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

France's red hot winter

Striking for workers' power

May 68, December 95: many people draw the lessons

The year 1968 is held in popular memory as the year of students' struggles. Powerful as this memory of resistance is, it conveniently overlooks the fact that the student unrest was only the beginning of what was to be the biggest general strike of workers ever seen.

The fact that 10 million workers were on strike for four weeks in May and, for a brief but precious moment, held the future of French capitalism in their hands is one that socialists should never forget.

It all started in a way that held no hint of the scale of revolt that was to follow. Students in Paris had for some time been complaining about the conditions under which they were forced to study. There had been a huge expansion of further education throughout the 1960s without an equivalent increase in facilities or staffing. Small examples of resistance before May only involved a tiny minority of often politically aware students.

The arrival of 400 protesting students from the campus at Nanterre, on the outskirts of Paris, at the Sorbonne--the centre of the university--was to be decisive in escalating the situation. The minister of education was so nervous he called for the shutdown of the whole university and called in the police. When 500 students were arrested, the numbers of students protesting grew to thousands. The riot police answered with teargas and baton charges which in turn provoked a hail of cobblestones from the students. As word about the brutality meted out to the protesters spread, workers joined the revolt.

Initially the union leaders were dismissive of the student movement. But then, in an effort both to take credit for and to contain the protests, the union federations decided to call a one day strike on 13 May. On that day 10 million people stopped work and 1 million marched through the streets of Paris.

That could have been the end of the story but for the workers at Sud Aviation in Nantes. Up to then they had been holding 15 minutes of strike action every week against cuts in wages. On 14 May one section refused to go back to work and by that night 2,000 workers had occupied the factory and locked up the management, subjecting them to continuous playing of The Internationale!

Planned nationwide protests over changes in the social security regulations followed on 15 May, which, although small, acted as a catalyst in some areas for extending strike action. Soon the mood to fight gathered pace to include workers who had not even taken action before. By the end of the week workers had occupied 'every Renault plant, almost all the aerospace industry, all of Rhodiaceta, and were spreading through the metal working industry of Paris and Normandy and the shipyards of the west.'

Postal workers help bring France to a standstill

The scale of this reaction astonished union leaders and government ministers alike. Often the spontaneity of the strikes sparked by angry young workers with little or no union experience is stressed in accounts of the time. But significantlv in factories like Sud Aviation individual revolutionaries played a key role in escalating the dispute. Within days a student protest had been transformed into a mass strike.

No public transport moved. There was no postal service, no banking. Workers, in hospitals, museums, film studios, theatres, all joined the action, including the dancers of the Folies Bergères. The School of Fine Arts was taken over by students producing posters supporting the strike. Even the Cannes film festival was affected as film makers withdrew their work.

Some services were maintained--but under the control of the strikers. So gas and electricity supplies were protected, life and death telegrams delivered and the press allowed to print as long as it 'carries out with objectivity the role of providing information which is its duty'.

In some places workers took production into their own hands--in one factory in Brest 'the workers produced what they thought was important, notably walkie talkies to help the strikers'. In others there was mass involvement of workers on pickets, with meetings to decide the way forward, and 'action committees' which organised everything from rubbish collection to food distribution.

Yet in many more places the running of the strike was firmly in the hands of the established union machinery. Rather than strike committees reflecting the new layer of enthusiastic and radicalised workers thrown up by the struggle, they were made up of official union representatives. This excluded the majority of the working class, as only about a third of the workers who took part in the general strike were in a union. Many remained at home without day to day involvement, leaving the strike in control of a leadership intent on keeping the strike within the confines of an industrial dispute and not a challenge to state power.

By the end of May the strike was at a critical stage--would it go forward and challenge the very rule of government, or would workers settle and go back to the old routines of life?

President de Gaulle tried to call a referendum but had to admit it was a practical impossibility when no printshop in France would print the ballot papers. When he then mysteriously disappeared off to Germany leaving a country effectively in the control of the masses, it was clear the government itself wasn't confident of its chances.

But when de Gaulle returned and made a call for fresh parliamentary elections he called the bluff of the movement's leadership who had, on their own admission, held the general strike in check. Because support for the democratic process was at the core of their politics de Gaulle knew they would be forced to go along with the elections.

Now the government used force to break some factory occupations and the Communist Party and its paper, L'Humanité, argued for an orderly return to work. The Communist Party activists used any means to get factories back to work including false claims that other workers had returned to work in order to isolate militant factories.

One headline in L'Humanité proclaimed, 'Victorious return to work in unity'. In fact the strategy of each workforce settling separately meant that there was no real attempt to unite all the demands that had grown out of the strike. Nevertheless real gains were made by French workers--wage rises of 10 percent or more, cuts in working hours, extensions of annual leave and, importantly, increased trade union rights.

When the election gave de Gaulle a sweeping victory, many socialists were filled with shock and disbelief--how could a general strike on such a huge scale be transformed within weeks into an electoral victory for the right?

What the result showed was that workers' confidence could not be sealed in a bottle and then opened again when needed. When the struggle is high, anything is possible, but when it subsides, all the old doubts take over. But what was also crucial was the political leadership of the Communist Party who had long since given up any idea of workers' self emancipation and refused to give the French workers the lead they needed.

In 1968 the number of revolutionaries in France was too small to offer an alternative to the mass of workers on the move. Those who were rooted in the workforce, took up the wider political arguments and played a vital role. But, lacking a cohesive national organisation, their efforts and successes were isolated.

Yet the events of 1968 in France were to act as an inspiration to a new generation of revolutionary socialists across the world. The years that followed saw a rejuvenation of a political tradition which challenged the notion that Stalinist Russia was any sort of a socialist society and instead celebrated the struggle of workers to build a very different society. The struggles of 1995 bring back the memory of 1936 and 1968 for the French ruling class, but they should also remind us of the lessons for the working class.

France's red hot winter


Many of the rail workers who are taking action today remember the last time when they created a crisis for the French government with the massive rail strikes in 1986-87. The prime minister then was Jacques Chirac and the spark for the rail workers' strike was the student demonstrations at the end of 1986.

Chirac introduced a new education bill which was met with anger by the students. The protests forced Chirac and the government into a public and humiliating retreat. The student revolts inspired workers, protests.

On 18 December 1986 rail workers started an all out strike over pay and against government attempts to impose restrictive new work conditions. The strikes spread throughout France. As one reporter said, 'A noisy rail workers' demonstratlon set out across Paris towards the Gare St Lazare. Three thousand strikers with their local committee banners proclaiming that the struggle continues, filling the air with the chants, "We Shall Win", and, "Rail workers, passengers--solidarity".'

Rank and file rail workers set up strike committees with elected representatives in many areas. Their action provided the Impetus for other groups of workers themselves to fight over pay.

The Socialist and Communist trade union leaders were terrified they would lose control of the movement. They tried to stop the rail workers' committees getting off the ground. And they argued that the strike was purely against Chirac and his measures without mentioning the years of attacks they had faced under the Mitterrand government--it would have been embarrassing for them to have said otherwise given their uncritical support towards Mitterrand.

The French government was forced to make numerous concessions including the suspension of the pay structure. But the lesson of the strikes was that the rail workers had begun to develop a stronger form of strike organisation--the committees--than ever seen before, independent of the official union machinery. Some also learnt not to trust the Socialist and Communist union officials who used the strike as a negotiating tool to settle for a deal far less than what could have been achieved. It is a lesson that some of the striking rail workers today may need little prompting to remember.

Return to
Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page