Firsthand Account - Alsthom Saint-Ouen

Following the restructuring that had already happened in electrical construction, there were two distinct companies inside the factory:

· DELLE ALSTHOM which assembled power circuit breakers of medium voltage, essentially for electricity distribution from power stations and large companies. 500 staff, around 300 workers, mostly not very skilled, and 200 technicians – draftsmen, professionals etc. A workshop plus some offices.

· ALSTHOM SAVOISIENNE which made, from start to finish, big transformers for power stations. 1300 staff, around 1000 workers and 300 technicians, managers etc.…
* Three workshops (plus some offices):
* The boiler works which made the frame of the transformers, a workshop composed of skilled workers, the boiler makers,
* The winding rooms, which, as their name indicates, made the coil windings of the transformers, a workshop made up of workers with very specific skills,
* The assembly platform which integrated the winding into the frame, fitted it out, tested it and dispatched it, another workshop made up of workers with very specific skills. It was one of the factories which counted for workers’ struggles in Seine St-Denis, along with a few others like Rateau, Babcock, etc., which people looked towards whenever something got going in the working class.

Before the strike

The radio and the press had been publishing some information about the student milieu, particularly Nanterre, for several weeks. We didn’t know too much about why the students were fighting, but in the factory a few mates amongst the young workers were sympathetic and had heard that one of the demands was the lifting of the ban on boys going to the areas reserved for girls (or something like that). Then there was the campaign in the press against Cohn Bendit launched by Minute, the weekly paper of the extreme right which talked about “the Jew Cohn Bendit”1 and l’Humanité which talked about “the German anarchist”2 Straightaway that ginger guy became their best mate as far as a good part of the young workers were concerned. He was a laugh and we liked that. He had a tendency to stick two fingers up at morality and ridicule its contradictions, and that pleased us a lot. One morning in early May next to Place de Clichy, I found myself by chance at the start of a demonstration by secondary school students. There were thousands of young and very young people from the local schools shouting: “We are all German Jews”. I couldn’t get over it!3

Although my family, and the workers’ milieu more generally, was not especially anti-Semitic, the remarks about the Jews were current enough, despite everything. As for the Germans, even then they still had something of the hereditary enemy about them. The propaganda of the PCF was still directed towards the “revanchists of Bonn”, and the “death to the Boches” from the end of the 39-45 war wasn’t very far away: 20-22 years. The generation of “everyone kill a Boche” extolled by the PCF during the Liberation was still there and very much present, and the PCF had a major influence in the working class (I’ll return to this later).

And here were thousands and thousands of school students in solidarity with the ginger guy declaring that they were all German Jews; and with red or black flags. As the internationalist antiracist that I was at heart, I was dumbfounded, it was incredible!

While the PCF, for as long as I’d been old enough to understand anything, had never gone out with anything other than the three-coloured floor cloth (that’s how friends described the thing at the time), the red flag returned en masse and the black flag of the anarchists was there too. Back in the factory I told the boys in the workshop what I had seen, I was just so astounded.

But in the factory generally the stories about the students were viewed rather badly by the workers. The PCF banged on about the sons of the bourgeoisie whose studies we paid for etc., about the leftists who don’t give a fuck about the working class; and that worked; apart from with some of the young workers and all of our little gang which had been thrown out of the union a few months before and which had very quickly come to detest the Stalinists. But we never had any contact with the students and school kids. We didn’t even come up with the idea of having a link. It was like that, and for days and days the demos of the students progressively made front page news, and the propaganda of the PCF became more and more hateful towards the demonstrators, “those car burners” led by “the German Cohn-Bendit”4

Most of the workers were suspicious, even hostile, to the students. But in the younger layers some of them could tell very well what they wanted and began to recognise themselves more in the students who were fighting than in the others who poured bile on them. During the week of 6 to 10 May, very precisely, when there was fighting every evening in Paris, our little gang came down completely on the side of the students, but we were a very small minority – a few dozen who knew each other, perhaps we’re talking about a hundred in the whole factory – and always faced with the propaganda assault of the PCF which churned out tract after tract against the “car burners”.

I only remember one evening of that week (the memories are there precisely because it was the week which ended on 10 May with the night of the barricades in the Latin Quarter). I had a meeting with some other “Workers’ Voice” comrades from other factories and told them that at Alsthom, we were going to produce a leaflet to distribute at the gates with some lads from the workshops. The comrades were very sceptical. They didn’t feel that enough of a swing was going on. For sure, all the comrades were at heart with the students who were fighting, but they all asked themselves if it wasn’t my congenital optimism which made me overestimate the possibilities of intervention... we had to be prudent. Finally the leaflet was distributed at Alsthom, on Thursday 9 May, at the gate by new workers from the factory. I remember the title: “DOWN WITH THE COPS, BRAVO THE STUDENTS” and that it was signed “some young workers from Alsthom Saint Ouen”.

The PCF and the CGT were purple with rage and the little gang of mates were very proud of what they’d done. It was around this time that we started to see young Maoists around the factory and in the cafés of the Saint Ouen town hall. They were, I believe, of the “Serve the People” style. They were quite nice and not at all stupid, and very quickly the workers from the factory who met them directed them towards me. We didn’t have bad discussions with them, and they hadn’t realised that there were a few militants within the working class who had been fighting for a few years against the union bureaucracy and for revolution. But, of course, they were for Stalin and Mao and, for the old young man that I already was (at 25 you’re old for those of 20 or less), that was something I couldn’t stand. Nevertheless, we stayed good friends with them, the first ones to come to the factory. That was not the case afterwards with the various groups who came after the battle (after the strike) at Alsthom. But that’s another story.

After distributing our leaflet at the gate, we immediately came into contact with the other young workers from the other end of the factory, in the big boiler works. Until then we didn’t know each other. I’m writing this so that comrades in 2006 can understand how quickly the situation was changing. It was these friends here that we’re going to talk about later on who went on strike less than a week later.

It was also on this Thursday and Friday that some “old guys” showed signs of sympathy, as much because they somewhat admired the students fighting the CRS, as because they supported us against the Stalinists. Because despite their heavy weight on the working class, even then there were old guys, from the period straight after the war, who intensely detested them and who saw us as courageous for not giving in to their dictatorship. It was on this very day that a lathe operator who’d been there since the end of the war told me about how things were when... Croizat5 was the minister of labour:

“It was the boys of the PCF who broke the records for productivity”

“We worked six days a week, 12 hours a day, with a break of an hour and a half so we could sleep one hour. We slept by the machines”

Around the same time another worker from the same generation told me this for the first time “then ...
Thorez6 said ‘let’s roll up our sleeves’ and since then there hasn’t been one who has said to roll them down”. This guy became a good friend afterwards, but at that time he had not yet swung over to the reds.

