General Strike: France
Significant protests by students and workers on an international scale marked 1968. In France these protests took on an exceptional character. Involving at their height between 7 and 10 million strikers and 150 million working days lost, the May-June strikes were the largest ever recorded.
In addition to these figures, 1968 also had the social, cultural and political impact of an earthquake. Bruno Groppo remarked, "For any French person, 1968 immediately evokes the May events: so close a linguistic association of the year and the month that one automatically and instinctively says 'May 1968'." As a result this movement occupies so important a place in the French collective memory that it has ended up by obscuring the other events of this critical year.
Familiarity does not always imply clarity, and it is difficult with hindsight to retrace the coherence of the events. Their singularity lies in the conjunction of two major crises on behalf of students and workers that did not merge. At the end of nearly two months of often violent demonstrations, these events led to an overwhelming victory by the Right in parliamentary elections. Whether the revolution was unattainable, betrayed, or failed is often debated. The French May 1968 has been the subject of many interpretations and is still analyzed more as a societal phenomenon than as a classic labor conflict.
- 1948: Israel becomes a nation and is immediately attacked by a coalition of Arab countries.
- 1953: Korean War, a conflict with no clear victors, ends with an armistice establishing an uneasy peace between South Korea and North Korea.
- 1958: China's Mao Zedong proclaims the Great Leap Forward, a program of enforced rapid industrialization that will end a year later, a miserable failure.
- 1963: U.S. Supreme Court rules that no municipal, county, or state government may require recitation of the Lord's Prayer or of Bible verses in public schools.
- 1968: Communist victories in the Tet offensive mark the turning point in the Vietnam War and influence a growing lack of confidence in the war, not only among America's youth, but within the establishment as well.
- 1968: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is assassinated on 4 April, and Robert Kennedy on 5 June.
- 1968: Violence erupts at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
- 1968: After Czechoslovakia adopts a more democratic, popular regime, Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces invade to crush the uprising.
- 1973: Signing of peace accords in Paris in January ends the Vietnam War.
- 1978: U.S. Senate approves a measure presented by President Carter the year before, to turn the Panama Canal over to Panama by 2000.
- 1983: Sally Ride becomes the first female U.S. astronaut (the Soviets were ahead by two decades, with Valentina Tereshkova) when she goes into space aboard the shuttle Challenger.
Event and Its Context
A sudden and uncontrollable explosion, the May movement had its origins in the processes of accelerated economic and social modernization that affected the industrialized world in the aftermath of World War II. An exceptional level of growth culminated from the increase in working hours, an intensification of work, and the widespread existence of low pay. Throughout the 1960s this situation heightened social tensions. Several important strikes occurred, in particular a huge miners' strike in 1963.
The year 1968 continued the ambient agitation of the times and opened with a wave of disputes involving engineering workers. The level of the protests pressured the government for the first time in 15 years to grant a legal permit to the traditional 1 May march.
Despite being strongly mobilized on the eve of the "May events," the working class, however, only played a secondary role in triggering them. For the first time in history, students moved to the front rank of the social struggle. Considerably transformed by the early beginnings of mass access to secondary and higher education, swollen by the demographic boom, influenced by changing values and the development of a mass consumption society, they started to levy totally unexpected demands.
Students Trigger a General Strike
The May events began at the University of Nanterre. Built in 1964 on an army training ground surrounded by shanty towns, it housed no less than 11,000 students. From 1967 the university was the source of a growing series of conflicts over such issues as sexual freedoms and victimizations of certain students in the exams.
Confronted by a wave of protest demonstrations that had been fueled by the 22 March Movement—a united front with anarchist leadership that began at Nanterre on 22 March 1968 following a demonstration against the arrest of a student suspected of involvement in terrorism—the university dean decided on 2 May to suspend all classes.
