Part 1. An account of the events


The pages that follow are not intended to be a history of the strikes of May ’68. In order for them to comprise such a history it would have been necessary to pursue my research much further than I was capable of in this instance. It is instead a sort of compilation of the information provided by the texts listed in the bibliography, which are easily accessible, concerning the question of the strike movement as seen from one particular perspective: that of the rank and file. A fortiori, it is not a history of May ’68 that recapitulates the entire political dimension of that moment in French society, much less a history of the interpretations of May ’68. A real history of the strikes would have also necessitated the detailed verification of every single bit of information by consulting different sources. This has not always been possible. I would be very interested in any errors the readers of this book may be able to bring to my attention.

The bibliography does not contain a systematic account of the strikes of 1968. It is actually quite surprising to see that while there are so many interpretations and points of view with respect to the May movement, it is still hard to discover, with any degree of accuracy, just what happened in the factories and offices during those four or five weeks. I therefore believe that my recapitulation could be very useful for those who want to know what the wage workers and employees did during the great strikes of May ’68.

B. A.
May 2003

Part 1

An Account of the Events

1. The Beginning of the Strike Wave

May 13

After May 3, the student movement that began in Nanterre spread to the streets of the Latin Quarter (QL),1 and to many provincial university cities. This student movement is outside the scope of our investigation. But it cannot be completely ignored, since it certainly had an influence on the beginning of the strikes in the factories.

Chronology of the student demonstrations from May 3 to May 10

Friday, May 3. The police clear the courtyard of the Sorbonne that had been occupied by students, especially those from Nanterre, who had come to the Sorbonne to attend a meeting. They arrested some of the students, and this led to protests on the part of the others. Six hours of violence ensued, culminating in 600 arrests.

May 4. Some of the people who were arrested are sentenced, some to imprisonment. Eight of the sentences will be overturned on appeal.

May 5. The Sorbonne is closed.

Monday, May 6. At dawn, the police close off the Latin Quarter. From the first few hours of the morning (while the university’s disciplinary council was in session to consider the cases of eight students, including Daniel Cohn-Bendit), demonstrations and rallies take place on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. These led to confrontations with the police. The multitude of small, scattered groups coalesced in a rally of 6,000 people in the Halle-aux-Vins (with the slogan, “against repression”). UNEF2 called for a demonstration at 6:30 at Denfert-Rochereau. Meanwhile, a large part of the 6,000 people marched in a demonstration that returned to the Latin Quarter after passing through the Right Bank. In the Rue des Ecoles there were indiscriminate and violent police rampages. The students respond in kind, and construct barricades. It was at this time that the UNEF demonstration was beginning in Denfert. It ran into the police on the Rue du Four. There were more violent clashes, and elaborate barricades are built. At dusk, there were more demonstrations, which were very violent in the Latin Quarter (500 injured, 400 arrested). There were also demonstrations in the provinces; the one in Grenoble was violent.

Tuesday, May 7. A rally was held at 6:30 in Denfert. Columns of demonstrators marched through Paris (where they were not prevented from doing so by police roadblocks) for four hours: Les Invalides, Quai d’Orsay, Place de la Concorde, Arc de Triomphe (9:30). And when they returned toward the left bank, they ran into a police roadblock at the intersection of Rue de Rennes and Rue d’Assas. There were 50,000 demonstrators. The confrontations that followed were more scattered and sporadic than those of the night before. The police engaged in a festive display of great violence.

Wednesday, May 8. A rally was held in Halle-aux-Vins and a demonstration made its way down the Boulevard Saint-Germain towards the Senate and Place Edmond-Rostand. Some communist deputies wanted to lead the demonstration. They were sent back towards the main body of the demonstration. The Sorbonne was inaccessible. The UNEF maintained control of the demonstration and managed to bring it to an end without any confrontations.

Thursday, May 9. No demonstrations took place. Assemblies were held at the Mutualité (convoked by the leftists, the March 22 Movement,3 the UJCML,4 the JCR5…) and at the Cirque d’Hiver (convoked by the Communist Party and the UEC6).

Friday, May 10. At nightfall, the demonstrations that took place during the day concluded in a march up the Boulevard Saint-Michel towards the Luxembourg, where they were more or less stalled. Then the first “night of the barricades” began: barricades were quite numerous at Sainte-Geneviève, without any strategic plan whatsoever, especially at the Place Edmond-Rostand, Rue Soufflot and in the alleys that lead to the Contrescarpe. The cops launched their attack at night, at about two in the morning. They retaliated violently. Solidarity on the part of the local residents and a vast current of sympathy towards the demonstrators characterized public opinion.

During this period of student demonstrations, contacts were initiated, in different ways and at different levels, between two worlds: that of the students and that of the workers. At the highest levels, the bureaucrats of UNEF and the central committees of the Trade Union Federations did some mutual ass kissing. Among the rank and file, the young workers displayed lively interest in the demonstrations of the students. This was not at all to the liking of the bureaucrats.

On May 3, in L’Humanité,7 the Communist Party, through the pen of Georges Marchais,8 directly attacked the students of Nanterre and denounced the “German anarchist”, Cohn-Bendit. But the communist militants did not unanimously accept this condemnation that was intended to keep them away from the movement. Rioux and Backmann refer to the case of an official of the Young Communists who had “enormous difficulties holding back his colleagues, who had become uncontrollable. A simple order from the party and they would have poured into the Latin Quarter. The order never came, and some comrades … secretly joined the demonstrations”.9 He also cited the case of a trade union official who confirmed the existence of a tense atmosphere among the communist comrades and the “real crisis of absenteeism” that he observed to prevail among the young factory militants during the days of the major demonstrations.

On the night of May 6, at the Hispano-Suiza plant in Colombes (Hauts-de-Seine),10 thirty night shift workers went on strike. Among them, some trade union members wanted to go to the Latin Quarter with the CGT flag.11 Finally, they left without the flag after encountering “the hesitations of the others” (we assume that this refers to the other trade union members). On May 10, some of them returned to the Latin Quarter and participated in the construction of barricades.12 In their account of the “night of the barricades” (May 10-11), Rioux and Backmann discuss the case of the barricade at Rue de l'Abbé-de-l'Épée, built by young workers, whose origins were unknown, and who proved to be quite ingenious. They draped wires across the street at various heights in order to defend their ten-foot high barricade.

Nor was it only the CGT that had trouble maintaining discipline among its troops. At the Rhône-Poulenc factory in Vitry, a CFDT13 pamphlet dated May 8 states: “Students and workers, the same struggle”. On May 9, a pamphlet signed by “workers of all tendencies” took this slogan issued by the trade union federation literally and appealed to the workers to join the student demonstrations. Immediately the CFDT published a pamphlet entitled, “put out the fire”, announcing a joint trade union-UNEF demonstration for May 11.14 According to Jacques Baynac, the first barricade of the night of May 10 was erected on Rue Le Goff by young workers who proclaimed that even if the students’ three demands15 were met, they would be fooled again.

These facts are merely a few of the indications that the workers, especially the young workers, were interested in what was happening among the students. The trade unions were not unaware of the fact that the student struggles incited a lively current of sympathy, but they were still, of course, very mistrustful and suspicious. After the invectives hurled at the students by Marchais, however, L’Humanité gradually changed its tune and the UEC finally announced its solidarity with the “good students” (but not with the violent ones who were only playing the game of big capital). During the week of May 3, various meetings were held between the trade union central committees and UNEF, which culminated in the proposal to hold a solidarity demonstration on May 14. After the night of the barricades and the enormous wave of sympathy that had emerged in favor of the students and against the repression, the date of the demonstration was changed to May 13, and reinforced with a call for a general strike. At first, the demonstration of May 13 had been rejected by the Communist Party, which considered it to be too “political”.16 Did the Communist Party and the CGT change their minds because they were afraid of being left behind by the movement? It is known that it was the pressure of numerous party cells, that led L’Humanité to publish, on the morning of May 11, a special issue on the night of the barricades, which also explains why certain cells had already begun to distribute leaflets protesting against the repression without waiting for orders.17

According to Adrien Dansette, the strike called for May 13 was “universally observed in the public services, SNCF,18 RATP,19 and EDF,20 but less so in the private sector”.21 In any event, this strike would lead to gigantic demonstrations, both in Paris and the provinces. Unfortunately, we possess less information about what happened that day in the factories.

