Tony Cliff
and Ian Birchall

France – the struggle goes on

The workers enter the arena

The spark inflames the young workers

The student rebellion first caught the imagination of young workers. They, more than anyone else, are hurt by the economic crisis of French society. It is very difficult for them to find a job and, if they do, it is often dead-end. From childhood they are roughed up by the police as “delinquents” or rebels. They are hurt by the ideological and moral crisis of society.

When the students proved on 6 May that not only were they ready to fight the police, but were also able to stand their ground against them, thousands of young workers joined. The number increased even more on 10 May, the Night of the Barricades. Since then thousands of workers started visiting the Sorbonne. The revolutionary élan there caught their imagination. As one middle-aged Renault worker said:

In the first few days of May every evening I took five or six workers – quite often members of the Communist Party – in my car to the Sorbonne. When they returned to work next day they were completely changed people. Through the students and the “groupuscules” they got the political education they did not get from the CP. There was a completely libertarian atmosphere at the university, so different from the totalitarian atmosphere at the factory. The student demonstration created an environment in which people were free to coin their own slogans. In the official trade union demonstrations only certain, centrally determined, slogans were permitted. When Renault was occupied, the workers experienced a change from control by the management, which uses modern manipulative techniques, to control by the CP bureaucracy, which is completely totalitarian. In Renault their freedom was alienated. In the Sorbonne they felt free. When a worker went to the Sorbonne he was recognised as a hero. Within Renault he was only a thing. In the university he became a man. This atmosphere of freedom in the sense of being considered human gave great combativity to the young workers. Returning from the Sorbonne the young workers in Renault organised self-defence with Molotov cocktails. The CP officials forbade the use of Molotov cocktails against the police. When the students came to Billancourt the CP officials distributed truncheons to the workers to fight the “Trotskyists”; at the same time we were told by the officials that if the CRS were to come we should avoid violence – we should come out of the factory holding our heads high. In the student demonstrations we were free to throw paving stones at the police. On the official trade union demonstration the main slogan was “Beware of provocateurs”. On the student demonstration, anyone ready to pick up a paving stone was considered a comrade.

The same Renault worker also pointed out the following:

The students communicate to the workers an image of a combative working class, an image very different to the one seen on the surface. Many young workers rediscovered there in the Sorbonne the historic idea of the revolutionary traditions of the working class, and started to talk the language of revolution.

However, not all the workers reacted like these young ones. Only a minority came into close contact with the revolutionary students and with the revolutionary groups. The overwhelming majority of the workers remained under the influence of the traditional organisations – above all the CP and its trade-union federation, the CGT.

The trade unions step in

The first edition of L’Humanité on Saturday 11 May, the day after the Night of the Barricades, called for a demonstration on Tuesday evening, 14 May, to march from Place Saint-Michel to Gare de l’Est. However, on the same Saturday representatives of UNEF, the CGT and CFDT met; as a result a call was issued for a general strike on Monday 13 May. L’Humanité issued a special edition entitled Stop The Repression.

The trade union leaders wanted a one-day token strike – one more in the long chain of token strikes. But the response on 13 May was nothing like token. Ten million workers came out, four times more than the number organised in trade unions. The whole country was paralysed. In Paris a demonstration of 1 million people took place. Notwithstanding the efforts of the CGT and CP leadership, practically no tricolores were to be seen on the demonstration – one observer counted three – while thousands of red flags fluttered. The CGT leaders raised the slogan “Des sous, Charlot” (Money, Charles) and “Défense du pouvoir d’achat” (Defend purchasing power). The students shouted “Le pouvoir aux ouvriers” (All power to the workers), “Le pouvoir est dans la rue” (Power lies in the street), “Libérez nos camarades” (Free our comrades), “De Gaulle – assassin”, “CRS=SS”. The main slogans taken up by the mass of the workers were neither those of the CGT (and CP leadership) nor of the revolutionary students. Their main slogans were “Dix ans, c’est assez” (Ten years is enough), “A bas l’État policier” (Down with the police state), “Bon anniversaire, mon Général” (Happy anniversary, General). Whole groups mournfully intoned a well-known refrain: “Adieu de Gaulle”. They waved their handkerchiefs to the great merriment of all.

Serious political differences lie behind the difference in the choice of slogans.

The CGT and the CP leaders hoped that the one-day strike and demonstrations would serve as an effective safety valve – that this would be the end of the struggle. But they did not reckon with the rank and file, who entered the arena off their own bat.

On 14 May the workers of Sud Aviation in Nantes declared an unlimited strike. They occupied the factory and imprisoned the manager in his office. (L’Humanité next day tried to overlook the event. It gave it only seven lines on page nine).

Next day, 15 May, Renault-Cléon was occupied.

On 16 May the strike and occupation movement spread to all Renault factories. At Billancourt the strikers declared their demands: for a minimum of 1,000 francs a month, immediate return without loss of pay to 40 hours a week, retirement at 60, full pay for the days of the strike, trade union freedom in the factory. These demands were taken up in toto by all the large enterprises in the country.

In the footsteps of Renault all the engineering factories, the car and aeroplane plants, went on strike and were occupied by the workers. On 19 May the trams stopped along with mail and telegraph services. The subway and bus services in Paris followed suit. The strike hit the mines, shipping, Air France, etc, etc.

On 20 May the strike became general. Some 9 million workers were now on strike. People who had never struck before were involved – Folies Bergères dancers, soccer players, journalists, saleswomen, technicians. Red flags fluttered from all places of work. Not a tricolore was to be seen, notwithstanding the statement of the CGT and CP leaders that “Our banner is both the tricolore and the Red Flag”.

