May 1968 (Part 3): The awakening of the working class

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Faced with all the lies about the events of May 68, it is necessary for revolutionaries to re-establish the truth, to draw the real lessons of these events and prevent them being buried under an avalanche of flowers and wreaths.

That's what we have begun to do in publishing the two previous articles that retraced the first component of the ‘events of 68', the student revolt. We are turning here to the essential component of the events: the movement of the working class.

In the first article of the series we concluded: "May 14, discussions continued in many firms. After the immense demonstrations of the previous evening (in solidarity with the student victims of repression), with the enthusiasm and feeling of strength that came out of them, it was difficult to go back to work as if nothing had happened. In Nantes, the workers of Sud-Aviation, led by the youngest among them, unleashed a spontaneous strike and decided to occupy the factory".

This is point at which we take up the story.

The extension of the strike

In Nantes, it was the young workers, the same age as the students, who launched the movement; their reasoning was simple: "if the students, who can't pressurise with strikes, have the strength to knock back the government, the workers can also make it retreat". For their part, the students of the town came to show solidarity with the workers, mingling with the pickets: fraternisation. Here, it was clear that the campaigns of the PCF and the CGT warning against "leftist provocateurs in the pay of the bosses and the Interior Ministry" had only a feeble impact.

In total, there were 3100 strikers on the evening of May 14.

May 15, the movement reached the Renault factory at Cléon, in Normandy as well as two other factories in the region: total strike, unlimited occupation, locking up the management and the red flag on the gates. At the end of the day, there are 11,000 strikers.

May 16, the other Renault factories join the movement: the red flag at Flins, Sandouville, le Mans and Billancourt. That evening there were only 75,000 strikers in total, but Renault joining the struggle is a signal: it's the biggest factory in France (35,000 workers) and for a long time the saying was: "When Renault sneezes, France catches a cold".

On 17 May 215,000 were on strike: the strike was beginning to spread across France, especially in the provinces. It was a totally spontaneous movement; the unions were just following it. Everywhere, the young workers were at the forefront. There were numerous cases of fraternisation between students and young workers: the latter went to the occupied faculties and invited the students to come and eat at their canteens.

There were no specific demands. It was just a general feeling of being fed up. On the walls of a factory in Normandy it said "Time to live and with dignity!" On that day, afraid of being outflanked from below and also by the CFDT which was much more involved in the early strikes, the CGT called for the extension of the strike. It had ‘jumped on the bandwagon' as was said at the time. Its communiqué wasn't known about till the next day.

On the 18 May, a million workers were on strike by midday, even before the CGT line was known about. By the evening it was 2 million. By Monday 20 May there were 4 million on strike and 6 and a half million the day after that.

On 22 May, there were 8 million workers on indefinite strike. It was the biggest strike in the history of the international workers' movement. It was much more massive than the two previous benchmarks: the May 1926 General Strike in Britain (which lasted a week) and the May-June strikes in France in 1936.

All sectors were involved: industry, transport, energy, post and telecommunications, education, administration (several ministries were completely paralysed), the media (national TV was on strike, with workers denouncing the censorship imposed on them), research labs, etc. Even the undertakers were out (it was a bad idea to die in May 68!). Even professional sports people joined the movement: the red flag flew over the building of the Fédération Française de Football. The artists didn't want to be left out and the Cannes Festival was interrupted on the initiative of the film directors.

During this period the occupied faculties (as well as other public buildings, like the Odéon Theatre in Paris) became places of permanent political discussion. Many workers, especially the younger ones but not only them, took part in these discussions. Some workers asked those who defended the idea of revolution to come and argue their point of view in the occupied factories. In Toulouse, the small nucleus which went on to form the ICC's section in France was invited to expound its ideas about workers' councils in the occupied JOB factory. And the most significant thing was that this invitation came from militants of the CGT and the PCF. The latter had to negotiate for an hour with the permanent officials of the CGT, who had come from the big Sud-Aviation factory to ‘reinforce' the JOB strike picket, to get authorisation to allow the ‘leftists' to enter the factory. For more than six hours, workers and revolutionaries, sitting on rolls of cardboard, discussed the revolution, the history of the workers movement, soviets, and even the betrayals...of the PCF and the CGT.

Many discussions also took place in the street, on the pavements (the weather was good all over France in May 68!). They arose spontaneously; everyone had something to say (‘We talk and we listen' as one slogan had it). Everywhere there was an atmosphere of festival, except in the rich neighbourhoods where fear and hatred were building up

All over France, in the neighbourhoods and in or around certain big enterprises, ‘Action Committees' were formed. Within them there were discussions about how to wage the struggle, about the revolutionary perspective. They were generally animated by leftist or anarchist groups but many more were brought together outside of these organisations. At ORTF, the state radio and television station, an Action Committee was created by Michel Drucker, and the hard-to-describe Thierry Rolland was also part of it.

The reaction of the bourgeoisie

Faced with such a situation, the ruling class underwent a period of disarray, expressed in muddled and ineffective initiatives.

