The Stalinist gamble
One of the most striking facts about May-June ‘68 is the attitude taken by the PCF and the CGT after the first week of the strike: to drown the nascent movement in the flood of a strike which they initiated and controlled. However much history, particularly the return to work in June, has proved the PCF and CGT strategy right, that is to say that there were little or no excesses, the risk was real (and is always real) that a general strike movement can liberate energies which escape their initiators.
What were the facts of the matter which allowed them to take the decision to call a general strike on 17 May? The strike movement which began on 14 May at Claas and Sud Aviation quickly spread to Renault Cléon, and then spread like wildfire, but it remained confined to a minority quantitatively (200,000 strikers on 17 May) but also qualitatively. Certainly we don’t have precise figures, but the strikers were not a majority in the workplaces where it broke out, particularly in terms of active participation by the strikers. Even if in numerous cases (the shining example being Cléon) it was determined young workers who started the action, they were often joined by older workers, often CGT militants. So, what we had was a minority strike but one which benefited from the benevolent passivity of the other workers in the workplaces concerned. Nevertheless, the movement was already rising and full of potential (see below for examples related to the action at CATE Censier). Contacts were made with people outside and whole workplaces were ready to go on strike, as happened between 18 and 21 May. The general strike launched in the SNCF, the RATP and in the key sectors where the PCF-CGT apparatus was hegemonic made these contacts disappear into the background (except where there was geographical proximity). Therefore, the decision by the CGT was taken at an opportune moment, acting as a preventive against the movement. Of course, no worker was simply put on strike by the troops of the PCF-CGT (in Seine Saint Denis, for example, on 18 May in the morning) but in those workplaces from the beginning there wasn’t much of an “active” strike, just a light occupation controlled by the CGT.
But let’s go back to 17 May. The CGT, by its national implantation and its hundreds of thousands of militants, had far more sensors that anyone else for assessing the situation after 13 May. At the beginning, there was a temporary weakness of the executive because each of its two heads was absent in turn (Pompidou was visiting Afghanistan from 3 to 10 May, and then De Gaulle was in Romania from 14 to 20 May) and the replacements were not as competent: they did not see the student crisis coming and did not succeed in pacifying the situation which culminated in 10 May, the night of the barricades. The intelligent retreat by Pompidou, on 11 May (reopening of the Sorbonne, freeing of prisoners), which played on the lack of rebound of the student movement (which in fact happened), was interpreted by the population, and particularly the working class, as a defeat for the power of an authority which seemed almost invincible, omnipotent. The students had shown that you could do that and that it paid off, including by using violence against the police. This was a police which in Paris kept control of the situation and avoided serious blunders. For many workers, including CGT militants, it was the moment to get some advantage. If the demonstrations of 13 May were a success they somewhat masked the more uneven participation in the strike. But they allowed thousands of workers, albeit superficially, to be in contact with the students and hear a different music from the corny old tunes of the “good-for-nothing” trade union demonstrations. From the beginning of the student agitation the PCF, whose presence in the universities in the UEC had been eroded since 1965, did not support the movement (this is an understatement, see the article by G. Marchais in l’Humanité on 3 May) and tried to hold it back as much as possible. It was a waste of effort and the PCF was discredited even more. But the university sector didn’t matter so much. If a movement of the same type was to break out and develop in the worker milieu, then that would be another problem altogether. The very existence of the PCF, and to some extent the CGT, could be threatened. And unfortunately for the Stalinists, this is what seemed to be happening. The strike started up without any orders from the unions and it was spreading. While at the beginning (see the example of Alsthom) the Stalinists turned a deaf ear while opposing themselves to the vague desires for autonomy, after 17 May, they did an about-turn. The benefit was double:
· The strike became its property. The CGT militants who wanted to take advantage of the situation were reassured, and, in relation to the government and the state, the PCF-CGT couple justified itself as the maintainer of order and master of the destiny of the “workers’ flock”.
· In the first phase the operation succeeded in brushing aside the “leftist” danger in the worker milieu. It was now necessary, by maintaining and controlling the pressure, to obtain concessions from the state and the bosses to enable the return to work.
The facts bear out this vision, even if the rejection of the Grenelle accords in most workplaces on 27 May seems to invalidate them. Seems to, because if we look more closely, the movement went down from 3 June and this tendency became irreversible after the return to work on the SNCF and particularly on the RATP after 6 June, and even if the point of no-return was only reached on 14 June, despite the spectacular events of Renault-Flins and Peugeot-Sochaux and the various returns pulled out with forceps by the CGT, there were only the nice hard-liners left. What were the reasons for the success of the return to work?
First of all, in the key sectors which it controlled (SNCF, EDF-GDF, mines), apart from a few marginal examples, the CGT succeeded in stopping what it had begun. After this, the strike was not wanted by the immense majority of strikers who hadn’t participated in it: there was no reason for them to turn into enraged strikers on the day of the return to work. The one counter-example was Peugeot Sochaux where the workers who had voted for the return went on strike again to confront the CRS. But if this was a victory of military organisation paid for by the deaths of two workers, it didn’t lead to any desire for political autonomy on the part of the workers.
