Deep resentment at the indignities and impositions of Gaullist rule flared into anger in the “May Days.” It was matched by a seething discontent in the workplaces of France, which had broken out in significant battles. The warning signs of the greatest general strike in history had already shown themselves in the preceding months and years.
In 1963 a two-and-a-half months’ long miners’ strike had been at least a partial victory for the workers and a psychological setback for the government. The Presidential election of December 1965 had seen François Mitterrand forcing de Gaulle into a run-off in the second round.
In 1967, and the early months of 1968, there had been strikes and lock-outs involving engineers, car workers, steel and shipbuilding workers, as well as the public sector. The main trade union federations had called one-day and even one-hour strikes. Although the majority of workers – about 80 percent – were not organized in unions, this would not prevent them from joining in industrial action, but they were often left to their own devices in bitter battles with the forces of the state.
In June 1967, automaker Peugeot called in the riot police against strikers and two were killed. Trade union militants attempting to organize had been victimized. A long-running struggle had been taking place at the Rhodiaceta synthetic fibers factory in Lyons. In summer 1967, 14,000 workers there had been involved in a 23-day strike. Lock-outs and sackings ensued later that year, and mass demonstrations were still taking place at Saciem trucks in Caen. For a matter of days in January 1968 battles with the police had raged not only on the picket line but through the streets of the town.
At the Renault Billancourt plant there was a generally high level of organization, and the Communist Party-led union, the General Confederation of Labour or CGT, had three-quarters of the workforce of 30,000 enrolled as members. There had been no fewer than 80 cases of trade union action there between the beginning of March 1968 and early May over demands for higher wages, shorter hours and better conditions.
Even in the early days of May itself there was no dearth of industrial struggles. May Day had seen 100,000 on the streets of Paris. Young people had been shouting “Jobs for Youth!” with clenched fists in the air. A wide cross-section of workers were involved. Demands for a 40-hour week, trade union rights and repeal of the social security decrees were widespread. The CGT and the Confédération française démocratique du travail or CFDT (the second-largest trade union confederation after the CGT) had already announced its plans for a day of action for May 15 on social security and unemployment. They were also involved in plans for mass demonstrations in the West of France on May 8.
The French daily Le Monde (May 3) commented on a “tense situation” in the Sud Aviation aircraft factory in Nantes. Workers were fighting against a loss of wages that the bosses insisted should accompany the reduction of the working week to 46.5 hours. They were stopping work and downing tools several times a day throughout the first week of May, and the white-collar workers appealed to the management to accede to the workers’ claims. This factory was to become the crucible of the great strike.
On May 3, print workers were also threatening strike action over the transfer of work. A lightning strike of bus workers in Paris over the lengthening of hours had meant only ten buses out of 180 were running in one of the Paris suburbs.
On May 5, 560 workers walked out of a sugar refinery. On the sixth, taxi drivers and post office workers were planning strike action. Le Monde talks also of a “crisis in the hospitals.”
The next day, the police trade unions are in the process of formulating demands and proposing action for June 1. In Corsica young agricultural workers begin an occupation. Air traffic controllers threaten a strike. At the Berliet lorry factory a 24-hour strike takes place over bonus payments. Meteorology workers’ unions discuss their claims! Iron ore miners on strike for one month block the Route Nationale (national highway) for an hour. A foundry is occupied, and a clothing factory is taken over by the women workers for one week.
Most dramatic of all in this period leading up to the general strike are the mass demonstrations in the West of France. These involve electricity and transport workers, engineering, building workers, fishermen and post office workers, contingents from schools, clergymen and nuns and, above all, numerous youth. Shops are shut in solidarity.
The crisis here is that of a severely deprived area with grave problems in agriculture, a gross shortage of industry, and no jobs for youth. Each year 45,000 pupils leave school but even the jobs that used to be available in Paris are already filled. There are falling living standards and a falling agricultural income.
In the opinion of Paul Houee, Director of the Angiers Institute of Economic and Social Sciences: “The conditions of a pre-revolutionary situation have come together.” Under the slogan “The West wants to live,” 30,000 demonstrated in Brest on May 8, 20,000 in Quimper, 10,000 in Rouen, 10,000 in San Brieuc – the biggest demonstration seen there since the Liberation at the end of World War II – 12,000 in Morlais, 20,000 in Angiers, 20,000 in Nantes and 10,000 in Le Mans. Another time bomb was ticking away!
