20-29 May – the rising tide

But can we speak of an “active strike”1? Apart from a few examples which we’ll come back to later, and without getting too focused on the example of Renault-Billancourt, we have to say the following: the workers did not work but stayed at home. The factories were occupied, but by a handful of workers, most of the time trade union militants (and above all those of the CGT). They voted or not on a daily basis for the continuation of the action. They went in search of news or provisions, but they did not discuss the movement or which actions to take. It was the biggest general strike (at its height, 9 million strikers for ten days) in history and also that in which the workers participated the least. This is the paradox of May-June 1968.

The agricultural workers as well...2

Dispersed across the countryside, the agricultural workers traditionally had difficulties coordinating their actions. However, in ‘68, the strike also took on a massive character in this sector. From 13 May, the CFDT (largely in the majority) and the CGT called for active solidarity with the students. Then, as the strike generalised across the country, the agricultural workers in numerous places refused to make common cause with their employers organised in the FNSEA or MODEF3 They wanted to fight to improve their lot with their own demands. They demanded:

— a minimum wage at least equal to that in industry,
— better housing conditions,
— regulation of working hours,
— a retirement regime allowing a decent life.

The movement was born on the big farms of Valois where a militant of the CFDT started, with his comrades, two demonstrations: one at Crépy, the other at Plessis-Belleville where, with the help of thirty or so students, a barricade was built across national highway 2.

Starting on 24 May, the agitation spread: 6,000 strikers in Picardie, 5000 in Anjou (the market garden workers marched beside the factory workers in Angers), 2000 in Provence (particularly forestry workers), and 6000 in the Languedoc. In these regions the agricultural workers sought out contact with other employees rather than with peasants.

In the South West, in Brittany and in the mountains, where small-scale exploitation dominates, there was no important autonomous movement. There the small peasants led the action, but locally agricultural workers could “outflank” the FNSEA. Everywhere, cooperatives and agricultural research institutes were occupied. In ’68 the agricultural employees did not remain on the margins. Calm progressively returned to the farms starting from 6 June.

Political crisis and riots

De Gaulle left for a trip to Romania on 14 May. On his return on 19 May he pronounced his celebrated phrase “The party’s over” then “Reform, yes, havoc, no!” and announced a speech on the radio and TV for 24 May.

While he waited Pompidou had a lot to do. Taken by surprise by the development of the general strike, he first of all had to put the maintenance of order at the top of his list. In this situation for which there was no historical precedent, he had to make sure that the state still had at its disposal a sufficient police force and, in case of necessity, could use the army for rapid intervention. And yet discontent reigned also within the forces of order. The government could not immediately react against the development of the strikes, even when they affected strategic sectors for the state, such as the post office, the railways or air traffic control. While the office of Central-Radio, which maintained telephone communications with other countries, was occupied by the police and entrusted to the army, the government did not have sufficient forces to take over all the provincial centres of telecommunications. The state had to rely on the civic spirit of the striking posties, and for the rest to wait for the opening of negotiations between the workers’ unions and the bosses’ organisations.

On the evening of 24 May De Gaulle spoke. The crisis is, according to him, a crisis of structure, and its solution can be found in a “more extensive participation of everyone in the progress and in the results of the activity which concerns him directly”. This conception had already been expressed many times in the past: therefore nothing really new on the political plane.

The method was also very much in the Gaullist tradition: immediate referendum; a blank (or almost)
check given to the President of the Republic; plebiscite. It was a question of short-circuiting the whole “political class” and calling the country’s bluff: a negative vote means there will be a power vacuum and the risk of “going, via civil war, to adventures and usurpations the most odious and ruinous”.

At the demonstration at Lyon station in Paris, thousands of handkerchiefs were taken out of their pockets; the demonstrators waving goodbye to De Gaulle. In the evening one of the most violent demonstrations took place in Paris, but the same thing happened in the provinces. Lyon, Strasbourg, Nantes and Paris experienced their biggest “night of the barricades”, and the next day Bordeaux took its turn. There were a total of one dead and 500 hospitalised, 144 being in a serious state. In all cases, the principal slogans related to the residence prohibition slapped on Daniel Cohn-Bendit: “We are all German Jews!”

