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France, May 1968: week three
May 1968: Revolutionary explosion as two thirds of workforce join strike
After the official general strike on 13 May, some workers stayed out - and more and more joined them (Click to enlarge)
On Saturday 18 May 1968, General Charles de Gaulle, president of France, was forced to cut short his state visit to Bucharest. He had wanted to provide a meal for the Romanian heads of state in the French embassy. But the food was never delivered - the French airline workers were on strike.
When he tried to make a phone call, he was told the operator was on strike too. He protested - "but it is for General de Gaulle!" And he received the reply - "and what difference does that make to me? I am on strike for the whole world!"
When de Gaulle returned to France, he was no longer in control. Since the 'official' general strike on Monday 13 May, workers had continued to take action. Not only that, they were taking control of their workplaces and setting up committees to make decisions on running French society.
Examples include prices in shops being determined by elected workers' and peasants' committees. In fact, shops could only trade if they had signs in their window signed by the different trade union federations that said: "This shop is authorised to open. Its prices are under permanent supervision by the unions."
Reactionary 'Committees for the Defence of the Republic' had formed. But a fascist demonstration opposing the general strike was joined by a mere 2,000 people. In contrast, by Sunday 19 May, two million were on strike - including all public transport, the metal industry, all nationalised industry, and even the banks.
Picket lines were placed on petrol stations to ensure petrol only went to those who needed it, such as doctors. Striking footballers occupied their headquarters and demanded sport be run by and for the players and fans: "football for the footballers." News and radio outlets were controlled by the workers.
It was the Sud Aviation metalworkers in Nantes who had been the first to continue striking after the official action ended. They locked their bosses in their offices and played the Internationale, the world revolutionary socialist anthem, over the speakers.
The strike spread quickly to all kinds of workers across the country - even actors and weather forecasters went on strike!
Winning over the middle layers of society to the side of the working class is an important feature of a successful revolutionary movement. So is the willingness of the working class to fight to the end, increasingly apparent in May 1968.
On Monday 20 May, six million workers were out. All the ports and mines, the department stores, and the car manufacturers. The next day it was eight million, including nuclear power plants - more than half of all workers.
By Friday 24 May, two-thirds of the workforce were on strike: ten million workers. Joined by the mass protests of the students, it was truly a general strike and a revolutionary situation.
In reality, dual power existed. The official government structures were floating in mid-air with most decisions made by workers' and peasants' action committees. De Gaulle fled the country. When he tried to give a speech to the nation, it wasn't aired by the worker-controlled television station.
Throughout the country, discussion and debate had exploded among workers and young people. Factories began to declare they were "on strike indefinitely." Thousands of leaflets and posters were produced daily as ordinary people constantly discussed political ideas.
Despite this incredibly powerful position of the working class of France, the leadership of the trade unions and the Communist Party of France were trying to hold the movement back and limit its demands rather than risk a revolution which could threaten not just capitalism but the Stalinist dictatorships in the East.
Workers had been increasingly involved in strike action in the run-up to May 1968. Wages had not kept up with inflation that totalled 45% over ten years.
Unemployment had grown, while those with a job were working on average 45 hours a week. Production lines in factories had been policed by employers' armed guards.
So when the general strike began, it quickly grew as workers in every industry saw it as an opportunity to protest their conditions.
The demands of the movement went beyond this as the general strike took on a different character to normal strikes. As they occupied the factories with red flags hoisted above them, the workers' slogans became "the factories to the workers" and "power to the working class."
Workers began to plan production for their needs. For example, in the CSF electronics factory in Brest they produced walkie-talkies to help organise the strikes. Printers either changed hostile headlines or refused to print newspapers attacking the strike.
Despite the obvious reality, the Communist Party and the leaders of the CGT union federation argued that any attempt to go beyond immediate economic demands was "adventurism."
In fact, they would shortly begin negotiations with a government that had no power and could have been swept aside. By doing so, they actually strengthened the position of de Gaulle and legitimised his regime.
The Trotskyist left had only small forces, such as the Internationalist Communist Party (PCI, French section of the Fourth International), which was calling for unity between Trotskyist parties. The PCI demanded rejection of de Gaulle's proposed referendum on limited reforms to defuse the movement, and any negotiation with the all-but-defeated government and employers.
Instead they put forward demands for linking up the various workers', students' and peasants' committees, and the formation of a workers' government. However, the PCI hadn't built a base among the working class and wasn't able to influence the decisions made by the action committees in the factories.
If, like the Bolshevik Party had done in the run-up to 1917, the Trotskyists in France had consistently built in the factories, then with the correct political programme they could have won the leadership of a working class already on the road to revolutionary change.
Without this leadership, the Communist Party and the CGT were preparing to betray the movement.
- Read more in the next issue of the Socialist: May 1968, week four - union and 'Communist' leaders hand power back to defeated bosses
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