At Hispano-Suiza, which we already mentioned above, the strike pickets formed at dawn, with the participation of students. They are “very solid, very strong…. As for the [trade union] apparatus, it was totally taken by surprise”. According to one account, “until 11 in the morning, there was one hell of an interesting discussion” between workers and students.22 Then a small demonstration was organized which marched around the neighboring streets. Later, it went to the Place de la Republic, in Paris, the staging point for the main demonstration.

At Renault-Billancourt, 80% of the workers participated in the strike, but only the workers who were members of the trade unions joined the demonstration. At Thomson (Bagneux and Gennevilliers [Hauts-de-Seine]) the rate of participation in the strike was between 60 and 65%. At the Research Center (CEA) in Saclay (Essonne), participation was almost total, as it was at Chausson (90%).23 At the Rhône-Poulenc Vitry subsidiary (Val-de-Marne), 50% of the workers participated in the strike. These few figures are indicative of the tense situation that prevailed at the factories. In fact, it had been a long time since a “trade union action” had enjoyed such success. It was undoubtedly the same tension that incited the management of Citroën-Levallois to decree a lockout to keep the workers out of the factory, even though they had not joined the strike.

In the provinces the strike call was widely heeded. At Peugeot, at the Sochaux plant (Doubs), the factory was actually shut down because its electricity was cut off, which shows just how much the strike affected the EDF.24 Among those enterprises that will be the objects of so much discussion later in our text is Sud-Aviation in Bouguenais, near Nantes. In fact, for the last several weeks this factory had been the site of an almost uninterrupted conflict, and the strike of May 13 was just one in a series of actions, sometimes violent, that had begun in the beginning of April. At the Renault plant in Cléon (Seine-Maritime), another factory that was rapidly engulfed by the May-June strike, 50% of the workers participated in the work stoppage.

At Lyon, at the end of the demonstration, a delegation was sent to Rhodiaceta (in the Vaise district of the city), a factory that had experienced an intense labor conflict a few months before. The 2,000 demonstrators assembled in front of the factory and this gave rise to encounters and discussions that the CGT was unable to prevent (it was to have more success later). It gets better: that same day, the CFDT incited the students to invade the factory to “prevent a lockout. The management was afraid. Then we entered into negotiations with the management, but not without remembering to ask the students to stand in front of the door of the room where we had our meeting. The managers rapidly forgot their decision to decree a lockout, and we returned to work”.25

These few accounts help us to understand the fact that, just as the student demonstrations and barricades had an obvious impact on the factories, the May 13 strike set the stage for the explosion that would come later. According to Claude Durand, the trade union members of the eight factories that he studied were unanimous in saying that the strike and the demonstrations of May 13 were the detonators for the subsequent events. There were 600,000 demonstrators in Paris, 150,000 in Marseilles, 40,000 in Toulouse, 35,000 in Lyon, etc. Everywhere, delegations of students met with workers, not always with harmonious results. Everywhere, however, these delegations were surprisingly large and well attended. The demonstrations had served to crystallize the diffuse feeling of having had enough. Situated halfway between the first days which had been dominated by the sympathy, and even the admiration, of “public opinion” for the students, which seemed to have a major effect on the Gaullist regime, and the massive work stoppage that would subsequently take place, the strike of May 13 revealed to the workers movement its own potential power.

The first week: spontaneity?

Tuesday, May 14

One often reads that it was the workers of Sud-Aviation of Bouguenais (Loire-Atlantique) who began the May ‘68 strike movement. This is not entirely correct. First, because this factory in the Nantes region had already been embroiled in conflict for several weeks, a conflict that had met with the clear indifference of the rest of the workers movement. Second, because other factories also witnessed a burst of conflict after May 14, and this was the case independently of what was taking place at Sud-Aviation that day (taking the factory director hostage and occupation of the factory).

In January 1968, Sud-Aviation Bouguenais employed 2,682 wage workers, of whom 1,793 were hourly workers working alongside 831 technicians and employees who were paid a monthly wage. Starting in February, the management proposed to cut back on hours due to the economic recession. It announced its plans in April and it was the insufficiency of the compensations and indemnifications for the lost hours that unleashed the conflict.

The conflict at Sud-Aviation Bouguenais in April-May 196826

Tuesday, April 9. Work stoppage from 4:45 to 5:45: general assembly in front of the cafe, L’Envol. The CGT proposes different actions by the different sections of the plant. FO27 agrees. They resolve to hold a vote28 regarding the action on April 10.

Wednesday, April 10. No work stoppage. The vote was inconclusive (31% of those eligible to vote participated).

April 16-18. No work stoppage. Three pamphlets distributed by the trade unions (which display differences of opinion).

Tuesday, April 23. Work stoppage from 4 until 5.

Wednesday, April 24. Work stoppages from 10:10 until 11:15, and from 5 to 5:30: processions through the workshops … assembly in front of the L’Envol cafe….

Thursday, April 25. Work stoppage from 5 until 5:45. Rallies “under the weathervane”.

Monday, April 29. Work stoppage from 4:45 to 5: Yvon Rocton (a Trotskyist militant of the OCI29 and secretary of the FO section of hourly workers) proposes an occupation. His proposal is rejected.

Tuesday, April 30. Work stoppage from 9:45 to 5:45. Assembly in front of the plant office building. The delegates are received by the factory director, Duvochel. The workers invade the offices. Duvochel escapes and goes to the restaurant at the airfield. Pursued by a group of workers, he is cornered in the restaurant, until he manages to take refuge in an office near the control tower, and finally leaves in a car with the delegates and goes back to the factory. The crowd of workers follows on foot. The management proposes a meeting in Paris on May 3. Rocton calls for the formation of a strike and occupation committee. The CGT and CFDT call for everyone to return to their homes and to postpone any decisions until the next day. It is decided to hold a demonstration on May 2.

Thursday, May 2. Work stoppage from 10 until 5:45: a delegation leaves in a car for downtown Nantes. Demonstration proceeds through the city.

Friday, May 3. Work stoppage from 3 until 5:45.

Monday, May 6. Work stoppage from 3 until 5:45: the FO proposes to occupy the factory: the proposal is rejected.

Tuesday, May 7. Four half-hour work stoppages: “Almost constant processions”.30

Wednesday, May 8. All-day work stoppage (actual duration: nine and a half hours), within the framework of a regional day of action in all of western France.

Thursday, May 9. Four work stoppages of a half-hour each.

Friday, May 10. Work stoppage from 10:30 to 11:30 and then from 4 until 5. The CGT proposes to conduct the strike outside the factory,31 and the FO proposes to conduct the strike by means of an occupation of the factory. That evening, the CGT reverses course and proposes to continue the actions in their current form.

Monday, May 13. All-day strike (actual duration: nine and a half hours): nationwide general strike.

Tuesday, May 14. Work stoppage from 2:30 to 3 and from 3:30 to 4. Assembly “under the weathervane”, processions through the workshops. The delegates have obtained no results. The doors of the factory offices are broken down. The workers who are paid on a monthly basis go on strike. Duvochel is cornered in his office. He awaits a response from Paris. The delegates blockade the exits to prevent the workers from leaving. De facto occupation. Duvochel remains cornered in his office until May 29.

This chronology summarizes the events of a conflict that is concretely composed of consecutive work stoppages each day and processions through the workshops. These marches or processions often begin with meetings that are held “under the weathervane”. The unfolding of events makes it clear that the decision to occupy the factory was not made all at once, and that when it was made, it was a natural outgrowth of the conflict. Already, on April 30, the factory director was blockaded in his office (and then in the airfield restaurant; and then once again in an office in the control tower). On several occasions, prior to the outbreak of the May 14 strike, the secretary of the FO hourly section, Yvon Rocton, called for an occupation, but always unsuccessfully. Finally, the occupation took place more or less spontaneously on May 14, when the workers blockaded the director in his office in order to get an answer from him with regard to the compensations they were seeking in exchange for the cutback in hours that went into effect in early April. We may characterize this action as one that was more or less spontaneous because, even if some of the workers were determined to wait however long it took to get an answer, other workers sought, right up to the end of the May 14 action, a way to get out of the factory. And it was in order to prevent this desertion that the trade unions barricaded all the doors and guarded them against any possible escape attempts.

