From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 47, 24 November 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Armed with a special assignment, from the editor of Labor Action, your reporter had traveled to, Washington, the nation’s capital. His task as to interview a young Austrian girl, a refugee resident of France for many years. X――, living obscurely in one of the poorer boarding-house districts of Washington, had lately arrived from prolonged stays in both occupied and unoccupied France and was familiar with conditions in both, territories.
Labor Action is happy to publish this eyewitness account of France under the combined terror of Nazi Germany and its inspired regime at Vichy.
Question: What sections of France were you in touch with and able to observe?
Answer: Until September I was in Marseille. I received much information from friends in Paris and occupied France. Before arriving at Marseille, as an Austrian refugee, I had been confined to various concentration camps scattered all over the country, until late last year. I saw the collapse and fall of France during the earlier stages of the war and was constantly on the move since that time.
Question: Did you have much opportunity to observe the population of France and the effect of various events upon the people?
Answer: Yes. I had many opportunities to watch and speak to workers, middle class people, soldiers, officials, etc.
Question: When you left France in September how did matters stand with regard to problems of food, unemployment, shelter, etc.?
Answer: Although things are not yet nearly as bad as they are in Spain (where the whole population is bordering on starvation), nevertheless there is a constant deterioration.
The food situation is getting worse and worse. It is the most constant – almost the only – subject of conversation in the buses, subways, streets, etc. Since June of this year rations have been steadily cut; ration tickets are not honored at all, or less is given than the ticket calls for.
For example, a restaurant in Marseille for dock workers, sailors and longshoremen (typical of the poorer class restaurants) serves a cheap grade of meat ONCE A WEEK ONLY. Its daily menu, never varying, consists of tomatoes, cucumbers and coffee (that is, 33 per cent coffee plus a balance of ground acorns!). There is no milk available.
Bread is still available and obtainable through ration cards. An enormous number of counterfeit cards are printed and sold freely on the secret Black Market at scandalous prices. So many of these tickets have been printed that the government has no choice but to accept them! While France is not yet undergoing mass starvation, nevertheless it will be a terrible winter with the specter of starvation always present.
So far as housing is concerned, there is no real problem, here. Rents have been fixed and there is no shortage of rooms. However, the heating problem is extremely severe. Little or no coal for heating purposes is available and most of the available wood supply was used up last winter! It will be a cold winter with much suffering for the masses of people.
It is important to understand that the Black Market is very important and useful to those who have money. While official prices have gone up only 30 per cent since the war, prices on the Black Market are three and four times those of the official market! This means that only wealthy bourgeois and middle class people can obtain stocks that are secretly sold. In Vichy-Petain territory there is little unemployment as we understand the word. This is because that region is the agricultural heart of France – the region of the small peasant farms.
However, it is otherwise in Paris and the northern industrial territories where textile manufacture and mining were the main industries. Last year 60 to 70 per cent of the workers were unemployed. The Nazis realized this state of affairs could not continue and took measures to set the mines and factories in motion once more. They abandoned their first efforts to move the machinery and plants out of industrial France and into Germany. Their original intention of stripping France of its industry and reducing the country to an agricultural territory has failed completely – another indication of Nazi inability to organize a “new order” European economy! Now unemployment in capitalist-industrial France has been reduced to about 25 per cent of the workers. The big factories in Paris, Lille, etc., are working and producing trucks, munitions and airplane parts for the Nazis. French bosses still run them and get good profits, but the Germans generally supervise production.
Question: Is there any basis for the claims of pro-British and DeGaulle sentiment among the French people?
Answer: It is necessary to distinguish the attitude of various classes and, sections of the population. The middle classes are about 80 per cent pro-British and De Gaullist, but not in any active sense. They only “sympathize.” De Gaulle’s organization exists mainly among the intellectuals and ranges through all political tendencies. In its ranks there are former Socialist Party leaders, Catholic Youth members, officers of the old army, various bourgeois patriots.
It is not well organized nor active in an illegal manner. I never saw any illegal DeGaulle paper or leaflet! As for the workers, they sympathize with Britain in a vague sense – that is, anyone who strikes back at the Nazis gets their approval – but they are not active in Britain’s cause. THERE IS LITTLE DeGAULLE INFLUENCE AMONG THE WORKING CLASS OF FRANCE.
Question: What do you have to say about the Petain government? Has it achieved any stability, any support?
Answer: A growing section of the French capitalist class has come to hold the opinion that, under the present circumstances, it is best for them to work with, to “collaborate” with the Germans. This has given the Petain regime some signs of stability as the “normal” government of French capitalism and what remains of the French Empire.
But the Petain regime has no mass support. It stands today because of German support. That is all. It has no stable base, but is only supported by the police and army officers of the old regime.
Every effort to organize some mass support has failed. Petain created a veterans’ organization which was to become the sole political party of the state. But soldiers join it so that they can get pensions, benefits, etc. Likewise, the attempt to create a “Labor Front” on the Nazi model has failed. The genuine trade unions of the workers still exist and carry on, while this decrepit regime doesn’t have the strength to drive the workers into the “Labor Front.”
