The EconomistMay 25, 1968
A revolution set alight by students, snuffed out by communists
A modern revolution requires the coincidence of a revolutionary situation and a party or organisation ready to seize power. As France comes virtually to a halt, the situation might look revolutionary. But the party which has always claimed the revolutionary role now shows no sign of fulfilling it. The communists have climbed on the bandwagon, but only to put the brakes on. This is not basically because they want to preserve General de Gaulle's regime. It is because they are using a revolutionary weapon--general and unlimited strikes--in order to achieve a parliamentary aim, the formation of a popular front government.
From student to union power
Students walked out of the Sorbonne, just as night was falling on May 16th, with red flags flying and a banner proclaiming, "The workers will take up from the fragile hands of the students the flag of struggle against the unpopular regime." That evening marked a vital turning point in the story as strikes began spreading fast around the country.
The celebrating students were living in a dream world. Many of them had been inspired by Trotsky's history of the Russian revolution. In the setting of the Paris commune they saw their own chance and felt entitled to believe that anything could come true. Hadn't they, an active minority, precipitated the students' revolt? Had they not forced the government to hit back and then to surrender? The country was now grinding to a stop. Their dream, it seemed, was coming true.
After the mass demonstrations on the previous Monday, young workers at Sud-Aviation in Nantes had taken over their factory. But the workers' movement did not really spread until Thursday, May 16th, when the Renault works at Citroen and Flins were seized. This time, it was not a case of Paris being redder than the provinces. The strikes spread fastest in western France, where the discontent is most acute. The disparity was not geographical but between generations. The pattern was everywhere the same; younger workers took the lead and their elders followed.
Once again, the communists had been overtaken by events. But this time they reacted swiftly. The communist-dominated CGT, the biggest French union, first got in touch with its Catholic partner, the CFDT. It then sent instructions to its militant members to endorse the movement, including the sit-in strikes, but to keep the demands to the traditional pattern of higher wages (a monthly minimum of 600 francs for all and a minimum of 1,000 francs in certain factories such as Renault), shorter hours and the abolition of the unpopular decrees on social security.
With the CGT in control, the leftist students from the Sorbonne could not expect a cordial welcome at the Renault works in the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. The shutters were down on the understandable ground that provocation must be avoided. Still, students were cheered by workers standing on the roof and the two sides chatted near the gate well into the night. But when, on the following day, the students' union suggested a big march to the factory, the CGT did not conceal its displeasure. Nevertheless a few thousand students came and the discussions in the square outside the plant were significant. The communists, mobilised for the purpose, repeated the party line about the working class being adult enough not to need lessons from anybody. But they had no answer to student hints that they were scared of a real debate.
There are two reasons for communist coolness. One is specific. Many of the students flocking to Billancourt belonged to Trotskyist or other opposition groups. Braving communist shock tactics, they had been preaching to the workers that their communist leaders were bureaucratic and reformist bosses. Indeed, the only posters as one approached the Renault works this week were warnings against distributors of ultra-left literature.
The second reason is deeper and provides a key to communist behaviour in this crisis. The CGT is frightened of pressure from below. Students dreaming of abolishing the capitalist order will not limit the debate to the pay packet. The communists do want to limit the revolutionary ferment. They want to keep the movement under control.
Whenever one hears somebody on the French radio vituperating against "adventurers" one can be sure that M. Cohn-Bendit or some other leftist student is the target. But one cannot guess the political colour of the speaker. It might be a gaullist or it might be a communist. On the other hand, if somebody talks about revolution, structural changes or socialist society, one is safe in assuming he is not a communist. The CGT is angry with its CFDT partners not only because they are in favour of debates with the students, but also because they have raised the slogan of workers' control, autogestion.
Similarly, the communists refute suggestions that the present strike is insurrectional. But it is here that the ambiguity begins. The CGT demands may not be concerned with the structure of society, but they are stiff all the same. The French Communist party is using revolutionary means to achieve a parliamentary end. Its political objective seems to be the same as it was on the eve of the crisis: to consolidate its alliance with M. Mitterrand's Social Democratic federation and so to form a popular front government. The dream is a repeat of 1936, when the Blum government presided over the Matignon agreements in which employers, under pressure, made big concessions to their workers. But then the popular front had already won the election. Now General de Gaulle holds power and shows no intention of yielding it. The contradiction between the communists' means and their ends makes future action unpredictable. It also provides a smokescreen for their reformist action.
The assembly's missed chance
French parliamentarians this week showed no sign of grasping the importance of the situation their country is facing. Politicians have been issuing statements for some time with the gaullists calling on the people to rally around the general and with opposition spokesmen echoing M. Mendès-France's solemn declaration that the only service the discredited regime can now render to the nation is to retire. But the neglected Cinderella of the Fifth Republic, the National Assembly, at last had its moment on Tuesday. For once it had the limelight on itself. It did not make much of its chance.
It was not only that there was no suspense. As soon as M. Giscard d'Estaing and his followers confirmed that they would not vote for the motion of censure and members of M. Duhamel's Centre party decided to divide there was little question of the government being defeated--the motion fell eleven votes short of success. The real trouble was that deputies and ministers, arguing over facts and figures, did not sound as if they were on the same wavelength as the nation. Ten years as a rubber stamp institution have not prepared the assembly to rise to the occasion. No wonder the demonstrating students by-passed it.
On Wednesday things were somewhat brighter, with a speech by a former gaullist minister, M. Edgar Pisani, announcing that he would vote for the motion of censure and resign his seat. But it was the prime minister, M. Pompidou, who was waited for with interest. And he said that the government was in favor of negotiations with both employers and the unions. At roughly the same time, the leaders of the two main unions, M. Séguy of the CGT and M. Descamps of the CFDT, proclaimed their own willingness to negotiate. The negotiating process has begun.
Trial of strength
When General de Gaulle speaks to the country on Friday, he is understood to be going to announce a referendum to be held in June. It is assumed that he will ask for special powers so as to foster "participation" at all levels, including the factory level. But what matters is how the social conflict will have evolved between now and the middle of next month. When a government behaves as if it almost wanted a revolution, and allegedly revolutionary party does not try to seize the occasion virtually anything can happen.
It looks as if the general has opted for a strategy of attrition. He can rely on time to soften his opponents, and possibly to divide them through granting some concessions. He can rely on it to frighten the patronat (employers' associations) so that it will be ready to give something away. And above all, he can hope that, as alarm spreads, the bulk of the people will once again rally round him.
But time can work both ways. The country cannot go on for very long in this state of growing paralysis. And the state runs the risk of gradually losing its powers. One illustration of this is the rebellion of the staff of radio and television, the chosen instruments of gaullist policy. The communist CGT is trying to keep events under control. It is braking hard. But it has to compete with the students, the CFDT and the small but active left-wing socialist party, the PSU. As tempers rise among the strikers, the CGT may have to keep up with the mood of its own troops. Thus, though the main official protagonists, General de Gaulle and the communists, still act as if they wanted to reach a compromise, the trial of strength is gaining an explosive logic of its own.