According to François Le Madec, the reason for the conflict was as follows: the management announced in February that starting in April, the work week would be reduced from 48 hours to 46 ½ hours, and then to 45 hours starting on July 1, 1968. Pay would be proportionately reduced with only a compensation of 1% of the total wage for everyone, in the paychecks for the hours actually worked. Le Madec estimates that the compensation should have varied from 3.75% to 7.5%. If today one might be surprised at the ferocity of the conflict considering the rather minor stakes, it must be recalled that during that era, wages were increasing by 6% to 7% annually due to “natural increase”. It is also noteworthy that the anti-Duvochel song (dedicated to the director) accused him of taking money away from “the indebted workers”. Does this mean that the decline in the standard of living had already begun before that time and that until then it had been disguised by the resort to consumer debt?

Thus, it was almost by chance that it was on that day that the workers of Sud-Aviation held the management hostage in their offices and that they should have continued to occupy the factory during that night—waiting for Duvochel to obtain authorization from the Paris executive office for the satisfaction of the workers demands.

Other enterprises connected the nationwide general strike of May 13 with the “great strike” of May-June 1968. Two cases of enterprises in the provinces that were affected by the May 13 strike are documented. They are the agricultural supply company, Claas, in Woippy (in the vicinity of Metz, in eastern France) and the BTP Corporation [Public Works], Duc et Mery de Toulouse. According to Roger Martelli,32 during the evening of May 14 [the 500 workers of Claas] decided to extend the strike of the day before. There is also the case of La Villette de las Nouvelles Messageries de la Presse Parisienne (NMPP) in Paris:33 “The boys arrived that morning and decided not to work. The CGT delegate requested that they return to work so that the trade union could negotiate with the management of the company. His words were coldly received by the strikers who stayed on strike and democratically elected a strike committee”.34 Immediately thereafter, the plants at Bobigny (Seine-Saint-Denis, 2,000 workers), Charolais (District 12 of Paris, 400 workers) and Paul-Lelong (District 2 of Paris, 500 workers) joined the movement. In the SNCF there was a strike on May 13 at the railroad station at Badan (near Lyon). Two workers were immediately fired. On the next morning, May 14, the railroad workers prevented their boss from leaving his office. They held out on their own until the movement spread to the rest of the SNCF.35

On the night of May 14 there were therefore dispersed—sectorally and geographically—conflicts. In the press, the conflict at Sud-Aviation was only mentioned in a few articles buried in the back pages of the newspapers. On May 15, L’Humanité devoted only nine lines on page 9 to Sud-Aviation. Le Monde and Les Echos were just as laconic.36 A fortiori, the other conflicts passed almost unnoticed.

Wednesday, May 15

This was the date of a long-planned day of action by the trade unions against the recently announced Social Security reforms.

In the spring of 1967, the government asked Parliament to grant it a series of special powers. The result was the new decree. Parliament had itself abdicated its power by voting to authorize the government to make executive decisions—with regard to certain economic and social questions, and for a period of six months at the most—that were normally within the purview of the legislative branch. The government thus wielded “special powers” that it sought to implement in five areas: the reconversion of the workers and the struggle against unemployment, participation in the results of growth,37 the reform of the Social Security system, the increase of enterprise competitiveness, and the modernization and restructuring of economic sectors. This led to 34 rulings, among which were some that affected Social Security.38 These rulings projected, among other things, an increase of .5% in contributions from wage workers. But above all they inaugurated a new way of appointing the administrators of the Social Security funds39 that entailed the marginalization of the CGT and the rise of the FO to the presidency of the National Pension Fund and to the presidencies of one-third of the primary funds. Starting in August 1967, the trade unions had been trying to mobilize the workers as part of an attempt to repeal these measures. It is understandable that the CGT should have been particularly motivated with regard to this issue. On the eve of the strikes of May-June 1968, however, they had hardly had any success in mobilizing the workers around this issue. Did they use the pressure of these strikes for the purpose of this campaign? Not at all! We shall see below that the strikes generated so much fear in the CGT that, even though the moment of victory had seemingly arrived, it would shamefully renounce this demand that was so “fundamental” only a few months before.

On May 15, therefore, at Renault-Cléon,40 the trade unions made an effort to sound out the attitudes on the shop floor in order to see if they could take advantage of the success of the May 13 strike to exercise pressure to obtain the repeal of the Social Security reforms. They reached an agreement to stage successive one-hour work stoppages by different parts of the plant. In the account written by the collective of the militants from the strike committee shortly after the strike,41 we observe that the work stoppage that next day was very militant. The workers, led by particularly combative young workers, marched through the workshops to incite those who had not yet joined the strike to stop work and to force the trade unions to extend the work stoppage for another half hour. They called for the formation of a strike committee and hardly even mentioned the topic of the Social Security reforms in their propaganda. It required all the diplomacy of an official of the CFDT to make the workers return to their posts, where, however, they frequently interrupted their work for discussions and to inform recent arrivals of the current status of the strike.

When the evening shift arrived for work, the same scenario of work stoppages prevailed, but “due to pressure from the young workers, a march was organized. At its head, there were 200 young workers who chanted slogans under the windows of the managers’ offices. There they congregated, and pushed their astonished union delegates forward and asked for an interview with the factory director [the director refused]. In the offices, the management personnel became apprehensive and barricaded the doors with iron bars”.42 The workers, once they saw this, ordered the management personnel not to leave their offices until they agreed to meet the strikers’ delegates. At six p.m., no one was working and the workers voted in favor of occupying the factory amidst general enthusiasm.

The occupation was therefore forced upon the trade unions, which had to comply with the wishes of the strikers and had by no means foreseen this development. In an attempt to regain control of their troops, the trade unions created a workers’ patrol to organize the occupation—whose job consisted principally in protecting the machinery—and submitted a list of demands that was distributed, in the form of a leaflet, at 11 p.m.: “Reduction of the work week to 40 hours without any decrease in pay; minimum wage of 1,000 francs; lower the age of retirement; transformation of the temporary contracts into indefinite contracts; increase trade union freedom”.

The question of the Social Security reforms was conspicuous due to its absence. This list of demands, approved by a narrow majority, was presented at midnight to the management. The latter declared that it had no authorization to negotiate such demands, which had to be referred to Paris. In response, the workers declared that they would not free the 12 executives who were blockaded in their offices until their demands were satisfied.43

We can thus note the similarity of the Renault-Cléon case with that of Sud-Aviation. In both cases, very angry workers confronted a management that took refuge in its offices. The testimonies we have quoted emphasize the fact that between the day shift and the evening shift, the news of the occupation of Sud-Aviation had spread, and took it for granted that the workers on the evening shift already knew about it; but this is not entirely certain, when one takes into account the fact that very little publicity had been devoted to the conflict at Nantes that was taking place at the same time; and it does not necessarily explain why the workers at Cléon had the same idea as those at Nantes: the momentum of the conflict and the increase of tension easily led on their own to this kind of development.

At the end of the May 15 action, Roger Martelli writes, the movement at Cléon spread like wildfire in Seine-Maritime, and reached the Kléber-Colombes Elbeuf plant, and la Roclaine at Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. He tells us nothing, unfortunately, about how the conflict started. Was it also the result of the uncontrolled outcome of an action against the Social Security reform? We do not know. On May 15 the 1,800 workers at Lockheed in Beauvais (Oise) would also go on strike.

