May Days: What It Was Like

On May 12th, we found ourselves in an amphitheater of the University of Paris at Censier. Why Censier? Well, we have to go back to the Cinq Billards, a cafe at the top of rue Mouffetard, a few steps from Place de la Contrescarpe. “La Mouffe” is a working-class neighborhood where you can still find cheap digs and where there are still traces of the old Paris of the end of the 19th century. (I remember a restaurant where a little piece of bread dating from the Paris Commune of 1871 dangles from a pin in a glass frame.) For us, the neighborhood was a kind of headquarters where over the years we met with friends every night. Many of us were in groups that could more properly be called “groupuscules” [tiny groups] in media parlance. If the walls of the Cinq Billards had ears, they would have heard rather unripe thoughts about the world we live in! Debates over class struggles and the history of the workers’ movement went on and on. We lived as parts of a veritable organism, a movement with multiple roots. It was by walking down rue Mouffetard that we ended up at Censier, which isn’t very far away.

The next day, on May 13th, we go back to the same amphitheater. More than a hundred students are discussing university problems and how to manage the school’s occupation. A member of the PCF (French Communist Party) attempts to take control but gets rejected. Some Trotskyists also try to take over by presenting themselves as representatives of the working class but end up leaving the amphitheater with no success. At some point, someone from the Censier section of the Worker-Student Action Committee makes an announcement calling on everyone to go to room 323, where students and workers are talking together and trying to do something …

Again, more leaflets are written. As contacts develop, it appears that workers who come to join us are complaining about the behavior of unions that are not in favor of this alliance between students and workers. Still, the first report results in new leaflets calling for the rank and file to organize and make decisions outside the union apparatus. There are calls to create Action Committees in the workplace in order to bring about and develop factory occupations. Some of the most radical workers declare that they are no longer fighting simply for higher wages but for the end of capitalism!

In a few days, we are several hundred. Our origins are quite diverse. We see some anarchists appear, who have long-established links among themselves for eventual interventions; we see some truant unionists; a few CFDTers (French Democratic Confederation of Labor, the union most open to democratic practices at the rank-and-file level); and especially many people, particularly young people and workers, who are practising a kind of nomadism, moving from one company to another, who are not rooted in a culture tied to traditional ways of thinking or traditional labor struggles. Immediate necessity brings people together. The general conditions of existence in an exploitative society wobble on their foundations, giving birth to a new protest movement.

Now CATE (formerly the Student-Worker Action Committee) has become a real power. Along with CATE activities, rooms are occupied to exchange ideas about issues such as self-management, feminism, immigrant rights, etc. An intense synergy of communication is established among us all. In this fantastic acceleration of history, a collective intelligence is being born. Somehow, spontaneously, without realizing it, an organization gets set up around mimeographing, typing, telephoning, and kitchen duties.

The strange thing about this organization of a hundred “permanents” is that each of us occupies the place we want. We contact people with whom we feel an affinity or empathy. I especially hang around the mimeograph machines and the distribution of leaflets, having always considered that the dissemination of ideas deserves some effort. It’s also important to recognize this new human environment as capable of best realizing the tasks we have in mind and, above all, not to impede this brilliant process that we’ve started. We are totally free to change places, providing, of course, that we can guarantee our replacements. (By the way, the pace of work that we keep up would impress any prospective employers!)

It follows that some kind of administration becomes necessary. Links are formed with isolated individuals but especially with people who are delegates of action committees in neighborhoods, in companies, or in small groups having no particular denomination. Very fortunately, two actual secretaries arrive. Their work experience enables them to set up a system with easy-to-use files. I should point out that secretarial-type duties were largely handled by women. By contrast, fewer women volunteered to speak for the collectives, in small groups as well as in large assemblies. Legacies of the old world are still with us. To summarize, we can say that when a necessary job arises, people capable of handling it attach themselves to it. If this job seems no longer necessary, the position soon disappears. No permanent administrative structure gets established.

