May ’68 in France (1968)

Still from Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Tout Va Bien (1973)

Translator’s Introduction

First published in Piergiorgio Bellochio’s journal Quaderni Piacentini in July 1968, Sergio Bologna and Giairo Daghini’s analysis of the May–June events in Paris reconstructs the significance of those tumultuous weeks through categories forged in the laboratories of Italian operaismo. Their essay arrived at a moment of rupture between the politics of 1960s and those of the 1970s, when a proliferation of social forces would take the stage and Marxist theory entered a new phase of experimentation. Their capacity to deftly navigate this passage was conditioned by their experiences of factory intervention and political-theoretical formation via Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia, publications which were at the forefront of heterodox Marxist thought in Italy at the beginning of the decade, but which had dissolved before the auspicious year whose anniversary we greet today.

In May of 1968 they were living in Milan. Bologna had recently consolidated a theory of class composition and the “mass worker” through a study of the German councils’ movement of the early 20th century, and was now beginning to study how the “new technicians” in advanced capitalist firms were contributing to transformations in the political composition of struggles. Daghini was studying philosophy with the Marxist phenomenologist Enzo Paci and building bridges to French militants who had resisted the Algerian War and supported movements for decolonization. Both sought to reinject lessons gleaned from prior cycles of struggle into a fast-developing student movement that was largely indifferent, if not hostile, to “workerist” precepts.

After hearing radio broadcasts of the first clashes in the Latin Quarter, they took off for Paris by car, spending several weeks learning from and participating in the waves of activity. In a recently co-authored remembrance, they recall the experience in all its vivid color:

What surprised us was the explosion of overflowing, transversal desire, with masses of workers, of doctors, of students, of care workers and intellectuals, of men, of so many women who invaded the streets and broke the rhythms and the rules of that machine of valorization which is the metropolis. In a frenzied multitude each seemed to become someone else, each who up to that point had been constricted now took a breath. Great swarms of people moved, in enthusiastic conversation and above all in a great atmosphere of friendship. Not the crowd of a metropolis, but a multitude which continuously recomposed itself through blocs of friendship with an immediate, political sociality. Each day we had to adjust our mental schemas before a society that broke rhythms, conventions, and which, in the encounter of all the components of living labor, called into question in every discipline the gnoseological bases, the political practices, and the very concept of labor as producer of commodities.

One outcome of their experiences would be the formidable text we present in translation below, an essay which Massimo Cacciari described shortly after its publication as “the only one as yet released which could have been titled Class Struggles in France in 1968.”1 As he himself was writing scarcely a few months after the events, Cacciari’s commendation should not be understood simply as fawning admiration, but as a rather precise comparison. For just as Marx’s conjunctural analysis of the events of 1848 sought to document and analyze the interaction of a multiplicity of social forces, so too here do Bologna and Daghini, in their chronicle of insurgent events 120 years hence, chart the convergences and divergences of varying sectors of workers, students, and political formations jockeying for hegemony. Moreover, they frame their analysis within a wider perspective that comprises the specter of looming European integration, the growing need among capitalist firms for the state to intervene in the reproduction of labor-power, and the close relationship forged between unions, employers, and the government in the overall planning of capitalist development in post-war France.

This last dimension is crucial. Bologna and Daghini set out an argument that, in fact, the “Gaullist Plan” has partly laid the groundwork for the student struggle to unite with that of the workers. Although the Italians firmly ground the May uprising in the workers’ offensives of 1967, which “reintroduced into advanced industrial society the figure of the working class as political class, as antagonistic power in society,” they nevertheless recognize the student movement as a vital force, one that, “anticipating spontaneity,” might translate “decisions of a practical-political type” emerging from workers’ self-activity (wildcats, occupations) into “the organization of the social circuit of struggle.” The students thus might play an articulating function and “fill the space proper to the party” – an urgent task after the French Communist Party’s failure to adequately “elaborate and experiment” amidst of the crisis of May.2

But the student movement cannot be understood merely as an exogenous, catalytic factor with respect to working class struggle. The students’ antagonistic relation to the state sharpens in response to the reforms of the university system, particularly the introduction of new structures of control over academic and professional training, which sought to produce differently qualified labor-power in the proportions which the various industries and their planners deemed necessary for healthy capitalist development. Cacciari concisely lays out the context within which this unfolds:

The socialization of capital becomes the new massification of the struggle – the capitalist plan “exports” the class contradiction into all of society. If society is being modeled on the basis of the factory, workers’ protest recomposes itself at all levels – it has for the first time the objective possibility of breaking the cordon sanitaire that shuts it in the ghetto of the factory and of work. And here, once again, the function of the student movement (not subjective, voluntaristic, but objective, historic, and political) is fundamental.3  

By virtue of students being increasingly integrated into the economy as a component of the workforce, as particular moments in the reproduction of labor-power, they are also “implicated” with the working class as a political force. The capitalist state’s plan thus invokes its opposite, a counter-plan, itself requiring organization.4 For Bologna and Daghini this opportunity grows with the abolition of customs barriers between six European nations on July 1, 1968, as a destabilized France enters into an international pact with its neighbors. As the authors explain below, “any ‘integrated’ point – the student struggles have shown – can present itself as a fuse connected to the stockpile of explosives.”

But, far from merely narrating a heroic story of student action, Bologna and Daghini’s discourse also crucially underlines the development of the working class’s “simultaneous refusal and use” of the union and party.5 In his review, Cacciari extrapolates from this an epochal shift:

…these struggles inaugurate a new stage of the clash between classes, liquidating a traditional capitalist response and, along with it, the control and a certain use of the class on the part of the organized workers’ movement. Within this new stage there lies the workers’ use of the wage demand and thus of the union itself…6

Indeed, in Italy, as the summer of 1968 turned to fall, newly energized rank-and-file factory struggles were already beginning to emerge, most notably the pioneering Comitato Unitario di Base (United Rank-and-File Committee), an autonomous workers’ organization at the Pirelli rubber factory in Milan that was, to borrow Steve Wright’s turn of phrase, “less anti-union than extra-union.”7 The necessity of workers’ organized autonomy – a theme already explored by other operaisti but amplified in Bologna and Daghini’s account of the May ’68 in France – begins to take a new form. The political demand of the wage now comes to the fore as a means by which autonomously organized workers might pry loose capital’s grasp over the total reproduction of social relations.

This specific concern would grow for Bologna, Daghini, and their comrades in the experience of La Classe, a newspaper begun in May of 1969 and centered on Fiat’s gargantuan Mirafiori complex in Turin. Looking back fifty years later, they reflect on the political effects of this analytical partisanship:

Perhaps today we would not write the same things. Our interpretation, our own reconstruction of the facts, was strongly conditioned by the workerist paradigm: we had intentionally forced reality into that straitjacket because we were not interested in giving back to Paris what Paris was, we were interested in the game that was being played in Italy, that is, to move the entire student movement from the struggle for education reform to the factory struggle. We tried to do so with the newspaper La Classe, with our presence and agitation at the gates of FIAT, and we succeeded.

And so this account of the French May – open to the force of events without succumbing either to empiricism or spontaneism, grounding in historical developments its criticism of the binary divisions between worker and student, union concerns and party affairs – went on to contaminate an entire generation of militants over the next decade.

– Andrew Anastasi


“Run, comrade, the old world is behind you!”8


“The fundamental point for the manufacturing industries is that of foreign trade. It is necessary that the French economy find, in the activities of this Commission, the surplus of currencies which it needs in order to adequately ensure its development. Now, to get there, it is necessary initially and above all that the French companies possess a sufficient profitability, such that they might recover a decent profit, since for too long in this nation the very notion of profit has been considered, by certain representatives of the Administration, wage-workers, and often the employers [padronato]9 themselves, as tainted by who knows what sin.” So at the beginning of ‘66 the President of the Commision for manufacturing industries expressed himself, in presenting to the Commissariat for the development of the Fifth French Plan the report for which he was responsible. Mr. de Clinchamps spoke here on behalf of the industries of primary metal processing, mechanical and electrical equipment, automobiles, textiles, clothing, leather, timber, paper, and plastic products; and he added: “More fundamentally it is necessary that the sources for financing efforts to improve industrial equipment and, perhaps even more so, to improve research and thereby the productivity and the profitability of the French firms, can be found easily in firms (…) A task belongs for the most part to the State: that of developing and improving the training of skilled personnel, both at the level of the workers, whether it involves training researchers or even ‘re-injecting into the cycle’ (récycler) those engineers and technicians for whom the training acquired in their 20s is largely exceeded by technical and scientific progress 10 years later (…) In conclusion, Mr. General Commissary, my Commission is well aware that the growth of the production of goods is at the base of any social progress: it is another way of saying the profitability of companies.”

Gaullist Planning

If one skims through the provisional documents of the Fifth Plan, one has the impression that French capital kept its eye above all on a date considered vitally important. This date passed on July 1st of this year and it marks the abolition of most of the customs barriers within the European Economic Community (EEC).10 The French collective of bosses [padronato] wanted to arrive at this deadline particularly prepared and consolidated on the economic plane, and they reach it instead deeply weakened as a result of a workers’ attack which has reintroduced into advanced industrial society the figure of the working class as political class, as antagonistic power in society. Some weak points and steps required of the French employers emerge clearly from the documents of the Fifth Plan, elements which had to be resolved into just as many political and economic pressures on different strata of the working class. In the foreground is the need for reconstructing margins of profit which would permit a massive return to self-financing, the need for an increase of productivity, and the need for the rapid training of a skilled workforce, both at the level of the technician and at the level of the worker. Regarding the first two points, as the Commission itself pointed out that “most of the possibilities of increasing productivity through organization and mechanization are by now exhausted,” it was clear that the only way out was to increase the output of human labor to the maximum limit, that is, to stretch [forzare] the workers’ exploitation while not increasing the cost of labor. Regarding the third point, lastly, there is no document concerning the Fifth Plan that does not put first, in the sections concerning labor-power, the absolute urgency of professional training, that is, of educational policy: the academic programs are absolutely inadequate, the production of technicians and researchers meets 10-50% of needs, the huge problem of “re-injecting into the cycle” the workers and the technicians deskilled by the rhythm of technological evolution remains completely to be resolved.

However, it must be emphasized that if these bottlenecks of the system are typical of all the advanced industrial regimes, they acquire a particular character in France, given the specific strategy that De Gaulle’s policy has proposed for French capital. This strategy has constituted the welding point between the Gaullist regime and the major employers [grande padronato]. It was articulated on roughly two points: a) elimination of the traditional mechanisms of expression for social protest and their reduction to the union-industry-state relation within the framework of the Plan; b) stimulus and national autonomy to the technologically most advanced sectors. In this framework “la force de frappe11 and military-related expenditures depended on the most advanced technological research and experimentation, the results of which would have benefited the entire French industrial structure. Some sectors (nuclear, electronic, aeronautical) had the task of pursuing the Gaullist challenge to the technological gap with the United States. Apart from the fact that the war in Vietnam allowed the Americans to achieve technologies, precisely in these sectors, such as to make utopian any challenge on the part of medium powers, it interests us here to observe that the so obvious concerns of the employers toward the problems of the skilling of labor-power must be put into relation with the fact that precisely in the nuclear, electronic, aeronautical, electrical, and chemical fields – that is, at the balancing points of the Gaullism-capital relation – the shortage of intermediate and advanced technicians and researchers is the first element of crisis and of interruption. So industry therefore urgently requires from the state a major effort around the primary phase of education and professional training and a weighty contribution toward the reskilling of the already employed, beyond, certainly, a commitment to reforming the educational structures. But will the Gaullist state be able to accommodate these demands, expanding military expenditures and those for advanced research at the same time, as well as expenditures in support of exports, etc.? Already in themselves these economic bottlenecks begin to put the Gaullist system, as planning of capitalist development, into crisis. Only after the May clash between classes will the French employers rediscover the Gaullist system as order and repressive violence. Indeed, more astonishing in the documents of the Fifth Plan is the absence of political concerns regarding the working-class variable [l’incognita operaia]. They have disappeared and are reabsorbed within a framework of strictly technical-economic order, enough to give the impression that, at the beginning of ‘66, French capital considered concerns regarding the political-institutional structure of the Plan to be sufficiently resolved, and it tended therefore to concern itself almost exclusively with the economic aspects. Had Gaullism therefore given sufficient guarantees to be considered capable of controlling social forces politically and making the mechanism of development function economically? In August of ‘67 De Gaulle drastically decreases the state expenditures for welfare and workers’ pensions: this attack on the living standards of the working class is one of the most important among those moments which pave the way for the clash between classes in May of this year. It creates that very extensive and compact alliance, which will enter into struggle with the objective of not simply changing regimes, but of totally breaking with bourgeois power. Of course, the struggle against Gaullism was decisive in setting the other millions of workers in motion, alongside the most advanced nuclei of the class, but also there is no doubt that the slogan of the “popular government,” forcibly torn from the official organizations at the moment when De Gaulle was at large, expressed the political dimension of the movement in a totally insufficient and mystified manner.

The Class Pole of Renault 

The Plan had also been formulated by the industries in an economical manner with regard to wages and working hours. The proposal of a wage freeze was not explicitly advanced also because it was preferable to insist on unfreezing prices; as regards schedules, the manufacturing industries forecast over five years (‘65-’70) a reduction of one hour and a half in the weekly schedule, emphasizing however that “such a situation seems much less auspicious in the textile sector, where what must be avoided is compounding the existing discrepancy between the hourly wages in engineering and textiles with a difference in pay resulting from totally different hours,” and concluding with the recommendation of avoiding drastic reductions of hours and concerning oneself if anything with eliminating the most serious imbalances, which can obstruct the mobility of the workforce.