On Friday 10 May throughout the night it was the radio which was the most important element, because that evening it was broadcasting live from the Latin Quarter where the CRS and students were fighting.

Everything has been said about this episode – it is not useful to go over it again. For my part, I only knew about it the next day from my mates and the newspapers. But on Saturday 11 May, it was obvious that a large number of workers had listened to the radio for part of the night. I never knew if some workers from the factory had gone to join the barricades; events had happened so quickly that no one had taken the time and the effort to find out, but in the various circles who knew each other in the town it’s certain that young people from the workers’ milieu went to fight when they knew what was going on. Above all, the great mass of workers had live info about the fighting, and this time it was certain that the students were really going for it and that the CRS did not have the upper hand and that they were not coming out of it unscathed. Even the least revolutionary workers in those years didn’t carry a policeman in their breast and if someone was fighting against the cops it couldn’t really be a bad thing.

From mid-day on Saturday we knew, also from the radio, that the CGT had called a 24 hour general strike for Monday 13 May. The factory was closed on that Saturday; contacts between people were virtually non-existent. We had no other choice but to turn up on Monday morning. Many “historic” accounts of the negotiations between the CGT, the CFDT and the FO around taking the decision for the call on 13 May have talked about the skulduggery between unions. As far as I’m concerned, I know absolutely nothing about that and, like all the workers, I knew nothing then. What’s more I still believe that this had absolutely no interest.

After the event, historians have made the link with the set piece trade union actions in the same period against the Social Security reform.7 From memory, and for this period of a few days when everything was changing it is perfect, this was of no importance. Perhaps in the trade union milieu, but not for the workers and like them I had no contact with the trade union quagmire…. no memory of this.

What happened was on another level from what you can get from understanding the political role played by the PCF which we’ve already said had a massive influence on the working class through the CGT. At Alsthom, for example, there had never been any other trade union or political formation apart from the PCF and the CGT up till the end of 1967, the date when the first leaflet appeared from the “Workers Voice” group along with exclusions and resignations from the CGT on the part of a dozen young workers.

This organisational hold of the PCF over the working class had two consequences. First of all, there was an extreme sensitivity to the evolution of consciousness within the proletariat, and, in consequence, the PCF was the only political force capable of containing the eventual rise in workers’ combativity. This was a strong argument for imposing itself on the state and the bourgeoisie as an essential mediator despite its attachment to the USSR.

But also, to keep this hold on the working class, the PCF could never allow itself to be outflanked. In the decision to call for a general strike on Monday 13 May, this was the determining factor in the policy of the PCF. The political headquarters could tell which way the wind was blowing and chose to take the initiative so as to channel an eventual reaction from the working class.

After having churned out its propaganda against the students and the leftists for several weeks, nobody in the conscious bourgeoisie could accuse it of being the initiator. It wasn’t taking any risk by taking the initiative and the state knew very well that it wouldn’t go too far.

On 13 May, there were about twenty people at the gate of the factory, the union apparatus on one side and some mates on the other. Nobody knew what was going to happen. Would there be a strike? Massive or not? We didn’t know anything. Everything was decided over the weekend without the workers from the factory. There were some workers who turned up as usual. How many? Impossible to say... Perhaps half the boys (not more). But the others were not there. They stayed at home and we dozen militants just stayed in front of the gate. Not for very long, however, because there would very quickly have been a spark between the Stalinists and us, and without the workers being there we would not have had enough weight to deal with it.

In the morning we had a meeting with the comrades of “Workers Voice” from the other factories to take stock of the situation and it was almost the same situation there as well. The general strike was not a failure – in so far as we could judge because we were only a very small group, but there was no euphoria. We decided then what we were going to do at the demonstration in the afternoon. We did not know for sure if there would be a mass of workers or not. We had made a poster “10 years is enough, Happy Birthday General”8, not signed, and placards to tape it to. We were so uncertain about the participation of workers in the afternoon demo that we’d decided not to tape them up in advance. We would see on the spot what the balance of forces was with the Stalinists before deciding if we had any chance of imposing ourselves or not.

It’s useful to explain here that for some years the little group of “Workers Voice” comrades had fought physically with the PCF thugs on practically every demonstration. This went from organised jostling to a straightforward smack in the mouth, but the PCF could not stomach the fact that someone could express themselves on its left in the name of communism and on our side we were determined not to be crushed so we quickly came to blows, whether it was at the factory gates or on demonstrations. So, a few hours before the gathering on 13 May, we did not know, and nobody knew, if the workers would come or not, and in what proportion.

On that afternoon, in the Place de la République, a compact mass of proletarians from the suburbs had come in to Paris, obviously a good part of them were workers who had gone on strike that morning, without travelling to the factory in most cases. It was immense.

Obviously our placards were brought out, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. There was no mistaking the signs in the demonstration. When there were banners five metres long there was no mass of workers, but on the contrary, when you could see very few banners or none at all ... This was the case here, the mass of workers was here; a veritable human mass, and the general appearance was the indisputable proof that it was the proletarians who were here, those who you never, or very exceptionally, see in the streets. They didn’t laugh, they didn’t sing, they were there because it was serious and the very depths of workers’ consciousness had raised the necessity of being there... How many? Definitely a few hundred thousand. Figures of 500,000, even a million, have been put forward... whatever. The mass of the proletariat of the Paris region had come with a single idea in their heads which was truly discernable: between De Gaulle and the CRS on one side and the leftist students on the other, they had made up their minds.

The ALSTHOM demonstration

On that day I went on foot to the demo (there was almost no transport) via Boulevard Magenta. There were crowds of workers everywhere. In the areas surrounding the East and North stations you couldn’t believe that the demonstration had already begun. A massive torrent was heading for Place de la République, and I suppose the situation was the same on all the other routes towards Place de la République. Again I met up with our group from Alsthom on the demonstration. In front, a naturally large comrade carried a huge red flag which took up the whole width of the avenues. In the front rank there were forty or so comrades from the factory and, very quickly, numerous demonstrators lined up behind. At the Place St-Michel this formed a huge compact mass. People asked us “who are you?” We didn’t have banners or anything and we answered briefly “the leftists of Alsthom St-Ouen”. This was true for those at the front… but for the thousands behind….

