Firsthand Account - The Montreuil CA

The creation of the Montreuil Action Committee

I ended up leaving the JCR. For a year and a half I was working at AFTAM (Association for the Reception and Training of African and Malagasy Workers) as the person in charge of a hostel for migrant workers (Malians and Senegalese originally from the Kayes Ouest region of Mali). With a psychologist mate from the head office of AFTAM (where she did literacy work) I set up a section of the CGT.

The meetings of the future activists of the Action Committee of Montreuil often took place in this hostel along with screen printing of posters saying things like: “The bourgeoisie are afraid”

On 3 May I heard on the radio that a violent student demonstration was going to happen in the afternoon in the Latin Quarter. I nipped over to Boulevard Saint-Germain next to Place Maubert and I saw the front of a building burning and debris all around. The aim of the demonstration was to defend the students threatened with exclusion from the university for having occupied the U estate of Nanterre. The original demand was: the right of boys to visit the girls’ building and without doubt vice versa. Two or three days later I came back to take part in a new demo. I had never seen people so determined and ready to confront the cops, who often retreated onto the Boulevard St Germain which was barred by the CRS and two water cannon – we had attacked and taken one of these water cannon vehicles by force. Later on we attacked the cops with all kinds of projectiles. Of course we used paving stones, but also smoke bombs and stun grenades which were returned to the cops (some people’s hands were seriously injured on these occasions).

We lived as if it was a real festival. After so many years of bending before the Gaullist state and its cops: starting with the Gaullist coup of 1958 itself, then the repression of the revolt of the Algerians and the demonstrations against the Algerian war. The only victorious movement had been a strike by coal miners when they refused forced labour in 1963, which began to be seen as a victory!1 Finally there was the movement of solidarity with Vietnam – the future leftists sold these actions to us as solidarity and anti-imperialism but also as preparation for revolution.

Therefore in those first days up until 10 May, demonstrations took place almost every day. Despite many injured, we had the feeling of taking the street, of making them respect us and finally hoping it would lead to something, something that we began to discuss in the streets and after the demos. Socialism seemed possible. For me and many others? It was a ten year pressure cooker which finally exploded, and without the control of the Stalinists and other reformists and other professional organisers.

At the end of a very hectic demo towards Montparnasse, we managed to escape from the cops with two young guys, carpenters who we got to know in the car (Roland and Michel). They lived in Rosny sous Bois next to Montreuil, and we decided to see each other again the next day to discuss politics and go back to the demonstrations together. They came to the first meet-up with two other mates, a plumber and another carpenter (Little Swiss and Yoyo).

After the reoccupation of the Sorbonne by the students, certain future leftists and the UNEF (some of
whom would later put out Libération), had launched an appeal to set up action committees. I wrote my name and address on one of the lists in the heart of the Sorbonne and girls and boys started to come to see me in the hostel. In Montreuil at the beginning there were two action committees which fused very quickly. One of the action committees was run by militants of the JCR. The committee which I was in had between 20 and 30 people and the rank and file militants didn’t understand why there were two CAs and so they fused after a few days. At the end of May or in June some plenary meetings gathered around 100 people.

What activities for the members of the Action Committee?

We were active in Montreuil and some members of the Montreuil committee therefore came from Rosny, but we didn’t try to contact people elsewhere, which seems incredible to me today. In general we were naïve enough to believe that the weaknesses of the movement: lack of links with the workers in the factories (which were very numerous in Montreuil at the time), lack of political development, and the absence of an organisation which if it was not military would at least constitute an order service, would sort itself out during the development of the movement that we thought would last years rather than months.

I listened to the radio a lot. With each news bulletin we learned that new workplaces, after the big demonstration on 13 May, were going on strike and that kept our morale at a high level.

All I knew is it wouldn’t be a picnic. One evening I took the car with the intention of going to see the factories situated between Pantin and the north-east suburb (national highway 3). I went to the gates of 5 or 6 factories and each time I arrived full of enthusiasm. I bumped into the CGT delegates, probably members of the PCF. It was impossible to enter the factories and discuss with the strikers. I realised that the factories were not occupied and that the atmosphere was not so terrible: we were not in 1936. I hoped that the demos would arrive and break through this blockade.