After more than two weeks on strike, a lassitude could be felt outside the workplaces: fear of the unknown, the loss of pay. All this brought down the moderates, the hesitators, on the side of the return to normal. Finally, in the rare places where the workers were organised and determined, trickery, hard or soft pressure, demoralisation, were the scores which the PCF-CGT soloists played marvellously by relying on the weakness of the experiences of workers’ autonomy…
It may appear easy to put your stethoscope to a movement after the event and declare that there were no examples, or very few, of workers’ autonomy. But this is unfortunately the only method for sweeping away illusions (which will always be paid for, sooner or later) about the practice and qualities of a movement. Let’s regret in passing that those who had the most to do 40 years ago – and here we are thinking of the comrades involved in CATE Censier – did not do it, and even if they are not lulled by triumphalist illusions, they have not brought the fire of criticism to bear on the limits of the movement. As well as the quantitative1 weakness of the movements showing some sign of autonomy in relation to the unions – that is, all the unions, because for a while in May-June 68 the CFDT was out of tune with the CGT so as to better recuperate the energy of the base and develop its place in the sun of state unionism – we can add a qualitative weakness, due principally to the inexperience of militants and workers, increased by the very nature of May-June 68: an immense passive strike.
Later on we will examine the experience of CATE Censier which was the closest approach to workers’ autonomy, that is to say the fact that groups of workers organised themselves against the parties and unions in base or action committees (the distinction is not important) and were capable of acting on the strike, linking their particular conditions to the general conditions of capitalism and thinking of their practice as political. If such cases were rare in May-June 68, on the other hand two phantasms have emerged from the same epoch: self-management (which in 1973 led to the strike at Lip in Besançon) and the myth of “central strike committees”.
Self-management, myth and reality
We began to talk a lot about self-management in 1968. Whether it corresponded to the programme of the PSU, certain anarchists or, under the name of “workers’ control”, to the Trotskyists, this concept, which literally means exploitation of the exploited by themselves, in most cases meant the workers themselves assuring essential production2 , keeping the means of production in a useful state3 , or assuring the supply of petrol4 . At Clermont, in the Oise, the personnel of the psychiatric hospital themselves imposed a working week of 40 hours over five days. More elaborate actions took place in the Meudon observatory and at that in Puy-de-Dôme where a “Self-management Council” was created. The researchers and the technicians there thought about how to improve the methods of management and work in a group. Those of Saclay went in the same direction. In fact, in these cases, the high level of skill of the personnel and the habit of working in a group favoured these efforts. The most advanced attempt at “self-management”, or at least that which was presented as such, took place at CSF in Brest, where the CFDT was the most important union.
Self-management - CSF - Brest5
Since 1962, a thousand men and women have worked in the (electronic) factory CSF of Brest. The CFDT has a large majority there: it organises 83% of the workers as opposed to 17% for the FO.
On 20 May 68, the buildings were occupied. Immediately, the CFDT militants organised groups charged with urgent repairs, coordination, provisioning, finances, etc. Links were established with the peasants of the region who helped with supplies. They granted credit to the strikers (the conflict only ended on 24 June). In the workshops we showed films and slides, and organised debates with people from outside: a few times militants from the UNEF were invited to come and give their opinions and participate in the debates. Some teachers ran a conference on sex education. Members of the management could also come and speak. Apart from the classical demands, the CFDT called for the creation of Workers’ Commissions. It put one of these commissions in place, composed of members of management and 12 employees who wrote up reports on: personnel information, participation in the management of the firm, conditions of work etc. Certain strikers thought at one point of getting the factory working again. The project failed because the circuits of finance were blocked and, what’s more, the army, which was the biggest customer, would never accept it. There was therefore no real self-management in Brest, at the most there was a bit of co-management. Above all this self-management only really concerned the engineers (as opposed to the management) or the technicians (as opposed to the management or the engineers) – the majority of workers only wanted to escape from work and not to consider themselves as productive workers. To conclude this brief account (because we can no longer imagine today what a disproportionate importance was given to this Brestian self-management), it only acted principally to maintain and preserve the instruments of work, very often anticipating the return to normal. And so what if the workers who know how to do it can do it even better than the boss… without him?
Central strike committees
The best known and the most mythologised example is that of Nantes. Since the demonstrations of 24 May, the prefect had barricaded himself in the prefecture, where the majority of employees were on strike. The police no longer appeared in public; the municipality was in crisis, because part of its members had resigned. The “Central Strike Committee” [CCG] (in fact the inter-union organisation of the CGT-FO-CFDT)6 then installed itself in the town hall and assured such services as undertakers and the registry office. In fact, the CCG handled the emergencies which were no longer dealt with by the state services. On 27 May, the CCG celebrated its recent formation by organising a march of 50,000 people. On 31 May, they called again for a demonstration and 30,000 people still responded to the call. But, from 3 June, it decided to hand back to the municipality the political functions which it had exercised, leaving the town hall and installing most of its services in the office of the agricultural unions. In a sign of the times, the prefect immediately took over control of the distribution of petrol.