The leadership of the PCF and CGT made it abundantly clear, however, that they wanted to limit the movement to struggle for economic reforms, to avoid raising it to the overthrow of the capitalist system.

On 17 May at a press conference, Séguy stated, “This general strike is developing without our having called for it, and it is developing under the responsibility of the workers themselves.” He was quite right about this, for the strike wave was growing far faster than the CGT was able to anticipate or cope with.

Perhaps the most revealing official PCF statements of the crisis came in an interview with Séguy broadcast on the Europe No 1 station on 19 May, the text of which was given by L’Humanité on 2 October:

Question: Nearly everywhere the workers on strike are saying that they will go all the way. What do you understand by that? What are your objectives?

Séguy: The strike is so powerful that the workers obviously mean to obtain full satisfaction at the end of such a movement. “All the way” for us trade unionists means the satisfaction of the demands for which we have always fought but which the government and bosses have always refused to take into consideration ... “All the way” means a general increase in wages – no wage less than 600F a month [Frank Cousins’ “minimum” is £15 a week!] – guaranteed employment, earlier retirement age, reduced working hours without loss of pay, and the defence and extension of union rights ...

Q: I wanted to ask you why you did not call a general strike today.

A: That is a very interesting question. It has been put to us numerous times in the past 24 hours. Well! Quite simply, because the general strike is under way without our having had to give any order and is under the control of the workers themselves without any necessity for a decision from the central national leadership. We much prefer that it should be under the control of the workers themselves ...

Q: Unless I am mistaken, it is written in the statutes of the CGT that its aim is the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by socialism. In the present circumstances which several times this evening you have said were exceptional and important, why has the CGT not seized this unique opportunity of issuing a call to this effect?

A: It is true that the CGT offers the workers a conception of trade unionism which we consider the most revolutionary in as much as its final objectives are the elimination of the bosses and wage labour. It is true that this objective appears in the first article of out statutes. And this objective remains fundamentally that of the CGT ... If they [the other left-wing parties] decide to consult us, the trade unions representing the workers, to decide on such a programme, the CGT will willingly pledge itself to such a project and play its full part in the action of the left-wing parties to secure the victory of a democratic alternative in our country, for this, it seems to me, is in the interests of the workers and their families.

Under the pressure of events the CP and the CGT leadership, frightened of being outflanked by a big chunk of the working class, even if a minority, decided to support the strike movement, in order to contain it, discipline it and manipulate it.

There was hardly a journalist in France at the time who did not see this quite clearly. Thus, for instance, the Paris correspondent of the Observer described the situation:

All over France a calm, obedient, irresistible wave of working-class power is engulfing factories, dockyards, mines, railway depots, bus garages, postal sorting offices.

Trains, mails, air flights are virtually at a standstill. Production lines in chemicals, steel, metalworking, textiles, shipbuilding and a score of industries have ground to a halt.

Nearly a million men and women in key industries are seizing their places of work and closing the gates. Many a baffled and impotent manager is being held prisoner in his own carpeted office.

The paralysis, creeping hour by hour across the country, has been ordered by the French Communist Party and its trade union arm, the CGT, and followed by other unions. It is an imposing demonstration of the Communists’ organised strength. They are the arbiters of the situation. If the Government wants a settlement, it must deal with them.

But the paradox which underlines this controlled chaos is that the Communist unions and the Gaullist Government they appear to be challenging are really on the same side of the barricades. They are defending French society as we know it.

The turning point of this crisis came late on Thursday night. In near desperation, the establishment – not only the Government but also the bureaucrats of the great Communist unions – rallied to its defence.

This is the real significance of the vast Communist-ordered strike movement. Like a gendarme astride the French economy, the CP has held up and stopped the traffic. “We are in charge here”, the Party is saying.

Only by this dramatic mobilisation of its troops can the orthodox Communist Party outbid the student agitators and isolate their revolutionary virus. [4]

The gathering storm

To say that the student movement acted as the detonator, the spark, inflaming the working class, is true. But by itself it goes only a short way to explaining the explosion. There must have existed a lot of dry tinder for the spark to catch on to. As a matter of fact the last couple of years saw a rapid heightening of the struggle in the factories. Again and again there were outbreaks of violent industrial disputes, including the occupation of factories, the imprisonment of managers by the workers, bloody fights with the CRS. These conflicts were the dress rehearsals for May 1968. The same years saw the CGT time and again organising demonstrative strikes including one-day general strikes. The leadership in these struggles mixed political-electoral issues with straightforward bread and butter demands. These again were dress rehearsals for the bureaucracy’s action in May and June 1968.

On 17 May 1966 an all-trades strike was called. This was probably one of the most important strikes of the Fifth Republic. It was directed against the National Employers’ Federation as well as against the government, and was very widespread. [5] For 23 November the Paris unions of the CGT and CFDT planned a demonstration to leave Gare de L’Est and march toward Place de la République. However, on 19 November the police forbade the demonstration. The trade unions then called it off. However, about 4,000 people did march to Boulevard Magenta and occupied it, at which point they came into conflict with the police. [6]

On 1 February 1967 a new mass strike was called, principally involving state industry, and some civil servants, while private sector workers were left out of the movement, except in the provinces: 75 percent of electricity workers came out for 24 hours; the railways went on a 48-hour strike; the post office brought out 40 percent of the Paris and 24 percent of the provincial postmen in a 24-hour strike; a substantial proportion of the Paris transport workers took part in a 24-hour strike; practically 100 percent of the teachers in primary schools and a quite large percentage of secondary school teachers came out for a day. In private industry the support for the strike was very uneven; it was also difficult to gauge its extent as many plants closed down due to a power cut. [7]

The employers retaliated in a number of cases to the 1 February strike with lock-outs aimed at breaking down the workers’ strength. The most important cases were a lock-out at the Dassault factories in Bordeaux and at the Sidelor-Micheville steelworks in Villerupt.

