50th anniversary: May 68

With major strike action by railworkers, and occupations, sit-ins and demonstrations at universities taking place in France in response to ‘reform’ of public universities and the public railway company SNCF (see below), comparisons are being drawn to May 1968, one of the largest uprisings in French history, which marks its 50th anniversary this year. Drastically different political conditions make these comparisons superficial. Seamus Padraic revisits the events of May 68.

1968 was a tumultuous year. In the US, the murder of Martin Luther King sparked uprisings, and thousands flocked to join the Black Panther Party and other Black Power organisations. The Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, launched by the People’s Liberation Army and co-ordinated with uprisings in cities and enemy bases, represented a turning point in the Vietnam War. In Britain, the Vietnam Solidarity Cam­paign’s second demonstration in Octo­ber culminated in a full-scale battle with mounted police outside the US embassy. In the north of Ireland a civil rights movement, modelling itself on the US movement, was born.

In France, Algeria loomed large over politics. President Charles De Gaulle had come to power in 1958 in response to a coup attempt which sought to ensure that France retained its colonial possession of Algeria. Despite brutal violence on the part of the French state, the revolutionary struggle in Algeria led to the 1962 Evian Agreements, granting independence. In response, the Armed Secret Organisation (OAS), made up of ex-soldiers and police, launched a campaign of bombings and attempted assassinations.  The Algerian War polarised French society. Partisans of French Algeria joined right-wing paramilitary organisations, or the police. Those who sided with the anti-imperialist struggles were pushed towards revolutionary politics. 

Throughout the 1960s many leftist students sided openly with the Algerian struggle while the opportunist left, such as the French Communist Party (PCF), attempted to distance themselves from it. Weldeck Rochet, PCF secretary-general in 1968, had addressed the National Assembly in 1956, advocating ‘negotiation’ with the liberation forces as ‘the only path allowing us to save the French presence in Algeria and North Africa.’ After police murdered 200 Algerians in Paris on 17 October 1961, the only groups to protest were the Comité du Front Universitaire Anti­fasciste and Comité Anti­colonial­iste – two student groups that had come into existence the previous autumn in attempts to rid the Latin Quarter (university district) of OAS commandos.

Bourgeois commemorations have attempted to erase this anti-imperialist heritage and present the student movement as bohemian and libertine. However, the Movement of 22 March (M22M), which organised the initial student occupation, was formed in response to arrests at a protest against the Vietnam War, and its name was inspired by Cuba’s 26 July Movement. A popular workers’ slogan was ‘Viet­nam is in our factories.’ Factory occupations throughout the 1960s, some involving pitched battles with police, are also erased from the history of May. May 68 was not an apolitical libertine revolt and nor was it a freak event.

‘May 68’ itself began on 22 March, when 142 students of the M22M occupied the administration building at Nanterre University. The university was closed for a month, and a new occupation sprang up at the Sorbonne on 3 May. The University Rector called police into the Sorbonne, a symbolic move – even the Nazi occupation had not entered the historic university. By 10 May, the ‘night of the barricades’, when police met resistance as they attempted to violently suppress the students, the key demand was the removal of police. Around 100 people were injured and hundreds more arrested.

Many workers were outraged by the police attacks. The following morning saw the first joint student-worker march. The first mass strikes began on 13 May. By the following day, the general strike had begun. 10 million of France’s 15 million-strong workforce went on strike, bringing the country to a standstill for six weeks. According to the French Labour Ministry, 150 million working days were lost to strikes in 1968. Dozens of factories, including the country’s largest, were occupied and red flags raised over the gates.

Fearing the ‘convergence des luttes’ (coming together of struggles), Prime Minister Georges Pompidou reopened the Sorbonne. In his words, he ‘wanted to treat the problem of the youth separately.’ For the next six weeks, police blocked students from entering factories, and workers from attending student demonstrations. In his desire to separate the workers and the students, Pompidou was joined by the PCF.

On 3 May, L’Humanité, the PCF newspaper, carried a front-page article denouncing the ‘fake revolutionaries’ of the M22M. The party secretariat instructed its members to ensure students not be allowed to approach workers should they march to the factories. The PCF was concerned to retain control of the workers’ participation, sensing that sympathy for the students was growing. On 7 May, L’Humanité finally referred to ‘the legitimacy of the student movement’. This ‘legitimacy’ was recognised only in words. During the strike, the CGT, France’s largest and most militant union federation, which is dominated by the PCF, posted guards at factory gates to prevent students from entering. The PCF’s contempt for the ‘fake revolutionaries’ would continue. The day after Minister of the Interior Christian Fouchet called May’s participants ‘la pègre’ (riff-raff), L’Humanité adopted the same description.

The CGT swiftly negotiated the ‘Grenelle Accord’ with the government. It included a 35% rise in the minimum wage and a 10% rise in all salaries, with wage differences remaining in place. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader in M22M, called it ‘the biggest theft of the century’ recognising it as a manoeuvre to protect the threatened power of the CGT and the government. On 27 May, Georges Seguy, CGT General Secretary, was booed by Bil­lan­court workers when he announced the agreement. Grenelle was voted down three times, but CGT organisers went round factories telling workers that the other factories had gone back to work. The PCF recognised and feared what history has attempted to erase from May 68: that a movement, born of struggles against state violence and against imperialism, was forming outside the structures of the opportunist left, and was attracting rank-and-file support among some of the worst-paid workers in Europe.