From 22 to 26 May, more than a hundred student-worker demonstrations took place across the whole of France. These demonstrations didn’t have any systematic character; everything depended on the local situation. In some towns “unitary, enormous and peaceful” marches could take place where the climate was still harmonious. In Caen, for example, the students toured around the occupied factories in a march before going off to join an inter-union rally in front of the prefecture. In Marseille, the students asked to be integrated into the CGT demonstration. To do this they had to roll up all their banners bearing the name of Cohn-Bendit, and the Order Service of the CGT kept them separate from the workers. At Clermont-Ferrand on 25 May trade union unity broke down in the middle of a demonstration: the UNEF, ordered to abandon its slogans, left the march and went its own way.

In other cases there was no unity. In Toulouse, the 25-April movement4, degenerated into sporadic clashes between midnight and 4 a.m. The next day, without any organisation having given the slightest order, 300 young people attacked the police. Immediately the students left the Sorbonne. They appeared divided: some joined the demonstrators; others formed a chain and tried to interrupt the fighting. But the news was announced on the radio and in less than an hour several thousand young people converged on the Latin Quarter. They fought for nine hours solidly and there were more than 150 injured. The objectives of the demonstrators had become more and more diverse. It was no longer just a question of fighting with the police. They attacked the dens of the enemy: Gaullist party offices, police stations, prefectures, town halls and even the stock market were attacked and, in some cases, sacked or burned. In Bordeaux, the Grand Théâtre was occupied for the second time. Apart from the fighting, shop windows were smashed and, in Lyon, in the place des Cordeliers, a large shop was partly looted.

Such was the intensity of the fighting that confrontations lasted a very long time: ten hours in Paris, eight hours in Lyon, seven hours in Nantes on the 24th, and eight hours in Bordeaux on the 25th. The police received an order to avoid all close contact so as to limit their losses. When the demonstrators were numerous enough to occupy one or several districts of a town they barricaded themselves in solidly and dislodging them from their positions was a long, hard job. The one exception was Strasbourg, where the demonstrators were not numerous enough to occupy the terrain and could only resist the police charges for two hours.

Everywhere the violence reached a maximum point which it would have been difficult to go beyond
without using fire arms. And inevitably, what the government was trying to avoid happened: there was a death on the night of 24 May. René Lacroix, police superintendent, had his chest crushed by a lorry full of stones that the demonstrators of Lyon had sent hurtling towards the Lafayette Bridge with the aim of forcing a way through. In the hot towns, like Lyon, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Nantes and Paris, the demonstrations took place on a daily basis. The forces of order could not keep up with this shocking rhythm, not while it was now necessary to disperse their forces across the whole of France to confront the worker and peasant agitation.

The agitation in the countryside

Often misunderstood or forgotten, agitation also took place in the countryside in 1968. In addition to the struggle of agricultural workers already mentioned (and even more forgotten), the agricultural world was in motion. Delale and Ragache cite a number of examples5:

“What’s more the demonstrations began with a blockade in Allier. They steadily spread up to the 24th, with the hardest regions throwing themselves into the action first of all.

The forms taken by the agitation in the countryside were varied. Because of the lack of petrol and the
difficulties of communication, there were fewer people in the streets and on the roads than expected. The total number of peasant protesters across the country nevertheless reached 200,000.

In some cases the FNSEA contented itself with convening its departmental council and drafting a motion. In Chamalières, close to Clermont-Ferrand, the president of the FNSEA held a simple information meeting in the presence of the prefect. At Tulle the MODEF held a meeting of its members behind closed doors, confiscated red flags, expelled the city-dwellers and refused to join a workers’ meeting which was taking place in the town.

If in Argentan and Besançon the peasants contented themselves with a brief solitary and silent march, in other places, such as Limoges, they joined in the unitary demonstrations, but the farmers in a few regions also had recourse to their traditional methods of violent action: systematic blocking of the national highways in Allier, the Vaucluse, the Landes. In Gironde, dozens of telegraph poles were sawn down in the course of the night.