The action committees
In the framework of this text we can’t retrace the whole history of the Action Committees appearing after 10 May. The firsthand account about that of Montreuil gives some indication of their strengths and weaknesses. On the other hand, it’s worth looking at the most interesting one7 , the Worker Student Action Committee (CATE) also called CA Censier, after the faculty where it met from 12 May to 16 June 1968. From its formation by a handful of comrades, the future CATE isolated itself from the leftist groupuscules and decided to intervene in workplaces with the aim of developing liaison (and actions) between the workers themselves and students or outside militants. Some of the principal activists were not organised in any group but there were also militants from “La vieille Taupe”8 , and a bit later from GLAT9 . The first days were dedicated to the distribution of leaflets and the establishment of contact with workers, with the hope of then creating CAs in the factories while the strike was still in its early stages. Thus, there was FNAC Châtelet (contacts on 17 May, creation of a CA on 21 May), then BHV (with the creation of a common bulletin, La Base), the print works L’illustration in Bobigny, Frimatic in Puteaux, Dassault in Suresnes, Decauville in Corbeil, Thomson Houston in Bagneux, on 17 May, Imprimerie Lang (nineteenth arrondissement) and above all the NMPP [press distribution company] (Paris-Réaumur and Bobigny), Rhône-Poulenc in Vitry which, with Citroën Balard and the Lebrun RATP depot (thirteenth arrondissement), would be the place where the CATE had the most influence.
The first actions of the CATE thus accompanied the first strikes or vague desires for a strike before 18 May, the date when the CGT decided to launch the general strike to drown the movement. There are precious firsthand accounts which show the existence of a weak minority of workers (on average 10% per workplace, according to Baynac) ready to go out without relying on the unions. At Citroën (in the fifteenth arrondissement), thanks to personal contacts, the CATE was present, and from 18 May participated in the beginning of the strike on Monday 20 May. Not forgetting the immigrants who made up 60% of the workforce, they distributed a leaflet in four languages (Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and Serbo-Croat) calling for the strike and its organisation. With the strike not established yet, the CGT let them act (they pushed for an occupation of the factory) and took up their demands afterwards. But from 21 May, with the strike established, the CGT took over the gates and physically prevented them from entering the factory.10 But contacts continued outside. The CATE developed several actions of contact between workers from different Citroën sites (Levallois, Saint Ouen, Nanterre) by doing work around the immigrant hostels in the suburbs.11
When, on 22 June, the CGT and the management negotiated the return to work, the CATE succeeded in stopping it for two days. Conscious of the limits of the general strike after 18 May, the CATE put out several leaflets calling for “the transformation of the passive strike into an active strike”, but, apart from Rhône-Poulenc in Vitry, where the participation in the strike reached 50%12 and where the CATE had a certain influence (benefiting, it’s true, from a CFDT more “base-ist” and hostile to the CGT) and where it was able to meet in the factory on 24 May with an assembly of 300 workers and, on 28 May, to oppose an attempt by the CGT federation to get a return to work13 , the results were deceptive and there was no echo in favour of this “transformation”. But it was the nature of the movement which was at issue. Before 18 May, when the strike began without any orders from the union confederations, the strike was confined to a minority almost everywhere (to various degrees) and the determined workers were not tempted to do more than vote for the strike and to go home or participate in demonstrations. After 18 May, when the CGT had succeeded in imposing the strike, the majority of workers were not hostile to it but preferred to stay at home. In addition to its work in the Paris region, from 20 May the CATE concerned itself with the problem of contacts in the provinces. From 21 May, teams were sent to Troyes (to the textile industry), Dijon, Metz and Montpellier. This was also the occasion for creating contacts with farmers for assuring the provisioning of the CAs and the CATE.
Elsewhere the CATE created an inter-enterprise committee which met at Nord Aviation in Châtillon, on 28 May, to coordinate the efforts of the workplace CAs and to distribute a leaflet called “Defend our strike”. It met every day from then on and gathered militants from a dozen factories in the Paris region14 . The objective at the beginning of June was to oppose the return to work pushed by the CGT.