Is it not true that this information, as partial as it may be, allows us to verify the spontaneous character of the strike? The examples of Sud-Aviation and Cléon enable us, in any case, to contribute a little more precision to the meaning of the term, “spontaneous”. What in both cases appeared to be spontaneity was actually the manifestation of the anger of the workers and the loss of control this implied for the trade unions. But—and this is crucial—the trade unions never lost contact with the beginning of the struggles. If one can therefore speak of a loss of control, this is only to indicate that the trade unions were dragged towards other goals than those they had initially supported (the Social Security reforms) and towards other methods of struggle different from those they advocated (a few hours of work stoppages). If there was friction, it was situated as much between the rank and file of the trade unions and the bureaucrats as it was between the mass of the workers and the trade unions. It is surprising, for example, that at Sud-Aviation, the section of the FO hourly workers, which was led by a militant Trotskyist, had issued several appeals to occupy the factory prior to May 14. On each occasion, its appeals met with no response. When the occupation finally took place, it seemed to have been decided upon in a very informal manner, in the midst of an undisciplined crowd in a hallway in front of the factory director’s office.44 It was, however, immediately implemented by the trade union delegates, who locked the factory doors to prevent the workers from leaving the factory (in the case of Sud-Aviation) and who in general asserted their authority in the practical organization of the occupation.

Claude Durand provides support for this interpretation when he writes, concerning his interviews with trade unionists after the strike, that “while the high level officials in the trade union organizations rejected the idea that the rank and file had escaped their control, the account of the beginning of the strike provided by local trade union officials gave a distinct impression of a loss of control over the rank and file, especially the young trade union members—and even among the unorganized—and that the reestablishment of discipline […] was more or less difficult according to the situation”.45

Thursday, May 16

We shall continue to focus on the Renault plants. On the night of May 16, all of them were on strike.

At Flins (Yvelines),46 on the morning of May 16, the trade unionists of the CFDT were informed of a meeting that was going to be held to discuss the implementation of the union’s directives with regard to the Social Security reforms. Before he went to the meeting, one of the members of the CFDT received a telephone call informing him of the fact that the factory at Cléon had gone on strike indefinitely with an occupation, and that the executives were being held hostage.47 In response, the CFDT members decided to approach the CGT with a proposal to stage a one-hour strike at 10:15. Two-person teams of trade unionists (one from the CFDT and one from the CGT) circulated through the workshops to spread the word. At the designated time, approximately 500 workers ceased work and gathered outside the factory buildings. Then they went back to the workshops, marching in a procession, to encourage the other workers to down tools. At 11:30, a much larger group of workers gathered in the cafeteria. The two trade union officials of the CFDT and the CGT explained what had taken place at Cléon, and proposed that they stage an indefinite strike. The proposal was approved and planning immediately began for an occupation of the factory. At first, this consisted of assigning groups of pickets and compiling lists of the names of volunteers to participate in the pickets. Before dispersing for lunch, they made an appointment to meet again at 2:00 in order to organize another assembly for the evening shift. This assembly also approved of the principle of an indefinite strike with an occupation. At 3:30, the management shut down the factory. This version of the events was provided by a member of the CFDT.

At the assembly held the next day, the main topic for discussion was how to act in solidarity with Cléon. In the afternoon, the trade unions presented a list of demands: “40 hour work week without any reduction in pay; 1,000 francs minimum wage; retirement at 60 (55 for women); a fifth week of holiday for young people; repeal of the Social Security Reform decrees; trade union rights”.

According to another account, also provided by J.-Ph. Talbo, there was a two-hour work stoppage on the day before, as soon as the news from Cléon was publicized. It was at Cléon where the motors for the cars were manufactured, and the factory only had enough in stock for a half day of operation. If that was true, then this was certainly the work stoppage that made the ICO write that the strike at Flins broke out spontaneously before the strike at Billancourt.48 The testimony set forth above does not depict a spontaneous outbreak escaping trade union control.

Starting on the next day, the young workers of Flins traveled all over the region, trying to instigate other factories to join the strike.

We must admit that the two accounts set forth above concerning the beginning of the strike complement one another. The first does not give the impression that the workers had a very combative attitude, but were rather more inclined to follow the initiatives of the trade union. The second account explained the nature of this initiative: the work stoppage on the night shift of May 15 allowed the trade unions to perceive the pressure from the rank and file. And this was confirmed by the fact that, starting on May 17 the young workers of Flins set out to canvass the region to incite the other factories to join the strike. They did this “without being encouraged to do so” by the trade unions, according to a trade union militant quoted by Talbo. The latter pointed out (p. 13) that at Ciments Français, “the beginning was absolutely flat and tepid; the management was on the verge of regaining control over the situation when the young workers of Renault and the militants from Cellophane entered the fray”.

At Billancourt,49
in the accounts provided by Jacques Frémontier, it is hard to get an exact idea of how the strike started.50 He quotes various testimonies (an anarchist from the CFDT, two Trotskyists—one of them from the CFDT, one from the CGT), with an obvious bias in favor of the CGT, seeking to prove that the latter did not lose control of the situation. It can be discerned from these accounts that the strike began during the first hours of the afternoon in Department 70. The anarchist militant, who had discovered that morning that Cléon had been occupied, proposed that a meeting should be held at 2:00 p.m., in front of the offices of the department manager. The meeting took place, but the manager was not in his office. The workers then proceeded towards another department, and then, with the workers of Department 55 joining their procession along the way, they went to Seguin Isle. Once there, the march was joined by a group of highly skilled workers from Department 37. There, they met with Halbeher and Sylvain, secretary general and adjunct secretary general of the CGT, respectively, who proposed that they postpone making a decision about going on strike until the next day. This was rejected by the workers, who called for an immediate indefinite strike and occupation. The two trade union officials gave them the green light. It was 5:00 p.m. During this assembly, which took place at the intersection of Rue Zola and Rue Kerman, a Trotskyist militant wanted to address the crowd, but the CGT cut off the sound. The workers chanted: “All for the strike, indefinite strike”. Another account quoted by Frémontier, is that of the CGT member Hillibert, who admitted that the strike in Department 70 started without CGT authorization (“a group of young people assumed leadership”).

François de Massot, of the OCI, offers corroborating testimony.51 On the same day, at around noon, two rival assemblies were held at the Place Nationale in Billancourt: one under the auspices of the CGT and the other under those of the FER,52 a Trotskyist student organization affiliated with the OCI. Throughout the afternoon, discussions in the various departments caused interruptions in the work process. At 3:00 p.m. delegations from the workshops arrived at the offices of the CGT, where they were met with an indefinite response. At 4:00, several hundred workers gathered in front of the CGT offices; one of the CGT officials then suggested that they should continue the discussion later and that they should wait until that evening’s trade union meeting, where the decisions would be made. His proposal was met with jeers of derision. At 5:00, the trade union made an abrupt change of course, and assumed leadership of the strike and began to organize for the occupation.

If these accounts are more or less accurate, it must be emphasized that the beginnings of the strike were more indicative of a divergence between the rank and file trade unionists and their leaders than one between the masses and the trade unions. This aspect must be taken into account, above all in a factory of this size, when we hear that the “trade unions had lost control”. And when Hillibert says “without CGT authorization”, he did not say “without the involvement of trade unionists”. On the other hand, it must also be emphasized that the strike did not arise on the basis of concrete demands concerning that particular plant, but on the basis of the reasoning that if “Cléon has gone on strike, we have to join them”. The justification of “forward with everyone” did not seem to require long debates. The beginning of the strike responded to a long accumulation of frustrations and unsatisfied demands, which burst through the breach opened up by the student movement during the national strike of May 13, and, above all, by the strikes at Sud-Aviation and Renault-Cléon. Frémontier highlights this frustration when he mentions the serious conflicts of the preceding months, during the course of which numerous work stoppages took place. He reports on 90 conflicts that took place in two months, that is, at an annual rate that is more than double that of the period from 1963 to 1967 (234 work stoppages per year). It is also necessary to point out that the strike did not particularly emphasize the issue of solidarity (with the students, with the first strikers), but broke out on the basis of its own, although hardly explicit, issues.

At Renault-Sandouville (Seine-Maritime),53 the strike began on May 16. We possess the testimony54 of a member of the factory committee, who would later be elected to lead the strike committee. During the events of May 16, he witnessed the shouts and the protests of the workers, which he found annoying and unfortunate. It was not until the end of the day, when the mass of the workers had gathered in front of the management offices, that he joined the movement, because he had come to understand that “it was a spontaneous revolt of people who have been pushed too far”. But he was still very afraid, because he did not see what could be done with this revolt in such a huge factory.

