5. The General Wildcat Strike
In France it is enough to be something for one to want to be everything.
Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique
of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. Introduction
DURING THE DAY of May 17th, the strike extended to almost the entire chemical and metallurgical industries. Following the example of Renault; the workers of Berliet, Rhodiaceta, Rhône-Poulenc and SNECMA decided to occupy their factories. Several railway stations were in the hands of their workers and only a few trains still ran. The postal workers had already taken over the post offices. On the 18th the strike hit Air France and the RATP. Having begun with some exemplary occupations in the provinces, the strike had extended to the Parisian region and then engulfed the entire country. From this moment on even the unions could no longer fool themselves that this chain-reaction of wildcats would not become a general strike.
Spontaneously set in motion, the occupation movement had fought from the beginning all orders and control from the unions. "At Renault headquarters," wrote Le Monde on May 18th, "the wildcat nature of the beginning of the movement was underlined after the May 13th strike, which had been moderately supported in the provinces. It was seen as equally paradoxical that the center of the revolt was located precisely in a factory where, at the social level, there had been only routine and minor conflicts."
The depth of the strike limited the unions to a rapid counter-offensive which showed with a particularly brutal clarity their natural function as guardians of capitalist order in the factories. The trade-union strategy had a single goal: to defeat the strike. In order to do this the unions, with a long strike-breaking tradition, set out to reduce a vast general strike to a series of isolated strikes at the individual enterprise level. The CGT led the counter-offensive. Beginning on May 17th, its Central Council met and declared: "The action undertaken on the initiative of the CGT and with the other trade-union organizations has created a new situation and has taken on an exceptional importance." (This incredible lie is emphasized by the author.) The strike was thus accepted, but only to refuse any call for a general strike. Nevertheless, the workers everywhere voted for an unlimited strike and occupation of the factories. In order to take over a movement that threatened them directly the bureaucratic organizations had first to curb the workers' initiatives and face the growing autonomy of the proletariat. They therefore took over the strike committees, which immediately became veritable police powers charged with isolating the workers within the factories and formulating their own demands in the name of the workers.
While the picket lines at virtually all the factory gates, still under union orders, prevented the workers from speaking for themselves or to anyone else, and from hearing about the most radical currents then coming to the fore, the union leadership assumed the task of reducing the entire movement to a program of strictly professional demands. The spectacle of bureaucratic opposition reached the point of parody when the newly de-Christianized CFDT attacked the CGT, which it rightly accused of limiting itself to subsistence demands: and proclaimed that "beyond mere material demands it is the problem of management and control of the enterprise which has been posed: This electoral bid by a modernist trade union went so far as to propose "self-management" as the form of "workers' power in the enterprise: This was followed by the spectacle of the two major guardians of false consciousness taking over the truth of their own lies Seguy, the Stalinists, attacking self-management as an "empty formula" and Descamps, the priest, emptying it of its real content, In fact this quarrel of the ancients and the moderns over the best form of defense for bureaucratic capitalism was only a prelude to their fundamental agreement on the necessity for negotiations with the state and management.
On Monday, May 20th, the strike and occupations became general, with the exception of just a few sectors which would shortly join the movement There were by now six million strikers. There would be ten million in the days to follow. The CGT and the Communist Party, outflanked on every side, denounced any idea of an "insurrectionary strike," while pretending to stiffen their demands. Seguy declared that his "dossiers were ready for eventual negotiations." For the unions the only use of all the revolutionary strength of the proletariat was to make themselves presentable in the eyes of an effectively dispossessed management and practically nonexistent government.
The same comedy was being played out at the political level. On May 22nd, the motion of censure was defeated amidst general indifference. There was more going on in the factories and streets than in all the meetings of parliament and the parties. The CGT called for a "day of demands" on Friday the 24th. But in the meantime the attempt to expel Cohn-Bendit from the country brought the struggle back into the streets. A protest demonstration was improvised to prepare for the one on Friday. The CGT parade, which began at 2 P.M., was concluded in calm by a particularly senile broadcast by de Gaul.
Nonetheless, at the same time, thousands of demonstrators had decided once again to defy both the police and the student stewards. The massive participation of workers in the demonstration condemned by the CP and the CGT showed to what extent those two organizations could offer only the spectacle of a strength which no longer belonged to them. In the same way the leader of the March 22nd Movement was able, by his enforced absence, to start an agitation that he would have been unable to restrain.
Some thirty thousand demonstrators had gathered between Gare de Lyon and the Bastille. They set off to march to the Hôtel de Ville. But the police, obviously, had already blocked off all exits. The first barricades went up immediately. It was the signal for a series of confrontations that went on until dawn. Some of the demonstrators were able to break through to the stock exchange and sack it. The fire, which would have fulfilled the dreams of generations of revolutionaries, did only superficial damage to the "Temple of Capital." Several groups had spread out into the areas around the stock exchange, Les Halles and the Bastille, and were moving out towards La Nation. Others had made it to the Left Bank and were holding the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, before moving in the direction of Denfert-Rochereau. The violence reached its peak.1 It had long since ceased to be the monopoly of the "students" and had become the privilege of the proletariat. The police stations at Odéon and in the Rue Beaubourg were enthusiastically sacked. Before the eyes of the impotent police, two paddywagons and a police car were fired with Molotov cocktails in front of the Panthéon police station.
At the same time several thousand rioters in Lyon were fighting the police, crushing one superintendent under a runaway truck loaded with stones, and surpassing their Parisian comrades by organizing the looting of a department store. There were battles at Bordeaux, where the police retreated, in Nantes, and even in Strasbourg.
Thus the workers entered the struggle, not only against their unions, but moreover in sympathy with the movement of the students, and better still, of thugs and vandals defending absolutely scandalous slogans, ranging from "I COME OVER THE PAVING STONES" ("Je jouis dans les paves") to "NEVER WORK." None of the workers who left the factories to find the revolutionaries and work out a basis of agreement with them ever expressed any reservations about this extreme aspect of the movement. Quite the contrary: the workers didn't hesitate to build barricades, sack police stations, burn cars, and turn the Boulevard Saint-Michel into a vast garden, side-by-side with those Fouchet and the so-called Communist Party would the following day call "scum."
On the 25th the government and the bureaucratic organizations made a joint response to this insurrectionary prelude which made them tremble. Their responses were complementary: both of them called for a ban on demonstrations and for immediate negotiations. Each of them made the decision that the other had hoped for.
1. The death of one of the demonstrators was later admitted. Much use was made of the unfortunate victim: first it was announced that she had fallen from a roof, then that she had been knifed while fighting against "the scum " in the demonstration. Finally, the report of a medical expert, which was divulged a few weeks later, concluded that she had been killed by the explosion of a police grenade.