1936 and the occupation of the factories: How workers’ unity set France on fire

Workers’ unity was able to defeat fascism and take control of the factories, but a Left government made sure France’s 1936 movement was derailed, writes Feiyi Zhang

France has recently been rocked by mass strikes, paralyzing fuel and power supplies and threatening to bring down the government. This is the latest in a history of dynamic workers’ struggles.

One of the high points took place eighty years ago, peaking in June 1936 with a wave of factory occupations that posed the issue of workers’ control. This was triggered by the victory of a Left government in the form of the Popular Front, including the Communist Party.

But far from aiding the workers’ struggle it was the Left government that was responsible for bringing it to an end.

Fascist threat

The Great Depression came to France in 1931. Unemployment, bankruptcies, falls in real wages and the collapse of agricultural prices created turmoil in French society.

The economic crisis gave fertile ground for fascists to win over sections of the disenfranchised middle class and poor. In February 1934, thousands of armed fascists and royalists staged a riot in Paris forcing the resignation of the middle class Radical Government headed by Edouard Daladier. It was replaced by a more right-wing “government of national unity”.

The fascists believed they were on the path to power, after Hitler’s rise to power in Germany the year before. This had meant the crushing of trade unions and workers’ organisations, with union, social democratic and Communist leaders alike all sent to concentration camps.

The fascists did not expect resistance from the French working class, which had suffered a series of defeats during the Depression. But these events pushed the left parties into struggle due to pressure from the mass of their membership and supporters.

Millions of workers were determined to avoid the mistakes of Germany where left disunity had allowed the rise of Hitler.

The French Communist Party (PCF) followed the disastrous line from Stalin, denouncing social-democratic parties like the French Socialist Party (SFIO), the equivalent of the Australian Labor Party, as “social-fascists”, while the real fascist threat continued to grow.

The trade unions were also split between these two parties. Under increasing pressure the Socialist Party aligned General Confederation of Labor (CGT) trade union federation called a general strike for 12 February.

The Communist Party and its union (CGTU) joined the strike at the last minute. They organised separate demonstrations, but when the two marches met, according to one observer, “After a silent, brief moment of anguish, to the astonishment of the party and union leaders, this encounter triggered off a delirious enthusiasm, an explosion of shouts of joy. Applause, cries of ‘Unity, Unity’.”

The strike was a resounding success. 30, 000 out of 31, 000 postal workers stopped work. Transport did not run. Building sites were empty. The Citroen car plant was shut down. Newspapers failed to appear. Overall some 4.5 million workers went on strike and one million demonstrated. It was the beginning of a period of mass workers’ struggles.

The Popular Front and workers power

The new desire for unity also led to a new alliance to resist the threat of fascism.

The Popular Front, feeding off workers’ desire for change, was a primarily electoral alliance designed to bring the left into power. But it consisted of not just the working class parties, the Communist Party and the Socialist Party, but also the middle class Radical Party. Their politics were similar to the moderate wing of the Liberals in Australia.

Maintaining the Popular Front meant watering down its policies and subordinating workers’ interests to whatever was acceptable to the Radical Party, who opposed nationalisation or attacking profits of capitalists.

However the growing unity forced the healing of the divisions in the trade unions between the General Congress of Trade Unions (CGT) affiliated to the Socialist Party and the United General Confederation of Labor (CGTU) tied to the Communist Party. This united union gave workers even more confidence to struggle.

Between March and May 1936 a quarter of a million workers joined the CGT. On May Day 1936, 120,000 engineering workers struck in Paris. On 3 May the Popular Front scored a big victory. In an electoral landslide, the Socialist Party became the biggest group in parliament and the Communists won 72 seats.

This electoral victory further boosted the confidence of workers. There was an explosion in strikes. In June 1936 there were 1.8 million strike days, beating the previous annual record of 1.3 million in 1920.

