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International Socialist Review, July-August 1968


Mary-Alice Waters

The French Student Revolt


From International Socialist Review, Vol.29 No.4, July-August 1968.
Transcribed & marked up by Andrew Pollack for ETOL.


(Mary-Alice Waters is the national secretary of the Young Socialist Alliance and former editor of the Young Socialist. She was in France during the revolutionary upsurge covering those events for The Militant. This interview with the International Socialist Review was obtained shortly after her return to this country, June 24.)

* * *

Q. One of the big impacts of the French events in this country was to reinforce the idea that students can and will play an important role in revolutionary struggles. But at the same time a debate developed within the student movement where some people see the French upsurge as proof that students can “spontaneously,” as they say, and without much organization, create a revolutionary situation. Could you discuss this in terms of what happened in France?

A. I think one of the main lessons that is going to be drawn from the French events is precisely around these questions. They are questions that are going to be debated in France and around the world revolutionary movements in the months to come. Of course, first of all, it is absolutely true in France that the student movement did play a very important role in the whole revolutionary upsurge. The term they use most frequently to describe their role is that of being a “detonator”: The struggles they were leading and their willingness to fight, and the fact that through the fight they forced the de Gaulle government to retreat, to grant demands, had an important impact on the consciousness of a whole section of the working class. When the workers saw what students were able to gain through their fight in the streets, and not limiting their fight to petitions asking the government to give them a few concessions, and that the students were able to win, this opened the way for a massive struggle of the working class.

Of course it also has to be placed in the context of the social and political situation in France. Because of the tremendous contradictions that existed in French society at this point the student struggle was able to detonate a much broader struggle. But it has to be absolutely clear that the students alone were not capable of creating the kind of social crisis that existed in France during the months of May and June.

Q. Were there students in France who would disagree with the statement you just made?

A. I am sure that there were some but I think the overwhelming majority understood this very clearly. They understood that what they were able to do alone was very minimal. They were able to win a few concessions on the university level but without the tremendous upsurge that took place in the working class itself, they would have done very little. There was no question in their minds but that the center of the struggle passed from the students to the working class. And at that point it became a question primarily of how do students link up with this struggle, how do we express our solidarity with workers, how do we help to encourage their struggle and do whatever we can to influence it in a revolutionary direction.

You see, once the general strike was actually underway, the students’ main concern was how to link up with it. They recognized that the main leadership of the unions was totally reformist, under the leadership of the Communist Party or one or another of the various reformist political formations, and that these unions had strong control over the French working class.

They also knew from their own experiences with the Communist Party in the student movement that it was not a revolutionary force. From the way the Communist Party had attacked the students, had made attempts to prevent them from linking up with the workers, the students knew the CP would try to prevent any fraternization between students and young workers. So the main question was how to get around this.

One of the first things they did was right at the beginning of the strike the students at the Sorbonne sent a delegation that marched out to the Renault plant at Boulogne-Billancourt to demonstrate solidarity with the workers occupying that factory. It was a minor thing, a symbolic thing, but it was very important in that it did give a lot of the students at the Sorbonne an opportunity to talk with workers, particularly the young workers involved in the strike, who were very angry at the attempts of the CP to prevent them from having any contact with student revolutionaries. It was also the way the students invited many of the workers to come to the Sorbonne. And from this kind of contact you had the beginnings of the formations of the action committees that were formed all over Paris particularly, but also in the other cities as well.

The main struggle was in the factories themselves, but the policy of the CP was to prevent any political activity from taking place there, even any political discussion. They were afraid that if they kept all the workers together in the plants, the impact of the radicalization would make it very difficult for them to control this strike which they never considered a general strike and never called a general strike. So they sent most of the workers home.

But there was a significant layer of workers looking for political activity, looking for political leadership, for some way to influence the outcome of this battle they were in. The focus of political activity shifted from the factories into the districts of Paris and the other cities.

The formation of these action committees in each district brought together a genuine cross section of the population that included workers and housewives and students, where they were able to get together on a regular basis, plan political activities, make political decisions, discuss the occupations of factories, discuss the occupation of stores, plan what they should be doing to aid these and so forth. The formation of these action committees was for the most part initiated by the students, but they rapidly became much broader.

