Power in the Balance

The leaders of all the parties presented the spectacle of utter helplessness in the face of the titanic unfolding of events. The leaders of the workers’ organizations, if anything, displayed an even greater paralysis of will, sometimes masked by radical noises, than the leaders of the bourgeois parties.

The communist and socialist leaders perceived their role as merely sounding boards to echo the indignation of the masses, but at no time did they consider that they would be called upon to take over the levers of power and usher in a new society. They had never anticipated that they would have to take hold of the rudder to steer the ship! The Wall Street Journal commented that:

The speeches at the National Assembly seemed strangely irrelevant. François Mitterrand, the opposition leader, and Waldeck-Rochet, the head of the Communist Party, were as hopelessly out of touch as Premier Georges Pompidou. They were all part of the establishment, and they were all faced with a popular tide they had cause to fear.

On May 19, de Gaulle returned early from Romania like a ghost in the dead of night. Twenty years later, in an interview with the Sunday Times, the Prefect of the Paris police recollected the night of May 19. When the President of the Republic returned from Romania he, Grimaud, and the Prime Minister Pompidou, were summoned and told: “tonight you will retake the Odéon and the Sorbonne tomorrow morning.” Grimaud pointed out what a blunder it would be. An attempt to retake these buildings during the “paroxysms of passion the events had reached” would mean that “blood would flow!” At this stage he managed to dissuade the President, who from then on remained an impotent prisoner in the Elysée Palace. France was nearly paralyzed. Farms and agricultural depots were being occupied. Bank and tax workers had joined the strike. Filmmakers had put a stop to the Cannes Film Festival. Horse racing, motor racing and even a golfing championship did not take place. News was partially under the control of the radio and television journalists.

Action Committees

The many hundreds of action committees in factories, offices, universities and neighborhoods began to link up. In the Loire Atlantique province, in what was probably the most advanced form of workers’ democracy to develop in 1968, the workers, peasants, and students jointly decided everything.

In the provincial capital, Nantes, the Central Strike Committee assumed the control of traffic entering and leaving the town. Roadblocks erected by transport workers were manned with the assistance of school children. Petrol coupons and travel permits were issued to drivers carrying essential supplies for strikers from the farms in the surrounding areas. So compelling was the movement that the local police and town hall officials stood back, and turned a “blind eye” to the new arrangements.

A football match was held for the benefit of the strikers. Early on in the factory occupation, an unprovoked and potentially bloody attack by the police had been brought to an end by fraternization! Working class women took in hand the delivery of food to local shops and opened up retail outlets in schools. Workers and students went out to help farmers bring in the new potatoes:

By cutting out middlemen, the new revolutionary authorities slashed retail prices: a liter of milk fell from 80 to 50 centimes. A kilo of potatoes from 70 to 12 centimes and carrots from 80 to 50 centimes. The big grocery stores were forced to close. Some small shops were allowed to open, but trade union officials checked the prices every morning. The unions helped the poorer families of strikers by distributing food chits: one franc’s worth of milk for children under three years old, and for children over three, 500 grams of bread and one franc’s worth of other food. Teachers set up nurseries for strikers’ children. Workers and peasants, so often at loggerheads, started working together. Power workers made sure there was no break in the electricity current for the milking machines. Normal deliveries to farms of animal feed and petrol were maintained. Peasants came to march on the streets of Nantes, side by side with workers and students.

Thirty-two years earlier in 1936 over 50,000 peasants, mostly employed on great estates, had demonstrated in Nantes against the Popular Front government. This was Chouan country – scene of the great Royalist peasant revolts [against the revolutionary Jacobin regime] at the close of the eighteenth century. But times had changed. The Place Royale was renamed the Place du Peuple. (Revolution in France, 1968)

Thus was demonstrated in action, in the language of real gains for working people, a small indication of what would be possible in a socialist society. In just such a way, nearly 20 years later did the building of houses and the creating of jobs by the socialist Labour council of Liverpool make the same point – more eloquently than any political speech. In the scales of history such proletarian innovations will weigh far more heavily than avant-garde experiments within the universities. Nevertheless, the workers who were drawn to the universities and the students who were drawn to the factories cemented a productive relationship. At the famous National College of Fine Arts ten thousand posters a day were being produced – in a total of 350 different designs. Numerous leaflets assisted the workers in maintaining their strength.

A leaflet of the Air France occupation declared:

“We refuse to accept a degrading ‘modernization’ which means we are constantly watched and have to submit to conditions which are harmful to our health, to our nervous systems and an insult to our own status as human beings.”

Rhone-Poulenc workers declared:

“The action of the students has shown us that only rank and file action could compel the authorities to retreat.”