Thus, on May 22, the National Assembly, dominated by the right, discussed (before rejecting it) a motion of censure tabled by the left two weeks earlier: the official institutions of the French Republic seemed to live in another world. It's the same for the government that took the decision to forbid the return of Cohn-Bendit who had been to Germany. This decision only increased discontent: May 24 saw multiple demonstrations, notably denouncing the prohibition of Cohn-Bendit: "Frontiers mean fuck all!" "We are all German Jews!" Despite the cordon sanitaire of the CGT against the "adventurers" and "provocateurs" (that's to say the ‘radical' students) many young workers join up with the demonstrations.

In the evening, the President of the Republic, General de Gaulle, gave a speech: he proposed a referendum so that the French could pronounce on "participation" (a sort of capital and labour association). He couldn't have been further from reality. This speech fully revealed the disarray of the government and the bourgeoisie in general [1].

In the street, demonstrators listened to the speech on portable radios, anger still mounting: "His speech is shafting us!" Confrontations and barricades were mounted throughout the night in Paris and several provincial towns. There were numerous windows broken, some cars burnt, which had the effect of turning part of public opinion against the students who were seen as "hooligans". It's probable, moreover, that among the demonstrators were mixed in Gaullist militias or plain clothes police in order to ‘stir things up' and frighten the population. It is clear that a number of students thought they were ‘making a revolution' by throwing up barricades and burning cars, symbols of the ‘consumer society'. But above all these acts expressed the anger of the demonstrators, students and young workers, in the face of the risible and provocative responses of the authorities to the biggest strike in history. An illustration of the anger against the system was the setting alight of that symbol of capitalism, the Paris Bourse.

It was only the following day that the bourgeoisie finally took effective initiatives: on Saturday May 25 the Ministry of Labour (Rue de Grenelle) opened negotiations between unions, bosses and government.

Straightaway, the bosses were ready to give much more than the unions imagined: it's clear that the bourgeoisie was afraid. The Prime Minister, Pompidou presided: on Sunday morning he had an hour-long one to one session with Seguy, boss of the CGT: the two main people responsible for the maintenance of social order in France needed to discuss without witnesses the means to re-establish this order [2].

The night of May 26/27 the "Grenelle Accords" were concluded:

- 7% wage increases for all from June 1st, then 3% from October 1st;

- increase of the minimum wage in the region of 25%;

- reduction of patients' contributions from 30% to 25% (health expenses not paid for by Social Security);

- union recognition within the firm;

- a series of vague promises of negotiations, notably on the length of the working day (which was 47 hours a week on average).

Given the importance and strength of the movement, it was a real provocation:

- the 10% would be wiped out by inflation (which was quite serious during this period);

- nothing on safeguards against inflation in the wage packet;

- nothing concrete on reduction of the working week; they talked about aiming at "the progressive return to 40 hours" (already officially obtained in 1936!); in the time scale proposed by the government it will take... 40 years!;

- the only workers who would gain significantly were the poorest workers (dividing the working class by pushing them back to work) and the unions, rewarded for their role as saboteurs.

On Monday May 27 the "Grenelle Accords" were unanimously rejected by the workers' assemblies.

At Renault Billancourt, the unions organised a grand ‘show' amply covered by television and radio: coming out of negotiations, Seguy said to journalists: "The return to work won't be long" and he hoped that the workers at Billancourt would give the example. However, 10,000 of them, meeting at dawn, decided to continue the movement even before the arrival of the union leaders.

Benoit Frachon, ‘historic' leader of the CGT (who had been present at the negotiations of 1936) declared: "The Grenelle accords will bring millions of workers a comfort that they couldn't have hoped for": this was greeted by a deadly silence!

Andre Jeanson, of the CDFT, expressed satisfaction with the initial vote in favour of continuing the strike and talked of solidarity of the workers with the students in struggle, bringing the house down.

Seguy, finally, presented "an objective account" of what "had been gained at Grenelle": whistles then general booing for several minutes. Seguy then made an about turn: "If I judge from what I hear, you will not let it happen": applause but in the crowd you could hear remarks like "He's fucking us about".

The best proof of the rejection of the "Grenelle Accords": the number of strikers increased still more on May 27 to reach 9 million.

This same day at the Charléty Stadium in Paris, a big meeting took place called by the student union UNEF, the CDFT (which went one better than the CGT) and the leftist groups. The tone of the speeches was very revolutionary: it was a question of giving an outlet to growing discontent against the CGT and the French Communist Party. Aside from the leftists there was the presence of social democratic politicians like Mendes-France (old boss of the 50s government). Cohn-Bendit made an appearance (he'd already been at the Sorbonne the night before).

May 28 was the day the parties of the left began their games:

In the morning, François Mitterand, President of the Left Democratic and Socialist Federation (which brought together the Socialist Party, the Radical Party and divers small groups of the left) held a press conference: considering that there was a vacancy for power, he announced his candidature for the Presidency of the Republic. In the afternoon, Waldeck-Rochet, boss of the PCF, proposed a government with "Communist participation": it was important for them not to allow the social democrats to exploit the situation solely for their own benefit. This was relayed the next day, May 29, through a large demonstration called by the CGT demanding a "popular government". The right immediately cried "a communist plot".

