On May 14, the morning after the one-day strike, just 200 workers were on strike; by May 19 two million workers were on strike and by May 21, ten million.
The young metal workers of the Sud Aviation factory happened to be the spark that set off the historic general strike. They had been downing tools for 15 minutes every Tuesday morning in their dispute with management. Now they had been infected by the revolutionary contagion of the students’ protests and the sense of enormous power they had felt during the 24-hour strike of the day before. Instead of resuming work this Tuesday they decided to prolong their action and carry the strike to all sections of the factory. They locked up 20 of the management in their offices, and proceeded to play them the Internationale over a loudspeaker to get them to learn the words! A guard was put on the door; the bosses even had to have a workers’ escort to visit the toilet! The workers formed an action committee and set about spreading the strike.
It was no accident that the strike started here, where sporadic outbursts between management and workers had always occurred. Some of the young workers were influenced by “Marxist” ideas. But if it hadn’t started here, such were the social conditions that had developed in France, it would have broken out somewhere else. Before May 1968 – and again later – revolutionary ideas fell like grains of corn on barren land: now they took root.
The students’ action and the mass workers’ demonstrations had broken the log-jam. Once the movement began, it developed with an irresistible force. On May 15 strikes and occupations spread to Renault car factories, shipyards, hospitals and the Odéon National Theatre.
By May 16 all 60,000 Renault car workers had stopped work and occupied the six plants, in a movement described by the Sunday Times:
In the giant Renault Billancourt works young workers, particularly the skilled craftsmen in the machine shops, were muttering that if the students could gain concessions from the government the unions ought to be able to do so too … On Thursday the Renault factories at Cleon and Flins struck. On Friday morning, the production lines at Billancourt stopped too … Significantly, the strike began in “Atelier 70,” the tool room. And it was under way before the arrival on Friday morning of a posse of students from the Latin Quarter. Inside the vast shed in which the strike meetings of 4,000 are held every day, the atmosphere is electric. The only way to describe it is to say it is like an early morning carnival. One banner proclaims “More university places for workers’ children!” … Speeches are interrupted by demands for de Gaulle to resign … The loudspeaker blares the Internationale belted out by men of all political complexions – suddenly solidarity becomes something tangible. It is a moving experience.
Renault’s transmission plant at Cléon near Rouen was relatively new and a young workforce had been recruited fresh from the countryside. These workers had not greatly participated on May 13, but seeing what was developing, they were determined to “make amends at the first opportunity” as one of the workers explained. The director of the plant refused to receive a delegation, so he was locked up and held prisoner. At Renault Flins, 3,000 would regularly turn up to picket. From there groups of young workers went out to spread the call to all the small factories around them. At the Citroën plant, where at most 200 out of 18,000 workers were organized into trade unions, there was hesitation. The weekly Le Canard Enchainé described how the “house cops” (factory police) surveyed the scene when trade unionists addressed the workers about strike action. The workers remained uncertain. Then a member of the CGT got a “house cop” to explain the management’s position. “He was so bad that the workers were completely convinced and voted there and then for strike action!” Prior to the strike, Citroën was known as the “factory of fear.”
Red flags were hauled up over the factories. At the Orly-Nord airport maintenance plant, an “Inter-union Strike Committee” met every day and a general meeting was held every morning of up to 3,500 workers. Discipline was unquestionable and machinery was even better looked after than in normal conditions! By the sixteenth, the ports of Marseilles and Le Havre were closed and the Trans-European Express had been halted al Valence in the South of France. Newspapers were still being produced but the printers exercised at least some control of what went in. Deliveries were grinding to a halt anyway! Many public services were still running but only with the permission of the strikers.
At no time did a general strike order go out from the Paris headquarters of the union federations; and yet all over the country a calm, irresistible wave of working class power engulfed the commanding heights of the French economy. In thousands of plants the workers not only struck, but locked themselves in with their silent machines, turning the factories into fortified camps. (French Revolution, 1968)
The strikes spread to every corner of France. From engineers to transport workers, department stores to bakeries, from textile mills to undertakers, and to the barges on the Seine. Even labor exchanges were occupied and flying the red flag. The circle widened daily, hourly, from the lowliest to the most exalted layers of the population.