The return to work on the RATP, which was under way on 6 June, became a critical issue for the CATE. On Monday 10 June, 400 employees of the RATP (out of 36,000) met at Censier, called together by the RATP CA to organise continuation of the strike. It was a question of countering the CGT offensive which rested on pressure on the strikers and the monopoly of information and, if necessary, the lie or the fist. Despite this, on 10 June, 11 bus depots out of 22, 9 metro lines out of 14 and one workshop out of 7 continued the strike and representatives met at Censier. Despite the enthusiasm of this general assembly, energy fell apart from lack of a perspective very rapidly and, apart from the Lebrun depot which continued its last-ditch stand, the return to work was achieved by 12 June. The end of the strike on the RATP brought about the end of the CATE which left Censier on 16 June.15
Baynac, in his book, does not give detailed figures for the participants in CATE, but we can assume
around 500 participants, militant workers in a dozen factories (at least 5 per factory) and contacts in about thirty others, a certain influence in some workplaces (Rhône-Poulenc, the Lebrun RATP depot) and a will to favour self-organisation.
The question of violence
Another aspect which needs to be questioned is that of violence.
Here are the principle repression services at work in the year of 1968. The police from the prefecture of police (PP), the Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité (CRS), the Gendarmes mobiles. The first two were armed with truncheons and “bidules” (clubs the size of pickaxe handles), shields, tear gas grenades… The Gendarmes mobiles used their rifle butts, and sometimes detectives in plain clothes carrying out spying, provocations or helping with arrests as soon as a crime was committed, with everything being coordinated and commanded by one of their superintendents. All the forces of repression were in the habit of cleansing the streets of demonstrators of every kind: workers, students, and, without too much difficulty, democrats protesting against wars (Indochina, Algeria, Vietnam....).
On 3 May at 3.35 a.m., the police superintendent for the fifth arrondissement received a four-line message from the Prefecture of Police which would lead to the first confrontations in the Latin Quarter: “The rector of the Paris Academy, president of the university council, undersigned, requests that the police force reestablishes order inside the Sorbonne by expelling the disruptive elements.” The “requestor” was M. Roche. On that 3 May the forces of repression wanted to clean the Sorbonne of several hundred union and leftist militants who they allowed to leave without opposition. But around the Sorbonne they encountered an unusual level of resistance: half a dozen hours of throwing stones at the cops, a few direct confrontations, petrol bombs thrown in all the neighbourhoods of Latin and St. Germain. This was the start of several weeks of fighting.
This first day already had the characteristics of what would follow. Young people who recognised themselves very little or not at all in the self-proclaimed leaders and existing organisations, whether trade union: UNEF, CAL, SNESup, or political: the leftist groups (Trotskyist, anarchist, Maoist…) had very little influence in the seven weeks of fighting which disturbed the months of May and June. The rebellious youth went on to use what the militants proposed to them or not to create their own political line and their own organisation: journals (Action, for example), structures (action committees, for example). But they got so involved in these means that it prevented the appearance of any real discussion on a political line and discussions and arguments which could have dealt, amongst other things, with the problems of repression and self-defence of the movement. A majority sought cohesion at the expense of clarity. Each committee, each group of young proletarians, and often each member of a committee did whatever they wanted.
Each little group of young people went to the almost daily demonstrations on their own initiative, and the mutual trust and the political ambiance of the moment between the demonstrators were nothing short of miraculous. From the first confrontations onwards the most determined or the most experienced put themselves in the front line, while further back they pulled up paving stones, made projectiles (some came with munitions, Molotov cocktails) and hurled paving stones onto the police charges, cars being turned into barricades. The wounded were numerous and often serious in moments of panic when the demonstrators surged backwards in chaos and when the cops whacked the arms, backs and heads in turn of demonstrators on the ground or when they were isolated, but when the chance came we often managed to push back the pigs and then it was they who had to collect up their injured.
Here are two articles from the first militant journal created by the student unionists (and perhaps a bit more than that) who tried to link together all those who recognised themselves in this nascent movement. To a large extent the movement started out against repression and on this basis obtained popular support, despite the destruction of cars and sundry damage.
The movement against repression has forced all the guardians of order to distance themselves from
it. Students, you are front page news. Look at how they talk about you.