The students weren’t trying to control them, they didn’t want them to be student committees, they wanted them to be what they turned into, although they were patterned on committees that had been formed at the Sorbonne.

Q. You mentioned that the CP didn’t call this a general strike. How could they possibly not call it a general strike when 10 million workers were on strike?

A. This was for very conscious political reasons. That is, if you have a general strike, it implies a solution to that strike, and this immediately raises the struggle to a political level. The solution has to be reached with the government as a whole and the employers as a whole. From the very beginning, the CP’s attitude was that it was not a general strike but you simply had strikes going on all over the country in all the various enterprises simultaneously, but they were very careful never to call it a general strike.

When it came to de Gaulle’s speech May 30 where he announced the elections, the CP immediately accepted his “generous” offer. From that point on, most of the negotiations that took place were on an industry level, in various factories, precisely to get away from a general confrontation between the workers and the ruling class. They consciously broke it up and reached agreements in one factory after another, and as soon as an agreement was reached in one factory, the CGT [Confederation Generale du Travail – General Federation of Labor] insisted that the workers go back to work and not wait until there was a general agreement reached in the entire economy.

In this way they isolated the most militant centers of the working class. In Renault and Citroen, where the workers held out to the bitter end, just reaching agreements in the last few days, the CP-CGT leaders knew that those factories would hold out, that they would be the toughest strikes to break but that if they could get the rest of the economy going, there would be much more pressure on the Renault workers to go back also.

A couple of days before I left, the headline in l’Humanité, the CP newspaper, a banner headline – I can’t remember the exact wording-was to the effect that “by the united efforts of the workers, we have finally forced the bosses to allow us to go back to work.”

Q. We know from the newspapers that the Communist Party slandered Daniel Cohn-Bendit; what was their attitude in general toward the students?

A. Their attitude all the way through was pretty consistent, but under the pressure of events they had to modify this from time to time. At the very beginning of the struggle, in the beginning of May, they opened up a vicious attack against the “student provocateurs,” the “student agitators,” and “adventurists” who were “preventing the other students from taking their exams,” and “finishing their school year.” This was for the first 10 days.

The night of May 10-11, the first huge night of the barricades, with the savage police brutality against the students, forced the CP to retreat a little bit, to the extent that the next day l’Humanité didn’t attack the students. They simply reported what had happened without taking sides.

But the reaction throughout all of France to the frightful police brutality of that night was such that the CP simply could not remain completely aloof and so they began to attack the police brutality at the same time they attacked the students who “provoked” the police brutality. They were very careful never to attack just the government alone.

Following that, the gigantic reaction amongst the working class itself forced the CP to call a national one-day protest strike and march on May 13, in solidarity with the students in reality, and against police brutality.

Throughout the entire two-month period however, they repeated “we feel it is our duty to make a distinction between the masses of the students and those small sections of adventurers and provocateurs who from time to time have gained leadership over these students.” And they never stopped doing this. You see, even today, even in the face of this tremendous repression that has come down on revolutionary groups, the banning of all demonstrations, the arrest of the leadership of some of these organizations, the Communist Party had as one of the three main planks in its election campaign platform “condemnation of the adventurists and provocateurs.” And there has not been one word that has come out of the CP in opposition to the banning of these revolutionary organizations.

As a matter of fact, to show you the extent to which the students understood this role of the CP, the day after the Minister of the Interior announced the banning of these organizations, the newspaper Action, the daily organ of the action committees (which has now been banned also and cannot be sold publicly), had a little box on an inside page in big italics: “A new event for l’Humanité. For the first time in their history they have opened their pages to the Minister of the Interior. They printed without comment the order banning all revolutionary organizations.” There was no other comment! It is a good example of their total comprehension of the treacherous role of the Communist Party throughout these events.

Their attitude toward Cohn-Bendit is well-known, their infamous comments labeling Cohn-Bendit as a German, leaving off the “Jew” that everyone knew automatically followed, their refusal to offer any solidarity to Cohn-Bendit even when he was not allowed to enter the country.

Q. But there must be Communist Party youth – what role did they play and did the CP make any attempt to reach new forces of young people?