The leaflet for Renault Billancourt:

The government fears the extension of the movement. It fears the developing unity between workers and students. Pompidou has announced that ‘the government will defend the Republic.’ The Army and the police are being prepared. De Gaulle will speak on the 24th. Will he send the police to clear the pickets out of strike bound plants? Be prepared! In workshops and faculties, think in terms of self-defense.

Workers discussed with the students on the response the leaflets received. The audacity and revolutionary ideas of the students attracted the best of the young workers but they had not met them before. The workers were unsure whether the students would disappear into thin air again, once the experience was over. But they were also questioning what the traditional workers’ party, the Communist Party, was doing as the strike wave was developing apace.

This party was planning a Youth Festival of recreation and dancing plus a meeting. On the day that the 40,000 workers of the Citroën factories came out, the Youth Festival was canceled by the Communist Party bureaucrats. What could have been turned into a mass rally of the youthful shock troops of the revolution could not proceed “for fear of infiltration” by the “enragés,” they declared!

“In every cell and in every factory men asked whether the Party was not missing the chance of a lifetime.” The Economist’s Paris correspondent noted: “Pursuing this cautious, moderate, deeply-reasoned policy in May put the Party under great strain. It is like a man selling stale bread when there is cake on offer,” [Our emphasis].

What a Revolution is Good For

A high degree of politicization had developed. When well-known radio and television personalities had, through striking, deprived themselves of their own medium they went through France as a traveling circus. But the public seemed less interested in the stars than in the discussions that followed the performances. Less monologue and more dialogue was in demand!

New and unexpected layers of the proletariat were affected by the “epidemic.” In the great strike of 1936, department store workers had refused to wear lipstick and make-up, declaring they were “workers, not actresses.” In 1968 the “actresses” of the Folies Bergeres demanded to be regarded as workers too! They claimed a wage rise to $1.30 [1968 dollars] an hour, better washing facilities and a right to collective bargaining. “We are not all stupid, just because we are strippers,” they declared. They played chess, read books, sang songs and held discussion groups.

The famous Galeries Lafayette department store was, as in 1936, once again closed down and occupied. Undertakers and taxi drivers stopped work. The state lottery drawing had to be postponed, as did the Federation Tennis Cup. Footballers went on strike, occupied the headquarters of the Football Federation and demanded “Football for the footballers!” Engineers occupied the headquarters of the French Employers’ Federation. Civil servants, nuclear power workers, weather forecasters, librarians joined the strike … the list is endless! So are the anecdotes!

A foreign visitor was seen going from closed hotel to closed hotel looking for a bed. In desperation he phoned the Prime Minister and got no joy. It was Hussein, King of Jordan! The revolution is no respecter of rank or office.

When de Gaulle was on his state visit to Bucharest he had hoped to give a banquet for Ceaucescu in the French Embassy. But the plane load of 205 kilos of victuals – fine wines, fois gras, etc. never left Paris; the airline workers were on strike! “Mon general” had to resort to local fare. Later, when he wanted to phone the commander of the troops in Germany, de Gaulle was told that he could not be put through. The operator was on strike. “But it is for General de Gaulle!” “And what difference is that to me? I am on strike for the whole world!”

The employees occupying the Plaza Hotel called the shareholders together. They issued an ultimatum to them not to sell out to the British millionaire Charles Forte. The merchant navy came out. “Even the officers have joined the sit-ins begun by the crews” reported The Times (May 23).

Big estates and agricultural depots are occupied. The National Organization of Young Farmers calls for a general strike on the farms and for “real economic and social democracy!” In the South of France the markets are controlled by the unions. It is reported that few people in the South are talking about party programs and rates of pay: they want a qualitative rather than a quantitative change in their lives.

In the big factories – the fortresses of the revolution – a carnival, holiday atmosphere was taking over. Not the fear of ten years previously but an exhilaration was abroad. The workers of Berliet lorries had changed the letters on their factory to read Liberté. New posters went up in factories everywhere: “On strike indefinitely,” “We are the power.”

A young worker as the SNECMA Aero Engine factory comments, “We are fully ourselves, owning ourselves … we feel we are living socialism!” A young worker at Renault says “What we want is that everything should proceed from the bottom to the top, not like now, from the top to the bottom!”

A Militant supporter visiting France was struck by the fact that everywhere people were talking and getting to know each other:

Everyone was discussing politics. An indication of the mood of the workers was that, as we talked with them outside the big Citroën factory, a bus full of working class women passed by. It slowed down and the women began to sing the Internationale with gusto, waving clenched fists. They were applauded by the workers.