The precision mechanics industries imposed a reduction of 3% over five years because they considered it beneficial for job performance; the metal processing industries dictated  that the schedule of 47.5 weekly hours should be left untouched, while the chemical industries reached the point of imposing a “spontaneous” reduction in weekly working hours. Ultimately the Fifth Plan imposed a squeeze on the working class analogous to that exercised by capital in Italy during the conjuncture. And if such were the intentions, even more difficult was their realization. This is the terrain from which the struggles of ‘67, not infrequently spontaneous and characterized in many cases by the use of street violence, spring up and develop. Before acquiring international fame on the fields of battle in the Latin Quarter, the CRS12 practiced their brutality on the workers. It is in the course of these struggles that the political nuclei of the class are prepared, those who will be at the head of the movement of May. Let us recall only the most significant episodes: the struggles at the workshops [officine] of Dassault, in the aeronautics industry, that is, with a working class in which the role of technicians is overwhelming, from the intermediate to the highest levels; an industry subject to continual technological transformations, which employs machine tools with numerical control on a large scale, where the figure of the worker-operator [operaio-operatore], so exalted by the mythology of automation, is typical; that is, an industry with elevated wage levels, where however the working class finds itself facing very serious problems of skilling and exploitation concerning the rhythms of labor. The struggles of the steelworkers and of the shipbuilders at Saint-Nazaire, where the working class finds itself facing pressure resulting from the reorganization of the shipbuilding sector on an international scale, and which hits the manual laborer as well as the draftsman. The struggles at Rhodiaceta in Besançon, culminating with the occupation of the factory. (As a curiosity: Cohn-Bendit lived in Saint-Nazaire for some years; one of the first clashes with the teachers in Nanterre was actually concerning the screening of a Chris Marker documentary on the struggles at Rhodiaceta.) The struggles in January of this year at SAVIEM in Caen, workshop for industrial vehicles in the Renault group, where the physiognomy of the working class is given by the specialized manual laborer, that is, by the deskilled and intensely exploited young workers. In the course of this struggle the movement will acquire the characteristics proper to the crisis of May: active solidarity of the population, factories in the area going on strike, brutal intervention of the CRS, street violence. The struggle leaves the factory and acquires a social dimension that brings it into direct confrontation with the repressive apparatus of the state.

But over the course of ‘67 and the first months of ‘68, a remarkable contribution to the preparation of the movement was given, precisely upon this terrain, by the movements in the countryside and in the areas decentered with respect to the increasingly massive industrial concentration around the Paris region and the east of France. But it was not the underdeveloped areas nor the pockets of unemployment which gave direction to or set the tone for the clash, even if the PCF [Parti communiste français (French Communist Party)] and the FGDS [Fédération de la gauche démocrate et socialiste (Federation of the Democratic and Socialist Left) (sought to promote mass struggles precisely in these locations. The struggle originated in the most advanced poles of the class, reconfirming the strategic importance of Renault, and the auto industry in particular, and the decisive role of the city-region of Paris, the city of 16 million inhabitants, as one of the many ideologues of the regime had defined it.

The anticipatory role of Renault, from the viewpoint of capitalist strategy and from that of the workers, is not new. It is enough to recall the company agreements of 1955, which served as the European model for the establishment of neo-capitalist relations in the factory, a model of a political-institutional type, therefore, with regard to union-industry-state relations. If we go consult the documents on Renault prepared for the Sixth World Conference of the Automobile, which was held in Turin from May 16th to 19th of this year, we find no trace of that conjunctural tone which we found in the documents of the Fifth Plan. Renault-SAVIEM, a state industry, directly subject to the control of the government, represents 37% of the total production of motor vehicles in France and exports 42% of the French production of motor vehicles. From 577,113 vehicles in 1965, production passed 737,979 in 1966, in the same period of time covering from 37.5% to 41.6% of the internal market. Net profit, which had fallen from 5.8 million new francs to 4.2 in 1965, in 1966 increased in a leap to 27.8 million new francs, the percentage of investments on total turnover having remained almost unchanged and, that is, at 5.5%: Régie Renault regulated its investments by means of self-financing at 59.24% in 1964, at 90.50% in 1965, and at 68.50% in 1966. Particularly dynamic was SAVIEM, which in the first half of 1967 had already surpassed the total production of 1965 and which in 1966 controlled 51.8% of the domestic market for trucks and buses. In trade policy Régie Renault followed the footprints of Gaullist foreign policy: assembly plants in almost all the countries of Latin America, in Canada, in Francophone Africa, and in Southeast Asia (South Vietnam, South Korea, Cambodia): in Europe the most important are established in Belgium and in Spain, while the collaboration with Alfa Romeo has now extended also to the industrial vehicle sectors. Over the past few years certainly all efforts are aimed towards Eastern Europe (important agreements with the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Romania). Even with regard to the policy of decentralization and of industrial “regionalization,” which was supposed to have been one of the cornerstones of the Fifth Plan, the Gaullist state has sought to set the example by means of Régie Renault: SAVIEM has moved all its production from the Paris region to the two plants at Blainville-sur-Orne, on the outskirts of Caen in Normandy, and at Lorient, not far from Saint-Nazaire in Brittany. At Caen in particular, which employs around 4,000 workers, quite a lot of Renault’s manufacturing has been transferred first to the factory of Boulogne-Billancourt, the French “Mirafiori,” which, between workers, intermediaries, and office workers, employs more than 30,000 people.

It is in the course of these restructurings within the Renault group that the tensions which will set in motion the mechanism of spontaneity are born. The transferring of rubber-piece manufacturing from Billancourt to Nantes, of foundry manufacturing from Billancourt to Lorient, and of the production of the R4 and R8 from Billancourt to Blainville has caused the suspension of hiring, the transferring of many workers, the deskilling of those paid less: two categories were particularly hard hit: that of the manual laborers, for the most part young, and of the P1s, also for the most part young, and that of the immigrant workers (especially workers of color) who are recruited with fixed contracts, from one to six months, and who constitute the safety valve of the firm in periods of recession and in periods of seasonal reduction in production. Job insecurity, discrimination, deskilling due to the contradiction between academic certification and reality of the firm, in job and wage terms. Still, with regard to this last point, the documents of the Sixth World Conference of the Automobile inform us that the monthly wages of a common manual laborer of Renault go up from 735.91 to 794.44 francs per month, that those of a specialized manual laborer (1st and 2nd category) go up from 813.45 to 977.18 francs, that those of the skilled worker (P1) go up from 1,317.38 to 1,537.48.

But in the reality of wages at Renault, one must take into account a fact that is typical of the entire automobile industry, that is, the accumulation of tasks or transfer of the worker from one workplace to another; that is, what is created is the figure of the “polyvalent” worker, of the mass-worker [operaio-massa], conscious only of this: that the skill or the task for which he was hired will not have any relation to what he really finds on his paystub, and that he can make no calculation on the basis of the contractual minimum. At Renault – as for us at Italsider, just to give an example – there are the “set wages” [paghe di posto], which unions and employer present as an elimination of the “injustices” while in reality they are only an element of division in wage bargaining and an element subordinated to the review of the boss’s technicians. And then at Renault there are the infernal rhythms typical of all the great auto industries, the assembly-line rhythms which reduce the worker to slave. On Sunday one stays at home to relax and “one is so squeezed out [spremuti] that one does not even have the strength to make love,” as someone from the Sorbonne said.

If in the demand of 1,000 francs a month there is to be seen one of the most significant political demands of those at Renault, two facts must be taken into account: that this implies in the eyes of the workers a break with the mechanism of the “job evaluation”13, which divides and impedes unification also on the contractual terrain, atomizing the worker even in the moment in which one trades with the boss the price of one’s labor-commodity; that this implies a conscious thrust [spinta] toward the increase in the cost of labor, as a means of putting the Plan into crisis. Renault, model of French neo-capitalism, becomes also in this respect the advanced point of the class’s entire political thrust.

Much has been said and written about the “exclusively economic and materialistic” objectives for which the workers supposedly fought, accepting the de facto leadership of the CGT [Confédération générale du travail (General Confederation of Labor)] and of the PCF, whereas they should have fought, like the students, for “qualitative” objectives. These are the schematisms that continue to reduce the “new left” (let us call it that) to an inferior and impotent state in the face of social democracy and capital. Should we therefore leave all discourse concerning the wage to the adversary? Should we continue to remain dominated by bourgeois ideology and its divisions-oppositions between “economic” and “political,” between “qualitative” and “quantitative,” “party” concerns and “union” concerns, etc.?

Should we continue to use these terms as mutually exclusive ones, or even as simple phenomenal descriptions, without then ever succeeding at concretely defining precisely what we are grappling with? Let’s see what the bosses tell us. Is it a coincidence if planning in Italy, in England, in Belgium, and in Holland, translates institutionally into an incomes policy, that is, a freezing of wages? Is it a coincidence if there are, at the level of juridical thought, all the premises for making illegal even the economic strike which exceeds certain limits on demands? Is it a coincidence if the bosses at this point see the working class only as “wage variable” [variabile salariale]? Is it still not clear that in Western Europe the freezing of wages (or their preventive regulation on the basis of agreements with the unions) is the cornerstone of European capital’s policy, which must reduce the technological gap with the United States through considerable investments in fixed capital (and at this point the cost of skilling the workforce is also part of this) and which must prepare itself for the total opening toward the markets of the East, that is, toward the countries with proportionately lower wages? Even the neo-colonialist activities in the Third World have their cost, and this too begins to be charged to the working class of the metropoles. If then, albeit bookishly, we were to go consult Leninist theory, we would find that the economic and union struggle must be included in the overall concept of spontaneity (defensive struggle), that is, of the movement which must no longer be denied but organized and politically oriented. Or have we really convinced ourselves that the paralysis of the revolutionary workers’ movement in Western Europe is truly due to the “economic well-being of the workers”? These observations (which we hope many will find pointless) have been made especially with reference to the direct relation between students and workers, to the relation between students, organizations of the workers’ movement, and the extrème gauche, and to the necessity of making clear the simultaneous refusal and use that the working class makes of the union organizations in a phase of acute struggle. But precisely to the extent that one realizes that the entire western communist movement is “unionized” and that the union can be divested of the functions assigned to it, by the bosses’ planning or by the spontaneous use which the workers make of it, it also makes clear that European capital is today entering an institutional crisis, it finds itself facing problems in selecting new political tools, because the recourse to fascist violence and to social-fascist repression is becoming so frequent as to appear to be the only escape route from political crisis of the French type. If the freedom of being able to vote communist is no longer enough for the young workers as compensation for their being exploited, if the mirage of greater consumption is no longer enough as compensation for their remaining at the service of class power, which tools and which ideologies will capital use in order to control it, given that political democracy and the welfare state no longer function? Can one yet speak of an end to Keynesianism for Europe?

“If what you see is not strange, the sight is distorted”

We needed the facts concerning the Plan, the struggles, and Renault only as summary examples to show what can be tools for determining in advance, for forecasting the spontaneous movements indeed in their political determinateness, or rather in their salient political contents (as slogans, as masses-organizations relation, as presence of more advanced levels of struggle on which the more underdeveloped ones converge). Precepts for an “astrology of struggles”? No, to forecast means to organize in advance, not to remain bewildered – as we have seen with regard to certain comrades despite extensive political experience – in the face of the movement and its developments, by letting oneself get caught up in the solidaristic enthusiasm which turns without fail into depression in the face of the “treason” of the parties. Of course, the absolutely new character of the movement of May was given by the student variable [incognita studentesca], or, better, by the political relation which is created between the student struggle and the workers’ struggle.

The discourse concerning the objective terrain on which these struggles are welded (school as factory of skilled workforce, capitalist Plan, etc.) is the easiest one; it would suffice to add that with the “Fouchet Plan,”14 Gaullism had launched the type of technocratic school demanded with such insistence by the industrialists. But for more than a year the students had been in struggle against both the old academicism and the Fouchet Plan. And from 1966 those organizations which first mediated a revolutionary discourse, like the Comité Vietnam National and the Comités Vietnam de Base, having expanded nationwide and managed by forces of Trotskyist and Maoist origin, were active precisely in the student scene.

It was not the first time that the students found themselves committed on a large scale to a movement of political struggle; during the Algerian war, UNEF (Union nationale des étudiants de France [National Union of Students of France]) had carried out intense activity, but since then it had lost much of its importance: politically close to the PSU [Parti Socialiste Unifié (Unified Socialist Party)] (party which had also supported the Comité Vietnam National), UNEF played a very important role thanks also to its vice-president Jacques Sauvageot, alongside the SNESup (Syndicat National de l’Enseignement Supérieur [National Union of Higher Education]) which, although not representing all the teachers in higher education, played an equally important role under the leadership of Alain Geismar. We have endeavored above all, in the interviews and conversations, to understand how the workers saw the student struggle, that is, to see the movement of the students not only from the inside but also from the outside, that is, from the factories; three facts appeared incontestable: a) the character of the student movement’s subjective, voluntarist determination, its conscious will to move to attack the system, had been grasped; b) it was understood that the students represented an anti-capitalist social force; c) that the students had first started using violence on the institutions, had refused the rules of the game, those which the workers’ action, also spontaneous and massive, ultimately tended to respect. In other words, the formulations given by the best of the student leaders, from Dutschke in particular, were duly confirmed, concerning the specific assumption of the moment of subjectivity on the part of the student struggle, which in doing so can fill the space proper to the party (without claiming to represent a political leadership), which must preserve its mass character and which must carry forward the practice of the extra-legal and illegal actions. To the theories that the students were “thugs” and “provocateurs,” the workers responded with a shrug, the younger ones responded “then we are too.”

In the preceding years the student unrest had remained rather isolated: one can begin from the first specifically “university” agitations of 1965, then recall the moment of the triumphant imagination of the Situationists who establish themselves in Strasbourg in 1966, then find the center of the agitations moving over to Nanterre (1967), the model university complex which springs up according to the directives of the government program of modernizing and decentralizing the Sorbonne, strangled in the center of Paris. At Nanterre it begins with the student strikes, for a democratization of studies, for the autonomy of the University, for a continuous dialogue between professors and students. But above all, that very broad political problematic, which the history of our times puts before our eyes – from Vietnam to the Chinese Cultural Revolution to the guerrilla warfare in Latin America to Black Power – and which the communist parties ignore or mystify, frees itself from the university and finds its space for discussion: also in France, as in Italy, youth exiting the party take an increasingly organized form, first the so-called “italiens” (who hold up the Yalta Memorandum against Waldeck Rochet)16, then the Maoists. On March 22nd the students occupy the administrative building of the university of Nanterre and Cohn-Bendit’s “March 22 Movement” is born. Within it the ideological reference point is perhaps less relevant (aside from Marx and Mao’s thought, rather than Marcuse it refers to Wilhelm Reich, in his communist moment, when he denounces the “sexual alienation of the workers,” and on this subject it will be worth recalling that Cohn-Bendit becomes famous at Nanterre for having trapped a minister who came to inaugurate a pool in an interminable discussion on the sexual repression enshrined in the university campuses’ internal rules) than the very realistic and concrete reference to the situation of exploitation and of oppression which they can touch, in particular the working conditions and the conditions of the young workers’ struggle.

