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The French Revolution of May 1968 – Part One

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May 1968 was the greatest revolutionary general strike in history. Then, as now, the bourgeois and their apologists were congratulating themselves that revolutions and class struggle were things of the past. It took most of the Left completely by surprise, because, they had all written off the European working class as a revolutionary force.

Foresight and astonishment

May 1968 was the greatest revolutionary general strike in history. This mighty movement took place at the height of the post-war economic upswing in capitalism. Then, as now, the bourgeois and their apologists were congratulating themselves that revolutions and class struggle were things of the past. Then came the French events of 1968, which seemed to drop like a thunderbolt from a clear blue sky. They took most of the Left completely by surprise, because, they had all written off the European working class as a revolutionary force.

In May 1968, The Economist published a special supplement on France written by Norman Macrae to mark ten years of Gaullist rule. In this supplement, Macrae sang the praises of the successes of French capitalism, pointing out that the French had a higher living standard than the British; ate more meat; owned more cars and so on. And he cited the "great national advantage" of France over her neighbour across the Channel: its trade unions were "pathetically weak." The ink was hardly dry on Macrae's article when the French working class astonished the world with a social uprising unequalled in modern times.

The May events were not foreseen by the strategists of capital, either in France or anywhere else. They were not foreseen by the Stalinist and reformist leaders. Things were even worse when it came to the so-called revolutionary Left. The intellectual ladies and gentlemen who considered themselves Marxists (most of whom had spent decades arguing about "armed struggle," insurrection and the rest) not only did not foresee any movement of the French workers. They specifically denied any such possibility.

Let us take one of the "theoreticians" of the academic Marxists, André Gorz. This individual wrote in an article that, "in the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes or armed insurrections in support of their vital interests." (A. Gorz, Reform and Revolution, in The Socialist Register 1968. Our emphasis). These lines were published in the middle of the biggest revolutionary general strike in history.

Gorz was not alone in writing off the working class. That "great Marxist" Ernest Mandel spoke at a meeting in London only one month before these great events. In the course of his lecture, he spoke about everything under the sun, but never mentioned a single word about the situation of the French working class. When this contradiction was pointed out to him by one of our comrades from the floor, his reply was that the workers were bourgeoisified and "Americanised" and there would be no movement of the French workers for the next twenty years.

The background

What none of these gentlemen understood was that the long period of capitalist upswing after 1945 had transformed the class balance of forces and enormously strengthened the European working class. Before the Second World War the French ruling class tried to base itself on backwardness. After the experience of the Paris Commune the French bourgeois were mortally afraid of the growth of the proletariat and therefore developed a parasitic rentier economy based heavily on finance capital, banking and the colonies.

The development of industry means that the proletariat itself is much stronger than it was in the 1930s, let alone the time of the Paris Commune, when practically all the workers were in small workshops. Even in 1931 nearly two thirds of all industrial enterprises in France employed no wage-workers at all, and another third of them employed less than ten. Only 0.5% of industrial enterprises employed more than a hundred. However, after the Second World War there was a strong development of industry in France, which led to a rapid strengthening of the proletariat and the gradual decline of the peasantry.

At the time of the 1936 revolutionary crisis, half of the population of France earned its living from agriculture, whereas today the rural population is less than 6% of the population as a whole. By 1968 the wage-earning class had grown not only in numbers, but also in terms of its potential for struggle. The fundamental change was shown in 1968 in the key role played by giant factories such as the Renault works in Flins, with a total workforce of 10,500, of which 1,000 participated in pickets and a minimum of 5,000 attended daily strike meetings at that plant alone.

In 1936, when the correlation of class forces was infinitely less favourable, in a situation that was not one tenth as advanced, Trotsky said that the Communist Party (PCF) and Socialist Party (SP) could have taken power:

"If the party of Léon Blum was really Socialist it might, basing itself upon the general strike, have overthrown the bourgeoisie in June, almost without civil war, with a minimum of disturbance and of sacrifices. But the party of Blum is a bourgeois party, the younger brother of rotten Radicalism." (Leon Trotsky, On France, p. 178, our emphasis.)