Last Friday several hundred Gardes mobiles braved a handful of students making their traditional racket in the area around the Sorbonne. “These troublemakers have forgotten a little too much that they are, all the same, privileged. The Bastille demonstrators should remember how only the other day they were treated like the sons of Papa”. “I don’t know if there are a lot of sons of Papa [spoilt
bourgeois kids] among them but I would not be surprised.” said Paris Jour . A faculty much spoken about: Nanterre la Folie. Do you know how the students live there? In the middle of shanty towns where the sub-proletariat rots, the bourgeoisie has installed every convenience which its sons are entitled to. “When they are tired the residents of Nanterre can rest in their rather modest (in their opinion) room. You know the sort of room which costs 3500 old francs per night in a hotel: big picture windows, cork notice boards for sticking up whatever you want, a screened-off toilet, hot water, cold water, a power point for an electric razor. On the landing: a shower cabinet. A telephone and a little kitchen with a fridge and cooker, and definitely a lift. As they are intellectuals, women are employed to clean each room every day… Five star comfort”. Paris Jour
But according to the sayings of Doyen Grappin this experiment remains a failure:
“The marriage of a hall of residence and a faculty has turned out to be unfortunate in the light of experience. The campus has become, I won’t say a witch’s cauldron, but a space turned in on itself
where all kinds of rumours are spread.” L’aurore
The “sons of Papa” have misunderstood the problem and they insult the memory of their elders who have made so many sacrifices so that they can live in paradise. “I was a student myself and it seems to me that students today have an easy life. We didn’t – apart from a few privileged ones in the university residences. Most often we lived in rooms without a fire. We did not have those corporate restaurants where today you can have a decent meal for 1.5 F. Your estates would have been paradise for us. So, get on with your work and calm down.” Camille Leduc - Paris Jour
But sometimes making a racket can degenerate into a drama. The troublemakers don’t care. It is not they who pay for the broken windows. The people are profoundly disorientated, but the good French are on watch, they forcefully denounce the provocateurs who take their orders from abroad. “Certain groupuscules” “anarchists, Trotskyists, Maoists.” “in general composed of the sons of big bourgeois and led by the anarchist Cohn Bendit use the pretext of deficiencies of the government to indulge in acts aimed at preventing the normal functioning of the faculty” “vandalising offices, interrupting courses, proposing boycotts of exams, etc.” “l’Humanité”.
Thank you and get lost, Monsieur Roche
Friday 3 May, the University responds to the action of the students of Nanterre with a truncheon. From 10 in the morning, at the Sorbonne, the students of Nanterre respond to the closure of their faculty. The fascist group Occident, celebrated for its assaults, its arson attacks and its commando actions, took the closure of Nanterre as the signal to announce that it would “cleanse” the Latin Quarter to exterminate “the Bolshevik vermin”. To protect the Sorbonne, self-defence groups were
set up at the gates. But the response to the authoritarian measures of the authorities is more important than the battle against fascist groups. What’s more, the authorities hope for such a battle because it will allow them to portray the student actions as “faction fighting between extremists”.
COURTYARD OF THE SORBONNE – 10-12 a.m.
On the initiative of the UNEF, the JCR, the MAU and the FER, the Paris students held a meeting in solidarity with the students of Nanterre which joined those of the “22 March movement”. On the previous day they’d heard that 7 students from the 22 March movement, threatened with exclusion for their political activity, had been called to appear before the disciplinary council of the University of Paris. By hitting the supposed leaders the authorities want to intimidate the students. The morning passed off peacefully.
The meeting took place and a thousand students were there to denounce the university and police repression. At 3 p.m. the group “Occident” came down from Boulevard St-Michel: there were only 100 protesters, flanked by three rows of paras and others nostalgic for Indochina and Algeria, who’d come from the provinces and from Belgium. They wore crash helmets and carried clubs and chanted “Vietcong murderers”, with the emblems of the fascist movement on their arms. They went back up rue des écoles in the direction of rue de la Sorbonne. It was only at this moment that the police intervened: no arrests, they held back the “procession” and channelled it towards Place Maubert. A few fascist remnants criss-crossed the Latin Quarter until the evening, trying to provoke the students.
The police then surrounded the Sorbonne, moving towards the exits: it was 15.30. Inside the students demanded the opening of an amphitheatre, and refused to leave the buildings as the administration demanded. The rector Roche appealed to the police to close the entrance to the faculty: not a single student was allowed back in. The Union des Etudiants Communistes, who
were in the Sorbonne distributing a leaflet denouncing the provocations of extreme left groupuscules when the Occident commando turned up, were booed.
15.30- 16.00, everything is calm. Although on the radio the tone begins to rise: they are already talking about scenes of rioting. They even announced that the student order service was taking down slabs of marble in the courtyard of the Sorbonne (they were simply moving chairs and tables to protect the doors, when the Occident commando were approaching the Sorbonne). 16.00 – second meeting between the students and the administration. Second conclusion: the police are no longer just preventing access to the Sorbonne; they are not allowing anyone to leave. Not being able to meet in an amphitheatre the students organised a sit-in: they discussed the forms of action and the perspectives of the student movement. How to link the action undertaken with the struggles of workers? How to struggle against repression? Seated on the steps, they discussed the latest events at Nanterre and the Sorbonne.
