WW in 1968: French student strike sparked great proletarian revolution
Published Mar 20, 2008 8:12 PM
Workers World is in its 50th year of publication. Throughout the year,
we will share with our readers some of the paper’s content over the past
half century. Below are excerpts from two articles in 1968.
A WW article by F. Reed explains that the 1968 French uprising began on May
3, when several hundred students protested the closing of Nanterre University
and the jailing of their leaders for an action asserting student rights and
reform of the archaic university system. They were attacked, tear-gassed and
arrested by cops called out by the Interior Minister, Fouchet. Clashes spread
in the university area and by nightfall 500 had been arrested and 100 injured.
In the following days thousands of high school and university students and
teachers went on strike throughout the country, protests were held throughout
the city and barricades set up. A joint student union-workers’ union call
went out for a general strike on May 13. A million people were estimated to
By V. Copeland
May 23, 1968
The French railroad worker who declared, “The students were the fuse; we
(the workers) were the powder keg,” said a revolutionary mouthful last
The explosion in France was a big one, so big that it jarred the whole
repressive apparatus of a formerly confident ruling class and raised the
question of which class should have state power in a dramatic way that
everybody could understand.
It began spontaneously, the workers taking fire from the students and against
the will of their conservative leaders, transforming episodic although fiercely
militant actions into a nationwide general strike.
Beginning with the Sud Aviation plant in Nantes, where they welded the plant
gates shut on May 14, and leaping to the complex of Renault auto plants around
Paris, where the workers ran up the Red Flag, by May 20 over 6 million workers
had tied up the whole of France.
With hundreds of thousands of students occupying every major university in the
country and the majority of the minor ones, as well as broad action by still
more hundreds of thousands of high school pupils, the French working class
seized and occupied scores, possibly hundreds of plants. They often kept their
bosses, the executive servants of the ruling class, imprisoned as they insisted
on wage increases, shorter hours, etc.
Premier Georges Pompidou, acting in President de Gaulle’s absence,
implicitly threatened the use of troops.
But troops could not be moved on the closed-down railroads. Nor could they use
the telegraph or telephone for communications. Were they to move in jeeps and
tanks from their bases, it was questionable where they would concentrate their
attack, since the strike hit every city.
Mines, mills, steel and auto plants, rubber, textile, chemical and every
industry imaginable were on strike. Finally, the army itself was made up of the
brothers and sons of the strikers. Unlike the National Guard regiments of
Jersey City being sent to Newark, or white troops being used against Black
Americans, the French Army was not necessarily “reliable.” It was
almost a classical revolutionary situation.
And yet as late as May 17, Georges Seguy, Secretary General of the
CP-controlled General Confederation of Labor (CGT), stated specifically that he
was against a general strike!
But the general strike was already on (later to be rubber-stamped by Seguy) and
it had already shown its revolutionary possibilities.
Pompidou proved this when he accused the movement (on May 16) of trying to
“destroy the nation and the very foundation of our society.”
By May 23 nearly 10 million workers were on strike—a fifth of the total
population. It was as if 40 million U.S. workers (there are only 17 million
organized in labor unions) had downed their tools to bring the country to a
The workers’ leadership was compelled to supervise the flow of food and
vital services in the interest of the very workers who were striking. This
underlined the revolutionary character of the action and emphasized to the
leaders as well as to the ranks that the essential power was really in their
The bourgeoisie was helpless.
A greater portion of government workers was on strike than ever before in
history and an unprecedented number of farm workers as well. White collar and
blue collar, all joined to show that labor was everything and the ruling class
THE REVOLUTIONARY SITUATION IN FRANCE
Which Road for
the Mass Struggle?—
To a New Bourgeois Coalition or Workers’ Power?
By Sam Marcy
May 22, 1968
There can be absolutely no doubt that as of this writing, France is in the
throes of one of the deepest and most profound of revolutionary crises. And
France, it must be remembered, has had more of them than any other Western
nation to date.
What gives this truly great revolutionary upheaval exceptional and
extraordinary significance is that it has the very real potential—more
than previous crises—not only of ousting the de Gaulle government, but of
overturning the entire rotten edifice on which the French capitalist system is
Such an event, of course, would not only change the character of the
international situation, but would also light the flames of a new revolutionary
conflagration that inevitably would sweep all of Western Europe. This in turn
would surely mean a forging of the bonds of class solidarity between the
western proletariat and the revolutionary liberation struggles waged by the
peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
These bonds, first forged by the victorious October socialist revolution in
Russia and the Western proletarian uprisings that followed, were brutally
severed by the triumph of opportunism and liquidationism which now hold sway in
the USSR, Eastern Europe and most of the CPs.
