Jouhaux Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

Léon Jouhaux was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize for his lifelong work in support of workers’ rights, international peace, disarmament, and socialism.

Summary of Event

In late 1951, the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian parliament, with Gunnar Jahn as chair, announced the selection of Léon Jouhaux as winner of the Peace Prize. Jouhaux was the first labor leader selected in the fifty years of the prize’s history. The Nobel Committee, charged with choosing the individual or organization who has best served the interests of peace over the previous year, is not required to provide rationale for its choice. In most cases, the rationale is clear; in 1951, however, the choice of Jouhaux was attributed by some to his fifty years in the French and international labor and peace movements, and by others to his key role in the late 1940’s in stemming the rise of French communism. Thus, the award must be viewed in the context of both achievements. Nobel Peace Prize;Léon Jouhaux[Jouhaux]
[kw]Jouhaux Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (Dec. 10, 1951)
[kw]Nobel Peace Prize, Jouhaux Is Awarded the (Dec. 10, 1951)
[kw]Peace Prize, Jouhaux Is Awarded the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1951)
[kw]Prize, Jouhaux Is Awarded the Nobel Peace (Dec. 10, 1951)
Nobel Peace Prize;Léon Jouhaux[Jouhaux]
[g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1951: Jouhaux Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[03640]
[g]Norway;Dec. 10, 1951: Jouhaux Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[03640]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 10, 1951: Jouhaux Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[03640]
[c]Humanitarianism and philanthropy;Dec. 10, 1951: Jouhaux Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[03640]
Jouhaux, Léon
Frachon, Benôit
Schuman, Robert
Jahn, Gunnar

Jouhaux was born in Paris on July 1, 1879, to a working-class family with a tradition of activism. His grandfather had fought in the Revolution of 1848, and his father had participated in the 1871 commune that ruled Paris briefly after the Franco-Prussian War. A promising student, Jouhaux hoped to become an engineer, but economic hardship because of a strike at his father’s match factory forced him to leave school and contribute to the family budget. After working at a sugar refinery, a paper mill, a soap factory, a fertilizer plant, and the local docks, he spent a year in the military in Algeria, but his father’s blindness brought him back in 1895 to join his brother and sister at the Aubervilliers match factory.

Jouhaux immediately joined the local union and in 1900 participated in his first strike, which successfully protested the use of white phosphorous, the volatile substance that had caused the elder Jouhaux’s blindness, in match production. Dismissed and blacklisted as a result of the strike, Jouhaux took odd jobs and studied intermittently until, through union intervention, he was reinstated at the factory.

His commitment to union activism was cast. He spoke and organized on the local level, and in 1906 he became a representative to the National Confederal Committee of the Confédération Générale du Travail (General Confederation of Labor General Confederation of Labor ), the CGT. In early 1909, Jouhaux was named its interim treasurer, and on July 12 he became secretary-general, a position he held for the next thirty-eight years. During his tenure, membership in the organization increased tenfold to five million.

In 1911, Jouhaux began editing La Bataille syndicaliste
Bataille syndicaliste, La (periodical) (the syndicalist battle), the CGT’s main organ, and attended meetings in Berlin and Paris to mediate the Franco-German dispute over the Agadir incident in Morocco. Sensing the coming war, he urged labor unions throughout Europe to unite for peace. He promoted a CGT peace program calling for arms limitation, international arbitration, and respect for nationalities. In 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I, Jouhaux sent a telegram to Germany’s labor leaders appealing for cooperation.

Though antimilitarist, Jouhaux supported the French war effort and served both in the army and on the Labor Committee of the Ministry of Munitions. In April, 1916, he arranged a meeting in Paris of British, French, Belgian, and Italian trade unionists which led that summer to the Inter-Allied Trade Union Conference in Leeds, England, where Jouhaux presented a report that aggressively called for the establishment of an international labor organization.

That call was answered in 1919. The League of Nations League of Nations was established, and Jouhaux was appointed to its labor committee at the Paris peace conference. He became an active and idealistic participant and was instrumental in incorporating into the Versailles Peace Treaty the constitutional basis for the International Labor Organization International Labor Organization (ILO). He was chosen as a worker-representative to the ILO’s governing body. While generally supportive of the final treaty, with its resolutions recognizing the importance of social and labor conditions, he was disappointed in its failure to establish an eight-hour workday and fearful that the ILO would become an instrument of the capitalist victor nations.

