FRANCE: 'Everything is possible': The June 1936 strike wave

Issue 

Shane Bentley

The weeks of street demonstrations and strike days that forced the French government to withdraw the First Employment Contract laws in April occurred 70 years after another historic event — the wave of strikes and factory occupations that swept France in 1936.

Years of economic crisis and a corruption scandal in early 1934 undermined confidence in the French parliamentary system. On February 6, thousands of fascists, royalists and World War I veterans launched an armed assault on the French parliament. Fifteen people were killed and hundreds more were injured before police regained control. The liberal government of Radical Party leader Edouard Daladier resigned the next day.

To the delight of the rioters, a right-wing, semi-dictatorial government was formed. These events echoed Hitler's rise to power in January 1933 and spurred French workers into action.

The moderate General Confederation of Labour (CGT) union federation called for a one-day general strike on February 12. The left-wing Socialist Party (SFIO) backed the call.

The Communist Party (PCF) called their own demonstration for February 9. The PCF subscribed to ultra-left "Third Period" views that considered reformist socialists (labelled "social fascists") and real fascists "twins", to be fought equally. The Communist demonstration was attacked by the police and six militants were killed.

It was only at the 11th hour that the Communist Party decided to support the general strike. February 12 was a resounding success: more than 4.5 million workers came out on strike; 1 million took to the streets, shutting the country down.

In Paris, separate SFIO and PCF demonstrations were set to march to the same place. Many feared that demonstrators would clash as the marches merged. But there was spontaneous applause, shouts of joy and cries of "Unity, unity!"

Workers understood that unity in action would help them defeat fascism and poverty. In July 1934, SFIO and PCF leaders signed a unity pact, committing to joint anti-fascist demonstrations.

The desire for unity also forced the CGT and the Communist-led CGTU union federations to heal their 15-year split. The unity process that began in October 1934 saw both union federations reunite in March 1936.

From March to May 1936, more than 250,000 people rushed to join the reunified CGT. During the strike wave, CGT membership went from 1 million to 2.5 million, hitting 5 million in 1937.

However the desire for working-class unity was railroaded into the "Popular Front" — an electoral alliance between working-class and liberal bosses' parties. Communist leaders called for the Popular Front to include the Radical Party, the oldest bourgeois party in France.

A recent rightward shift in Communist policy, which now sought to defend the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany through alliances with Western "democracies", convinced the Radicals to join.

The Popular Front was proclaimed on July 14, 1935 — Bastille Day — and its program was published in January 1936.

PCF leaders insisted — against the wishes of many Socialist Party leaders — that radical demands such as the nationalisation of banks and industries not be included in the Popular Front program. The front's political program remained within the framework of the capitalist politics of the Radical Party.

The SFIO-PCF unity pact, trade union reunification and the Popular Front agreement reflected a change in the French political atmosphere.

On May 3, the Popular Front won a massive electoral victory. The Socialists won 146 seats, becoming the biggest group in parliament; the Communists won 72 seats. The Radicals lost more than 400,000 votes.

Socialist leader Leon Blum formed a government with the Radicals. The Communists supported the government without taking part in it.

The victory of the front gave workers a new confidence. Strikes in Le Havre and Toulouse broke out days after the election. Workers demanded the reinstatement of unionists who had been sacked for going to May Day demonstrations. Factory occupations by entire work forces were used to secure quick victories.

On May 28, more than 32,000 workers occupied the Renault plant. Another 100,000 workers soon occupied all the major engineering factories around Paris. Workers demanded substantial pay increases, a 40-hour week, paid holidays and union recognition.

The strike wave swept across France in June: From huge car plants to tiny workshops, from the highly unionised mines, docks, building and transport industries to totally non-unionised department store employees — no sector of industry was spared. Two million workers took part in 12,000 separate strikes and occupations.

Blum moved to stop the strike wave. He proposed new legislation for a 40-hour week, paid holidays and collective agreements, and organised talks between unions and the bosses.

The "Matignon agreement" was signed on June 7 and 8. Wage rises of 7-15% were won. CGT leaders, however, had difficulty selling workers on the agreement and ending the strike wave.

Workers pushed for further wage increases. The best-organised factories pledged to continue the strike until their demands were fully met.

A second round of the Matignon agreement took place on June 10. Instead of restoring calm, these agreements encouraged less well-organised workers to strike as well.

Marceau Pivert, leader of the Socialist's radical left wing, proclaimed that "Everything is possible". "The French Revolution has begun", wrote exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

But it was not to be. Workers were gradually talked into ending the factory occupations and going back to work. The PCF leadership worked alongside SFIO and CGT leaders to bring the movement under control and re-establish the authority of the Popular Front.

"We must know how to end a strike", was the catchcry of PCF leader Maurice Thorez. His moderation was met with rapture by the bosses' newspapers.

As the strike wave receded, employers and the government began to claw back the gains workers had just won. The Popular Front started to fall apart. In mid-1937 Blum was replaced. Then in April 1938 the front fell. Radical leader Daladier regained power, decreed wage cuts and banned the PCF in 1939 after Stalin signed a pact with Hitler.

The Popular Front ended up demoralising the working class and strengthening the right-wing bosses' parties.

It is not all bad news. The original gains of June 1936 — paid holidays, union recognition and collective agreements — were reinstated after World War II and still exist today.

But the strike wave could have been so much more. The potentially revolutionary situation was defused because the leadership of the struggle was in the hands of the CGT, SFIO and PCF bureaucracies.

Trotsky argued that this could have been overcome through the formation of "Committees of Action" — committees of elected representatives from strike committees and groups of Popular Front supporters from the suburbs, barracks and villages that could lead the struggle.

Engineering workers at the Hotchkiss factory organised a similar initiative — a strike committee that included representatives from 33 nearby factories. Had the occupations lasted longer, the Hotchkiss initiative might have spread across France.

The June 1936 strike wave provides both inspiration and lessons for our struggle against John Howard's "Work Choices" laws today.

[Shane Bentley is a member of the Maritime Union of Australia and publishes a regular Sydney maritime industry job bulletin. Visit <http://www.vigilancebulletin.org>.]

From Green Left Weekly, June 28, 2006.

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