The Economist     June 8, 1968

From general strike to general elections

On Tuesday, Paris suffered one of its worst traffic jams. All its car owners seemed to be out celebrating the resumed flow of petrol. This did not quite mean a return to normal. One cause of the jam was that there was still no public transport in the capital, just as there were no trains running throughout France. All key sectors of the economy were still strike-bound. By Thursday public transport was beginning to seep back into action all over the country. The post office was starting work again. But even earlier in the week tension had clearly been eased. The trial of strength was shifting from the factories to the electoral arena. Political leaders on both sides had agreed to carry their conflict to the polling stations. The election campaign has in effect begun. Frenchmen will vote on June 23rd and 30th for a new national assembly. The parties are already busy preparing platforms, registering candidates and making alliances.

To assess the chances of a gaullist election success, one must consider how the other, more dramatic, crisis somehow fizzled out. Gratitude is probably not a political virtue, and certainly not one of General de Gaulle's vices. In his fighting broadcast on May 30th, he set the style of the gaullist election campaign by putting the blame for everything on "totalitarian communism"--although he owes his survival, to a large extent, to the cautious conduct of the Communist party.

The French communists did everything in their power to contain the revolutionary wave and, once the general made it plain that he would not abdicate, to direct it back to electoral channels. On the night of May 30th there was a risk of confrontation between the armed forces and the army of labour. Next morning the risk had vanished because the army of strikers had been dispersed. M. Séguy, the boss of the communist-dominated CGT, could not demobilise his followers. But, followed by other trade union leaders, he divided his troops into separate battalions, each seeking additional gains, particularly in wages, from its employers. What had begun to look like a frontal attack against the state rapidly became a series of individual skirmishes. And L'Humanité, the communist daily, started to use the language of an election campaign.

The part played by the communists in this crisis has been crucial. Retrospectively, their role looks essentially negative, in the sense that the bewildered leadership seems to have been guided by no general plan, but by three dominant fears: the fear of being overtaken by a growing revolutionary left; the associated fear of being overwhelmed or deserted by their own rank and file; finally, the fear of gaullist repression. For a few days in late May that last fear almost vanished. The state itself gave the impression of vanishing. Even then the communists opted for a semi-parliamentary solution, for a coalition with M. Mitterrand's Federation of the Left in a provisional government headed, if necessary, by M. Mendès-France. But when the general declared that the state was still there the communists appeared almost relieved.

Once bitten, twice shy. The union leaders dared not risk a second disavowal by their followers. Many of the workers, feeling vaguely frustrated of a bigger victory, have stepped up their demands. The government has been torn between its wish to see the strike end and its reluctance to make more concessions. The employers' association has somehow recovered from its state of panic. So the bargaining has proved hard. There are still few signs of compromise in engineering, although police removed strike pickets from the Renault works at Flins on Wednesday night to allow a ballot to take place.

The communist decision to call a retreat and the general's speech marked the turning point in the crisis. They were more decisive than the big gaullist demonstration that followed the general's speech on May 30th. Was that march through Paris as massive as the demonstration the left had staged on May 13? The pro-gaullist marchers were certainly more numerous than anybody expected; the organisers, fearing a fiasco, had brought coachloads of supporters from the provinces. The sight of red flags in the streets and on factories, the symbolic burning of the Bourse, the threat to the established order brought out the kind of people who would never normally demonstrate, and led to a reconciliation of the factions of the right. Behind ministers and deputies, the old men of Vichy marched together with the former Free French. That night, triumphant car horns played the rhythm that stands for "Algérie Française." So much for the hero of the third world.

When people take to the streets and to "civic action," there is apt to be an alarming side. This time there was the fascist fringe with its unforgivable slogan "Cohn-Bendit à Dachau" (the students' internationalist slogan had been: "We are all German Jews"). But this was only a fringe. The real difference between the two demonstrations was not so much age (the gaullists were, on the whole, much older) as class. On May 30th fashionable ladies, officers, and company directors appeared among the angry and frightened middle classes. When these ladies and gentlemen chanted "open our factories" it was plain that not many among the thousands present would have been able to man them.

In electoral terms the two big demonstrations carried almost equal weight. But at a time of social upheaval it was those who could paralyse the economy who carried the most. General de Gaulle had no illusions about this. He did not await a demonstration of popular support before making up his mind. We know that he went to Baden Baden the day before his speech to get General Massu's blessing and a pledge of support from his troops. Whether that would have been enough for his purpose remains a moot point, since the communists decided not to force the issue.

Against this background, it may be ungrateful of General de Gaulle to emphasise the communist menace, but it is a shrewd move. With the franc in jeopardy and the economy in turmoil, with his international monetary policy frustrated and his European hand much weakened, he cannot urge the electorate to let him carry on in the name of grandeur and in recognition of his achievements. But he can exploit people's fear of the black flag of anarchy and the red flag of revolution. A general strike is a tactic for seizing power, not for persuading voters. If the left had seized power, it would now be the new order itself; but it stopped halfway--after frightening many floating voters among the middle class. A few weeks ago, polls and by-elections indicated that the gaullists could hardly face a parliamentary election. That was why the general wanted only to hold a referendum. Things may be very different now.

The other consequence of the crisis is a further polarisation of the French into two antagonistic blocks, which correspond roughly to the two big Paris demonstrations. There will admittedly be many middle of the road candidates in the elections, since M. Edgar Pisani's friends will now join the followers of M. Lecanuet and M. Duhamel in the centre of the spectrum. The French electoral system, in which the voter can indicate his preferences on the first ballot, allows for that. But when it comes to the second ballot and the real choice, it will be a choice between gaullism and the popular front. Many of the centrists are then likely to move to the gaullist side. The prime minister, M. Pompidou, is in no mood to make concessions to his reluctant coalition partner, M. Giscard d'Estaing, whose followers want to put up their own separate candidates for seats now held by the opposition. M. Pompidou feels confident that in any such duels on the first ballot the orthodox gaullists will prevail over the "Giscardiens."

The left wing will also face the first round divided. The communists hope that their claim to be the main force of opposition to gaullism will put them ahead of their partners in the first ballot. The socialist and radical members of M. Mitterrand's federation are, once again, looking nostalgically toward the centre. The communists and the federation have not yet been able to produce a comprehensive joint programme, any more than they were able to do so last year; but they have been thrown together by events. As to M. Mendès-France, he has not yet revealed whatever lesson he may have drawn from the recent events.

Should one not take account, in this election, of the revolutionaries who precipitated the crisis? Hardly at all. Many of the students do not have votes. Most of the others hold that they did not build barricades to help parties that are content to work within the present system. Only the small Parti Socialiste Unifié could benefit from their vote.

The election depends on two unknowns. One is the impact of the domestic bankruptcy of gaullism. The other is the widespread fear of disorder. Most observers think the latter will prove stronger. They see the gaullists returning with a majority, the workers discovering the lack of substance in nominal wage increases, and the same causes once more producing the same effects. Some prophets already talk of the May days as a dress rehearsal, the 1905 of a new French revolution.

next ==>