The great strike of May 1968 did not take place against a background of recession or stagnation, but in a period when real incomes were rising on average by 5 percent a year. For some sections of society – skilled workers and professionals in particular – expectations of what the post-war boom meant for them had been rising. In 10 years car ownership had doubled, as had the number of washing machines in private homes. Purchases of refrigerators had trebled. Over one million second homes had been bought. Television ownership was up five-fold.
It was this proletariat, allegedly corrupted and “enbourgeoisified” by the “consumer society,” which carried out the greatest general strike in history. It was this working class which drove might and main to make a revolution. There is thus an apparent contradiction between the rise in living standards of workers, which superficial commentators believed would stabilize capitalism (and thereby de Gaulle) and the eruption of revolution. The upheavals of May-June 1968 confirm the analysis of Marxism that the conditions for revolution are prepared not automatically, by either economic slump or an upswing, but by the change from one epoch to another.
Economic catastrophe like the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s can stun and paralyze the proletariat for a period. On the other hand, an increase in production, with a consequent fall in unemployment, can restore the confidence of the working class and prepare the ground for a new explosion of the class struggle.
The post-war economic upswing in France, and particularly under de Gaulle, had healed the wounds of the French working class. The consciousness of the setbacks and defeats of the inter-war and immediate post-war periods had dissolved with the development of a new and combative generation of workers. Now inflation and unemployment, increasing in the mid-1960s, threatened to undermine everything that had been gained. These factors contributed to the potential for revolutionary explosions.
Conscious of the dangers of developing a powerful working class in France, with its great traditions of revolution, the French ruling class had, for 150 years until the late 1950s, deliberately held back the development of an industrial economy. France had become known as the “Banker of the World” and still had a large peasantry to act as a political counterweight to the workers in the cities.
Even in 1968 half the population lived in communities of less than 2,000 people. Twenty-eight percent of the workforce was in manufacturing, compared to 35 percent in Britain and Germany. France’s productivity was less than half the average for the rest of Europe. This decline, however, of the proportion of the population of France directly employed on the land, from 35 percent in 1945 to 17 percent by the mid-1960s, was the most rapid of any Western country over a 20-year period.
Coming to power in 1958, in the white heat of the unprecedented post-war boom, de Gaulle was forced to modernize and to bring France into the world market – in a word: to compete. He was aided by a 15 percent devaluation of the franc and large-scale investment by the United States. A balance of payments deficit was turned into a surplus, and a vast reserve was accumulated of $5.25 billion in gold. But beneath the glittering boom, the rust had set in. The miracle had been achieved at great cost to the living and working conditions of millions of workers. The rapid expansion had brought with it a 45-percent inflation over a ten-year period. By 1968 price increases were being exacerbated by new impositions of value added tax (VAT) and deregulation of rents. Unemployment had risen by 70 percent since 1960 to an official figure of more than 500,000 (according to the unions it was 700,000). A quarter of the jobless were school-leavers, graduates and failed students. Half were estimated to be under 25.
Already inadequate health and social security provisions were to be cut back; in particular, a decree further restricting sick pay had flared up as a burning issue. Infant mortality was high for a European country. In Paris, three million people lived in slums, and half the dwellings had no inside toilets.
In industry long hours were worked, often for low pay. A quarter of workers received no more than $31 [1968 dollars] a week. One-and-a-half million unskilled workers and agricultural laborers were still getting 400 francs per month ($85) or less. Six million people lived below the poverty line. The 40-hour week had been introduced by the Popular Front government of 1936 and widely implemented before the war. Now, in 1968, the average working week was 45 hours.
A Sight Out of Hell
In the giant car factories that had mushroomed during the boom, the most modern vehicles were being produced in archaic conditions. As in America in the 1930s, private armies of armed thugs policed production lines. Immigrant labor had been deliberately used in an attempt to divide the workforces. Workers were arranged on the production lines by nationality so that one worker was hardly ever next to another who spoke the same language.
