France: ‘Longwy, Denain show us the way’
We shouldn’t be surprised about the silence of the international press about the violent confrontations between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie which have been going on in France for the last three months. Revolutionaries, and the Bolsheviks in particular, have always denounced the “abominable corruption of the press”, whose function in a period of class struggle is to obstruct any movement of proletarian solidarity by lies and, even more effectively, by silence. A huge noise about ‘peace in the Middle East’; silence about the violent confrontations between workers and police.
The French and international bourgeoisie is right to fear the return of the specter of international class struggle:
-- at the end of 1978: for several months, a total strike by the Iranian workers, whom Bazargan and Khomeini have only got back to work with great difficulty;
-- November/December: steelworkers’ strikes in the Ruhr, West Germany;
-- January/February 1979: British lorry drivers’ strike, followed by other strikes in the hospitals and car industry; the workers obtained up to 20-30% wage increases; at the time of writing, the strike movement isn’t yet extinguished;
-- February 1979: strike by the Renault workers in Valladolid, Spain. In March, metal workers strike in Bilbao;
-- March 1979: strikes which begin to go outside the unions in Sao Paolo, Brazil. More than 200,000 metal workers holding general assemblies.
It would be a serious mistake to see these simultaneous confrontations as mere skirmishes prolonging the wave of 1968-73, simply because the workers aren’t really questioning the trade unions or extending their struggles. We must be able to recognize this simultaneity and combativity as the first signs of a much broader movement that is in the process of maturing. The determined violence of the bourgeoisie’s attack on the proletariat is pushing the class into struggle. The workers of France and elsewhere are more and more feeling that “it’s time for action, not words” in the face of a cynical, ruthless ruling class which is waging a ‘hale and hearty’ economic war by laying-off workers, repressing them more and more openly, exploiting, humiliating, and mutilating them at work, getting them ready for the supreme mutilation: imperialist war.
This revival of class struggle, these symptoms of a new wave of struggle are unfolding before our eyes. Of course, it’s still at an embryonic stage. It’s not taking the form of generalized explosions like in 1968/69. But what it lacks in a spectacular appearance it makes up for in depth, by striking its roots into all layers of the proletariat. No-one can deny any more that the proletariat is the only key to the historic situation. The journalists and sociologists have had to bury the ‘student movement’ and timidly admit that the working class is not a myth, but a living reality.
Certainly, this is a slow, subterranean movement, but it’s a determined one. The proletariat is throwing itself into the heat of the struggle with its head held high. It is responding blow for blow to a slow, but inexorable crisis. Long and difficult battles await the international proletariat, battles that will be even more decisive than the ones going on now.
What are the lessons to draw from the confrontations in France?
In order to break through the silence and the lies of the bourgeoisie, we will give a precise, chronological account of the confrontations in Lorraine and the North, before drawing out lessons and perspectives for the near future.“It’s time for action, not words”
After 1971, the French proletariat gradually fell into a state of apathy. The Left with its Programme Commun promised the workers mountains and miracles. Year after year, the unions dragged the workers into dead-end demonstrations, sectoral strikes, 24-hour strikes, shut them up in factory occupations, locked out the bosses, and amused them with attempts at self-management, as at LIP. The unions carefully acted as safety-valves while waiting for the great day when the Communist Party and Socialist Party would come to power. The political crisis within the Left, their declarations in favor of sacrifices from 1975 onwards, gradually eroded some of the workers’ illusions. The failure of the Left in the elections of March 1978 signed the death warrant of the Programme Commun and, little by little, persuaded the workers that it was time to return to the path of struggle. Bitter strikes -- though still controlled by the unions -- broke out in the summer of 1978 in the arsenals, among air traffic controllers at Moulinex, and among the immigrant workers at Renault-Flins.
Barre’s so-called ‘restructuration’ plan was the decisive factor in setting light to the discontent that had been seething in the class for several years. The plan aimed at 30,000 lay-offs per month, at a time when unemployment was already at 1.5 million. Wage limits, price rises; in December, a savage increase in workers’ contributions to social security; reduction or suppression of some unemployment benefits. The French working class was hit by one economic hammer blow after another. Almost all layers of the class were affected: workers in the banks and insurance companies, television workers, teachers. But for the first time, the heart of the working class was being hit by the bourgeoisie’s offensive: shipyard workers, steelworkers threatened with 30,000 lay-offs in the coming year. This is what the bourgeoisie cynically calls its “policy of skimming off manning levels”.