After the Dassault lock-out a spontaneous rank-and-file strike broke out and continued for three weeks. This particular strike is remarkable for its militancy. It had been preceded by stoppages and other actions in the previous December. In some shops the men stopped work and just manufactured banners. When the president of the board of directors visited the factory, he was surrounded by the men, who would not release him until he promised to do something about their wages. The question of taking over the factory was discussed, but not acted upon. The workers went on demonstration after demonstration in the streets. They captured and then put to flight the local mayor. Generally they saw to it that their demonstrations and actions received all the publicity that the streets could afford them. Their struggle sparked off solidarity movements; an inter-trades march through Bordeaux, a two-hour solidarity strike by the three steel workers’ federations, etc. The workers won. [8]

This strike strongly influenced those that followed straight after in the Lyons region.

The Dassault strike had only just finished when the Rhodiaceta strike started. Rhodiaceta is an artificial fibre-textile factory at Besançon, which employs 3,000 workers. The workers had a massive picket, occupied the factory and refused entry to the director. The pickets and occupation were denounced by the CGT as an infringement of the owners’ legal right and were ambiguously supported by CFDT. The strikers held meetings on political economy, folk-song recitals and an auction of paintings by local artists. Not as much rank-and-file control was evinced as at Dassault, but still the workers were not fooled into relaxing by the management and union initiatives. The strike spread to Vaise, Saint-Fons Belle Etoile, Vénissieux (near Lyons) and Péage-de-Roussillon (Isère). Altogether 14,000 Rhodiaceta workers were on strike.

Then the strike spread to the Berliet factory – truck producers – which employs 12,000 workers. The CGT and CFDT called only a two-hour strike, but the workers went on unlimited strike and occupied the factory. Berliet declared a lock-out and called on the CRS to evacuate the factory. However, only slight gains were achieved as there was lack of coordination between the unions.

This strike was followed by a strike on 1 March of 3,000 metal workers at St Nazaire. The course of this strike was like that at Dassault in that morale throughout was high. The strike was not led from above, but was conducted through meetings of the strikers.

On 18 March there was a lock-out of 8,000 shipyard workers at Chantiers de l’Atlantique on the pretext of indiscipline.

On 30 March there was an inter-trades demonstration in Nantes. Collections for this were organised in a number of different towns (Vannes, Lorient, Marseilles, Le Havre, St Etienne, Decazeville).

On 11 April there was a general strike in St Nazaire in both private and public sectors. There followed almost daily demonstrations of strikers. After seven weeks of strike a vote taken at a mass meeting of strikers showed 87 percent in favour of continuing the strike. However, when it ended after two months, the workers won only a small rise in wages.

On 27 April a 24-hour general strike was called in the whole of Loire-Atlantique.

A general one-day strike was called for 17 May by the three trade union confederations, CGT, CFDT and FO (Force Ouvrière, the right-wing socialist federation), as well as by FEN, the teachers’ union. The aim of the strike was to protest against government schemes to mutilate Social Security. In the public sector the strike was almost 100 percent solid; in the private sector it was massive but far from all-embracing. In a demonstration in Paris in support of the strike 150,000 participated. There were also demonstrations in the provinces, notably Lyons, Marseilles, St Etienne and Bordeaux.

Although the central slogans in these demonstrations were opposition to the mutilation of Social Security, the slogan which actually drew the greatest response was “All power to the workers”. In all the demonstrations the Internationale replaced the Marseillaise. [9]

On the eve of the introduction of the new Social Security measures (31 October) a new wave of official one-day mass strikes and demonstrations took place. Strikers at Le Mans, among whom were Renault workers who had already been demonstrating for a week, not content with demonstrating at the five points on the perimeter of the town that the police authorised, marched on the police prefecture and fought the CRS. Stones were used against teargas grenades, bare fists against helmets and matraques, the civilian crowd against armoured cars.

21 October saw a big demonstration of some tens of thousands in Paris from the Bastille to Place de la République. In Marseilles on the same day a march of 3,000 took place, which passed without incident, the police escorting it all the way.

At Renault-Flins there were two-hour stoppages on 12 and 13 October, which most of the workers supported. Nearly 5,000 gathered in front of the factory, many of the usually hesitant joining in. In the evening the CGT and CFDT decided to repeat this action the next Monday. But on that day a squabble took place between the CGT and CFDT and the demonstration was then sold out by the unions. As a result, on the Tuesday the CFDT managed to call out only 300 workers in a depressing demonstration. [10]

Another national action day was called for 13 December. Workers were beginning to show clear signs of weariness with these gesture strikes. In private industry the strike was very limited – three hours at Renault, small-scale strikes in the building industry, in food, banks and commerce. It was a great comedown compared with the 17 May strike. [11]

The advent of 1968 saw an important strike in Cannes, where 4,800 workers at Saviem Blainville came out. It started on 22 January. At the end of the first week the police charged a demonstration of strikers, sympathisers from other factories and students in a particularly ferocious manner. Barricades were built and a heroic resistance put up to the CRS; 205 were wounded (of whom 16 were kept in hospital), 85 arrested and 13 convicted to between 15 days and three months in prison; one Portuguese was deported after serving his time. The management then tried to split the workers by promising no victimisation and the unions tried to quell them by agreeing to withdraw the pickets. The strike ended finally on 6 February. The strike did not end in victory, but it was not defeated either, as sanctions against the workers were withdrawn. Of great importance, however, was the fact that it injected a spirit of real struggle into the scene.