It particularly pleased the comrades to chant “a dozen fanatics [enragés]” with their hands stretched
forwards and their fingers spread out. This was in reaction to some politician or other who had talked about a dozen fanatics in connection with the students of Nanterre.

The demo went as far as Denfert for those who were the most courageous, because there was a human mass everywhere and masses of people never arrived at the end because there were so many.

Towards the strike

The next day, Tuesday 14 May, there was a very particular ambiance in the factory. In my whole life I’ve never seen anything like it. It worked “quietly” we can say, but everyone thought that something was going to happen. There was no euphoria, nobody said “we’ve got to go there!”, but all discussions turned around the demonstration of the day before. A good number of workers from the factory had gone there individually (and because of this the strikers didn’t come to the factory in the morning) and in the workshop there was an atmosphere of open camaraderie. I think I can say, without exaggeration, that the working class surfaced as such. That evening while discussing with two student comrades from the VO group who were concerned with the workplace from the outside I became conscious that it was necessary to go there, and I there fore decided to take the initiative by organising a meeting for the evening of the next day with conscious workers. Therefore on Wednesday 15, from the early hours I made a tour of the boys I could most rely on to organise the meeting for the evening when people left. Where? We didn’t know yet; perhaps in the castle grounds, or the town square, we’d see.

All of us, a dozen, therefore worked at getting the boys to come along in the evening. There wasn’t much enthusiasm, only a few said “Yes”... But in the morning the union apparatus got wind of what was happening and after dinner time a CGT leaflet called for a meeting of all militants that evening at the trade union centre. This floated among the various workers who’d said “Yes” to us and as on the day before we’d foreseen that the PCF would react. We’d foreseen that they would set up a megaphone outside the factory to prepare for every eventuality. There they addressed the workers who were leaving to appeal to them to go to the trade union centre to set out some perspectives. Since the CGT had organised a meeting they joined it. At the trade union centre of Saint Ouen, the PCF had rounded up everyone it could from its fans in the factory. On that basis in three hours they had a good forty. There were eight of us. Two friends didn’t want to go to “the union trick”. We were treated to an exposition by Mr Secretary on the “relaunching of action for demands” (that’s how the apparatus spoke at the time) and told that the office was preparing an initial stoppage of two hours and ... all that stuff.

As soon as there was a gap, I cut it short. I can remember pretty closely the words I used “You are really useless and you never understand anything, we are not interested in two hour stoppages, we have to organise the fight, occupy the factory and raise the red flag ... and ... ” Brouhaha. And as we didn’t want to be slaughtered, we left to organise our coup. There were eight of us. We spent an hour establishing our plan of battle, with the objective of a strike and occupation. From the beginning it was necessary to go everywhere we could and call a meeting for 10 p.m.

We could do something in two workshops out of four: the big boiler works and the circuit breakers. We had some boys there and if they got going the other workshops would follow. I insisted on what little I had retained from what Pierre Bois had been telling me for some years: it was absolutely necessary to vote for the strike, it was necessary to organise the Strike Committee without the union, with the boys truly represented and with them taking on the direction of operations. If some boys from the union wanted to come along, then that was fine, but as strikers not as representatives of the union. It had to be on the basis of one striker = one vote to elect the Strike Committee. We had to explain that only the assembly of strikers could decide the direction to take; the members of the SC were there to organise the application of decisions, etc.

The other mates understood (we understood quickly in situations like that). We were all on the same
wavelength – I was 25 and I was the oldest in the gang. None of us had ever participated in launching a strike. And then at four we set out for the Sorbonne to see those bloody leftists, since everybody in the factory called us that and we might as well know who they were.

We entered the Sorbonne by Place Paul Painlevé. We didn’t even know that the entrance was on the other side, given that none of us had even been through the door of a faculty! Straightaway we were struck by the grandiose buildings and a joyous chaos reigned. There was a statue in the courtyard covered in red and black flags…. We felt like Earthmen landing on another planet.

The only people we found were some from the PSU, some Maoists of all varieties and some anarchos. We didn’t like the Maoists because of their Stalin. We didn’t understand that there were revolutionaries who claimed to follow the gravedigger of the revolution. We discussed a bit with the PSU people. We talked about what had happened in the factory, what we are trying to do, but we didn’t really get on with them. Those who we really agreed with were the Workers’ Voice group, because I’d spoken to them with my mates, but this group had not organised in the Unis at this time. The group was only oriented towards the working class and the factories. This made it, it has to be said in passing, completely mistaken in its understanding of the contestation movement of the students in 1968.

At least they had the modesty, rare among political groups of the time, of recognising this fact. Comrades, of which I was one, afterwards analysed the fact as an important error (after the event….). The student contestations, particularly those which were sharpest at Nanterre and elsewhere, were very political and not at all corporatist, throwing into question the hierarchy of decision-makers dominating the workers, etc. ... all things which were fundamental in the contestation of capitalist society. You can’t rewrite history… That’s how it was. The VO group, which I was part of, understood nothing.

And then we began to get tired, and we had to be fit for the next morning. For once, everybody had to pay attention to the time. We finished by going to bed. I think that I didn’t sleep well that night. In my head I went over all the guys I knew: those who were definitely “For”; then quickly looking at the others; those close to the union apparatus... The difficulty of discussing; such and such, what arguments; who could we rely on; who did we have to be suspicious of etc. It was certain we were going to pull off the coup. That morning I put the big red flag in the bag and set off.

16 May

After having made the tour of the fifteen to twenty blokes in the circuit breaker workshop who were the most determined, the bosses had sniffed out that there was something going on. We had to play hide and seek a bit, because, anyway, under the circumstances, you couldn’t help focusing on details. “Meeting in the locker room at 10, will you be there? Let’s see” “Yes, OK ...!”

The young ones were mostly for it and there were sectors of the workshop – mounting and cabling, for example – where there was a majority who were less than 21. Alsthom St Ouen was a workplace which paid so badly that it was only young people who went to work there and there was an extraordinary turn-over. When they found something else they left; a lot of workers didn’t even come to collect what they were owed. Amongst the older ones it was much harder. Some didn’t believe in it. All those who were close to the union apparatus didn’t want it or didn’t respond to it. But some others really wanted it if it was truly serious, because “it’s not easy, you know”. Some of the most “anti” were won over by the idea of a Strike Committee.