In 1919, Jouhaux was elected vice president of the International Federation of Trade Unions. In 1921, he led the charge against French employer-representative Robert Pinot’s proposal to restrict ILO activities in investigating complaints, fearing that the resolution would strip the ILO of significant influence. He urged an ILO mission to the Soviet Union to observe labor conditions and allay Soviet suspicions of the ILO’s bourgeois roots. Meanwhile, in France, communists and radicals had infiltrated the CGT and challenged Jouhaux’s leadership. He responded by expelling the entire communist membership from the union in 1921.

Jouhaux’s two decades in union, government, and international policy making had tempered his extremism. During the 1920’s, the focus of his peace work shifted to disarmament Disarmament, conventional . From 1925 to 1928 he was a member of the French delegation to the League of Nations that drafted a proposal on arms control, and in 1927 he published a treatise on the subject, Désarmement
Désarmement (Jouhaux) (disarmament), in which he called for government ownership of arms production under the League’s supervision. His 1932 address to the Conference for the Limitation and Reduction of Armaments Conference for the Limitation and Reduction of Armaments was one of the personal highlights of his life.

In the 1930’s, Jouhaux became involved with the Popular Front, believing that peace would come only with economic equality, and united with the Communist Party Communist Party, French to stem the rise of fascism. In 1935, a major labor issue was the adoption of an ILO resolution for the general reduction of working hours in selected industries. The following year, Jouhaux was among the signatories to the Martignon Agreement Martignon Agreement , which established the eight-hour day, paid vacations, and union rights for French workers. Meanwhile, Jouhaux continued his writing, including a book on trade unionism, and finally completed his university studies.

Adolf Hitler’s power in Germany was growing steadily and many people, Jouhaux included, sensed the approaching world war. He joined with Lord Robert Cecil of the British League of Nations Union to organize unionists in an international peace campaign. In 1938, following the invasion of Czechoslovakia, he met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to urge the United States to intervene against Germany, but to no avail. With the outbreak of war and the occupation of France, the CGT was dissolved. Jouhaux was asked to join the French Free Forces in England, but he believed that his place was on French French Resistance soil. He organized an underground movement among trade unionists and established a courier system for communicating with England. In December, 1941, he was arrested and placed in house confinement for two years, after which he was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he spent twenty-five months.

After the war, Jouhaux returned to find the CGT revived and filled with communists. He was welcomed back to share the post of secretary-general with communist leader Benoît Frachon. Frachon was a miner’s son who, like Jouhaux, had joined the union as a teenager and participated in the French Resistance during the war. Partnered with Frachon, Jouhaux soon realized he had little power. At the ILO’s thirtieth annual conference in June, 1947, he sponsored a resolution supporting the Marshall Plan; the communist-dominated CGT vehemently opposed it. In late 1947, the union called a general strike despite Jouhaux’s opposition.

In November, the government of Paul Ramadier was disbanded and foreign minister Robert Schuman was asked to form a cabinet. He responded to the labor crisis by increasing cost-of-living adjustments, family allowances, and war pensions and by supporting passage of the Law for Defense of the Republic and the Right to Work Law for Defense of the Republic and the Right to Work, French (1947) . On December 10, the CGT ended its strike. Jouhaux, angered by the union’s communist leadership, decided he could no longer participate. He withdrew on December 19, 1947, sacrificing a valuable retirement pension but taking with him more than a million loyal followers to form the nonpartisan CGT-Force Oeuvriére (workers’ force). In so doing, he stemmed the rise of communist power in the French labor movement.

That same year Jouhaux was elected to the French National Economic Council, an advisory body established to integrate economic forces in France for European economic cooperation. In addition, from 1946 to 1951, he was a French delegate to the United Nations, where he fought for universal recognition of the right to free association. He continued his role in the ILO, the only League of Nations organization to survive World War II, and helped define the ILO’s continuing role.

Though well on in years, Jouhaux was as active as ever. He attended the Westminster Economic Conference on the future of Europe’s working class in 1949 and became president of the European Movement, which established the Council of Europe as the first step toward formation of a United States of Europe. In December, 1951, he traveled to Oslo, Norway, to accept his Nobel Peace Prize.


The greatest impact of Jouhaux’s Peace Prize was the implicit recognition of workers and organized labor in the international pursuit of peace. As Jouhaux noted shortly after receiving the prize, it was given not in recognition of him but of those millions he had worked beside and represented throughout his life, and not only as an honor for past deeds but as a mandate for future efforts as well.

Jouhaux’s work continued until his death in 1954. He remained a leader in the ILO (which itself was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1969), striving to keep the organization strong, effective, and impartial. Under Jouhaux’s leadership, the focus of the labor movement’s pacifist Pacifism endeavors shifted to new issues. Many of the original goals—limits on working hours, improved conditions, and free association—had been adopted in member nations. Jouhaux recognized the complex network of circumstances that connected international hostilities to unemployment, economic disparity, and worker dissatisfaction. Given the large number of migrant workers in Europe, Jouhaux played a large role in the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration during the early 1950’s. The Nobel Peace Prize, and the recognition and financial award that it brought, facilitated Jouhaux’s continued work.