The relation of forces in 1968 was vastly more favourable. A peaceful transformation was possible, if the PCF leaders had acted as Marxists should act. It is essential to stress this. Only the betrayal of the Stalinist leaders, who refused to take power when the most favourable circumstances existed, prevented the French workers from taking power.

Role of the students

The students are always a sensitive barometer of the tensions building up in the depths of society. The wave of student demonstrations and occupations that preceded the May events was like the heat lightening that precedes a storm. In the months before May there was a ferment among the students that manifested itself in a series of demonstrations and occupations.

Faced with the rising tide of student protests the Rector of the prestigious Sorbonne University decided to close it down for only the second time in 700 years. The first time was in 1940, when the Nazis occupied Paris. The police attempt to clear the courtyard at the Sorbonne on May 3 was the spark that ignited a powder keg. Violence erupted in the Quartier Latin, resulting in more than 100 injured and 596 arrested. The next day courses at the Sorbonne were suspended. The main student organizations, the UNEF and the Snesup called for unlimited strikes. On May 6 there were new battles in the Quartier Latin: 422 arrests; 345 police and about 600 students were injured. The repression caused widespread indignation. Enraged students tore up cobblestones to throw at the police and erected barricades in the good old French tradition. Students at universities throughout France pledged support.

On the night of May 10 there was a full-scale riot in the Quartier Latin. The rioters erected barricades in the old French traditions, which the police assaulted with great violence. The armed thugs of the CRS broke into private apartments and savagely beat up ordinary people, even a pregnant woman. But they got more than they expected. Ordinary Parisians bombarded the police with flowerpots and other heavy objects hurled from windows. Out of the 367 people hospitalised, 251 were police. Another 720 people were hurt and 468 arrested. Cars were burned or damaged. The Minister of Education insulted the protestors: "Ni doctrine, ni foi, ni loi" (No learning, no faith, no law).

During the first week, the PCF leaders had belittled the students and the union leaders had tried to ignore them. L'Humanité published an article by the future PCF leader George Marchais with the title False Revolutionaries to be unmasked. But faced with the general indignation of the population and pressure from the rank and file, the union bureaucracy was compelled to take action. On May 11, the main unions, the CGT, the CFDT and the FEN, called for a general strike on 13 May. About 200,000 demonstrators shouted slogans like "De Gaulle Assassin!"

Returning hastily to Paris, George Pompidou, announced the re-opening of the Sorbonne for the same day. This was intended as a compromise gesture to head off a social explosion. But it was too little, too late. The masses saw it as a sign of weakness and pressed forward.

General strike

The ferment among the students was only the most evident manifestation of discontent in French society. Despite the economic boom, the French bosses had applied merciless pressure on the workers. Beneath the surface of apparent calm there was an enormous accumulation of discontent, bitterness and frustration. Already in January there were violent exchanges during a demonstration by strikers at Caen.

The general strike of May 13 marked a qualitative turning point. Hundreds of thousands of students and workers poured onto the streets of Paris. Some idea of this is conveyed by the following description of the mighty demonstration of a million, which took over the streets of Paris on the 13th of May:

"Endlessly they filed past. There were whole sections of hospital personnel in white coats, some carrying posters saying ‘Où sont les disparus des hôpitaux?' (‘Where are the missing injured?'). Every factory, every major workplace seemed to be represented. There were numerous groups of railwaymen, postmen, printers, Metro personnel, metal workers, airport workers, market men, electricians, lawyers, sewermen, bank employees, building workers, glass and chemical workers, waiters, municipal employees, painters and decorators, gas workers, shop girls, insurance clerks, road sweepers, film studio operators, busmen, teachers, workers from the new plastic industries, row upon row upon row of them, the flesh and blood of modern capitalist society, an unending mass, a power that could sweep everything before it, if it but decided to do so." (Quoted in Revolutionary Rehearsals, p. 12.)

