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Pierre Frank

New Developments in France

(June 1960)

From Fourth International (Amsterdam), No. 10, Summer 1960, pp. 38–39.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

In our last issue we pointed out that de Gaulle’s Bonapartism, after about two years in power, was being stripped of its parliamentary appendages, that the state apparatus appeared to be increasingly isolated, and that de Gaulle’s authority was beginning to diminish, especially because of the inability he was showing to end the war in Algeria.

The worsening of the political climate has been rapidly reflected by a series of movements for immediate demands, especially in the Paris public transport system and on the railways. We cannot here undertake a very detailed study of the movements that have occurred; it is to some of their main characteristics and teachings that we should like to call attention.

On the whole, the workers’ discontent was so strong that the outbreak of the movements caught napping not only the government but to a quite large extent even the trade-union leaderships. A whole series of struggles were spontaneous in character. The movements were within the limits of pressure on the government and management, rather than those of a trial of strength. Most of the demonstrations were of a good-natured sort; it is only in a few special cases that, under provocation, the workers toughened up their movements and a few incidents occurred on a local scale.

In this situation, the trade-union leaderships lined up at the level of the least advanced part of the movements, fostering illusions about the possibility of obtaining substantial results by means solely of pressure, and not preparing the workers for much tougher struggles, for trials of strength. It would certainly have been a great mistake on the part of the union leaders, in the correlation of forces resulting from the May 1958 defeat, to take the weak revival that is now occurring as a starting point for proceeding immediately to launch great struggles that could only turn into that trial of strength. But the role of the leaderships should have been to lead, to foresee, to prepare, and to educate. Alas, it was a long way from that.

All French toilers know that the deterioration of their living levels is caused by the continuation of the war in Algeria. The trade unions – who nevertheless assert that they are all opposed to that war – have not stressed this point strongly enough during these movements. It is the same with the political movements. What is more, neither the French CP nor the CGT has propagandized for the prospect of a struggle against the regime. Neither the struggles for immediate demands nor the struggle against the war in Algeria have been fitted into this prospect. Under such conditions, it is understandable that it is not easy to summon up the strength, the drive, and the vigor that will be needed in the future by struggles that will inevitably run up against aggravated repression by the government. If there could be any doubt on this point, it would be enough to observe that the government – which, during the whole period when the movements were broad and tended to spread, remained practically inert – stepped right in, as soon as the wave showed signs of ebbing, with a decree militarily requisitioning the Paris transport workers. This was a deliberate provocation, to which the unions involved did not immediately find any appropriate answer.

The strength of the spontaneous movement of the masses showed itself to be sufficiently great so that, despite the break-up of the summit conference, there did not occur what would almost inevitably have happened in other times and under other governments, namely, a break-down of unity in action.

To summarize in a few words the balance-sheet of the Spring 1960 movements for immediate demands, it can be said that the workers’ morale came out strengthened, but that there was a big “lost opportunity” for causing the next movements to be involved and led under conditions corresponding to the needs of the situation.

A new phenomenon has appeared in France, as in many other regions of the world: the entry of university youth into political movement, and political demonstrations of youth organizations against the war in Algeria. The UNEF, the officially recognized students’ organization, has reestablished relations with the UGEMA, the dissolved organization of the Algerian students. A declaration has been signed by the representatives of 53 youth organizations calling for a halt to the war in Algeria.

Within a relatively short time the reaction has seen its positions in the universities dissolve, while the vanguard has been turning toward various forms of struggle, running from non-violence to aid for the Algerian revolution and refusal to serve in the army.

Thus, among the youth of France, there has been observable – with account taken of the peculiarities of the situation in the country – a phenomena of a world-wide type, a movement in university youth, not led by the traditional organizations, without previous political training, but spontaneously turning to radical solutions and methods. In France it is the colonial revolution, in the form of the fight of the Algerian people, which has stirred up the university youth, and it is likely that working-class youth also will not long delay in showing a political awakening.

The government has been sharply aware of these manifestations; confronted by the current political revival in France, it attacked the organizationally weakest point, the UNEF – whose members, in the nature of things, are constantly being replaced – by withdrawing the government subsidy that was an important contribution to its functioning. Although declarations of solidarity have not been lacking, one has the feeling that the defense of the UNEF has not been understood as a political problem of very great importance.

The nub of the question is that the official leaderships do not have toward the youth an attitude of real confidence. They are afraid of its non-conformism, it tendency to go much farther than they themselves intend to go. It was enough to observe the reactions of these leaderships and of newspapermen toward those young men who refused military service or who put themselves at the service of the Algerian revolution. That “respectful left,” to pick up the well-chosen expression of Temps Modernes (which gave it a masterly thrashing), is shouting “Whoa! whoa!” – imploring everybody to stay inside limits compatible with its reformist desires.

De Gaulle’s regime has had to put up with a kicking over of the traces by those who only yestereve were its best friends inside the world of the former French empire. In 1958 de Gaulle invented the “Communauté,” which was to keep together in association whatever remained of the French Union. Guinea left. The Mali (Senegal and the Sudan) were kept by the promise of concessions. Thus the “renovated Communauté” was arrived at, which transformed the whole business into a sort of confederation. Then when everything was just ready, those in favor of a solid federation, i.e., the so-called “entente” countries, under the leadership of Houiphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast, demanded downright independence.

These various factors – set in an international context marked by a speeded-up drive forward of the colonial revolution – led de Gaulle to make new declarations that permitted the opening of negotiations with the GPRA, before he should be outstripped by a new worsening of the situation in France itself.

We examine in an editorial note (p. 6) the question of these negotiations as they regard the relations between France and Algeria. But there is also the question of what their effects may be on the development of the situation inside France.

It is already visible that the most reformist parts of the workers’ movement and of the left bourgeoisie are ready to rely on de Gaulle to follow up events. Because of this fact and also because of the timid policy of the French CP and the Socialist left, it is probable that resistance to the war in Algeria will not have, for a period, the development which, it seems, it would have had undergone if the negotiations had not been begun. But, in our opinion, there is a good likelihood that what is being observed there is only a conjunctural fluctuation. For there seems to be becoming manifest throughout France a reversal of trends, which has its source in deep changes. Since January, the reaction has lost its impetus; it would like to mobilize against the negotiations, whose outcome it fears, but it also fears lest any mobilization would arouse on the left forces that would easily gain the upper hand. On the left, there is observable a symptomatic drive for unity, the wind from which is beginning to be felt by the old reformist weather-vanes of the Socialist Party and the Force Ouvrière labor federation. Of course the leaders are trying not to let themselves be outflanked and to assign this still not very strong movement quite timid goals (laïc schools, etc.) which are not of a sort to infuse it with enthusiasm.

Confronted by this, the Gaullist regime is obviously not ready to give way. What is to be expected is a toughening of social relationships, in which the initiative lies in the hands of the state. But however slight the political revival may still be, on the one hand it has its origin in deep movements that are occurring within the masses, and on the other, it has already produced currents among the youth, who are not ready to follow the old leaderships in their cowardly and treacherous policy. The French workers’ movement will be able to recover from its May 1958 defeat.

27 June 1960

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