Three million had been drawn from poverty conditions in Southern Europe, North Africa and the Caribbean into the workplaces of France. One-third of the 40,000 workers in Citroën’s Paris plants were immigrants. Thousands more, particularly Spanish and Portuguese, were employed in the big engineering firms. Their dreams were shattered as they found themselves living and working in atrocious “third world” conditions. If they began to fight back in industry for better working and living conditions and proved too militant, their companies would simply get the police to remove their work permits. Many were herded into hostels where overcrowded and unsanitary conditions were accompanied by draconian discipline – no visitors, no newspapers, even no speaking at the meal table. A Militant reporter in France, May 1968, recounts the situation in Simca:
The factory has a police state in miniature with factory police, many of whom operate in secret ready to get any trade unionist in the sack. They did not only pursue their duties of repression in the factory itself but also in the company housing and hospitals. Sixty percent of the labor force were immigrants. During the strike, 4,000 of these workers had been kept prisoner in a company hostel. Anyone attempting to leave was told that there was no work and therefore was under suspicion.
At the Renault Flins factory a high proportion of immigrant workers were on the picket line from the beginning. On the great demonstration of May 13 in Paris, groups of Portuguese workers chanted “de Gaulle, Franco, Salazar – murderers.” A “Maghrebian Action Committee” issued a leaflet urging North African workers to support the strike and denouncing the dictatorships in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, where students, teachers and school pupils were already in rebellion.
The Economist described the assembly line and foundry at Renault’s giant Billancourt factory as a “sight out of hell.” The workers who came out on strike were rebelling against “les cadences” – the inhuman rhythm of work – the strain and stress, the wear and tear, on muscles and nerves and limbs.
These conditions explain how France could explode like a powder keg. They are the reason for the exhilaration and elation felt by workers once the possibility opened up of transforming their daily lives. They explain, too, the bitterness and desire for revenge that showed itself in some of the slogans and in the effigies representing capitalism swinging from makeshift gallows outside the factories. It explains the occupations, the discussions, the singing of revolutionary songs and the festive atmosphere, which accompanied the stoppage of work. It also explains the incidents of managers being locked up in their offices and fed from buckets lowered through the skylights!
There had been many seismic tremors in the years preceding May 1968, which warned of an impending earthquake. But none could indicate the fantastic scale of the explosion, once the lid of Gaullist society had been lifted.
The rapid French industrialization had done exactly what Marx and Engels had predicted in the Communist Manifesto and what the French ruling class had feared for so long. They had brought workers together in large concentrations, with 30,000 at the Renault Billancourt works alone. They were creating their own gravediggers – foremost amongst them, the youth.
One-third of the French population was under the age of twenty in May 1968. Well over 500,000 of them were at university (in 1946 there had been only 123,000 and in 1961 some 202,000). At Nanterre, intended by the Ministry of Education as a blueprint for the universities of the future, 23,000 students were admitted in 1964. By 1968, the figure was six times this number! An austere composition of glass and steel cubes, it was built rapidly to take pressure off what was called the “teeming ant-heap of the Latin Quarter” by Seale and McConville in their book French Revolution, 1968. Dumped in a suburb amongst motorway construction and North African shanty towns, Nanterre became a “blueprint for revolution.” It was the birthplace of Daniel Cohn Bendit’s “March 22nd” Movement. This was a rather amorphous but quite courageous grouping of anarchists who had occupied offices at Nanterre University on that date in protest at the way anti-Vietnam war protesters had been treated.
Ninety percent of French students were still sons and daughters of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois. Even ministers’ offspring were involved in the May events, as were those of the Chief of Police! Crowding these “gilded youth” into inefficient and squalid “factories of education,” that maintained a rigid approach to education and to social life on the campus, led inevitably to a breakdown in student-teacher relationships. There was a widespread belief that police spies were operating extensively on the campuses with the connivance of the university authorities. Libraries and laboratories were overflowing, lecture halls overcrowded and three-quarters of students did not make it to the end of their courses. At least half of the French students then, as now, could only survive by taking paid work in order to live, which in turn added unbearable strains on their ability to study.
Alain Peyrefitte, the ill-fated Minister of Education at the time of the May events, had commented in 1967: “It is as though we organized a shipwreck in order to pick out the best swimmers.” Spending on education had increased six-fold in the previous 15 years, but this was insufficient to provide the buildings and the staff to cope with the enormous increase in the number of students.
