The legacy of the French revolution of 1848, the second time France overthrew a monarchy, played an important part in the escalation of the demonstrations and street fighting in Paris.
The streets of the capital had been reorganised on the order of the police in the wake of that revolution, to counter any attempt at setting up barricades in the future. Wide cobblestoned boulevards replaced tight-knit streets.
But rather than prevention, the heavy cobblestones became ideal tools, with the initiative of the mobilised workers and students, to help form the barricades of 1968. The night of 10-11 May became known as the Night of the Barricades as demonstrators threw up over 60 around Paris’s Latin Quarter.
Witnessing a growing movement in comparison to its own diminishing strength and support, the state responded with truncheons, smoke bombs and CS gas at 2.15am. Local residents poured water from their houses to help the students affected. The CRS riot police prevented the Red Cross coming in to pick up the injured.
The increasingly brutal repression by the state created more anger. Seeing the gathering storm, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou conceded to demands to reopen Sorbonne University and withdraw the police. But the attempt to retreat slightly in the hope it would satisfy the movement failed.
Instead it acted as a lightning rod, encouraging workers in their millions – they saw that strikes and occupations for their own demands could also win. The students had helped give confidence to the mass movement of workers that had been brewing for many months before May.
Furthermore, after Pompidou’s u-turn the police felt they had been made to look like fools. A section was already in dispute with the government over expenses.
A police union petition criticised the government. Some cops even began to sympathise with the students and workers. Splitting or neutralising the forces of the state is an important part of a successful revolutionary movement.
Meanwhile, the union and Communist Party leaders had to flip their previous contemptuous position on the movement. The Stalinist leadership was reflecting the fears of the parasitic bureaucracy in the Soviet Union.
A mass movement was also unfolding in Czechoslovakia, threatening to develop into a political revolution that might overthrow Stalinism’s bureaucratic dictatorship and implement workers’ democracy within a planned economy.
A successful revolution in France, with workers’ democratic structures already in place from the growing general strike, would threaten not only the existence of capitalism in Europe, but would in turn embolden the discontent of workers under Stalinist rule.
The Communist Party needed to regain control. On Saturday 11 May its leaders and the union federations were forced by the pressure to call a general strike for 13 May. They hoped this would let them steer the movement away from revolution and dissipate the anger.
Georges Marchais, a leading member of the Communist Party’s central committee and later its general secretary, opposed even the call for a 24-hour general strike! But it went ahead – and was not to stop after 24 hours.
On the huge strike demonstrations, a million people in Paris, 60,000 in Lyons, 50,000 each in Marseille and Bordeaux, and 40,000 in Toulouse, to name but a few, had a taste of what could be achieved.
After the demonstrations, students again occupied the Sorbonne and its Censier Annexe. They opened the university up to striking workers and anyone wanting to be part of discussions on how society could be transformed. Almost all of France’s universities were soon occupied.
Meanwhile, workers returned home from the giant demonstrations on 13 May considering all the implications of the huge show of strength. In some cases within hours, and in most cases within days, they would be back on strike and challenging for power in society.
On Tuesday 14 May, the morning after the one-day strike, just 200 workers were still out. One week later it was ten million. The young metalworkers of the state-owned Sud Aviation aircraft factory in Nantes became the spark that ignited the historic all-out general strike.
Already engaged in a series of daily 15-minute stoppages against job cuts, they had been inspired by the revolutionary spirit of the student protests and the sense of enormous power they had felt during the general strike the day before.
Instead of returning to work on 14 May, they decided to prolong their action. They occupied, locked up the management in its offices, and formed an action committee to spread the strike.
General Charles de Gaulle, president of the French Republic, had remained silent. The same day he left for a state visit to Romania as if nothing had happened.
But the huge workers’ demonstrations had broken the deadlock in a deeply dissatisfied society. Once the movement began, it rapidly grew into an irresistible force.
On Wednesday 15 May, strikes and occupations spread to Renault car plants, shipyards and hospitals. The Loire Atlantique area, around Nantes and the Sud Aviation factory, came under the control of an elected council of workers, peasants and students.
By Thursday 16 May, all 60,000 Renault car workers had stopped work and occupied the firm’s six plants. Vast strike meetings of 4,000 workers were held daily. At the Flins Renault factory near Paris, picket lines regularly included 3,000 workers.
The Renault workforce at Rouen had not taken much part in the 13 May general strike. Most of them were new, drawn recently from the countryside. But seeing the movement rise, they joined the strike. When the plant director refused to meet them, they imprisoned him in his office.
At the Citroën plant, only about 200 workers were in a union, of a total staff of 18,000. The workers were frightened at first by the bosses’ armed guards, the ‘house cops’.
There were house cops in many factories, but Citroën was the worst – known as the “factory of fear.” But after hearing the guards trying to defend management’s position, workers were so angry that they voted to strike on the spot!
