned by the emergence of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, some members of the Communist Party began to urge the formation of a coalition against fascism. In 1934 a group of politicians, led by Leon Blum, Edouard Daladier, Maurice Thorez, Edouard Herriot, Daniel Mayer formed the Popular Front in 1934. Parties involved in the agreement included the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and the Radical Party.
The parties involved in the Popular Front did well in the 1936 parliamentary elections and won a total of 376 seats. Leon Blum, leader of the Socialist Party, now become prime minister of France. Once in power the government introduced the 40 hour week and other social reforms. It also nationalized the Bank of France and the armaments industry.
After the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in July, 1939, Edouard Daladier banned the Communist Party. Maurice Thorez, leader of the party, went to live in Moscow. Jacques Duclos, now became the main spokesman of the underground party in France.
After Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain signed the armistice in 1940 the Gestapo began hunting down communists and socialists. Most of them went into hiding. The obvious place to go was in the forests of the unoccupied zones. Eventually these people joined together to form the Maquis. As they grew in strength they began to organize attacks on German forces. They also helped to get Allied airman, whose aircraft had been shot down in France, to get back to Britain.
The communist underground newspaper, L'Humanité, edited by Pierre Villon, called for a "National front for the independence of France." In May 1942, Villon established the communist-based resistance group, Front National.
When France was liberated in the summer of 1944 the country's new leader, General Charles De Gaulle, acknowledged the important role played by communists by permitting Maurice Thorez to return from the Soviet Union.
In the 1945 elections the Communist Party became the strongest political group in France when it won 25 per cent of the vote. The following year the party entered the government with Maurice Thorez as deputy prime minister.
The communists left the cabinet in May 1947 but the party continued to do well in elections and for the next twenty years normally obtained over 20 per cent of the vote.
The Socialist Party was less successful during this period and embarked on a strategy of electoral union with the communists and other left-wing groups. This proved highly successful and the Federation of the Left was able to get Francois Mitterrand elected as president in 1981.
The Communist Party also benefited from this arrangement and in 1984 received four cabinet posts. The left-wing government was able to introduce a series of radical economic and political reforms. This included nationalizing financial institutions and several large corporations, raising the minimum wage, improved welfare benefits and abolishing the death penalty. However, after the 1986 elections the left-wing parties lost its National Assembly majority and Francois Mitterrand was forced to work with a right-wing coalition government.