A huge head of steam was building up underneath the leaders of the workers’ parties and trade unions. More and more young workers were joining the student battles. The behavior of the authorities – university directors, government ministers and police forces alike – had brought to the surface an anger and indignation that was now bound to explode in every corner of France.
In the Early Days…
Many somersaults were turned in many unusual quarters as the students’ protests spread to the factories.
In the early days of the student disturbances, Education Minister Peyrefitte had declared the demonstrations had nothing in common with those in Berlin or Warsaw – they were in effect just a “local difficulty.” By Saturday May 11 his stand against the student demands had been overruled by the Prime Minister, and by the end of the month his career was at an end!
In the early days of the student disturbances, François Mitterrand, President of the Federation of Left Parties, had given lukewarm support saying: “Even if the students’ methods are not the best, still it doesn’t mean that those of the Minister of the Interior are good.” By the end of the month he was proposing a ten-person “Provisional Government,” with himself as President, as the only solution to the crisis!
In the early days of the student disturbances, the leaders of the Communist Party and its trade union federation, the CGT, had condemned the students, backed up by the Soviet Union’s Pravda, declaring that “leftists,” “anarchists,” “Trotskyists” and “pseudo-revolutionaries” were preventing students from taking exams! By May 11 they were calling on all workers to take one-day strike action in solidarity with the students under the slogan “An end to repression,” and by the end of the month, power was being handed to them on a plate!
In the early days of the student disturbances, some of the students had gone to the factories to plead with the workers to join their struggle and got short shrift. By the end of the third week in May, ten million workers had followed their example and then, again, in June, the students’ organizations and papers had been banned by a Gaullist regime once again back in the saddle!
The enormous pressure from below had forced the leaders of the workers’ organizations to do a 180-degree turn on the question of the students. Their aim then became to take over the leadership of the movement in order to control it. André Jeanson of the CFDT admitted later: “For many of the organizers of the demonstrations it marked the end of the events themselves.” The pressure could be released, they hoped, through a 24-hour general strike and after that, particularly of Communist trade union leaders (Georges Marchais, later secretary of the Communist Party, actually opposed even the call for a 24-hour general strike). It has been perfected in Italy where general strikes of even two minutes’ duration are supposed to serve a purpose. The French trade union leaders had often adopted similar policies aimed at dissipating and diminishing the energies of workers whenever they seemed to be shaping up for a fight. Even in the period prior to May they had organized for partial and local movements – 24-hour strikes in one industry, in others closures of one plant while others stayed open, or shut-downs of one department for an hour, etc. Often petitions and protests were organized instead of strikes.
But instead of dissipating the movement, the general strike of May 13, 1968, was not going to stop after 24 hours! It was a massive demonstration of working class solidarity. It had a profound effect on the consciousness of the workers. Once they had experienced this feeling of their power, given the underlying social conditions, it would prove impossible to stem the pressure from below. Workers from all walks of life participated in gigantic demonstrations in Paris (one million), Marseilles (50,000), Toulouse (40,000), Bordeaux (50,000) and Lyons (60,000). The genie would not be content to stay in the bottle!
In Paris on this day, such was the power of the demonstration that the police stood aside. The crime rate actually dropped dramatically. There was no looting or window-breaking in the area of the demonstration. The CGT alone had 20,000 highly organized stewards.
One British journalist described the scene in Paris:
A human tidal wave … no one can really number them. The first of the demonstrators reaches the final dispersal point hours before the last ranks have left the Place de la Republique at seven in the evening … endlessly they filed past. There were whole sections of hospital personnel in white coats, some carrying posters saying, ‘Where are the “disappeared ones” from the hospitals? [expressing fears that the injured of the street battles might have been taken into police custody].
Every factory, every major workplace, seemed to be represented. There were numerous groups of railwaymen, postmen, printers, metro personnel, metal workers, airport workers, marketmen, electricians, lawyers, sewer men, bank employees, painters and decorators, gas workers, shop girls, insurance clerks, road sweepers, film studio operators, busmen, teachers, workers from the new plastic industries, row upon row of them, the flash and blood of modern capitalist society, an unending mass, a power that could sweep everything before it if it but decided to do so…
There were banners of every kind: union banners, student banners, political banners, non-political banners … banners of the ‘Movement Against Atomic Weapons’, banners of ‘Parents of Pupils’ committees … Some banners were loudly applauded, such as the one saying ‘Let’s liberate the news’ carried by employees of the radio and television service (ORTF). Some banners indulged in vivid symbolism such as the gruesome one carried by a group of artists depicting human hands, heads and eyes, each with its price tag on display on the hooks and trays of a butcher’s shop.
