Issue 193 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review

France's red hot winter

The will of the people

We draw the lessons of the two great events in modern French history, the upheaval in 1936 and the 1968 general strike
The will of the people

The strikes and demonstrations of 1995 have led to comparisons with 1968 or 1936. On both occasions French society was turned upside down as an upsurge of strikes and factory occupations reduced the bosses and their state to a shambles. Workers were in control. They had the power to abolish capitalism and build a better society.

The strike wave and factory occupations were largely spontaneous--the result of workers deciding that enough was enough and taking action for themselves. But the uprisings in 1936 and 1968 didn't come from nowhere. They were the product of accumulated social tensions.

The background to the events of June 1936 was the economic crisis that had gripped France since 1931 and whose origins lay in the Wall Street crash of 1929. Though it was less deep than the crisis which affected the US, Britain and Germany, the economy began to suffer--unemployment rose, wages fell, agricultural prices tumbled and there was a spate of bankruptcies.

The economic crisis undermined confidence in the political institutions of the republic--even more so when in early 1934 the suicide (or possibly murder) of a petty crook called Stavisky implicated prominent members of the governing party, the Radicals, in a scandal involving the embezzlement of millions of francs.

Inspired by the coming to power of Hitler the year before, fascist organisations led thousands of Parisians and war veterans in an assault on the French parliament on 6 February 1934. Fifteen people were killed and thousands injured in the battle which followed. Though the police emerged victorious, the government was forced to resign. It was replaced by a right wing government of national unity--to the delight of the fascists who thought they were on the way to power.

They had reckoned on there being little response from the working class, which had suffered ten years of defeat and demoralisation. But if workers were unable to go onto the offensive in the workplace over economic matters, they could still fight to defend their democratic rights. The trade unions called for a general strike for 12 February. The Socialist Party also called for a demonstration on the same day. At the last moment the Communist Party decided to support it.

The strike was a resounding success. In Paris 30,000 out of 31,000 post office workers stopped work. Transport did not run. Building sites were empty. The CitroŽn car plant shut down. Newspapers failed to appear. The same pattern was repeated in many provincial cities. Overall some 4.5 million workers came out on strike and 1 million demonstrated.

In Paris the Socialists and Communists marched separately to the Place de la Nation. The Communist Party was still in its 'Third Period' stage--the grotesque belief that social democracy was the twin of fascism since both were opposed to working class revolution. Given Communist hostility to the Socialists, would the demonstrations end in conflict when the two merged?

According to one observer, 'After a silent, brief moment of anguish, to the astonishment of the party and union leaders, this encounter triggered off a delirious enthusiasm, an explosion of shouts of joy. Applause, cries of "Unity, Unity".'

The future Socialist prime minister, Lťon Blum, who had also participated in the march, recalled: 'By a sort of popular groundswell the people's will had imposed unity of action of the working class.'

Hitler's victory inspired French fascists

This one day general strike marked the beginning of the movement which would lead to the great upheavals of June 1936. Spontaneous unity from below was a sign that workers were determined not to repeat the mistakes of Germany and allow divisions in their own ranks to help the French equivalent of Hitler to power. It also forced the Communist Party to abandon its suicidal politics of 'social fascism'. The Popular Front was born--an alliance of working class parties, which could extend even to the middle class, to ensure the defeat of fascism.

The Popular Front was primarily an electoral alliance designed to bring the left to parliamentary office. It reflected and fed off workers' desire for change. But electoral arithmetic meant that it had to rely on securing the votes of the middle class Radical Party. And to do that the Popular Front had to play down anything which would frighten the middle classes--such as working class demands which attacked profits. So, at the CP's insistence and against the wishes of many of the Socialist leaders, nationalisation of banks and industries was not included in the Popular Front's programme.

It would take the strikes and occupations of June 1936 to bring out the contradiction between workers' aspirations and the limits of the Popular Front. In the meantime the Popular Front seemed an unqualified success. The movement for unity grew. The municipal elections of May 1935 showed a marked swing to the left. Even more impressive was the enormous demonstration in Paris on Bastille Day, 14 July 1935. In response to the call for defence of democratic rights, bread for workers, work for the young and world peace, something like half a million people filed through the streets.

The desire for unity forced the trade unions to heal the split between the 70,000 strong reformist CGT and the 200,000 strong Communist led CGTU, which had existed since 1921. Being closer to workers, the new, united CGT plan included much of the economic reforms which the Popular Front programme had left out, reaffirming the need 'to break the enormous power of big business' and calling for 'nationalisation of credit and key industries where all the power of the financial and industrial oligarchy is concentrated'.

