Repression and resistance on the French home front 1911-1919

Issue: 165

Steve Guy

What means other than war could there be under capitalism to overcome the ­disparity between the development of the productive forces and the accumulation of capital on the one side, and the division of colonies and spheres of influence for finance-capital on the other?

Lenin, 1916, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

The Paris Peace Conference opened in January 1919, three months after the Armistice, and was held in the Palace of Versailles. Lasting for one year, it concluded in January 1920. One of the most contentious outcomes of the negotiations was the insistence, mainly at the behest of the French delegation, led by Georges Clémenceau and supported by British premier David Lloyd George, of the inclusion of Article 231, the notorious “war-guilt clause”, which attributed the war, and its costs, entirely to the aggression of the Central Powers towards the allies.1 Although Article 231 served as the justification for the onerous ­reparations imposed on the Central Powers, one legacy of this clause was that, for the duration of the 20th century, it was taken for granted by most of the European nations, and certainly by most British historians and politicians, that Germany was the principal aggressor, with only Germany itself attempting to refute the charge. German historian Fritz Fischer’s 1967 book Germany’s Aims in the First World War went a long way to reinforcing that belief, certainly among prominent historians such as AJP Taylor.2

It is only in recent years that attention has shifted to the role of other nations in putting the world on the road to war in 1914. In this article, it is proposed to briefly examine the part that France played in triggering the outbreak of hostilities, how that played out both internationally and domestically, the effect of the imposition of the war economy on the population, and particularly on the French working class, and how that class eventually responded. While there are references to the fighting on the front and the horrendous consequences to the combatants, I do not intend to deal in any detail with events on the front line.

After the humbling that France received at the hands of the Prussians in the Franco-German war of 1870-1, the first 20 years of the new republic saw it isolated by Germany and frustrated in its attempt to build alliances against future German aggression. However, in 1894 a military agreement was successfully concluded with Russia, which was billed as a defensive convention:

The convention stipulated: “These forces shall be engaged to the utmost, as quickly as possible, in such a manner that Germany has to fight at the same time in the east and the west.” The military convention established the foundation for French strategy for the next 25 years by creating the real possibility of a two-front war against Germany and raising to new heights the importance of mobilising first. The goal of a two-front war also made Russia, not Britain, France’s principal ally in a war against Germany.3

The provisions of this agreement compelled both parties to mobilise ­simultaneously, in the event of war. It is also important to stress the extreme secrecy which accompanied the signing of the convention: “The Franco-Russian Alliance, the existence of which was not made public until 1897 and the clauses of which remained so secret that few French ministers even knew of their details until the First World War, ended the Bismarckian system of alliances on which German hegemony of Europe had depended”.4

France also sought to strengthen her relations with Britain, taking the lead in resolving outstanding issues over Egypt and Sudan, and in 1907 her efforts were rewarded with the creation of the Entente Cordiale, an understanding rather than an agreement, but one that the French assiduously cultivated and which would eventually yield considerable political and military dividends.

These alliances encouraged France to pursue her imperial ambitions with renewed vigour, especially in the Mediterranean, as the country pursued the vision of a “Greater France”, which embraced the southern shores of the Mediterranean, fostering the myth that “the Mediterranean runs through France as the Seine runs through Paris” and in which the territories of North Africa would forever remain an indissoluble part of the metropolis.5

These ambitions did not go unchallenged, with the most serious clash ­occurring in 1911 in Agadir, Morocco, as France, attempting to devour the rest of Morocco in one bite, was confronted by German imperialism in the shape of the gunboat Panther. The Germans, looking for concessions in trade and territory, succeeded in forcing a resentful France to the negotiating table.

Preparations for war after Agadir

Agadir triggered a resurgence of nationalism in France, transforming the political climate and sweeping away those voices that had counselled caution in France’s dealings with Germany. The attack dogs of the right-wing press called for war, and harried anyone who resisted the call. They singled out the workers’ organisations in particular and conducted a vicious and sustained campaign, principally against the syndicalist workers’ federation, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), but also against the Socialist Party, the SFIO (Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière). Although the nationalists remained a minority within the French parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, their influence increased within ruling class circles out of all proportion to their credibility in the rest of the country. When Raymond Poincaré became premier in 1912, preparations for war accelerated.