A. The main student organization for the Communist Party is the Union of Communist Students [Union des Etudiants Communistes – UEC] but they have numerous youth organizations. They have an organization for girls, an organization for boys, Young Communists, which is nonstudent, and so on. But even before this upsurge the Communist student union had been reduced to a very weak organization by one split after another of students leaving it and moving toward the left. You had the break off in 1966 of the group which formed the JCR [Jeunesse Communiste Revolutionnaire – Revolutionary Communist Youth]; shortly after that you had the break off of another group which was essentially Maoist; almost the entire activist and militant wing of the UEC had disappeared. So they began with a very weak base in the student milieu but even that has been weakened under the impact of the May and June events.

The Communist students, like all the other students had a table up in the Sorbonne. But they were constantly besieged, hour after hour, by students demanding an explanation of the Communist Party’s position: Why do you attack the students? Why do you attack the student leaders? Why do you try to prevent us from having any connections with the working class? And they would sit there trying to answer these questions. I think you can say without any question that the influence of the CP on students has been reduced to an all-time historic low. As some of the French students commented, far from its being the revolutionary groups which are the “grouplets,” it is the Communist Party itself which is the “grouplet” in the student milieu.

Another anecdote gives you an idea of this attitude: Some students pointed out to me that the table the CP had in the courtyard was set up everyday without fail at 10 a.m. and it was taken down every night without fail at 8 p.m.; they took their hour for lunch and when their time was over they left. It was so obvious that these people were paid to sit at this table and yet it was so incongruous in the context of this tremendous political ferment that was going on at the Sorbonne and throughout Paris. It was another example of the total lack of communication – that is putting it too mildly – the inability of the Communist Party to have any impact on the students, to draw any students towards them.

One other thing on this should be added. What the CP was most fearful of was the link between many of the young workers and the students. They tried to educate these young workers to the “dangers” of these “provocateurs,” putting up a big wall poster at the Renault plant, for instance, warning that “in any period of social crisis there are always agents of the bosses who operate as ultra-lefts and provocateurs – and you could be almost certain that the students which come to the factories themselves were the ones to be most wary of.” There was a sustained campaign in the newspaper along this line, day after day, and those young workers I talked to verified it was going on in the factories as well.

Q. You have been talking about the roles of the CP and the youth in general, could you be more specific about the various student organizations involved in the rebellion?

A. I think you have to start by seeing the way the whole struggle developed. In the very beginning, it is unquestionable that much of what happened did take place spontaneously, in the sense that the vanguard organizations didn’t try to organize it. It wasn’t their idea, for example, to build the barricades; it wasn’t their idea to organize the students in the fight against the cops. As soon as they saw this developing, of course, they participated in it and helped to provide the leadership. But in the beginning much of what happened was spontaneous. Let me give you two examples.

Take the formation of the March 22 Movement in the university at Nanterre. It wasn’t the kind of thing where members of the JCR, or the Maoist organization, or the anarchists said “now, what we have to do is draw all these people together, and then go in and occupy the university and set up an organization,” and so forth. What happened was that in response to the arrest of one student, they had called a rally of protest; at the rally the suggestion came up of occupying the university in order to force the release of the student; everyone was for it; they went in and occupied the university and took it over. Once the student was released, they had a general assembly meeting and decided that they would continue to occupy the university and to raise new demands.

Again, on May 3 in Paris, when the cops first came into the Sorbonne and arrested those students who were in the courtyard, those comprised most of the vanguard students at that point, and it was the students outside the courtyard who initiated the fight against the cops when they saw these people being arrested.

Thus the March 22 Movement included members of the JCR in the leadership, it included members of various anarchist organizations – apparently at Nanterre there are a number of small anarchist groups all of which took part in this, and you had various leading individuals like Cohn-Bendit who wasn’t associated with any of these other groups although ideologically he was definitely an anarchist. In the beginning it did not include any of the Communist students or any of the Maoists. From different standpoints they both condemned the movement: The Communist students considered it “adventurist,” the Maoists considered it “petty bourgeois.” Neither of them wanted anything to do with the organization and neither of them participated in it at first. Later on some of the Maoist groups did come into the March 22 Movement, but to my knowledge none of the Communist students ever did.

So it was a very conglomerate organization, with no structure and no program of any kind. Really it was simply a name given to the students of Nanterre who had occupied the university.