Perhaps most striking was the impact of Jouhaux’s Nobel Prize on the East-West dialogue and the Cold War Cold War . As no official reason was given for his selection, observers were free to interpret it as they pleased. In a world polarized by capitalists and communists, with the United States and Soviet Union engaged in a growing rivalry, communist parties rallying for support throughout Western Europe, and the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating communist collaboration in the United States, Jouhaux’s award was interpreted in many quarters as a victory for the forces of capitalism and democracy. The French Communist Party responded with defiance and anger to the announcement, as did the nations of the Soviet bloc. In the United States, commentators acknowledged Jouhaux’s lifetime achievement but characterized him primarily as a savior against communist infiltration. Jouhaux saw himself less as a partisan politician than as a labor leader and pacifist, but he nevertheless became a symbol of the anticommunist movement.

Just as Jouhaux was “politicized” by his Nobel Prize, so was the Nobel Prize Committee. By leaving the choice of Jouhaux open to interpretation, the committee was seen as having chosen less according to merit than according to political considerations. In his presentation speech on December 10, 1951, Jahn clearly acknowledged Jouhaux’s role in the fight against communism. For many, the belief that the committee was taking a Western viewpoint in defining peace and recognizing accomplishment was confirmed in 1953 when C. George Marshall, American general and architect of the Marshall Plan for European reconstruction, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Nobel Peace Prize;Léon Jouhaux[Jouhaux]

Further Reading

  • Alcock, Antony. History of the International Labor Organization. New York: Octagon Books, 1971. This volume of 360 pages is a systematic examination of the ILO from its origin in 1919 through 1970. Somewhat dry and journalistic in style, it is strong on Jouhaux’s omnipresence in the labor movement.
  • Bernard, Georges, and Denise Tintant. “Léon Jouhaux: 1879-1954.” International Labor Review 70 (September/October, 1954): 241-247. This piece consists of selected tributes to Jouhaux written and compiled shortly after his death.
  • Johnston, G. A. The International Labour Organisation: Its Work for Social and Economic Progress. London: Europa, 1970. Johnston, a former ILO assistant director with a background in ethics, social theory, and government service, provides a clear, detailed profile of the organization as of 1970. The reference section is exhaustive, including documents, statistics, biographical notes, budget analyses, a chronology, and lists of members, offices, and conventions.
  • Jouhauz, Léon. “Fifty Years of Trade-Union Activity in Behalf of Peace.” Jouhauz’s Nobel lecture, presented in Oslo on December 11, 1951. Available at
  • Leary, Virginia A., and Daniel Warner, eds. Social Issues, Globalisation, and International Institutions: Labour Rights and the EU, ILO, OECD and WTO. Boston: M. Nijhoff, 2006. Compilation of essays on major international trade and labor organizations and their effects upon social justice in an increasingly globalized world. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Lichtheim, George. Marxism in Modern France. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. This slim book explores the historical context of French Marxism, French Marxist thought, and the movement’s links to both organized labor and Soviet communism. It is academic, philosophical, and couched in the language of Marxist dialectics but provides a good, somewhat dense, view of the atmosphere at the time of Jouhaux’s Peace Prize.
  • Lorwin, Val R. The French Labor Movement. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954. Insightful analysis of the development of the movement by one of the best scholars on the subject. Lorwin’s anthologized articles include “France,” in Walter Galenson’s Comparative Labor Movements (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1952) and “The Struggle for Control of the French Trade-Union Movement, 1945-1949,” in M. Earle’s Modern France: Problems of the Third and Fourth Republics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1951).
  • Micaud, Charles A. Communism and the French Left. New York: Praeger, 1963. A weighty and speculative work that deals less with individuals than with groups, movements, and political maneuvering. Its strength lies in the author’s firsthand research into the lives and opinions of French factory workers.
  • Tsogas, George. Labor Regulation in a Global Economy. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2001. A look at international labor laws and legislation, specifically in the context of economic globalization. Includes discussion of the International Labor Organization.
  • Werth, Alexander. France, 1940-1945. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966. In his long, detailed examination of France during and after World War II, Werth skillfully interweaves economic and political analysis with observation of social forces and the French national character. Included are a lengthy discussion of the anticommunist struggle and a comprehensive (primarily foreign-language) bibliography.

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