The perception of a single capitalist Plan which implicates working class and students is immediate. This independence from preconstituted ideological schemata – which in so many comrades is a source of blindness instead of greater political perception – is perhaps what made it possible to so hastily attribute the epithet of “anarchist” to Cohn-Bendit’s movement. From the interview with Sartre, given when the factory occupation movement was already exhausted and published on May 20th by Nouvel Observateur, there emerges a remarkable political lucidity: the hypothesis – then possibile – of a popular government which might have ended as Wilson in England17, whence the forecast of a second revolutionary attack against it; the conviction that the reforms obtained are a springboard [trampolino] for new struggles, within which however the most important thing is “the demonstration of the efficacy of revolutionary methods”; the abandonment of theories of the revolutionary vanguard in favor of that of “a minority that acts, that plays the role of a permanent ferment, pushing for action without claiming to lead it”; the consciousness that “the strength of our movement is precisely in the fact that it is based on an uncontrollable ‘spontaneity,’ that it gives impetus without seeking to channel it or to use the action that it unleashes to its own profit”; to arrive at the demand concerning the university restaurants, that they must become restaurants for the youth, where all youth, beginning with the young workers, can eat for 1.40 francs, the same demand for the student dorms [Cités Universitaires] which must be transformed into residences for youth. The refusal of elite training must be exemplified in practical and demonstrative actions.

The problem of selection in France was posed in very clear terms by the Gaullist power: the “baccalauréat” represents at the same time the conclusion of secondary studies and the opening toward the university faculties. Today in France 95% of students who have obtained the “bac” are enrolled at the university, and this percentage was judged excessively high by the current planners. Hence the government project that entails the reform of the “baccalauréat,” which is reduced to simple certification of secondary studies, and the reduction, by selection, of the percentage of “bacheliers” who enter University to 60%. “It is necessary to make the university a profitable business,” the dean Capelle maintained. This is the motto that has presided over the “Fouchet Plan,” for which primary and secondary teaching and the schools of professional training must produce the mass of unskilled manpower that constitutes the lowest step of the hierarchy, a workforce that can be shifted and maneuvered according to the mobility requirements of jobs. Higher education, on the other hand, has the precise task of furnishing specialists able to perform the technical management of planning.

On May 2nd the academic authorities of Nanterre decide to react to the ferment which has been going on for months in the University, and they declare, from the mouth of the dean Grappin, that the departments will remain closed indefinitely. So they succeed in getting the unrest to move from the periphery to the center of Paris. On May 3rd at the Sorbonne, word is spread to mobilize all the students for a meeting in the university courtyard, in the afternoon. Groups of student security guards protect the doors in order to block the provocations of the fascist group “Occident,” while in the courtyard discussion groups form and begin to operate. The dean Roche calls the police to “clear out” the university. After having promised the students that they could freely exit the Sorbonne, the police wait for them at the doors, load them into vans, and haul them in. The leaders of the student movement and the members of the security guards will be interrogated by the police for 24 hours in succession. A plan of provocation and repression thus kicks off, one which the Gaullist state had been studying for some time, from the moment in which it is clear that the movement of students is attacking the new technocratic university even more than the traditional one. It will be said: in certain moments the police lost their heads under the pressure of events. Instead the opposite is true: precisely in order to remain securely at the head of things or to “nip the movement in the bud” – seasoned by [fatto esperto da] the Italian and German experiences (which in reality would have suggested the opposite behavior) – the Gaullist state launched the police to break people’s heads. The facts and dynamics of the events prove it: the police attack more and more brutally from the moment in which the attempts by power fail to cage in the movement of total protest with the bait of university autonomy. It must be said that the Parisian students understood immediately the provocative and calculating aspect of the police’s action, but the new and relevant fact is that they decided to resist and they succeeded.

That afternoon, in the courtyard of the Sorbonne, among other things there circulated recently released copies of L’Humanite, which contained an article signed by George Marchais in which he said, among other things: “Despite their contradictions these ‘groupuscules’ – some one hundred students – are unified in what they call the March 22 Movement directed by the German anarchist Cohn-Bendit”…”these false revolutionaries should be vigorously exposed, given that, objectively, they serve the interests of Gaullist power and of the great capitalist monopolies”; meanwhile the students belonging to the UEC (Union des étudiants communistes [Union of Communist Students]) distributed a flyer which said, among other things: “those in charge on the extreme left make a pretext out of the shortcomings of the government and take advantage of the students’ discontent to try to stop the departments from functioning and to prevent the mass of students from working and passing their exams. So these false revolutionaries behave objectively as allies of the Gaullist power and its policy, which harms all students, firstly those of modest origins.”

With the news of the arrests, over the course of the afternoon and evening, thousands of students spontaneously invade the streets of the Latin Quarter and engage in the first great battle with the police, while the dean Roche asks the minister of education Peyrefitte to proceed with the lockdown of the Sorbonne, which indeed happens overnight. During the days of Saturday the 4th and Sunday the 5th, while the police patrol the Latin Quarter, the student groups and organizations distribute flyers that call for a demonstration on Monday, May 6th. It is the day of the first barricade. It rises early in the evening, after a day of confrontations with the police, which took place here and there beginning that morning. Earlier in the afternoon there was a genuine battle of position on the Place Maubert. Then a non-stop procession, which increasingly swells, on the Boulevard St. Germain. They arrive there 20,000 strong. Here the police attack in full force, for the first time using acids, sulfuric and hydrochloric, diluted in the water of firetrucks, and asphyxiating gases. The first barricade of cars and pried up cobblestone goes up. The students’ resistance lasts for hours and hours, only late at night are the police able to take over the Quarter: and then there is the hunt, nightstick in hand, for the student, the passerby, anything that moves. 800 injured.

The next day the National Assembly is informed by the prefect of police that it was not possible to maintain public order, and so was born the legend of the experts in urban guerilla warfare, perhaps foreigners, who train students in street fighting. In the meantime the students complete their long march, around 25 kilometers, which from Denfert-Rochereau over to Montparnasse, Invalides, running along the Seine, the Bourbon Palace, presses on to the Place de la Concorde, ending on the Champs Elysées, to the cry of ““you are all involved!”; and it is here that the compactness and the strength of the high schoolers’ movement reveals itself, that the first substantial groups of young workers encounter each other, that the students test the attitude of the entire population. At the head of the procession only one sign: “Vive la Commune!” UNEF and SNESup launch the slogan of indefinite strike18 in the universities over the three following demands: suspension of the judicial proceedings against the arrested students and workers, evacuation of the police forces from the Latin Quarter and from all the university spaces, reopening of the departments.

It is the moment of negotiation and it is the moment in which the specifically union-based organizations reemerge, such as the UNEF and the SNESup. The wear-and-tear that these organizations, particularly the former, had endured in the preceding years and months had largely been staked on the theme of the autonomy of the university.

For a long time the UNEF had been torn between, on the one hand, the partisans of dialogue, for the internal reforms of the university, which had to acquire its own autonomous management, led by students and professors in common, and, on the other, those who opposed the mirage of an illusory autonomy, as much flaunted by the minister of education as denied by the reality of the capitalist Plan. In the first days of May, UNEF is fished out by the government, which wants to have a union representative as interlocutor; but UNEF could no longer play this role of intermediary because the student movement by now has taken on a dimension of political protest: UNEF is “representative” only to the extent to which it assumes this dimension. Therefore the attempt to make a division – under purely formal pretenses – between UNEF and “groupuscules” and Cohn-Bendit cannot succeed. At the National Assembly on the 8th, an old motion, submitted six months earlier by the Gaullist Guichard regarding “the distribution of pro-Chinese flyers inside the Sorbonne,” is resolved. At the time other, perhaps more “dangerous” flyers were distributed among the students, in which the problems of the relations to be established with the working class and with their mass organizations were already posed. “March 22”: “We do not want to be the guard dogs of capital – the distortion by the usual bureaucratic apparatuses of a movement protesting society into a simple reformist movement inscribed within the framework of the immobilism of the bourgeois University.” The “Comité de Defense contre la répression” (of Maoist inclination): “The Sorbonne is an old pile of rocks. Saint-Denis is thousands of workers in struggle. The ‘cops’ may wait for us, concentrating themselves in the Latin Quarter. Let them come to the suburbs, let them come to Saint-Denis to try to stop us from linking up with the workers. We will wait for them with the workers… Everyone to Saint-Denis!” The student representatives of the PSU on the other hand, more realistically: “…the workerism or the forging ahead towards a premature alliance with the parties and workers’ unions without real political content can only lead to a weakening of the anticapitalist struggles at the university.”

In a large meeting at the Halles aux Vins, in fact, some union representatives who now try to establish contracts with the students are greeted to the cry of “opportunists.” The most politically childish among the students are precisely those who claim to be the most politicized and armed theoretically. The meeting continues with a procession toward the Latin Quarter of more than 10,000 people. In the meantime at the National Assembly, Peyrefitte has announced the reopening of the Sorbonne and UNEF has promised to order the dissolution of the demonstration, which does happen, but with severe irritation among the participants. Naturally, the next day, power does not keep its promise and decides on the reopening of Nanterre only: it is better to begin to remove the “anarchists” from the streets, and to negotiate with the others. But in the meantime UNEF and SNESup make the self-criticism of their attitude during the preceding evening, while the “groupuscules” decide to act on their own with various initiatives (from the autonomous meetings to the proposal of a strike, etc., and Cohn-Bendit reaffirms his will to construct “direct democracy in the streets”). By now though the workers’ union federations are also moving: during the day there is a meeting between Séguy, general secretary of the CGT, Descamps, general secretary of the CFDT [Confédération française démocratique du travail (French Democratic Confederation of Labor)], and a delegate of the UNEF.

In September 1965 the CGT greeted the objectives of the Fifth French Plan with hostility, denouncing the strengthening of the monopolies, the restrictions on wages, the prospects of unemployment and under-employment, the lack of investments in the education sector, concluding that it was formulated “according to the dictates of the plan of stabilization, which has the objective of restricting wages and extending unemployment,” and that therefore it led “to the strengthening of the power of the great monopolistic groups”; for this reason the CGT declared itself “against the project of the Fifth Plan, which it forcefully regards as contrary to the interests of the working class and therefore not compliant with the general interest of the country.” In fact, despite its proclaimed will to achieve coordinated planning, the Gaullist power has always done the math without any actual consultation with the unions, in particular the CGT. For this reason planning on the institutional plane had not made great steps forward; however the CGT had not passed from declarations of hostility to a program of concrete struggles, and the French union landscape remained overall rather stagnant, with the result that in May of this year France found itself with average working hours higher than any other European country and with average wages higher only than those of the Italians. In 1966, moreover, the coordinated planning by the unions and the state had made some progress, above all within the framework of restructuring some sectors, in particular in the plan for consolidating the steel industry, which forecasted an increase in steel production from 19.5 million tons in 1965 to 24 million in 1970: at the same time it expected the reduction of approximately 15,000 jobs. Drawn up jointly between the unions, industry, and the state, this project unveiled an attitude which was more “inclusive” of the unions, even though they sought right away to open negotiations to better resolve the position of the workers subject to the layoffs, the gradual return to 40 hours, the restructuring of pensions and union rights.

But the negotiations, on the government’s side, are conducted by lower-level functionaries, while the bosses continue to have their way. Generally the government unilaterally decides on measures intended to make these capitalist restructurings “painless.” On January 3rd, 1967, the so-called “model” contract was renewed at Renault, this time without recourse to struggle and without contract improvements. The French unions at that point had accepted the General’s “reformism from above,” and therefore the French union horizon, especially compared to that of Italy, seems to us to be as immobile as that of West Germany, if not even more so. Only in the summer of last year had the CGT and PCF launched a campaign against unemployment. When De Gaulle had enacted his famous “social ordinances,” in August, one had to wait nine months for the unions’ response, which, by a certainly unforeseen coincidence, came to fall on May 15th, the day on which a cross-industry [interprofessionale] demonstration for the repeal of the “ordinances” was supposed to be held throughout France. Five days before this great parade, Séguy and Descamps find themselves faced with a student agitation by now shaking all of France, faced with the first barricades, faced with the decisive, albeit confused, will of the students to unite with the working class. The two unionists certainly must have known very well what sort of powder-keg the students would have risked blowing up: the situation in the French factories – and the struggles of ‘67 stood to prove it – was at least generally open to struggle.

The Gaullist plan, which the unions had opposed with verbal protests, was at risk of blowing up two months from the opening of the borders of the EEC. Séguy and Descamps also well knew that in the Paris region – within reach of the students – one found 32% of the working class in auto, 47% of that in chemicals, 57% of precision mechanics, 60% of electronics, 71% of office machinery, and 90% of machines for control and regulation, to name only some. But they are precisely those industries in which the percentage of technicians, from the intermediate to the higher levels, is decisive, where the problem of schooling is one of the great problems of the factory; not to speak of the 30,000 at Billancourt and the 10,000 at Flins who alone are able to put the entire country’s auto industry in motion. The concentration of workers in the Paris region is such that if Paris explodes, then all of France explodes. The communication mechanisms of the struggle are being accelerated. The very composition of this Parisian working class is characterized by the strata that proved themselves most active in 1967: the technicians, the young manual laborers, the immigrants. They are, moreover, the categories with which the union has the greatest problems. The CGT fights over the wage and over working hours, the CFDT, strongly influenced by the progressive Catholic groups, considers democracy in the factory to be indispensable, the guarantee for which should be union power in the firm. The CGT preserves the cumbersome bureaucratic apparatus of the communist union, rigorously respecting the division of tasks between party and union; the CFDT is younger, weaker, less conventional, establishing itself clearly to the left of the CGT to realize in practice Catholic interclassism, factory democracy, to facilitate the dialogue between workers’ management and private ownership.