….. There were also surprise demonstrations: 1,000 peasants from Cahors and Caussac invaded the small village of Cajarc, whose mayor was called Georges Pompidou. Finally there are the attacks against official buildings: the sub-prefecture of Guingamp on the 22nd (3 piglets were hung from the railings), the prefecture of Rennes on the 24th , and that of Agen, where the peasants invaded the local offices and lit fires, before being expelled by the police, who had to gain possession of several barricades. In Puy, the protesters were pushed out of the square where the prefecture was and barricaded themselves into the fair stalls. Concentrated salvos of tear gas created panic there and a child of ten was seriously injured.

In Nantes, the peasant protesters really got themselves noticed: gathering in four marches on the edge of the town, on the morning of the 24th they “invaded” the town behind an enormous banner saying “ No to the capitalist regime, yes to the complete revolution of society!”, and solemnly re-baptised Royal Square as “People’s Square”. Some of them did not hesitate to join in the evening gathering of students and workers which attacked the prefecture and set up dozens of barricades over the course of eight hours.”

The Grenelle accords

On 25 May, at 15.00, Georges Pompidou opened the first discussion meeting in the presence of the
bosses (represented by the CNPF, whose president was P. Huvelin) and the CGT, CFDT, FO, FTC and CGC trade unions.

The unions pointed out that the talks which were beginning to get under way were only concerned with
general demands, and that any agreed text must be completed by means of collective agreements at all levels. The CGT posed the abrogation of the regulations on Social Security of August 1967 as a precondition. The CFDT added a second, the immediate adoption of a fundamental law “on the exercise of trade union rights and power in the workplaces”.

The order of the day proposed by the CGT-CFDT unions was then restraint. The negotiations went on for two-day marathons with the main participants being the Pompidou-Huvelin-Séguy triumvirate.
What were the contents of the agreement? They were:

· Increase of the SMIG, to 3F per hour, on 1 June (which was still far from the minimum wage of
600F per month),
· General increase of wages in private industry (7% on 1 June and 3% on 1 October),
· The bosses’ proposal to reduce working time to 44 hours,
· Immediate reduction of the patient’s contribution to medical expenses from 30% to 25%,
· The practical details of making up for days on strike. There would be an immediate advance to workers representing the average of the total hours reclaimed.

Apart from the financial measures, the success itself was above all important for the unions. The government committed itself to voting through a law on “the exercise of trade union rights in the workplace” which would be based on the text elaborated in committee by the representatives of the FO and the CFDT. As for the CGT, it was almost totally disinterested in the question, but not the reestablishment of a mobile scale of wages, nor the abolition of the Social Security regulations.

The CGT decided that G. Séguy was going to present the first results of the agreement to the assembly of strikers at Renault Billancourt on Monday 27 May 1968, at 7 in the morning. Everywhere in the factories the strikers listened to the terms of the final agreement on the radio. In many large workplaces, Renault-Flins, Renault-Sandouville, Berliet, Sud-Aviation, Rhodiaceta, Citroën, etc., they voted by a show of hands to continue the movement: they expected “the managers to show themselves” and agree to discuss all the demands elaborated by the local strike committees.

But everyone’s attention was focused on the radio show that the CGT organised on Séguin Island, in the centre of the Renault-Billancourt factories. Since 7 a.m., 10,000 workers had waited. Without the journalists knowing (they hadn’t arrived yet), the main event had already happened: on the basis of a report from the CGT representative of the inter-union committee of the factory, A. Halbeher, the continuation of the strike was decided. The national union leaders could express themselves. Benoît Frachon (CGT), who was not at the last night-long meeting in Grenelle, spoke without notes and played the role of a defence lawyer, recalled 1936, and exclaimed: “The agreements of Grenelle Street will bring to millions of workers a well-being that they had not hoped for” André Jeanson of the CFDT was very pleased with the initial vote in favour of continuing the strike and evoked the solidarity of the workers with the university and school students in struggle. He was applauded. Then Georges Séguy came. He dedicated himself to an “objective balance sheet” of what had “been gained at Grenelle”. At the beginning there were some whistles and at the end some serious booing which took several minutes to subside. Séguy concluded: “If I judge by what I’m hearing, you won’t let yourselves be pushed around” They applauded him and the PCF militants chanted: “Popular Government!”, “Popular Government!”

What can we deduce from the events of Seguin Island?