This potted history of strikes in the two years before May 1968 shows that there were many rehearsals for the great event, both on the part of the workers and on that of the union bureaucracy. The wave of strikes was rising quickly, their militancy meeting with greater violence from the CRS; and the expertise of the union bureaucracy in diverting semi-insurrectionary struggles into “demonstrative”, “warning”, “rotating” strikes was put to the test again and again. [12]

The role of the trade union bureaucracy as a brake on the real struggle of the workers was summed up by the theoretical organ Voix Ouvrière:

Since World War Two French trade unions have practically never organised or led strike movements to victory in any area. But for a few rare exceptions, the only strikes of long duration which have taken place, (the Civil Servants’ strike in 1953, the strike of the West coast shipyards in 1955, the strike of the coal miners in 1963), were either launched without the trade unions, or pursued in spite of their opposition. In all cases the trade unions have endeavoured to send people back to work and have finally succeeded in doing so without having obtained any satisfaction for the strikers.

However, the trade union bureaucracy could not preserve its influence over the workers and its control over the movement if it was openly antagonistic to all workers’ resistance to exploitation. Hence its indulgence in “struggles”:

If not real economic struggles, the CGT must at least organize parodies of them; whence the so-called “demonstrative” strikes, “warning” strikes, “rotating” strikes, “partial” strikes, general strikes ... of 24 hours, etc ... which the bourgeoisie tolerates, given what they are, that is, a necessary evil but not a threat. This is ineffective, but the workers generally impute this inefficacy to the political situation (a “reactionary” government, etc. ...). And even if the workers are convinced of this inefficacy and of the duplicity of the national leadership of the unions, the bureaucratic apparatuses have become masters in the art of unpriming social conflicts. As soon as the workers are ready to start a fight in any area they are engaged in strikes limited to one or two hours a day, which are sterile, ineffective, and demoralising. It is the best means that the bureaucrats have found to prevent the most combative workers from bringing along those that are less combative: they are made to fight alone. Sometimes even a 24-hour strike is organised for a whole branch or even for the whole country ... After such a day the militants declare to the workers that the general strike is a symbolic act with no follow-up and that harassing actions are therefore better. After 20 years the end of such actions is not yet in sight, and the French workers are still caught in the strait jacket which the union bureaucracies have tailored for them. [13]

The strike

The May 1968 strike was a reaction against the years of frustration, and the futile policies of the traditional organisations. Hence its violence, its semiinsurrectionary temper. Unfortunately, the workers could not throw overboard the traditional organisations in one fell swoop as they lacked a credible alternative. The strike, therefore, was very confused and ended neither in total victory nor complete defeat, but in stalemate.

It is virtually impossible to get a clear overall picture of the development of the strike, the forms of action and level of involvement, and to see precisely how the return to work was brought about. All that can be done is to put together some of the recorded incidents in specific situations, and try to discover some common patterns.

The first point to note is that in only very few instances were strike committees democratically elected. In practically every plant the trade union nominated the delegates to the strike committee. In Renault there were a few attempts to get elections by the rank and file, but they were squashed by the CGT and the CP except in one department. In the central Citro‘n factory the officially-appointed strike committee was not challenged, but in one of its subsidiary factories – in Nanterre – it was, but the attempt failed. As against this, in the Chemical factory Rhône-Poulenc-Vitry, the demand for a rank-and-file strike committee was so strong that the official one was overthrown and a new one elected by union and non-union workers alike. [14]

It is interesting that even in Citroën, where for 16 years there had not been a strike, and where only 7 percent of the workers were organised in trade unions, the union bureaucrats still managed to prevent the election of a democratic rank-and-file strike committee, and imposed a nominated one. They hastened to do this even before the strike began, as they were afraid that, because of the weakness of the union, things might get out of hand. This is also the reason why it was the CGT full-time officials who took the initiative in calling the strike.

The general policy of the union was to minimise the involvement of workers in the strike and the occupation of the factories. The overwhelming majority of the workers, probably as many as 80 or 90 percent, were sent home. Those remaining in the factories were mainly members of the CP and the CGT. These were prevented from meeting the revolutionary students, which was the real reason for locking the factory gates.

Another factor affecting the involvement of workers, and also the morale, was the voluntary withdrawal of young workers from the factories during the strike.

The young workers, who played a key role in encouraging militancy and developing new ideas preferred – because of the bureaucratic atmosphere prevailing in many factories – to leave them and participate in the student struggles in the streets – thus leaving the factories to the bureaucrats.

Also, once the strike had passed its peak, the sense of involvement waned. At Rhône-Poulenc, which had had a vigorous rank-and-file committee in the early days, the failure to make the struggle active led to apathy. Towards the beginning of June a certain intellectual tiredness crept in, so many of the subjects for discussion having been exhausted.

On the return from the Whit holiday the occupation was just as strong, but the spirit was not at all the same: the long discussions were replaced by games of cards, bowls and volleyball. [15]

Another factor militating against involvement in the strike was the relative isolation of the immigrant workers, who constitute quite a sizeable proportion of the working class of France.