They discussed, everyone discussed. I particularly remember a middle-aged woman (there were only six women in the workshop) who drove the overhead cranes. I went to see her. She lowered me a sign on a piece of string. I scrawled on a paper “We’re having a meeting of everyone at 10”. She gave me back the paper “there’s going to be a strike?” I nodded yes. “You’re going?” Yes I nodded. I never had occasion to discuss with her about why. Until then this woman had never participated in anything when there was a stoppage or a meeting. That day she was for the strike.

At ten the workshop stopped completely. Part of the workers disappeared – those who were neither for nor against – around a third. The others met up in the changing rooms. All the “antis” were there; the CGT apparatus was there in its entirety. We discussed, but not a lot. It was me who took the initiative: “the students who are fighting; let’s get something from the situation for ourselves the workers, etc.” There was intervention from the CGT side as well, not vicious but like a fire extinguisher. “Let’s not put everything into a single blow”, “let’s conserve our forces” etc... We knew. I therefore put it to the vote: “those who are for the occupation” over there (on the left) with a sweeping gesture of the arm. “Those who are against” over there with the same gesture towards the right. Hesitations, discussions from one person to another “but, if we have to go”, “Come with us”, “fucked if I know what to do” and in a few minutes the two blocks were formed. There was not one abstention. We counted 76 for the occupation of the factory and 78 against (including the whole union apparatus without any exception). A young friend whispered in my ear “We’re going even so, eh!” “Obviously, you’re not going!”

I therefore announced that there was a meeting like ours in the other workshops and that therefore we would meet again after lunch (it was now 11-11.30) with the rest of the factory. It is notable, and I didn’t even notice it at the time, that we hadn’t even discussed whether we were on strike or not. We had discussed and voted directly on the occupation. We could see that we were obviously on strike. All the tool boxes were shut and the machines stopped. We were on strike. Neither we nor anyone else spoke about demands. That was absolutely not what we were concerned about.

I left my mates in the circuit breaker shop and rushed off to the boiler making shop, the other workshop where we had to get something going. The workshop was completely empty, not the slightest sound, not even the purring of a welding station. In fact, despite all the wonderful plans we’d had the day before, our boys had got going straight after breakfast. No meeting, no vote, nothing. They went from section to section and brought the workshop out on strike often with arguments whose style would be condemned by proletarian ethics “if we’ve got it, it’s the time to prove it”, that’s it! That proved to be very effective. The lads from the union had followed. It was a workshop where there were plenty of PCF militants, but they were a lot less lined up with the official policy of betrayal however much they were committed to opposing the leftists. A low-level manager was wandering about there and he told me that the strikers were heading for the winding assembly platforms. That was the most corporatist sector of the factory. We didn’t have any contacts there and the lads were really into their skilled jobs. How were they going to react? There also the workshop had stopped but there were a few lads in the workshop. In fact, the morning had passed so quickly that everybody was already in the canteen or on the road. In the canteen there was a dreadful brouhaha. You had the impression that everybody had something to say at the same time as everyone else. The whole union apparatus in the largest sense was there. Our gang was there as well. The lads were laughing! We went all over saying that there would be a meeting of all the workshops in front of the central store after lunch.

At the central meeting in question, the PCF union headquarters had turned around. They ratified the strike without discussing it. They proclaimed the occupation of the factory and demanded that we form a strike committee with half the delegates from the union and half from the workers in the workshops. I began to explain that it didn’t work like that, but I wasn’t going to be followed. There was euphoria and even part of the young people who were close to us in the morning didn’t understand why I wanted to quibble about the composition of the strike committee. We were on strike, we occupied the factory, so it was going to be fine. In fact, as we could judge after the end of the strike, the strike committees were like this everywhere. A means for the unions to include everybody and assure their supremacy, and everywhere they were only in fact a means to carry out union policy. In no way were they a means of autonomous workers’ organisation for exercising power over their own strike. It called itself a “strike committee” but, like Canada dry, it had neither the taste nor the function. What was called the “Strike Committee” was therefore designated as such without any further discussion.

So in two hours, three at the maximum, on that Thursday 16 May 1968, the PCF and the central
apparatus of the PCF had decided to take charge of operations, to not oppose the strikes and even to open the floodgates. What we experienced at Alsthom was reproduced on the same day and the same hour in the first factories to move, particularly in the Paris suburbs.

The PCF in 1968

We have to know, and today in 2006 only the oldest comrades can remember, that the PCF of the time was an enormous militant machine. The immense majority of workplace committees were their almost hegemonic preserve. All the industrial suburbs of the big cities were, with few exceptions, close to being in the hands of the PCF. The Paris ring road, which we should remember was stuffed with big industrial companies, was their domain and the union-political apparatus, even if it had lost something of its magnificence since the years of 45-50, was still an influence everywhere in the big workplaces – those which counted in terms of the workers’ avant garde.

And the permanent closeness of the PCF apparatus allowed it, centrally and directly on the level of its political bureau, to know exactly what was happening in the working class and consequently to take initiatives. On 16 May 1968, the PCF had decided at a very high level to not let itself be outflanked by the workers’ tide. In a few weeks it had lost all influence in the student scene and amongst “the intellectuals” – it was not going to let the same thing happen with the working class. Against its wishes and with a heavy heart, the PCF decided to take charge of the events everywhere.

So, Alsthom was less than 100 metres from the town hall of Saint-Ouen where the deputy mayor for some years was Etienne Fajon, also director of l’Humanité. In political circles he was known, probably correctly, as “Moscow’s eye in France”! There was an immediate connection with the highest level of the PCF apparatus. In addition, it’s known that the PCF, on the level of its political bureau, had a direct link with militants in a dozen of the biggest proletarian concentrations in the country. Militants kept under wraps, who were often unknown to the other militants in the factory, and who sometimes were not even on the organisation chart of union posts (so as to be certain that they would not be influenced), who’s mission was to report directly to the political bureau about the reaction within the working class. Alsthom was not in these dozen factories, but Billancourt was. To return to the strike, on Thursday 16 May, we didn’t know that the workers of Sud Aviation in Nantes had been on strike, with an occupation, since 14 May, and that Cléon had also been out since 15 May. We’d only heard it said that the NMPP were on strike in Paris. We were convinced that we were the first.