In recent years, the workers in the peripheral, low concentration sectors have not reacted very strongly, or have done so in isolation. But the attack on the heavily concentrated steelworkers of the North and Lorraine was a decisive step in the bourgeoisie’s offensive against the whole working class. The unions, quite naturally, accepted the measures of the capitalist state by negotiating levels of unemployment. The French bourgeoisie, arrogant and self-confident, then added political violence to economic violence: systematic truncheoning of striking workers, forceful ejection of workers occupying factories.
Gradually the workers became aware that by abandoning the union-guarded factories and hitting the streets, they would gain the freedom to act; that in order to push back the attacks of the bourgeoisie they had to go out and confront the state without any hesitation. Going outside the unions, they got involved in violent class confrontations. Surprised by their own audacity, the workers gradually grew bolder.
From November to mid-January, these confrontations began slowly and then began to gather pace.
17 November 1978: at Caen1 a union-led parade ended up in a confrontation with the police; the unions denounced ‘uncontrolled elements’ and ‘autonomes.
20 December 1978: at Saint-Nazaire (the biggest naval shipyard in France) the bosses were locked up in the offices. The police intervened. Confrontations.
21 December 1978: at Saint-Chamond (in the Saint-Etienne region) a small factory, occupied by striking workers, was taken over at night by the police who ejected the strike picket and replaced it by vigilantes (men hired by the bosses to ‘protect’ their firms); in this region, which is heavily affected by unemployment, the news spread like wildfire; in the morning about 5,000 workers from Saint-Chamond, from Saint-Etienne and from Rive de Giers, threatened to attack the factory being guarded by armed vigilantes. These vigilantes took refuge on the rooftops and were only to be saved by the joint intervention of the unions and the police; the factory has since been re-occupied by the workers.
The announcement of 20,000 lay-offs in the steel industry, planned for by Barre, accelerated the process begun in December 1978. There was nothing to hope for: the lay-offs would take effect in January 1979. The determination of the bourgeoisie increased the determination of the workers, who no longer had anything to lose, especially in Lorraine and the North, where the steelworks are the sole means of earning a livelihood.As a prelude
4 January 1979: in Nancy, capital of Lorraine, a demonstration of 5,000 workers turned into violent confrontations with the CRS (police specially trained for repression). In Metz on the same day, the workers tried to seize the sub-prefecture (the police headquarters) guarded by the police.
17 January 1979: in the Lyon region, the second biggest industrial concentration in France, the director of PUK (Pechiney Ugine Kulmann, chemicals), was locked up by the workers and freed by the CRS. At the same time, strikes were spreading through the insurance companies in Paris, Bordeaux, and at Pau in the South-West.
Denain, Longwy, Paris
Denain and Longwy rapidly became the symbol of the workers’ counter-offensive. The closing of the USINOR steelworks, which completely dominate these two towns, with no chance of finding any other work and all this to be carried out in a few weeks -- pushed the workers to react quickly and violently, particularly because the police repression was so violent.
26 January 1979: in Denain, the USINOR steelworkers burnt the dossiers of the tax-collectors and were savagely truncheoned by the police.
29/30 January 1979: Then came the violent confrontations in Longwy near the Belgian-Luxemburg border. A region in which the workers don’t exactly see themselves as natives of the Lorraine. Italians, Spaniards, Belgians, North Africans etc, all work in the local industry. Still the CGT (the Stalinist controlled union) called on them to save the country from the grip of German steel trusts! This time the steelworkers clearly went outside the unions and attacked the police commissariat, following an occupation by the police of a factory where the workers had locked up four directors. It was left to the Communist Party Mayor of the town to get the workers back to work: “Don’t respond to violence with violence. Go back to your places of work”. The workers replied: “Next time we’ll be properly equipped” (ie to attack the commissariat).
All through February and in early March there were daily confrontations, during which the unions tried to divide the movement and derail it towards nationalist objectives (the CP’s campaign against ‘German Europe’; the CP’s commando attacks on ‘foreign trains’ and coal), as well as denigrating it by denouncing the combative workers who escaped their grip as ‘provocateurs’ and ‘uncontrolled elements’.