The leaders of the unions hoped that this would be sufficient to halt the movement. The leaders did not intend the general strike to continue and spread. They saw the demonstration as a means of blowing off steam. But once it started, the movement soon acquired a life of its own. The call for a general strike was like a heavy rock thrown into a tranquil lake. The waves spread to every corner of France. Although there were only about three and a half million workers organised in the unions, ten million went on strike and a wave of factory occupations began all over France.

On the 14th, one day after the mass demonstration in Paris, the workers occupied Sud-Aviation in Nantes and the Renault factory at Cléon was occupied by workers, followed by the Renault workers at Flins, Le Mans and Boulogne-Billancourt. Strikes hit other factories throughout France, plus the RATP and the SNCF. Newspapers were not distributed. On May 18 the coalmines stopped work and public transport was halted in Paris and other major cities. The national railways were next, followed by air transport, the shipyards, the gas and electricity workers (who decided to maintain domestic supplies), postal services and cross-channel ferries.

Workers took control of petrol supplies in Nantes, refusing entry to all petrol tankers, which did not carry authorisation from the strike committee. A picket was placed on the only functioning petrol pump in the town, which made sure that petrol was only issued to doctors. Contact was made with the peasant organisations in the surrounding areas, and food supplies were arranged, with prices fixed by the workers and peasants. To prevent profiteering, shops had to display a sticker in the window with the words: "This shop is authorised to open. Its prices are under permanent supervision by the unions." The sticker was signed by the CGT, CFDT and FO. A litre of milk was sold for 50 centimes compared to the normal 80. A kilo of potatoes was cut from 70 centimes to 12; a kilo of carrots from 80 to 50, and so on.

The students, teachers, professional people, peasants, scientists, footballers, even the girls of the Follies Bergères were all drawn into the struggle. In Paris students occupied the Sorbonne. The Theatre de l'Odéon was occupied by 2,500 students and the school students occupied the schools:

"Occupation fever gripped the intelligentsia. Radical doctors occupied the premises of the Medical Association, radical architects proclaimed the dissolution of their association, actors closed all the theatres of the capital, writers led by Michel Butor occupied the Societé des Gens de Lettres at the Hotel de Massa. Even business executives got into the act, seizing for a while the building of the Conseil National du Patronat Français, then moving on to the Confederation Generale des Cadres." (David Caute, Sixty-Eight, the Year of the Barricades, p.203).

Since the schools were closed, teachers and students organised nurseries, playgroups, free meals and activities for the strikers' children. Committees of strikers' wives were set up and played a leading role organising food supplies. Not only the students, but also the professional layers were infected with the bug of revolution. The astronomers occupied an observatory. There was a strike at the nuclear research centre at Saclay, where the majority of the 10,000 employees were researchers, technicians, engineers or graduate scientists. Even the Church was affected. In the Latin Quarter, young Catholics occupied a church and demanded a debate instead of mass.

Power in the streets

The rioting in Paris continued, with workers and students braving tear gas and baton charges. In a single night there were 795 arrests, and 456 injured. Demonstrators attempted to torch the Paris Bourse (Stock Exchange) that hated symbol of capitalism. A Commissaire de Police was killed in Lyon by a truck.

Once in struggle the workers began to take initiatives, which went far beyond the limits of a normal strike. A key element in the equation was the means of mass communication. Formally these were powerful weapons in the hands of the state. But they also depend on the workers who operate the radio and television stations. On May 25 state radio and television - the ORTF - went on strike. The TV news at 8pm was blacked out. The printers and journalists imposed a kind of workers' control of the press. Bourgeois papers had to submit their editorials for scrutiny, and had to publish the declarations of the workers' committees.