Foreign workers are often less integrated into the existing organisations and are more particularly vulnerable. At Citroën, for example, after the return to work, the management threatened to confiscate foreigners’ residence permits (an illegal action) if they did not cooperate in overtime working. [16]

Some places presented a very different scene. Thus at Nantes and St Nazaire the strike committee took over the administration of the town. The strikers controlled prices. Their wives distributed vegetables direct to the consumers. Strikers manned the petrol pumps and distributed petrol:

Furthermore, care of strikers’ children was taken charge of by unionised teachers and supervisors of children’s holiday camps ... Families of strikers in the worst financial situations had food coupons issued to them by the unions. The coupons were equivalent to a certain quantity of food. For each child under three there was a coupon for 1 franc [1 shilling 9 pence] of milk, and for each person over three a coupon for 500 grams [just over 1 lb] of bread and a 1 franc coupon for general foodstuffs. [17]

The most obvious lack in the strike was a network connecting the different strike committees. It did not exist even for factories belonging to the same firm.

If the CGT could not stop the strike, it was able to sabotage it by fragmenting the movement – taking what had been a mass movement of the class as a whole and reducing it to a series of disconnected struggles in different industries. Thus on 27 May the Administrative Commission of the CGT declared: “What the Government and employers have not agreed on a national, inter-trades level, we must obtain from them on other levels by means of negotiations which we must demand immediately in each separate branch of industry and trade, such as are being carried on in the nationalised and public sectors.”

Thus negotiations with different employers transformed the strike from being general into a collection of separate strikes.

Not only was there no network of strike committees, but in practice the trade union bureaucracies did their best to isolate one strike committee from another. Thus, for instance, the Renault Billancourt CGT refused on 23 May to receive a delegation from Renault Flins. [18]

Unfortunately there was no national organisation strong enough to agitate for strike committees democratically elected by all workers, union or non-union, and to show the need for linking them up. If these had existed, they would have been basically the same as the soviets of 1917 or the Workers’ Councils of Hungary in 1956.

The return to work

On 27 May the Grenelle “Agreements” were reached between the representatives of the trade unions and the employers under the arbitration of the Ministry of Labour. The agreements can be summed up as follows:

On other points – working hours, retirement, a sliding scale of wages – there was no agreement.

Even then it took the Trade-Union leadership a long time – nearly three weeks – to bring the strikes to an end, and they had to cow the workers in one factory after another.

Benoît Frachon, President of the CGT and a leader of the CP, declared that the agreements “will bring to millions of workers a well-being that they had never hoped to attain” – on 600 francs a month, mind you (£10 a week – less than the minimum of £15 a week demanded by Frank Cousins). Stating this to the assembled workers in Renault Billancourt he was astonished, it seems, to be booed. [19]

As a matter of fact, the strike movement reached its peak after the Grenelle “Agreements”.

But the pressure of the trade union and party bureaucracies did eventually yield results, and what L’Humanité (6 June) called The Victorious Return To Work started. In some places resistance to this was sharp.

On 1 June an attempt was made to run trains by force at the Gare de L’Est, Paris. This was prevented by the railway workers lying down on the tracks. [20] On 3 June workers at Sud Aviation (Nantes), where the first occupation had begun, issued a statement urging all workers to maintain the general strike to “total victory”. [21] Elsewhere the response was more ambiguous. At CSF (Levallois) there was a referendum in which two thirds of the workers voted dissatisfaction with the management offer, but only one third voted to continue the strike. [22] In the big Paris stores there was a demoralising drift back to work, with some workers recommencing before others. [23]

The failure to end the strike in some sectors was, according to the CGT, due to the:

... particularly retrograde and stubborn attitude of the bosses who were refusing to make the concessions granted everywhere else. The CGT strongly insists that the settlement of claims in the metal, rubber and other industries in the same spirit which has prevailed in the other large sectors of the economy, is a national affair requiring the attention of the government and the CNPF ...

The CGT calls upon the whole of the public which has had the opportunity of appreciating the responsibility of the CGT, and the calmness of millions of strikers, to give powerful support to the victims of an unjust and scandalous act of discrimination. [24]

The sheer duplicity of the CGT in calling for solidarity with those still out on strike, after it had itself destroyed the best form of solidarity by persuading workers elsewhere to go back to work, is disgusting.

On 7 June there was a return to the charge of collusion between the “groupuscules” and the government after the abortive attempt to re-occupy the Renault factory at Flins. “It is difficult to believe that the high-handedness of the engineering industry employers, the support they get from the government, and the police brutalities and these attempts at provocation are not concerted,” said the local CGT official.