16.45 – The students discuss but for the rector Roche, a discussion must already be the beginning
of a riot. He calls the police. The sit-in is interrupted by the force of events. The deliberate provocation by the rector succeeds: the police burst onto the scene with arms in hand as if they
were coming out of the trenches. There were 300. A bit later, they are followed by intervention brigades in fatigues (judo and karate instructors; special anti-riot forces), and the Gardes mobiles with rifle butts in hand. Some students manage to flee. Faced with such a show of force, the students refuse the provocation. To limit confrontations, a delegation enquires about the intentions of the “representatives of order”: if there is no resistance, they promise to allow people to leave. The student order service forms a cordon between their comrades and the forces of the police to avoid clashes. Despite the promises, the first students are “bagged” on leaving and taken away in police vans. A new provocation. The aim: to find a pretext to break the movement. A moment of hesitation: outside they release the women immediately. Groups of protesters form. “Trouble-makers”, “enragés”, “extremists”? They are not even necessarily the politicised students, some of them having simply been in the library. They respond spontaneously to the police presence in the University and join the ones who are left to protest against the arrest of their comrades. “Stop the repression”, “CRS = SS”, the slogans are found, normally, spontaneously. Throughout the evening there is a chain reaction. Demonstrations are born spontaneously, one causes another. They express the solidarity of the students against police arbitrariness. They put down deep roots in the student milieu.
Everything kicks off in the Place de la Sorbonne when the first cars leave. Police charges to clear
the square, smoke grenades, the not very numerous demonstrators surge towards Boulevard St-
Michel. Immediately, without any order being given, all the order services, all the political and
union leaders are locked up in the Sorbonne until 8 p.m., and then taken away little by little to the
police station where they are put on the files. Other young people, other students gather around the
first little groups. Many have come after the announcements on the radio, conscious of the
importance of the situation. Some go to the Luxembourg gardens, the hottest of the hot spots of the evening (the demonstration went on until 23.00), then to Port Royal. Others went to the St-
Germain crossroads. Dispersed, they reform the demonstration at the St-Jacques crossroads when
they stop the traffic.
The strength of the police is immobility; the strength of the demonstrators is mobility. There was
no direct confrontation between the police and demonstrators. The latter managed to “stick” to
responding with missiles. They pulled up paving stones and the grills from trees; they caught
grenades on the ground and threw them back. They built barricades, retreated in the faces of
charges and sheets of tear gas, dispersed and then reformed. Maybe they would even be charged
twice, but that would be enough. Their slogans: “Free our comrades. Stop the repression. Gaullist
Returning by van, a furious cop has received a projectile in the shoulder blade, “broken by a
demonstrator” at 21-22.00. The intervention brigades scour the Latin Quarter. Every civilian is
suspect. The police truncheon anyone who looks like a student. More than one passer-by, nothing
to do with the demonstration, ends up spending three hours in the police station.
Forty students escaped from a van. How? There were only four policemen in the van, in an
isolated street. They broke the windows and ran away. Since then the “scenes of rioting” have
been the talk of the town. The dominant feature of the day of 3 May was the spontaneity of the
resistance to police repression. It proves that they have not been able to “smash” the movement
with a blow from a club. It reveals the depth of the student crisis. It shows that the agitation is not
a matter of a “handful of enragés”, but that it has found a deep echo in the mass of students. The
day of 3 May was the first moment of a radicalisation of the struggle. The movement has begun to
spread itself in the provinces and to find international support.
As for the demonstrations on Friday, the movement succeeded in regroupment through dispersal,
each time increasing the number of active militants. The students have gone on to a higher stage of
Articles taken from the journal “Action N°1” of the action committees set up by the UNEF, the 22
March Movement (Nanterre), and the secondary school action committees (CAL).
Here is an assessment made at 22.00 on Friday 3 May: “During the evening the SNESup had a
meeting on rue Monsieur-le-Prince, which for several weeks has been the headquarters of the
revolt. The General Secretary of the SNESup, Alain Geismar (29 years old, senior lecturer at the
physics laboratory on rue d’Ulm) put forward the slogan of a general strike in higher education
without having had the time to consult the national office. After five hours of confrontation the
area was calm again. Balance sheet: 83 police injured, and 574 arrests, of whom 179 were minors,
45 were women and 58 were foreigners. The Renseignements généraux [political security police]
have carefully kept until today the 574 files on those arrested on 3 May. After the retreat, reading
them will be interesting, because there you can find, still almost anonymous, some people who
have made their mark, including future ministers of the left... or the right. Certainly the leaders are
on board: Alain Krivine, Trotskyist leader of the Jeunesse communiste révolutionnaire, Jacques
Sauvageot, number one in the UNEF, the formidable Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Henri Weber (today
a PS senator); but you can also find Brice Lalonde (filed as president of the Fédération des
groupes d’études de lettres) and José Rossi, future UDF minister of Édouard Balladur, presented
as a “member of the executive bureau of the Association nationale des jeunes du Centre
démocrate” and the sons of the left Gaullist writer David Rousset, that de Gaulle had met a week
earlier, telling him: “We have to condemn capitalism, capitalist society. We have to expressly
condemn it. We have to condemn totalitarian communism. We must find a new way,
participation ”. Some future journalists or writers have done their share: Guy Hocquenghem,
Bernard Guetta (presently publishing director of Nouvel Observateur, “already seized by the
police in 1964 during confrontations with the partisans of Tixier-Vignancour ”) or Hervé
Chabalier (boss of the Capa agency). May 68 has begun.”