While Séguy, Descamps, and UNEF announce a joint demonstration for the day of the 14th (the next day there should have been the great protest against the “social ordinances”) the students prepare themselves for the great battle with the police, which upsets any attempt at channeling, recuperating, or controlling the student struggles and which ignites the spark for the great workers’ struggles three days later. In the evening, while barricades go up all over the Latin Quarter, at the eleventh hour the dean Roche receives Cohn-Bendit, Alain Touraine, and three other representatives of the students and teachers, but this is interrupted, it seems, by Peyrefitte: an hour later the CRS receives the order to attack the students. Throughout the night Parisians follow the battle on the streets of the Latin Quarter through Radio Luxembourg reporters. The government cuts off the connections, but the radio journalists do not lose spirit: they go up into the houses, one at the window narrates what he sees, another reports by telephone, and the impressive “live coverage” continues. The other broadcaster present, Europe 1, instead asks its correspondents to be more objective, that is, to distance themselves from the barricades and to “give the bigger picture.” Whoever has not followed the news on the radio learns in the newspapers the next day of the determination and the courage with which the students resisted the police. De Gaulle meanwhile was brushing up on the four sentences in Romanian which he was supposed to say in Bucharest, while Pompidou returned from the east. At 11:00pm on the 11th, while the count of the wounded is still being made and the rumor circulates among the students that “we will never know the number of the dead,” Pompidou proposes peace with the students, and he invites them for deliberations and negotiations. The next day the two unions of Force Ouvrière (FO) and CGC (Confédération générale des cadres [General Confederation of Executives])19 announce their endorsement of the next day’s general strike, while the student organizations and the unions debate for a long time on the route for the procession, on the slogans, on the priorities, on the tri-color sashes, on Cohn-Bendit, etc.

Mass Strike, Students, and Unions

The last general strike in France was that of May 28th, 1958, at the time of the OAS20 and the seizure of power on the part of De Gaulle. It became famous among the working class as “the first-class funeral.” As such it inaugurated a long series of platonic strikes, lacking practical efficacy, if not anaesthetizing the combativeness of the workers, who saw a lack of follow through in the union’s ruminations over maneuvers. So, the strike of May 17, 1967 – “cross-industry” for the CGT, in the mood for structuralism, and “generalized” (!) for other unions. The whole, great, spectacular apparatus of impossibilities and difficulties advanced by the unions collapses on May 13th.

The division of the union federations is a problem only for the federations themselves, which find themselves before a working class compactly united in protest. The difficulty collapses of finding slogans common to all workers, who find slogans in spades in the example of the students and young workers who courageously resist the police and in the grounds for protest accumulated over the past 10 years of Gaullism. The difficulty collapses of the division of the class into public and private sectors, and all the other sectoral articulations, because in every sector concrete, common demands are well sedimented, which really is enough to make France explode. The ridiculous provision also falls through, according to which the union organizations operating in the public service sector must give the government five days’ notice before unleashing a strike.

Having canceled the “petition” demonstration scheduled by the CGT and CFDT for May 15th, to protest the antisocial ordinances voted on by the National Assembly a year earlier, a million workers, with all the students of Paris, now go down into the streets to demonstrate: against the police, against the capitalist Plan, against the Gaullist class state. What they protest for will become clear the next day, Tuesday, May 14th: rather than returning to work in an orderly fashion as the organizations had expected, the workers of certain large factories, key points in the advanced sectors of production, continue the strike and go on to occupy the factories.

On the streets of Paris, on the long march which carries a million demonstrators from the Place de la République to Denfert-Rochereau, the French workers rediscover something which for at least ten years they had forgotten: the potential strength of their united mass, and precisely just as the Gaullist power proves to have suffered a blow, inflicted by the decisive resistance of the students, releasing the incarcerated comrades and saying it is willing to negotiate. The attempt is made by Pompidou, by now returned from Afghanistan. Instead the great, “unexpected” dynamite of the working class answers him. “Unexpected” even by the CGT and by the PCF. They had lost the habit of finding themselves faced with such a combative class, probably because they had become accustomed to their own submissiveness towards the regime.

Meanwhile, however, this mass force of a million people will have to resolve the political problem of its own organization. In the procession that goes from République to Denfert-Rochereau, there coexist signs and slogans of a struggle already underway – “Victory is in the street,” “Students, teachers, workers in solidarity” – with those of a struggle which is suddenly, massively coming back to life – “Newfound unity” – with slogans, finally, that already offer a glimpse of the first, fleeting hints of a strategy among the organizations of the left: “Popular government.”

At this demonstration too, the conflicts that hitherto divided the managers [dirigenti] of the French left from the new and more decisive student leaders21 remain alive. It is only after an animated discussion that Georges Séguy agrees to march at the head of the procession alongside Cohn-Bendit. He does not protest the presence of Sauvageot (UNEF) or Geismar (SNESup) but indeed that of the leader of the March 22 Movement. At the head of the procession, without protesting, there is also Eugène Descamps, secretary general of the CFDT. And also these are attitudes that, besides situating them on the line of the polemic between the left and the “gauchiste” elements, prefigure the attempts of recuperation and those of definitive and radical rupture in the days which immediately follow.

Within, drowned in the great mass of the procession, walk the political leaders: Mitterand, Mendès-France, Waldeck Rochet, Guy Mollet, etc.

The police, after the fierce provocations of the preceding days, do not show themselves for the entire duration of the procession. They remain concentrated in a mass on the bridges of the Seine, near the Elysée, which at a certain point becomes the rallying cry for four or five thousand youths who do not respond to the call for dissolution launched by the organizers of the demonstration. With the megaphone Cohn-Bendit invites them to continue toward Boulevard Raspail toward the Champ de Mars (Eiffel Tower), where finally the long tail of the procession arrives and where the same Cohn-Bendit closes the demonstration inviting the students to create “revolutionary action groups.”

“The promenade, but a promenade of a million people,” as the demonstration has been defined by one of the speakers from the Champ de Mars, closes down around ten o’clock in the evening in order to reopen right afterwards at the Sorbonne, because that same evening the students retake possession of the liberated university. One speaks of the night of freedom at the Sorbonne, which is opened to the entire population of Paris from this evening forward. But one does not speak of “people” [popolo] inside the Sorbonne. After the rallying cry for the formation of the revolutionary committees, the topic debated in front of thousands of students (among whom are many workers who have come to see the sacrosanct “Temple”) is: “We must go to the gates of the factories in order to talk with the workers.”

Because, at this point, not only have the workers rediscovered in their great procession, which for five hours continuously occupies the streets of Paris, the potential power [potenza] of the mass itself, but the students were able to see in person the mass strength [forza di massa] upon which, from this moment forward, events will be measured.

The protagonists of Tuesday, May 14th, are once again the youth, but the two most advanced factories in France are their place of action this time, two typically neo-capitalist factories: Sud Aviation (Nantes) and the factories of Régie Renault (Paris). For starters.

Sud Aviation boasts of having started some time ago the conversion of its workforce from the condition of workers to that of operators, that is, of having elevated the worker to higher functions which bring him closer to the position of the technician. And they delude themselves in thinking that by doing so they eliminate the mythical working class, the opaque working mass as mere impersonal appendage to the machines.

At 5:00pm on Tuesday, May 14th, 24 hours after the demonstration in Paris, when according to union directives the protest was finished, the revolutionary passion vented off, Sud Aviation of Bouguenais is occupied on the initiative of the young employees, who do not miss the opportunity to lock the director of the factory and ten senior managers into their offices.

The important class innovation [novità di classe] is that young workers and young technicians initiate the agitation together, they invent new modalities and carry the factory in its class totality to the strike and to the occupation. Only the meager little group formed by the director and the ten managers is kept out of this unification, which is realized from the “laborer” [manoevre] to the “higher technician.” It is a joke to lock them up in the office (but the risks that the workers of Sud Aviation assume are no joke: French law calls for penalties of up to ten years of forced labor for the abduction of a director of a firm).

What is at stake on the plane of immediate demands is the following: a wage increase of 35 centimes per hour (around 50 lire), capable of completely compensating for the reduction of the working week by an hour and half; written agreement for the stable employment of 110 temporary contract workers; payment for hours on strike. But there is more. Serge Mallet (PSU) notes this in his encounter with the occupants of Sud Aviation: “…for a good part of the night, some young, high-ranking technicians talked with workers about the organization of work in the firm, of their progressive ‘deskilling’: ‘You can understand, with 120,000 Francs a month one can live, fine – but there is more to it than that.’

“Imperceptibly, the enthusiasm of the first hours of the occupation gives way to more advanced reflection. ‘We have not put the director in a cell for only a few more francs per day.’ It was less swift and less radical than at the Sorbonne: the questioning of the employers’ power, of the authoritarian leadership of the firm, was realized little by little….

“Sure of themselves, unflappable, the communist delegates explain: ‘For us, power is seized at the top, then, the rest will follow…’

“‘Yes – says a youth on the picket line who, as all the youth here, wears his hair long like the students in revolt – it means that you will appoint the So-and-So Committee to replace Monsieur Papon (general director of Sud Aviation) and, ten years later, we will need to remake a revolution.’”22

One can make two observations: concerning what is said here and concerning the fact that Mallet (PSU) is the one to recognize it. Beyond the usual “demand-oriented” aspects, the scope of which is managed according to the regulations enforced by the unions, at the same time there also emerges a “political” aspect which is usually under the jurisdiction of the parties. And all this takes the perspective of a critical position towards trade unions and parties. For Mallet it is interesting then to recognize the problem of power in the factory. Across the board this will become the warhorse of the PSU, of the CFDT central union, etc., and it is on this theme that the French “new left” pounds most strongly during the days of May, up until the open polemic with the CGT, which maintains the problem of the wage as a priority.

One can advance another observation. The young workers of Sud Aviation “impose” the occupation of the factory on the majority of their fellow workers, who let themselves be convinced to grant their adherence, but not without having a certain resistance to these forms of radical and spontaneous struggle, the memory of which was lost in the France of De Gaulle and the CGT. In so doing, these groups of young workers behave more like “the active minority” of which Cohn-Bendit speaks than like “the organized vanguard” of the working class. This observation, which nevertheless should not be mythologized, is important for understanding the modalities of the first spontaneous movement of the class in France.

It finds its confirmation, moreover, the next day, Wednesday, May 15th, in the second formidable explosion of the class: Régie Renault.

“At Renault Cléon on the 15th, the unions decide to strike for one hour in order to impose negotiations. The strike is successful and lasts almost two hours. In the afternoon there are two attempts at discussion with the leadership that fail. The trade-unionists report to 150 workers, mostly young, who want to know the results of the discussions. The workers speak out for the continuation of the strike. The trade-unionists do not object, the strike is extended to hundreds more workers. At midnight, another meeting with the leadership, which threatens to eliminate vacation bonuses. This only accentuates the determination of the strikers. At three in the morning (on Thursday, May 16th) there is an attempt by the Minister of Labor to no avail. At 5:00am the crews of the first shift are informed and they too organize pickets; and so they decide to occupy the factory.”23

One can say that the unions put themselves on the road that will lead them to be involved in the first great occupations almost without realizing it. In fact, after the demonstration of Monday, May 13th, they return to the factory and begin again to launch their typical, limited strikes in order to gain a hearing from the boss, except that, given where matters stand, such strikes for negotiations are so successful that they explode into the occupation of the factory. Having come into the factory in order to scare the boss, in reality this is a first big scare, if it is grasped as such, for the union, which sees the young working-class rank-and-file wriggle out of its hands with such determination, finding itself within a few hours in front of an occupied factory. And not only one, because immediately after Cléon the Flins plant enters into turmoil, here also with the minority of young workers acting and imposing themselves on the majority of the older employees, leading them to the indefinite strike. A blow also more challenging, in a certain sense, than at the Cléon factory, because at Flins there is a large portion of the workforce which is foreign – some Spaniards, Portuguese, etc. – who are at the head of the occupation movement.

It is at this point that the trade-unionists, and with them many others, begin to glimpse the storm that may be unleashed, or better, that is unleashing itself over France. Because at this point the news of the occupations of the workshops at Cléon and Flins has energized Renault Billancourt: 30,000 workers (out of which 8,000 are foreigners), the “Mirafiori” of France. Here, for the entire morning of Thursday, May 16th, “there is much talk of it, but no action is taken. At 12:45pm the CGT organizes a reunion at the Place Nationale, but it knows not what to propose other than the relaunching of the usual, structured strikes: few people are there. Work is resumed, but the atmosphere is tense. Around 2:00pm in department 70, the youth begin to abandon work and to spread throughout the factory. The action is very sudden. The youth shout: ‘strike and occupation.’ Then department 59 stops: it is 3:30pm when the secretary of the CGT arrives to halt the strikers and to shout via megaphone: ‘Comrades, there are not many of us, resume your work, we will see tomorrow about a day-long strike.’ He is booed. Another trade-unionist takes the floor but with less competence. Finally there forms a line passing through all the departments, making them stop. At 5:00pm in the forges, the general secretary of CGT-Renault, white as a sheet, announces: ‘The CGT union has decided to occupy the factory and calls for an assembly.’ In the evening the barricades are spontaneously organized.”24

From this moment forward, 3,500 Renault motor vehicles per day are no longer produced. A minority of young workers achieve a great blow: in 48 hours they have brought the Parisian belt of Régie Renault plants to its knees, the most advanced complex in the French automobile sector, located in the center of the highest concentration of labor-power and invested capital in Europe. So great is the shock, just as fast is the reaction of the central unions, in particular the CGT and the CFDT. In the first place it is clear that nobody thinks of treating as “gauchistes” or “adventurists” the young workers who acted in the factory in ways that broke the rules of the game. One cannot in fact hold up two days earlier “the heroic resistance” of the students with a great demonstration and condemn two days later the decisive attack of the workers on the boss.

Séguy, Who’s He?

The CGT does not waste a minute: it stayed towards the back during the journey which runs from the one-hour strike to open negotiations to the occupation of the factories, it leaps to the fore in the process which will proceed from the occupations to the negotiations.

At this time the process is not yet either predictable or transparent; on the contrary, the fact that the breaking of the rules of the game has occurred in the two most capitalistically advanced factories in France, and that, following their example, the rallying cry: “strike and occupation” floods out like the shockwave of a tsunami, makes one think that it will not be an easy process: it presents itself instead as a revolutionary explosion.

At ten at night on Thursday, May 16th, George Séguy, secretary of the CGT, characterizes the situation as “conflict between the workers’ and democratic forces, and a power faced with the bankruptcy of its policies.”

