18-20 May – the tipping point

The hesitations of the trade unions on the confederal level appeared during this week. The CFDT tried to give itself an appearance of being open to the intentions of the students, while the FO remained cautious and did not want to find itself in conflict with the CGT, which hesitated.

On 15 May the day of action against the new regulations, planned long in advance, did not achieve the expected success: a few stoppages, some delegations and rare marches did not spark much enthusiasm. The same day the CFDT once again asserted its desire for a connection with the “progressive” students. Some officials from the confederation and some militants spoke with the occupiers of the Sorbonne. The metalworking federation even advised its members: “It would be appropriate to develop debate with the students, not only to tell them that we agree with their demands, but also, and above all, so that our preoccupations with democracy in the workplace, the right to work and the real democratisation of education should be understood and shared by them.”

In the name of FO, André Bergeron met the leaders of the CFDT at Montholon gardens. He declared himself ready to support the occupations, but to remain independent of the CGT.

The latter remained reserved about this. The demands for self-management and structural reforms
proclaimed by the CFDT were abruptly described as “hollow formulae” by the CGT leader Georges Séguy. At Billancourt, the CGT section disapproved of the initiative by the UNEF to organise a solidarity march on the factory, while the sections of the CFDT and the FO declared themselves to be happy with this gesture of sympathy. On the 16th the CGT published a statement in which it raised the now ritualised appeal for “the formation of a trade union front without any divisions”, and a separate phrase envisaging “the replacement of the existing power by a popular government”. Finally, the CGT called for “the mobilisation of the workers for settling the ‘overdue accounts’”.

But the flood of strikers was always rising and the CGT (and the PCF, although it is difficult to distinguish the two in the confederation office) decided to react. The choice was simple but tough: amongst the students in particular, and amongst youth in general, the PCF seemed discredited and in any case its youth organisations no longer carried any weight – could they run the risk of the same thing happening within the working class? The movement was certainly still largely minoritarian (200,000 strikers on the evening of 17 May), weakly organised (it was the occupation of the factory accompanied or not by the locking up of the managers or directors which took the place of organisation), geographically localised and, contrary to the illusions of the leftists, far from being revolutionary, but the potential danger was there.

So, for the PCF-CGT it was not a question of “riding the tiger” but rather of drowning this embryonic movement by launching a strike where the CGT had the means to do so, principally on the SNCF, the RATP, La Poste [state post office] or in the suburbs (such as Seine Saint-Denis) where the combined weight of workplace militants, trade union officials and municipal employees could force a strike, but also by the cutting of power to the workplaces by the CGT unionised workers of EDF as in Seine Saint Denis from the 20 May, so as to “get our way”. Thus the example of the Carbone Lorraine factory (1200 workers) at Gennevilliers, where the CGT only launched the strike on 18 May.

From a general point of view, according to the Ministry of the Interior, out of 77 metalworking firms in the Paris region, 68 had experienced a strike launched by the CGT, 6 by the CFDT and 3 by FO. According to the same statistics 58% of strikes were started by employees between 30 and 40 years old; 27% by employees between 20 and 30, 8% by employees younger than 20 and 7% by employees older than 40. According to the statistics of the UIM (metalworking bosses’ association), 75% of strikes were decided after discussion, and in 26% of cases the strikers used force to make the workplace go on strike. How it was necessary to change tactics in the face of embryonic forms of workers’ organisation is illustrated perfectly by the example of Alsthom in Saint-Ouen described later.

Towards the decision

The blockage of public transport, SNCF and RATP (in Paris) gave a good excuse for all the employees in small firms and isolated employees in general not to go to work. But if the danger of being outflanked existed, thefact of launching the strike presented another even greater danger: who could say that once the floodgates of the overflowing workers were open it would be possible to easily return things to normal?

Even if we can’t follow the discussions inside the leadership of the CGT, the fact is that it is only on the evening of the 17th after an extraordinary national committee meeting of long duration that the CGT decided to exploit the movement, without necessarily achieving unity of action, since Séguy, peremptorily declared that “in the CFDT as well as the FEN there is still not any very clear view of things”. But behind this hackneyed formula, the choice had been made and made well.

From the next day, 18 May, the launch of the “general” strike succeeded in totally paralysing the country in five days. The number of strikes grew rapidly: on the 18th, towards mid-day, 1 million workers were out, in the evening more than 2 million<fn>Remember that at that time work on Saturday (or one Saturday in two) was normal.</fn>! After the Sunday pause, work stoppages reached every region and every kind of job: more than 4 million on Monday evening, 6 to 7 million on Tuesday, 8 million on Wednesday 22 May and, the day after Ascension Day, it just missed the 9 million mark. On 18th in the Paris region metro trains and buses stayed in their depots. Already on 17 May, the rail workers of Achères and Saint Lazare were going on strike. According to the statistics of the Ministry of the Interior, 85,000 out of 92,000 rail workers in the Paris region were on strike from the evening of 18 May as well as 29,000 put of 30,300 employees of the RATP. Across the whole country the post offices closed one by one. In the following days EDF/GDF (in the Paris region 33,200 out of 38,700 employees were on strike) and the teachers joined the movement. In the post office, for example, from 21 May they gave the following figures for strikers: 50,000 out of 80,000 in the Paris region and 66,000 out of 175,000 in the provinces. Most of the sorting offices in the Paris region were occupied and the post offices were closed by the strikers. From 18 May, the management of the post office called on the police to expel the hundred or so strikers from the telecommunications centre of the Second Arrondissement, close to the Bourse [stock exchange]. After negotiation with the CGT, the centre was given up peacefully.

All sectors of industry were affected but also the banks and insurance companies, government
administrations, etc.

In secondary education the high schools had already gone on strike on 18 May before the general strike order was given by the FEN on 22 May. The big shops closed their doors, the fishermen stayed on land, the road toll and customs employees lifted their barriers. In the countryside agricultural workers and road-menders stopped work. France was paralysed.