Q. You mentioned anarchist groups several times, what kind of views did they have?

A. Of the various anarchist groups, there is no one group that stands out from the rest of them – and how many there are is almost impossible to tell. By and large what this consists of is students who are for the socialist revolution in France but they were opposed to organization. They felt that somehow or other this was going to be accomplished, particularly without any centralized or democratic-centralist type of organization and that it could be done through something like the March 22 Movement, without any structures, without an elected leadership, with no control, really, over the leadership. For instance, nobody had any control over what Cohn-Bendit said and many of the other people that spoke for the leadership of the March 22 Movement. The anarchists also consistently condemned the organized political tendencies for being centralized, “bureaucratic” and so forth, and not giving enough room for the spontaneity, the spontaneous development and the creativity of the masses.

But as I started to say before, as the struggle developed, it became increasingly clear that the spontaneity became less and less important and less and less effective, and the students themselves came to recognize this and realize this. So whereas at the beginning it is probably unquestionable that Cohn-Bendit and his general political outlook presented the views of the majority of the students, but as May and June progressed, these tens of thousands of students, their political ideas, developed under the impact of events and they moved more and more toward understanding the role and necessity of organization. I don’t want to exaggerate this, and to say that it was completely clear, but it was the direction in which they were moving.

As it took place, Cohn-Bendit didn’t move in this direction. He maintained his political line, essentially as it was in the beginning and he found that towards the end of May and June, he had less and less of a political impact, that he represented a smaller and smaller section of the political leadership. And frequently as he spoke at the Sorbonne – although personally he got tremendous acclaim because he had become a symbol of the struggle, particularly with the combined attack on him by the Gaullist government and the Communist Party, he had become a very well-known figure and the students rallied to him in solidarity against the Gaullist government and against the Communist Party. (You know, several of the slogans that became very popular were “We’re all German Jews,” this may be a little complicated, but perhaps you remember that reporters asked the head of the CGT, Seguy, what his attitude towards Cohn-Bendit was. And Seguy responded, “Cohn-Bendit, who is that?” So the students took up as one of their central slogans that they chanted on demonstrations, “Seguy, who is he?” And again, the government labeled Cohn-Bendit an “undesirable” and wouldn’t let him in the country so the students’ response was “we’re all undesirables.”) So in this sense he was a very important symbol. But politically, when he spoke at the Sorbonne, he received much less response.

It is interesting to compare this with the development of the JCR which went in just the opposite direction. The JCR is the organization I mentioned before, formed two years ago from a left-wing split off of the Communist Party, from a section of the Union of Communist Students who were expelled for refusing to support Mitterrand, a capitalist candidate in the last general elections. (At that time, the CP dissolved the entire Sorbonne section of the UEC because the majority of it was left wing and they decided the best thing to do with it was to liquidate it.) Many of these students and others around the country formed the JCR.

Politically, the JCR has evolved over this time to the point where it openly considers itself a Trotskyist organization. During the May and June events it has gone through a tremendous upsurge in membership.

While the composition of the JCR is almost entirely student and it is based in the universities around the country, they have a socialist program which is aimed at providing a revolutionary leadership for the working class. The JCR received a crucial test during the course of these events in its ability to provide a leadership for the revolutionary upsurge and also to reach out to significant layers of the working class.

The JCR played a major role in helping to initiate and to lead the action committees that formed in Paris and other parts of the country. They played a role at the Sorbonne itself in helping to educate the thousands and thousands of students who were becoming politically conscious. They held daily meetings at the Sorbonne throughout the crisis drawing however many people you could get into the room; the larger the room the more people turned out; there seemed to be no upper limit to the thing. Thousands and thousands of students were coming day after day to the meetings called by the JCR to learn what its explanation was, its analysis was – just searching for some coherent explanation of what was going on around them in this tumultuous social upheaval.

Consequently through the months of May and June, the JCR emerged as the central revolutionary vanguard organization in the student milieu. And one of the main reasons for this was that they didn’t isolate themselves in the student milieu, they didn’t direct all of their attention toward the student milieu. They very consciously tried to orient the students they were leading towards establishing links with the working class. Either through the action committees or through the organization of the JCR itself, a large part of their activities were oriented toward reaching a working class base, at the factories, in the districts, and through the action committees. Thus they also provided a revolutionary leadership to sections of workers who were disgusted with the Communist Party’s leadership and looking for alternatives.