Did we place it in the perspective of the general strike?

It’s certainly true that we were for it, but we didn’t think, in fact we didn’t even touch on, how it could come about and how it could develop. In the four days which followed, it was the great May 68 which had to be demystified a bit to understand things. I think I can remember that from Friday 7, the PCF apparatus began to turn around but it is above all on the following Monday when the pyramid of influence had acted to the very bottom that you could see the CGT-PCF taking the initiative everywhere, from the largest workplace to the smallest; willingly or by force, it was a strike. And in a good many workplaces, even the big ones, the workers found themselves on a strike proclaimed by the union apparatus. I don’t think that you can find examples where the workers fought against it, because everywhere and massively the workers were for the strike, but in the immense majority of workplaces the process of maturation of consciousness towards a real well-considered attack on the bosses’ system did not happen and did not even begin. This is fundamental in understanding the complete absence of independent forms of organisation of the working class in ‘68.

Starting from the moment when the PCF decided to open the floodgates, from one end of the country to the other and almost without any overflowing, the CGT remained master of the movement from A to Z.

At Alsthom, I only have a few precise memories of the meetings of the strike committee. There were only a few turbulent episodes. What’s more, the lads closest to us and myself had rapidly stood back from organising ourselves independently. The first decision of the PCF was to make the women leave the factory in the evening. No women at night (in case the savage workers acted like pigs!). This shows the level at which the PCF placed the question of the emancipation of women in 1968. Immediately after this there were closed doors, guard patrols (in case we stole from the factory), striker’s ID cards, stamps (from the works council because there was nothing else!) and everything surrounded by a heavy bureaucratic apparatus, and a free canteen for everyone (run by the works council). That evening there remained only about 100 to 150 workers, including our little gang and the whole union apparatus, and this figure barely changed during the whole of the strike. The apparatus controlled everything.9

But during the day it was necessary to take control of the factory, and a lad came to us towards 3 p.m. telling us that the two directors and the chief security guard were still in the factory. We therefore set off at four on patrol to throw them out. They were flanked by a union official. We found them towards Rue des Bateliers.

The discussion was brief. The tanky began to come out with “Sir, I must inform you…” but he didn’t have time to finish his sentence because a friend shouted out “are you the directors?” (We’d never seen them) “Then you’ve got five minutes to get out. And as for the chief security guard [we knew him], we don’t want to see him any more” which did the job but not without one of the directors asking the tanky to make sure that the electricity substation was guarded. Throwing out the directors of the factory at the age of 25 – that is one of those little pleasures that you don’t miss when it’s on offer. It wasn’t a big thing but it was something at least.

One of the turbulent meetings of the “strike committee” was when the PCF decided to remove the red flags from the gates and put the three-coloured floor cloth in their place. Here also, as far as I can remember, it was the same thing in every workplace on the same day, even if a number of places kept the red flag flying right to the end. In the morning the flags on the gate opposite the town hall had been replaced. What a row! The Strike Committee urgently paraded all the classic arguments: we’re French, it’s a revolutionary flag, you’re like the Versaillais [who suppressed the Paris commune], we don’t want to shock people who aren’t revolutionaries. You are connected with the CRS barracks, etc... And at one point a Stalinist, who was also a municipal councillor in Fajon, told us: “symbols can be interpreted in different ways, the red flag is also what you put on the back of a lorry when there’s a hazard” but there was already no one but the Stalinists and us in the “Strike Committee” because very quickly, just as they had deserted the factory, the workers had also deserted the “union Strike
Committee” meetings. We played a bit at getting offended by the flags; and I put out the red flags and then I put out the others... and we put out them both; as if that wasn’t saying “long live the Republic!” By contrast at the 27 metre gate, Rue des Bateliers, they never had the floor cloth. A group of lads had taken over the gate and made it their headquarters; lads from the boiler making shop, the winding shop, and not a bad little gang. There we were amongst workers and we didn’t accept their decisions. Barbecue, grilled meat … it was a bit nicer than at the other gate where the guard hut was inhabited by the PCF.

The demonstrations

In the evening, very often, it was in Paris that something happened. We left the factory in cars (we’d requisitioned the factory’s stock of petrol) to go to the demos. When the tankies saw us going past they turned white as a sheet.

How many of us were there? That depended when we slept. Some times it was just one car, but there could be up to twenty of us leaving the factory. It was more exciting than guarding the factory walls. Obviously when we got back in the morning it didn’t take much to annoy us. Arguments started quickly. At the same time, let’s say in the first three weeks, we made a closer link outside the factory with a group of gentlemen who didn’t work there but who we had won over to the leftist cause: a secretary of the Saint- Ouen JC [Young Communists] and some comrades from the town who were all originally from St Ouen and more or less JC or ex-JC people that May 68 had brought down on our side. While in the factory there was an armed peace between the PCF and us, because they wanted to make the point that it wasn’t just for them, outside the factory, in the town, it was a fight. We set up a meeting place in the town square in front of the Bank of France (which has since become the municipal centre) and “Workers’ Voice” had launched an agitational publication in the town that was distributed in markets and on council estates. But here as well the population in the larger sense was not ready to participate. We put out the idea “For workers’ power we must turn the town hall into the Sorbonne”. Immediately the municipal headquarters spread the word everywhere that we wanted to attack the town hall and had loud-speaker vans going around town churning out their crap. We have to remember the ambiance of the time – there was tract after tract against the car burners and the leftist yobs and similar rubbish. Stalin’s spirit was still alive and well.

But this didn’t have much effect on the inhabitants of the town. None of them gathered at the town hall and their mobilisation was a damp squib. On the other hand, the leftists of Saint-Ouen were furious. They gathered on the steps of the town hall to see if they were going to have to throw out these... For the whole month of May 68, that was the ambiance in Saint-Ouen: fighting in the town square, and as much slander spread around as you could possibly want. The PCF made sure of the second plank of its policy in relation to the state: the state had to forgive it for taking charge of the general strike which it kept on a tight rein because at the same time it was the strike force against the leftists. What’s more, the French bourgeoisie were not fooled – at the end of 68 they granted new rights to the unions.

