What the events of May-June 1968 in France did, was to wipe out almost overnight all the nonsense about the “impossibility” of mass social movements in the industrialised countries. Indeed, within just about three weeks, millions of people came into activity with a common purpose and demonstrated what this could produce. The general strike was no longer a romantic dream, it was there. And if it was there, this meant that the western working class was not a spent corrupted force, as it had been portrayed for so long, and that the prospect of the proletarian revolution was still valid, even if it was not there yet, in any shape or form.

These events did much more than that in fact. Out of the universities spread a blossoming of new ideas produced by a healthy and systematic critique of all the cliches and prejudices that permeated social life. At the same time, a festive tide of freedom, democracy, solidarity and strength swept the country, penetrating the factories, the offices, the council estates and even the usually traditionalist ranks of the rural population.

All this left unforgettable memories with all participants. It gave them a foretaste of the explosion of creativity that the eruption of millions of energies on the social scene will produce – a foretaste of the social revolution to come.

At the same time, a whole generation of workers – mostly young, but some who were older too – discovered both the existence of a revolutionary current to the left of the Communist Party and the reactionary role played by this party. After many decades of isolation, this opened the possibility of a revolutionary tradition being built afresh in the ranks of the working class.

This is to say, in passing, that one should not over-estimate today’s “new” thinking and the accompanying dismissal of working class ideas from all quarters. We’ve seen it all aready. This “new” stuff is just rehashed old hat and it will be wiped out by the first favourable shift in the social balance of forces, just as it was by the May 1968 events.

The Algerian War and De Gaulle’s regime

There was a symbolic significance in the fact that the key turning point in the ascending phase of the 1968 events in France happened to be precisely the 10th anniversary of the constitutional coup which had brought general De Gaulle to power. Indeed, the particular nature of De Gaulle’s regime was a significant, if not a decisive factor, in bringing about the May explosion. At the same time, De Gaulle’s failure to prevent this explosion from happening was felt, in and of itself, as a victory, which gave a considerable boost to the revolt and signalled the beginning of the end for De Gaulle’s so far unchallenged power.

The peculiarities of De Gaulle’s regime were due to the fact that it had come to power in order to resolve a crisis within the French bourgeoisie itself – a crisis which resulted from the war of national liberation in Algeria, then a French colony. By 1956, what had been initially a limited uprising in Algeria, had turned into a real war for independence. That year, a general election returned a Socialist Party-led government with Guy Mollet as prime minister, with a clear pledge to bring peace in Algeria. But Guy Mollet’s first move was to order hundreds of thousands of ex-conscripts to rejoin the army, while sending massive military reinforcements to Algeria. This, in effect marked the beginning of the Algerian war.

It did not take long for the French bourgeoisie to realise that this was an unwinnable war. This raised the question of an alternative – a settlement which would both satisfy the demands of the Algerian nationalists and protect the interests of French companies. But there was a major obstacle on the way to such a settlement – the opposition of a very large section of the two million or so French settlers in Algeria. Reactionary forces were able to use this issue to whip up support. There were large-scale riots in the main Algerian towns, in which settlers accused Guy Mollet’s government of selling out the colony and demanded his resignation. In France itself, the pro-colonial current had significant support among the traditional right-wing electorate. The right-wing opposition parties quickly switched to vociferous pro-colonial demagogy, hoping to force a new general election.

Two years after he had come into office, Guy Mollet was paralysed. He had a war on his hands but was practically unable to get any decision through parliament. Moreover, the state machinery itself was becoming a hotbed of reactionary opposition, particularly from army officers. So Mollet looked for someone who would have the authority to get both the army and the right-wing parties to toe the line. He went to fetch general De Gaulle.

De Gaulle had remained on the sidelines since he had left government in 1946, waiting for the right time to return to power. He enjoyed considerable support among the reactionary layers of the population, including in Algeria, and of course in the army. But his support went further than that, among large layers of the petty-bourgeoisie and even the working class, due to his image as the former leader of the French bourgeois Resistance against German occupation during World War II. Besides, he appeared, with the help of the Socialist and Communist parties, as the last and only resort against the threat of a possible far-right coup.

All this gave De Gaulle’s regime a large cross-party electoral base, allowing him to legislate over the heads of political parties, by resorting to referendums. He made constitutional changes, which protected his regime from the politicians’ endless rivalries and gave him dictatorial powers if required. At the same time De Gaulle proceeded to break his own promises to his right-wing supporters by seeking a settlement in Algeria. It took another four years of a bloody war before it was finally reached in 1962.

Nothing illustrates better the nature of De Gaulle’s regime than the episode of the 1961 military coup attempt. This was started in Algeria, in April, by a section of the army general staff, with wide support among the Algerian settlers. The insurgents threatened to drop paratroopers over Paris unless De Gaulle gave in to their demands – which were basically to put the army in the driving seat and intensify the war effort in Algeria with the military help of the USA. De Gaulle’s counter-attack did not only involve using the usual repressive devices of the state machinery, he also got the Communist Party-led union confederation, the CGT to call a general strike – even if only for a few hours! From his postwar days in government with the CP, De Gaulle knew how to use the CP while keeping them at arms length.

This did not make De Gaulle’s regime any more liberal, however. During the war itself, in 1961, several hundred Algerian workers were killed during one single demonstration in Paris. Later that year, eight left-wing demonstrators died in a banned march called by the CP, among others. And of course, hundreds of thousands of youth, who were conscripted into the army, went through the terrible experience of a vicious colonial war, with all the moral consequences this may have. After the war was over, time and again, workers were requisitioned in an effort to break strikes in the public sector. Many were sacked, sometimes even jailed, for defying the requisition orders. Left-wing political activities were often interfered with by the police. For all its populist edge, this regime was a repressive one.