Monday 6 May
“Gathering on Boulevard St Germain, the protesters head for Place Maubert. At 15.00 the first violent clashes at the St Germain crossroads. At 16.00 and for two hours, 1500 protesters prevented police operations.” For an hour or two we prevented the cops from advancing across the whole width of Boulevard St. Germain. We stopped the cops from advancing and made them retreat but then they came back with two water-cannons which sprayed the demonstrators (a protester climbed up on one and stopped the jet from working!). Paving stones also flew and as on all demonstration nights to come, once the front of the demonstration was broken up by the cops there would be hours of confrontation with little groups of 10 to 100 demonstrators who could blend into the night.
The tenth correctional chamber judged 13 arrested young people: four were condemned to two months in prison for violence against police officers – eight others got suspended sentences.
The night of 10-11 May (so-called night of the barricades).
The demonstration set out from Denfert-Rochereau and was called by UNEF and SNESup. It passed in front of La Santé prison guarded by the police and showed its sympathy between the prisoners and demonstrators. The demo had to go to the Palais de Justice and the radio station (ORTF). The bridges on the Seine were barred by strong squads of police, and the demonstration established itself on the Boulevard St. Michel from the Seine to Luxembourg. Discussions flowed easily amongst little groups on the boulevard, in cafés and in neighbouring streets, while others began to pull up paving stones, a public works vehicle set out towards Luxembourg station. They constructed more and more barricades, apparently without order or organisation. The Molotov cocktails arrived, and the face-off lasted until 2 a.m. when discussions took place between university officials and Geismard (SNESup), Cohn-Bendit (22 March Movement, Nanterre), Sauvageot (UNEF), an appeal for calm didn’t shift the enragés who were still very numerous (some thousands) behind the barricades. The order to clear the area was given at 2 a.m. With much noise (percussion grenades, tear gas grenades against Molotov cocktails, burning cars), the police assaults carried on until 5.30. The last demonstrators pushed them back with Molotov cocktails, with the police hot on their heels, and fled into the teacher training college on rue d’Ulm and, with a ladder, into the monks’ place next door. The state and its cops remain masters of the area. - M. Maurice GRIMAUD, the Prefect of Police, provided the balance sheet for the riots on Saturday morning: 367 injured from an inventory of the hospitals, of which 251 were from the forces of order and 102 were students. Of the 367, 54 were hospitalised of whom 4 students and 18 policemen were in a very serious condition. 460 people were seized by the police, 61 were foreigners - 63 were handed over to the courts - 26 students - 3 secondary school students, the rest were 34 individuals who were not students.
The material damage was important: 60 cars burned, 128 other severely damaged. It is little remarked in the official accounts that more or less half of those seized were neither students nor from secondary schools, worker youth were very much attracted by this radical struggle by violent means.
This game of demonstrations - repression led to one of the biggest demonstrations of the century but did not allow the creation of a workers’ political movement autonomous of the workers’ unions and the PCF. The latter prepared to take the movement into their hands with the complicity of the leftists who in one way or another dreamed of reviving the unions and the PCF rather than helping the working class to organise itself.
What remains of May 1968?
On the level of workers’ conditions, there was an increase of at least 10% in wages, which was taken back by inflation in two or three years, and a very significant increase in the SMIG (minimum wage) of 35%. But we should realise that the SMIG was very little practiced in industry and that it was very much below real wages.
By contrast, it was important in many small companies, particularly for agricultural workers. For the immediate situation, after 68, that was about it. We cannot say that union recognition and union rights in the workplace (law of 28 December 68) and the facilities given to the unions were gains for the working class. During the strike in May 68, the workers were not opposed to this demand but it was a demand of the union apparatuses, not of the workers.
This translated itself into a better integration of the unions into the state with the union delegates nominated by the apparatus, more and more for the functioning of their apparatus etc.… And if this allowed in a number of small companies, and this is not a negligible thing, the formation of union sections which had not existed before, this was part of the general evolution of the unions towards a more thorough integration into the state, which doesn’t amount to anything very positive for the working class.
On the other hand, in the years following ‘68, everywhere, there was an important reduction in working time, not only because of the strike, but because it was happening anyway. Renault worked 48 hours before ‘68; a place like Alsthom St-Ouen worked 47.5 hours and that was the regime pretty much everywhere in the factories. That’s without counting overtime on Saturday which meant a working week of 55-56 hours. Within the following four or five years, the time had fallen to around 40 hours “actually worked”. The bosses never having swallowed the idea that legally the eating time spent by workers in shifts was counted as working time, the real hours most often fell to around 42. We mustn’t forget that it was in the years after 68 that shift work largely developed. The real gain of 1968 for our class was elsewhere. This was the birth, everywhere, in all the factories, of a minority of workers who had more or less broken with the union apparatus. There, something changed and in the ten years which followed, we can talk about the important strikes of the 1970s which escaped, in whole or in part from the apparatus of the PCF/CGT, and there were some big strikes in those years.