First, French diplomacy went into overdrive in attempting to draw Britain into making more explicit commitments in the event of war. This resulted in intense negotiations between the top brass of their respective navies that eventually led to an agreement in April 1913, with Britain allocated responsibility for defending the Straits of Dover and the Channel and the French taking the lion’s share of joint operations in the Mediterranean.6 But ambiguity dogged the discussions about the deployment of land forces. Although the commander-in-chief General Joseph Joffre included British forces in his military projections, the French were to be kept on tenterhooks as to British intentions right up to the day that war was declared.

Second, joint Franco-Russian army staff talks, intermittent at first, became annual events after Agadir. As mentioned earlier, the cornerstone of their strategy was a simultaneous attack on Germany from the east and the west. Two wireless telegraph links were put in place, and by July 1913 wireless communications (an early form of hotline) were operational, with the lines being open daily between the hours of 06-00 and 08-00 and again between 20-00 and 23-59.7 It was at this point that the French war ­preparations were finalised in Plan XVII, and the Russians likewise devised Plan 19.

France also took advantage of the Russian government’s insatiable demands for capital to impose conditions on the loan of 1913 stipulating that the massive 2,500 million francs (500 million francs per annum over five years) requested be devoted to improving the railway lines serving the area bordering the German frontier. This would enable Russia to fulfil the commitment to begin an offensive 14 days after war was declared. Conversely, Russia demanded that France maintain its own preparations in order to put the military almost on a par with the Germans numerically.8

So, the third measure that the French government took to put the country on a war footing was to introduce the Loi de Trois Ans (the Three Year Law), which increased time spent performing national service from two to three years. But, whereas the government was able to engage in diplomatic and military discussions in the greatest secrecy, without reference to the legislature, this new law required the assent of parliament and hence the government was required to justify it. Although pitched to the French Chamber of Deputies as a defensive measure against a sudden attack by Germany, many deputies drew the conclusion that the motives for this measure were of a more offensive character; they could not have known that this law was now being promoted at the behest of the Tsarist government!

The Socialist Party

The SFIO was the party of French socialists affiliated to the Second International. Created from the unification of the Marxist Parti Socialiste de France and the reformist Parti Socialiste Français, it was an uneasy amalgamation of those committed to overthrowing the established order and those committed to working for change within the parliamentary system. Both elements were opposed to any attempt to drag France into another war. By the second decade of the 20th century the SFIO had carved out a significant level of electoral support, and in the general elections of May and June 1914 they achieved a real breakthrough, winning 103 seats without having to seek coalition with any other party. Much of their success can be attributed to their opposition, or the perception of their opposition, to the Three Year Law, with party leader Jean Jaurès at the forefront of the campaign to reverse the law or at least to modify it. But, as international tension increased, the pressure on the whole party to fall in behind the Poincaré government increased enormously.

The Confédération Générale du Travail

The Three Year Law triggered a wave of mutinies in the garrison towns, mainly in Alsace, and the CGT, hitherto a bastion of France’s revolutionary anarchists, was subjected to intense state harassment. The organisation was avowedly anti-militarist and anti-patriotic, and supported their members when they were conscripted, sending them a quarterly stipend from a dedicated fund, the Sou du Soldat. Local leaders of the more militant syndicates were arrested and charged with fomenting mutiny among the conscripts. There was a surge of anger within the federation, with many rank and file delegates calling on them to organise a general strike. This was solidly opposed by the leadership, and especially the secretary Léon Jouhaux. Matters came to a head at a special conference convened over two days in July 1913. A motion to organise a general strike against the Three Year Law was opposed by Alphonse Merrheim, the leader of the metal workers:

The most famous of the revisionists within the CGT, Merrheim, protested against these “castles in the air”. He was convinced that the CGT must now finally put an end to the “clenched fist policy” outside the syndicalist framework which ignored the real problems of labour organisation. The CGT must now turn its attention, he maintained, to winning over non-unionised workers methodically.9

Merrheim went on to propose a motion that referred to a new strategy, but this new strategy would not embrace any further notions of a general strike against the Three Year Law. Of the big battalions, only Raymond Péricat of the construction workers and Benoît Broutchoux on behalf of the Pas de Calais miners spoke in favour of the motion and opposed the Merrheim line and the Merrheim position was carried overwhelmingly. The July conference effectively marked the end of the CGT as a force for revolutionary change, and the transformation of the organisation into a trade union body focussing primarily on economic and industrial matters. It might well be that 100,000 syndicalists supported anarchist positions at future CGT conferences,10 but the revisionists were now steering the organisation away from future revolutionary action.

