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Ian Birchall

France and the crisis

Will de Gaulle spark new revolt
by workers and students?

(7 December 1968)

From Socialist Worker, No. 100, 7 December 1968, pp. 2 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

CHARLES DE GAULLE’S decision not to devalue the franc has been compared to a brilliant poker bid.

But while gambling man Charles plays the international financial game, the French working class are like the wife and kids sitting at home wondering if there’ll be enough left to pay the gas bill.

To understand the logic of de Gaulle’s strategy we must go back to last spring’s general strike.

Keep the workers split

Faced by the united action of 10 million workers occupying the factories, de Gaulle, like any other ruler, was powerless.

It was only by playing on the divisions in the working class that he was able to survive the crisis.

Since then, de Gaulle’s strategy has always been to keep the workers split. Above all, he had to avoid any head-on collision with the entire working-class movement.

If he had devalued the franc last summer, or attempted to impose a total wage freeze, he would probably have had a second general strike on his hands.

Instead he gambled on expansion, setting a very high target for industrial growth. It half came off.

The much heralded ‘Red October’ fizzled out into nothing more than a few student demonstrations. But the international financial crisis, plus the speculators in France, brought fresh trouble. (Contrary to what is often implied, most speculators are Gaullists, not communist wreckers.)

The new measures do represent a vicious attack on working-class living standards The cut-back in subsidies to the nationalised industries is going to mean higher prices for gas and electricity and higher railway fares. Every worker’s pocket will be hit.

The general effect of the measures will be an increase in unemployment, but not a big one. Estimates are about 200,000 more out of work.

But this comes at a time when unemployment is growing and when many bosses are trying to weed out the militants and ‘troublemakers’ who took a lead in the strike last spring.

All over France struggles are going on in different factories against victimisation. Where immigrant workers are involved, militants are often not just sacked but deported – sometimes to the welcoming arms of the Spanish or Portuguese police.

Total wage freeze out

Growing unemployment will make this struggle all the tougher.

And remember that French workers are already badly off compared, say, to the Germans. Despite their four weeks holiday a year, French workers work 12 per cent more hours – about five hours a week – a year more than workers in other Common Market countries.

All the same, de Gaulle’s government has not dared impose a total wage freeze. That would have meant taking on all the workers together.

The process of attacking wages and conditions will continue in the form of local skirmishes. Already, the French Employers’ Federation has demanded limitations to trade-union rights and a preservation of ‘authority’ in the factories.

But the present crisis is going to mean a lot of trouble for the Gaullists. Most explanations of Gaullism fail to recognise its peculiar quality.

Essentially, Gaullism represents an attempt to create a corporate state – that is, capitalism with state planning and the trade unions sucked into the planning machine. As such, it is a more advanced form of the kind of society the British Labour government aims at.

Around the hard core of corporatism, however, there are a lot of frills. In particular, de Gaulle’s peculiar patriotism – his eccentric foreign policy with regard so America, the Common Market, etc.

Now that America has helped to bail out de Gaulle, some of these frills may have to go and de Gaulle will have to be more friendly to the US and US policies.

This could lead to a complete regrouping of political forces in France. The Gaullists are already split, between the hard-core right wingers and the reformers who genuinely believe in the myth of ‘participation’ for workers in industry that was widely discussed last spring as a sop to the strikers.

So the government lurches between two extremes. De Gaulle, who last June released the fascist General Dalan, now bans the fascist terror group Occident (though whether his police will enforce the ban is another matter).

Collapse of Federation

Already some of the ‘Left Gaullists’ have criticised de Gaulle’s failure to be tough enough with the currency speculators.

Meanwhile the non-communist Federation of the Left has collapsed. A whole bunch of politicians are discussing forming a new opposition party.

But their only real opposition is to the frills of de Gaulle’s policy – like keeping Britain out of the Common Market, a tactic which he may now have to drop. On fundamentals, they agree.

This leaves the Communist Party out in the cold. Well-informed rumours suggest that there is a pro-Russian group who would like to split the party. And although the party still has at least the passive support of many workers, it is quite unable to lead a fight against the new measures.

Before May, the main tactic of the CP and its trade union, the CGT, was the ritual procedure of one-day general strikes. This looked very militant, but was in fact just another public holiday.

Since May the one-day strike has been shown up as useless, and the CP has no way of putting up a fight.

So the CP opposition will be largely verbal. Georges Seguy, the CGT leader, has said that ‘The CGT recommends all militants to claim a wage increase in proportion to the rise in the cost of living since June.

Such advice amounts to telling the workers to look after themselves. The unions can do nothing for then.

The other main union body, the CFDT, which has a reputation of being more progressive, has asked for a commission of inquiry to unmask speculators. In other words, verbal demands, but no lead in struggle.

Nothing to replace CP

The French Communist Party was built by the blood and sweat of French workers during the Resistance and in violent struggles after the war. Now it is crumbling, but there is nothing to replace it as a national organisation.

Slowly a fight will develop. The fervour of the student movement has now gripped Paris secondary schools. Many student militants are now getting roots in industry.

In the factories, action committees and shop stewards independent of the union machine, are merging. The new cuts will heighten the struggle that will continue for a long time to come.

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Last updated: 25 October 2020