Significantly, given the divisions fostered by their leaders between the different workers’ organizations, there were hundreds of joint union banners. Others declared “Students, Teachers, Workers – Together.” Red flags were everywhere. The Internationale broke out in every section of the march. So did chants of “De Gaulle: resign!” and “De Gaulle: assassin!” On the exact anniversary of de Gaulle’s accession to power, chants that caught on particularly well were ’10 years is enough!’; “Farewell Charlie!” and “Happy Anniversary, de Gaulle!” On this giant demonstration workers became conscious of their mighty unstoppable power. Consciousness of this strength is the most important element of actual strength. The dam was about to burst.
Students went from the demonstration to the Sorbonne and the Censier Annexe to occupy, to discuss and to open up the university to workers and anyone interested in round-the-clock discussions on every subject under the sun. The Sorbonne was founded in the thirteenth century and had functioned as an uncompromising censor of books for centuries on behalf of the Catholic establishment. It had at one time been the center of the persecution of Protestants and unbelievers.
Now there were no holds barred, and a veritable blossoming of unrestricted thought and action was reflected in the posters and slogans that appeared on every spare bit of the wall. “It is Forbidden to Forbid!” “Creativity, Spontaneity, Life!” “The future will contain what we put in it now!” “Workers of all lands; enjoy yourselves!” “Imagination has taken power!” “We will claim nothing; we will ask for nothing; we will take; will occupy!” “Everything is possible!” These extravagant, exotic ideas were the overflowing of youthful exuberance, held back for too long by petty restrictions and stultifying centralization. Due to the isolation of students from the workers’ movement, they mistakenly imagined their power came from their own actions instead of those of the proletariat. Reality was sometimes abandoned and “democracy” taken to extremes! Discussions were incessant.
The General Assembly of the Sorbonne occupation would meet every night in the amphitheater, bulging at the seams with more than 5,000 people present. Everyone could have a say – mostly three minutes maximum but some a little longer. Rooms had been allocated for “The Occupation Committee,” “The Press Committee,” “The Propaganda Committee,” committees dealing with foreign students, the action committees of high school students and committees dealing with the allocation of premises. Numerous “commissions” were set up to undertake special projects, such as compiling a dossier on police atrocities, studying the implications of autonomy on the exam system, etc.
The composition of the committees changed, sometimes every day, but somehow things were organized. A canteen was set up in one big hall, a children’s day care in another. A first aid station had been set up and elsewhere dormitories had been organized. Housekeeping details were in operation and detachments of the “Services d’ordre” were stationed at the university’s entrances to guard against attacks, be they from riot police or fascists.
Almost all of France’s universities were soon occupied and all sorts of experiments in the “Critical University” and “Permanent Contestation” were proceeding apace. Many students showed great courage and resourcefulness – organizing teams to construct the barricades, teams to administer to the wounded, teams to carry messages on motor bikes with red flags and so on. But, however proud of themselves they were, however much many of them thought they were “leading” a revolution, the real drama was now unfolding in a different quarter.
The “heavy battalions” of the workers in the factories were about to enter the fray and inspire new layers, never before involved in action, to join them. The “light-cavalry,” as Trotsky described the students and intelligentsia, can make the first move. They can create a breach in the enemy’s forces, but victory cannot be assured unless the mighty army of the proletariat takes decisive action.
Workers returned home from the giant demonstrations on May 13 considering all the implications of what was happening. In some cases within hours, most within days, they would be back on strike and challenging for power in society.
General de Gaulle, President of the Republic, had made no public statements and was already beginning to look irrelevant in the unfolding situation. Renowned as a tactician, he nevertheless decided to continue with a planned state visit to Romania as if nothing unusual was happening. Earlier in the month he had described the Soviet Union as a “pillar of Europe.” He and the Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaucescu would, no doubt, be huddling together for comfort in the face of storms which could end their respective regimes.
The movement unfolding in Czechoslovakia was threatening to spill over into a political revolution against all the Stalinist bureaucracies of the East. The strike wave in France would threaten not only the existence of capitalism in Europe, but would in turn exacerbate the discontent of workers under Stalinist rule. The general strike was well under way long before de Gaulle was due to return to France.