In a few days, supplies of ink, paper, and food have run out. We begin collections of paper and ink from stationeries; most of the local merchants are supportive. Comrades who are permanently at CATE have used up their savings. The Sorbonne Occupation Committee redistributes part of its collections to the CATEs, which helps us. Also, cash donations, sometimes large ones, come in. A network of old Resistance members in the south of France takes the initiative to collect farm produce from peasants who join the movement. Wagons loaded with food reach us; given the quantities, we redistribute it, which leads to new links.

Extensive contacts in so many arenas, especially in the various company collectives, requires us to maintain some coordination. A collective forms; specific tasks emerge to make the “logistics” that develop more efficient. Collective members take responsibility for them according to their abilities. What is important is that this structure isn’t elected. It’s born out of immediate necessity. It’s a structure entirely open to newcomers.

The daily general assemblies are aimed at weakening the influence of those who obstruct the development of the general strike. This coordination tries to ensure that the debate gives everyone the freedom to express themselves and that it all gets translated into practical decisions. Actions directed toward companies often result in the writing of a new leaflet to further new contacts. In a separate meeting, a smaller committee takes up the key ideas of the general assembly and returns with a proposed text. These texts are then approved by a show of hands. We also witness some opposition, which turns into heckling explicit enough to resume the discussions. This nascent collective intelligence expresses itself in the form of direct democracy, where any authority in charge of launching an action must always justify it before the general assembly. And it works—that’s what makes it a living force.

From May 18 to May 24, one astonishing day follows another. We are now numerous enough to hold daily meetings in front of companies where those disappointed with the unions join us. Our contacts enable us to distribute food to sustain the autonomy of small committees. In neighborhoods, links are established between different factory committees. We promote the participation of immigrant workers on picket lines to weaken the employers’ practice of using them as strike breakers. As the days pass, inside CATE’s daily general assemblies, a committee is set up to bring together the delegates of about twenty Company Action Committees that act in concert. This committee is also in close contact with about thirty other picket lines and rank-and-file action committees. Thus the Inter-Company Committee [formerly CATE] acquires a form and structure. Day and night, a rotating team coordinates the various ongoing actions. What gives us life isn’t the establishment of an organization as such, but the content of its operations that carries the profound significance of the movement.

Indeed, this significance is evident in the extension of the strike. Demands are not exclusively about increasing wages and thus no longer fall within the traditional trade-union discourse. Qualitative demands around worker autonomy and responsibility, criticisms of hierarchy, even co-management of companies, are all at odds with the ideological practices of the union apparatus. In departing from confined categories and in opposing pyramidal and hierarchical systems, a link is established between students and younger generations of workers who are more distant from union control than their elders. While in the General Strike of 1936 the occupied factories were places of congregation and celebration, in May ’68, workers seek contacts outside the enterprises. In most cases, Occupation Committees are controlled by the unions—if Action Committees do form within the companies, they constitute a force in opposition to the unions.

The Foreign Action Committee of Censier is also very active. Forty Portuguese, for the most part deserters from the Portuguese colonial army, are its principal drivers. There are also Greeks, Moroccans, Spanish, Yugoslavs, Italians, Germans, not to mention Americans, some of whom are draft dodgers from the Vietnam War. Most of them are active in the committees, translating leaflets and also serving as interpreters. Collecting information from their home countries, they contribute to weaving links across Europe and over several continents. A militant American, Fredy Perlman, is particularly active in diffusing leaflets in factories and in bringing workers to the Censier general assemblies. Every evening a general assembly is held for foreign students. At a time when the fire of social protest is no longer alight only in France but has spread in Europe and the Americas, when the Zengakuren occupy streets in Tokyo, the presence of foreigners in Censier opens the way to an internationalist discourse and to the idea that we have entered a global process. In countries under Soviet domination, there is again a strong criticism of Stalinist bureaucracy; in the West, the student movement occupies the universities; in Italy, Fiat workers are waking up; things are moving in Algiers and on the African continent; in North and South America, the fire is lit.