But this apparent strength of De Gaulle’s regime depended primarily on the fact that it seemed to enjoy cross-class support. It was strong only as long as it remained unchallenged by the working class. In that respect, there was a sort of division of labour between De Gaulle and the CP and union bureaucrats. The CP often called De Gaulle a “fascist”. This was convenient demagogy, which allowed the CGT leaders to argue all through these years that it was impossible to wage a real fight against De Gaulle because his regime was so strong. So that whenever workers wanted to take action, the only option on offer was rolling strikes, which of course never achieved anything. Yet disputes such as the 5-week long strike by 300,000 miners in 1963, showed that it was possible to fight. But for the union leadership, such excuses were very convenient to keep the lid on militancy.

However, once the weaknesses of De Gaulle’s strong regime became visible in the early days of May 1968, this opened the gates to the flood of resentment which had been building up for a whole decade.

The spark that set off the explosion

As is well known the May events began in the universities. The starting point was, as is often the case in student movements, purely sectional: the dereliction and overcrowding of universities, which were bursting at the seams due to the trebling of the number of students in less than a decade, and the government’s plans to impose exams in order to reduce the numbers of first year students.

As is also often the case too in student movements, there was an element of anarchistic defiance against the establishment, but until the beginning of May, this only involved a small minority. The main student union, the UNEF, which was to play the leading role in May among the students, was in a dire state with only 30,000 paper members, less than one third of its membership at the end of the Algerian war. As to far-left organisations, they were only tiny in the universities, even though this was where they had most of their members. Even the demonstrations against the Vietnam war, by far the most popular issue among students, only attracted at best a few thousand of them.

What changed the nature of the student mobilisation and politicised it was the heavy-handed tactics of the state. After several months of limited but on-going unrest in some universities, De Gaulle’s government decided to send in the police to restore order. On Thursday May 2nd, the Nanterre university, in the north-western suburbs of Paris, was occupied by the military riot police, known as the CRS, and closed. The next day, while the Nanterre students were holding mass meetings at what was then the main Paris university, the Sorbonne, the police and CRS broke in, bashing the heads of students with their truncheons and arresting dozens of them. Then the Sorbonne was closed as well.

This resulted into the first spontaneous demonstrations in the inner Paris student district, the Latin Quarter. Thousands of students used everything at hand to attack the riot police – from the grids surrounding the trees, to paving stones and even antiquated metal loos. The fighting went on for hours and 598 demonstrators were arrested.

But there was also a big surprise on that day. The police were ill-prepared for such a reaction, with only limited equipment and no clear orders. Suddenly at one point, on the boulevard St Germain, one of the main avenues of the Latin Quarter, the police began to retreat – the same police which had been responsible for the death of so many demonstrators just a few years before! Despite the number of arrests and injured, nothing could have boosted the morale of students more than this.

During the weekend, the Latin Quarter was flooded with police. But this did not prevent large-scale demonstrations and riots from taking place every day over the following week, each time with several hundred arrested and as many injured.

Thus on Monday 6th, there were 20,000 demonstrators in the morning, who then invaded the Latin Quarter to have a go at the cops. On that day, students went on strike and occupied most universities across the country. On Tuesday, there were 50,000 demonstrators in Paris, this time behind what became known as the UNEF’s “three points”: the police out of the Latin Quarter, all those arrested to be released and all sentences to be quashed, all universities to be reopened. Wednesday and Thursday were relatively calm – “only” 20,000 demonstrators. But the movement was now spreading to the much larger high school student population, who set up in the process their own organisations – the CAL or High School Action Committees.

Come the Friday, there were 50,000 demonstrators this time, many of them much younger than the previous days, showing that the more dynamic ranks of the high schools were now in the movement. Besides, there were significant groups of working class youth coming from the suburbs, who had been impressed by the previous days’ fighting and had come to “give a hand” to the students. At the end of the march, while the UNEF was locked in negotiations with the government over their “three points”, thousands of youth converged towards the Latin Quarter, still occupied by the police. Soon the scuffles turned into full-blown street battles all over the Latin Quarter. Barricades were built, cars were set alight and petrol bombs were manufactured on the spot. The fighting lasted throughout the night until seven in the morning. The brutality of the police was so shocking that many demonstrators were offered shelter by the areas’s well-heeded residents.

Officially, the “Night of the Barricades”, as it became known, left 367 injured. But this understated the actual casualties as, following the experience of the previous days, when the police had arrested many injured demonstrators while they were in hospital, this time the students had organised a complete and well-equipped infirmary in one of the nearby high schools.

More importantly, although the state radio had been ordered not to report on the fighting, the private radios, which were broadcasting from Luxemburg and Belgium, and therefore were out of the reach of De Gaulle’s police, had grabbed the opportunity to boost their audiences by having live coverage throughout the night – just as if this was a soccer final. Across the Paris suburbs, tens of thousand of people spent the night next to their radio sets, listening to the reporters’ accounts of the police going on the rampage and worrying about their kids’ skulls. The next day, the night-time listeners brought the news to their neighbours and their indignation began to spread like wildfire in the working class districts.

The turning point

So far, the Communist Party had derided the student movement. For instance, on May 3rd, the CP’s daily paper l’Humanité carried a leading article untitled «phony revolutionaries who must be unmasked», which accused the far-left of manipulating the movement and described far-left activists as «the sons of rich bourgeois, who despise students from working class families and will soon tone down their revolutionary fervor in order to exploit workers». Two days later, a leaflet given out massively by the CP’s student organisation, the UEC, accused revolutionary groups of being «objective allies of the Gaullist power» and of facilitating both the activities of the far-right and the brutality of the police. Of course, none of this went down very well among the students. During these days, prominent CP intellectuals, like the famous poet and novelist Louis Aragon, had to make a discreet exit more than once, in order to escape from angry students.

Eventually on May 8th, l’Humanité offered its support to the UNEF “three points” but, even then, not without a violent condemnation of the “leftists” as they then called the revolutionary groups.

After the “Night of the Barricades”, however, the attitude of the CP changed, not with regard to the far-left of course, which remained the number one public enemy for the CP, but towards the movement as a whole. The CP leadership had enough feelers in the working class to be aware of the growing anger against the police. On the Saturday, a special edition of l’Humanité came out with «Stop the repression» in huge letters on its front page. That same day the CGT joined the UNEF, the two smaller union confederations CFDT and FO and the teachers’ federation FEN, in calling for a one-day general strike on Monday 13th together with demonstrations across the country.