24 May: the return of De Gaulle

When De Gaulle made his return speech on 24 May, our mates from Alsthom were demonstrating in
front of Lyon station. Everyone listened religiously to his speech, and when it was over, an immense shout went up: “fuck his speech”, “power is us; the chienlit10 is him” and we went off to take on the CRS, as usual.

There were about twenty of us from Alsthom, equipped with helmets and clubs. That evening I was cut off completely from the Workers’ Voice group; it was swarming with people in all the areas around Bastille so it was impossible to meet up. Therefore I made contact with a group who seemed to be organised and offered our services. The brave boys who had the air of being in charge were completely at a loss what to do. I’m still waiting for their response. That day we didn’t do badly against the CRS: charge, counter-charge ... it had become normal.

The demos of May 68 were like that. Those who were organised were the CRS, while on the side of the demonstrators there was no centralisation. Then you fought when you could and avoided getting hurt as best you could – it was complete improvisation. There were lots of demos in Paris in May and June. What’s more, very often, they were not demonstrations but an almost spontaneous taking to the streets, very often in the evening. One evening we found ourselves in front of the medical school with the boys from the boiler making shop. The CRS took their place in front of Saint-Germain-des-Prés church but they were completely surrounded. They set out their cars in a circle bumper to bumper and the front wouldn’t move any more. The electoral campaign had started. There were polling station signs in the streets. These made good shields: two strapping lads
would carry them and the others marched behind...

That evening, for the first time in Paris, I think, the CRS made copious use of shock grenades. Obviously gas was useless when the wind was against them, and, because they were in a circle, there had to be a wind against them. When the first shock grenades went off, we asked what was happening, and, very quickly remembering from the army, the older ones explained to us that above all we must not try to pick them and throw them back. So we spent several hours advancing and retreating. I think it only stopped in the early hours of the morning.

Grenelle, Billancourt and Citroën

That morning, the 27 May, we had had a turbulent night with two other mates from the factory. We got up towards 11, and set out for the canteen to find something to eat. Obviously, we came across the PCF/CGT gang, and they were shaking their heads in disbelief. We looked at them in astonishment and one of the boys from the CGT, a reasonably decent one (there were 2 or 3), explained with a tremor in his voice that Séguy had been booed at Billancourt. This couldn’t be missed: “it serves you right” and we went to get some food. This was therefore the day after Séguy had gone from Grenelle to Billancourt and Krasucki to Citroën to present the result of their negotiations with the CNPF (Confédération Nationale du Patronat Français). On both occasions they were booed and hissed at Citroën as much as at Renault. We knew later on that the CGT had already voted on the strike before Séguy arrived at Billancourt. Therefore, they had foreseen what would happen and the solution of retreat. But at Citroën, there was no vote before and it was well and truly the CGT and Krasucki who were hissed. Krasucki immediately retreated and said into the mic “that is what is proposed but the CGT has signed nothing”. Maybe not, but it always seemed in the work places that it was Séguy / Krasucki who were booed at Billancourt and Citroën.

Charléty

Who called the big meeting at Charléty? We knew nothing about it, and that didn’t matter. It was “the leftists”, 20-25 of us going from the factory to Charléty because for once there was a gathering which was going to be truly independent. Our good mood lasted only up until we got there, because at the meeting they gave the floor to various politicos including Barjonet, the CGT apparatchik who had just broken with it, and Maurice Labi. I was wild with rage. Those who claimed to embody the revolution were rolling out the red carpet for those bastards. I howled like a stuck pig; it wasn’t any use but that’s too bad. Because me, I knew all of them. Particularly Labi, who some mates from Rhône-Poulenc and I had had a brush with a few years before (he was the secretary of the FO chemical industry federation). That fucking reformist advocate of totally integrated trade unionism like in Germany dared to talk of revolution.

But my mates from the factory didn’t understand why I was hopping mad; they didn’t know who it was. I was only able to explain it to them afterwards. We left Charléty no more advanced than when we’d got there, no perspective, no lucidity, nothing. Just like all of May 68. It was an immense mass movement above all in the student milieu; the biggest (on the surface) strike which the country has ever known, but no emergence of the consciousness of an organised class. Opportunists, archeo-Stalinists pretending to be revolutionaries. The selfmanagementist version, from Maoists to syndicalo-trotskyists!

De Gaulle disappears.... and returns

De Gaulle’s11 pilgrimage to the East was hardly discussed in the factory. We didn’t give a fuck about it.

Long afterwards, fantastic interpretations were formulated about how he had gone to see his old friend Massu, to fortify himself and assure himself that the army was with him in the case of a revolutionary threat... Above all it was the trade union apparatuses which put out this stuff to justify the climb-down which they’d announced. We mustn’t go too far in case the army intervened... etc. They wanted us to despise De Gaulle to make us believe that he didn’t know that, with the PCF having the direction of operations all over the factories and neighbourhoods, the risk of workers’ revolution was so small that it wasn’t necessary to be certain of the loyalty of the army general staff. De Gaulle knew very well how far the PCF was prepared to go. For weeks they made a bitter attack on the leftists, and De Gaulle knew very well that he could count on the PCF – there was no need for the army or anyone else. He had had them as ministers twenty years earlier, and he “never had any complaint against them” (the phrase is his). And when he reappeared to announce a general election, the PCF rushed into the funnel immediately.

The fashionable districts demonstrate

De Gaulle12 had called for a demonstration on the Champs Elysées. We discussed this in the factory.

From the PCF/CGT, radio silence. No orders. Nothing. This proved once again to De Gaulle that the PCF absolutely did not want a fight, no matter what. We found ourselves, and to my knowledge it was the case everywhere, conned good and proper. The lads were certainly ready to go to a counter-demo, including a good few from the PCF, but no one took the initiative amongst those who were perhaps able to take it; particularly the student leftist leaders, and obviously not the PCF any more. We were reduced to listening to what was happening on the radio. We were stuck. If on that day there had been a counter-demo, it would have been a real fight. I think I’m right in saying that the suburbs would have gone there, and not to run from the charges of the CRS, finally!

Weapons?

Well after the strike, there were “accounts” from Stalinists or assimilated leftists that arms had circulated. These were mythomaniacs, eccentrics or both. At Alsthom, the question was posed by the workers of 27 metre gate (Rue des Bateliers) preparing materials to use in self-defence if they were attacked. Immediately this led to a row with the CGT. There was no question. When the boys asked what they were supposed to do if the CRS were sent, the response was clear and unequivocal: we do not resist by fighting. The boys then asked why they were keeping watch over the gates. If they were going to calmly withdraw if there was an attack, then there was really no point.