The maintenance facility at Orly-Nord airport hosted daily meetings of the ‘Inter-Union Strike Committee’. General assemblies of workers each morning attracted up to 3,500 to discuss the next steps in the strike and organise services and supervise work.
This was the emergence of ‘dual power’ in France, a struggle between the old capitalist state and the emerging factory action committees, workers’ councils and university assemblies. The question now was: who runs society?
France, May 1968: week three May 1968: Revolutionary explosion as two thirds of workforce join strike
On Saturday 18 May 1968, General Charles de Gaulle, president of France, was forced to cut short his state visit to Bucharest. He had wanted to provide a meal for the Romanian heads of state in the French embassy. But the food was never delivered – the French airline workers were on strike.
When he tried to make a phone call, he was told the operator was on strike too. He protested – “but it is for General de Gaulle!” And he received the reply – “and what difference does that make to me? I am on strike for the whole world!”
When de Gaulle returned to France, he was no longer in control. Since the ‘official’ general strike on Monday 13 May, workers had continued to take action. Not only that, they were taking control of their workplaces and setting up committees to make decisions on running French society.
Examples include prices in shops being determined by elected workers’ and peasants’ committees. In fact, shops could only trade if they had signs in their window signed by the different trade union federations that said: “This shop is authorised to open. Its prices are under permanent supervision by the unions.”
Reactionary ‘Committees for the Defence of the Republic’ had formed. But a fascist demonstration opposing the general strike was joined by a mere 2,000 people. In contrast, by Sunday 19 May, two million were on strike – including all public transport, the metal industry, all nationalised industry, and even the banks.
Picket lines were placed on petrol stations to ensure petrol only went to those who needed it, such as doctors. Striking footballers occupied their headquarters and demanded sport be run by and for the players and fans: “football for the footballers.” News and radio outlets were controlled by the workers.
It was the Sud Aviation metalworkers in Nantes who had been the first to continue striking after the official action ended. They locked their bosses in their offices and played the Internationale, the world revolutionary socialist anthem, over the speakers.
The strike spread quickly to all kinds of workers across the country – even actors and weather forecasters went on strike!
Winning over the middle layers of society to the side of the working class is an important feature of a successful revolutionary movement. So is the willingness of the working class to fight to the end, increasingly apparent in May 1968.
On Monday 20 May, six million workers were out. All the ports and mines, the department stores, and the car manufacturers. The next day it was eight million, including nuclear power plants – more than half of all workers.
By Friday 24 May, two-thirds of the workforce were on strike: ten million workers. Joined by the mass protests of the students, it was truly a general strike and a revolutionary situation.
In reality, dual power existed. The official government structures were floating in mid-air with most decisions made by workers’ and peasants’ action committees. De Gaulle fled the country. When he tried to give a speech to the nation, it wasn’t aired by the worker-controlled television station.
Throughout the country, discussion and debate had exploded among workers and young people. Factories began to declare they were “on strike indefinitely.” Thousands of leaflets and posters were produced daily as ordinary people constantly discussed political ideas.
Despite this incredibly powerful position of the working class of France, the leadership of the trade unions and the Communist Party of France were trying to hold the movement back and limit its demands rather than risk a revolution which could threaten not just capitalism but the Stalinist dictatorships in the East.
Workers had been increasingly involved in strike action in the run-up to May 1968. Wages had not kept up with inflation that totalled 45% over ten years. Unemployment had grown, while those with a job were working on average 45 hours a week. Production lines in factories had been policed by employers’ armed guards. So when the general strike began, it quickly grew as workers in every industry saw it as an opportunity to protest their conditions.
The demands of the movement went beyond this as the general strike took on a different character to normal strikes. As they occupied the factories with red flags hoisted above them, the workers’ slogans became “the factories to the workers” and “power to the working class.”
Workers began to plan production for their needs. For example, in the CSF electronics factory in Brest they produced walkie-talkies to help organise the strikes. Printers either changed hostile headlines or refused to print newspapers attacking the strike.
Despite the obvious reality, the Communist Party and the leaders of the CGT union federation argued that any attempt to go beyond immediate economic demands was “adventurism.”
In fact, they would shortly begin negotiations with a government that had no power and could have been swept aside. By doing so, they actually strengthened the position of de Gaulle and legitimised his regime.
The Trotskyist left had only small forces, such as the Internationalist Communist Party (PCI, French section of the Fourth International), which was calling for unity between Trotskyist parties. The PCI demanded rejection of de Gaulle’s proposed referendum on limited reforms to defuse the movement, and any negotiation with the all-but-defeated government and employers.
Instead they put forward demands for linking up the various workers’, students’ and peasants’ committees, and the formation of a workers’ government. However, the PCI hadn’t built a base among the working class and wasn’t able to influence the decisions made by the action committees in the factories.
If, like the Bolshevik Party had done in the run-up to 1917, the Trotskyists in France had consistently built in the factories, then with the correct political programme they could have won the leadership of a working class already on the road to revolutionary change.
Without this leadership, the Communist Party and the CGT were preparing to betray the movement.
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