In the meantime, De Gaulle’s prime minister, Georges Pompidou, had returned from an official visit to Afghanistan. In an attempt to reduce the tension, Pompidou made some concessions by freeing all the demonstrators arrested during the “Night of the Barricades” and ordering the police out of the Latin Quarter. As it turned out, these belated concessions had a very different impact than what Pompidou had expected. For the first time ever, De Gaulle’s regime was seen to back down in front of demonstrators. So maybe it was not true, after all, what the CP and union leaders had argued for so long – maybe De Gaulle could be forced to give in. And if merely calling a one-day general strike was enough to force the government into the defensive, wasn’t it conceivable to force De Gaulle to concede a lot more, should a real strike develop? This argument was slowly taking shape in the minds of tens of thousands of workers across the country on the eve of May 13th.

That day was a watershed. The entire country was paralysed. All the discontent that had been simmering for years flooded to the surface at once. In all the main cities workers and students demonstrated together. Paris saw its largest demonstration since 1945 – the papers mentioned one million demonstrators although no-one will ever know for sure. Instead of the usual tricolour flags and “Marseillaise” song, which were usually the trademark of CP-led demonstrations, this time there were red flags everywhere and the “Internationale” kept erupting. The younger demonstrators had to learn the words, but the old-timers were there to help them, often with tears in their eyes – after so many years in which the revolutionary proletarian song had been swept under the carpet by the CP leadership.

At the end of the demonstration, there were somes scuffles between the CGT stewards and those who wanted to take the demonstration into the Latin Quarter. But this did not prevent 50,000 people from regrouping around the Eiffel tower, before marching triumphantly into the Latin Quarter. Among those who occupied the Sorbonne that evening, there were not just students but also many young workers who were determined to have a taste of what they considered already as their victory.

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The rising tide of strikes

For the first time in more than two decades, the working class had been able to measure its own strength. When they went back to work the next day, in most factories and offices there was more discussion than actual work done. Workers talked about the confrontations between the students and the police, about the Sorbonne which had been re-occupied and turned into a revolutionary forum and about the success of the previous day’s strike.

Discontent had been accumulating for years – about everything, from working conditions and speedups, to low wages, lack of public transport, lack of cheap housing, problems with the health service, rising taxes and prices, etc… In the previous months, there had been signs of this growing discontent: a post office strike had taken place in Autumn 1967; then in December a strike over planned changes in the welfare system had paralysed several industries, including the press; at the end of January 1968, at Caen in Normandy, the Saviem truck factory, whose management was well-known for its repressive methods, had been occupied for two weeks; there had been also numerous short strikes in the aircraft industry.

So, on May 14th, after the previous day’s success, the idea of strike action was on everyone’s mind. Yet nothing was coming from union headquarters. But then came the news that the 2,000 workers at the Sud-Aviation aircraft factory in Nantes, had occupied the plant and locked up the manager in his office (he was actually to be kept there for the next 15 days!). The following day, young workers at the Renault assembly plant at Cléon, in Normandy, mostly on probation or short-term contracts, decided not to wait any longer. They called a strike meeting and convinced their workmates to occupy the plant, despite the conspicuous reluctance of union officials. The same day, the Paris taxi drivers went on all out strike. On May 16th, one after the other, all Renault factories were occupied, including the traditional beacon of the French working class movement – the Billancourt factory with its 34,000 workers in the west suburbs of Paris.

The strike at Billancourt was the decisive signal. The railways and post office followed the next day, then the electricity and Paris Metro and the toughest car manufacturers – Peugeot and Citroën. The wave of strikes spread steadily like a powerful rising tide, almost always with the decision to occupy the workplace. The traditionally more militant industries such as engineering, electricity and mining were not the only ones to be affected. Building, transport, local and central government, agriculture, insurance and banking, etc.. joined in. Many smaller paternalist companies which had never ever been on strike were hit as well.

By May 20th every industry was affected, but more workplaces kept joining in. At the peak of the general strike, on May 25th, there were between eight and ten million strikers – that is roughly three times as many as in the previous general strike, in June 1936. Yet, there was still no national instruction coming from the union leaders. And there was to be none, at least not until they decided to bring the movement to an end.

Despite the absence of a national call, however, the CGT leadership played a role, which was certainly decisive at this point, in spreading the strike. Initially, the policy of the CGT leadership had been to ignore the first strikes, hoping that they would remain isolated phenomena. Then, after the first Renault factory was occupied, the unofficial instruction circulated among CGT officials was not to oppose rank-and-file initiatives. But when it became clear that the strike wave was gathering even more momentum, CGT activists were instructed to pre-empt the grassroots by initiating strikes everywhere. By then, the CGT leadership’s aim was to take the leadership of the strike wave in order to control it, rather than take the risk of it developing openly against its will.

But even then, there was never any attempt to provide the strikers with clear common objectives which might have welded the strike wave into one big general strike. Nor was there even the recognition, in the official statements issued by CGT leaders, that a general strike was on.

One of the problems of the CP-CGT leaders at that point was that this tidal wave of strikes was developing not over any particular demand, but clearly against De Gaulle’s regime. Workers wanted to settle accounts with De Gaulle and the bosses. This was threatening to lead to an open confrontation with the government, which the CP leadership did not want to risk – not because they were afraid of a failure, but rather because they were afraid of a success. The last thing they wanted was the working class to be reinforced by a political victory over the regime, which would have made a mockery of the CP’s tame electoral strategy and upset the trade union leaders’ established relationship with the bosses.