The other Renault factories also went on strike on that same day, May 16. That night, the trade unions had to deal with a strike that affected the entire Renault group. Other strikes had broken out in the shipyards at Bordeaux, at L’Unelec in Orléans, at Saviem in Caen…. The size of the enterprises that were shut down was enough to convince them that they were facing a broad based movement that threatened to drag them along with it.

On that same day, for example, the first reaction on the part of the trade unions that evinced their awareness of the danger of the strikes was directed at the SCNF. On May 16 and 17, the CGT sent official delegations to the SCNF headquarters. They called for work stoppages on the basis of corporative demands. At an intersyndical meeting, the CGT and the CFDT reached an agreement on the necessity of maintaining control over a movement that had already begun.55

According to the very incomplete information that we possess, on the night of May 16, there were approximately 90,000 workers on strike, of whom 60,000 were employed by Renault.

Friday, May 17

The movement gained momentum on Friday, May 17. On the one hand, the rail network of SCNF was totally shut down. At around noon, the depot at Achères (Yvelines) began a strike and occupation under the leadership of the CGT. At 4:00, the CFDT announced that it would support its trade unions if they joined the strike (that is, without the contractual advance notice). Immediately afterwards, the movement spread like wildfire in Paris and its environs: Montparnasse, Saint-Lazare, Montrouge. At the end of the day, a confederal meeting of the CGT was informed of these developments. This was the signal for adjourning the meeting, for everyone present understood that if the SCNF had joined the strike, the movement was serious, and everyone had to make haste to be at their posts. At 5:45, an inter-federation meeting of rail workers took place, whose minutes indicate that the CGT wanted to “follow the example of the metal industry” and that the CFDT had decided to “participate in the movement in order to maintain control over its course”.56 FO agrees to join the movement, including the occupation of the workshops.

On Saturday, May 18, the entire rail network is shut down by the strike. The first joint intersyndical communiqué is published, with the following demands: “Trade union rights, 40 hours, increase of wages and pensions, defense of nationalized enterprises,57 repeal of the Social Security decrees”.

This turn of events in the SNCF allows us to highlight two points. On the one hand, a great deal of tension was observed among the rank and file. Since the publication of the Nora Report on the public enterprises, everyone knew that the SNCF would be converted into a competitive enterprise. This augured restructuring, staff reduction, and other measures that would permit the SNCF to compete with the trucking industry. On the other hand, we must acknowledge how sensitive the trade unions were with regard to the movements of the rank and file workers. J.-M. Leuwers cites a typical example: “Workshop complex X of Nîmes employed about 500 workers. One Friday night [May 17], at about four in the afternoon, we received a telephone call that notified us, the militants of the organization, that the workers in these shops had suddenly stopped work, and that they did not want to work to the end of the shift, which normally ended at five; the guy from the CFDT who had answered the phone call, called the guy from the CGT, and they held meetings in the workshops and told the fellows: ‘if you do not want to go back to work, it is up to you to democratically decide on this by holding a vote [….] And in one hour, the strike pickets were assigned’.”58

The SNCF strike therefore began with the “accompaniment” of the trade unions. During the night of May 16, they had already made their choice. The beginning of the strike at SNCF thus marked the end of the early stage of the more or less spontaneous strikes that escaped the control of the trade unions.

On the other hand, the strikes spread to RATP. The CFDT chose lines 2 and 6, of the National network, to launch a work stoppage. The choice of these two lines was due to the presence of Trotskyist militants of the OCI. But the movement was otherwise held in check.

At the Hispano-Suiza plant, in Colombes, the strike began while the trade union officials were consulting the rank and file about what they should do. It is a pattern that we have already seen in action. The trade unions wanted to propose a work stoppage of one hour for discussion. But the movement started without authorization. According to an account in a Trotskyist newspaper, “on all sides, the workers proceeded as if they had been waiting for this moment for a long time. ‘What do we do? I have been left behind. This happened too quickly for me’ confessed one trade union delegate, ‘I am afraid’”.59 That afternoon the CGT restored its control over the situation by holding a vote on the question of the strike and occupation, but not without also trying to propose a work stoppage of a few hours, and even 24 hours, in response to those present who shouted “40 hours and retirement at 60”; these were the same demands, only slightly reinforced, that had been the object of agitation since January, despite the fact that the trade union proposed the demand of a 45 hour week at 48 hours pay and early retirement. The trade union also had to prevent the kidnapping of the director, saying that he was not there and anyway, the workers at Sud-Aviation had already released their director; both these statements were lies. At 5:00, the factory doors were closed after various contradictory orders. Guards were posted, and women were kept outside. The great peaceful force could express itself.

The Dassault plant60 in Saint-Cloud (Hauts-de-Seine) also joined the strike on May 17. The day before, student militants from the Censier Action Committee had been given a warm welcome, even by the CGT; or at least this was the case according to the reports of the students who went there to pass out leaflets.61 According to Ronan Capitaine, the CGT branch at the factory was not very pleased to see the students and refused to have any discussions with “leftists”. The CFDT was more receptive.62 The plant had undergone a serious social conflict in late 1967, in which the workers indisputably won significant reforms. Wages were increased by 7% and bonuses raised as well. And the workers’ share in the profits of the firm was also increased. Two extra days off each month and a monthly wage for those who were previously paid by the hour, completed the list of conquests. Months later, the combativeness of the workers does not appear to have abated as a result of these conquests. This was the situation when, on May 17, the CGT and the CFDT metal workers federations convoked an assembly in the cafeteria. The local trade union leaders advocated waiting until Monday (May 20), but the rank and file, including a CGT militant, a CFDT militant and the communists, insisted on beginning the strike immediately with an occupation. The CGT, although caught somewhat off-guard, immediately assumed the leadership of the movement by taking responsibility for organizing the occupation: compiling rosters of the strikers, forming groups to administer the occupation, etc. The demands were the same ones that were not satisfied in 1967: the workweek and retirement. According to Rioux and Backmann,63 the entire aeronautics division went on strike on May 17.

Another case involving metal workers in the Paris region is that of the Somafor-Couthon plant in Courneuve (Seine-Saint-Denis, 300 wage workers). On May 16, two trade unionists of the CGT were written up for having circulated a petition the previous week in opposition to the Social Security reforms. On May 17, the CGT responded by calling for a one-hour work stoppage during which the indefinite strike and occupation were approved. In this case, as in the previous one, it can be seen that the trade unions assayed the situation, and although they were not fully in touch with the combativeness of the rank and file, they adapted to the latter as its seriousness became evident to them.

In Lyon-Vaise, Rhodiaceta also went on strike on May 17. Vaise was one of the plants operated by this producer of artificial textiles. It employed 8,000 wage workers, of whom 1,200 were temporary workers. Like the other plants owned by Rhodiaceta, it went through a period of reduced hours, mostly due to the expiration of the patent for producing nylon in 1966. Up until that time, the company was known for its social benefits (higher than average wages and numerous social perquisites). The plant experienced two strikes in 1967. The first lasted from February 28 until March 23; it began as an gesture of solidarity with another plant (Besançon), apparently against “work on the battlements”; an expression that denotes a kind of technical unemployment, where the management decides from one day to the next if there is any work for this or that worker on that day. According to one witness, “it was done at the door, one by one: ‘This one stays, this one goes’”.64 Before the strike, those who were sent packing were not paid.

At Vaise, which also used the “work on the battlements” method, the conflict broke out when the management sought to deny entrance to the factory to a delegation from the Besançon CFDT. The Vaise workers then gathered in front of the gates to prevent a truck from entering the plant compound. The strike unfolded outside of the factory. It was ratified every day at 2:00 p.m., at an assembly held in front of the factory. This strike benefitted from the solidarity of the residents of the nearby neighborhood. For 24 hours a day and throughout the duration of the strike, the workers blocked the factory’s three gates, from the outside. Numerous witnesses insist on the importance of this “socialization of the strike” in the vicinity of the factory. Outside the factory, picket duty allowed for many encounters between the employees who did not have the chance to get to know each other during the usual work day, and the pickets were also points for the expression of the solidarity of the neighborhood residents, who, for example, brought hot food to the pickets.

The workers returned to work after accepting a contract that included a 3.8% pay increase.