One measure of the JCR’s impact was simply the growth that they experienced between the beginning of May and the middle of June where they somewhere between doubled and tripled their size, not only in Paris but throughout the entire country.

Q. What about the faculty, professors and intellectuals?

A. The overwhelming majority of the faculty was either with the students or not actively against them. You had the University Teachers’ Union which was on strike the entire time, as well as the union which represents the secondary school teachers. The professors themselves played a very secondary role to the role of the students, but by and large they were with them.

One of the clearest indications of this is with the Communist Party itself and the problems it is having with intellectuals in its ranks. It was from the intellectuals that you had some of the first real protests within the CP against the CP’s policies. Towards the end of May, I think the letter was actually dated May 26, a significant group of CP intellectuals wrote a letter to the central committee of the party strenuously criticizing them for failure to provide any leadership for the student milieu, their lack of communication with it, the total inability to lead it in any sense, and condemning the CP for its hostile attitude towards the students. This letter didn’t come to light for several days [it was first mentioned in l’Humanité, June 5 – Ed.], but from stories that we heard from some of the people who participated in this and went to a meeting of the central committee to discuss this letter, apparently what happened was that the members of the central committee finally got quite disgusted with the whole thing and simply walked out of the room, leaving the CP intellectuals there who occupied the national office of the central committee of the Communist Party for a few hours and continued this discussion themselves.

Q. You left practically immediately after the decree of the Council of Ministers, but did you gain any impression of what the repression would be like and what the response would be to it among the students?

A. The initial response of the organizations that were banned was very positive, particularly the JCR and the PCI [Parti Communiste Internationaliste – Internationalist Communist Party, French section of the Fourth International]. They refused to recognize the legality of this ban against them. The ban itself was based on a law of 1936 outlawing organizations which had paramilitary structures, a law aimed against fascist groups. None of the organizations banned by de Gaulle had paramilitary organizations.

They announced that despite the ban the organizations were going to continue to function and they would not accept the government ruling. The response from individual members was also very positive: their attitude was optimistic in the sense they felt that the government wouldn’t be able to crush them or prevent them from functioning.

Of course it has been very difficult to get some of the specific information on the repressions and arrests. The most complete information I have is about the JCR and the PCI. After those organizations were banned, the police came to three different places to search. They came to the office where the newspaper is printed, Quatrième Internationale and searched it; and they also went to the apartments of two other comrades. At those places they picked up five comrades for questioning and all of them have now been released except Pierre Frank, who according to the last information we have, is still being held. French law allows the police to hold a person incommunicado for an almost indefinite period of time, without access to lawyers or anyone.

The other comrades have been released without charges but we know that they are also looking for other leaders and at any point they may decide to bring charges against them on the basis of the bannings of the organizations.

The international response to the banning of these organizations has been quite good, particularly considering the fact of an almost total press blackout. Even in France it was impossible to find out exactly who had been arrested. The newspapers reported, sometimes conflictingly, that a certain number of persons had been arrested but they did not give names or identify them as to groups.

In France itself you have had the formation of a committee composed of many of the left intellectuals including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir against the repression, demanding that the ban on the organizations be dropped, that demonstrations be permitted and that all the people being held be released.

Outside of France I think one of the most important things was the series of demonstrations that took place here in the United States. What we have to do here and internationally is to organize a defense for these French revolutionaries arrested and being persecuted. The impact and importance of the international solidarity with the French students and workers, particularly now that they are in a situation where they are being victimized, where the persecution is beginning to affect them, can hardly be underestimated.

The campaign The Militant and the Young Socialist have been waging around the French events had a good impact on the French revolutionary youth and workers themselves. As some of them commented when they saw the issues of The Militant, copies of l’Enragé, the material that was put out here in solidarity with their struggles, for the first time it gave them a real sense of what an international movement was really like, what it could do. And it was very important for their morale too, faced with this kind of persecution, for them to know and have a concrete idea of the tremendous international impact of the events that have taken place in France in the last month and a half.

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