In order to try to conceal the strike wave’s political edge, the CGT apparatus did their best to maintain the fiction that the strikes were solely over bread-and-butter issues. So a set of demands was cobbled together by the CGT leaders and more or less endorsed, using various formulations to make them sound more “local”, in almost every striking workplace. This included: a monthly minimum wage of 1000F, the return of the working week to 40 hours, pensionable age to be brought down from 65 to 60, and wages to be paid fully for the duration of the strike. This last demand, which was initially formulated in a mass meeting at the Renault-Billancourt factory, was highly unusual and would have been considered totally utopian just a few weeks before. But in the context of the general enthusiasm, it did not seem out of place. It was a way for the strikers to say to De Gaulle and the bosses: “ten years is enough, here’s the bill”. And anyway, for most strikers, it was not so much the demands that mattered, than the defiance which they expressed. This was the reason for the workplace occupations too – a tradition which dated back to the 1936 general strike, but had been largely forgotten since, except in a few industries.

In any case, regardless of the stenuous efforts of the union leadership, this was unsmistakably a political strike.

A festival of freedom and democracy

It is ironic to hear commentators on British television today likening the participants of May 1968 to today’s road protestors or hunt saboteurs. This certainly shows that there is no limit to the ignorance and unprofessionalism of TV presenters! For nothing can be more remote from the climate of the 1968 general strike in France than the individualism and hostility to any form of politics and organisation displayed today by these fringe elements of Thatcher’s society – who even refuse to be called “radicals”. Even the hippy-style image, which is commonly credited to the 1968 generation, never concerned more than a tiny minority in France, which was never prominent during the events.

In the general atmosphere of enthusiasm and freedom, people did not feel any compulsion to look weird, put rings in their noses or shave only half of their hair, in order to assert their non-conformism, individuality or whatever other difference. People felt free and there was no need to assert this feeling individually since it was shared by everyone. There was a deep determination to investigate all ideas. Creation was seen as a collective act and discussion as part of a learning process whereby everyone brought what he could to the collective consciousness and took what he found.

One of the most striking and unforgettable features of these events was a hunger for ideas, and political ideas in particular, and the democratic climate which presided over even the most heated debates. After May 13th, when the Sorbonne was occupied, it was turned into a permanent forum of ideas. Every known political group, together with a lot of unknown ones which kept appearing and disappearing during the events, had a press table and organised discussion groups throughout the day and often throughout the night too. Such was the democratic atmosphere that even the Communist Party was allowed to join in on an equal footing with everyone else, despite the deep resentment that the CP’s slandering of the movement had created among the students.

At the Sorbonne, every one of the huge numbers of local papers produced by the movement could be found. Most were merely duplicated, but two at least were printed. Action, in particular, the paper of the loose network of “action committees”, started off as a printed weekly before turning almost daily in early June. Every day thousands of people came to the Sorbonne, just looking for the latest news. Many ended up sitting through discussions or lectures on just about anything, from the Russian revolution to surrealist poetry and the basics of nuclear physics.

Shortly after the Sorbonne was occupied, it became obvious that it would be too small to accommodate the growing numbers of people who came there to satisfy their hunger for ideas. So the nearby Odeon theatre, one of the most famous stage theatres in Paris, was occupied. According to a team of journalists who tried to keep account of the audience, over 10,000 people participated in the debates each day. Often famous artists, playwrights, film directors, scientists, etc.. could be seen among the audience, without any particular privileges, just like the young apprentices who came down on foot from some distant suburbs for a whiff of knowledge, politics and freedom

For, although the majority of the audience was usually made of students or teachers, many young workers got into the habit of coming every day to the Latin Quarter – thanks to the free time they had due to the strike. They discovered everything, from the extent of the wealthy’s class privileges to the economic nature of the capitalist exploitation, which they had so far resented but half-accepted as inevitable. Endless discussions were held about the best way to achieve unity between the students’ and workers’ movements. Often these discussions went one step further, in attempting to imagine a society in which there would be no such distinction between manual and intellectual workers, in which all the tasks would be organised collectively and shared. And these young workers, who knew something of the benefits of large industry, brought the utopian dreams of the middle-class students back to more concrete realities. Then someone would exclaim: “oh, but this is Marx’s communism you’re describing”. And the young enthusiasts would discover that it was that sort of communism they wanted – not the legalistic and repulsive distortion advocated by the CP, but the real thing.

There was no space for individualism during these days. In fact, even the most anarchistic participant in the May 1968 events was involved in at least half-a-dozen different committees – whether it be one of the thousands of “action committees” which mushroomed just about anywhere, the occupation committees, the agit-prop committees, the district committees, the arts committes, etc.. Then there was the endless list of sub-committees and workshops which were set up to attend to particular tasks, from stewarding marches to printing leaflets, running nurseries or infirmaries, cleaning the occupied buildings, putting up posters, etc..

Everywhere these committees sought the control of the people around them, holding public meetings every day for this purpose. All this seemed to operate in a rather generous and haphazard fashion. But it worked. Not due to some abstract discipline (a word which was not very well considered, smacking too much of bourgeois order). No, what held everything together was a sense of common purpose, of solidarity, and the collective pressure exercised on each individual by the committees’ daily meetings, when they did not meet several times a day. Everyone rejected the monolithic, undemocratic organisational model of the Communist Party, but no-one disputed the need for organisation and true discipline, that is the discipline produced by democratic debate and mutual esteem.

De Gaulle weighs the odds

Up until May 18th, De Gaulle had been touring Romania on an official visit. The attempt of his prime minister, Pompidou, to head off the students’ unrest by withdrawing the police from the Latin Quarter had turned into a disaster. The general strike had taken everyone by surprise, including the government.

When De Gaulle returned, he proceeded to assess the relationship of forces. But there was one element which he could not know – the depth of the working class mobilisation and the ability, and will, of the CP and CGT leaders to keep it under control and bring it to an end.

So, while adopting a much firmer language in order to bring an end to the growing feeling that the state was paralysed, De Gaulle adopted a wait and see policy.

On May 22nd, the government’s firmer line was expressed by a deportation order served against Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a German anarchist student who had emerged as one of the movement’s most popular leaders. De Gaulle knew that given the total chaos created by the general strike, this was at best a symbolic gesture. Indeed, although the deportation order was issued while Cohn-Bendit was in Holland, nine days later he was holding a press conference at the Paris Sorbonne, making a laughing stock of the French police. But, for De Gaulle this did not matter. There was a careful calculation behind his symbolic gesture. On the one hand it was a reassuring signal addressed at the conservative electorate who were being told by De Gaulle’s rivals among the right-wing parties that the “great man” had served his time. On the other hand, this provocation was a way of testing the reactions of the student movement and, more importantly, that of the CP.

Indeed, within just two hours of the announcement, the students reacted with a 10,000-strong demonstration yelling «We are all German Jews» (Cohn-Bendit’s Jewish roots had been heavily emphasised by right-wing papers). But l’Humanité, which only two weeks before had referred to the «dubious role of a German anarchist», had nothing to say about the deportation order, let alone anything against it.

This marked a turning point in the CP’s policy. Since May 13th, the CP and CGT had responded to the sympathy felt by workers for the students, by joining forces reluctantly with the UNEF in every demonstrations. But when De Gaulle confronted the CP with choosing publicly between the camp of the students fighting the police and that of “law and order”, the CP chose the latter. Under the dishonest pretext that they would have nothing to do with a «provocateur» (as l’Humanité called him) like Cohn-Bendit, the CP and CGT broke their alliance with the UNEF and proceeded to show that the unions meant “order” as opposed to the «wreckers» who «manipulated» the students movement, to use l’Humanité’s own words.

May 23rd was marked by another night of confrontation between the students and the police. The next day, May 24th, the CGT sabotaged a call by the UNEF to a large demonstration in the centre of Paris against Cohn-Bendit’s deportation and repression in general. Refusing to support this call, the CGT organised four different marches – two in the suburbs and two in inner Paris – which were timed so as to make it impossible for the students to join ranks with the CGT marchers. In fact, there is every reason to think that the CGT leadership made an agreement with the police: there were no police at all along the CGT marches, but when the student demonstrators arrived at the starting point of the nearest CGT march, which had just been vacated by the marchers, the place was flooded with riot police who attacked the demonstration. The police chiefs were obviously determined to help the CGT leadership to prevent the students from joining ranks with the trade-union marches.

That evening, the 50,000 student demonstration, which had been joined by many workers who had failed to catch up with the CGT marches, flooded areas which did not normally see demonstrations. The Opera district (something like the equivalent of London’s Regent Street area) was the scene of violent confrontations with the police, as well as, more symbolically, the area of the Stock Exchange which was partly set on fire by the demonstrators, without this causing too much damage. During the night, street fighting spread to the area North of the river Seine and the Latin Quarter. Two main police stations were attacked by the demonstrators, one of them being occupied and ransacked. Similar confrontations took place in all main towns across France. In Paris alone, this night left 500 injured among the demonstrators while 800 were arrested.

The next day, many papers claimed that an “attempted coup” by left-wing “agitators” had been foiled, while they praised union leaders for their orderly marches. This was exactly what the CP leadership had wanted. But it was also what De Gaulle had been hoping for – this allowed his prime minister to announce that, from now on, «demonstrations will be dispersed with the most extreme energy».

By then, therefore, the “law and order party” – that is the shapeless conglomerate of political forces which had so far lined up behind De Gaulle – was attempting to regain the initiative after nearly two weeks of inactivity. It was doing so in another way as well. On May 24th, before the fighting started in the center of Paris, De Gaulle made a speech, which was broadcasted on radio and television and carefully listened to by all those actively involved in the movement. In this speech, De Gaulle stated his support for reforms and announced that in the coming days negotiations were to be held between the bosses, the government and the trade unions, and that a referendum over proposed reforms would be held in the coming weeks. In his attempt to shift the political agenda back into the framework of bourgeois democracy, De Gaulle also stressed that, should the referendum vote go against his proposals, he would resign. This was addressed at both his supporters and his opponents. It was a way of saying to the former that they should close ranks around him and to the latter that they did not need demonstrations or strikes to get rid of him – the referendum would give them a chance.

The fact that this “law and order party” was trying to regain the initiative did not mean, however, that it was in a strong position. Of course, the state machinery was in no way threatened with collapse – as any demonstrator knew all too well, the clubs of the police were still as hard as ever. But, by then, the inability of the state to restore order in the streets had become obvious – to the point that this was beginning to produce uneasiness among the police itself, with several police associations issuing statements pointing out that their members too had demands to raise. Likewise the general strike was still showing no signs of weakening. The government’s attempts at using the army to replace public transport and collect the rubbish in the main towns had primarily exposed the army’s inefficiency. As to restarting the rest of industry, there was no way the state could do that.

So these moves were more like an uneasy attempt by De Gaulle to try to contain street and industrial unrest. But as far as the streets were concerned, this attempt was a failure even before it started – as was shown on that very same day by the large-scale fighting in Paris wealthy and business districts.

Grenelle fails to head off the general strike

On Saturday 25th, the announced negotiations with the unions started at the labour ministry, in Grenelle Street. They went on non-stop until the early hours on Monday 27th, when an agreement was signed, which became known as the “Grenelle agreement”. When the first edition of the afternoon papers came out that day, they carried triumphant headlines – at last, all was going to go back to normal, or so they thought.

The content of the agreement spoke for itself. The legal minimum wage was to increase by 35 percent, to 519F a month for a 40-hour week (of course, nearly a third of all manual workers earned less than 500F, but this was less than the 600F that the unions themselves had demanded before the events, not to mention the 1000F demand of the strikers). All wages were to be raised by 7 percent in June and another 3 percent in October (but this was to include all the wage increases already granted for the year). Finally half of the wages for the strike period would be paid, but this would have to be made up through overtime or small monthly deduction over the next year. And that was it. In a sense, therefore, the agreement recognised the extent of the strike, with a sizeable increase of the minimum wage, but it was nowhere near what most strikers would have considered as an acceptable settlement.

In other words, the union leaders had signed an agreement which in no way reflected the balance of forces created by the general strike. They were not even prepared to make the bosses pay a decent price in exchange for organising the return to work.

However, De Gaulle’s attempt at taking the edge of the strikes with this paltry agreement proved almost immediately to be a failure (at least for the time being).

That very same morning, Frachon and Séguy, the president and general secretary of the CGT went to Renault-Billancourt to present their alleged “victory”. They had chosen this particular factory for two reasons. On the one hand, in the same way as it had signalled the extension of the strike, this factory was prestigious enough nationally to lead a return to work. On the other hand, the CGT leaders hoped that the large CP and CGT apparatuses within that plant would guarantee them the support of the audience and keep possible opponents quiet. As it happened, a big surprise was waiting for them. Not only had large numbers of workers turned up for a mass meeting which had been hardly advertised, but the overwhelming majority of the audience heckled and booed Frachon, the CGT’s “historic” leader, even before he had time to finish listing the so-called “gains”. Then a vote was taken which overwhelmingly endorsed a proposal to carry on the strike until the original demands were met in full.

The CGT and CP leadership were probably caught unawares by the strikers’ resilience. In any case at Renault-Billancourt, they immediately backpeddled by claiming that, of course, they had not signed an agreement as such, but only a “statement” which could serve as the basis for a possible agreement, that is if it was endorsed by the strikers, of course…

But then reports of similar angry reactions came to CGT headquarters from some of the decisive heavy industry factories, where the agreement had been presented – the Citroën factories in Paris, the Berliet heavy truck plant near Lyon, the Sud-Aviation aircraft factories in Nantes and Marseille, Rhodiaceta also near Lyon, a chemical plant which was particularly famous for its militancy, etc.. So, the fairy tale offered by Frachon at Renault-Billancourt, on the spur of the moment, became the official line. There was no longer any question of the CGT having signed any agreement and calling the strikers back to work anywhere. On the contrary, the CGT would “carry on with renewed determination the fight for the strikers’ demands” – or so they said.

In any case, De Gaulle was now even more in a mess. He had definitely failed to re-establish the authority of the state, either in the streets or in the factories. And to underline this fact, the regime had to face yet another humiliation on the evening of that very same day, when it did not feel strong enough to ban a meeting at the Charléty Stadium, in the south of Paris, which had been called by the UNEF to protest against the Grenelle agreement. Police headquarters even made themselves ridiculous by issuing stern warnings over the alleged intention of some obscure revolutionary group to bring firearms to this meeting and use them on the cops. As it happened, 70,000 people gathered peacefully at the Charléty Stadium, including, this time, a significant number of striking workers. And while there were no CGT banners, some banners of the CFDT, the second largest confederation, were visible, showing a level of support for a more radical line on the part of a section of the CFDT apparatus – whether this was genuine support or rather an attempt at overbidding the CGT in the hope of recruiting out of its ranks was, however, another question.

The left-wing parties and De Gaulle’s “coup”

What had the parliamentary left-wing parties been doing during these events? The policy of the Communist Party has been previously discussed in relation to the general strike. Unlike the CP, the other left-wing parties had no presence or direct influence in the working class. The least that can be said was that they had kept a very low profile, both with regard to the student movement and the general strike. There was only one exception – the PSU (United Socialist Party), a small party which had come out of a split of the old Socialist Party during the Algerian war. Indeed, some of the leaders of the student movement were PSU members (including most of the UNEF leadership). But the PSU was a very hetero-geneous organisation which combined well-established outright reformists with more radical elements. As a result, the latter ended up refurbishing the image of the former, without the PSU ever putting forward a policy offering a way forward to the movement.

The main left-wing party outside the CP was the Federation of the Democratic and Socialist Left (FGDS), a conglomerate which brought together the remnants of the old discredited Socialist Party and a string of clubs made of elected MPs, councillors, mayors, etc.. or politicians aspiring to an elected job. The leading figure in this disparate lot was none other than Mitterrand, whose political career had been considerably helped by the CP. By and large, the FGDS had been completely forgotten by those participating in the May events. Were it not for the insistence of l’Humanité, which kept demanding day-in and day-out that the FGDS agree to draft a common programme of government, the FGDS would have gone completely under the carpet.

Two weeks after the beginning of the general strike, the FGDS leaders began to realise – as probably many capitalists did – that the weakness shown by De Gaulle’s regime meant that they might soon be in a position to play a political role – even though they probably did not like this prospect themselves. Bourgeois politicians seldom like the idea of coming into office thanks to a general strike, even if it is in order to be in a better position to crush it.

Eventually, on May 28th, Mitterrand resigned himself to hold a press conference. He proposed that De Gaulle should nominate either himself or Pierre Mendès-France, a former radical-socialist prime minister during the Cold War, as prime minister. At the same time, Mitterrand stated that should De Gaulle resign, he would stand for president. This initiative was obviously designed to pre-empt the possibility of a vacuum of power, should the acting government fall apart. In that Mitterrand was merely facing his responsibility as a bourgeois politician and reassuring the capitalist class that he would not allow the state to be undermined in any way. At the same time, Mendès-France was busy building himself the image of a politician with a favourable slant towards the movement, with the support of the CFDT leadership – so he made sure to be seen in demonstrations (before any scuffles could occur) and even on the platform of the Charléty Stadium rally, although he was also careful not to utter a word. In that way a division of labour was established between Mitterrand and Mendès-France, the former taking care of securing the support of the CP while the latter was pulling behind him at least a section of those who had been alienated by the CP’s policy.

This, however, posed a problem for the CP. On the one hand they were expected to do the dirty job of bringing the general strike to a halt – and only the CP could do that – while, on the other hand, Mitterrand and his mates were preparing a government without giving the CP a say. In an effort to put pressure on left-wing politicians as well as on De Gaulle, the CP chose to make a demonstration of strength. On May 29th, for the first time, the CP and the CGT called a demonstration in which political slogans were at the forefront: “for a popular government with the Communist Party” chanted a huge march of several hundred thousand people – which, in passing, showed the extent of the support still enjoyed by the CP and CGT leadership despite their policy.

It was at this precise point that De Gaulle chose to move. Having failed completely in his previous attempts to restore the authority of the state, he changed tack. But by then, after the Grenelle agreement, he knew exactly were the CP and CGT leaders stood – that they were just as keen as he was to stop the unrest. After the CP demonstration on May 28th, he also knew that the CP still had a very large support, probably enough to end the strike. The passivity and reluctance to move displayed by Mitterrand together with the CP’s begging for a government backseat, told De Gaulle that he did not have to fear anything from this quarter. Neither Mitterrand nor the CP would try to use the movement to impose a change in government – all they were aiming at was to replace him in case he resigned, or to serve him in case he dismissed his prime minister. The time was right, therefore, for De Gaulle to prepare his counter-offensive. And really, the only thing he had to do was to reassert his determination to remain in office, so as to reassure the bourgeoisie that they should not fear a power vacuum.

Being an experienced director on the political scene, De Gaulle started by disappearing on the very day of the CP demonstration. Rumours spread that he was about to resign. Then, suddenly, the papers reported that there were troop movements around Paris: several armoured units which, so far, had been involved in military exercises were said to have been called back to their barracks near Paris. Then a “leak” revealed that De Gaulle had been to visit the heads of the French armoured divisions in Germany – probably to secure their support if necessary, wrote the journalists. Having thus alluded to the possibility of the army restoring order, De Gaulle was back in Paris on May 30th, to make an unexpected announcement: not only did he intend to stay in office and keep his present prime minister, but the parliament was to be dissolved and a general election to be organised on June 23rd. In addition, his speech was full of threats, should law and order fail to be restored.

Within two hours of this speech, several hundred thousand demonstrators marched down the Champs Elysées in support of De Gaulle. This was not, of course, the “spontaneous” mobilisation claimed by the papers at the time. All channels of the state machinery had been used in advance, secretly, to ensure the success of this demonstration. But there was nevertheless an element of spontaneity in it – among the marchers were thousands of middle-class people of all sorts, who had rushed to De Gaulle’s call on the radio, desperately thankful of being relieved, at last, of the daily terror they had lived through over a whole month. In any case the very size of this demonstration showed that the situation had reached a point where even the middle-class thought that the question of power could be resolved in the streets.

Only the UNEF reacted by demonstrating in the streets, on its own, the next day. But this was already a rearguard battle as far as the student movement was concerned. Having no influence on the millions of striking workers, the student organisations were reduced to impotence in a battle that was, from now on, taking place above their heads.

De Gaulle’s “coup” was a crude trap laid out for the left-wing to fall into. And they fell into it straight away – what is more, willingly. The left aspiring ministers found nothing to object to, while the CGT returned to its usual obsession – that the strikes should be over economic issues only. And the CP began to prepare itself for an election which could only spell major disaster for it. But, within the constraints of its political choices, it had no other policy at hand. Its efforts to break the strike on behalf of the bourgeoisie were to cost the CP a lot of seats and nothing in return for the next 18 years.

The CGT organises the return to work

For the “democratic process” to take place normally, social unrest had to be ended. It was not even a question of boosting the chances of the left-wing parties, by reassuring a frightened electorate, despite what they themselves argued. Their chances were nil the minute they agreed to discredit themselves in the eyes of the working class electorate by betraying the general strike. In addition, by going along with De Gaulle’s electoralist “coup”, they effectively agreed to join forces with him to restore law and order. By accepting his electoral agenda, they condoned what was effectively a plebiscite for law and order, which left the working class with no voice whatsoever.

The CGT proceeded to organise the return to work. As mentioned earlier the CGT leadership had backpeddled hastily on May 27th, in front of the strikers’ anger. Seguy had reiterated the CGT’s determination to carry on the fight. However, there was a big “but” in the CGT’s official statement, which escaped the attention of many workers. It said that they would not seek another round of national negotiations with the bosses’ organisations – of course, since despite their denial, they had actually signed the Grenelle agreement, which would therefore hold as it was, whatever happened next. Instead, they intended to push the demands through negotiations at company and plant level. This was, from the point of view of the strikers, a recipe for disaster. It was giving up the main asset of the strike – the fact that is was effectively a general strike. At the same time, the CGT was announcing in advance that they were planning to organise the return to work bit by bit, thereby depriving the strikers of any means to measure their real strength.

In the large public services organisations, where the strikers had the least control over the unions, the return to work was often swifter. On May 31st, the strike was called off in the post office; petrol reappeared in the pumps the following day. Then a partial return to work took place in electricty and the Paris Metro. In the railways, things were a bit tougher. In some railway workshops, only the CP activists returned to work, surrounded by angry workers armed with heavy wrenches.

The real headache for the CGT leaders were the large production industries. In the Renault plants, the CGT failed to get an early return to work. At the Renault-Flins factory, where the workers were younger and mostly unskilled, the CRS occupied the plant, on June 7th, in an attempt to break the strike. Hundreds of students answered a call issued by Maoist groups to a meeting in support of the strikers. It was decided to try and re-occupy the plant. For two days there were violent confrontations between the police, on the one hand, and the strikers and students on the other – a 17-year old Maoist high-school student, Gilles Tautin, was killed, drowned in the river Seine by the CRS. There were similar developments at the giant Peugeot-Sochaux factory on May 11th, when two young workers were shot dead during violent clashes with the CRS.

However, neither the CP nor the CGT took the risk of protesting against the represssion in the streets. They limited their response to calling a token one-hour stoppage, in which the large numbers of workers still on strike could not even take part. That evening, the UNEF called on its own a 30,000-strong demonstration in Paris in protest against the murders of students and workers. There were riots throughout the night. The number of arrests, officially 1500, showed the government’s determination to clear the streets in earnest.

The turn of the screw was further highlighted the next day, June 13th, when eleven far-left organisations were banned. This was never actually used seriously to repress these organisations. But it was enough to paralyse most of them for a while, due to lax organisation. More importantly, it was a way of showing to those who were looking towards the far-left for objectives, that the far-left was really not up to it – which was largely proved correct.

The last plants to return to work were the largest car and truck factories – Renault and Saviem on June 17th, Peugeot on 20th. At the Citroën factories in Paris, where workers were having their first strike since 1952, the return to work took place only on June 24th, the day after the first round of the election – as a clear message to the CGT leaders that the strikers had not been fooled by their manoeuvres.

A revolutionary situation?

What were the real possibilities for the working class and for revolutionaries in the 1968 events?

Unquestionably, the capitalists were forced to concede some ground, if only by allowing an oasis of freedom to develop in the Latin Quarter and letting the strikes grow into a general strike. The state machinery showed its weakness and so did De Gaulle’s regime. These were symptoms of a serious political crisis which might have opened the way to a revolutionary situation.

But the situation never got anywhere near the seizure of power by the working class. For this to happen, the ruling class would have had to have exhausted every possibility to salvage its power; the conscious elements of the working class would have had to be mobilised on a class basis, with a clear consciousness of their objectives, and the support of the overwhelming majority of workers for these objectives; the working class would have needed to be seen as the only force capable of resolving the political crisis, so as to secure at least the neutrality of the petty-bourgeois layers. Finally, the working class would have needed an organisation capable of leading it on the way to power, that is a revolutionary party.

None of these conditions was met in May 1968. The bourgeoisie could still resort to the Mitterrand-Mendès-France solution, which was ready to take over, with the backing of the CP. Nor were the most conscious elements of the working class mobilised on a class basis. In fact they were not really mobilised. The sheer number of the strikers gave the general strike a considerable momentum and impact on the situation, but nothing comparable to what would have been achieved had a large section of the strikers been actively involved in the strike.

It must be said that this lack of involvement was the direct result of the CP’s policy. Right from the beginning, the CGT apparatus ensured that the plant occupations were carried out by reliable activists. The militant workers who wanted to take part were first told that there were experienced activists to do this. When they insisted too much, they were accused of disloyalty towards the CGT, if not of being “leftists” – which in the CGT language really meant provocateurs. But the vast majority followed the instructions. They went back home, relying on the radio for further news. They saw this strike as a large-scale action which the CGT had initiated and would run, in the same way as they had run one-day strikes in the past. And, by and large, most workers trusted the CGT leadership to do the job. In any case, having no experience of this, they had no idea that they themselves could have run their strikes.

The only social layer which no longer had any illusion in the CP, due to their experience in the early days of May, was the milieu of active students. The working class youth could have provided them with a bridge to the ranks of the working class, and to an extent this was tried. But the CGT lock proved stronger than all attempts by student activists.

For the question of power to be raised, not just in slogans but in practice, some form of embryonic alternative power of the working class would have needed to exist. Thousands of democratic working class Sorbonnes would have been needed throughout the country, in the factories, the offices, the working class estates. This would have been the only way for the working class to begin to control what was being done in society – at first what was done in its own name by the union leaders, and then the activity of the bosses’ political and economic institutions. Only this control could have provided the working class with a clear understanding of the tasks ahead, of its own abilities, of the attitude of the other social forces, and eventually of the need to take power itself.

The revolutionary groups, who might have had a policy aimed precisely at encouraging workers to participate in organising the strike, at least by calling the CGT’s self-proclaimed strike committees to account, failed to do so. Of course, there was at first a major obstacle to overcome – the suspicion towards the revolutionary left that the CP had created and sustained among workers with their permanent slanders. To overcome this obstacle, the revolutionary left would have been better equipped had they been already known in the factories through established working class activists. But this was not the case, primarily because these groups had never had a policy aimed at building such roots. Short of this, they would have needed to concentrate most of their efforts on the factories during the events themselves, instead of focusing on the student milieu. But those who tried right from the beginning were too small to have an impact and those who had more significant resources did nothing, or, when they did try something, it was too little, too late.

At best, given the situation as we described it, the working class could probably have forced De Gaulle to step down and could have imposed a government of the left parties to replace him – but it could not seriously have threatened the power of the bourgeoisie. Even then, and regardless of the long, uneven retreat which followed, such partial battles are necessary steps on the way to developing the consciousness of the working class and its capabilities. The fact that a large number of young workers in particular, were able to assess clearly the policy of the reformist bureaucrats, was in and of itself a step in that direction, and such steps are indispensable in preparing for the real battles of the future.

May-June 1968 seen in today’s light

Is May 1968 in France a blueprint for the future battles? To a large extent this is an academic question in the sense that it is not within the power of revolutionary groups to shape the situations that the working class will need to face in order to develop a class consciousness and build its class party. However, there is a rampant romanticism in the Left, which says that somehow young intellectuals will play again the same role as they played in 1968, that of a detonator. And this argument is sometimes used by these comrades to justify the fact that they devote a much larger part of their energy to the student milieu than to any other milieus – including the working class.

There is a fundamental flaw in this argument. Even in the case of 1968, as we have seen, the revolutionary left would probably have been unable to break open the CP or reformist stranglehold over the working class without already having significant credit and sizeable forces within its ranks.

But what if the student explosion does not result in something like the French general strike? In France, it was not the student explosion alone which resulted in the general strike – it was also, among other factors, the entire context of the Gaullist regime and the particular features of the CP’s relationship with the working class, the fact that the CP could not afford to lose its support in the working class without losing at the same time its usefulness in the eyes of the bourgeoisie – such will not be the case of the Labour party in similar circumstances for instance.

Besides, there were quite a few examples, in the late 60s, of student explosions, sometimes probably as deep as in France, which remained isolated from the working class – Germany and Mexico are the most obvious examples of this, and even Italy, where there was a degree of working class mobilisation, but it remained slow to develop and easily controlled by the reformist bureaucracies. None of these movements had an impact even remotely comparable to that in France.

The piece above is slightly edited from a longer piece that appeared as a pamphlet in the International Communist Forum series, produced by the British Marxists of Workers Fight, co-thinkers of Lutte Ouvriere in France.  LO was formed in 1968 following the banning of its predecessor group and a dozen other far-left groups by De Gaulle.

 

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