In most cases the return to work was decided by a “democratic” vote. In the most militant factories the vote was often very close. Thus at Renault, after the CRS attack, the vote went as follows: at Billancourt, where the union delegates voted openly for the return, 78 percent of the workers followed them. But at Flins, where supporters of the strike prevented the CGT delegate from speaking, the percentage fell to 58 percent (4,811 votes for, 3,890 against, 25 spoilt ballot papers). [25]

At Peugeot, on 9 June, the vote was closer. Out of 25,800 workers, only 5,279 participated; 2,664 voted for return, 2,615 against. Work was restarted on 10 June, but a new strike began the next day, and continued to 20 June, when 84.7 percent of the 15,000 who voted supported a return. [26]

At Citroën, Paris, following the intervention of leading CP bureaucrats, out of 24,738 workers, 18,519 voted, of whom 13,184 (71.18 percent) supported a return. [27]

The role of the CGT in these votes was at best confusing and at worst criminal. At Citroën, on the occasion of the first vote, organised by the management by secret ballot outside the factory, the CGT took no action but simply declared, “People are free to vote”. [28] At the second vote different coloured ballot papers were used, and CGT observers carefully scrutinised how workers voted. [29] At Polymécanique (Pantin) the CGT confused the issue by announcing that the vote was not for or against a return, but for or against the management proposals. [30] At Crédit Lyonnais Paris, there was no supervision of the ballot so one could vote several times. [31] At Thomson-Gennevilliers, before the ballot took place, the CGT distributed a leaflet and sold L’Humanité, both declaring that Thomson had returned to work having gained great advantages. To make sure their declarations would be proved correct, they allowed non-strikers to vote. [32] At Sev-Marchal, Issy-les-Moulineaux, not only non-strikers but also foremen, supervisors and even management were allowed to participate in the vote on the return. [33]

In this situation of fragmented return, the role of information was crucial, for obviously the decision whether or not to return was dependent on decisions elsewhere. The bourgeois state and press combined their efforts with the CGT. Teachers first learned that they were to return to work by a radio announcement. [34] A standard technique of the CGT was to announce in one factory that other factories had decided to return. [35]

In Paris transport – underground and buses – the trade union representatives were the only ones who went from one depot to another. To the workers of each depot they said, “You are against the return to work, but you are on your own. Everybody else wants to return to work.” Thus, while the Depot Rue Lebrun had voted to carry on the strike, other depots had been told that it had voted 85 percent for a return. After talking to the union officials, the elected strike committee at Lebrun, hearing that all the other depots were back at work, ordered a return, ignoring the vote already taken. At last, as a result of this method, after four weeks of strike, the transport workers were demoralised enough to vote for a return to work. [36]

The various local Action Committees distributed leaflets trying to put the real facts before the workers, but there was no organisation to coordinate the vital information in time. What a difference would have been made by a revolutionary party with a daily newspaper and possibly even a radio transmitter!

On the surface the role of the formerly Catholic trade unions, CFDT, was a bit more militant than the CP-controlled CGT. As is well known, they opposed the CGT at Billancourt and welcomed the student deputation. Where they were in a minority they were able to act a demagogic role and in some cases prevented CGT sell-outs. Thus at Thomson-Gennevilliers the CGT was impeded in its desire for a return to work by the strength of the CFDT. But the CFDT were only able to work within a bureaucratic framework – thus at Thomson-Gennevilliers it accepted a vote on the return to work carried out by secret ballot, and factory by factory rather than over the whole company. [37] Likewise at Citroën Paris the CFDT called for continuation of the strike – but made no attempt to organise a boycott of the vote. [38]

Elsewhere the role of the CFDT was openly anti-strike. Thus at Rhône-Poulenc (Vitry) the CFDT decided to return to work on 12 June despite a vote of 580 to 470 by occupying workers against a return.

Analyses et Documents [39] sums up the role of the CFDT as follows:

There were also cases where the CFDT, because it was in the majority, fully exercised the function entrusted by the bourgeoisie to the union organisations, the return to order. This happened notably at Berliet, Peugeot, Rhodiaceta. We saw that at Peugeot it was the CGT which opposed the return. The same happened at Berliet-Vénisseux. There the CFDT signed an agreement, ratified by the FO and the CGC [Confédération Générale des Cadres – Union of Supervisors and Technicians]. The CGT opposed it, which allowed the CFDT delegate to play the role played elsewhere by the CGT, in denouncing “the behaviour of a sectarian and anti-democratic minority”. The return to work was to be decided on 19 June, by only 56 percent of these voting.

There were also, more frequently, attempts by the CFDT to outflank the CGT, at Citro‘n, Sud-Aviation, Renault-Flins. At the last, the decision for indefinite strike on 19 June, cancelled the next day, shows clearly that it was in no way an attempt to mobilise the workers, but just a tactical manoeuvre directed against the CGT.

Relations between the CGT and CFDT, good before May, have much worsened; some recent elections of factory committees show that at SAVIEM (Caen), where the CFDT was formerly in the majority, the CGT have gained votes, but at Berliet, where the CGT was in the majority, it is the CFDT that has gained. [40]

In Renault Billancourt members of the CGT left and joined CFDT: in the shop commonly known as The Kremlin, where there was only one member of CFDT before the strike, now the number of CFDT members is equal to that of the CGT.

The Social-Democratic Trade Union Federation, FO, despite its slender resources, also fulfilled its norms of strikebreaking. At the Ministry of Supply representatives of the FO, the strongest union in the establishment, had no advice to offer other than that the strike was illegal. [41]

All the Trade Union Federations thus came up to the expectations of the regime, as formulated clearly by Le Monde: “The employers, like the state, have ... a vested interest in the existence of a strong union organisation, that is a union organisation that will do as it’s told!” [42]

Even in the purely economic terms to which the CGT tried to reduce the struggle, there were advantages for those sectors which continued the struggle. At Citroën, where the CGT controlled the situation, the gains were minimal – from the 10 percent wage increase an increase already given in January was deducted. In return for services rendered, the unions gained the right to circulate papers in the factory. [43] At Renault some significant gains were made over and above the Grenelle “Agreements” – further wage increases of 2 to 4 percent, and reduction of working hours by one hour a week without loss of pay. [44] It was in the public sector, Electricity, Gas, Railways, Paris Transport, Post Office, that the biggest additional gains were made. [45]

But the general return to work far from marked an end to the struggle. On the contrary, the experience led to a new level of militancy, and the return to work will allow the development of new forms of organisation.