The following day the students responded by organizing a meeting in the Sorbonne courtyard in central Paris. The police intervened, at first peacefully, but the situation deteriorated and by the end of the day violent confrontations occurred between some 2,000 students and about 1,500 police. For the first time in the history of the university, the police had orders to enter the Sorbonne and to evacuate it using force. The confrontation left 72 students wounded, 600 detained for questioning, and 13 arrested. The rector of Paris University then decided, three weeks before the exams, to close the Sorbonne and Censier buildings.
From this point, student and lecturer demonstrations multiplied in Paris and elsewhere in France, each time being suppressed by the police. United in response to the immediate events, the student movement was nonetheless deeply divided. Two main tendencies appeared. Some believed it was hopeless to try to change the university system and called on students to rejoin the working class to help rekindle its "revolutionary flame." Others struggled for a democratic reform of the educational system that would bring it closer to real life and modernize teaching methods.
On 10 May the Paris police erected barricades. At the end of a night of street battles with the forces of law and order, there were 367 wounded and over 5,000 arrests. The shock provoked in public opinion by that night's police brutality prompted the workers' trade union confederations, which until then had been bystanders, to act. The next day the Confédération générale du travail (CGT), the CFDT, and the teachers' union (FEN) called for a 24-hour general strike. The Force Ouvrière (FO) union joined the call shortly afterwards. On 13 May marches took place all over France to inspire action for a variety of causes, including amnesty for sentenced demonstrators, trade union and political freedoms, democratic reform of education for workers, full employment, and transformation of the economic system "by and for the people." The Paris demonstration brought together 800,000 behind a banner urging solidarity between students, teachers, and workers. The Sorbonne reopened its doors the same day, but it was too late. The student movement continued with a new intensity, and the workers' strike movement took off.
Workers Take Up the Baton
By mid-May the CGT and the CFDT were already involved in their own struggles. Several regional actions for jobs, against cuts in purchasing power, and over Social Security took place in the West on 8 May, in the Loire on the 10th, and in the North-Calais and Moselle on the 11th. Some demonstrations had brought together, according to the local press, "crowds not seen since the Liberation."
On 14 May the Nantes Sud-Aviation workers occupied their factory. They were followed on the 15th by workers at Renault Cléon, then by the Kléber-Colombes workers at Elbeuf, by the Roclaine workers at Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, and at the Odéon Theatre in Paris. The movement continued to spread over the following days. Authorities counted two million strikers on 18 May and six million on 10 May. In turn, teachers and civil servants stopped work on 21 May. From this date all public services with the exception of the emergency services were paralyzed.
Despite tensions and divisions, the common platform that had been agreed between the CGT and CFDT on 10 January 1966 held up. It had five points: improving purchasing power and living and working conditions; the defense and extension of trade union rights at firm level; cuts in unproductive expenditure in favor of more public investment in housing, education, and health; guarantees for the right to work through introducing new industries; and fiscal reform. The protesters, however, failed to establish a national strike committee. Each confederation, for its own reasons, emphasized the "self-direction" of the movement. In practice, the strike revealed an extreme diversity both between sectors and between one firm and another. In this context, the negotiations proposed by the government received a mixed reception with some factions viewing them as a necessity and others as a betrayal.
The Grenelle Negotiations
Although matters were following the same pattern as the 1936 Matignon agreements (agreements between the government, employers unions, and labor unions that outlined numerous workers' rights), the government nonetheless carefully avoided using the same symbols. It was therefore in the offices of the Ministry of Social Issues, based in the Rue de Grenelle, and not at the prime minister's Matignon offices, that the negotiations began at 3 P.M. on 25 May. On the agenda were wages, working hours, pensions, jobs, and trade union rights.