2 February 1979: in the port of Dinard in Brittany, striking firemen demonstrated and managed to break through a CRS cordon.
6 February 1979: in the Lorraine iron-mining basin, in Briey, the CP-held town hall and the sub-prefecture were occupied by the workers, who confronted the police. In Denain on the same day, the USINOR offices were ransacked. The unions had great difficulty getting the workers to leave.
7 February 1979: Longwy. Occupation of the sub-prefecture. Confrontations with the police.
8 February 1979: Nantes, an Atlantic Port, the starting point of the factory occupation movement in 1968; demonstrations, confrontations, amidst attempted assaults on the sub-prefecture.
9 February 1979: Following the call of the unions, the Denain steelworkers went to Paris, but the unions were unable to prevent confrontations with the CRS occurring on the outskirts of Roissy airport.
Almost at the same time, a strike began of radio and TV technicians in the Societe Francaise de Production. The technicians had just received 450 letters of dismissal. The strike lasted over three weeks. The SFP technicians tried to make contact with the Lorraine steelworkers. On the same day, a one-day total stoppage (‘ville morte’) was held in Hagondage, the Lorraine steelworks, called by the unions.
13 February 1979: Ransacking of the USINOR offices in Denain. In Grenoble in the South-East, confrontations between firemen and the police. At this point, the unions -- which were trying to control the movement by calling for demonstrations and regional strikes on the 16th – weren’t even able to control their own members. Young CGT workers said “... at the moment, the unions are having a hard time standing their ground. What’s more, we no longer feel that we’re unionized. We’re acting by ourselves.” Or as a CP militant at Longwy confirmed bitterly: “We’ve begged them, we’ve run after them. There’s nothing we can do”. The CGT -- unlike the CFDT, which was able to follow the movement with more subtlety -- was reduced to pouring out torrents of nationalist garbage: “1870, 1914, 1940: it’s enough. Lorraine will not be tied to the big German concerns”. What was the response of the workers? In Nantes on 8 February, the workers demonstrated with the cry: “Down with the bourgeoisie!”.
Seeing the movement spreading across several regions, the unions tried to isolate the steelworkers of the North and of Lorraine by calling for a regional general strike for the 16 March. They hoped that the other workers wouldn’t move and everything would be nicely buried. Unfortunately for them!
16 February 1979: the trade union demonstration ‘degenerated’. In Sedan, the workers built barricades and fought the police for six hours. Confrontations in Roubaix.
20 February 1979: Rouen. Confrontations between strikers and the police. The CGT denounces ‘uncontrolled elements’.
Was this workers’ violence going to be organized by the workers themselves, asked the unions anxiously? “What we’re worried about now is that the lads will organize amongst themselves and carry out actions without warning us, because they know that they can’t count on our support”. The unions’ fears proved real.
20 February 1979: at Paris the strikes in the PTT (post office) began in several centers from the suburbs to the provinces. The strike spread slowly and only lasted a few days in the affected centers, but the workers were very combative and showed a great suspicion towards the unions. For the first time, we saw delegations of postal workers from the Parisian suburbs, themselves go to look for solidarity in the other centers in order to disrupt them. The failure of the 1974 postal strike was not forgotten: the consciousness of the workers had matured. The slogans appearing were: “Yesterday Longwy, today Paris”, "Less moans, more action”. The postal workers got the idea of coordinating the strike between every center. The unions did all they could to nip in the bud any coordination of independent struggles and bring it under their control. The postal workers went back to work at the beginning of March, but the idea of coordination was an essential acquisition of this struggle.
21 February 1979: occupations of the Longwy TV station by CFDT steelworkers. The continued operation of this station while the SFP workers were still on strike was a provocation, just as much as the lies and abuse it was pouring on their struggle. The journalists were locked-up and would only be released after an intervention by the CFDT central office. The workers showed a real hostility to these bourgeois scribblers.
A journalist was angrily ‘corrected’ by a worker several days later.
22 February 1979: in Paris, the employees of the Bourse (the stock exchange), occupied the Temple of Capital along with striking bank workers. After jostling the union steward they shouted: “We’re going outside the unions”.