The manner in which the movement unfolded in May 1968 bore an uncanny resemblance to the way the great sit-in strikes greeted the election of the Popular Front government in 1936, described by Trotsky in Whither France?:
The movement takes on the character of an epidemic. The contagion spreads from factory to factory, from craft to craft, from district to district. All the layers of the working class seem to be giving echoing answers to a roll call. The metal workers begin – they are the vanguard. But the strength of the movement lies in the fact that just behind the vanguard follows the heavy reserves of the class, including the most backward trades, the rear-guards, completely forgotten on weekdays by Messrs Parliamentarians and trade union leaders.
The leaders of the Communist Party and the CGT recognized that something big was happening around them! In the early hours of the morning on Saturday May 11 they had produced 300,000 copies of a special issue of their paper L’Humanité. On the monster demonstration of May 13 even they could detect “A great wish for change!” They now tried to impose their own strike committees in the factories. Trying to head off the movement, as commentators unanimously recognized, they had to push aside the newly radicalized and predominantly youthful elements, who were displaying a tremendously imaginative and energetic approach to the struggle.
On May 17, L’Humanité unashamedly declared: “The CGT salutes the workers who have followed our call to occupy!” What call? No such call had been made by the union leaders! They proceeded to “warn” workers not to go with the students on the planned demonstration at the state-owned radio and television center and not to have anything to do with the students’ march to the Renault plant at Billancourt. They continued to try their policy of divide and rule and to inoculate the workers against the infection of revolutionary ideas. “The students want to come in and smash up the machines,” they told the Renault workers in a desperate attempt to poison them against the students.
With such a large proportion of Renault Billancourt’s workers in the CGT, it was little surprise that initially they rejected the students’ advances! The leaflet produced by the so-called Trotskyists of the JCR had not helped, and the Communist Party continually tried to maintain a chasm between the workers and students.
The Canard Enchainé gave a picture of students, who had not slept for two nights or eaten for two days, almost in tears at being kept out of the giant Renault plant. “We have come to support your fight!” “Bravo! … Thanks!” “Clenched fists and the Internationale all around but there were still the walls and the iron bars of the gate which stayed firmly locked.” Between 1,500 and 2,000 students then adopted the “Jericho tactic” and marched around the walls of the giant factory. This didn’t work either! “The students came back to talk to the workers who sat on the walls and stayed behind the gates once more. But this time, a bit more discussion took place. The workers who were sitting on the walls were mostly youth. When asked ‘What are you doing lads?’ they replied ‘We are dialoguing!’” “Monologue” was seen as the watch-word of de Gaulle’s Bonapartism. “Dialogue” was now being practiced everywhere. Workers got acquainted as well. Immigrant workers in particular commented that they were getting to know their workmates for the first time ever.
Placards at Billancourt declare “A thousand francs, no less; 40 hours, no more” and “Long love the workers!” At Cléon they include “Security of Employment” and “Government of the Left.”
“The Great Tranquil Force”
The political and trade union leaders of the French working class were coming under increasing pressure to pose a political solution. At about this time, Georges Séguy, the General Secretary of the CGT, told Renault workers: “Any slogan calling for insurrection would change the character of your strike” – a thought-provoking statement indeed! The words of this Communist dignitary were intended to frighten the workers. Instead they fed the intense mood for a political, revolutionary, solution to the crisis.
Prime Minister Pompidou appealed on the television, in a very similar vein to that of the Communist Party leaders, that students should not follow the agitators and that “Citizens should refuse anarchy.” Far from anarchy reigning in the factories, there was total calm and order.
Pompidou was on his own. Jokes circulated in Paris about de Gaulle heading a “Government in Exile” in Romania! A spokesperson for the union that covered the CRS riot police had already explained that he would have difficulty preventing his men from going on strike. Georges Séguy, like many a present-day trade union leader, poured cold water on the movement. The CGT is to be seen, he declares, as “The Great Tranquil Force!” In the midst of revolutionary turmoil, the workers’ leaders sang lullabies, while the workers attempted to “storm heaven” in the immortal phrase of Karl Marx, describing the heroic actions of the Paris Communards of 1871.