The international crisis deepens

The international crisis that was generated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand brought to a head the simmering confrontation between Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austrians, assured of the wholehearted support of the German emperor and the German government, sent an ultimatum to Serbia which they knew could not possibly be complied with, and Serbia, in extremis</span>, appealed to Russia for support. The Russians mobilised and in turn looked to their Gallic ally. Poincaré, now French president, was on a state visit to Russia at this time, accompanied by prime minister René Viviani. Although historians are still divided as to the role of Poincaré in Russia while the crisis was unfolding, it is clear from his own account of the visit that in discussions with Tsar Nicholas he urged Russia to give wholehearted support to Serbia. He also agreed to the Tsar’s request to convey assurances to the king of Sweden that Russia had only peaceful intentions towards its neighbour.

Above all, it was crucial that Sweden be prevented from falling into the arms of the Germans, with the severe strategic complications this might entail. On 25 July, during an afternoon spent with [Sweden’s king] Gustav V, Poincaré successfully performed this errand and was able to report that the king heartily reciprocated the Tsar’s desire that Sweden should remain neutral.11

By the time Poincaré returned to France, the principal protagonists had mobilised their armies, bar one, Great Britain. As has been explained earlier, the Franco-Russian military alliance required France and Russia to strike at the Central Powers simultaneously. The French commander-in-chief, Joffre, still advocated a pre-emptive strike into Belgium.

But Poincaré flatly refused to consider Joffre’s case, on the grounds that an invasion of Belgium would risk alienating British public opinion, and make it impossible for [British Foreign Secretary] Edward Grey, to deliver on his promises to Paris. It was a striking demonstration of the primacy of civilian over military authority in the French Republic, but also of Poincaré’s foresight and brilliance in combining a highly aggressive understanding of the casus foederis [“case for the alliance”] in the east with a strategically defensive approach on the French frontier. That was how Paris solved a conundrum that faced several of the belligerents of 1914, namely the “paradoxical requirement that a defensive war open aggressively”.12

Germany declared war on France, and then almost immediately invaded Luxembourg and then Belgium as determined by the Schlieffen Plan. Under explicit instructions from the government, French forces remained ten kilometres from the border, thus insuring that there could be no ambiguity about who was the aggressor in the west. As planned, after two weeks of border skirmishes, Russian forces drove into eastern Germany. The French leadership had judged the situation perfectly; in Britain the “war party”, led by Grey and supported by the likes of Winston Churchill, carried the argument for war in parliament and sent an ultimatum to Germany calling for the withdrawal of their forces from Belgium. By 4 August there had been no reply, and on 6 August the British expeditionary force was ordered to France. Then, and only then, did the British government set about convincing the British people of the case for war.

The invasion of France satisfied the conditions necessary to unite the French parliament behind the government and the military, and then carry the argument for war with the rest of the country. Predictably, the petit-bourgeois parties fell in behind the government without hesitation, but there was not one expression of dissent or even unease among the socialist deputies, with the former anti-militarist firebrand Jules Guesde and veteran deputy Marcel Sembat joining the government with the complete agreement of the party. It is difficult to speculate what stance the SFIO would have adopted had Jaurès still been alive when war was declared. But his assassination by a right-wing fanatic two days before the onset of hostilities presented the political establishment with the opportunity cynically to use his funeral as a further means of cementing national unity. With the “moderate” Pierre Renaudel now the main spokesman for the party, the SFIO wrapped itself in the Tricolor. Using the language of pseudo-revolutionary Jacobin egalitarianism, their manifesto of August 1914 stated: “The whole nation must rise to defend its territory and its freedom… The head of government…knew that in all its times of need, in 1793, as in 1870, the nation put its trust in these men, these socialists, these revolutionaries… He has appealed to our party. Our party has replied: Present!”13

As for the CGT, with the revisionist leadership firmly in command, the organisation affirmed its support for the war, with Jouhaux soon to become a “delegate of the nation” and senior figures such as Edmond Briat and Auguste Keufeur eventually incorporated into the structures of the wartime government. As one historian comments:

Historical research has often raised the question of why the syndicalists offered such little resistance to the Union Sacrée in July 1914. The turn of events in the years 1913/1914 offers at least a partial answer. The renunciation of direct action and the revisionistic swing of syndicalism meant that the movement shied away from the political issues of the time to such an extent that at the crucial moment it lacked the sufficient organisational and ideological strength even to plan an ­anti-war demonstration.14

It is noteworthy that at the behest of the government the security service had prepared a document, Carnet B, which identified some 2,000 socialist and trade union leaders for detention should there be a concerted effort to organise opposition to the war. In the event only 40 anti-war activists were rounded up. Of all the CGT leaders, only building workers’ leader Raymond Péricat called for mass strike action against the war, and he was imprisoned for two years for his pains.15