When one considers the rising tide of rebellion in America today, along with
the momentous resurgence in Europe, it is inconceivable that the revolutionary
contagion would not also greatly affect the mood as well as the direction of
the rank-and-file white American worker and cement a genuine alliance with the
Black liberation movement against the U.S. imperialist Establishment.
The above prognosis, our cynics will tell you—and they are an
international breed—is a revolutionary pipe dream that won’t come
true. Perhaps. It is instructive to remember, however, that these very same
cynics were telling us only yesterday how stable, prosperous and safe from any
revolutionary disorders capitalist France was under de Gaulle, and that the
French workers had become so thoroughly bourgeois that they were beyond
Now, it is plain to see that the French working class, in alliance with the
revolutionary students and other social groupings, have what amounts to de
facto power in their hands. They have not only paralyzed the economic life of
the country—they virtually have it in their hands.
The real issue is whether what they have in their hands will be returned to the
absentee owners. This class of ruthless exploiters, a tiny minority of the
French people, is now literally at the mercy of an aroused and revolutionary
And yet, the ruling classes of Europe and America, while greatly alarmed at the
magnitude of the social and political upheaval, seem confident that even if the
de Gaulle government is eventually forced out, a new set of leftist politicians
will take over, grant a minimum of concessions, a maximum of false promises,
and through the medium of the French CP leadership, return the plants back to
their “rightful” owners and the workers to exploitation. ...
It is said that all the French workers want is the rectification of some
grievances and that their demands are only economic and do not go beyond the
limits of the present bourgeois order of society. True enough. But this is the
least of all the significant factors in the situation. The demands of the
Russian workers and peasants of 1917 were even more modest. Their slogan was
bread, land and peace.
Any important strike is an embryo revolution. That is a basic teaching of
The scope and breadth of the current strike in France, encompassing as of today
eight to ten million workers, poses a truly revolutionary threat to the
existing social order. It is not the modest character of the demands that is
decisive, but the manner in which the workers seek to get them achieved. And
the manner in which they have gone about it thus far, with speed and with such
utter spontaneity, makes it truly characteristic of a revolutionary
However, no revolutionary situation can be considered fully as such unless one
also takes into account the situation of the capitalist class and of the
reciprocal relationships between all the classes of contemporary French
society. The French ruling class is confronted by a series of economic demands
just at a moment in its history when the political representatives of the
ruling class were seeking to further encroach on the living standards of the
It is as though the workers in a certain factory came to the conclusion that
their situation was so intolerable that they demanded an immediate raise in pay
just at a time when the boss had decided that what was needed was a further cut
in pay instead. Economically speaking, this is the situation that prevails on a
nationwide scale in France.
Gaulist economists, radical and bourgeois politicians and the misleaders of
labor have all done their share in hiding the true anatomy of class relations
in present-day France. That is what is so incredibly wonderful about the manner
in which the French working class has put an end to this gross deception. In no
other way could it have been brought to the attention of world public opinion,
or the French public generally.
As has happened so many times in history, it took the students to spark the
movement, but the students alone, no matter how heroic and self-sacrificing,
cannot accomplish the fundamental social change that the workers can, because
it is only the workers who operate the basic machinery of society. The student
struggle is a symptom of the developing general struggle. ...
But now the question is: how can the struggle be resolved? By parliamentary
trickery? By a new bourgeois coalition of left-wing bourgeois politicians in
alliance with the CP and the SP a la Popular Front days?
This is to tread the old beaten path, the path of treason to the French working
class. A call for a so-called referendum embodying some token concessions while
maintaining the old system would be a fraudulent device no less vicious than
the corrupt political maneuvering of the National Assembly. ...
The alternative that is needed is a national organization of Workers’
Councils, Peasant Councils, Poor Peoples’ Councils and Student Councils.
That is the real alternative to the discredited National Assembly.
That would be a true Popular Front of the masses, a true coalition of the
various strata of the oppressed and exploited peoples—and not a coalition
with the bourgeoisie, as [the French CP leader] Waldeck Rochet proposes. That
would be Dual Power, and only “dual” as long as the old regime of
the exploiters could survive it.
The masses have to establish independent organs of power to validate the
possession of the means of production that are presently in their hands and
take over the political destiny of the country. Only in this way will they put
an end to the reign of the monopolies which breed poverty, reaction and
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