The National Assembly discussed the university crisis and the battles of the Quartier Latin. But the debates in the chambers of the Assembly were already an irrelevance. Power had slipped from the hands of the legislators and was lying in the streets. On May 24 President De Gaulle announced a referendum on radio and television. His plan to hold a referendum was frustrated by the action of the workers. The general was unable even to get ballot sheets for a referendum printed because of the strike of the French printing workers and the refusal of their Belgian colleagues to scab. This was not the only example of international solidarity. German and Belgian train drivers halted their trains on the French border in order not to break the strike.

The forces of reaction, up till now in a state of shock and forced onto the defensive, began to get organized. The Committees for the Defense of the Republic - CDR - were launched in an attempt to mobilize the middle class against the workers and students. The class balance of forces is not purely a matter of the relative numerical strength of the working class as opposed to the peasants and middle class in general. Once the proletariat enters into decisive struggle, showing itself to be a powerful force in society, it quickly attracts the exploited mass of peasants and small shopkeepers who are crushed by the banks and monopolies. This was evident in 1968, when the peasants set up roadblocks around Nantes and distributed free food to the strikers.

The myth of the "strong state"

The movement caught the ruling class and the government entirely off guard. They were terrified of the movement of the students, as the then Prime Minister, Pompidou admitted in his memoirs:

"Some people ... have thought that by reopening the Sorbonne and having the students released I had shown weakness and set the agitation going again. I would simply answer as follows: let's suppose that, on Monday 13 May the Sorbonne had remained closed under police protection. Who can imagine that the crowd, swarming towards Denfert-Rochereau, would have failed to break in, carrying everything before it like a river in flood? I preferred to give the Sorbonne to the students than to see them take it by force." (G. Pompidou, Pour Rétablir une Vérité, pp. 184-5.)

Elsewhere he adds:

"The crisis was infinitely more serious and more profound; the regime would stand or be overthrown, but it could not be saved by a mere cabinet reshuffle. It was not my position that was in question. It was General De Gaulle, the Fifth Republic, and, to a considerable extent, Republican rule itself." (Ibid., p. 197, my emphasis.)

What did Pompidou mean when he said that "Republican rule itself" was in danger? He meant that the capitalist state itself was threatened with overthrow. And in this, he was quite right. After Pompidou tried to defuse the crisis by reopening the Sorbonne the movement merely acquired fresh momentum with a demonstration of 250,000. Terrified that the students would join forces with the workers and storm the Elysée, the presidential palace was evacuated.

De Gaulle initially placed his confidence in the Stalinist leaders to save the situation. He said to his naval ADC, François Flohic, "Don't worry, Flohic, the Communists will keep them in order." (Philippe Alexandre, L'Elysée en péril, p. 299.)

What do these words prove? Neither more nor less than that the capitalist system could not exist without the support of the reformist (and Stalinist) labour leaders. This support is worth much more to them than any amount of tanks and policemen. De Gaulle, as an intelligent bourgeois, understood this perfectly. In an attempt to show his supreme indifference to the events in France, President De Gaulle left for a State visit to Romania, where he was welcomed with open arms by the "Communist" Ceausescu. However, the General's confidence did not last long.

The essence of a revolution is that the masses begin to participate actively in events, begin to take matters into their own hands. Back in France, the "Communist" leaders were losing control. Red flags flew over factories, schools, universities, labour exchanges, and even astronomical observatories. The government was powerless, left suspended in mid-air by the uprising. The Gaullist "strong state" was paralysed. Power was really in the hands of the working class.

The reports of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Paris shook De Gaulle. Faced with the growing tide of revolt President De Gaulle was forced to abandon the pretence of indifference, cut short his presidential trip to Romania and hurry back to France. At the Elysée palace, President De Gaulle uttered the immortal words: "La réforme, oui; la chienlit, non" (Reform yes, snotty nosed kids, no!). The word chienlit is difficult to translate but signifies an infant who has not yet learned to use a urinal.