In September 1967, the management announced a reduction in the workweek from 44 to 40 hours. This reduction entailed a corresponding reduction in pay. There was no reaction from the workers. On December 6, the management announced the reduction of the Christmas Bonus (from 19.5% to 9% of the annual wage) and the layoff of 2,000 employees before the end of 1969. Immediately, “spontaneous strikes broke out, mostly outside of the control of the trade unions”.65 On December 7, a demonstration was improvised to march towards the Guillotière neighborhood. The demonstration successfully broke through one police barricade, before being stopped by the second one that prevented it from crossing the bridge to Guillotière. The march was punctuated by violent clashes. During the following days the strikers stayed in the factory. On one of them, during the night of December 14-15, there were incidents. On the next day, the trade unions warned the strikers against “thoughtless actions that could play into the hands of management”. On Friday, December 15, the management announced a lockout, to go into effect at the end of the week. On Monday morning (December 18) the management announced the firing of 97 workers for continuous absenteeism. All of them were union members, and some were active militants. On December 20, the entire plant went on strike. In Vaise, there were only about 1,000 workers still on the job. But the movement lost momentum during the Christmas break. Upon returning to the plant, in January, the management announced the layoff of 360 employees throughout the first half of 1968.

After the intense conflicts of 1967, the beginning of the strike in May 1968 had a more bureaucratic aspect than it did in the other enterprises. A militant of the PC/CGT recalls: “Renault was decisive, they began the show, we joined on the next day”.66 The other French factories of the industrial group went on strike the same day.67 In Vaise, in any event, the demands revolved around the question of wages, a fourth week of paid vacation and trade union rights. They were also focused on the coefficients that defined skill levels—which would be revised after the strike.

On May 17, the Thomson plants at Chauny (Aisne) and Sartrouville (Yvelines), and the Alcatel plant at Montrouge, also went on strike. That afternoon, the 7,000 workers of Creusot Forge also went on strike and occupied their workplaces.68 The workers at the uranium mines of Saint-Priest-La-Prugne (Loire) also joined the strike.

By the end of the day, it is estimated that between 500,000 and 600,000 workers were on strike, almost half of whom were employees of SCNF.

Saturday, May 18

On Saturday, May 18, the strike wave reached Houillères du Nord et du Pas-de-Calais (16,000 wage workers). That morning the total number of strikers approached one million. The postal workers joined the strike that night. The air traffic control employees also joined the strike. In Saint-Ouen (Seine-Saint-Denis), the sanitation workers of SITA (garbage collectors) also went on strike, along with the 2,800 wage workers at Imprimerie Lang. By the end of the day, the number of strikers had reached two million.

Sunday, May 19

After the sanitation workers at Saint-Ouen went on strike, the rest of the SITA workers joined them on Sunday morning. They complied with the appeal of the trade unions, after secret votes at Ivry, Romainville, Pantin and Issy.


Ever since the day after the demonstrations of May 13, we have witnessed an overwhelming wave of strikes. We observed, a few pages back, the similarity in the concatenation of events at Sud-Aviation and at Renault-Cléon. There is, however, a big difference with regard to the scale of the demands. While the workers at Sud-Aviation had been in a constant state of rebellion for several months, in response to a very concrete problem linked to the economic slowdown in their sector, the workers at Cléon went on strike without any clear reason, without concrete demands that would have apparently made more sense at that time than they did two months or even two years before. On the other hand, in the first case, the trade unions led the movement during its entire course, while in the second case they lost control of the movement, both with regard to the goals, and with regard to the methods of action. At Renault, but also more generally throughout all the Fordist industries, the accumulation of grievances over chronic problems, such as payment according to the job, the level of pay, the rate and conditions of work, provoked the explosion on that day, in the favorable conditions of the general social context of the country as it was manifested on May 13. Sud-Aviation, Dassault, and all the other enterprises of the aeronautics sector, which went on strike that first week, are not, in this case, Fordist examples. Their workers, however, were active and determined participants in the strike. For them, the problem was directly that of job security.

Sud-Aviation-Bouguenais, Renault-Cléon: we recall that these two enterprises that began the movement of May-June 1968 are emblematic of the basic problems that triggered the crisis: on the one hand, the end of the great prosperity of the thirty glorious years69 and the return to precarious conditions and, and the other hand, the limits of Fordist exploitation. We shall return to this topic in the second part of this book.

There has been much discussion about spontaneity. This discussion would situate the workers movement at the same level as the student movement, in an alleged generalized contestation against the structures of the old world. The term is, of course, applicable to the angry and impatient reactions of the workers against management, including the management of the trade union federations. It describes the powerful pressure exercised by the rank and file of the trade unions on the bureaucratic apparatuses of the unions. In general, however, this “spontaneity” did not express—contrary to the beliefs of the leftists—a determination to get rid of the trade unions, and to break out of their straightjacket. The May movement was not a movement of wildcat strikes, properly speaking. The reactions of the rank and file against the trade unions were limited to spurring them a little to get them out of the rut of routine in which they had become mired. And the trade unions were not slow to get the message.

Already, by the end of the first week, and even more so during the following week, the trade unions recovered the initiative and controlled the outbreak of the subsequent strikes. Of course, the pressure from the rank and file, much more than trade union initiative, explains the mass appeal of the movement. It is well known that the trade union appeals were often inconsistent. But in May ’68 the trade unions quickly came to understand that the strike would proceed, regardless of what they did, and immediately realized, as we have seen in the case of the SNCF, that they might lose control of the entire movement. They therefore put themselves at the head of the movement and made plans to divert it into a political channel. With the strikes at Renault and the Paris metal factories, the trade unions and the Communist Party put their weight behind the strike, and tried to use its power to benefit their political strategy. After May 15, some pamphlets of the CGT called upon the workers to join the strike for the purpose, among others, of helping to form a popular government. If, on that date, these pamphlets did not necessarily accord with national directives,70 by the end of the week, the writing was on the wall: the strikes must be encouraged for the purpose of bringing about a change of government and the weekend must be utilized to plan for the extension of the strikes.

The trade unions knew from experience that the strikes might prove to be more damaging than helpful if they exceeded the bounds defined by the series, “work stoppage-negotiate-return to work”. This had been demonstrated recently, in January 1968 at Fougères and Caen, where strikes and demonstrations culminated in riots. Perhaps they also perceived the extent to which the violent social conflicts that broke out in Italy were a result of the degree to which the trade unions had lost touch with the rank and file. At Pirelli, in February, all the trade unions triumphantly signed a contract that was so bad that it was immediately rejected by a broad-based movement of workers who, for their part, organized and structured their movement in the form of unitary base committees. It took the trade unions several months to absorb this structure that had so energetically threatened their power. In April, 5,000 workers at the Marzotto textile plant likewise rejected a contract that had already been signed and fought with the police for an entire day.71

The French trade unionists were therefore resolved to do whatever was necessary to prevent their losing control of the strike movement. The second week of the strike wave undoubtedly put some of their fears to rest in this regard. But subsequent events, after the signing of the Grenelle Accords, demonstrated that their task was not an easy one.

The Second Week. Generalization of the Strike.

Monday, May 20

On the afternoon of Monday, May 20, the number of strikers was estimated to have surpassed 6 million. The incredible growth of the previous week was thus transformed into a veritable tidal wave. It is therefore impossible to provide a detailed account of the movement’s expansion. The eyewitness accounts we have been able to consult show, however, that numerous forces converged in the movement and that the spontaneity of the first wave of strikes led to a snowball effect that did not exclude a certain degree of passivity on the part of the new strikers. This passivity would benefit the trade unions that now became embroiled in the strikes.

On that day, Georges Séguy, the general secretary of the CGT, delivered an important speech before the workers at Billancourt. His argument was two-fold:

--On the one hand, the strike must remain on the terrain of specific demands and “any irresponsible, adventurous or provocative slogans which call for insurrection only play the game of the government and the employers”. And when the CGT refers to demands it is not talking about “vague formulas like co-management, structural reform, promotion, etc.”. This delivers one blow aimed at the leftists, and another blow aimed at the CFDT, which had adopted self-management as one of its demands.