But there must be no misunderstandings: for the unions the strike of Monday, May 13th, was over on Monday. The ongoing class struggles, it is declared, must be understood as sectoral, demand-oriented strikes. However, the sectors surveyed advance demands which pose some new problems. At Sud Aviation, we have seen, the workers did not enter into struggle only over the wage, as at Renault the demands concerning the wage are such that, if they are upheld as they are put forward, they would lead to the collapse of the capitalist Plan. They are:

– to lower the age of retirement to 60 years of age;

– extensions of union freedoms in the factory;

– job guarantee transforming all fixed-term contracts into permanent contracts;

– 1,000 francs (around 127,000 lire) per month minimum net wage (SMIG25 ) for any waged worker (impossible, the bosses respond, the franc would collapse);

– reduction of the working week to 40 hours without loss of wages (impossible, it is responded, productivity and consequently the five-year Plan would collapse).

But this is precisely what we want! respond the most politicized workers who have conducted the occupations of the factories and who have demanded the minimum wage of 1,000 francs (to date it is less than 400 francs per month).

This reply is feared likewise by the bosses, by the unions, by the Communist Party. Even the bosses have figured out from its opening lines the rhythm of Renault. Who is in fact the first to intervene at Cléon, attempting mediation in extremis, at three in the morning on Thursday, May 16th, to try to block the first occupation in the Parisian belt? The Minister of Labor of the French Republic himself. With little success, incidentally, because two hours later the factory is occupied.

Another argument which must not be missed in these intense hours, in which one cannot help but mull over the following motto from the Sorbonne: “Undress your expressions if you want to be worthy of the sans-culottes,” is the following: Tuesday, May 14th, the union federations FO, CFTC (Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrètiens [French Confederation of Christian Workers]), CGC, sign with the textile industries’ association, at the headquarters of the minister of social affairs on Rue Grenelle, a sham agreement which considers a wage increase of 5.8% in the natural textiles sectors – 450,000 wage earners.

This way of operating also returns in the eleventh-hour attempts by the capitalists to stop the unrest.

This agreement was not signed either by the CGT nor by the CFDT. The FO instead signed it: a union born yellow (and then beefed up with some Trotskyist injections), which after some vacillations had accepted the slogan of general strike for Monday the 13th, which on the 14th signs its little Matignon agreements for textiles, which will be present at Charléty next to the revolutionary workers and students welcoming “the youth’s awareness regarding the society of consumption,” which at the same time exhorts the workers to keep close watch over the “work-tool” so that it might be safeguarded from the violence.

One cannot, honestly, ask a union like the FO (500,000 members, mostly recruited from state employees) to be worthy of the sans-culottes, but to take off their underwear, yes.

We must note immediately: the agreement of which we speak was signed in a hurry, a few hours after the first occupations, in the headquarters of the ministry of social affairs where, for years, there was nothing else to do but dust the furniture. The Gaullist government is very quickly called into question as a class government. Proof of this will resound from there in a few days, when not the minister of social affairs who was there for decoration, but the prime minister, Georges Pompidou himself, will at the same headquarters lead the bosses’ alliance lined up before all the union delegations that have come to negotiate.

For the ministry of parades, social affairs suddenly become the point of departure for the Pompidou government’s classist counterattack.

Because the bosses are far from willing to give up: on May 17th, the newsroom of Echos, the newspaper of the industrial bourgeoisie, launches, as they say, a solemn warning to the government: considering that “France cannot afford the luxury of an even more serious social crisis” it appears that “in this serious hour, steadfastness of conviction and attitude is always preferable to confusion and passivity; such steadfastness can and must prevent the triggering of violence to the extent possible.” In short: to prevent the disorder at all cost “whatever the government of tomorrow may be.” With a “government” in charge, it is always in power: this seems to be the announcement of the big, industrial, French bourgeoisie.

If during the night the minister of labor seeks to stop the strike movement by any means, if the CGT and the CFDT seek to jump to its head however they can, the students at this point are concerned about not disappearing to the rear. And they waste no time. A few hours after the occupation of Sud Aviation, undertaking a forced march of seven kilometers which carries them from Nantes to Bougenais, in front of the occupied factory.

The workers, without mincing words, recognize the importance of the student struggles, but they ask them to not insist on entering the factory. Immediately, even before it must be said that the unions basically turned the occupied factories into fortresses, separated from the external world with the insuperable moats of their picket lines. So the students go around the factory singing the Internationale, then unite themselves with the workers who guard the signal lights of the barricades in front of the closed gates, passing the night with them.

In the coming days, the student-worker encounter at Sud Aviation will become the exemplary model of the relation between student delegations and picket lines of strikers for every occupied factory.

One can say that the initiative to maintain the autonomy of the struggle unfolding in the factory, is on the part of the working class. This does not take away from the fact that many young workers truly sought an encounter with the students on the barricades, in the streets, and that they referred to the decisive action of the latter in order to do the same inside the factory. On the other hand this fact will facilitate the task of the CGT, which intends to keep the factory clearly separated from the street, the workers’ struggle from the student struggle. One has decisive confirmation of this in the attempted encounter carried out by the students of the Sorbonne at Renault Billancourt.

Already on Thursday evening, as soon as the news spreads of the chain of occupations in the Régie factories, a thousand students reach Billancourt to give “backup” to the workers. At the head of the procession is written: “The workers will take from the students’ delicate hands the banner of the struggle against the antipopular regime.” But also at Billancourt, as at Sud Aviation, the nocturnal encounter is impeded, with thanks on the part of the workers for the act of rupture carried out by the students, and with the the call that they not enter into the factory “lest we provide management with a pretext for calling in the police.” The next day, Friday, May 17th, the workers’ decision not to open the factories to the students hardens, with the union’s decision not to share the responsibility for the struggles underway with “external” elements. A leaflet of the CGT-Renault union warns against the student initiative to meet with the workers: “We oppose ourselves to any ill-advised initiative which could compromise our quickly developing movement and facilitate a provocation which would lead to an administrative intervention. We strongly discourage the organizers of this march from sustaining this initiative. We intend to lead our strike, with the workers struggling for their demands, and we oppose ourselves to any external interference.”

In reality the CGT, which has followed from the beginning, minute by minute, the dynamics of the events, fears particularly in this moment the internal strength constituted by the young workers who have unleashed the occupation. In this light, one can understand a spectacular maneuver, also on Friday morning, which is carried out against the young rank-and-file cadre of the working-class: following an extraordinary reunion in the Bureau Confédéral, the CGT cancels, a quarter hour after beginning it, the Festival of the working-class youth at Pantin, which gathered together in Paris some thousands of young cadre coming from all over France.

“It is unthinkable – declares George Séguy in the opening-closing flash – that in this decisive moment the CGT would hold, as if nothing had happened, such a festival (…) The strike along with the occupation of the factories is expanding (…) Under such circumstances the place for all responsible persons is the workplace.” He has a point; but why not take advantage of this coincidence in order to transform the festival into an extraordinary assembly of cadre? The haste demonstrated by Séguy in dispersing some thousands of militants makes one think that the interest of the CGT is to dissolve as quickly as possible a formation which could become explosive.

While the CGT works to keep the factory struggle separated from that of the students, encouraging UNEF to assume its union responsibilities, the CFDT immediately finds the formula for a connection. “The student struggle for the democratization of the university is of the same nature as that of the workers for the democratization of the factories,” affirms a leaflet distributed Friday, May 17th, at the moment in which the procession of 3,000 students departs from the Sorbonne in the direction of Billancourt. According to the CFDT this formula, easy to reiterate even if more difficult to complete politically, seizes the fundamental element of the present situation, and indicates at the same time a possible point of encounter with UNEF.

Things must not be confused, however: even for the CFDT the “groupuscules” constitute a wild-card, but if it helps UNEF to survive its internal wear-and-tear by connecting it to the working class, as CFDT is trying to do, then one can even go so far as to propose that the explosive charge of student combativeness (turned in this moment toward seeking an encounter with the workers) aligns with UNEF and merges with the latter into the CFDT.

The CFDT seems to be attempting to unionize the students by using some of their subversive political slogans (power in the university); the CGT, which needs to resolve the problem of controlling the political attack which the young workers have launched at the system, seems to be attempting to cut off the political head of the student movement, reproposing the priorities of the demand-oriented struggle for the wage in the factories.

It must be clear also that the CGT, as Séguy declares in a press conference, “does not have the vocation of leading the movement to its final political conclusions.” The strike movement, by contrast, on Friday, May 17th, spreads dramatically into all of France and now hits the great factories of Berliet and Rhodiaceta in Lyon, the shipyards at Saint Nazaire, the mining basin of Alto Reno, etc., in the meantime by now already shaking up the public services sector (postal services and transport), which beginning the next day will completely paralyze all of France: no bus, no trains, nor even an airplane travels, the metro is jammed, etc.

The farmers’ unions make known that they will join in the unrest with barricades and more, on May 24th, the day on which De Gaulle will speak on television: they have a personal matter with the General.

It should be noted again that, following the example of Sud Aviation, there are several directors and senior managers who find themselves in a guarded residence: at Renault, for example, the leadership of the Flins factory agrees to receive the delegations of occupying workers only if they promise that they will not pull on them the trick from Sud Aviation and Renault-Cléon. The leaders are sent home politely. Meanwhile the pioneering “occupied” manager (Sud Aviation) raises a formal protest against food which, he says, “leaves something to be desired.” Locked up for four days, he too decides to get agitated.

At this point even the police unions join in the unrest, although after a threatening “mise en garde” to the government, they call off their strike. The government in turn calms its own anxiety, reuniting the following deployment of forces in Pompidou’s office every morning at 11, from Friday, May 17th: the minister of the interior, the minister of defense, the general secretary for police of the ministry of the interior, the director of the Sureté Nationale, the prefect of police of Paris, and the director of the gendarmerie (CRS). For De Gaulle it is the moment of the “chienlit”: according to Robert, “chienlit” or “chie-en-lit” speaks “of a person who soils the bed,” or, literally, according to Larousse, “of one who shits the bed.” In a figurative sense it means “masquerade.”26

Monday, May 20th, the week opens with six million wage workers on strike, but that will still increase by a couple million, to the tune then of around 50 million work hours lost per day. Within a few days we will arrive at an average of about 60 million work hours lost each day.

The most formidable and concentrated mass refusal of the workplace which has ever taken place in a capitalistically advanced country.

This week coincides also with the disappearance of Cohn-Bendit from Paris. He reappears in Germany and is headed for Amsterdam. In response to the person who asks him: “How come you are leaving France right now?” Cohn-Bendit responds: “Right now I no longer count for anything.”

Certainly, after the 24-hour general strike of Monday, May 13th, becomes an indefinite general strike (sectoral demands according to union formalism), the protagonists of the situation are no longer the students, but the working class. But it is not only for this reason, however fundamental, that Cohn-Bendit feels himself momentarily unemployed: in reality, the development of the events towards a political-union recuperation of the student forces clashes irreconcilably with the March 22 Movement’s position of permanent agitation.

Monday, May 20th, presents something new. As Georges Séguy addresses himself to 20,000 strikers at Renault and affirms that the CGT is not satisfied with formulae: “We will not allow the demand-oriented goals of our action to be relegated to the background, to the benefit of vague formulae like co-management, structural reforms, etc.,” Eugène Descamps (secretary of CFDT) and Jacques Sauvageot (interim president of UNEF) hold a press conference together which should ratify the point of encounter between two experiences of struggle for power, between two meanings of the term self-management: in the factories and in the universities. The point on which the central unions are in agreement is the following: both Séguy and Descamps will declare that such demands arise from the current situation as to completely call into question the economic and social policy of the Gaullist Plan. However, for the CFDT this situation gives priority to the unification of all forces which, beyond wage demands, pose the question of power and of management by anyone of their own workplace, place of study, professional training, and so on. The union action in this sense must also take unto itself a certain amount of political risk in an autonomous manner with respect to the directives of the traditional parties of the left like the PCF, Federation of the Left, etc. Exactly opposite to this is the discourse of the CGT. In the face of the CFDT-UNEF attempt at unification, which subordinates the contract demand to the political problem of power, the CGT reaffirms the autonomy of union bargaining from the political conduct of the events, and it asks the parties to act according in the direction suggested by the unrest. What does Séguy mean by union autonomy? This: “If the current government should disappear before the settlement of our precise demands, then we will present them just as firmly to its successor, whomever it might be.” In reality for Séguy the successor of Pompidou’s government is not “whomever” but PCF-FGDS. It should not be too much for the CGT, Séguy seems to be saying, to request from a government of this type the legitimate demands of the workers, because it would be in its essence to give the workers what the Gaullist government refuses.

On this precise point however one must detect a contradiction which seems to grip the PCF and to prevent them from sketching out new acts of rupture: in the years of Gaullism, the PCF plays its political cards, with a view toward succeeding the present government, on the tactical alliance with the Mitterand’s Federation which is notoriously (as the former PSDI in Italy) “the party of America.” Consequently, when the events open concrete possibilities of succession to government, the PCF comes to find itself in the inextricable imbroglio of having to bury Gaullism while saving De Gaulle to protect itself against Mitterand.

But problems of this type do not seem to worry the communist union federation which, in parallel to the formulae “union power” and “student power,” proposes as an alternative a “political” reunion between: PCF, FGDS, CFDT, FO, FEN, CGT to coordinate a common program of government. The communists know that the CFDT is decisively unfavorable to such a solution (which, it seemed to them, would make the entire political dialectic of the events fall back into the contradictions and party-controlled impossibility which preceded the events of May). But what they aim for, while posing the problem of a new program of government, and therefore the problem of a political leadership, is breaking the union CFDT-UNEF. They do not attack this encounter directly, for the meantime, but they denounce the “empty formula” and the false syncretism of politics and economy contained in self-management and the request for democracy in the factory. The solution which they present reaffirms the non-contamination between the spheres of influence, concerning the overall union demands, and the political direction of the struggles on the part of the party.

The communist party is obviously in agreement with the request of the CGT, but it does not speak out on the arrangements of a political program of action, contrary to Mitterand’s Federation which wants general elections immediately, while asking the government to step down given its bankruptcy: Mitterand seems at this point more interested in the dissident currents taking shape in Gaullism than in a unity of political action with the communists. Mendès-France (PSU) is said instead to be very worried about the “silence of the left” and asks that “power” resign: not only the Pompidou government, but general De Gaulle himself. From this moment forward we can witness the political unification, ever closer, between the PSU, CFDT, and UNEF who differentiate themselves from the action conducted by the communists on one side, from the forces of the center-left on the other. The culmination of this divergence is the reunion at Charléty. But before Charléty there are the negotiations at Rue de Grenelle.