School students were seen at the gates of Renault discussing earnestly with the strikers. At times strikers’ families joined in the factories, which became bustling “fairgrounds,” as Observer journalists remarked. “For workers this set stage of the proceedings was like a deliciously prolonged day off.” And why not?

In Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, he talks of the indignation of a former captain of Russian industry, V. Auerbach:

The revolution was understood by the lower orders as something in the nature of an Easter carnival. Servants, for example, disappeared for whole days, promenaded in red ribbons, took rides in automobiles, came home in the morning only long enough to wash up and went out for fun.

Middle Class Takes Action

When the working class moves in its millions and shows where the real power in society lies, the broadest layers are lifted to their feet. Every grouping at every level in society begins to articulate what it wants out of life. Admittedly in May 1968 petrol station owners going on strike could not think further than higher profits, but even the Boy Scouts dared to declare themselves for participation in the running of their movement!

Young banner-bearing Catholics invaded St. Severin church in the student quarter and shouted, “We want to reinvent the church!” Young Jews invaded the Jewish Consistory, including a statement decrying the archaic and undemocratic structures of their community institutions. The Archbishop of Paris visited the Latin Quarter during the fighting and wrote afterwards in his Diocesan letter that “God stands for justice; he is not a conservative. Christians too must challenge the society which neglects the profound aspirations of man.” This looks like the “liberation theology” of later years coming from the very hierarchy of the church in an advanced capitalist country! An Evening Standard reporter, traveling by bicycle through the countryside of Northern France, came across three farm workers in a small pub. They were arguing vociferously over the cause of the strike, complaining about the cost of living, the price of petrol, the taxes and so on. Snatches of their conversation reached her:

What of profits? … Not the workers but the bankers, the capitalists, the middle class … running off on fancy foreign tours … He [de Gaulle] goes to Romania and talks about liberty with the students there – what about our liberty? … We have a consumer society – ‘Buy! Buy! Buy!’ … How can the peasant buy with manure? …

The peasant unions are forced to champion their demands and step up their campaign. More depots and estates are taken over! The exodus of 100,000 a year to the cities means a network of bonds exists with the workers in the cities.

In contrast to the movement of the 1930s, this strike of 1968 organized among the intellectuals and then spread to workers in every walk of life. This fact, added to the vastly greater power of the proletariat in the France of 1968, meant that every layer of the middle class was not only “affected” but actively caught up in the movement. They were carried along by the sheer weight of the working class, which gave them the confidence to struggle against the old order, with a real prospect of establishing a new form of society. Every accepted dictum was challenged.

Magistrates organized themselves for strike action but also questioned what role, if any, they would have to play in a future, probably socialist, society! So too did civil servants and lawyers. Astronomers at Meudon Observatory examined the structures of their research centers and found them wanting; 200 museum curators from all over France met to ponder the role of museums in society, while their staffs, feeling “at one with the great movement of renovation now sweeping over the country” conducted an overhaul of the old fashioned, sterile, over-centralized museum administration!

Architects, town planners even statisticians began to feel their wildest dreams could come true and their talents could be used for the benefit of society as a whole rather than for a rich minority. Hospitals run by committees of doctors, patients, medical students, nurses and ancillary workers began to declare themselves autonomous. The medical profession has a reputation for a reactionary outlook, yet now heated debates were taking place on how to do away with the outdated traditions of hierarchy in the hospitals and medical schools and also on how a future health service could really be run in the interests of those it was supposed to serve. Ten thousand employees of the nuclear research center at Saclay were on strike and raising not only trade union issues but fundamental questions of power and control.


Just as when rainfalls in desert areas bring a sudden blossoming of weird and wonderful plants, the prospect of revolution began to bring to the surface some weird and wonderful ideas in the realms of art, music and literature. The outlines began to show how culture could blossom once the shackles of profit-motive capitalism have been broken.

A literary “commando” of novelists took over the headquarters of the Society of Men of Letters supported by 50 other writers. A general assembly of a newly formed writers’ union discussed “The status of a writer in a socialist society.” A “States General” meeting of the French cinema – 1,300 people all told – met regularly and worked out a charter for the renovation of the whole industry. It was too utopian a document to survive: it ran counter to the economic facts of film production in capitalist society. Of course, in a planned economy, nothing of this kind would be utopian.

Directors of provincial theaters and “Houses of Culture” met for a whole week at the height of the crisis. Artists made a bid for “socially committed art” and sent their paintings to be hung in the vast “galleries” of the car and aircraft factories. Actors took their plays to striking factories. All the principal French orchestras went on strike – composers and arrangers as well as instrumentalists. Opera singers demanded more say in what they sang. A program of reforms in the teaching of music and the arts was drawn up in a marathon debate from mid-May well into June. They aimed to cut across the watertight compartments into which art had been slotted for so long.