--On the other hand, it is of pressing importance to unite the left parties and the trade unions to defend “a joint government program with a socially progressive content”.72

The message is therefore, let us strike for our “just demands” but not go beyond that point, except for a new government that we will put into power one way or another. The question was, however, who actually believed this.

Of course, not all of the strikes that began on that Monday were purely and simply obeying the political calculations of parties and trade unions. We must point out once more that the strikes were not merely dragged along behind these little power games except in response to the impulse of a rank and file social movement that made the parties and trade unions apprehensive. For example, in the headquarters of Assurances Générales de France (AGF), a pamphlet was distributed, with the support of the March 22 Movement, that called upon the personnel not to join the strike but … to go beyond the strike: “The strike has been superseded, we have to go back to work to start all over again and we have to do it ourselves”. The protagonists of this initiative were primarily young workers, not all of them members of the trade unions, and the trade union bureaucrats prudently abided by this suggestion. Two days later, the executives went on strike, too, and thanks to the realism they would subsequently introduce into the numerous meetings and debates that the strikers organized to elaborate and formulate their demands for self-management, they would help the trade union cadres to reestablish their control over the movement.73

And there were no trade unions at all, and for good reasons, in one machine shop in the Paris region, because its old owner, a self-made man, had always known how to get rid of troublemakers.74 On Monday, May 20, however, his sixty wage workers refused to work. They held a debate about the strike that was spreading everywhere and they decided to join it. They even discussed holding the owner hostage but refused to do so. Two workers petitioned the CGT local to get help and support, fifteen remained to occupy the factory and the rest went home.

This is a good example of the independent power of attraction exercised by the movement after it had reached a certain amplitude. Another case is that of the Clamart firm of Schlumberger, where no employee made less than 1,200 francs per year. Its 477 employees, of whom 85 were engineers and 180 were technicians, voted to go on strike and occupy the factory on May 20, with some demands that called for the reform of hierarchical relations and a change of government.75 This example demonstrates the extremely powerful propensity to strike that prevailed among the salaried population, and even among those persons who enjoyed relatively privileged positions. This propensity is the basis for trade union activism—and not the other way around. On that Monday, on May 20, the initiative of the trade unions was ubiquitous because otherwise they ran the risk of missing the train that was already leaving the station.

At the Lainière factory in Roubaix, the trade unions launched the strike “on Monday [May 20], out of fear that someone might get the jump on them and start the strike without them”.76 At another textile factory in the provinces (with 100 employees), on the evening of Sunday, May 19, a trade union meeting was held by the CFDT, and the central committee “assigned us the mission of generalizing the strike since it had begun in the automotive sector”.77 On Monday, May 20, the strike began in the late morning at the initiative of a militant of the CGT, who immediately took advantage of his lunch hour to “go to the neighborhood church to tell the story of these events to the Lord and to ask him to give me strength and to make me brave after the great inspiration that led me to organize the first strike in the A[…] company. Not even in 1936 did the A[…] company go on strike”.78

Everywhere, the days of Saturday and Sunday, the 18th and the 19th, were devoted to trade union meetings to prepare to join the strike on Monday. We shall take as an example one social welfare office with 200 employees. On Saturday, a member of the CFDT received an appeal from his federation. He transmitted it to all the other trade union members and on Sunday afternoon paid a visit to a colleague from the FO. The latter had not yet received any instructions, but he agreed with the idea of an indefinite strike. On Monday, May 20, at 8:00 a.m., the personnel, meeting in an assembly, voted with raised hands in favor of a strike and occupation. After the vote, most of the employees went home.79

The same kind of preparatory meeting was held at an Air France maintenance complex (1,000 wage workers). The CGT had prepared everything in advance and “the actual procedures of the action were planned right down to the minute”. The indefinite strike and occupation were approved by a vote of raised hands.80

At CSF in Brest (1,100 salaried employees, of whom 600 were blue collar workers), preparations for the strike had also been made during the weekend. It must be pointed out that these salaried employees had already shown their receptivity to the appeal from their trade union leadership of May 16, which called upon them, in solidarity with the students, to create “democratic structures based on self-management” in their enterprise. We shall discuss below the question of just how far this enterprise actually was from attaining any kind of self-management—according to the formula employed by Alain Touraine—and we shall also see what is meant when this term is invoked. Meanwhile, “Saturday and Sunday [May 18 and 19] were devoted to detailed preparations for the strike and occupation (action program, contacts with the inter-trade union CSF-CFDT, composing a series of demands). On Monday the 20th at 8:00 a.m., the strike call is overwhelmingly obeyed”.81

At the Citroën plant at Levallois (5,000 workers, of whom 2,500 are immigrants, and 18 of whom are members of the CGT) had not experienced any strikes in 19 years. On May 13, the workers did not go on strike because the employer closed the factory at 10:00 a.m. On the 20th, the militants of the CGT were outside the factory distributing leaflets at 5:00 a.m. But it would not be until 11:45 a.m. when the workers opened the doors to two trade union representatives from outside the factory. It took the entire morning to convince the doubters and to fend off the pressure of the guards, who went out onto the street to attempt to make the workers who were still engaged in discussions return to the factory. The occupation began immediately.82 We may assume that the action had been prepared the evening before by trade unionists from both within and outside the factory.

We have better documentation regarding the state of affairs that prevailed when the strike began at the Citroën plant located in the wharf district of Javel in Paris. Officially—that is, according to the trade unions—the strike began on Monday, May 20. We know, however, from the report of some members of the Student-Worker Action Committee (CATE) of Censier who worked as moulders that the factory was already on strike as of May 17. A group of workers got in touch with the CATE. A leaflet was prepared for distribution on Saturday, May 18, at the factory gates. The leaflet was distributed, but on that day the CGT was already there, calling for a strike to begin on the following Monday morning.83 At the same time, an Action Committee was formed at the Citroën plant. On Monday morning, at the factory gates, this Action Committee encountered the CGT. The militants of the trade union federation, just like some of those who were handing out leaflets on behalf of the Action Committee, did not work at the factory, and really could not justifiably ask the militants from outside the factory to leave. All the more so insofar as the Action Committee was accompanied by people who spoke Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish who were recruited from Censier, and it was these individuals who helped the CGT convince the immigrant workers to go into the factory to occupy it. Up until that time, many immigrant workers were reluctant to join the occupation. In this manner, the militants of the Action Committee put their resources at the service of the CGT. The next day, however, they found the factory gates bolted and barred; the trade union members refused to allow them to enter: no provocations!

We shall now examine another example from the automotive sector, the case of Peugeot-Sochaux (25,000 wage workers). On Friday, May 17, a trade union leaflet called upon the workers to “be prepared”. On Monday morning, an intersyndical assembly voted overwhelmingly for strike and occupation. Immediately, the majority of the wage workers abandoned the factory as if it was enough for them to know that the strike wave had reached the Doubs [the border with Switzerland—Translator’s Note].

It was also on Monday, May 20, that the CEA of Saday voted to go on strike. But during the previous week the workers at the center had spent almost all their time discussing the recent events and one could not say that productivity there was very high during that period.

Sometimes, the trade unions demonstrated an extraordinary militancy when it came to spreading the strikes. Not only because, as we have already seen, they had instructions to do so, but also because they sought to compete with the other trade unions to convince—and to enroll—the new strikers. We refer to the testimony of a member of the departmental union of the CFDT of Elbeuf:

In Elbeuf, we were not very well prepared. The local union was composed of militants who were quite old, and a little out of touch with reality. We did not know what to do or what positions to take at the beginning [….] All the more so when the Rhône-Poulenc factory joined the strike. Then a militant from EDF appeared who was the district chief for Elbeuf and who came from Paris. I asked him, “Are you available?”. And he responded: “Yes, if you can use me”. I said, “good, then take control of the strike here in Elbeuf”. He was well provided for since he had a car with a radio antenna from EDF. He had the power to pull the rug out from under the feet of the employers. He spent the entire night, from Sunday to Monday, summoning all the factories to join the strike. As for those that resisted, he gave them a warning shot: he cut off their electricity. To carry out his mission, he even mobilized the students. The CGT employed even more radical methods. They had a truck. They drove up to a factory, and told the people there that they should stop working, loaded them into the truck and brought them to the local (of the CGT) and then gave them their union cards. Using this method they combed the factories. There was a group of longshoremen and some even brought pick handles, and how they went at it! They were very busy. Throughout the entire day they went from one non-unionized factory to another in Elbeuf, except for Rhône-Poulenc. Then, we too gave it a try and attempted to sign up people for the union, and to infiltrate into the factories in order to create sections. Right away we did it with seven or eight factories. Afterwards, it was necessary to organize all of this. It was not easy. By June, these gains had begun to slip away.