The Grenelle Protocol: Defeat of the Unions on the Terrain of Negotiations

When one arrives at the negotiations of Rue de Grenelle, it is clear for everyone that the enormous wave of strikes which has hit France, and which in this moment involves more than eight million workers, constitutes a direct attack on the part of the working class against the Fifth five-year plan. Crisis of the Gaullist political institutions and attack on the capitalist Plan.

Calling the current plan into question becomes a problem for all the organizations in struggle.

Facing a daily loss of 60 million work hours, the bosses cannot hide from needing to proceed to downsize the planned goals, no matter what solution they will be able to give to the current crisis.

The unions and the political parties find themselves before a working class that not only refuses to work to realize the objectives of the Fifth Plan, but which also disputes the methods according to which it was created and applied, while refusing the social position that the Plan has budgeted for those who, at various levels of labor-power, must realize it.

The union federations and the parties of the left are called upon to answer how they intend to modify the process of elaborating and managing the planned economy, and to exhibit the structures of decision-making that could be capable of guaranteeing the level of productive labor.

We already know the different replies, which nevertheless at this time must be explained: so, the CFDT, while it demands “the right of workers to the management of the economy and of the company” and speaks of self-management or union power (echo of “student power”), accepts the demand advanced by the farmer unionists of Brittany that it must “call capitalist society into question.”

The CGT insists on the necessity “of the full exercise of activity of the union organizations in the company,” guaranteed by a popular government of the parties of the left, to whom at the same time it offers its federation’s help to better develop union and democratic liberties.

In any case the problems connected to modifying the Plan seem to be closely connected to a likewise radical change to government structures: for the CFDT with the accession to power, for example, of a Mendés-France, for the CGT with a PCF-FGDS union government.

Instead the possibility remains open, and in this moment it seems quite within reach, of carrying out negotiations concerning the union demands. This is not spoken of so long as De Gaulle did not speak. But it happens on May 24th with the televised speech in which he proposes a referendum concerning “participation.” Here we have a different usage of self-management; as for “power,” it is clear that for De Gaulle the French continue to possess it, in the right to vote. Concerning the negotiations over demands, Pompidou makes it known that he awaits the union delegations on Saturday, May 25th, in the headquarters of the ministry of social affairs on Rue de Grenelle.

Now one can say that De Gaulle and Pompidou have divided up the tasks for implementing a strategy which, having overcome a few moments of disarray, in general has successfully followed the path it had set for itself.

De Gaulle took on the “political” task concerning power and workers’ co-management in the factory, that is, he took on the task of bringing the “subversive” problem of workers’ management of the factories, and therefore of the Plan, onto the plane of legality. It is clear that if one allows the discourse on self-management to shift onto the terrain of Gaullist legality, such a discourse ends up being reduced to that of a “humanization” of capitalist exploitation. For the CFDT, which drives the discourse on power in the factory, the fall of De Gaulle and the disappearance of Gaullism are posed in urgent terms from this moment forward. The slogan of “calling capitalism into question,” which the union federation agreed to put on hold in its discourse on self-management, leaps now to the fore and becomes a question of choice and of immediate action. At Charléty, leaning on the workers’ refusal of the Grenelle Protocol, they measure forces in light of this. For the CGT and the PCF the moment has not yet arrived to decisively confront the political terms of the problem. This moment will present itself to them only after the negotiations of Rue de Grenelle. The CGT must first be beaten by Pompidou on the plane of negotiations.

In the first place: the union federations including CNPF (National Confederation of French Employers) are invited by the government to the headquarters of the ministry of social affairs, and the prime minister, George Pompidou, will be there in person to direct the negotiations. The Gaullist class government stands before the union delegations, the bosses stand behind Pompidou. Pompidou is not present at Rue de Grenelle as mediator, but as the most qualified functionary of capital.

Séguy and Descamps arrive at Rue de Grenelle, after all, precisely to come together with Pompidou and to discuss the highest moment of capitalist rationalization. The agitations behind them, in fact, had begun at the extremely advanced points of Sud Aviation and Renault: they base their negotiation tactics around them, because they try to sustain the global demand concerning the French class situation on the basis of the levels of these advanced points (however already conveniently downsized according to economic possibilities). Pompidou’s tactic, we can now say, is exactly the opposite: for him it is a matter of isolating the advanced points of the automobile sector in the deadlock of negotiations, and of negotiating at a much lower level, in terms now indeed of a global nature, what is reconcilable for the most underdeveloped sectors.

The tactical battle plays out over the SMIG (minimum guaranteed wage for industrial workers).

One will recall: the workers of Renault had asked for a minimum net wage of 1,000 francs per month and 20% increase in wages. The CGT and CFDT go to the negotiations holding in their pocket the downsizing, requested by Renault, of the minimum wage to 600 francs per month, because the Gaullist government cannot concede a wage of 1,000 francs. Agreeing to negotiate on economic grounds which are “possible,” they agree implicitly to the possibility that Gaullism might last, but not only this: the fact is that they are also made to play the game on the basis of demands that are “possible.”

The negotiations begin at 3:00pm on Saturday, May 25th. After the ritual preliminaries, and some snacks, Pompidou straightaway plays the card of the SMIG: at 6:45pm he proposes an increase from 2.22 francs per hour to 3 francs per hour. It is the first agreement of the negotiations. The minimum guaranteed wage for industrial workers moves in this way from around 380 francs (47,500 lire) to around 500 francs (62,500 lire) per month.

The increase seems substantial, nearly 30%! but in reality if we take into account the very low starting point of the preceding SMIG, it is clear that such an increase hardly touches the great majority of the wage earners belonging to the advanced sectors of French industry who are already above, albeit slightly, the newly increased minimum salary. If one notes that the “major” increase in the SMIG is just about the only outcome reached in the Grenelle Protocol, one can begin to grasp the trick that Séguy allowed Pompidou to play on him. In fact the latter succeeds at literally expelling from the negotiations the advanced sectors of auto, of aeronautics, of chemicals, etc., in order to deal only with the sectors which capital has left open and which it agrees to appease.

The CGT had gone to the negotiations claiming to want to bring the wages of the industrial workers to the level at which the strongest struggles underway had allowed them to bargain. In reality it gets immediately caged in with the SMIG, which is negotiated below the possibilities opened up by the current struggles. The problem remains of increasing wages which are already above the SMIG: there is agreement on an increase of 10% in the mass of wages, which in reality, making the calculations, turns out to be an increase of 7.75%: an increase which is barely higher than the average increase of the mass of wages. In France in 1967 this increase was 6%: the balance sheet of the gigantic struggles driven by the French working class would therefore yield a 1.75% increase extorted beyond what would have been normal.

Reduction of the work week to 40 hours: the reduction, in reality, figures in the protocol as the promise to reduce by a couple of hours the current 48 hours of weekly work by the Plan’s expiration date: 1970.

Power in the factory: a project which focuses on the union’s right in the factory will be examined as soon as possible (that is: after the strikes subside?)

Problem of work rhythms: nothing is said about this, when however it is known that the “productivity” of the French workers is among the highest of the countries of the EEC.

Not only are the unions caged in with the Grenelle Protocol, but Pompidou, prudent head of state, did not miss the opportunity to also cast a blow at the small companies with weak capital, which are barely competitive, based on a regime of low wages, the only ones to truly be affected by the adjustment of the SMIG. In the long-term the Grenelle operation proves to be a push accelerating the process of the integration of capital.

Of course, it is responded that the CGT and the CFDT left the ministry of social affairs without having signed, and even announcing that the last word had to be given by the working class. However they speak of demands that had been in part accepted, therefore in many aspects the negotiations of Rue de Grenelle can be considered “satisfactory.” Which means that they will be able to be fine-tuned and smoothed out, but that the line of work has been locked into place. And instead they were caught in a blind alley. What has Pompidou achieved in expelling the advanced sectors from the negotiations and appeasing the underdeveloped sectors where the collective of bosses [padronato] had decided to reconcile? He set things up in such a way that it will turn out to be impossible to reopen the negotiations over the advanced sectors.

With the days of crisis running from May 27th to the 30th having passed, De Gaulle reappears on television and announces that he will stay, keep Pompidou, get the Gaullist state back on its feet, call for general elections. It is from this moment that the appeased sectors resume work, that the general elections (the great celebration of legality) become the fundamental problem for the PCF and the CGT; it is in this moment that the French auto employers [padronato], lined up behind Pompidou and the protocol of Grenelle, make it known that they will not give even an inch. At this point neither the CGT nor the PCF are any longer able to create real political difficulties, because they do not feel like taking on the responsibility of a violent clash. The sector of the class in auto remains somewhat isolated, and under the great democratic mantle of the elections, Pompidou can now with impunity send the police to Flins, to beat and to provoke at one of the points where the workers’ resistance is strongest. But there is more: shortly after the General’s speech on May 30th, Pompidou extends the SMIG to the peasants. Here we have a political use of the wage on the part of capital, and also the coordinated conclusion of the operation that Gaullism has assembled with the negotiations of Rue de Grenelle: it succeeds at reducing the struggle of Renault to the level of possibile demands for agriculture, and – without the unions having planned it – elevating agricultural wages to the level on which the union was fighting for the industrial workers.

When Séguy, on the morning of Monday, May 27th, goes to the exemplary factory of Renault Billancourt to submit the protocol to the workers, the factory almost falls down, they yell at him: “Do not sign it!” and, on the point where a recovery of strike hours is considered “depending on the case,” the workers interrupt Séguy, chanting: No! No!

The secretary of the CGT manages a number of high acrobatics: “I said: ‘depending on the case.’ Well, having seen what happens here, ‘it will not be the case’ for Renault.” And, that is, one will no longer speak of recovering the strike hours at Renault.

The next day, L’Humanité comes out with the full-page title: “The numbers don’t add up: the consulted workers decide to continue the agitation.”

The Discourse on Self-management

The day of the workers’ refusal of the Grenelle Protocol is also the day in which the slogan of unifying all the forces in revolt against the traditional political institutions is launched, against the coordinated solutions, against those who accept the Gaullist government, still in charge, as valid interlocutor of negotiations which amount to nothing. The call put forward by UNEF is: Workers and students to the stadium of Charléty! To this invitation, the “mise en garde” of the PCF retorts immediately that the workers ought not accept provocations.

It has been said: after the barricades Charléty is the new rendezvous of two revolts which aim to become revolution and which seek a common language (Le Monde of May 29th). As suggestive as the image is, our political judgment of it must be equally cold.

Who meets at Charléty? The UNEF demonstration collects the endorsement of the national Union of higher education, of the FEN [Fédération de l’éducation nationale (Federation for National Education)], of the CFDT, and the political support of the PSU.

Who is opposed to Charléty? The PCF, the CGT, and Cohn-Bendit’s March 22 Movement.

Just looking at the acronyms, one can begin with the the observation that at Charléty a union front (UNEF-CFDT) is gathering, which seems to accept the PSU as its own political backdrop.

So far, our chronicle of the French events of May has followed the union encounter CFDT-UNEF as a political convergence of the slogans “union power” and “student power” which refused to be absorbed into the “reformist” game of the parties. As we approach Charléty, on the other hand, one can begin to glimpse with a certain clarity that the two powers (union and student) are making their own plan of reformism.

This observation is so important because up to this moment, they had pointed out the classical model of left reformism in the extremely close interdependence between the CGT and the PCF.

And the March 22 Movement? On the day of Charléty it is against both: for this reason it is isolated in its stance against the solutions of a reformist type being prepared. For the truth is not only as it seems: even at Flins, at Cléon, at Billancourt, etc. there are people who are against the caving-in which is taking shape in the union negotiations, those workers of Renault who seek an “impossible” wage, who demand, that is, a bargaining of their own price at a level which would make the market for labor-power explode.

Would we be going too far if, gathering the images recounted just above, we were to say that the encounter of the two revolts which tend toward becoming revolution begins to take a definite form in the two days of battle waged by the workers, to whose aid the students rushed, around the Renault-Flins factory assaulted by the police on Thursday, June 6th?

From Charléty, then, we will recall essentially two things.

  1. The 40,000 persons who, responding to the appeal for unification between workers and students, gathered in the stadium in spite of the PCF’s threatening warning. It is important to observe this because it was not a matter of just any people whatsoever, but the vast majority was formed by vanguard militants who demanded a revolutionary action. For the first time the PCF found itself faced with a great mass of militants (many workers among them) who publicly defied its directives.
  2. The ambiguous attempt of utilizing these vanguard forces on the part of the self-management unionists, who precisely at Charléty begin to make the shadow of Mendès-France dance on the big screen of the future.

At Charléty the revolution is sought in order to liquidate Gaullism definitively and in order to realize workers’ management of the factories, except that the self-managed factories seem already delivered into the reformist hands of Mendès-France’s PSU. It is so clear that when, two days after the CGT gathers a half-million workers in the demonstration on the Place de Bastille, it unleashes its battalions against those whom at Charléty it claimed to overtake on the left.

One must say that the hours during which the great procession of the CGT takes place are those when the feeling is most widespread – for many, by now, a certainty – that the Gaullist power would be liquidated. In fact one is already thinking about what will happen after. The PCF has only one concern: to prevent the Federation of the Left from “ditching” the communists. The ambiguity of Mitterand’s attitude, of Mollet and of Defferre, who, while harshly attacking Gaullism, do not want to commit themselves and demonstrate clearly that they prefer a centrist or center-left solution supported by the dissident Gaullists, that is, by the rats abandoning the ship, is denounced by the PCF with the intonation: “whoever has ears to hear, pay attention.”

At Le Mans a popular procession carries at its front the sign: “Mitterand, no maneuvers.” It is a serious danger. But the attack, once again, has as its object the “gauchistes”; in an article entitled “Les diviseurs,” Waldeck Rochet writes on the authority of the party: “…it is not serious to pretend to go towards socialism without the communists and even less by engaging in anticommunism as at the Charléty stadium … we do not intend to open the way for a feudal regime subordinated to American politics.” Abroad, in the Arab world for example, the organ of Istiqlal echoes these worries, seeing in the French events “a conspiracy organized by the CIA and by international Zionism.” Therefore is even Mendès-France “objectively” at the service of the Americans, with his presence at Charléty and with his acceptance of the candidacy proposed to him above all by the CFDT? This union federation, although invited, does not participate in the procession because – it says – UNEF is not participating in it; there are, however, groups of students – of “Révoltes” in particular – which stand out in the immense flood, with their slogan “workers’ government.”