23 February 1979: since the 21st, the transmitter occupied by the Longwy steelworkers was making broadcasts about the crisis in Lorraine. The police took over the transmitter. Workers immediately assembled in the middle of the night and reoccupied the transmitter. The crowd swelled with the arrival of more steelworkers called out by sirens and bells. Singing revolutionary songs, the workers spent the whole night attacking the police commissariat. There was talk of people being armed with rifles. The CP Mayor (Porcu) denounced the ‘uncontrolled elements’. The steelworkers blocked the access roads into Longwy, attacked the bosses’ offices and burned the files.
In the face of events like these, the unions tried to prevent any confrontation between police and workers in the North, where the steelworkers were ready to take up the torch. “Longwy shows the way” was a very popular slogan.
28 February 1979: ransacking of bosses’ offices in Valenciennes in the North. The unions try to prevent the workers from attacking the commissariat and public buildings. A CFDT spokesman declared: “The lads must have a chance to act. That’s why we’ve drawn up a catalogue of actions”. But the unions hadn’t taken into account the deliberate, brutal attacks on the Denain workers by the CRS and flying squads.
7/8 March 1979: the CGT tried to divert the workers into commando actions to block ‘foreign’ iron and coal at the frontiers. But it didn’t foresee that brigades of the CRS would arrest busloads of steelworkers going back to work in Denain, frisking them and savagely truncheoning them. As soon as news of this got out, the USINOR workers at Denain came out on strike. They held a meeting and decided to attack the police commissariat guarded by the police. They armed themselves with iron bars, molotov cocktails, catapults, and even a bulldozer. A whole day of confrontations. In the evening the ‘Intersyndicale’, regrouping the CGT and CFDT, called on the workers to “immediately go back to the factories and occupy them”. The workers refused to go back and screwed up the union leaflet without reading it, crying: “It’s no longer time for discussions. It’s time for action”. The battles didn’t stop. They lasted for several hours longer and workers armed with rifles were shooting at the CRS.
10 March 1979: Following these confrontations, the unions, the CP and SP, decided to hold a huge rally in Denain to bury the struggle underneath a torrent of blah-blah about regional elections. Hundreds of workers walked out of the stadium where the rally was being held, shouting: “Action, not words!”.The sabotage of the march on Paris
For some weeks, hundreds of strikes had broken out in local regions throughout France. The major centers, Paris (except for postal workers, hospital, insurance and television workers) and Lyon were relatively untouched by the wave of strikes which went from one factory to another, from one region to another. The union knew they had to prevent an extension of the increasingly explosive movement of workers’ discontent to Paris, the political center and largest proletarian concentration. The union decided on sectoral ‘days of action’, teachers, railway workers, each taking place after the other.
But in the course of the struggles, an idea had been germinating in the minds of the workers of Lorraine and the North: they should march on Paris which held a symbolic value for all the workers’ accumulated discontent. To prevent any risk of an explosion like in 1968, the unions went into action. The CGT called for a march on Paris for 23 March; and meanwhile the CGT, CFDT and all the other unions, sabotaged the movement of discontent in Paris. They applied themselves to getting the bank workers, SFP workers and postal workers back to work and just like the bourgeois press they lied by making out that each strike movement was isolated from the other. They hid the extent of the strikes and the discontent, and ‘bit by bit’ they got the workers back to work.
But the union strategy to derail and exhaust the workers’ combativity had to be much more delicate when it came to the workers from Lorraine and the North. The aim of the unions was to slowly but surely exhaust this combativity of the steelworkers from Lorraine and the North before the workers in Paris reacted which would risk sparking off an explosion. They couldn’t be sure that the march on Paris, chosen for a date when some sectors would have already gone back to work, wouldn’t bring back on strike thousands of workers who would join this march.