Although the full maturation of an unofficial strike movement can be expected only in the autumn, there is already a high level of struggle. At CSF Issy-les-Moulineaux the workers reacted quickly to attempts to discriminate between strikers and non-strikers. There were immediately several short strikes, called at a few minutes notice, and involving 700 or 800 workers. [46] At Renault, on 19 June, there were stoppages to defend foreign workers (who had been very active in the strike) against the threat of non-renewal of contracts. The CFDT initially supported this action, but withdrew using the excuse of non-participation by the CGT. [47]

At Renault (Flins) after an attempt to restart work on 10 June, the workers reoccupied on 11 June, despite opposition from both CGT and CFDT. [48]

One of the main issues now facing workers is recuperation – that is, overtime working to make up pay lost during the strike period. Many workers are anxious to make up earnings before the holiday period. This is an immediate cause of friction. Thus at Roussel-UCLAF, Romainville, the workers were allowed to vote on the principle of recuperation, but not on the form, and many are being asked to work an hour later, so that they come out at a time when transport is virtually impossible. [49] At Renault, where a computer is used to calculate the pay slips, the main aim seems to be to prevent workers discovering how much is due to them or how it is calculated. [50]

Added to this is the question of sackings. At Citroën 925 monthly paid workers have already been given notice. [51] At Citroën, where before May there had not been a single strike for over ten years, there have already been about 50 short stoppages. The unofficial strike, hitherto almost unknown in France, is becoming more widespread, and there may be a wave of them in the autumn.

In such struggles the unions are continuing to play their obstructive role. At the Assurances Générales, Paris, where there is compulsory recuperation of half an hour per day – even for non-strikers – the unions have opposed this in principle, but refused to call a strike of half an hour a day. [52]

At Citroën the CGT, trying to settle accounts for a dispute during the strike when they tried to prevent workers defending the factory from the CRS, went so far as to issue a leaflet fingering a militant:

... they tried to pass to another stage of their activity and tried to proceed to sabotage. X [the original leaflet names a worker, but our source refuses to perpetuate the fingering] has himself confessed this to the CGT commission.

We denounce such attempts as foreign to the orientation of the CGT and harmful to the working-class movement. We call on the CGT leadership to react firmly against such attempts if they know about them, for they are to the advantage of the Citro‘n management and to the Gaullist regime itself. People like X and others of his group have no place, not only in the CGT, but in the factory. [53]

The picture, then, is a very confused one – not least because we have detailed information only from those factories where there happen to be revolutionary militants who communicate their experience to journals outside. But the main lines – of union betrayal and continuing militancy – are clear.

The Action Committees

A vacuum existed on the left. There were not even the embryos of Soviets – workers’ councils linking up democratically elected strike committees. Neither was there a revolutionary party so desperately demanded by the situation.

As a substitute Soviet that did not exist and a substitute revolutionary party that did not exist, arose the Action Committees!

What a magnificent improvisation !

The Action Committees reflected the great unevenness in the level of consciousness of the fighting people – above all the big difference between the students and the bulk of the industrial workers.

The initiative to establish the Action Committees was in the main taken by students, including members of all the “groupuscules” (Trotskyists, Maoists, Anarchists and members of no group). At the end of June there were in Paris some 450 Action Committees. Many hundreds existed up and down the country.

The Action Committees and the “Comités de Base” (Rank-and-File Committees) took widely differing forms in different places, and one can merely quote some.

Rhône-Poulenc (Vitry): There were 39 Rank-and-File Committees. They each delegated four representatives to the Central Committee; this therefore had 156 members of whom 78 sat permanently. These representatives were elected and could be recalled at any time. The meetings of the Central Committee took place daily and were public. [54]

Ministry of Supply: Every morning a general assembly of the staff was called; this was the leading body of the strike, and every day it elected a different chairman, whose role was limited to allowing free discussion (thus up to 8 June there were 18 successive chairmen).

Outside the factories the main need was to organise food supplies. The March 22 movement assisted in the creation of organisations to distribute chickens and potatoes in the factories of Courbevoie. At Rennes contacts were made with the peasantry who offered poultry and rabbits as gifts in solidarity. [55]

These structures, while being highly democratic in nature, were essentially geared to the strike situation, and in particular to the context of an active strike, where the workers begin to control the means of production. With the end of the strike the same forms could not survive. But some continuity was possible. Thus at CSF, Issy-les-Moulineaux, a more permanent Comité de Base has been established.

The duration of the mandate of members of a rank-and-file committee is six months. The committee is composed of delegates elected by all the staff of the unit corresponding to the committee, the number of these delegates being around 10 percent of the total workforce. Half of them are replaced every three months; no delegate can be re-elected twice running. The objective to be attained by these measures is to allow a rotation of all workers in positions of responsibility. Delegates can be recalled at any time. [56]

But the role of these rank-and-file committees was necessarily an ambiguous one. There was wide discontent among unionised workers with the part played by the leadership of the trade unions in the strike, and out of this discontent grew the recognition of the need to create alternative forms of organisation. In many cases these new organisations were able to put pressure on the unions in the negotiations and to limit the extent to which the unions were able to sell out. But in the short and hectic period available the new forms of organisation were not able to take over from the unions, but only to exist alongside them in uneasy compromise.