Personally, and also as a representative of the committee, I saw the meetings of the action committees in Paris and they quickly got on my nerves so I went there as little as possible. I had to at least go there for the newspapers and leaflets. I abandoned the regular coordination meetings of the CAs and nobody else was there to represent us. In fact nobody really wanted to get involved in politics and confront the enemies on the left. The action committee was made up of workers but they were always isolated people, who did not represent a group in their workplace or only if the workplace was very small etc. They were rather comrades of the anarchist tendency – one of them (Roland) had contacts with the Anarchist Federation (FA). We also had Princet, another anarcho who was a paver by profession, quite old in the eyes of us 20-25 year olds (the refrain of our elder quickly became: “it’s the reflux”), a secretary of the MNEF (a student mutual aid organisation), Michelle a coordinator at Léo Lagrange and a technician from Roussel-Uclaf, at Romainville, who had participated in the Resistance during the war in the Corrèze region. There were also a few teachers and students.

Above all we tried to contact workplaces whether they were in Montreuil or elsewhere. There was one workplace which made televisions, Grandin, certainly quite important. We could discuss with the workers easily enough in front of the gate but we couldn’t go inside and participate in their meetings. The CA wanted to carry out common actions with the workers of Grandin, but the CGT and the Maoists tried to prevent any contacts. We thought that it was very negative to have verbal confrontations (or worse) at the gates of the factory. Without doubt we weren’t that persistent and sticking to the gate like limpets didn’t interest us.

At no point did we have sustained and political contacts with workers in the large workplaces, independent of the unions.

In fact, in Montreuil as elsewhere, if the workers themselves didn’t want to organise themselves the activity of outside militants (leaflets or posters or meetings) couldn’t achieve anything while proletarians still had confidence in the unions and left parties.

Our links with the general population were also quite superficial. We discussed a lot with the people who demanded discussion at that time. For some big demonstrations we could lead 2, 3 or 400 people. Honestly I was happy to talk to people but it was a little too calm and when we approached the cops we preferred to smell the tear gas and the petrol of Molotov cocktails.

What organisation or what absence of organisation?

Two, three or four times a week there was a new edition of the paper Action. The journal of the CAs was sold almost every day. We went to find a pile of 100 copies somewhere in the Latin Quarter and sold them all in an hour, generally in front of the Montreuil town hall, and the tankies never bothered us. On 13 May, during the demo which lasted the whole day, I sold seven piles of 100 papers (700 copies) of Action just on my own. I kept some editions of Action and, rereading them, the content is very reformist, some pages are Marxist theory or, in the beginning, the whole journal is about repression: a funny mixture. It was not a good journal of propaganda or of reflection, and at the time we didn’t see that. We did not write articles for Action, no one asked us to and we did not try to get involved in the editing. The paper served above all as a means of discussion with passers-by and in that it worked very well. We went to find the posters of the Beaux-Arts2 and we also made local screen-print posters with our own texts. This looked like a pamphlet and I remember the titles: “The bourgeoisie is afraid” and the second “The bourgeoisie is still afraid”, just before the holidays no doubt, at the end of July.

Some mornings we distributed CA pamphlets, on other mornings or at night we stuck up posters. We never had any trouble except with a squad of Gaullists at the end of June during the elections. There was no leader but some people did more than others. It seemed to me that I had an activity of meeting and coordinating with a friend Sylvia, Roland L., the technician from Roussel, a woman who was an animator etc… in an informal or organised way we went out twice or more per day, according to the needs of the action. We were certainly activists. We sensed that it was now or never.

We went from some thirty members to around a hundred at some plenary meetings which took place in a meeting hall belonging to some Protestants. If on most days, twelve to fifteen of us did some actions, the others only went to demos and that was enough “from the menu”. Almost every day meetings took place in someone or other’s flat or in a café. We discussed the political situation of the moment and decided if we were going to participate in the actions of all the action committees. There was no secretary, no treasurer, and no particular positions. Decisions were taken on the basis of majority but often we tried to find unanimity. The discussions often centred on practical tasks and there were no big divergences apart from between the organised militants who’d come to sell their particular brand of Maoism or Trotskyism. The Maoists came fishing (without success as elsewhere) whereas the Trots were more subtle; at least two participated and won over one comrade and one workplace bulletin.

We also went to support the picket line of the striking employees of the Printemps department store, between Nation and Vincennes.

At the end of June we contacted someone at Krema Hollywood. The mother of a woman in the action committee worked in that firm. With her and one or two other workers we made a bulletin for the workers of Krema. We criticised the wages policy in the workplace, and the conditions and security of work. One of the problems was health, particularly for the women who had to clean the machines every morning with smelly and dangerous products. Sometimes they passed out. We wrote the bulletin, taking inspiration from the fact that we were telling the workers, while the workers wrote nothing themselves. Were distributed them at the door while the workers distributed them secretly inside. This lasted around six months and then the LO revived the action committee which no longer existed and which the friend with contacts at KREMA passed to the LO.