The list is endless of the myriad elements drawn into the molecular process of the revolution. There was even more turmoil than before in the schools and universities where it all began. On May 11 a contingent of up to 6,000 from 18 Paris high schools had joined the giant march and ended at the barricades. What the students’ appeals for united action had failed to do in a year, experience on the demonstration did in three hours.

Earlier, in February, a meeting of 600 school students had discussed the role of their embryonic organization but action had been sporadic and restricted to a few schools. Now every layer was affected. No fewer than 300 reports on school reform were drawn up by committees of school children after long and serious discussion with parents, teachers and workers during their occupations.

Even in the universities there had been redoubts of conservatism which had to be won over – the Medical Faculty, the Cité Universitaire (a community of residential hostels for thousands of foreign students), the Institute for Political Studies – noted for its complacency – and also the theological colleges. Some were conquered through political debate, some through sheer infection, others through their experience of physical attack at the hands of the CRS. One of the carabins – medical students, who had a reputation for being “political eunuchs” – told a story about a fellow carabin:

He had gone to collect his car on the Boulevard St. Michel when a group of CRS fell on him, beat him up and called him a ‘filthy student.’ A day or two later, when he heard on the radio that fighting had flared up again, he leapt into his car to go and take part. He remembered to take a screwdriver to dislodge the pavés (paving stones). I met him the next morning, he had become an active rebel.

Theological students were particularly rebellious. They described the church as “an alienating, self-perpetuating society. So much we learnt at the barricades.” The University Chaplaincy organized a mammoth “talk-in.” A young seminarian who defied the rules of his order to get to Paris for it declared: “I felt it more important to come to testify here than to go on for a week comparing Genesis 1 with Psalm 104 as I had been doing for the last week!”

A professor was seen wandering in the Latin Quarter, obviously upset at something: “I don’t know what is happening to me, but all of a sudden my thesis at the Sorbonne on ‘The Verbal Joke’ in the Middle Ages seems ridiculous to me.”

These academics from the cloistered atmosphere of the universities and Bible colleges had been accustomed to discussing such crucial questions as “How many angels can dance on the end of a pin.” Now they found the real issues confronting the rest of toiling humanity far more fascinating!

In the heady and unreal atmosphere of the universities there were inevitably some excesses. Few would have approved of the attempts to burn down the Paris Stock Exchange to try and “knock out the heart of capitalism.” Few would have been so carried away as Ernest Mandel of the Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI), who watched his car burning on a barricade and declared how beautiful was the revolution! Nevertheless it was an unforgettable experience for all, when the structures of life in capitalist society seemed to be forever sundered. They had the scent of revolution in their nostrils and it smelt good.

Nor was the contagion of the French revolution confined within the borders of France. Students everywhere were intoxicated, not least in Britain, where a number of protests were in train, at Hornsey Art College, and Oxford, Sussex, and Canterbury universities. Students in Essex traveling on a ferry from France declared that they had liberated the Channel and that “Paris is coming!”
Students at the London School of Economics, already engaged in a “sleep-in,” decided to visit the dockworkers of London to organize solidarity action with the French workers. They experienced a rather traditional cockney brush-off! At the same time, the wives of those dockworkers had been involved in a struggle themselves against rent rises. From council estates of East London they were demonstrating and chanting outside County Hall, Waterloo. When they saw copies of the Militant newspaper with the headline THE FRENCH REVOLUTION HAS BEGUN, they shouted with delight, “That’s what we want here!”

Undoubtedly, the movement in France captured the imagination of millions of workers as well as students in the rest of Europe. A massive general strike movement in Italy was recognized to be a direct result of the example set by the French working class. On November 14, 1968, 12.5 million struck, building up to 20 million on February 5, 1969. Argentina experienced its “May Days” exactly one year after the events broke out in France. A general strike movement known as the Cordobazo welled up against the dictatorship after initial clashes between a student protest movement and the forces of the state. But how were things to end in France of ’68? For if the general strike ran its full course, not only the French, but the European revolution, would have been well under way.

Revolution or Not?

All the constitutional weapons which he himself forged to protect his regime in just such a crisis are now so many pieces of paper, even the weapon of the referendum is useless… The strikes have acquired an exclusively political character aimed at overthrowing the regime … in no circumstances will even the most generous offers be accepted (Evening Standard, May 29, 1968).