From 1968 to ….1971
The paradox of May-June 68 is that it broke out as a movement showing fewer signs of autonomy than those in the years following: the wave of strikes in spring 1971 (whose most shining example is the struggle of the unskilled workers at Renault Le Mans), 1972 Girosteel, Penarroya, Le joint Français, Alsthom, Chausson etc., up until 1974 with the strike of the PTT and that of the banks. Scarcely three years after May-June 1968, there was a wave of strikes in spring which was perhaps an expression of the workers’ autonomy that May 68 had not seen (or very little). At the end of May ‘71, there were dozens of factories on strike across the country, with declared hostility to the CGT/PCF apparatus everywhere. It was not a question this time of overlap by generalisation. The press and the TV had observed a complete black-out about the strikes; the TV had been purged in 1968 and the newspapers which had been accused of giving too much space to the outbreak of the strike in ’6816 said nothing about it. Everywhere, you could find minorities of proletarians who had revealed themselves in 1968, minorities certainly, but decisive in 1971.
The journal Lutte Ouvrière [“workers’ struggle”] (which succeeded the dissolved group Workers’ Voice), wrote in one of its editorials in spring 1971 that a workers’ avant-garde was in the process of appearing in the factories which allowed great hope. It was true.
The real gain of May-June 1968 for the workers can be found here. Subsequently, these minorities of workers which had been able to constitute the framework of real workers’ revolutionary committees were lost to all organisation or to trade unionism. Certainly this was true in the CFDT, which seemed more leftist than the CGT in ‘68, and even in the CGT, which after ’68 had done an about-turn and no longer excluded those that it considered to be leftists, but, on the contrary, offered them posts in which they were swallowed up in believing that they could succeed in changing the counter-revolutionary nature of trade unionism by becoming those who exercise responsibility. It was they who became trade unionists, and not the unions which changed their nature. A good number went to the LCR or LO and the Maoists, and the biggest part went nowhere.
- 1According to Seidman, scarcely 10% of enterprises on strike had contact with “leftists”, or more exactly with militants outside the PCF.
- 2At Fontenay-aux-roses, where the Triton reactor was kept running to provide radio-isotopes to the hospitals.
- 3At Péchiney, in Noguères, to avoid damaging the aluminium smelters.
- 4At the petrol refinery at Grand-Couronne, near Rouen, petrol was distributed by the strike committee which decided its own priorities.
- 5Taken from Delale and Ragache, pp 94
- 6 A CGC self-proclaimed by the federations and not made up of militants sent from the occupied factories
- 7See the book by Jacques Baynac “May retrouvé”, Robert Laffont, 1978
- 8Literally “The Old Mole” - a communist bookshop in the Latin Quarter. The activists based around the bookshop had been expelled from Pouvoir ouvrier (Workers’ Power) in 1967. Pouvoir ouvrier had been the “marxist” wing of Socialisme ou Barbarie, who had split in 1962. The “vieille Taupe” group studied marx and tried to make a balance between Bordigism and Councilism.
- 9“Groupe de Liaison pour l'Action des Travailleurs” (“Liaison Group for Workers’ Action”) founded in 1959. It was a “workerist” group close to Socialisme et barbarie and Pouvoir Ouvrier. It dissolved in 1976.
- 10See the account of F. Perlman, an American militant present in Paris in May 1968, and someone who intervened at Citroën, in F. Perlman & R. Grégoire. “Worker-student action committees. France May ‘68”, Black & Red, February 1969, starting on page 23.
- 11Apart from Citroën, the CATE tried to organise Italian, Portuguese and Moroccan immigrants and developed work towards the shanty towns of the Paris region (Nanterre, Champigny). Elsewhere, contacts were established with the Lega Studenti-Operai in Turin.
- 12According to Baynac, pp223, the strikers were organised into 39 base committees (one per building). They elected a central strike committee of 156 members revocable at any time. While participating, the CGT maintained an Executive Committee authorised to talk to the management.
- 13Baynac honestly recognises, pp 225, that the 30 May followed the Gaullist counter-offensive and the victory of 28 May showed itself to be ephemeral.
- 14 Nord Aviation Châtillon, CSF and CET Malakoff, Otis Levallois, RATP Paris XIII, PTT Paris, Rhône-Poulenc Vitry, Sud Aviation Suresnes, Hachette Paris, Schlumberger Clamart, Thomson Houston Bagneux, BNP Paris office, Inter Bâtiment Paris.
- 15The Inter-enterprise Committee continued to meet up until summer 1969 and dissolved itself by refusing, amongst other things, to transform itself into a political organisation.
- 16For example, on 20 May 1968, France Soir put out four successive editions closely following the evolution of the generalisation of the strike with the following titles: “Strike in the metalworking industry”, “the strikes spread”, “two million on strike” and “France on strike”.