The unions’ policy towards the demonstration (above all the CGT’s) was a masterpiece of sabotage. Everything was done to prevent workers from the Paris region, from Lorraine, from the North, uniting in struggle. The CGT, which had called for a march on Paris as early as 10 February abandoned this idea some days later and spoke of regional marches. They threw doubt on the idea of holding a march, an idea which had spontaneously arisen in the minds of the workers of Lorraine and the North, who, in a confused way, felt that their strength could only develop in direct association with the main industrial center (Paris and its suburbs). A detailed division of labor (planned by the union general staff) was organized between the CGT and the CFDT in order to repel workers from the idea of marching on to Paris. The CFDT announced it would not participate in the march. The CGT, in turn, announced that it would not call for a general strike in the Paris region for 23 March. The CGT hoped this march would be proof of its ability to contain the working class and show in deeds that it merited being heavily subsidized by the bourgeoisie. More than 300 CP thugs of the CGT, plus the employees from the communist municipalities were mobilized to make up the ‘service d’ordre’ (demo stewards), in order to prevent any solidarity between workers from the North, from Lorraine and from Paris. Up to the last minute it wasn’t known exactly when or by what means (coaches, trains) the workers from Lorraine and the North would arrive in Paris. At the dead of night they were picked up by CP/CGT coaches and dropped at five different points in the Paris suburbs, at communist municipalities, where local deputies met them, decked out in tricolor ribbons, mouths full of nationalist slogans.
But that was not all. The CGT changed the itinery of the demonstration at the last moment in order to prevent workers coming in contact with the Paris workers returning from work. The demonstration was diverted from the Gare St Lazare, where hundreds of thousands of workers pass daily, towards the posh quarters of the Opera.
That’s how the gut anger of the most combative workers from Lorraine and the North was frustrated from a solidarity march with the workers of Paris. The demonstration was smaller than expected: 100,000 demonstrators, but of these 100,000 you have to deduct the thousands of union police, demo stewards, and all the functionaries of the CP. Certainly in spite of the sabotage, there was a good number of workers: SFP (television) , EDF (electricians) , railway workers, some workers from Renault. The workers from Denain and Longwy were dispersed into union processions in order to avoid any contamination of the demonstration and to stop them appearing as a united body. Nevertheless the union police couldn’t stop the Longwy steelworkers from breaking through the union cordon sanitaire and marching at the head of the demonstration.
A direct collaboration was established between the CRS, the mobile police and union police to prevent workers dispersing and holding meetings. The police were everywhere, the union stewards immediately dispersed the workers arriving at the end of the route, giving the excuse that autonomes were present in the procession, and the police ‘generously’ sprayed the workers with teargas while the CP/CGT thugs savagely thumped young demonstrators and handed some of them over to the police. Finally, the union cops protected the CRS, who were striking demonstrators, from the anger of the steelworkers. Never has the collaboration between the union police and the police been quite so clear.
But more disgusting for the fighters from Longwy and Denain than being bombarded by police tear-gas, was to hear the incessant nationalist slogans and litanies from the CP and CGT, like “Save our national independence”, “Protect us from German trusts”. The workers, forced back to the trains by teargas and the truncheons of the police, will remember the appeals to disperse, the denunciation of the fighters as ‘agents du pouvoir’ (government agents). This led to conflicts even within the union.
The lesson is bitter but necessary: to win, the union cordon sanitaire must be broken through. For the workers who have struggled for weeks against the bourgeoisie, the lesson is not a negative one. The bourgeoisie has been able to exult in denouncing the “violence of the autonomes” and complaisantly spread out in its newspapers photos of hundreds of the CRS charging demonstrators.
To all you gentlemen of the CP, SP, RPR and of the UDF, all tied up in your tricolor sashes, to all you gentlemen leftist touts in the pay of the left of the bourgeoisie, to all you anarchists who clamor for ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ from capitalist class justice, whatever you all shout about, the workers, who by their hundreds have today confronted the police, are strengthened by an experience that, without your power and in spite of it, they will add to and integrate into all workers’ struggles2.
Although isolated, the workers of the North and Lorraine haven’t lost their combativity, their will to fight the bourgeoisie. Certainly, there weren’t many workers from Paris participating in the demonstration. Certainly, many workers were disgusted by the maneuvers of the CGT and CFDT. But this demo was a lesson for them, showing that they either have to retreat and accept lay-offs, or deepen their movement, organize themselves outside the trade unions. The workers have lost their taste for union-led promenades, sectoral and regional strikes. They felt their own strength and determination when they were going outside the unions and confronting the state.Some lessons
When looking at this list of recent events in France -- events which have been accelerating since February -- it is necessary to guard against both:
-- underestimating the situation. The extent of the confrontations, the tendency of the struggles to go outside the unions, the class violence, are only just beginning. The demonstrations and street battles have a different tone from what happened in previous years. There is a mounting movement which is a long way from its culminating point;
-- overestimating the situation. Although there has been a tendency to go outside the unions, the unions have not lost control. They will only lose control when the class violence goes onto a qualitatively higher level: the organization of the workers in general assemblies outside the unions. These have appeared in embryonic form in the organization of workers’ violence against the police. The workers still have to take the enormous step of organizing their own demonstrations, of going en masse to appeal to the solidarity of other workers who are still hesitating to go into action. This will require a clear consciousness of the m-ans and ends of the struggle. This consciousness will not develop in an abstract way, but only in the heat of experience. The proletariat has only begun its struggle. It’s a long way from really declaring class war, as can be seen by the persistence of illusions in the Left and elections. (The recent cantonal elections saw a triumph for the CP and SP and a strong participation by the workers.)