This same day, we had the ‘disappearance' of General de Gaulle. There were rumours that he had withdrawn but, in fact, he went to Germany to make sure of the support of the army through General Massu who commanded the occupation troops in Germany.

May 30 constituted a decisive day in the bourgeoisie taking the situation in hand. De Gaulle made a new speech: "In the present circumstances, I will not withdraw (...) I am today dissolving the National Assembly..."

At the same time in Paris, an enormous demonstration in support of De Gaulle took place on the Champs-Élysées. It mobilised those from the posh and wealthy districts and rural areas, thanks to army trucks. The ‘people' came, the wealthy, the well-heeled, and the bourgeois; representatives of religious institutions, high level bureaucrats imbued with their ‘superiority', small businessmen trembling for their shop windows, old combatants embittered by attacks on the French flag, veterans of French Algeria and the OAS, young members of the fascist group Occident, the old nostalgic for Vichy (who, however, detested de Gaulle); this whole, beautiful world came to proclaim its hatred for the working class and its ‘love of order'. In the crowd, alongside the old combatants of ‘Free France', you could hear chants like "Cohn-Bendit to Dachau!".`

But the ‘party of order' couldn't be reduced to those who demonstrated on the Champs- Élysées. The same day, the CGT called for negotiations branch by branch in order to "ameliorate the acquisitions of Grenelle": it was the tactic of dividing the movement so as to finish it off.

The return to work

Elsewhere, from this date (it was a Thursday), the return to work began to take place, but slowly because on June 6 there were still six million on strike. The return to work was made in a dispersed fashion:

- May 31: steel in Lorraine, textiles in the north,

- June 4: weapons manufacture, insurance,

- June 5: electrical supply, coal mines,

- June 6: post, telecommunications, transport (in Paris, the CGT pushed the return to work: in each depot the union leaders announced that other depots had returned to work, which was not true);

- June 7: primary teachers;

- June 10: the police forces occupy the Renault factory at Flins: a student charged by the police falls into the Seine and drowns;

- June 11: intervention of the CRS at the Peugeot factory at Sochaux (second largest in France); 2 workers are killed.

We then see new demonstrations of violence throughout France: "They have killed our comrades!" At Sochaux, facing the determined resistance of the workers, the CRS evacuated the factory: work only resumed 10 days later.

Fearing that the indignation would only re-launch the strike (3 million still remained on strike), the unions (with the CGT at their head) and the parties of the left led by the PCF, insistently called for a return to work "so that the elections can take place and complete the victory of the working class". The Communist Party daily, l'Humanité, headlined: "Strong with their victory, millions of workers go back to work".

The systematic appeal for a strike by the unions from May 20 now has its explanation: they had to control the movement in order to provoke the return of the less combative sectors and demoralise the others.

Waldeck-Rochet, in his speeches on the electoral campaign declared that: "The Communist Party is the party of order". And, little by little, bourgeois order returned:

- June 12: secondary teachers return;

- June 14: Air France and merchant marine;

- June 16: the Sorbonne is occupied by the police;

- June 17: chaotic return at Renault Billancourt;

- June 18: de Gaulle frees the leaders of the OAS who were still in prison;

- June 23: first round of the legislative elections with gains for the right;

- June 24: return to work at the Citroën Javel factory (Krasucki, number two of the CGT, spoke at an assembly calling for an end to the strike);

- June 26: Usinor Dunkirk goes back;

- June 30: second round of the elections with a historic victory for the right.

One of the last firms to go back to work was the ORTF on July 12: numerous journalists didn't want to return to the restrictions and censorship that they submitted to before from the government. After the return, many of them would be sacked. Order returned throughout, including with the news items that the state judged useful to broadcast to the population.

Thus, the greatest strike in history ended in defeat, contrary to the affirmations of the CGT and of the PCF. A crushing defeat sanctioned by the return in force of the parties and of the ‘authorities' that had vilified the movement. But the workers' movement has known for a long time that: "The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding unions of the workers" (Communist Manifesto). Also, beyond their immediate defeat, the workers in France, in 1968, gained a great victory, not for themselves but for the whole of the world proletariat. That is what we are going to look at in the next part of this article where we are going to try to show the fundamental causes, as well as the world and historic stakes, of France's ‘merry month of May'. Fabienne (27.4.2008)

[1] The day after the speech, municipal employees of many districts announced that they would refuse to organise a referendum. Similarly, the authorities couldn't print the voting forms: the national print works was on strike and private printers (who weren't) refused to do it: their bosses didn't want supplementary problems with the workers.


[2] Later it was learnt that Chirac, Secretary of State for Social Affairs, had also met (in an attic!) Krasucki, number two of the CGT.


Historic events: 

History of the workers' movement: