SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 118 - May 2008

The May events in France

Forty years on and interest in this inspirational revolutionary movement is greater than ever. But May-June 1968 went much further than the student radicalisation noted by most reporters. An all-out general strike by ten million workers was backed by the overwhelming majority of society. CLARE DOYLE, author of France 1968: Month of Revolution, looks back at this momentous movement.

‘THE EVENTS’ OF May-June 1968 in France constituted a revolutionary general strike unsurpassed in history. Hundreds of column inches are spent, by journalists and ageing participants, on the exotic ideas and actions of students in revolt; little or nothing is said of the millions of workers who joined the strike and brought capitalism to the brink of extinction.

The scale, breadth and impact of that movement is brought home by the article written for the June edition of The Militant reproduced here (page 13). Also the speed with which it developed. On 3 May, riot police invaded the Sorbonne where students were protesting at the closing down of rebellious Nanterre. After just one week of street battles came the ‘night of the barricades’, when young workers began to join the embattled students.

The ‘leaders’ of the trade unions were forced to call for a one-day solidarity stoppage and march through Paris on 13 May. One million responded. A few hundred workers – at Sud Aviation – decided not to return to work and to spread the strike. Within just one more week, by 21 May, ten million were on strike. Across France they were occupying their workplaces, hoisting red flags and singing the Internationale. Supreme confidence reigned: the feeling that, if they stuck at it, they could become masters of their own destiny.

Within the month the country had been paralysed, the government hung by a thread. Nothing moved without the permission of the action committees of the students, workers and the poor farmers in some areas. The revolutionary mood pervaded everything. The Evening Standard commented: "The general strike, far from showing signs of ending, is assuming more and more of an insurrectional and openly political character".

A book, The Writing on the Wall, carries texts of hundreds of leaflets, posters and grafitti of the time. Emphasising the predominant role of the working class as the locomotive of the revolutionary movement, its introduction says: "The three words that belonged to all were ‘action’, ‘solidarity’ and (priority of the) ‘working class’." Later, a quote of Karl Marx is carried to describe the mood that developed during those events: "During a strike, what counts for the worker is the whole collective aspect of the strike, the association which is being created and the enjoyment which he can find by stopping work and doing something else". And the workers of France were certainly finding plenty to do, plenty to discuss and plenty to plan.

The ‘communist’ firehose

THE TRAGEDY WAS that their leaders were not giving a lead just when all the conditions were maturing for a successful, even peaceful, overthrow of capitalism. They came to the rescue of the bosses and their system, as on so many occasions before and since. As at the time of the great sit-in strikes of 1936, the main factor which stood between the workers and their taking power was the trade union and ‘communist’ leaders. They feared the French working class engaging in a struggle that might push them aside. They feared workers replacing capitalism with a genuinely democratic form of socialism as they would surely do in a country like France.

Workers’ control and management of a publicly-owned planned economy in France or any capitalist country at the time would have given ideas to the oppressed workers of the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe, and threatened the survival of the Stalinist bureaucracies which still ruled these parts of the world in the era of the ‘cold war’. All this was at the root of the apparent ‘cowardice’ of the ‘communists’ and their role in applying the firehose to the revolutionary strivings of the French working class.

Today, the trade union leaders in France are still applying the brakes to hold back the fighting capacity of the working class, even though the ‘communists’ are no longer the dominant force in the labour movement and the Stalinist states have collapsed. They now slavishly obey the dictates of the capitalist class whichever party is in power. The last election campaign showed not one ideological difference between the so-called Parti Socialiste (PS) and the right-wing party of Nicolas Sarkozy, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP). Other articles in this issue point to the way Sarkozy aims to eliminate the ‘spirit of 68’ and it is clear that not only the capitalist class of France but elsewhere dread a repeat of those events. Every time the French working class shakes its fist at the bosses and the government, the spectre of 1968 returns. School students on a demonstration in Paris this April carried one banner saying, ‘Do we need another May ’68?’ Another said: ‘This year May has arrived a month early’! Even in Portugal, media commentators warn the ‘socialist’ government, facing mounting workers’ demonstrations, of ‘a new May 68’ – rather than mentioning their own revolution of 1974!

But could the magnificent movement of 1968 have succeeded in destroying not only the ‘strong state’ of Charles de Gaulle but capitalism itself? Could it happen again in France or any other country in today’s world?

For two days and two nights until the morning of 27 May the union leaders huddled together in talks with representatives of the employers and the government. They emerged with a list of reforms – substantial increases in wages, including the minimum wage, shorter working hours, increased holidays – that only the threat of revolution can wring from any ruling class.

These huge concessions were being offered to stave off the threat of revolution. But they were rejected at mass meeting after mass meeting of the striking workers. This alone is testimony to the revolutionary nature of the events. There may have been a festival atmosphere up to this point but now the tension mounted. Workers made it clear they wanted more than just a bigger share of the cake. They had come this far and felt their power. They wanted the bakery – they did not want bosses over them in work or in society.

They were conscious that it was their great strike that had reduced the powerful general, de Gaulle, in a matter of days to an irrelevant and powerless figure. It had blocked his proposed referendum and it had blocked his appearance on television.

On the morning of 29 May, as it became clear that the trade union leaders were losing control of the movement, the president left the Élysée Palace by a back door. He did not inform his cabinet or his prime minister. "The future", he confided to the US ambassador, "depends not on us but on God!" Many of the big bosses had already left the country with whatever assets they could take with them!

This was the moment when a revolutionary party would have rallied the workers of town and country to make a bid for power through their representatives elected to action and workplace committees. They could have formed workers’ guards to defend the factories and made appeals to the armed forces to support them. They could have moved to fill the vacuum left by the fleeing president, occupy the Élysée and set up a revolutionary government of workers, poor farmers and the young.

Given the overwhelming weight of the working class and its allies in society, especially at the height of the events, a new era in history could have been ushered in almost without a blow being struck. The successful revolution would have spread like wildfire to neighbouring countries and those world-wide in which the dry tinder of revolutionary action was already smouldering.

Resistance & revenge

BUT THE ‘LEADERS’ of the most trusted party of the workers in France at the time – the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) – continued to peddle the lie that the mighty state could not be overthrown. There would have been violence, it argued. But even bourgeois papers were commenting that to use the army against the workers’ movement would have been to break it.

Even after the events, the PCF tops were still blaming the students for the situation that had developed and for the violence. The students were ‘agitators’ and ‘trouble-makers’, and only a small minority of workers were interested in political change, they maintained. Workers were interested only in winning trade union demands. (This was the reverse side of the argument of some of the Trotskyists that workers were only interested in ‘trade union questions’.) Both were proved wrong by the mass rejection of the best ‘trade union demands’ ever to come out of tripartite talks! No party was articulating the desires of the working class and all the layers of society making the revolution for a complete transformation of society.

De Gaulle was able to take comfort from the inability of the ‘communists’ to lead an insurrection. Within hours he was on his way back from visiting the army commanders in the Rhineland, calling for a show of patriotic force on the streets, declaring France was "threatened with a communist dictatorship". He dissolved the National Assembly and called a general election for 23 June. Hoards of reactionaries, who had been keeping their heads down during the great strike, were bussed into Paris for a show of force. Tanks were moved up to the outskirts of Paris and de Gaulle had regained the upper hand.

Workers were still defying both him and their ‘leaders’ by bringing yet more of their cohorts into the general strike. The workers of the ORTF – state radio and television – on strike for ‘a complete and impartial service’, stayed out until 25 June, some longer, until they were sacked. An enormous capacity to struggle was still in evidence. What was needed was a revolutionary leadership at the head of a mass party, able to counter the propaganda and the military preparations of the state. Without it, the workers could not hold out indefinitely. With it, the course of history could have been changed.

The return to work was prolonged. Resistance was stubborn and the revenge of the bosses was cruel. Many strikers were victimised. The CRS riot police were sent into some of the major engineering plants to physically break up the occupations. There were deaths.

Several left-wing organisations were banned, some of their leaders arrested and put on trial and their papers closed down. This included the Jeunesses Communistes Révolutionnaires (JCR) and the Parti Communiste Internationale (PCI) – which later merged to form the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) of today – for whom the Militant conducted a solidarity campaign. All discussion of the events of May 1968 was censored from the media.

General election

IN THE GENERAL election campaign the PCF posed not as a party of revolutionary struggle but of ‘law and order’. In spite of its treacherous role in the great strike, because of a general awakening of workers to the need for political struggle, its membership actually increased, along with that of the union it controlled, the CGT. But its vote plumetted by half a million, with some voters opting for the more ‘traditional’ party of law and order, de Gaulle’s L’Union pour la Nouvelle République (UNR). The Gaullists gained half a million votes and came out the winners.

This seemed an unbelievable outcome after the insurrectionary general strike. But for one thing, millions of the key players in that struggle – the youth of the campuses and the factories – were not eligible to vote until they were 21!

The general was now back in the saddle and some of the middle-class layers previously caught up in the euphoria of the movement, swung back to parties in the centre or on the right, swayed by the ‘Me or chaos’ propaganda of the president. But de Gaulle himself was gone within a year, the victim of his own plebiscite in 1969 which rejected his idea of ‘participation’.

Fortunately for them, maybe, the 1968 election did not, therefore, see the coming to power of a popular front type government involving the ‘socialists’, ‘communists’ and Radicals. Such a government would undoubtedly have played the classical ‘strike-breaking role’ described by Leon Trotsky in his writing of the 1930s. It would have exposed its inability to solve the problems of workers faced with severe inflation and rising unemployment.

François Mitterrand’s Parti Socialiste (PS) did not exist at the time, although he personally had polled a sizeable vote in the previous presidential election of 1965, forcing a second round. The Fédération de la Gauche Démocrate et Socialiste (FGDS) also lost votes. On the other hand, the small centrist party, the Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU) nearly doubled its vote from 495,412 in 1967 to 874,212. During the events, it had talked of ‘workers’ power’ and had described the situation at the end of May as ‘never more favourable for installing socialism’. This alone showed the support a more revolutionary party could have gained.

The Trotskyists of the PCI, unfortunately, recommended a blank vote, not recognising the need to take the struggle onto the electoral field once the time for revolution had passed. In the opinion of Militant, they should have participated. They could have posed the need to pursue to the end the programme of nationalisation and workers’ control that PCF secretary, Waldeck Rochet, had raised briefly at the height of the events. They could have tested their support in this way but also drawn towards them some of the younger workers who still looked to the PCF.

Prolonged struggle

WHILE THE STUDENTS had talked on their posters about a ‘prolonged struggle’, even they probably had not imagined how protracted it would be. Capitalism, with its confidence restored, was bound to allow inflation to eat into the gains of the working class. By 1971, the PS had been formed. In 1981 it was in power, having won a massive 55% of the vote. Mitterrand’s first government in France initially carried through some genuine reforms but, not proceeding to take the economy out of the hands of the capitalist class, he was doomed to conform to their dictates and those of the IMF and roll them back. The development of the PS was a direct political reflection of the revolutionary wave of 1968. A new layer of workers, disappointed with the outcome and with the role of the PCF, filled it out and pushed it in a centrist direction, only to be disappointed once more.

Since then there has been an alternation between governments of the right and left. But in the post-Stalinist world of the past two decades the traditional workers’ parties have gone right into the camp of the capitalists. The 1997-2002 government of the PS prime minister, Lionel Jospin, with the ‘communists’ participating in a ‘gauche plurielle’ (plural left) coalition, carried through more privatisations than any previous government! These days, the strident tones of Sarkozy are sometimes restrained by fear of a head-on collision with the still powerful French working class. But, like Silvio Berlusconi now in Italy, if he pushes for the major neo-liberal ‘reforms’ he has promised, he can actually cause that which he most fears – a conflagration on the scale of 1968.

Big struggles are presaged in the context not of a boom, as in 1968, but a severe world recession. It is entirely possible for a new May 1968 to develop, and maybe with as much speed as that great revolutionary strike. The situation cries out for a new mass party of the working class and youth of France. The project of the LCR (described in the article on page 16) is welcome, and Gauche Révolutionnaire (CWI France) will do all in its power to genuinely develop such a party through linking it to the struggles of the workers already taking place. Even relatively small forces of genuine Trotskyism can and must prepare for a stormy future of class struggle. Rooted in the working class, they can play a crucial role.

The living spirit of ’68

THE INDUSTRIAL WORKING class may have diminished in size but it is still the key to the success of future revolutionary struggles. The events of 1968 in France are as good a proof as any that all the other layers in society – the civil service, local government, financial and retail sectors, social services and education – can become totally committed to a struggle to overthrow the old order. The development of a revolutionary leadership that has, and deserves, the full confidence of the workers in action is shown to be crucial by the way events unfolded in 1968. Internationalism is another vital element of the struggle. The examples of spontaneouis solidarity action by workers in other European countries, including Britain, during the month of revolution in France in 1968, show the potential for a new revolution to spread like that of the Russian revolution carried through in October 1917.

At the time of previous anniversaries of France’s May events, there has been a conspiracy of the capitalist media to hide the truth from the new generations. Today, the whole system of capitalism is becoming discredited by the economic, political and social catastrophes it engenders. Consequently, there will be an even greater attempt to keep hidden from working people and angry youth how close it came, in a modern, industrialised country like France, to spelling the end of that very system. Marxists have a duty to tell the truth to workers and inspire them with the possibility of ending their drudgery and exploitation.

Celebrating the 40th anniversary, it is salutary to see what became of some of the university firebrands of 1968. Danny ‘the red’ Cohn-Bendit became a Green politician in Germany – avowedly pro-market, pro-privatisation and recommending that 1968 be forgotten! Alain Geismer became inspector-general of national education under the Jospin government and chief negotiator to defuse the fight-back of students against the Allegre attacks at the end of the 1990s. Bernard Kouchner, once a minister in ‘socialist’ governments, is now foreign minister under Sarkozy – a government which is pushing for university and school reforms which will leave the students of today in a very similar position to those of 1968. He still claims that ‘1968 was palpitating, sensual, a wonderful adventure’.

Beware Messrs Kouchner, Sarkozy and co! There will be students and workers in their millions taking the road of 1968 once more, with the great benefit of hindsight. They will feel the wind of revolution about their ears and want to dislodge the rulers who give nothing and take everything. The spirit of ’68 is far from dead. The youth and workers of France will flex their muscles once more and show what they are made of. The task is imperative of building a workers’ party with a mass base and building a future revolutionary socialist leadership that can bring to fruition all the hopes and aspirations of the workers and youth of France, paving the way for revolutionary change world-wide.

May 1968: the main events

Thursday 2 May: Cohn-Bendit and five other students appear in court. Nanterre University closed in protest. French Communist Party (PCF) denounces students.

Friday 3 May: Police attack peaceful demonstration at Sorbonne, 596 arrested. University Teachers’ Union (SNE.Sup) calls a strike.

Sunday 5 May: University strike spreads. Seven students are fined and imprisoned. Demonstrations in Paris are banned.

Monday 6 May: The first university occupations start. Sixty thousand demonstrators are attacked by the CRS riot police, 739 are hospitalised. The first barricades since 1944 are set up.

Tuesday 7 May: Young workers join the demonstrations. Strike at Sud Aviation against redundancies. Post office workers strike for higher wages. Students appeal for support from the factories.

Friday 10 May: Latin quarter occupied and barricaded. CRS sent in with tear gas at 2.15am.

Saturday 11 May: The PCF-led trade union federation, the CGT, together with the ex-Catholic union federation, the CFDT, the Teachers’ Federation and the left parties call a 24-hour general strike for the following Monday.

Monday 13 May: 24-hour general strike with mass demonstrations of 50,000 in Marseille, 40,000 in Toulouse, a million in Paris.

Tuesday 14 May: Workers occupy Sud Aviation, Nantes, locking the director in his officer and appealing for solidarity. De Gaulle leaves for state visit of Romania.

Wednesday 15 May: Strikes spread. Peasant organisations call a demonstration for 24 May. Police trade union reported to be in a ‘dangerous situation’. A students’, workers’ and peasants’ council governs the Loire Atlantique area around Nantes.

Saturday 18 May: De Gaulle returns early from Romania. Reactionary Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR) formed, but fascist demonstration only attracts 2,000. Radio and TV news under journalists’ control.

Sunday 19 May: Two million now on strike, including banks, all transport, nationalised industries, and the metal industry.

Monday 20 May: Six million on strike, including Michelin, Peugeot, Citroën, department stores, all ports and mines.

Tuesday 21 May: Eight million on strike, over half of the French labour force, including nuclear power workers.

Friday 24 May: Ten million on strike.

Saturday 25 May: Talks begin at Rue de Grenelle between the government, employers and trade union leaders.

Monday 27 May: Workers’ mass meetings reject offers.

Wednesday 29 May: CGT demonstration 500,000 strong. De Gaulle leaves Paris saying, ‘The game is up’.

Thursday 30 May: De Gaulle returns having been assured of support from General Massu, commander of 70,000 French troops based in Germany. Dissolves national assembly, announces new elections and launches smear campaign against the ‘threat of totalitarian dictatorship’. Tank and troop movements begin around Paris and right-wing demonstration attracts one million.

Friday 31 May: Negotiations resume everywhere and, not without victimisation, a gradual return to work begins, encouraged by the PCF.



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