The reaction of the population

There are contradictory accounts of the mood of the French population on the eve of war. In his diary, Poincaré noted the celebrations on his return from Russia at the end of July:

A very dense multitude had poured onto the wharves and quays and greeted us with cries of Vive la France! Vive Poincaré! I master my emotion and exchange a few words with the mayor, senators and deputies. They all tell me, and the prefect confirms, that we can count on the unity and on the determination of the country.16

However, the minister of public education, Albert Sarraut, commissioned a survey and questionnaire to be sent out to teachers in each department to establish what the mood of the country was. This showed that the picture was much more complex than Poincaré’s rose-tinted view, and that attitudes varied depending on the date that it was conducted. Samples of the findings from six departments: Côtes-du-Nord; Hautes-Alpes; Gard; Charente; Haute-Savoie and Isère, show the prevalent emotions of those surveyed to be of dismay and consternation; it is only with the invasion by the German army that there was an identifiable shift in the public response.

In the main, however, it was the conviction of unprovoked aggression that determined the attitudes of the French and that explains the war was accepted by almost the entire population. This conviction also explains why the French departed without the enthusiasm of conquering heroes but with the resolve of those who feel they have a duty to perform.17

Nonetheless, resentment against Poincaré in certain parts of the country was still strong; on the eve of war he was advised not to visit the town of St Etienne, a working class bastion, for fear of provoking demonstrations over his role in promoting the Three Year Law.

How the bosses (Le Patronat) went to war

In his classic The Age of Empire, Eric Hobsbawm notes how unprepared the employing class across Europe were for the tasks that they were going to be expected to fulfil when war was declared.18 This was certainly the case with regard to France. French industry into the 20th century was not as advanced as that in Germany or the United States. And French industrialists were extremely hostile to any involvement of the state in their business. However, with the onset of total war, the French employing class were quick to adapt to the situation that the war presented them with in terms of the opportunity to make vast profits. This was made possible in a number of ways.

When Paris was threatened by the German invasion, the government decamped to Bordeaux, followed by a host of businessmen looking for rich pickings in the wake of the military mobilisation. After the German army had been stopped, with tremendous loss of life on both sides, at the River Marne, minister of war Alexandre Millerand summoned leading bankers and industrialists to a meeting on 20 September 1914 and announced that the military would need to be supplied with 100,000 artillery rounds per day; the previous projection had been for only 13,000 per day.19 The ministry gave carte blanche to the principal association of metal producers, the Comité des Forges, to organise all the tasks that this necessitated, which gave this body immense power in its dealings with the government, power that it never fully relinquished. The main advantage was that the industry established a price structure most beneficial to themselves, and adhered to that structure for the rest of the war.

The industrialists were soon able to rationalise and render economical their productive processes, and the capital risks of creating munitions plants diminished as the war went on, but the old price bases remained, principally because the ever-growing requirements of the army meant that the industrial capacity was in continually short supply, and that producers could set the prices they liked.20 The power of the industrialists in the Comité des Forges extended into the highest reaches of government and state.

In London, the military attaché to the French Embassy, with special ­responsibility for controlling the provision of English metals for France, was General de La Panouse, who had married Sabine de Wendel, the daughter of France’s leading metallurgist. The man who directed the French purchasing agency for metals under the supervision of General de La Panouse was his brother-in-law, Humbert de Wendel. When a parliamentary commission was established to investigate the profits of war materials suppliers, the deputy charged with drawing up a report on the contracts of the metallurgical industry was Humbert’s brother, François de Wendel.21

And it was not just metal manufacturers that capitalised on the situation. It was a similar story in the other war industries such as chemicals and pharmaceuticals, vegetable oils, wool and cotton, and of course foodstuffs. For the first two years of the war, the French government made itself a hostage to the industrialists and vast profits accrued to virtually any entrepreneur that presented himself (or herself) to the relevant minister. It was only in the third year of the war, with the exigencies of the war creating major shortages in raw materials, that the government, in the form of minister of commerce Étienne Clémentel, began to exercise some control through its jurisdiction over imports of raw material and their distribution, and the state became better able to intervene, the better to rationalise the war economy.