Between March and May 1936 a quarter of a million joined the unified CGT. May Day 1936 saw 120,000 engineering workers in the Paris area stop work for the day. Renault was shut for the first time in 20 years as 25,000 struck. Many sections of the middle class were inspired by the workers' example and began to glimpse the possibility of a new and better life. On 3 May the Popular Front scored a massive victory. The Socialists became the biggest single group in parliament and the CP won 72 seats.

This political triumph encouraged workers' confidence to go onto the offensive. Three separate strikes in the aircraft industry broke out within a week of the election to demand reinstatement of militants who had been sacked for going on the May Day demonstrations. What was new was the form of the strike occupations in which the whole of the workforce participated. The bosses quickly caved in.

By the end of May the tactic of factory occupation was taken up in all the major engineering factories round Paris. The lead came from Renault where 35,000 workers stopped work on 28 May and occupied the factory. Soon close on 100,000 engineering workers followed their example. This time the demands were economic. Having secured a political victory against the right, workers wanted a better life for themselves and their families. In particular, they wanted a substantial pay increase, a 40 hour week, paid holidays and union recognition.

The new government, under Blum, was not yet in office thanks to constitutional procedure. But the right could hardly wait to give up parliamentary control, so eager were they for the Popular Front government to control the movement.

The first week of June saw the strike and occupation movement sweep across France. The big battalions of engineering, building, printing and transport were followed by workers in traditionally weaker sectors: shoe factories, sugar refineries, locksmiths, carpets and bedding are just some examples. It wasn't just blue collar workers either. Shop assistants in the big Paris stores and even newspaper sellers went on strike. Something like 2 million workers were on strike at the height of the struggle. Economic life was paralysed. Workers were in control of their factories. To regain control the bosses had no option but to agree massive concessions. Under the auspices of the government, who made it clear that legislation would enforce the 40 hour week, paid holidays and collective agreements, they signed the Matignon agreement with the union leaders on 7 and 8 June. In the end, the agreement was for wage rises between 7 and 15 percent.

But if workers made fantastic gains, the union leaders had difficulty selling the agreement and ending the occupations. A second round of the Matignon agreement took place on 10 June. The union leaders were under pressure from workers to negotiate for the wage increases to be on top of those already won after 24 May and not before as the Matignon agreement specified. Having tasted their power, workers were now asking for a living wage and not just for an end to low wages.

They were also suspicious of the bosses' willingness to abide by the agreement and of the government's ability to enforce legislation on them. The best organised factories in the Paris region pledged continuation of the strike until all the unions' demands were fully met, a pledge which went well beyond what the union leaders were urging.

Matignon had other effects as well. It encouraged the less well organised workers to strike and advance their own demands. Far from putting a restraint on the upheaval, it looked for a time as if the opposite would happen. No wonder Leon Trotsky wrote, 'The French Revolution has begun.'

But that was not to be. Section by section workers were cajoled back to work under pressure from their union and political leaders. 'Everything is possible', wrote Marceau Pivert, leader of the left wing current inside the Socialist Party. 'Not so', replied Maurice Thorez, the leader of the Communist Party. 'We must know how to end a strike when satisfaction has been obtained.'

The Stalinist argument was that there was no question of taking power at the time. The conditions were not ripe and the risk was that isolation from the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie would destroy the Popular Front. Thorez's moderation was met with rapture by the press and confirmed one right wing MP's hope that the CP would help the prime minister 'to ensure that the strikes do not spread and that the factories and workshops are freed from occupation.'

The consequence of ending the occupations was that the Popular Front itself did not survive. The following May, Blum was replaced by a more right wing leader and the following year the Popular Front fell. The right was back in the saddle, determined to wipe out workers' gains.

Could there have been a revolution in 1936? What was missing in the factory occupations was the creation of workers' own organisations of power. The conditions, however, had been favourable. The strikes and occupations had been a mighty movement of unity and centralisation. The working class had forced the employers to the negotiating table. But their representatives had been the union bureaucracy and not leaders thrown up by the struggle itself.

What was missing was workers' councils, or soviets, though the embryo of a workers' council was present in the initiative of one of the leading engineering factories, Hotchkiss, to organise a strike committee which included representatives of 33 neighbouring factories. Had the occupations lasted longer, had the workers' assemblies which met to consider the agreement been more confident, then the Hotchkiss initiative might have generalised.

But the other missing factor was revolutionary organisation which would have both led the fights in the factories and agitated against the treachery of Popular Front politics. Unfortunately, the Trotskyists were too few in number, too divided and too isolated to make any impact.

Nevertheless. June 1936 remains an inspiration and a lesson. It shows how quickly a situation can develop in which workers after a long period of defensiveness can go onto the offensive and shake capitalist society from top to bottom.


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