During the whole of ‘68, I didn’t hear arms spoken about once, even though we were in a factory in a suburb with a certain reputation. What’s more, arms against who? The enemy was not in the posh districts but in the factories themselves first and foremost. The PCF/CGT assumed its role as the political police of the bourgeoisie within the working class (I was one of those who considered them like that at the time) and they had control of the strike and held the reins.

The non-strikers

No one worked in the factory, that’s for sure, but not all the employees were strikers. Among the workers, at no point was there any pressure for a return to work. By contrast, on the side of the professionals and managers, there were some attempts. Towards 10 June, these Gentlemen began to gather in front of the trade union centre. Knowing this I went there one morning with a lad from the boiler making shop. There, there were a hundred or so of these clowns and two or three boys from the second college of the CGT who were trying to democratically convince them to do nothing against the strike. They managed like idiots to try to be understanding democrats while the others chanted “a vote, a vote!” I then started to speak. This little group of people did not know me and I did not know them any more. They listened to me. I remember very well what I said:

- “Do you want a vote?”
- “Yes” “Yes” came from the audience.
- “But we workers have already voted. We are not weathervanes and we are not going to change that. What you want is for the strike to stop, but I who am a worker in the workshop, am telling you loud and clear. All year long you have plenty of time to work and we slave away in the workshop. Then now that we have decided to strike, no one is working. And if there are those who want to play at heroes and want to break the strike, it’s simple, we’ll leave them free to knacker themselves.”

And I stopped there. They were so flabbergasted that they didn’t even have the reflex to open their mouths. The tankies no longer knew what to do with themselves. The mate who was with me made the sign to leave (it’s true that it was a bit risky). And we stayed there. We didn’t hear any more talk from the non-strikers.

Towards the return to work

It was not the anti-strikers who had pushed for a return to work; it was the CGT. It must have been the 15 June (or around then). There was no longer either a strike committee or something which was just the CGT and us. A CGT leaflet announced that the CGT executive committee had organised a vote for or against the continuation. It would be a secret ballot, obviously making it a vote by everyone, strikers and non-strikers. We had a serious row about it, but the secret ballot took place massively surrounded by “union militants”. The mass of workers came (almost half the factory). Some union militants were not proud of it at all...

But to general surprise, the majority was for continuing the strike. Even under the conditions where it was carried out there was a majority of strikers. So, we continued. But it was obvious that a little bit everywhere the factories were restarting work. The perimeter of the general strike began to seriously shrink. The technique of the PCF and the unions after the Grenelle accords, which had sliced up the strike into particular strikes by opening negotiations on a factory by factory basis, bore fruit in so far as each boss gave away a few bits and pieces. The CGT called for a return to work.

In total, Alsthom Saint-Ouen had been on strike for five weeks. It was then on Monday 24 June that, with the general morale exhausted, the CGT made a call to stop the strike. This happened in front of the offices inside the factory. There, there were a lot of people. There was no vote, nothing. Only a lengthy speech from the union boss. When he’d finished his washing, I got up on the steps with a group of mates, and the Stalinists cut the sound. There was yelling against them down below. I therefore spoke without a mic in total silence. Contrary to what the CGT said, we had not won the strike. Those who accepted the electoral game against the general strike were responsible for the defeat. We had to start out again with new struggles which took lessons from what had happened. And without any enthusiasm, everyone went back to the workshops.

The RATP Action Committee

On 22 May, three workers from the RATP turned up at Censier. They were looking for students to form a committee of action (CA). One of them had built barricades with the students (he was young) but all three of them were pushed by the desire to “do something”, which appeared to them to be impossible inside the trade union organisations of the “Retape”.

The following day the committee was formed. There were numerous problems coming from the fact that the 36,000 workers were extremely divided geographically: 22 bus depots, 17 workshops, 14 terminus points for the metro, not to mention all the sub-stations. We decided to put out a leaflet1 (which would be distributed on 24 May by the students) calling on comrades wanting to be active in a CA to get together. The leaflet was moderate: it didn’t tackle the problem of the unions. Some workers from various depots and lines came to join us in the following week (Balard, the Sceaux Line, Nation 2 and Nation 6, Lebrun). The principal discussions, apart from highly debatable “tactical” problems which we might set out in our leaflets, were concerned with the following issues:

· How to break through the barrier that the unions use to oppose communication (between workers and students etc.) according to the old adage of “divide and rule”?
· How to shed light on the true nature of the strike that the unions, specialists in the sale of the labour
power of the proletariat, want to keep within the limits of demands at all costs?
· How to organise solidarity with strikers other than through charity or the “spectacular gesture”?
· How to make an analysis denouncing the role of the unions, whose HIERARCHICAL mode of
organisation condemns them to being only instruments of power?
· How the proletariat must organise itself to take its own destiny in its hands without delegating it to some power or other (cf. the base committees of Rhône-Poulenc)?

Throughout the week our actions remained very much restricted to themes of discussion because first of all we had to search, for a long time without success, to develop more contacts. Although its vocation was to rapidly transform itself into a committee of liaison it remained an action committee of around thirty members, functioning in a closed loop.

The workers were prepared to take over the distribution of leaflets so as to avoid the conflicts which had increased between students and union reps anxious to avoid “all provocations”. For the same debatable reasons, our leaflets would also remain within the themes of the discussions. They concerned:

· Information: an RATP CA exists.
· The attempt to turn the yellows [scabs] yellow by being ironic about the “freedom to work”.
· The refusal of derisory demands and the call for minimal demands (qualitative, not quantitative).

The Grenelle accords, the announcement of close votes in the depots, the numeric diminution of strike pickets suggesting an immediate return to work, came to accelerate our action. On 4 June, we distributed a leaflet calling for the continuation of the strike, written on the initiative of workers from the terminuses Nation 2 and 6.