The parties reached agreement rapidly on raising the hourly national minimum wage to three francs. The discussions on wages proved more difficult: the government refused to consider adopting a sliding scale. On 27 May, at the end of a second night of negotiations, the participants agreed to a statement without signatures. The statement included several important points: a 35 percent increase in the national minimum wage (known as the SMIG), abolition of the lower SMIG rates outside of Paris, increases in the lowest wages, an increase of 56 percent to bring the agricultural minimum wage in line with the SMIG, commitment to a process of reducing real working hours, recognition of firm-based trade union organization, and 50 percent compensation or repayment in full for days on strike. On the other hand, the government rejected a discussion of the abolition of the 21 August 1967 Social Security decrees. These involved suppressing the joint management elections, an increase in deductions, and cuts in benefits of three billion francs.
The Grenelle text went to the strikers later on 27 May and provoked a very strong reaction. Over the following days the strike continued at its highest level. There was no more public transport, no more petrol, the streets of Paris were empty, and workers either occupied their factories or stayed at home.
Several signs revealed that government power was virtually falling apart. Several new strategies broached on the political arena. The noncommunist left mobilized around Pierre Mendès-France, more or less openly supported by the CFDT and FO, and around François Mitterrand. On 28 May, Mitter-rand called for the creation of a provisional government. At the end of the day several tens of thousands of people met at the Charléty stadium for a meeting that had considerable political repercussions.
The Situation Turns
The Ministerial Council meeting scheduled for 10 A.M. on 19 May was canceled at the last minute. The French president, General Charles De Gaulle, had just secretly left Paris for Baden-Baden, Germany, where he met General Massu to seek the support of the army. Judging that there was no one in power, the CFDT invited Pierre Mendès-France to take over the government.
The next day, however, De Gaulle returned to give a speech that reversed the course of events. He announced his decision to remain as head of state. He noted that the prime minister would also stay in office and then dissolved the National Assembly. More than one million Gaullists demonstrated that evening in Paris and elsewhere in France with slogans such as "communism will not pass," "drain the Sorbonne," and "Mitterrand, it's failed."
During the night the oil companies resupplied the stations. Tens of thousands of Parisians left the capital for the Whitson holiday. Adapting to the new climate, the unions focused on factional and company negotiations to try and obtain the best possible agreements. Only the national student union, UNEF, called for demonstrations against the "election-treachery," but it met with little success.
The decline of the strike movement continued slowly until 17 June, when work resumed at Renault. Factional negotiations produced agreements in a majority of trade sectors that were better than the terms that had been decided at Grenelle, particularly relative to wages. In higher education the Edgar Faure reform introduced autonomy for the universities and some joint management.
The election campaign that opened on 10 June gradually eclipsed the industrial struggle. The elections of 23 and 30 June 1968 confirmed the victory of the Right and gave the Gaullist UDR political party 50 seats more than an absolute majority in the National Assembly. Although according to many observers this showed the electorate's rejection of the May excesses, it nonetheless was not a landslide: the change in voters' preferences were well below those that later occurred in June 1981, when the Left finally took power.
The May-June 1968 events have been the object of many analyses in an abundant literature. Beyond issues of historical detail, the controversies have centered on the nature and significance of the movement. A range of views exists between those who affirm its incidental and superficial character and those who proclaim its depth and its necessity. Other differences concern how far it can be seen as having national or international origins. Some analyses name it a "French problem," whereas others situate the national case within a world crisis of civilization or of capitalism.
French sociologists have played a particularly important role in this debate, from the very beginning proposing analytical frameworks that have been used continually since. Sociologist Raymond Aron treated the events as a psychodrama, as a great letting off of steam, or as a frenzy. If he recognized the existence of common problems in the developed industrial societies and among student youth, he believed that the crisis owed its particular intensity in France to a specific situation. In particular structural factors, such as the weakness of the mediating institutions, the maintenance of a revolutionary tradition based on the myth of the general strike, and—in the university world—the distance that traditionally existed between the teachers and the taught, contributed to the vehemence of the day. On a more basic level, worker discontent arose from wage restraint and rising employment.