Charles de Gaulle, Head of State, seemed to be completely out of touch. He was lampooned and ridiculed. The world’s press talked of him as an “anachronism.” He had stayed away from the situation too long. He had come back and stayed silent. When he finally made his seven-minute “speech to the nation” on May 24, it was the victim of a complete television shutdown, and was only being broadcast on the radio. He conceded that the people of France might want more say in the running of their lives. But all he had to offer was a referendum about how they could “participate” and declared that he would stake his future on the outcome. The feeling of anti-climax after that was widespread.

Gaullists began to call for de Gaulle’s resignation. The Constitutional Committee was even told to prepare to receive it! His speech had satisfied no one. Mitterrand makes a call for a general election. A demonstration that night (May 24) ends with workers and students once more on the barricades together.

The policy of mediation and concession had failed to stem the tide of revolt. It had served to strengthen the resolve of the working class to cling to what it had achieved. Sensing this determination – a hardening of the situation – elements in the government had reverted to type. Enough was enough! Orders went out for the barricades to be stormed and another “Bloody Friday” went down in history. The night of May 24, 1968, saw the worst violence yet in a number of cities.

In Paris the situation had been inflamed by a statement from the Minister of the Interior at three in the morning, calling on the city to vomit out “Le Pegre” (criminal scum) alleged to be responsible for the fighting. “We are all scum!” retorted the students and workers. Fierce battles raged inside and outside the Latin Quarter. By the end of the night 800 had been arrested and up to 1,500 injured. Two deaths occurred – a policeman in Lyons and a youth in Paris.

This was the backdrop to a crucial meeting at the Rue de Grenelle. Trade union leaders and the government seemed to be the only ones who wanted the movement to come to an end. The union leaders were desperate for negotiations – just as they had been in 1936, when similar tripartite talks took place at the Hotel de Matignon. The workers’ leaders scuttled into talks with representatives of the government which was suspended in mid-air and with representatives of the bosses who were locked up in their offices!

A journalist commented that “Far from overthrowing M. Pompidou they came to parley with him!” – in secret, too! Millions of workers stayed glued to their radios for news of the Rue de Grenelle talks. Scores of journalists camped at the Ministry of Social Affairs where the talks were taking place. Much sought after by the cameramen was Benoît Frachon, the 73-year-old President of the CGT who had been a signatory to the Matignon agreement three decades earlier.

At a CGT demonstration the night before young workers had carried placards saying “Don’t give in Séguy,” “Adieu de Gaulle,” “Power is in the streets,” and “Power for the workers.”

For two days and two nights, 49 “worthies” labored in the talks and brought forth a list of massive reforms. The trade union leaders emerged tired but smiling. They imagined they could now take credit for something that was not of their making … the biggest benefits secured for the working class of France since the Liberation.

A Sunday Times reporter, aware of the balance of forces outside the negotiation room, put the concessions in their proper context: “any amateur could have negotiated huge concessions in such a situation!” A revolutionary wave that threatened the whole “state crockery” could extract reforms from a capitalist class that years of talking had been unable to achieve. A class facing its own destruction will summon up every last ounce from its reserves to placate the enemy. It will buy time and then devise a way of clawing back what it has given away when the moment of crisis has passed, when the enemy has left the battlefield.

All workers would get at least a 7 percent raise followed by a 3 percent raise later in the year. The statutory minimum wage would go up by one third, in agriculture by 56 percent and some shop assistants would receive a 72 percent increase. Strikers would receive half their normal wage for the time they had been occupying their factories!

Georges Séguy went proudly to the CGT stronghold of Renault Billancourt. Within minutes he was booed and howled down. Eyewitnesses recount the great overhead gantries. Not only did they show their total opposition to the deal, they immediately started up chants for a “people’s government.” To them this could only mean one thing – a “workers’ government.” The Communist trade union leaders suffered exactly the same fate in the very same Renault factory as the Communist advocates of the Matignon agreement in 1936! As then, the same thing followed too. In factory after factory, the offers were rejected outright and workers dug in, waiting for a better alternative to come up.

The trade union leaders had been trying to get talks with the government for two years. Now under the pressure of the revolution they had succeeded and won concessions beyond their wildest dreams. But the workers of France were not satisfied. They wanted more than better wages, better social security and talks on trade union rights! The transformation of their lives was within sight. They would not let go easily of this chance – they had never experienced anything like it before and might never experience anything like it again.

French society is now completely polarized. At this crucial moment the workers’ leaders criminally fail to give a lead. The right begins to organize through Committees for the Defense of the Republic and to arm themselves. Yet the workers’ leaders are paralyzed. On a number of occasions, before this and again after, decisive action could have transformed the situation.