Alain Touraine, a sociologist at Nanterre, noted that:
The big new twentieth-century student campus isolates students in the way workers are isolated in American company towns. The student crowd is born as dense and faceless as an industrial proletariat with its own grievances, its own leaders and its growing sense of its own power.
French universities have been likened to factories in Russia, working to norms ordained by the center. All 23 universities in the country were state-run, on rigidly standardized lines, like a government department. Dissatisfactions, instead of being eroded by negotiation and practical reform, were repressed then erupted in explosions of collective anger. Revolts had broken out at Nanterre against rules forbidding students to visit those of the opposite sex in their living quarters! Grievances about the way that teaching was run and, indeed, its very purpose in capitalist society, were building up to boiling point. New proposals aiming at adapting education to meet the needs of employers made things worse.
At the same time students in the secondary schools (lycées) had been radicalized through widespread agitation and their own indignation at the war in Vietnam. They had been involved, with the leadership of the Lycée Committees of Action, in 24-hour strikes and demonstrations. Now, proposals were coming through to end the open-door policy of university entrance, to add to the burning anger they already had against the “Baccalauréat” secondary school exam system. They were only too ready to pour onto the streets when “les enragés” (“the enraged”) of the universities came in to open confrontation with the forces of the state.
By the time of the May struggles, university lecturers were largely at one with the students in their demands for reform. But lycée teachers at first attempted to hold the 13-and-14-year-olds in their schools by locking the classroom doors! Within days they too were joining in the demonstrations and organizing the occupations of the lycées along with the parents!
Leon Trotsky, the great Russian revolutionary, commented that the wind of the revolution blows the tops of the trees first – the sons and daughters of the ruling class, the apparently pampered student layers of society. He pointed out that for the first and probably only time in their lives, students are freed from some of the constraints of bourgeois society. University life is an interval between the restrictions of life in the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois home, and reintegration into comfortable jobs and positions in bourgeois society. Moreover they are encouraged to experiment with ideas, even socialist and quasi-Marxist notions, which are normally entirely foreign to the bourgeois.
A mass movement of the working class can exercise a powerful ideological effect on the outlook of the students. If a strong pole of attraction develops, the best of the students can be won to the ideas of socialism and Marxism. They can, however, only prove to be sound participants in the workers’ movement by breaking the ideologically, and in terms of their life style, from their petty bourgeois and bourgeois backgrounds.
The tragedy of France was that no organization existed that could assist this process. On the contrary, ultra-left sects, claiming to be “Trotskyists,” reinforced the haughty prejudices of many of the students, allotting them the role of “leaders” in this struggle. The revolution was to proceed, they said, under the conductor’s baton of the students. One of the sects, the JCR, went to the lengths of producing a leaflet with a quote from Vladimir Lenin about the working class not going beyond trade union consciousness. The implication was that it must be left to the students to occupy the position of “revolutionary generals,” while the working class merely provided the foot soldiers! This they maintained at a time when millions of French workers began to display tremendous powers of improvisation, initiative and daring. Those workers who read the leaflets merely shrugged their shoulders in incomprehension and turned back to serious business.
The Economist (May 22) explained less scientifically one of the processes at work in the early days of May 1968:
Obviously many of today’s rebels would be absorbed tomorrow and be concerned only with climbing into the establishment or getting their slice of affluence. But they are still young enough to listen with sympathy to slogans about the overthrow of established society. The truncheon did the rest!
The “Force de Frappe” as this same article called it – the “strike force” of the Garde Mobile and the CRD – was a formidable educator: “France has the troops needed for a civil war and its various regimes have often used them ruthlessly.”
The CRS riot police are an armed security police force created at the end of the Second World War. They were “blooded” in 1947 when they were sent by the Social Democratic Minister of the Interior, Jules Moch, against striking miners. They had been called in many times to put down strikes and demonstrations. Never before, however, had they been used so extensively against students.