And yet precisely at the moment in which De Gaulle is at large, the mystificatory nature of his politics appears clear, above all his foreign policy. Already with his proposals of “participation” from a few days before, he had raised the enthusiasms of Belgrade’s Borba, which believed to see there, in the event that it took hold, the first application in a capitalist country of the system of Yugoslav self-management, defending the General against those who could see nothing but a return to the traditional multiparty system once De Gaulle was eliminated. Not to mention the Algerian press, which will exhale a true and real sigh of relief when, two days later, the General will say that he does not intend to leave. So, both for Tito and for Boumedienne, better De Gaulle than the PCF. The reality was however that in France, in those days, nobody saw in De Gaulle a man of the “third way” between Russia and America, but the man who ensured power for big capital and its neo-colonial policy.

We have said that in those days “everything seemed possible”: even the magistrates, who on Wednesday the 29th had rejected the Citröen request that law enforcement and private factory militias intervene in order to clear out their offices, probably believed it. But Pompidou and with him the most advanced capital retained a great self-assurance: the political clarity of the prime minister and his precise tactic of fencing in the movement, isolating the mass vanguards in auto, will seem increasingly clear in the following days and infinitely more effective than De Gaulle’s sensational “return.” After Grenelle, Pompidou works above all on the public sector, to remove important class sectors, one by one, from the struggle; on Tuesday the unions had signed the agreement for the Charbonnages de France, for 67,000 miners who work in the tunnels of the basin of Pas-de-Calais, for the most part Africans, and for the 20,000 who work on the surface; he was now preparing to settle the electricity, the gas, and the metro of Paris. He begins also to search for means of liquidating the active minority agents within the factories and for this reason asks for the secret ballot regarding the return to work: the next day the miners of Pas-de-Calais, where the CGT has 70% of the votes in the elections for the union delegates and the CFDT has only 4% of them, refuse to go back to work.

At Nantes 30,000 demonstrators clash with the police and lay siege to the prefecture, students and workers united. Roland Andrieu, of the mariners’ union of the CGT, steps in to calm the demonstrators, but he soon realizes that in that climate this type of operation is absurd, and so he resigns from his union duties, expressing his solidarity and his agreement with Barjonet. But these will be the only cases of conflict opened at the level of union functionaries of a certain weight: the discipline within the CGT and at this level has held very well. The French employers’ confederation aligns itself immediately with Pompidou’s directives, launches an appeal to return to work, and declares that it will begin to apply the Grenelle agreements unilaterally.

In the meantime, to give the students a semblance of victory, Peyrefitte, minister of education, tenders his resignation. The reality is that the students receive this gesture with total indifference because they are by now committed to creating the organizational structures capable of carrying forward the movement of struggle, independently from the union negotiations. For the students – but when we say students we must say also and especially the young workers, French and immigrant, who were at the head of the struggle – it is a beginning, a beginning which cannot be upset nor modified in any way by any political combination that may eventually replace De Gaulle. The refusal of the terrain of traditional politics or to depend on the waiting game – which will also be conveyed clearly at the moment of the elections – is the characteristic fact of the entire movement of May. The Action Committees, the worker-student committees set as their goal to provide social support for the strike, to break the isolation of the factories, to prevent the sectoralization of the struggle. And in this sense the rank-and-file groups demonstrate more lucidity than the top brass [vertici] of the new left, in particular of the PSU and of the CFDT, with their offers to Mendès-France. And this shows how within this “left” the ambiguities and the mystifications are still very great, and how the unity which one can see at the common press conference of Barjonet, Jean-Paul Vigier, March 22, JCR and Mury (PCF-m-l) is the result more of opposition to the traditional left than from a real political unity.

From the enthusiasm of Wednesday one passes to the depression of the next day. The union negotiations are stagnant, due to the indifference of the union federations which await the agreements at the traditional political summits concerning a new government make-up, due to Pompidou’s will and that of the employers [padronato] who await the return of De Gaulle from Baden-Baden, where he went to consult with the fascist generals. In the short speech of four and a half minutes which he gives in the middle of the afternoon, he highlights three points: a) the clash must be channeled into electoral terms; b) those who do not agree to these terms will find themselves facing a power ready for civil war; c) the men of the Federation of the left are only the “straw men” [uomini di paglia] of the PCF. Four hours later Pompidou completes the operation extending the minimum industrial wage to the agricultural workers and signs a decree that abolishes the wage zones. With these decisions the Gaullist power shows that it wants to influence, having identified them clearly, the mechanisms which put the workers’ spontaneity in motion and which gave it a precise political configuration. The sectoral imbalances, those between region and region, have undoubtedly made the movement, from Paris, extend to all of France; on the other hand the Gaullist power (and its electoral power) has its bases in the countryside: the cases in which the peasants had joined the workers in struggle and supplied economic and social support to the strikers went on multiplying; finally, within the movement one could clearly identify the mass vanguards – which were also able to express themselves on the terrain of the wage – and the most underdeveloped areas. But above all what became clear was the refusal of the rules of the democratic and negotiated game.

Among the many reactions to De Gaulle’s speech, one seems quite significant to us, that of a group of programming technicians, forming part of the general Commissariat for the Plan: “one of the permanent functions [of the Commissariat] is to ensure dialogue in the context of planning between the different forces of the nation: the undersigned therefore express their apprehension in the face of the terms employed by the head of state toward men who represent the people.” The reference to the PCF and to the unions is clear, and equally clear is the worry that rediscovered unity between De Gaulle and the men of OAS may compromise the institution of friendly relations between the representatives of labor-power and representatives of capital. This declaration is echoed in Catholic Action’s protest of De Gaulle’s “slandering” the working class. If the French Catholic world in fact found itself in the crisis of May many times to the left of the communists, for bringing about, at the rank-and-file level [alla base], a revolutionary unity with the students on the barricades and with the workers in the occupations, if the CFDT continued to insist on “union and worker power” in the factory, this should be seen from the perspective creating an advanced industrial democracy, having as its goal co-management, to which the higher strata of the working class (the technicians), who represent the union strength of the CFDT, are particularly receptive. Over the course of the movement, however, the reformist character of the demands around management has changed considerably, so it is rather difficult today to create a discourse concerning these slogans “in principle.” In the term “self-management,” which ended up unifying the Catholics, a part of the students, and a whole wing of the movement of Trotskyist inspiration, on each occasion the contents were various and continually changing.

Even within this problematic a clear division is operating. On the one hand De Gaulle tried to insert himself and to recuperate it, speaking of “participation,” knowing that on this terrain he could preserve trust both in the technocracy of planning (the same which is worried about the “antipopular” tones in his May 30th speech), and in the young employers [giovane padronato]; on this subject L’Express of May 26th noted that “…other business leaders, in particular the Center of the Young Employers, want to benefit from the referendum proposed by the head of state to negotiate the application of co-management at the company level. They would prefer to abandon part of their authority rather than seriously add weight to their costs of production. For them, the discussion concerning a percentage increase in wages cannot settle the present difficulties. They want to immediately confront the basic problem: finding a balance between cooperation with the wage workers and the efficacy of decision. A very difficult problem to resolve both on the plane of the company and on that of political institutions.”

Finally, for Gaullism, the thematic of “participation” could recover the youthful and union forces that drawn inspiration from progressive French Catholicism. But the reality is that the revolutionary character of the movement of May has in practice done away with this objectively integrationist nature of the co-management perspective. For the students under the banner of self-management, what was meant concretely was the possibility of finding a practical, common terrain with the workers in struggle, for them it was intended to create spaces for permanent political discussion, within and outside the factory, centered on the problem of power. And we ended up witnessing the phenomenon that precisely those who spoke of self-management in terms of workers’ management of their own exploitation came to be swept away by the will, especially of the young workers, to reject their own role as producers. It was the refusal of work that emerged at the end of the discussions on self-management and not the acceptance of a better and more humane organization of work itself. And in this sense, little by little, the debate was deepened, a part of that fictitious unity which had in the first days captivated workers and higher technicians came tumbling down. They no longer had to be, as the CFDT and a certain PSU sociologist wanted, those who realize a more humane and rational organization of work in the company for the workers, but the negation of their social function as productive workers. Because of this, every process of reconstructing political organization passes through a period of anarchy, that is, of refusal of the social function which the system assigns to each person. But these things are clarified in the practice of action more than at the theoretical level. Not to mention then the fact that, at the level of theoretical discussion, those who spoke about self-management found themselves always facing the PCF and CGT, who (this time, indeed), with Lenin in hand, demonstrated that self-management has been the warhorse of left opportunism since the polemic between the Bolsheviks and the council movement in Germany.

After De Gaulle’s speech, the counter-offensive of power concentrates itself in a single direction: isolate and humiliate the vanguards in auto. Following their instructions, the metallurgic industrialists interrupt negotiations. In a public statement the CGT affirms that “the return to work will take place in good order wherever demands have been sufficiently satisfied, and wherever the workers have decided it through an organized meeting of the strike committees and union organizations.” At the same time, however, especially regarding the public services sector and public industry in general, the CGT continues to advance requests that, according to Le Monde on June 4th, “on the economic plane will be no less dangerous, for the current regime, than what the verdict of voters could be.”

The CFDT, on the other hand, while announcing that it has refused to participate in the first informal meetings with the leadership of Renault because they would have been “armchair conversations,” will declare that “the union movement arrives now at another phase: that of elections. We will try to break up the dilemma of the two blocs, Gaullist and communist.” It in fact does not participate in the demonstration called by UNEF for Saturday, June 1st (called an “irresponsible initiative” by the PCF), which ends in the order and the call to head in a procession or in groups towards the workshops of Citröen and Renault. But however valid in their intentions, these “mass encounters” between students and workers, which in the end conclude with some whispers across the iron gates, show their wear. The most positive action is the one organized in the student-worker Action Committees in which immigrant students and immigrant workers acquire a considerable importance by concentrating efforts with an eye toward a test of strength with power, with respect to the metallurgic workers and the auto workers in particular. The Committees of the quarters also carry out an important function of social support for the strike. At the same time a discussion begins within the university groups, where on the one hand the problem of creating the “Party” is posed with insistence and without the proper equipment [sprovvedutezza], on another it is insisted in any case that one must give an organized, permanent consistency to the student-worker action, and finally on another it is preferred to maintain the organizational forms that from time to time are necessarily made by practical action or, to say it with Cohn-Bendit (he reappeared at the Sorbonne a few days earlier, but almost no one had noticed): “it is necessary to set up forms of parallel power in the factories which permit us to continue the struggle as long as the workers decide to continue it.” He proposes that this type of discussion be dealt with within the Committees – the only form of possible organization for the moment – and that they not depend on agreements entered into between the student leaders of various groups.

One should at this point make a more precise analysis of these groups, of their origins and of their tendencies, but this would take us backwards in our discourse. It is worthwhile, however, to at least point to the Marxist-Leninist group which is attached to the periodical Servir le peuple and which it seemed to us has the most experience of political work at the workers’ level. Refusing to formally constitute the “Party” like their comrades of the PCFm-l (who publish Humanité nouvelle), those belonging to the group “Servir le peuple” took action within the CGT, recovering the rank-and-file union cadre and the young workers. They therefore played an essential function in the connection between universities and factories, even if the line followed – analogous to other Marxist-Leninist movements – is that of picking up all the banners dropped by the communist workers’ movement over its 40-year history. The action of their union groups (“proletarian CGT unionists”) merged, particularly in the following days with the return of De Gaulle, with the general action of the students who oriented their work toward the factories, in support of the struggle in auto. But the shortcomings of a political discourse founded on the practice of the struggles appears clear in these days (cf. the issues of Action from June 5th forward).

After the signing of agreements by the oil workers, according to the employers’ proposals, and by the railway workers, there remains the big stumbling block of metallurgy, in which negotiations begin on Tuesday, June 4th, while in the auto sector the determination of the workers advises the government and the bosses to wait longer. On June 5th L’Humanité announces the “Victorious return to work in unity” and the CGT recommends that: “Wherever the essential demands have been met, the wage workers’ interest is in speaking out en masse for the return to work in unity.” And, actually, the Paris metro, the postal services, the telegraphs, and electricity do get back to work; at Clermont-Ferrand the workers instead reoccupy Michelin.

At this point the government is ready to try the test of strength with those at Renault, while the students, flowing back, announce the opening of the “Critical Popular University” for the summer. At three in the morning on Thursday the 6th, the CRS expel the picket lines from Flins. The provocation orchestrated by the government against the students, on the night of the barricades between May 10th and 11th, which provoked the explosion of France, is now tried against the workers’ vanguards at Renault in a political climate which already senses resignation and demoralization. The Gaullist regime knows that it cannot win anything with negotiations in auto, and therefore it attacks, risking also a change in orientation from the unions. From the morning of Thursday, for the entire day and the next day, workers and students on one side, police on the other, confront each other in the streets and in the countryside. Geismar, March 22, Vigier ask for a chance to speak at a meeting organized by the unions at Elisabethville, the residential area of Flins, and despite the opposition of the unions they get it: the CGT intervenes once more with toughness, classifying Geismar as a “specialist in provocation,” while Krasucki declares in the press that “it was not useful to resume the strike in order to support the metal workers” and that the general resumption of the struggle was “an inopportune slogan that would only encourage the political designs which the government has not renounced.” Meanwhile the metallurgic bosses become more threatening and announce that beginning on the 4th, 50% of the wage, agreed to as an amount to be paid to the workers for the strike days, will no longer be paid.