However, even with these controls in place, profiteering abounded. For example, an influential Marseilles vegetable oil trader, Emilien Rocca, was exposed as having exported copious quantities of the product to neutral countries such as Switzerland and Holland, from where it had been forwarded to German manufacturers! Whether knowingly or otherwise, this was scandalous behaviour, but amazingly, Rocca actually remained head of the government’s vegetable oil ­controlling body (and becoming a very rich man), until it was wound up in 1919.22

The German conquest and occupation of the Briey-Longwy industrial region in eastern France in the first days of the war resulted in the loss of
83 percent of iron ore and 74 percent of coal reserves, which meant that production of cast iron and steel production were slashed by 81 percent and 63 percent respectively.
23 In the desperate search for new capacity to replace these losses, the government was extremely generous in granting loans for the expansion of old factories or the creation of new ones. Steel manufacturing was prioritised, and by 1915 plants like Decazeville and Montluçon, both in central France and a healthy distance from the front line, were massively expanded.24 In the new industries, firms such as that of André Citroën and Louis Renault benefited enormously from the open-handedness of the state; Citroën signed a contract for the production of one million shells, “manufactured in a factory yet to be built”.25 The Éclairage Électrique company, belonging to the future minister of munitions Louis Loucheur, received a total of nearly 7 million francs in advances. When, in December 1915, the government announced its intention to repossess factories built with state subsidies at the end of the war, the bosses created such a fuss that the repurchase clause was quietly dropped. It was this kind of concession that contributed to the massive expansion of firms such as Citroën, previously little bigger than medium sized enterprises, which enabled them to grow into the colossuses that they were to become.

Prior to 1914, there had been a number of attempts to introduce a progressive system of taxation, but resistance from the highest levels of government had stymied all efforts at reform. It was only in 1916 that a system of taxation, an income and war profits tax, was introduced to cover the cost of the war. But as one economist has noted: “It was never possible to compel contractors to show their account books. There is no systematic analysis of war profits, distributed or otherwise”.26 He calculated that the total raised by the levying of a special tax on war profits up to the end of the war was approximately 17.3 billion francs, which in no way covered the immense burden of wartime spending, the shortfall being made up by international borrowing, mainly from the US.

With the imposition of martial law, some 3.4 million men in all branches of industry were mobilised, including hundreds of thousands of skilled workers employed in the munitions factories and other essential wartime industries. As a consequence, production across the economy was crippled, with companies like Le Creusot, a major arms manufacturer, losing 50 percent of its workforce, while military workshops in Bourges and Saint-Étienne had to close down. The chaotic state of French war preparations was illustrated by the fact that while this was happening, there were 60,000 unemployed men in Paris alone.27

With the stabilisation of the situation on the front and the realisation that this was not going to be a short war, industrialists began to demand the return of their workers in order to fulfil the production requirements of the war economy. By the end of 1915 nearly half a million workers had been combed out of the ranks and returned to the munitions industry. By January 1916, it was a similar story in the other major war industry, chemicals. But the status of returned workers had changed; they were now subject to military authority, and could be returned to the trenches at any time at the behest of the bosses. This armed the employers with a powerful weapon with which to threaten militants, and they demonstrated in many workplaces that they were prepared to use it. So, for example, in the Renault works, Louis Renault quadrupled his workforce and increased production by 600 percent, with the flagship plant at Boulogne-Billancourt pioneering industrial developments such as “scientific management”—mass production methods involving 24 hour working, speed-ups, and piece rates, methods that had been resisted by the unions prior to the war.28

The state also assisted the employers, however inadvertently, in undermining the position of the unions by mobilising more women workers and recruiting a greater number of migrant workers in order to make good the manpower shortage caused by conscription. They were often employed at inferior pay rates to those enjoyed by the established workforce. Union activists viewed this development with considerable trepidation, seeing these unskilled newcomers, with no tradition of struggle, replacing skilled workers, undermining their bargaining position and enabling the employers to attack their hard-won conditions. For the first two years of the war, whereas the employers enjoyed the full support of the state, French workers saw their status threatened as a result of becoming mobilises, their conditions eroded by the enforced changes in the workplace, and their ability to defend themselves compromised by the wartime stance of their organisations, the CGT and the SFIO. However, as the war continued women workers, rather than undermining conditions, would become some of the most militant in defending them.

