More than 30 years ago, Louis Spears published a book on Petain and de Gaulle under the provocative title Two Men Who Saved France. Tony Judt might almost have called his fascinating study Three Men Who Saved France. Only one of his disparate trio was a statesman, and Leon Blum's brief spell as prime minister of the 1936 Popular Front government was not happy. What distinguished the three was their moral integrity and intellectual honesty, qualities too little on display in France this century.
If Blum (1872-1950) is now largely forgotten, as Judt says, he deserves better. He was one of the most attractive French public men of his time, partly because he was much more than a public man. He had three careers, as a man of letters and then a jurist before going into national politics. His literary taste was unusually good: at a time when Jane Austen was almost unknown in France, and read in England for all the wrong reasons, Blum praised her detachment and irony. He also wrote a delightful book, Du Mariage, in 1907, on love, sex and marriage, which earned him what now seems a far-fetched reputation as an immoralist.
He was a committed socialist long before he entered parliament, in 1919, at the age of 47, when he found himself plunged into the bitter Leninist scission, in which the larger part of the French Socialists seceded to form the Communist Party. Blum defended "the old house" of democratic socialism, and later accurately called the Communists a "foreign nationalist party", but the legacy of this split kept the left out of power for most of the next 20 years. Although the Popular Front government is still remembered in France for introducing a 40-hour week, Blum became prime minister at a bad time. His reluctant policy of non-intervention in the Spanish civil war damaged his credit on the left, but his real problem went deeper. Cultivated and intelligent people are often unsuccessful politicians, and this optimistic, reasonable man of the enlightenment barely grasped that, in the age of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, Europe had gone mad.
Until too late, he refused to believe in totalitarian dreams of conquest: "One cannot ascribe such absurd, such demented plans even to a Hitler." This was exacerbated by the traditional pacificism of the left; when the obscure tank officer Charles de Gaulle proposed military measures against Germany, Blum replied that this was impossible for him to consider as a socialist; and he famously greeted the Munich agreement with "shame and relief".
If he bore some responsibility for the war, it saw Blum's finest hour. In 1940 he was one of a handful of deputies to vote against the creation of the Vichy government, which subsequently imprisoned and tried him. But he defended himself so skilfully and bravely that he was acquitted, and he survived the war through a mixture of good luck and courage.
In the postwar lustrum, the careers of Judt's three heroes overlapped. Albert Camus (1913-60) had served in the resistance, at the same time as making his literary reputation with The Outsider, soon to be followed by The Plague. For a while he was patronised in more than one sense by Sartre (who bestowed condescending praise on Camus while sneering at his lack of the sort of intellectual equipment honed in the lycees and grandes ecoles of Paris; another way of putting it was that Camus actually came from the working class, with which Sartre claimed to identify but about which he knew nothing).
But before long, Camus had cut himself off from the bien- pensant left. He recoiled from the blood-letting against collaborators: "the word epuration is bad enough. The thing itself has become odious." He despised Stalinist fellow-travelling. And his alienation was made all the more acute by the Algerian war and his inextricably mixed feelings as a French Algerian. He hated the use of torture by the French army, and believed in "the possibility of a free association between Arabs and French in Algeria". But he sensed what independence must mean for his own people, and indeed foresaw with frightening prescience terrible suffering for all Algerians.
To make matters worse, in the heyday of "engagement" (that cant word) he pleaded for the artist's political independence. "In 1957 Racine would be apologising for having written Berenice instead of fighting for the defence of the Edict of Nantes." He did everything, in truth, to make himself unpopular with his contemporaries - and to justify for posterity Pierre Boisdeferre's description of him as "the noble witness of a rather ignoble age".
Longevity has its advantages. By the time of his death in a car crash at the age of 46, Camus's reputation was in decline and took years to recover. The rehabilitation of Raymond Aron (1905-83) occurred while he was still alive. He was a distinguished philosopher, but his work was interrupted by the war, which he spent in London with the Free French. Afterwards his academic career was consistently blocked by an unholy alliance of opponents on left and right; he supported himself through journalism.
Without Camus's impossible personal dilemma, Aron was persuaded, by 1957, that Algerian independence was inevitable, though he had few illusions about the likely outcome. The Algerians would be better off if they remained under French rule; but "it is a denial of the experience of our century to suppose that men will sacrifice their passions to their interests". If Aron was a true European, he could also be called a Eurosceptic, who saw that "the division of humanity into sovereign states preceded capitalism and will outlive it". For the generation of 1968, he had been "the vile and vilified incarnation of all that was wrong with the French mandarin elite". And yet, by his death in 1983, he was deeply and widely admired, not least by many disillusioned soixante-huitards who saw his sceptical liberalism in a more attractive light once Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot had lost their charm.
In his riveting and often grim book, Past Imperfect (1992), Judt has already described with some disdain the Stalinism that dominated French intellectual life in the postwar decade, as epitomised by Sartre. Judt's own political perspective might be most precisely, if not concisely, defined as anti-anti-anti-communism, and that is what links his three great Frenchmen. It was not a coincidence that they were all outsiders - Camus a pied noir, Blum and Aron Jews, though both highly assimilated. Or so they hoped: Blum was subjected throughout his life to appalling anti-Semitic abuse (and not only from the right), while Aron's sense of his Jewish identity was reawakened in 1967 by de Gaulle's astonishing attack on "an elite people". But what really defined the three was something else.
The left's problem in the 1930s and 1940s, Orwell said, was wanting to be anti-fascist without being anti-totalitarian. Blum amplified that: "There is something worse than the abuse of force. It is this servile complaisance that such force encounters when it is successful, that obsequious adulation which forgets the crime in order to flatter the success." That was written in 1928 about the French right's admiration for Mussolini; it exactly described the fashionable Stalinolatry of 20 years later when, as Aron said, "the European left has taken a pyramid-builder for its god".
In three beautifully chosen epigraphs for Judt's book, Aron said that life's struggle wasn't between good and evil but "between the preferable and the detestable"; Camus, that "if there were a party of those who aren't sure they are right, I'd belong to it"; and Blum, most touchingly, contrasted Goethe's saying that the romanticism of the revolution had meant "glory and liberty" with our own age, when "we shall see a new lyricism born from the socialist movement: justice and happiness". If there had been more men like him over the past 100 years, socialism might have reached the century's end in better shape than it has.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft's most recent book is "The Controversy of Zion: how Zionism tried to resolve the Jewish question" (Sinclair-Stevenson, £17.99)