Does this same kind of trade union competition explain the way the strike began at Rhône-Poulenc-Vitry?85 Towards the end of the day on Friday, May 17, the trade unions called an intersyndical meeting to hold a vote on the question of strike and occupation. The rate of participation was on the order of 50-60%. The result of the vote was a majority of 60% in favor of an immediate strike and occupation. Since the trade unions’ rules regarding such votes set a minimum of two-thirds to approve a strike, the vote was postponed until Monday. On Saturday, however, an intersyndical meeting decided to begin the strike and occupation on Monday. The CGT then proposed to the other trade unions that the occupation should be structured in the form of base committees led by a central committee, a structure that appeared to be the most democratic—later we shall examine this issue. This surprising proposal from the CGT was designed to undercut the other trade unions. One democratic meeting followed another, and during the course of an intersyndical meeting on Sunday, May 19, where the CGT had a majority, the CGT discreetly added to the base committees an executive committee composed solely of trade unionists and to which no members of the central committee were appointed. The CGT justified this executive committee with the argument that the employers only wanted to talk to the trade unions. As we have seen, the preparations for the strike were very meticulous. All the machinery of democracy was set in motion: the institutions of collective decision-making and the institutions that would circumvent the former. On Monday morning, the strike and occupation went into effect.

We must repeat that all these trade union maneuvers do not explain the spread of the strike or how quickly it spread. They are simply an indication of the fact that, on this occasion, the trade unions did not take action against the strike and each trade union had its own reasons to actively support it. Undoubtedly, the trade unions sometimes committed errors. In the CGCT plant (1,500 wage workers), the CFDT and the CGT proposed a fifteen-minute work stoppage! The workers who participated in the assembly of Monday, May 20, carried a motion in favor of an indefinite strike.86 At the Nord-Aviation plant (Châtillon-sous-Bagneux, Hauts-de-Seine), the trade unions opposed the strike and occupation on Friday, May 17. On Monday, May 20, they put it to a vote.87 Generally speaking, however, the trade unions took the growing wave of strikes in good stride, especially since the wage workers were monitoring the spread of the strikes from minute to minute on the radio. The sales of transistor radios soared to 400,000 in one week, whereas the annual average was 250,000!88 And, at the beginning of the second week of the strike, the trade unions enthusiastically got involved in the strike. Rioux and Backmann provide various examples of this relation between the initiative of the rank and file and the role of the trade unions.89 On Monday, at 1:00 p.m., in a large factory where numerous workers were already absent due to the impact of the strike on the transportation network, the trade unions called a meeting of the personnel and advocated joining the strike. The vote endorsed this position and everyone went home. At an electronics factory, the CGT and the CFDT held a meeting of the personnel on Monday morning. They explained their demands and called upon the workers to join the strike. “No one spoke against it…. Then, we set a guard over the equipment, and we began to organize for the occupation.”

We could cite many more examples. The Michelin factory at Clermont-Ferrand and the Dunlop factory at Montluçon went on strike. Even the salaried employees of the Plaza Athénée hotel (Avenue Montaigne, 8th Arrondissement) joined, and managed to convince the King of Jordan to sign a petition in support of the strike, and respectfully asked the clients of the hotel to support their action. The slaughterhouse workers of La Villette, in Paris, the Bank of France, the 35,000 metal workers of Saint-Etienne, 19 of the 21 iron mines of Lorraine, the coal mines of the Loire, and the Houillères de l’Aveyron also went on strike on Monday.

In Paris, at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, a general assembly presided over by François Périer voted for an indefinite strike by all the theater workers to start on that same day, Monday, May 17. Only Jean Ferrat (in order to give the box office proceeds to the strikers) and Alain Delon would act onstage that day in the capital.90

That Monday, the extension of the strike wave thus became obvious to everyone.

Tuesday, May 21

It continued on the following day. The 500 wage workers of Sopelem, in Paris, participated in a strike that they understood to be “purely demand-based”, but by which they meant the rather maximalist demand of the “humanization” of social relations.91 Likewise, the 530 salaried workers of the insurance company Winterthur voted to join the strike, and set the date of May 27 for a meeting to determine whether or not it should be extended.92 At Assurance Mutuelle de la Seine et Seine-et-Oise (AMSSO, 700 salaried employees, of whom 200 are executives, with salaries starting at 650 francs): “The tension was increasing in the service sector. Some stopped working and engaged in discussions of the recent events. They proposed going on strike. In the hallways, the delegates were encouraged to take action. In the cafeteria, the excitement reached its peak; the delegates were swept up by the general enthusiasm and decided to hold a meeting in the assembly hall. A delegate of the CFDT spoke and proposed to go on strike immediately”. The vote was in favor of his proposal and “a group of employees was appointed to accompany the delegates to speak with the management. Our demand was 150 francs for everyone”.93

On that same day, the Grands Moulins plants in Paris, Pantin, Corbeil and Bobigny all joined the movement.

A few days earlier, a general assembly of the personnel of ORTF94 was held in Buttes-Chaumont. The assembly voted in favor of a strike of all categories to start at midnight, May 20. On the 21st, only the journalists and the information technicians were working, and they handed over their salaries to the strike committee.

Finally, it would be at around this time, but especially on May 21, that the trade unions would call upon the government employees to go on strike, which would imply a very significant increase in the number of strikers.

Wednesday, May 22

Eight days after the movement began, the last wave of strikers joined: the teachers—who had actually already stopped working at many locations—officially went on strike after receiving the strike appeal of the FEN,95 raising the number of strikers to eight or nine million. The salaried workers of the meteorological institutes, the major department stores, and even the musicians of the Paris Opera joined the movement. Even the Paris gravediggers went on strike, and occupied the cemeteries. When the morgues reached capacity, the prefect requested that the gravediggers bury the excess corpses.96

Along the same lines, on this Wednesday contestation—even more than the strike itself—affected the liberal professions: young doctors and architects fought to eliminate the most glaring archaisms from their professional structures.

By the end of the day, the strike movement had reached its peak. What did this enormous strike “do”; what were the characteristic features of its activity? This is the question we shall now examine. But before we do so, it is necessary to highlight two points:

• On the one hand, in 1968 France had 7.3 million blue-collar workers and 3 million office employees, out of a total working population of 15.6 million people. The figure of 8 or 9 million strikers that we gather from our sources is more than enough to paralyze the entire economy. But even if we accept the high estimate of nine million strikers97 there were still significant numbers of non-strikers. We possess hardly any information concerning these non-strikers. Nicolas Hatzfeld98 calls attention to the cases of Simca-Chrysler in Poissy, Citroën in Rennes and Peugeot in Mulhouse, in the automotive sector. The explanations he gives for these cases (essentially, an immigrant labor force directly recruited by the employers, corporative trade unions) are not entirely convincing within the context of the impact of the strike movement. In any event, it is not surprising that the non-strikers have not been studied systematically—not even the strikers were studied systematically.
• On the other hand, disregarding for the time being the question of the non-strikers, there is no doubt that this was a generalized strike. But can we speak of a general strike in the sense this expression has been used in the tradition of the workers movement? The general strike is the strike in which all the workers stop work at the same time for the purpose of forcing the employers to their knees and advancing to socialism or else for the purpose of preventing war. We shall see below that the strikes of 1968 remained, precisely, just so many separate strikes. At no time did the trade unions decree the general strike and they made special efforts to make this clear when the strike became generalized. On the pretext of democratically leaving the initiative to the local level, to the workers in their workplaces, they carefully managed to destroy the unity of the movement. They were particularly insistent on not unifying the demands on one single platform, which would have ipso facto converted them into a political platform and would have prohibited a piecemeal return to work, which is what finally occurred.