Working class resistance

By late 1916, with the war about to enter its third year and with no end in sight, and the bloody battles of Verdun and the Somme resulting in stalemate on the Western Front, the consensus epitomised by the Union Sacrée started to weaken. For the majority of the population, the exigencies of the war imposed great hardship. France was dependent on the British, with their huge merchant fleet, for everything that was imported, especially steel, coal and wheat. The British insisted, successfully, that the French move to a system of rationing and the French state, in turn, ensured that the wartime needs of the military and industry were prioritised. This led to shortages of essentials such as food, clothing and fuel for cooking and heating in the domestic market. For example, coal mined in France was cheaper and was allocated to industry, while the more expensive imported coal was sold on the domestic market. And, of course, when there were shortages of all such necessities, profiteering abounded.29 Passenger rail transport costs doubled and military leave trains were curtailed, making travel for soldiers and civilians with wartime restrictions of movement in place even more difficult.

In the workplaces the demands of production were unceasing, with 12-hour shifts becoming the norm. For female workers, with their men at the front, the pressures were even more intense, as they often had to fulfil the dual role of breadwinner and homemaker. Between January and July 1917, the price of foodstuffs doubled.30 Caught in the twin pincers of rising prices and stagnant wage levels, women workers confounded the authorities, and the sceptics in the CGT, by initiating the first strike of 1917, when women workers in two clothing workshops in Paris struck on 8 January.31 Thereafter the strike-wave gathered strength, with women workers adopting the kind of tactics that had characterised the Great Unrest in Britain before the outbreak of war:

The strikes called by women, or in which they were important participants, were almost always abrupt. No warning was given and often the decision was not even taken at a general assembly, while the strikes of men were usually prepared in a more methodical manner. Sometimes women laid down their tools as a result of an incident involving their supervisors. This type of behaviour greatly annoyed the government, because it bypassed arbitration and conciliation procedure, which had been established in early 1917. Women’s strikes tended to be impulsive, and in the spring of 1917, they began encouraging people at other factories to join them. Processions of strikers from various companies moved from factory to ­factory in order to stop work there.32

In a footnote, Mathilde Dubesset, Françoise Thébaud and Catherine Vincent cite a police report for 30 May 1917:

In the afternoon of 29 May, women from the Salmson works in Boulogne arrived at the Hanriot plant, leading a group of 200 women comprising strikers from Iris lamps, unemployed workers from Citroën, and laundry workers from the Boulogne region, and attempted to induce the women at Hanriot to go on strike.

The next day, a thousand women raising the red flag invaded the Salmson factories. All female trades were in fact paralysed by strikes in May-June 1917.33

Although women were able to join the SFIO, they were not encouraged to take leading roles in the organisation, while the CGT was extremely resistant to arguments for the rights of women in the workplace, a position challenged by Alfred Rosmer, a leading syndicalist who went over to the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution, and who insisted on the rights of women to equality: “Is it so difficult to admit that a woman can act on her account, and that she has a say in the matter when it comes to controlling her life and her destiny?”34

Given that they were denied the right to vote in France until the end of the Second World War and subject to the indifference, if not hostility, of the leading workers’ organisation, it is perhaps not surprising that women workers in France proved more resistant to attempts to restrain their actions, instead taking militant action that official labour and trade union bodies found very hard to reign in.35

This is not to suggest that strikes were confined to women workers. Some 10,000 building workers held a one-day strike in May in Paris, and strikes took place in the industrial heartlands of the Paris region, in Toulouse and the Rhône-et-Loire department. Mass rallies were held in many cities on May Day involving worker activists who were tentatively prepared to voice criticism of the war for the first time. But it was women workers who blazed a trail from late 1916 into 1917, even venturing to organise a demonstration when parliament was in session in June 1917, and compelling the government to observe the surge of protest lapping at its doors. Jean-Jacques Becker has noted that the strikes of 1917 were mainly of an economic character, but clearly they had the potential to develop beyond disputes about wages and conditions.36 The responsibility for ensuring that they did not has to be, in some measure, attributed to the actions of the CGT and the SFIO and their collaboration with the wartime state.

The CGT, having committed itself wholeheartedly to supporting the war effort, initiated a meeting with other, mainly socialist bodies, in September 1914. The result was the establishment of the Comité d’Action, which initially concerned itself with the general welfare of the working population, helping to mitigate the hardships imposed by the war; in essence, it amalgamated the functions of a trade union, citizens’ rights organisation and charitable foundation. As the war progressed, it gradually integrated itself into the government machinery, increasing its role of working with the state in coordinating the placement of labour, with a privileged role accorded to the trade unions. The CGT saw this role continuing when the war ended.

