Jean Zay (1904-1944)

A brilliant politician, Jean Zay was a witness and victim of 20th century tragedies.

His youth

  • Jean Zay (1937)
    Jean Zay (1904-1944) © Wikimedia Commons

Jean Zay was born in Orléans. His grandfather of Jewish origin left the Alsace region and chose France in 1871. His father Léon Zay, a lay Jew, edited a local daily radical-socialist paper called le Progrès du Loiret. His mother was a primary school teacher and a protestant. Jean Zay completed brilliant studies at the secondary school in Poitiers, became a journalist with the Progrès, and then a barrister at Orléans. In 1932 he married Madeleine Dreux in the temple.

Modernising the national education system

Jan Zay was elected M.P. for the Loiret region in 1932, and was the youngest French representative. He sat to the left of the radical party, supported left wing union, and was a friend of Pierre Cot and Pierre Mendès-France.

As early as 1936 he was part of Albert Sarraut’s Cabinet as Secretary of State to the President of the Council. From June 1936 till September 1939 he was Minister of National Education and Fine Arts, and the youngest in Léon Blum’s government. His work to democratize and modernise school was remarkable. He instituted compulsory schooling until the age of 14, one school with a harmonized syllabus and grouped sections. The number of students was 35 maximum in a class. With the help of Léo Lagrange (Secretary of State for leisure and sports) physical education became mandatory and the first “afternoons outdoors” were created. “I tried to fulfil the need for children maybe to learn a little less, but surely better.” Jean Zay said in 1936.

He pursued creative action in the Fine Arts by uniting national theatres, creating museums of modern art and of folk Crafts and Customs. He also promoted book reading by creating the “bibliobus” (“library-bus”) system, defending copyrights, drafting a status for the cinema and a project for the Cannes Festival. In the scientific field, he supported the creation of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Stigmatized by the right wing

Jean Zay as a freemason and protestant of Jewish origin in favour of left wing unity and of support to Spanish republicans, against the Munich treaty, was considered by some right-wingers the man to be brought down. His course, however, was not of a revolutionary anti-capitalist militant type. As the historian Jean Prost wrote “for Jean Zay, the Republic is first based on the citizens’ good behaviour and intelligence, i.e. on their intellectual and moral education… Against social conservatism, and revolutionary utopias too, politics should be a movement that enables humanity to become more thorough and worthy of itself.”

Victim of the Vichy regime

Upon the declaration of war he resigned from his ministry and was appointed sub-lieutenant to the 4th army. On 20 June 1940 he boarded the “Massilia” with 27 other MPs bound for Morocco to continue the war in North Africa. He was accused of desertion and arrested by the Vichy regime in Rabat on 16 August. On 4 October he was sentenced to deportation and military dismissal. He was in different prisons for 4 years in Clermont-Ferrand, Marseilles, in Riom in 1941 where he wrote Souvenirs et solitude (Memories and loneliness).

On 20 June 1944 during a prison transfer, Jean Zay was murdered by militia men in a wood in the Allier region.


  • Books
    • RUBY Marcel, La vie et l’œuvre de Jean Zay, Éditions Corsaire, Paris, 1994, p. 415

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