“Messrs Democrats” and “Communists”
Marx and Engels wrote extensively about the revolutionary upheavals in France. On numerous occasions, as they explained, the “Messrs Democrats” at the head of the movement had robbed the masses of victories that they had fought so hard to achieve and opened the way for reaction in a more or less bloody form. The glorious Paris Commune had ended with at least 45,000 Parisians slaughtered, tens of thousands more died in prison or in exile.
In 1968, the annual commemoration of the martyrs of the Paris Commune, on May 28, now came at the height of a new revolutionary situation in France. The leaders of the workers’ movement were once again preparing to rob the heroic French masses of victory. Why did they behave in this way? The answer lies in the history of the Communist Party of France.
The Tours congress of the Socialist Party in 1920 had split between reform and revolution and four-fifths of the delegates declared themselves for the Third (Communist) International. Since then the communist Party they formed had been the main political organization of the working class in France. With the rise of Stalinism in Moscow, the French Communist Party faithfully carried out all the dictates of the Kremlin. These were based on maintaining the Soviet bureaucracy in its privileged position and heading off any revolutionary movement that might overthrow capitalism in France. Such an overthrow – leading to a fully democratic, as opposed to bureaucratic, workers’ state – would, by example, then have threatened the very survival of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union.
The Communist Party thus evolved as a second party of reform in France, the agents, partially of Stalinism and partially of the bourgeoisie. Since its formation it had been presented with priceless opportunities for taking power and organizing society along socialist lines. Every time, the Communist Party leaders declined the offer.
In May 1968 the odds in favor of the working class were a thousand times more favorable than at the time of the Paris Commune. So great was the feeling that at last the victory was possible that the Communist Party secretary Emile Waldeck-Rochet was carried away by the mood. Usually guided by a bureaucratic approach to politics and seeing himself merely as a leader of an opposition party, he found himself forced to respond to the massive pressure from below with ideas that more truly reflected the revolutionary founding program of his party. Contradicting his usual stance, he issued a special declaration in which the outline of the correct way forward was sketched:
To achieve the aspirations of the workers, of the teachers, of the students … the French Communist Party … proposes not only the nationalization of the big banks but of the great monopoly industrial enterprises which dominate the key sectors of the economy … To begin by the extension of the role of the factory committees and the free activity of the trade unions in the enterprises … it is necessity to end the power of the monopolies and with it the Gaullist power.
Scattered through this and other material produced by the Communist Party in May 1968 are references to the need for “socialism” but never again posed as concretely as this. Usually it was depicted as a later “stage” coming after the establishment of “democracy.” Like their predecessors in the 1930s, the Stalinist leaders of the Communist Party and the CGT continually tried to claim that the situation was “not revolutionary” and to deny the political nature of the movement.
This was, they maintained, a struggle “purely” for higher wages and better conditions. But politics is simply concentrated economics. Such a struggle itself cannot be completely successful over any length of time without the socialist transformation of society. Capitalism, in its greed for profit, literally cannot afford to guarantee these demands. A truly revolutionary party would have rallied the striking workers, linking their immediate demands in a transitional manner, to the need to transform society.
Tensions in the Communist Party – one of, if not the most rigidly Stalinist Communist Parties of Western Europe – were inevitably reaching the breaking point. By the end of the first week in May, Jean-Pierre Vigier, a leading member of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, was being expelled for “anti-party attitudes.” Two weeks later, André Barjonet, who was a top economic adviser in the CGT, resigned from his post and from the Communist Party. He was convinced that revolution was possible and that the Communist Party was doing nothing to assist in its birth. On the contrary, it was holding back and even attempting to sabotage its development. The main concern of the reformist Communist leaders, exactly like that of Maurice Thorez in the 1930s, was “How to end this strike.” Their dilemma was expressed by his comment that “We didn’t call this strike.” Thirty-two years later, Georges Séguy says “We did not call them out so we cannot send them back!”