This cooperation reached its zenith during the years when Albert Thomas was responsible for munitions production. As a socialist deputy, Thomas had been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Union Sacrée and the war. By May 1915 he had become undersecretary of state in the War Ministry. He embodied the stance of the majority, the majoritaire, of Socialist Party deputies in the wartime parliament and, once appointed, applied himself to creating the most efficient system of munitions production possible within the constraints of French capitalism. Thomas set out to work closely with the industrialists, prepared to guarantee their profits, but demanding that they comply with the necessary requirements of the war economy. The huge increase in production of munitions from 1915 to 1917 is testimony to Thomas’s success in this regard, with production of shells reaching 261,200 per day, 6 million units of small arms ammunition per day and 3,200 rifles per day in 1917.37

Thomas was tireless in his efforts to motivate the workforce, and on factory visits would regularly exhort the workers to do more pour la patrie! Thus in 1916, he “climbed on a pile of shells in the big workshop at Le Creusot and exclaimed: ‘Up there, in the smoke that fills this valley, victory soars above us. We count on you, comrades, to seize it’”.38

However, this cosy relationship was increasingly put under stress as industrial tension grew in 1917, and worker militancy escalated, with disputes and strikes assuming a greater bitterness, especially in the munitions industry. Although the government moved to legislate against strikes in the national defence industries and declared them illegal from January 1917, strikes went ahead nevertheless. They served to provide powerful leverage for the labour leaders as negotiating tools, which they used in trying to make themselves indispensable in dispute resolution. In fact, national CGT leaders were almost constantly engaged throughout 1917-18 in negotiating the settlement of ­unofficial strikes.39

The state realised that it was necessary to make concessions in order to diffuse more fundamental challenges to the wartime government, and Thomas introduced a system of industrial arbitration that relied heavily on the labour leaders and the Comité d’Action to assist in mediating in conflicts between workers and employers. From the beginning of 1917 to the end of the war, functionaries in both the Socialist Party and the CGT were incorporated into these arbitrating bodies, which often succeeded in compelling employers to make concessions when dealing with economic grievances, but also insisted that the workers accept such settlements. So, from representing their members and leading strikes, the labour leaders acted as firefighters seeking to extinguish the militancy of their membership. This resulted in deep dissatisfaction within the working class, and by the end of 1917 and into 1918 strikes had assumed a more political character, and questions about war aims, and demands for the war’s end, started to compete with economic demands.

The impact of the Russian Revolution

In May 1917 the French government, concerned about the possibility that the newly installed provisional government in Russia might make a separate peace and take Russia out of the war, dispatched three Socialist deputies, including Marcel Cachin, to lobby the Russians to launch a new offensive, at a time when the collapse of the disastrous Nivelle offensive on the Western Front in April had resulted in mutinies in the French army. At the same time as the delegation was in Petrograd, Lenin, barely returned to Russia after years of exile, delivered a lecture at which he lambasted the notion that the war was one of “liberation”. He went on to cite the example of France, and the way in which the French bourgeoisie presented the war as a continuation of the Great French Revolution of 1789 as a means of “hoodwinking” the mass of the French population into supporting the war:

If you take the parliamentary history of the French Republic since it became a republic supporting Tsarism, you will find dozens of examples during the decades of this history when manifestos of the most eloquent phrases served to mask the policy of the most outrageous colonial and financial plunder. The whole history of the Third Republic in France is a history of this plunder. Such are the origins of the present war.40

The Bolsheviks’ stance was that the war was about the imperialist division of the world into spheres of influence, and asserting the supremacy of one alliance of imperialists over another, and that it was the responsibility of workers’ organisations to do all in their power to prevent the ruling class from taking their people into such a war. Furthermore, Lenin took a position of condemning the actions of that ruling class, and calling for the overthrow of that class, even if that meant the military defeat of the armed forces. Defined as revolutionary ­defeatism, this was the position that Lenin and the Bolsheviks adopted at the start of the Great War, and attempted to propagate not only to the Russian workers, but to workers of all the belligerent states. The French delegation provided just such an opportunity for the international dissemination of the Bolsheviks’ propaganda, and Cachin and his comrades returned home importing into France “a whiff of revolutionary fervour”.41

They also brought back details of some of the secret treaties concluded between the Tsarist government and the Republic, opening up a fissure between the socialists and the government, with the socialists demanding that the treaties be annulled. The SFIO demanded that the Poincaré government grant passports to their delegates to attend a peace conference in Stockholm, which had been called by the International Socialist Bureau (the international committee of the Second International). There were precedents, as French socialists had attended the internationalist conferences at Zimmerwald in 1915 (along with Merrheim and Albert Bourderon), and Kienthal in 1916. But, fearing the effect of such a concession on his still-mutinous army, the new commander-in-chief Philippe Pétain intervened, demanding that the passports be refused, and the government complied. As a result, the SFIO instructed its delegates to withdraw from the administration. The Union Sacrée had started to fragment.