By using such language, De Gaulle was expressing his contempt for the "kids" on the streets. But the movement had by now gone far beyond the stage of student demonstrations. It was like a huge snowball rolling down a steep mountain and gathering strength and momentum all the time. The most unexpected layers were being drawn into the maelstrom of revolutionary struggle. Cinema professionals occupied the Cannes Film Festival. Major French directors withdrew their films from the competition and the jury resigned, forcing the festival to close.

By May 20 an estimated 10 million workers were on strike; the country was practically paralyzed. On May 22 a censure motion by the opposition parties failed by only eleven votes to win a majority in the National Assembly. The government was tottering and De Gaulle was in despair. Yet precisely at this time the leaders of the union confederations threw a lifeline to De Gaulle, issuing a statement that they were willing to negotiate with the employer's association and the government.

An amnesty for demonstrators was passed by the National Assembly. Naturally! Having failed to crush the movement by repression, the authorities resorted to concessions in an attempt to take the heat out of the situation and gain time. Thus, both the government and the union leaders collaborated to head off the revolutionary movement and lead it into safe channels. While offering concessions to the student and union leaders, the state nevertheless continued with selective repression directed against what it regarded as subversive elements. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the student anarchist had his residence permit withdrawn. This was a stupid move, since the actual influence of Cohn-Bendit on the movement was minimal. But the government's action succeeded in provoking a mass demonstration in Paris to protest against it.

De Gaulle demoralised

De Gaulle's biographer, Charles Williams, graphically describes his state of mind on the eve of his broadcast to the nation on May 24th:

"There is no doubt that, after the exhilaration of Romania, the General had been badly shaken by what he had found on his return to France. During the ensuing three days, he seemed to at least one visitor, who had not seen him for some time, to be old and indecisive, his stoop accentuated. It seemed as though it was all getting too much for him.

"The broadcast of 24 May, when it came, was a complete flop. The General looked, and sounded, shifty and scared. True, he announced a referendum on ‘participation,' but it was not clear what the precise terms of the question would be, and it seemed to those who heard him to be suspiciously like a device. He said that it was the duty of the state to ensure public order, but his voice lacked its old resonance, and the phrases, although still in the same solemn language, somehow no longer carried conviction. He came across as an old man, tired and wounded. He knew it himself. ‘I missed the target,' he said that evening. The best that Pompidou could say was: ‘It could have been worse.'" (C. Williams, The Last Great Frenchman. A life of General De Gaulle, pp. 463-4, my emphasis.)

"But De Gaulle's mood, on the morning of the 25th, had turned for the worse. He was, in the words of one of his ministers, ‘prostrate-stooped and aged.' He kept on repeating, ‘It's a mess.' Another minister found an old man who ‘had no «feel» for the future.' The General sent for his son Philippe, who found his father ‘tired' and noted that he had hardly slept. Philippe suggested that his father might make for the Atlantic port of Brest - shadows of 1940 - but was told that he would not give up.

"From 25 to 28 May De Gaulle remained in a state of profound gloom. Pompidou's negotiations with the trade unions had been a farce. He had simply given them all they asked for: sweeping increases in pay and social benefits, and an increase in the minimum wage of 35 per cent. The only snag was that, even after the deal had been signed, the CGT had insisted that it would have to be ratified by their membership. George Séguy, the CGT leader, hurried off to the Paris suburb of Billancourt, where 12,000 Renault workers were on strike. When the agreement was put to them, they humiliated Séguy by turning it down flat. The accords of Grenelle, as they were called, were stillborn.

"The Council of Ministers met at 3 p.m. on 27 May, soon after the Renault workers' rejection of the Grenelle accords. The General presided, but it was noted that his heart and mind were elsewhere. He stared at his ministers without seeing them, his arms flat on the table in front of him, his shoulders hunched, seemingly ‘totally indifferent' to what was going on around him. There was a discussion about the referendum; the General apparently heard only bits of it." (Ibid., pp. 464-5, my emphasis.)

These extracts from a sympathetic biography paint a vivid picture of total disorientation, panic and demoralisation. According to the US ambassador, De Gaulle told him that "the game's up. In a few days the Communists will be in power."


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