In the view of Michel Crozier, the 1968 events were essentially a cultural crisis. Commensurate with the bureaucratic rigidities and centralism of French culture, the strikes and demonstrations reflected a deeply repressed rejection of change. Nonetheless, in mimicking the achievement of a total revolution, the May actors could have exorcized definitively the revolutionary myth and opened the way to a different method of conducting change.
Alain Touraine, for his part, saw the strikes as a reaction to the contradiction that opposes changing current technical and cultural realities to past organizational and institutional traditions. He also developed his thinking about the evolution of class consciousness, which prompted him to interpret 1968 as a struggle for the conquest of political power that was led by a manual working class that wished to achieve a greater share of the fruits of growth.
Finally, Henri Lefebvre called for a renewal of a Marxist analytical framework. He was largely interested in the students' situation, which, for him, revealed factors common to all age groups. He showed how 1968 marked the arrival of new actors on the employment relations scene (such as managers and scientific professionals), and how this push shook the society's superstructures and put the invention of new forms of social life on the agenda.
Other authors have subsequently tried to explicate and theorize the new elements introduced by May 1968. Jean Capdeveille and René Mouriaux underlined its ambiguity. They saw several similarities with the more significant revolutionary moments of the nineteenth century: the violence of the demonstrations and, more generally, their political character; the nearly insurrectional dimension of the paralysis of most public services; the scale and spread of the movement in certain provisional cities and towns; and the omnipresent symbolic references to working-class history. Yet other of its characteristics projected its participants forward toward the twenty-first century, especially the calls for lifestyle liberation and gender equality, the aspirations for greater quality of life, criticisms of the consumer society, and heightened demands concerning citizenship.
A major renewal of the forms of social protest accompanied the emergence of new social issues. In particular, the incomplete and conflicting combination of the student spirit with a mobilization of wage earners had an impact on most of France's subsequent large social movements.
At the same time, May 1968 represented a critical turning point in the development of the media coverage of conflicts. The radio station Europe 1 reported directly on the student demonstrations, and television covered the night of the barricades. Manipulators and countermanipulators challenged each other all through the events, the reporting of which itself finally became an essential component of the turmoil.
Whether a fake or a failed revolution, the May 1968 movement nonetheless represented a real ideological earthquake. It incontestably marked the starting points of a broadening of the social movement and of an end to the hegemony of the manual working class. As a result, it considerably altered the political and social picture and brought about major institutional changes.
Cohn-Bendit, Daniel (1945-): Sociology student at Nanterre, leader of the anarchist 22 March movement, Cohn-Bendit has an important place in the events of May-June 1968. Arrested and served with an exclusion order for his role in the student movement, he was expelled from France on 24 May 1968. Subsequently, in the 1980s and 1990s, he was an active member of the German Green Party.
Fouque, Antoinette (1936-):A psychoanalyst and one of the founders of the French Women's Liberation Movement (MLF), Fouque created the group Psychoanalysis and Politics, then became publisher of Des femmes.
Geismar, Alain (1939-): Far left activist, representative of the university lecturers' union (SNESUP) during the May events, Geismar subsequently became the leader of the Proletarian Left (GP, a Maoist organization that espouses self-criticism and the building of a New Popular Resistance that included an embryonic armed struggle) and was imprisoned for "reforming a dissolved organization" in 1970. In the 1990s he served in various ministerial posts.
Krivine, Alain (1941-): Krivine was the founder in 1966 of the Revolutionary Communist Youth that was dissolved by the government in June 1968. In 1969 he founded the Communist League (which was dissolved in 1973) and then in 1974 the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR), of which he remained general secretary as of 2003.
Sauvaget, Jacques (1943-): Vice president of the French students' union (UNEF), Sauvaget was pushed to the front page by the events. He was the only leader to give up his positions as early as the autumn of 1968. After a period in the far left he joined and became active in the Socialist Party.
See also: Confédération Générale du Travail.
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"General Strike: France." St. James Encyclopedia of Labor History Worldwide: Major Events in Labor History and Their Impact. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 17, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/general-strike-france
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