As for Petain personally, he has more prestige among the masses than his government! People feel sorry for this senile old fopl who is some sort of a symbolic figure of the France that was.
Question: What can you say about the recent acts of terrorism and assassinations? What is their effect upon the masses?
Answer: These acts are the work either of individuals responsible to no one but themselves, or else provoked by the Stalinists. Since the Russo-German war began there has been a good deal of factory and industrial sabotage, particularly in the railroad system. There are slow-ups, destruction of machinery, etc.
Workers naturally express sympathy with the terrorists and indignation at the criminal executions by the Nazis, but they go no further than that. The French Fourth Internationalists do not consider these actions as being of real value to the anti-Nazi struggle.
Question: Is there any relation or fraternization between the French workers and the German occupation troops?
Answer: First of all, we must note that there are less German soldiers in the occupied territory than before. No figures are known, but a tremendous number have been withdrawn and sent to the Russian and eastern fronts. My latest information from Paris was that few soldiers could be seen in the streets of that city.
In the streets, restaurants and other public places there is no contact between the Germans and the French. Only when they work together in the same factory is there any fraternity or relationship. There, German soldier, foremen, guards, etc., mingle with the French industrial workers. The attitude of the German soldiers is a contradictory and confused one. On the one hand, they are weary of the war, have had enough of it, want only to go home, etc. Then they say they cannot afford to lose the war because a new “Versailles” would be a disaster and catastrophe for their country. It is this fear that keeps them in line for their Nazi rulers. This is what must be broken down if the German workers and soldiers are to be won over for revolutionary action.
Question: What signs are there of independent workers’ action, trade union activity, etc.?
Answer: The union situation differs greatly from union to union. Many unions are openly collaborating with the Germans, but these have no membership. Only appointed bureaucrats and hirelings “collaborate.” Many unions retain a membership almost as large as during the pre-war days. The railway unions are particularly strong. As I remarked before, neither Vichy nor the Nazis have been able to replace the old trade unions.
The most important workers’ action – by far – was a spontaneous strike of from 40,000 to 50,000 coal miners in the North of France, around Lille. This has been the only really important workers’ action since the fall of France. It lasted for three weeks and the major demand of the workers, was for better food.
There have been no independent political demonstrations of the workers as yet.
Question: What of the various political parties and groups? What has become of them?
Answer: Here the most profound changes have taken place. All the old parliamentary and bourgeois parties (Radical-Socialists, Republicans, Neo-Socialists, etc.) have gone, completely out of business – in both parts of France.
The SFIO (Social Democrats headed by Leon Blum) has had various splits. Some leaders went over to the Nazis and became collaborationists; some are supporters of Petain; some are with DeGaulle and Britain. As a party, the SFIO doesn’t exist and is only a sad memory of a bygone day. It has no hearing among the masses.
The PSOP (former left-wing pf the SFIO) has likewise gone out of business and ceased to exist.
The French Fourth Internationalists and Trotskyists are active in Paris and other principal centers of the country. No details can be given about their work since it might be used by their enemies.
The Communist Party (Stalinists), it must be recognized, is by far the strongest and most influential political movement among the workers. This is unfortunate for the French revolution, but true. It has had a large growth in activity and influence, particularly since the Russo-German war, when it came back to life with a vengeance.
It has a well organized controlling center, plenty of money. Its slogans are naturally the same as those of the Stalinists in America – defend the Soviet Union; against Petain; for Britain and the “democracies,” etc. It is especially strong in Paris, where it has many workers and young people in its ranks. It publishes its old paper, L’Humanité, in printed and mimeographed form; possesses district and factory papers and has even organized pro-Soviet demonstrations openly attended by many thousands of workers in the streets of Paris.
Its policy – no longer pro-German since the turn in the war – is to do anything and everything that will militarily help the bureaucrats of Russia retain power. Thus, it favors sabotage in transportation and railways and factories. The Russo-German war provided an excellent situation for them and they are taking every advantage of it.
Conclusion: In my opinion, the most important thing that has happened in France was the strike of the coal miners in the northern areas. This was the first real demonstration of the only solution to the terrible crisis in France – independent action on the part of the workers; ACTION NOT DICTATED BY THE MILITARY NEEDS OF LONDON OR MOSCOW, BUT BY THE DESIRE OF THE FRENCH WORKERS TO FREE THEMSELVES FROM THE NAZI HEEL.
The demoralization and apathy that hung over France and its working class for almost a year after the defeat have now definitely lifted and begun to disappear. New political movements are beginning; the workers as an independent force are starting in once more to think about their problems and possible solutions to them. I assure you that the Fourth Internationalists are participating as actively as their strength permits in these new movements and new trends. France is recovering steadily but surely from the blows it has received. The French proletariat has touched bottom and is on the way up again!
Last updated: 24.2.2013