The leftists who saw the events of the Seguin Island assembly, at the time or in the following years, as a radicalisation of the base against the CGT showed, once again, how simplistic they are. Halbeher had made the vote for the continuation of the strike before the intervention of Séguy and that was the CGT. But Frachon was also the CGT and he had presented the results as a great victory. And Séguy, who also presented the very feeble results from the beginning as a wonderful advance, was always the CGT.

Knowing the cunning of the cadres of the CGT apparatus, we can say that they had foreseen every eventuality. If the little presented by Séguy was accepted, then fine. If that wasn’t accepted, the CGT had held the vote for continuation, no problem. The apparatus would once again land on its feet (and that is what happened). But knowing the protagonists we can also say that all of them, rivals behind the scenes, defended different policies, representing the various currents inside the PCF.

Which version is the right one? We’ll never know.

However, during the day of the radio announcement of the meeting at Billancourt, certain Stalinist militants (like at Alsthom) already believed that Séguy had been disavowed at Billancourt. Elsewhere, they quickly forgot that at Citroën, Krasucki was hissed by the strikers during the presentation of the results of Grenelle. It no less remains the case that the tendency after ten days on strike was still not to return to work. But the unions knew how to act and waited a week before beginning to order a return to work.

Charléty and after

The UNEF called for a new series of big demonstrations for the 27 May across the whole of France, and organised a meeting in the Charléty stadium in Paris. The CGT responded by calling 12 local gatherings, “with the aim of informing the working class and the population about the results of the Grenelle negotiations”. It gathered scarcely 10,000 loyal followers, while at Charléty 30,000 people heard the orators of the “alternative left”.

The meeting was voluntarily placed under the patronage of the unions whose worst bureaucrats attempted a reconversion, such as M. Laby, boss of the Chemical Federation of the FO. Also represented, apart from the UNEF and the SNESup were: the Paris CFDT, 4 FO federations, the FEN, the CAL6 and even the CGT union of the ORTF. On the other hand some extreme left groups avoided the gathering, whose objectives they considered too vague. The 22-March movement organised some small local meetings at the same time, with the help of the Action Committees which it controlled.

But Mendès France, the former president of the Council and member of the PSU, was waiting in the wings, along with the National Centre for Study and Training which was part of the FGDS7. The politicians didn’t speak. It was the unions who took their place on the stand one after the other and set out their views on the revolution, the CGT, “dual power” etc., without committing themselves to much more than their individual responsibility nor advancing any tangible perspectives.

In the end the Charléty gathering was only an exchange, where they set out their revolutionary good
intentions without taking any concrete decision, and a real attempt at recuperation and the launching of a politician’s alternative to the PCF trying to find legitimacy within the movement .

The CGT took the initiative again and gave the national order for a demonstration on Wednesday 29,
which had to break up in front of Saint-Lazare station. De Gaulle started to search for support in Germany from General Massu. On 29 and 30 May, more than 60 marches, consisting of more than half a million people, set off in the provinces in an atmosphere of unity because the CGT locally had toned down its attacks on the UNEF. In Paris, some students and teachers joined the workers’ march which went from Bastille to Saint-Lazare station with 350,000 people and passed off completely peacefully.

This show of strength, which for thirty six hours constituted the dread and the fantasy of a seizure of
power by the PCF for some members of the government, only finally gave rise to the relaunch of negotiations within the left between the FGDS and the PCF.

The Gaullist counter-offensive

On 30 May at noon, De Gaulle returned to the Élysée Palace. At 14.30 he received Pompidou and told him: “We’re staying. I’ve given up on a referendum”. The Prime Minister asked the President to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies [parliament].

At 15.00, at the Council of Ministers, De Gaulle presented his position and announced: “After the elections, the government will resign”. Pompidou realised, despite what the president had told him the same morning, that this would mean setting a date for his own expulsion. The address took place on the radio at 16.30. It was a fighting statement where the philosophy of participation had no place. Above all it was a matter of organising the counter-offensive.

The demonstration organised the day before at the instigation of the “barons” of Gaullism8 met one hour later on the place de la Concorde. It had 700,000 to 800,000 participants and was the first sign that the tide was turning. The psychological blow succeeded, and the parties of the left understood it. They adapted themselves to the new political situation in a few hours and everyone began to prepare for the legislative elections.