For these two or three months we had the impression that the only two political forces in Montreuil were the PCF and the CA. It was play-acting. We had no contacts with the PCF and did not try to have any, even less to propose common actions. In Montreuil on the day of De Gaulle’s speech which announced his referendum, the PCF called a local demo to stop people going to Bastille. By chance the two demos, that of the PCF and that of the CA which went to Paris, crossed. They were almost the same size. There were no clashes or insults but each remained on its own path.

We found that the members of the PCF were too easily led up the garden path but, in our optimism, we hoped and we thought that the PCF and CGT militants would soon lose their blinkers, that the proletarians would do as the students were doing.

During the legislative elections at the end of June, we led a moderately active campaign for abstention: “elections are a trap for idiots” was our slogan. On the day of the elections we went fishing in the countryside with a few mates from the CA and, when we came back, we went to taunt the PCF people in the polling stations with our fishing rods. They were really annoyed and couldn’t get over our fishing rods but the proles of Montreuil or Rosny had voted, and in large numbers!

One evening, on 17 May, the action committees called for a visit to Renault. On Seguin Island we sang a ballad, and tried to discuss with the workers but the gates remained shut and no contact took place. Off we went again at the beginning of June to Flins: this time the cops were waiting for us and the course of the trip was diverted across some fields…

I was summonsed by the cops at the beginning of July. I had daubed “After February, October!” on the wall of the house of someone who didn’t appreciate it. He had remembered my registration number, and I had acted alone, in daylight and in a car. At the beginning of July we already thought that the movement had provisionally calmed down but that it would start up again in the autumn.

What happened in Montreuil was not isolated from the rest of the situation. On 10 May, the night of the barricades, the Boulevard Saint-Michel was packed and I had the opportunity to discuss with lots of young workers. I had no strategy in my head but I was happy. We were leaving behind ten years of Gaullism protected everywhere and the PCF blocking everything on the part of the working class. During the days of May and June we could even see a great window opening onto the future!

We didn’t know that the PCF still had enough strength to push the window shut again, even if it had to die there and would never again be able to pass itself off as a revolutionary party, and that the modernist bourgeoisie had enough tricks up its sleeve to re-padlock the aforementioned window with the help of the “exsixty-eighter” stars.

In September 1968 I participated in a demo against the massacre in Three Cultures Square which happened during the Mexico Olympic Games. Whereas a few weeks before we would have been ready to have a go at the cops, we picked up a few hundred of them without any reaction. A comrade had arrived with some pickaxe handles in his car. No one wanted to take them into battle. The pickaxe handles ended up dumped in the gutter. It was as if the ambiance of May 68 had completely disappeared.

In December 1968, a bit disgusted, I left for Madagascar to be a cultural presenter (there were four of us from the Montreuil CA) and we only returned to France in January 1971 with the idea of lending a hand to Lutte Ouvrière, for want of anything better to do.

  • 1. The miners’ strike broke out in 1963 in a period when the Gaullist regime, in power since May 1958 and after the end of the Algerian war in March 1962, seemed untouchable, even more so as not much was happening on the terrain of strikes. It began at the command of three unions CGT, CFTC and FO on 1 March 1963. One of the causes of it was the suppression of wage to price indexation for miners (put in place in 1954). Consequently the average wage of miners fell in relation to other categories. From the beginning of the strike, the Pompidou government, via the minister of labour Bokanowski, announced that the strike could only last 48 hours and that after that there would be forced labour. The order appeared on 4 March 1963. The 200,000 striking miners resisted the order. The strike lasted 35 days (until 4 April 1963) and the government was not able to impose its order for forced labour and agreed to increase wages by 8% plus the 4.5% minimum, spread out until the 1 April 1964, and with a fourth week of paid holiday. And it is this which was interpreted as a victory. In fact a minority of strikers wanted to continue and felt cheated by the order to return to work given by the unions, led by the CGT. In many mines in the North (Déchy, Hénin-Beaumont, etc.)strikers tore up their CGT cards.
  • 2. The Ecole Nationale de Beaux-Arts was a famous art school in Paris that was already on strike on 8 May. Declaring their studio to be an “atelier populaire” [popular workshop] the occupying painters produced numerous posters which were plastered up all over Paris and which have filled books about May 68 ever since!