However, despite the Left’s influence over the proletariat, a number of illusions are gradually fading:
-- the unions together with the CP and SP signed an agreement with the bosses and the state which accepts lay-offs due to the bankruptcy of a firm and also accepts that workers will be paid only 65% of their wages and not 90% as before (because there are too many of them to be paid the larger amount) and as well as that they accepted cuts in unemployment benefits. “A great victory!”, claims the CGT and CFDT.
-- the Barre government, despite the combativity of the workers, refuses to give way on its intended lay-offs. The bourgeoisie is prisoner of its economic calculations. It hopes to gain time and relies on arrogance and repression, having for some years got used to a working class controlled by the unions and chloroformed by the Programme Commun. From an economic point of view the bourgeoisie has no choice: the choices are imposed on it by the crisis, and far from permitting greater political flexibility it is driven to be more rigid.
When the bourgeoisie isn’t prepared to give an inch, when the SP through the mouth of Rocard, justifies the austerity measures, then the proletariat has no choice but to answer blow for blow and to go onto the offensive. 11,000 lay-offs in the telephone industry, unemployment planned in the car industry, 30,000 teaching posts eliminated, that’s the reality of the promises made to the steelworkers about job redistribution.
The proletariat in France is at a crossroads. It isn’t its combativity which has surprised the bourgeoisie since 1968, for it has learnt to tremble before at the ease with which the workers are able to massively struggle. What’s worrying it, is to not only see the workers resolutely confront the state, but above all to see it go outside the unions. That didn’t happen even in, 1968.
“There’s a political void” screams every faction of the bourgeoisie, “There’s a union void” reply the Trotskyists in chorus, who are concerned about a “disaffection with the union organizations, seeing as 50 per cent of CGT members from the Moselle metal industry didn’t take up their union cards in March 1973, and likewise 20 per cent of the CFDT members”3.
This ‘void’ which worries the bourgeoisie is the erosion of illusions in the proletariat. This disillusionment is hope. And the proletariat has clearly shown that through its fierce energy in resisting the bourgeoisie’s offensive, through its joy at seeing in Denain and Longwy that it could push back the bourgeoisie. A proletariat that believes in its strength isn’t a class to admit defeat. It now knows that it must go further, that it’s impossible to retreat. To make a sacrifice for its national bourgeoisie’s economic war today, is quite simply to sacrifice itself for out and out war tomorrow.
Certainly, the path of the class struggle is slow, with sharp advances, followed by brutal relapses. But the proletariat learns through its experience, knowing no other school than the struggle itself! It learns that:
-- struggle pays
-- the more the struggle finds its own instruments and its own objectives, the more it pays.
The higher stage of the struggle won’t be found in the multiplying of well-timed, isolated actions by the unions, but in the extension of massive actions organized independently from all union and political apparatuses of the bourgeoisie.
Towards this, the workers must speak out in general assemblies, must themselves seek the solidarity of other workers who are struggling, including the unemployed. The working class must have confidence in itself, it must become conscious that “the emancipation of the workers will be the task of the workers themselves.”
The working class still hesitates, quite surprised at its own audacity. What it needs now is more audacity.
1 Caen, a Normandy town which heralded May 1968 with a whole day of confrontations with the CRS in January 1968.
2 After the 23 Marc demonstration there was a trial (to pass judgment on the ‘wreckers’) at which the anarchists, notably, denied responsibility for the acts of violence committed during the demonstration.
3 Imprecor (15.3.79), the theoretical journal of the Revolutionary Communist League, one of the largest Trotskyist groups in France.