Though many commentators have attempted to downplay the revolutionary sentiment that existed, the forces of order were not so naïve at the time. On 29 May, De Gaulle fled Paris in secret to the French army base in Baden-Baden, Germany, anxious to ensure the loyalty of the 70,000 troops stationed there. This meant turning to the general at Baden-Baden, Jacques Massu; a partisan of French Algeria intimately connected to the generals who had launched the 1958 coup.

Hundreds of thousands marched in Paris chanting ‘Adieu, De Gaulle!’ Many believed that he would not return. The next day, however, following the advice of Pompidou, De Gaulle dissolved parliament and called new elections in order to divert the struggle against the state into a fruitless electoral arena. He also issued a callout to form ‘Committees for the Defence of the Republic.’ Over 300,000 pro-‘order’ supporters march­ed through Paris chanting ‘France to the French – the workers to work – Cohn-Bendit to Dachau!’ (Cohn-Bendit is Jewish). Included in this carnival of reaction were partisans of French Algeria and Pétainists who had collaborated with the Nazis under the Vichy occupation regime.

The June elections were a Gaullist landslide and were celebrated by the release from prison of the far-right generals who had championed French Algeria. Workers began to return to the factories. Police cleared the Sor­bonne on 16 June. Plans were drawn up to intern leftists in stadiums and a number of leftist organisations were banned. May 68 did not lead to revolution because no force existed cap­able of struggling for state power. The PCF and the CGT isolated the revolutionary tendencies from the mass of the workers, and the labour aristocracy they represented were content with wage increases and new elections. But May 68 brought two-thirds of the workforce out on general strike, brought down a government and had the French state and the forces of reaction running scared. Despite all of the mystifications, scorn and lies that are poured on May 68, its significance for communists is clear: it is the closest that a major imperialist country has come to revolution in the post-war period. Its failings, and also its strengths, have a lot to teach us.

See also:

May 1968’, FRFI 78, May/June 1988

May ’68 and its afterlives, Kristin Ross

2018 Workers and students resist Macron’s ‘reforms’

One full year into his presidency, Emmanuel Macron’s assault on the working class continues. Next in his sights for ‘reform’ are France’s public universities and the public railway company, SNCF. Resistance is taking place in the form of major strike action by SNCF workers, and occupations, sit-ins and demonstrations at universities.

Students across France have blockaded exams, occupied buildings, and in some cases shut down universities entirely in response to a new law introduced in February bringing academic selection into some universities. On 26 March, an occupation began at the Tolbiac campus of University of Paris 1 (Sorbonne). Around 30 universities joined the wave of activity. On 3 May, the École Normale Supérieure, France’s most prestigious university, was shut down by a sit-in. At the height of the protests, four universities were totally blockaded: Toulouse Jean-Jaurès, Rennes-II, Nanterre and Paris-VIII. As of 25 May, only Nanterre remains occupied. The occupations were violently broken up and evicted by the infamous CRS riot police.

Meanwhile, strikes have been gripping France’s public railway company, SNCF, in response to government ‘reform’ plans. Strikes cover two of every five days and began on 3 April. The company is struggling with growing debts, currently standing at €46.6bn (£41bn). The government proposes to turn SNCF into a joint-stock company whose shares would be held by the state, to gradually take over its debts from 2020, and to eliminate staff benefits. The CGT sees this as the first step towards privatisation - France’s rail market is set to open up to competition in 2020. The CGT wants the state to absorb the debts in full and opposes the attack on employees’ benefits.

In keeping with a new tradition established by Macron’s government, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced in February that the changes would be pushed through by executive decree if necessary.

On the first day of the strike actions, 3 April, 33.9% of the workforce was on strike. Involvement gradually tapered off, until on 9 May just 14.5% were involved. The CGT called for a ‘day without trains’ for 14 May, increasing numbers on strike to 27.58%. In Marseille, students joined SNCF workers and blocked train depots and SNCF offices. There were over 50 acts of sabotage of rail equipment and the CGT launched its ‘vote-action’ consultation of the 147,000 SNCF staff. Union leaders also met with Philippe. The rolling strikes are scheduled to continue until 28 June.

Comparisons of the current wave of resistance and May 68 (see above) are superficial. The CGT and PCF have been deliberately making this connection in their promotion of ‘la convergence des luttes.’ In a 9 April Yougov poll, 52% responded that they would want to see a return to the events of May 68. So far this has amounted to little in practice.

1968 was part of the ‘Trente Glorieuses’ (30 glorious years) of French economic boom after 1945. Low wages, high productivity, a high-tech manufacturing sector, and readily available imperialist superprofits gave the state room for manoeuvre. The Grenelle Accord, which got the unions back to work with significant wage rises, would not be possible in today’s crisis conditions. Despite the state’s sustained attempts to shift the burden of the crisis onto the working class, economic growth remains poor. The struggle by workers and students to defend the gains made by the working class in the post-war period must be wholeheartedly supported. But the Trente Glorieuses, were only a temporary respite for the working class. Today, the struggle for universal higher education, for decent public transport, or any other working class demand, means a struggle against an economic system based on exploitation and its replacement with socialism.      

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 264 June/July 2018


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