As of now, the Inter-Company Committee brings together about twenty Company Action Committees that are in permanent contact. To this we can add another thirty Action Committees with less organic ties to us. We are trying to make connections in France outside of Paris. The situation is very uneven. For example, in Nantes Saint-Nazaire, a Central Strike Committee has formed, but outside of the big industrial centers, even if the CGT was not involved in initiating the strike, it often succeeded in containing the movement, in stifling any initiatives outside its terrain of wage demands. We were able, however, to strengthen our ties to farmers in the South (Cavaillon) and food deliveries to Censier continue. Out of this, the Students-Workers-Peasants Liaison Committee (CLEOP) will be created at the instigation of some student of the Institute of Agronomy. In addition, we can see the movement evolving towards an active strike! Even if things are uneven outside of Paris, Action Committees do exist in all the large towns and in rural areas. Paris is no longer the only center of mobilization in France. This rising power and what is happening abroad encourages us to intensify our actions.

Increasingly violent demonstrations are occurring in Paris and in towns across France. The police are having trouble maintaining order. The Socialist left and extreme-left organizations are attempting a rapprochement in order to create a “people’s government” in which the PCF would have little influence. Fearing such an eventuality, Gaullists and Communists meet secretly. The PCF fears losing its base. With different interests and methods, the Gaullist government and the PCF finally find themselves aligned on the same objective: respect for the institutional framework of the system.

At Censier, we lean towards strengthening strike actions rather than looking to seize power, which could only end in the establishment of some kind of “popular government” with all the dangers that poses. For us, it would be preferable to take care of food supplies, the organization of free public transportation, the occupation of empty housing, rent strikes, and the control of the French Broadcasting Office (ORTF).

On the morning of May 27, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou and the General Secretary of the CGT Georges Séguy announce the Grenelle Agreements. Not since the Popular Front of 1936 have such social concessions been proposed: a real wage increase of 7%; an increase of the hourly Smig (minimum wage, predecessor of the Smic) from 2.22 to 3 francs per hour (or 35%); a reduction of work hours to an average of 43 hours per week, with the goal of reaching a 40-hour work week; free exercise of the right to organize and to create union branches in companies; adjustment of family allowances; increase in the minimum benefits paid to seniors; recovery of strike days. Séguy declares, “The return to work should not be delayed,” and goes to the Renault factory in Billancourt ... where he is heartily booed by the workers. The news travels across the country … everywhere the struggle continues … Different types of leaders are overcome with panic!

This is when General de Gaulle disappears. He returns on the evening of May 29. In Baden-Baden he met with General Massu, head of the French forces in Germany, who along with his general staff expressed their complete support of de Gaulle. The news reaches us later. Armored squadrons of the mobile gendarmerie (military police) with tanks and machine guns are installed at Satory (Yvelines); some troops are reported to be at Rambouiller and Melun! Parachutists ready to defend the Elysée (the presidential palace) are stationed at the Invalides. A new phase of the game is underway.

In the beginning of June, L’Humanité [the Communist party newspaper] features shameless lies, announcing the victorious and unanimous decision to return to work. Rank-and-file voting was often rigged and violence was used. There are attempts to form rank-and-file committees in response; some succeed, others fail.

The Inter-Company committee is busy supporting the continuation of the strike. In particular, the RATP [Parisian public transport] draws our attention. There is strong worker defiance to continue the strike and we think blocking public transportation would support the move towards a general strike. Unfortunately, these attempts eventually weaken and the subway system resumes operation.

Our hopes of reviving the strike are crumbling. What’s more, school occupations are ending. On June 14, the Odéon is evacuated, on June 16, it is the same for the Sorbonne. On the 15, we decide to leave Censier. The Inter-Company Committee continues to hold brief daily meetings at the Mutualité … Finally, the meetings in a room on 44 rue de Rennes become weekly … In February 1969, we decide to dissolve.


Francois Cerutti

FRANCOIS CERUTTI is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.