Flins: End of a Politics

“Thursday, June 6th, 6:00am: students, having come from Paris, despite the police, are reuniting at the hip with the workers in front of the factory. It is a matter of stopping the cars and buses that transport the workers and of preventing the return to work which the leadership wants to impose. The great majority from the first shift refused to return, reinforcing the picket line in front of the factory, in the face of CRS. 7:30am: the second shift arrives (6,000 workers). The CRS clears out the edges of the factory in order to isolate those who are arriving from the strikers. The maneuver does not succeed because strikers and students, passing through the woods, run out in front of the buses. Those who are inside are rapidly convinced and get out; they are so numerous that the CRS cannot intervene… An assembly decides to occupy the edges of the factory. While a delegation heads toward the factory to secure the removal of the police forces, the CRS charges forward. Their dignity insulted from the occupation of the factory, the workers of Flins experience the repression. Throughout the day, with the students, they will resist the police’s provocation. Given that the clash happens in a rural area, “the front” will soon spread over many hundreds of meters. In spite of mobility the CRS dare not distance themselves from their cars… The workers of the nearby companies, the youth of the villages came to give strong support to those at Flins: they want the demands of the workers to be satisfied, they are happy that the students have come… Saturday morning, during the meeting convened by the unions, all this was clear: will to carry on the struggle despite the forces of repression; will to reinforce the worker-student unity in action” (from Action, June 10th) … “From Sunday the mobilization is organized in the region of Flins. The local population puts itself spontaneously at the service of the workers and of the students having come from Paris. Accommodation, food, announcements are taken care of by the inhabitants of Flins and the nearby towns. At night, around four in the morning, the students are hosted in the local of the CFDT and in the chapel of Flins. But starting at 5:00am, numerous police forces besiege them and attack the occupants, with fixed bayonets. 150 students are arrested, multiple militants of the CFDT are bludgeoned. Between 5:00am and 6:00am another 150 students and workers will be arrested at Mureaux. At around 7:00am the mayor has to evacuate the CRS and the mobile guards from the city. Nonetheless at the end of the morning the police forces once again besiege the city and other communes like Meulan, Aubergenville, Mantes, arresting at random all the youth who appear suspicious: students, young workers, foreign workers, all those who have long hair (Saturday the cops shaved the arrested demonstrators).

“At the edges of the factory, from the beginning of the morning, the incidents multiply. Around 8:00am, nearly 3,000 workers, having arrived in buses from the surrounding region, travel towards the factory. Among them there are ‘a few yellow ones’ but the greater part has ‘come to see.’ Favorable or not to carrying on the strike, all are unanimous in the refusal to resume work so long as the cops are at the gates of the factory. Within an hour almost all have walked out of the factory. Some return home; others, decisive strikers, occupy the paintwork division for a bit. Leaving the factory, these people collide with the forces of order. At 11:30am a rally is held in front of the gates of the factory. Before 1,500 people, the union delegates make an appeal to their adherents that they ought to carry on the strike until their demands are met. In the afternoon, some small improvised meetings continue to take place at Mureaux and in other towns. Nonetheless the repression persists. The police forces continue to ‘sweep’ the region, systematically questioning the students and arresting all the cars with Paris license plates. At the end of the afternoon some demonstrators meet up on the island of Meulan. Soon the mobile guards surround them and push them towards the river. Some are pushed into it by the cops. A 17-year-old high schooler drowns. Once again the cold blood of the forces of order has been demonstrated.”

The death of the young Gilles Tutin and the two deaths at Sochaux in the following days seem to shut down a politics initiated by French and European capital with the agreements at Rénault in 1955: the model agreements, which should have shown the way of social peace and workers’ integration into the neo-capitalist system. But clearly these facts are not restricted to the field of pure industrial relations, connected to them is a politics which essentially concerns institutions of the system more than one economic policy over another. Overseeing his political and electoral victory will certainly not be easy for De Gaulle, as it will not be easy for the young workers and students who have imposed the struggles to find, if not political organization, then at least some first forms of coordination. Moreover, after the experience of the French May, capitalists’ and workers’ reformisms have possibilities for development and recovery which are certainly inferior to those of a revolutionary movement. Which does not mean that they have been liquidated. A tendency that saw political initiative still in the hands of the capitalist class [ceto capitalistico] has by now been reversed. It was quite easy to control isolated movements of spontaneity, it will be less easy to control or to cage in the very large number of young students and workers who have become revolutionary militants after the crisis of May, who occupy factories and universities, going down into the streets and then going back into the factory and the university in order to continue the struggle – as the wildcat strikes at Rénault in recent days and the initiative of the Critical Popular University show. After the clashes of Flins, De Gaulle dissolved the “little groups”: it is a completely useless operation because by now some of the essential things supported by those “little groups” have become the patrimony of the masses, even if they still are insufficient to create a new organization. They however are not antithetical to the movement itself – as some believe – it is true instead that none of them, alone by themselves, can “prefigure the party” – as others maintain. They dissolve and exhaust themselves in spontaneity; but on this subject it should be noted that spontaneity at the level of organization cannot last long and that indeed the “active minorities” realistically reflect the current level of consciousness, but above all in their weaknesses and in their limits. There still remains therefore a lag on the politico-theoretical plane, and the work in this direction must be carried forward on the basis of verification, direct experimentation, and above all on the political analysis of how much has happened.

One speaks of the “betrayal” of the CGT and of the PCF: this thesis is one of political infantilism, since it is a matter instead – and not only as of today – of indeed making sure that the “betrayal” becomes ineffective in halting and mystifying a movement of struggle. All that workers’ spontaneity – in the refusal and in the use of the old organizations – has created over the course of the 1960s in Europe and which some groups have sought to make conscious, went in this direction. We keep two facts in mind: at the National Confederated Committee of the CGT, on June 14th, Séguy exalted the “exemplary cohesion” shown by the CGT at all levels over the course of the movement of struggle, as well as the great organized discipline of the union in the face of the pressures to which it was subjected. At the general elections, in the first and second rounds, the Parisian belt of workers withheld – above all in abstention – their vote from the PCF. The conclusions which they would like us to draw from these two facts are the following: it shows that the working class is oriented in an “economistic” direction and is de-ideologized. Instead the opposite is true. Why has the CGT held and the PCF instead surrendered on the points where the struggles were most harsh? Because in the course of the clash between classes, the workers use the union as their communication instrument for the struggle, for self-organization, as one of the channels that allows them to break the isolation and the atomization and as a cover in the face of immediate repression. It is the last trench from which one begins and in which one takes refuge if things get bad. And, after all, why do the bosses compliment the union leaders as much as they persecute the factory militants? If there was “exemplary cohesion” in the ranks of the CGT, that shows the determination for organization and not discipline in following instructions. What we should see as an irreparable evil is, if anything, the slow dissolution of the union, the resignation of its rank-and-file militants, their skulking, their retirement in disappointed isolation and in bitterness. But this process, although it has happened, does not stop and cannot be inverted without offering them a political platform to persuade them to hold fast to the objective of liquidating the liquidators. Meanwhile, as regards the party, after a movement of struggle such as the French one, so long as it does not offer us anything but an electoral ballot, in that case we do not really know how to use it. The elaboration and the experimentation of a political line today therefore remain completely external to the party and are (but is there a need to say it?) in frontal opposition to the official line of the party. And if the party, to recover the new strata of militants who were formed outside of it, descends onto this very terrain, so much the better: to avoid contact would mean once again being conscious only of one’s own political incapacity. But how many of these things today can be true in Italy and how many instead are no longer true in France?

In France already today many are waiting for “something new to break out”; in reality one can already detect with sufficient certainty how and where this “something” will happen: in the mass vanguards of auto, where the regime forcibly bent the most politically advanced sectors of workers. All the efforts of self-organization are concentrated In that direction which has already given its first proofs in the clashes at Flins or during the resistance of some nuclei – like the postal workers and the workers in the Paris metro, the technicians of radio and television, the shipbuilders of Nantes: what was important above all was the social organization and the popular, territorial support of the struggle, self-defense, the creation of provisional institutions of permanent political elaboration. During the occupation of the Italian factories in 1920, then prime minister Giolitti, who found himself abroad, faced with alarming news from the prefects encouraging him to return, responded that “as long as the workers are locked in the occupied factories” there was no reason to be worried. The occupation is a springboard [trampolino] for decisions of a practical-political type which must then translate into the organization of the social circuit of struggle. These mechanisms of workers’ struggle must be entirely rebuilt at the theoretical level by the students, before being organized, anticipating spontaneity.

We have seen: from their decentralized point with respect to production and the condition of the wage, the students dissolved the discourse on the autonomy of the University into that of the radical protest of the school as instrument of the Plan, and in doing so they arrived at a political discourse which refuses the process of training and reproducing the workforce, making it become a process of training in political militancy. At the same time, from the sectoral and sectional structure that the unions wanted to give to the factory struggle, the young workers who were at the head of the occupations quickly arrived at a mass political unification that begins from the refusal of their own social function and becomes consciousness of their being situated in the “privileged areas” of the struggle against the system. A process of political communication is established between student struggles and workers’ struggles, between the decentered points and the very center of production. As Dutschke has already pointed out in part, it has been the case that, at the highest moment of capitalist rationalization, when one finds oneself facing the accomplished fact of the economic structures which have come to permeate every behavior in social life and every political institution, the very economy of the Plan shows its maximum vulnerability, and it is no longer permitted any independence from any struggle, no matter from what point in the planned system it arises. Any “integrated” point – the student struggles have shown – can present itself as a fuse linked to the stockpile of explosives. Even more so, that relation between maximum integration and homogenization and maximum vulnerability and communication of the struggle can now be established regarding the revolutionary French movement and the countries of the EEC. Having found himself in front of a mass political recomposition, Pompidou sought to parry the blow, trying to standardize the economic and social condition of the workers, taking care above all to eliminate the dynamic internal moments of spontaneity, isolating and striking with violence the sectors of auto and the student struggle. It may be that from this moment forward, France, despite having tried to eliminate some internal imbalances, inserts into the EEC some “less competitive” products compared to what M. de Clinchamps was hoping for in his recommendations to the General Commissariat for the Plan, recounted at the beginning; hence the international area on which the contradictions of capital move may also turn out to have been disturbed. But what is important is that France carries into the EEC the political imbalance of a working class that remains on the offensive. The birds of bad omens, who in the face of overwhelming Gaullist electoral success speak of workers’ defeat, should thus think twice before squawking.

Translated by Andrew Anastasi

This translation is based on the essay’s original publication: Sergio Bologna and Giairo Daghini, “Maggio ‘68 in Francia,” Quaderni Piacentini 7, no. 35 (July 1968): 241. Biblioteca Gino Bianco has graciously made scans of Quaderni Piacentini available online. The essay was subsequently published in book form, with a new introduction (Roma: Derive Approdi, 2008).

Thanks to Dave Mesing for commenting on the draft. Any errors remain the translator’s own.

  1. Massimo Cacciari, “La Comune di maggio,” Contropiano 1, no. 2 (October 1968): 455–62, 455. 

  2. All quotations in this paragraph are from the translation below. 

  3. Cacciari, “La Comune di maggio,” 455. 

  4. Viewpoint hopes to re-present in the near future the rich conversations among partisans of operaismo around planning, counter-planning, and the state. 

  5. See the translation below. 

  6. Cacciari, “La Comune di maggio,” 455. 

  7. Steve Wright, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (Londo: Pluto, 2002) 118. Bologna played an important role in helping to develop pamphlets documenting and circulating lessons from the Pirelli CUB’s struggles. 

  8. Translator’s Note: Bologna and Daghini present this slogan from the Sorbonne occupation in French – “Cours, camarade, le vieux monde est derrière toi!” – as they also do with certain other quotes in the original publication. For fluidity of reading, here and below we have replaced all but the most accessible French with English translations. 

  9. TN: Padronato, an important term in operaismo, refers to a politically organized, collective unit of bosses. There is no comparable word in English, so we have retained it in brackets throughout the text and translated it as “employers” or “bosses” depending on the context. Thanks to Evan Calder Williams for conversation on this point. 

  10. TN: Bologna and Daghini use “MEC” here to refer to the “Mercado europeo comune,” but in order to avoid confusion with the more general contemporary discourse about the “common market” of the European Union, we have rendered it here and below as “European Economic Community (EEC).” In English EEC refers to the organization, founded with the Treaty of Rome in 1957, of six European states – Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany – which sought to establish a common market and customs union, and which was indeed an important precursor to today’s European Union. For a striking political analysis of the institutional history of the EU, see Panagiotis Sotiris and Spyros Sakellaropoulos, “European Union as Class Project and Imperialist Strategy,” Viewpoint 6 (February 2018). 

  11. TN: Literally “strike force,” this refers to France’s nuclear weapons capacity. 

  12. TN: The CRS or Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité [Republican Security Companies] are the French riot police. 

  13. TN: In English in the original. 

  14. TN: The Fouchet Plan was a proposal, spearheaded by DeGaulle, for greater political integration and intergovernmental cooperation within the EEC. 

  15. TN: “Leaders” in English in the original. 

  16. TN: The “Yalta Memorandum” was an essay by Palmiro Togliatti, long-time head of the Italian Communist Party, written just before and published shortly after his death in 1964. In the memo, Togliatti calls for rapprochement with China, insisting that “the unity of all Socialist forces in a common action, going also beyond ideological differences, against the most reactionary imperialist groups, is an indispensable necessity.” He also raises the question of whether a peaceful transition to socialism, extending the limits of democracy in a bourgeois state, might be possible in a country like Italy, while also criticizing the “suppression of democratic and personal freedom introduced by Stalin.” Waldeck Rochet’s PCF opposed these tendencies. 

  17. TN: This would appear to be a reference to Mario Tronti’s “Lenin in England,” an essay from 1964 with which Bologna and Daghini were well familiar. 

  18. TN: “Indefinite” in the sense of having no fixed expiration date, no limits. 

  19. TN: Force Ouvrière (FO) was a union federation which had broken from the CGT after World War II. Confédération Générale des Cadres (CGC) was largely composed of white-collar workers and professionals. 

  20. TN: The Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS) was a right-wing French paramilitary organization that carried out bombings and assassinations in opposition to Algerian independence. 

  21. TN: “Leaders” in English in the original. 

  22. “Pas seulement pour quelques francs,” Nouvel Observateur, no. 184. 

  23. From Voix Ouvrière, May 20. 

  24. Voix Ouvrière, May 20. 

  25. TN: The Guaranteed Cross-Industry Minimum Wage (Salaire minimum interprofessionnel garanti, SMIG) is explored in greater detail below. 

  26. Cf. the learned memo that Le Monde dedicates to it, “La Chienlit de Rabelais à De Gaulle,” no. 7262, Tuesday, May 21st, page 3. 

Authors of the article

participated in Potere Operaio and Primo Maggio. He now works as a freelance consultant on transportation and logistics.

participated in Potere Operaio and is a philosopher and urbanist.