In front of the depots, the trade union guard dogs redoubled their vigilance. In their absence, contacts were numerous, productive and fraternal, but when they were there things took a turn for the worse. In the Hainaut depot, they accused two comrades from the Sceaux line (including one with a dozen years service) of being agents provocateurs who had never belonged to the RATP and they were booted out of the door by the workers who were fooled. A tasty detail: these comrades were, or rather had been, members of the CGT. The next day fifty or so workers turned up at the trade union office, 15 rue Charlot, to find out about the result of the vote of the inter-union network and meeting which had taken place there. They were forbidden entry, with punches. The CGT didn’t spare the slanders, often contradictory, while trying to justify the action of the “manual workers” guarding the doors: we were paid by the Americans, by the police, by the government, by the CFDT etc. We immediately wrote several leaflets which were distributed the same evening:

· The first one denounced the welcome given to the workers by the CGT and its strong arm men, the manoeuvres to influence the votes and the fiddling of the results when the influence was not sufficient, the dishonest use of the monopoly of the means of communication between workers thanks to which the unions could prepare the return to work against the will of the mass of workers.

· Others signed by those who had decided to continue the strike despite the threats of the CGT (which had announced that starting from Thursday 6 June at 8 a.m., it would no longer cover the strikers) called on comrades to take the same decision in every terminus and depot.

On Thursday 6 June, despite the orders from the unions, the strike continued in various depots. As soon as this was known the unions sent their “big cheeses” to put this intolerable situation in order. Despite the historic headline of l’Humanité from the 6th (“Victorious return to work in unity! ”), we soon learned that the return to work was difficult at Gonnesse, Ivry, Les Lilas, Croix-Nivert, Clichy, Montrouge, Lebrun, Nation 2 and 6, etc. Attempts at restarting the stoppages multiplied, and to some extent everywhere the workers regrouped for action. So it was that on Friday 7 June, fifty or so comrades from the Croix-Nivert depot met (in a café, despite the invitation from a Lebrun comrade to go to Censier, because, influenced by their union reps, many were still repelled by the idea of openly contacting “leftists and student provocateurs”). Facing the aggressive questions and responses from their base, two CGT delegates came to defend the shitty (as we shall see proved) electoral positions of their union. They decided, when their position had become untenable, to leave under the pretext that we were being anti-union (the attitude of a virtuous vicar who puts his fingers in his ears and says “I prefer not to hear that” when he encounters blasphemy). We were then free to move to Censier. The result of the discussion was a leaflet calling for a general assembly of RATP workers for the next day. The leaflet was distributed during the whole of the morning of Saturday 8. The assembly met. The workers from the Lilas depot announced that they were going to set up a workers’ committee (or base committee, or workers’ council, or soviet etc.). They said that everywhere the process was the same: when the strikers didn’t vote for a return to work unwillingly under union pressure, the delegates fiddled the over all results, while giving the order to go back to work in the name of “the unity of the working class in struggle”. An example: Lebrun declared itself 80% for continuing the strike, but, by a curious lapse, the CGT announcement in the other depots was that Lebrun was 80% FOR THE RETURN TO WORK). Under these conditions a relaunch of the strike appeared possible, but there weren’t enough of us. Therefore we wrote a new leaflet calling for a general assembly on Monday 10 June.

Monday 10 June: almost a complete success, 11 depots, 9 lines and 1 workshop are represented. Each person spoke about the development of the strike on their line or in their depot: the facts really were the same everywhere. It was the lack of connection between the workers which had allowed the strikers to be tricked and defeated. We decided to form a liaison committee grouping two comrades from each depot. The course of the debate aiming at the organisation of workers in CAs led on to the formation of base committees. While the comrades of the liaison committee were going off to another room to write a leaflet appealing for this kind of action, another tendency made itself apparent. A certain number of comrades, mostly young, said they were fed up with “endless discussion”, called for “an immediate action, selective restarting of the strike in certain depots by the most determined who have to easily succeed in leading all the workers”. This tendency, although it wasn’t incompatible with the other one, nevertheless ended up by causing some confusion which can be partly held responsible for a double setback.

· On the one hand the attempts at organisation, based on an assessment of the role of the unions, was put on the back burner although it had been positive,

· On the other, the selective restart of the strike couldn’t take place because, caught up in the enthusiasm of an assembly of 400 or 500 people, many resolutions were passed but did not stand the test of reality.

  • 1. In the edition of 2 May 1968
  • 2. In the edition of 3 May 1968
  • 3. A comrade has told me that the slogan “We are all German Jews” was launched later during the expulsion of Cohn Bendit. Nevertheless, I’m sure that the demo I’m talking about definitely took place before the strike…. ? ? ?
  • 4. It’s in Humanité on 3 May that G. Marchais denounced “the German anarchist Cohn-Bendit” and railed against “revolutionaries [... ] sons of the high bourgeoisie [... ] who will quickly turn down their revolutionary flame to go and run daddy’s business and exploit the workers”.
  • 5. Ambroise Croizat (1901-1951) Stalinist minister for “Work and Social Security” without interruption from November 1945 to May 1947.
  • 6. Maurice Thorez (1900-1964), General Secretary of the PCF (1934-1964), Minister of State and then vicepresident of the Council of State from November 1945 to May 1947.
  • 7. 3 Common CGT-CFDT-FO days of action against the Social Security reform regulations of 21 August 1967 (De Gaulle, president of the Republic; Pompidou, prime minister) which had shaken up the architecture of social protection. Previously unified, Social Security had been broken into autonomous branches (sickness, old age, family allowances). The majority representation of employees in the administration councils (two tiers of seats) was swept away to the benefit of the bosses (joint representation) and the election of administrators by their constituents was replaced by a nomination by decree. The same regulation increased the expenses remaining after the insurance charge (patient’s contribution), fixing this relevant part by decree (government) and no longer by law (Parliament). The role of mutual insurance companies was limited.
  • 8. It was ten years to the day that de Gaulle had been in command since the “Algiers coup” of 13 May 1958.
  • 9. During the whole of the strike there were 560 striker’s cards distributed. That is to say 560 workers (out of a staff of 1800) who came at least once. It should be known that the striker’s card gave access to benefits in the town halls, the free canteen etc.
  • 10. A vulgar French term for “disorder”, meaning literally “shit in the bed”. De Gaulle had already described the student movement as chienlit.
  • 11. De Gaulle, running out of steam after the setback of his televised conference on 24 May, went to seek the support of General Massu, Commander in Chief of the French forces in Germany, at Baden Baden, on 28 and
    came back on 29 May.
  • 12. In fact it was Malraux, Debré and a few barons of Gaullism who organised the demonstration on 30 May.