Over three quarters of the strikes involved factory occupations. These were particularly prominent in the airline industry. On 11 May 1936, 500 workers at the Breguet airplane factory downed tools, shut down their machinery and took over the plant.

This spread across the metal industry in Paris in a direct challenge to capitalist control of the workplaces, posing the question of workers’ power.

Most of the factory occupations were led by Communists. Communist Party membership skyrocketed from 800,000 in 1935 to four million in 1937.

Instead of responding to the working class upsurge, which pointed the way towards socialism, the Left government set out to derail the movement. The leadership of the Socialist Party was interested in reforming capitalism not overthrowing it. Similarly, the leadership of Communist Party, cravenly following the line and foreign policy interests of the Stalinist dictatorship in Russia, stated it was not time for workers to take power.

Matignon: reigning in the struggle

The ruling class was desperate for the Popular Front to diffuse the workers’ struggle. As soon as President Leon Blum was sworn in he attempted to rein in the movement with the Matignon Agreement.

It granted a 7 to 15 per cent wage rise, a reduction in the working week from 48 to 40 hours with no loss of pay, and no penalties for going on strike.

These were major concessions. But the effect of the wage rises were to disappear within two years as a result of rising prices. And the agreement also meant workers occupations had to end and workers to return to work.

As news of the agreement was breaking the movement was reaching new heights with workplaces under workers’ control. The Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote that “the French Revolution has begun”. The strike wave had spread across almost every industry from construction to department stores, hospitality and textiles.

Yet Communist Party leader Maurice Thorez argued that if it was important to know how to lead a strike, “it’s important also to know how to end one”.

As the strikes receded, the Popular Front Government moved to the right. They dropped policies of economic expansion and social reform and moved to deflation and re-armament. In the face of financial crisis, Blum resigned after just a year in office in June 1937 and a second Popular Front government with a Radical Party President was formed.

The Popular Front government collapsed completely in early 1938. The new Government, aided by the employers, proceeded to launch an attack on workers’ conditions.

The CGT called a general strike, but its support was patchy after this period of sell-outs. Renault workers at Billancourt outside Paris fought a 24-hour battle with 1500 riot police. After their defeat, workers were forced to march out of the factory giving the fascist salute and shouting “Vive la police!”

Union membership collapsed from a peak of four million members to one million.

Just over two years later, Northern France was occupied by the Nazis and Marshal Petain’s pro-fascist Vichy regime was established.

Revolutionary potential

While the June 1936 movement ended in defeat, it had the potential to develop into a workers’ revolution.

This potential was clear in two ways. Workers wanted to go beyond the bounds of the strikes themselves and the sell-outs of the Popular Front Government.

In Marseilles, the socialist deputy R Vidal noted, “each time we negotiate the end of a strike, ten more are born out of it; or even the strike we have succeeded in stopping breaks out again a few days later”.

French Trotskyists Danos and Giblin, active in the Socialist Party at the time, argued:

“There was, then, a distinct tendency for the masses to pursue strikes beyond the objectives originally assigned to them. But this tendency was no more than half-filled, for no new slogans were raised in the absence of a new leadership which could give political expression to workers’ aspiration.”

Secondly there were embryos of workers’ power, which could have turned into soviets, if they had been consolidated and argued for on a national level.

At the Hotchkiss engineering plant, one of the most radical and organised workplaces, there was a strike committee which included representatives from 33 neighbouring factories. The high level of organisation can be seen in how the occupations were disciplined, and rarely armed or violent.

The politics of the left parties at the time meant there was no organised effort to develop the struggle in this direction.

While many on the left see the election of Left governments such as Syriza in Greece as way to move towards socialism, the experience of the Popular Front shows how Left governments that take power through parliament end up subordinating workers’ interests to the needs of capitalism.

The history of June 1936 shows the potential of workers to create a socialist society run in the interests of the majority.

That potential lives on in the workplaces and streets of France today as they are again rocked by a mass movement and strikes.

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