One reason for this was the need to very rapidly overcome previously-held attitudes. For example, one of the striking achievements of the Comités de Base was the way they were able to involve workers who had not been unionised hitherto – some of the best militants came from this section – but initially the demand for representation of non-unionised workers in strike committees produced an unfavourable reaction from workers who had already been unionised and for whom trade-union consciousness was an important step forward. [57]

The weakness of the Comités de Base was increased by the attitude of the management, who much preferred to negotiate with the bureaucratic unions. At CSF, Issy-les-Moulineaux, the management refused to meet the elected delegates of the workers. [58]

However, the Rank-and-File Committees quite clearly represent a new development in the factories. Thus at Roussel UCLAF, Romainville, workers elected delegates in their own workshop, without any legal formality and without the intervention of the unions to put up candidates – a practice almost unknown in France previously.

Similarly, reports from Rhône-Poulenc (Vitry) suggest that the Rank-and-File Committee was well on the way to replacing the unions in the first fortnight of the strike: all propositions were listened to, discussed and the best put to the vote (for example, the admission of a non-unionised worker to the Executive Committee). We should also stress that throughout this period union members cooperated within the Rank-and-File Committees without any internal conflicts. In effect, we can say that there were no longer union or non-union members, but only occupiers. The Executive Committee was entirely under the control of the decisions of the Central Committee. [59]

There are at present three main types of Action Committees: (1) of the locality – anyone who lives in a certain locality can join this body; (2) of the place of work (Comités de Base); (3) joint student-worker Action Committees. The last, which played an important role during the strike, is now in decline. The first two types are more active at present. [60]

The greatest weakness of the Action Committees is their fragmentation and lack of perspectives. Members of the Action Committees are frightened, quite rightly, of bureaucracy. Quite often, however, they identify any centralised organisation with bureaucratism, thus throwing out the baby with the bath water. As a result there is hardly any coordination between Action Committees.

It is much too early to estimate whether in the Action Committees – through action and discussion – a political differentiation and regroupment will take place that will lead to the building of a revolutionary party. It is possible also that the Action Committees, and especially the Comités de Base, will serve to ginger up a rank-and-file industrial leadership, something not unlike the shop stewards (that exists in Britain but not in France).



4. Observer, 19 May 1968.

5. Analyses et Documents 124.

6. Analyses et Documents 127.

7. Analyses et Documents 130.

8. Analyses et Documents 133.

9. Analyses et Documents 136; Pouvoir Ouvrier, May-June 1967.

10. Voix Ouvrière, 31 October 1967.

11. Analyses et Documents 145.

12. The cold figures of the number of days lost in strikes over the last few years also show the great rise in strikes:



   979,860 days lost.


2,523,500 days lost.


4,222,000 days lost.

13. Class Struggle, December 1967.

14. Action 6.

15. Cahiers de Mai 2, p.11.

16. Lutte Ouvrière 4, p.7. Partisans 42, p.86, published a leaflet issued by the “Maghreb Action Committee” which declared, “The mortal blow which the French proletariat will strike to capitalism and imperialism will be a first step towards the destruction of the dictatorships of which we are the victims in our own countries and of which our brothers in the Third World are victims.” It is impossible to say how far such initiatives extended among immigrant workers.

17. Cahiers de Mai 1.

18. Analyses et Documents 155.

19. New York Times, 28 May 1968.

20. Analyses et Documents 156, p.6.

21. Partisans 42, pp.162-163.

22. Lutte Ouvrière 2, p.6.

23. Partisans 42, p.158.

24. L’Humanité, 6 June 1968.

25. Analyses et Documents 156, p.15.

26. Analyses et Documents 156, p.16.

27. Lutte Ouvrière 2, p.5.

28. Lutte Ouvrière 2, p.5.

29. Analyses et Documents 156, p.18.

30. Lutte Ouvrière 2, p.5.

31. Lutte Ouvrière 2, p.6.

32. Lutte Ouvrière 2, p.6.

33. Lutte Ouvrière 2, p.7.

34. Analyses et Documents 156, p.21.

35. Nouvelle Avant-Garde 1, p.9.

36. Action 5.

37. Lutte Ouvrière 2, p.6.

38. Lutte Ouvrière 2, p.5.

39. Analyses et Documents 156, p.19.

40. Le Monde, 21 July 1968.

41. Cahiers de Mai 2, p.13.

42. Le Monde, 31 January 1967.

43. Lutte OuvrièreF, p.5.

44. Analyses et Documents 156, p.15.

45. Analyses et Documents 155, p.8.

46. Cahiers de Mai 2, p.7.

47. Analyses et Documents 156, p.13.

48. La Grève à Flins (Cahiers Libres, Maspéro, 1968), pp.61-62.

49. Lutte Ouvrière 2, p.7.

50. Lutte Ouvrière 4, p.7.

51. Lutte Ouvrière 4, p.7.

52. Lutte Ouvrière 2, p.7.

53. Analyses et Documents 156, p.17.

54. Cahiers de Mai 2, p.1.

55. Partisans 42, pp.159,166.

56. Cahiers de Mai 2, p.6.

57. See for instance, Lutte Ouvrière 5, p.5.

58. Lutte Ouvrière 2, p.8.

59. Cahiers de Mai 2, p.10.

60. We exclude Action Committees that are nothing but front organisations of political parties. Thus the PCF built its own Action Committees for a Popular Government, and so did the PSU.


Last updated on 6.6.2003