The Paris police itself was infested with reactionary anti-communists. It was full of elements who hated those they held responsible for “selling out” France and its colonies – intellectuals and “progressives,” communists and trade union militants. A virulent racialism had been demonstrated against the Indo-Chinese and later the Algerians. This had culminated in the bloody repression of demonstrations of Algerians in Paris and “rat-hunts” in the streets and the shantytowns on the outskirts of the city. No less violent was the behavior of the police to those French people who wanted Algerian independence and fought for it. The repression of the demonstration against the Organisation Armée Secrete (OAS), the right-wing paramilitary terrorist organization dedicated to preventing Algerian independence, on February 8, 1962, left eight dead at the Charonne Metro station.
Secret “committees for public safety” had been set up in the Paris Prefecture at the time of de Gaulle’s coup d’état of 1958 (which created a new constitution and reinstalled de Gaulle as president). Elements of the Service d’Action Civique (Civic Action Service or SAC), another semi-independent paramilitary organization set up by the Gaullist Party, came into its own during the street fighting. They demanded helmets and clubs in order to go into the barricades at the side of the police. Others organized some of the police into groups called the “uncontrollables,” who declared their readiness to act, even outside the orders of their own police chiefs. Later, when the Committees for the Defense of the Republic were mobilized after de Gaulle’s speech on May 30, the SAC distributed among the police and the CRS a leaflet calling on them to join the SAC.
These groupings were no doubt the prime perpetrators of the worst excesses of the May Days in Paris in 1968. Maurice Grimaud, the Prefect of Police, warned all policemen against the “admittedly few among you who, by their ill-considered actions, have given credence to this uncomplimentary image that people are trying to impose on us!” Elite forces, normally isolated from public opinion, are nevertheless a brittle weapon in the arsenal of a Bonapartist state. Flexibility and responsiveness are not the watchwords of a military-police dictatorship, however tied to parliamentary forms that of de Gaulle had become.
Much of the anger and bitterness that had accumulated in French society stemmed from the treatment meted out to nearly every layer in society by the repressive state machine. The behavior of the government, the Gaullist habit of ignoring crises, even the barrack-room language of de Gaulle, had brought to a head the resentments born of long years of arbitrary “Personal Power.”
De Gaulle had commented privately on May 7 about the need for the modernization of education, but also of the impossibility of tolerating violence on the streets: “that has never been the method of dialogue.” Few believed that de Gaulle had ever conducted a dialogue with the people – even when adopting the favorite Bonapartist ploy of carrying out a referendum.
The forces of the law were beyond the law to some extent. The debates in parliament had little to do with what was implemented by the state, often through decrees. Rigid censorship of the press, radio and television meant little or no criticism could be voiced publicly. At daily meetings of a committee at the State Radio and Television (ORTF) headquarters, the director would have to outline all scheduled news and future programs to representatives of government departments who then “suggested” revisions, additions or deletions.
Government control of radio was not as great as that of television. No student or teacher representative was allowed to put their case before the cameras, and film of the bloody street battles was suppressed and only eventually screened when the unions insisted. The round-the-clock French Home Service, France-Inter, however, broke down the barriers during the troubles. Its coverage in the Latin Quarter was on par with the “front-line” reporting of the two commercial stations, Radio Luxembourg and Europe No. 1.
For a working class catching up with its European counterparts, and a middle class looking to the fruits of the rapid expansion of the economy, the language of the boot and the methods of the dictator were becoming intolerable.
The satirical paper Le Canard Enchainé commented on the stifling atmosphere. The whole of France, it said, was living under “un cours magistral” (legal proceedings). When Pompidou announced at one stage that he had “liberated” the arrested students, Le Canard depicted him as “judging and unjudging” (arresting and releasing) students in a totally arbitrary manner.
Ill-equipped to maintain total peace, the Bonapartist regime was even less equipped to deal with the crisis. De Gaulle’s crude response to the students’ demands of “Reform: yes! but mess-in-the-bed: no!” was thrown back at him with a vengeance in the shouts of the demonstrators and on the posters of the students: “The mess-in-the-bed: it’s him!”
The London Evening Standard declared: “Their government is acting in a void which comes of years of over-confidence and detachment from currents of opinion and grievances. It is unable to plan any coherent action.” It had stirred up a hornets’ nest for itself and would end up mortally wounded.