The Economist     June 1, 1968

The general charges into battle

General de Gaulle soldiers on. He went to Colombey-les-deux-Eglises on Wednesday not to resign but to prepare his plan of battle. On the way he apparently held a secret conference with army and police chiefs. On Thursday he ended the suspense by revealing his decision first to the cabinet and then later in the afternoon to the nation.

The general stays. So does the prime minister with a reshuffled government. The National Assembly was dissolved on Thursday. General de Gaulle hopes to hold both a referendum and a general election some time between June 19th and July 9th. But he is aware that this will not be easy. He has hinted that the next stage might be a declaration of a state of siege. The immediate question is not how the French will vote--red, pink or blue. That will come later. The immediate question is whether the gaullists can hold any elections at all.

Is France drifting toward civil war? Is it going to be a violent struggle between soldiers and strikers, the armed forces against the army of labor? Not necessarily. True, both sides seem determined. The general has just shown his own determination. The gaullists are mobilising their powers. By Thursday evening it was their turn to organise a mass march in Paris. On the other side, the strikers are in no mood for yielding. The left-wing opposition has made up its mind to try to take over. For General de Gaulle the problem is how to outstay the strikers, how to wear them out. But the country cannot live in utter paralysis for very much longer. Either side can still yield. If it does not, the trial of strength could turn into civil war.

The general's critics have already reacted strongly. M. Mitterrand has spoken of the "voice of dictatorship"; a trade unionist of a "declaration of war on the people." All the big trade unions have proclaimed that the strike goes on.

In a revolutionary situation conventional ideas are obsolete. Comments by outsiders, out of touch with the quickened pulse of Paris, read here like messages from outer space. Constitutional lawyers bother about niceties, politicians about electoral calculations, economists about percentage shifts in the gross national product. All this will be relevant soon. But at this very moment the one vital question in Paris is power--who holds it or who will seize it. It is more accurate to speak of a race for power, rather than a struggle for it, so important is the time factor. The gaullists hope to cling to power till the elections. They bank on the hope that, once again, a frightened nation will vote for the general. The two traditional left-wing partners--the Communists and M. Mitterrand's Federation of the Left--jockey for position and hope somehow to form a popular front government. And the totally unorganised revolutionaries, who precipitated this upheaval, still hope to crown it with a revolution.

Three major points have already emerged from the turmoil. First, a revolutionary situation can occur in an industrially developed state--the social upheaval provoked by the strikes is already greater than it was in 1936. Second, the French communist party has shown that it is not yet ready or willing to exploit such a situation. Third, a significant revolutionary movement has appeared almost spontaneously to the left of the communist party. And this raises two new questions. Can the communist hierarchy, which is losing much of its rank and file to the new movement, radically alter its original line? Can the new revolutionary left improvise in the heat of battle an effective organisation?

At dawn on Monday, May 25th, all seemed fine in the elegant Hotel de Chatelet. After two sleepless nights and 23 hours of negotiations, the representatives of the trade unions, the employers' associations and a government team headed by M. Pompidou had reached a draft agreement for settling the strikes in private industry. True the package was bound to be inflationary, but a bout of inflation did not seem too high a price to pay when the spread of the strike movement threatened both the regime and the capitalist structure. The communist-dominated CGT, with a bigger membership than its Catholic and socialist competitors combined, had its own reasons for trying to prevent the situation from getting out of hand. By Monday morning there simply remained the "formality" of getting the settlement endorsed by the workers.

But when Georges Séguy, the 41-year-old boss of the CGT[,] and Benoit Frachon, his veteran predecessor, rushed to the Renault works at Boulogne Billancourt, they were greeted by a vociferous non, which was then echoed at Citroen, Berliet, Sud-Aviation and all the big factories. It was an extraordinary miscalculation for such experienced trade union leaders. they may have been misled by a false historical analogy. Back in 1936, a similar working class explosion had been checked by a tripartite agreement at l'Hotel Matignon, the prime minister's official residence. But the government then was the popular front government, headed by Léon Blum, and the workers saw it as their own. Besides some of the concessions they obtained at the time--such as the 40-hour week and the introduction of two weeks' holiday with pay--were a breakthrough for the period. Now what the workers were being offered was essentially a rise in their nominal wages, one likely to be swallowed up by inflation. Feeling instinctively that the offered rewards did not correspond to the sweep of the social upheaval, the workers simply said no and asked for more.

The vagaries of the CGT reflect the bewilderment of the French communist party. Indeed, in its hesitations, changes and successive mistakes,l the communist leaders closely resemble the gaullist government. The party has repeated so often that it stands for the working class that it half believes this itself. It is so used to giving orders from above that it is lost now that the channels of transmission are jammed, despite the size of the apparatus and the number of devoted activists.

The French saw that it is not the cowl that makes the monk. But the French communist party having carried the revolutionary mantle for 50 years, had attracted to itself the most militant radicals, particularly among the workers. These are now the men who are shaken in their convictions, while the intellectuals among them are further shocked by the party's attitude towards students. It is not only around the Sorbonne that members have had to be kicked out of the party for disobedience.

In party cells everywhere there are discussions bordering on revolt. The communist leaders face their biggest crisis yet.

To some extent the communists have digested all this. Though still not talking about social reforms, they became, in the negotiations about a settlement for the nationalised industries, the hardest bargainers of all. By Wednesday, the marathon march organised by the CGT in Paris was clearly political. The communists by then had the open objective of overthrowing the gaullist regime. Nor were they alone in stepping up the offensive. M. Mitterrrand, the leader of the Federation of the Left, had already proposed the formation of a provisional left-wing government. And M. Mendès-France had, in principle, accepted the job of leading it.

What of the new left? Unlike its American counterpart, the French new left does not depend on students alone: it has managed to attract a sizeable proportion of young trade union members. It is this alliance that allows the revolutionaries to hope for victory. Their revolutionary committees are seen as the Soviets of the new French revolution. Their aim is to spread them throughout the country--in factories, offices and elsewhere--to co-ordinate them and finally to crown them with a central committee of revolutionary action. The question is whether the inspirers of this improvised movement will have time to build their organisation before the tide ebbs. The outcome depends largely on the length of the strike and the mood of the workers. But by now in Paris it is folly to rule out anything. As is written proudly on the walls of the Sorbonne: tout est possible.

General de Gaulle is being paid back in his own coin and paid back with a vengeance. Ten years ago he took over power by keeping in the background an army of paratroops. Now that he is struggling to stay in power, the paratroops are replaced by his opponents' army of ten million workers. The general has at his disposal 83,000 policemen (of whom 13,500 are members of the special security force, the CRS), 61,000 gendarmes and 261,000 members of the armed forces stationed in France and Germany. But most of the soldiers are national servicemen. Can the regime rely on this force to break so huge a strike? And will it really come to this?

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