The strikes of 1918

In addition to the war weariness that was to be found in all sections of French society, a number of factors contributed to the increasing politicisation of the working class and the subsequent strike movement in the industrial regions. In November 1917, with the socialists having left the government, Poincaré nominated Clémenceau, a ruling class warrior known to the syndicalists as the briseur de grèves (strike breaker) as prime minister. In his first speech as prime minister, Clémenceau announced: “I make war, nothing but war!” In the same month the Bolsheviks published more of the Tsarist government’s secret treaties, including the military convention with France. This fuelled a sense of betrayal and outrage within the leading elements of the working class. At the same time, the Bolshevik Revolution presented French workers with the spectacle of a country where workers had taken the reins of power, and was an inspiration for those worker militants who were starting to break with the collaborationist policies of the majoritaire leadership.

One of the more prominent rank and file leaders was Clovis Andrieu, a staunch CGT activist and previously the secretary of the Federation of Iron Construction Workers in the Seine department. Called up in 1914, he was redirected to the Loire region, where he became the local secretary of the metal workers’ union. Andrieu was also identified as an anti-war activist by the Loire military commander:

The general considered that Andrieu’s speeches were revolutionary, pacifist and even defeatist: thus at a meeting, Andrieu had called upon his audience to fight “the real war”, the “war against the bosses”! “The workers”, he had added, “must not exhaust their strength for the benefit of those scoundrels who use their ­brothers in the trenches as cannon and machine-gun fodder”.42

A congress of the Association of the Trade Unions in the Loire was held on 12 August 1917, and attended by majoritaire leaders Alphonse Merrheim and Georges Dumoulin. At the conference they were heavily criticised for the CGT’s adherence to the Union Sacrée, and the betrayal of the working class. The meeting also voted for peace negotiations as proposed by Soviet Russia. Very shortly afterwards, in November, Andrieu was threatened with recall to his unit. In a magnificent display of solidarity, a mass strike was called in his defence, involving some 25,000 workers across the region, and the mobilisation order was rescinded. But it was in another stronghold of working-class militancy that major political strikes were to break out first.

The Paris Seine Region

In the Renault works at Billaincourt, syndicalists Louis Le Bihan, Alexandre Bagot, and Anatole Michelet were prominent leading activists. At the start of the year they had made speeches expressing their solidarity with Austrian and German workers:

Bagot said that decisions should be taken which would “enlighten the masses of factory workers on the appropriate attitude towards the war” and he praised Lenin and Trotsky as “revolutionaries who have fully accomplished their task and have found the courage to act in the same way as they thought”. Bagot continued: “Our duty as shop delegates is to make our electors understand that the issue of bigger pay packets should be set aside in favour of a single obsession: peace. We should, if necessary, oppose all new call-ups of workers in the shops, and demand instead an immediate armistice”.43

The flashpoint in the Seine was triggered by the arrest of a reservist for expressing anti-war sentiments to his workmates. This created intense outrage among the Renault workers and led to calls for the ending of conscription, and then the ending of the war, that quickly spread to other nearby factories.

“The news spread like wildfire. Renault and Salmson are out!” The strike ­movement spread across France, hitting Peugeot, De Dion-Bouton, Chenard et Walcker, Caudron, Morane, S E V, Voisin, Hotchkiss, Delaunay-Belleville, Blum-Latil, Darracq, Borrel, Clerget-Blin, Ballot, Ernault, Gnome et Rhone, Delage, Chausson, Panhard-Levassor, Schneider, Citroen, Hanriot, Clement-Bayard, les Chantiers de la Loire, la Societe d’optique, la Compagnie des Comptoirs, la Societe des Moteurs à gaz and some 20 other companies of various sizes. In all 200,000 metal workers hit the streets.44

For three days in May, the strike threatened to spread even further afield, and the military governor General Augustin Dubail put all the forces at his disposal on alert. A meeting of the Seine Association of Trade Unions was convened, and the CGT leadership condemned the actions of the shop stewards, with Bourderon, disowning the movement, refusing to organise solidarity action and distancing the official union machine from the strike. With that, by 13 May, almost overnight, the strike movement collapsed. Nearly 160 reservist workers from most of the enterprises on strike were singled out for removal from the shop floor and forcibly returned to their units for duty at the front.

The Loire Region

But just as the action in the Paris area was collapsing, workers in the Loire region, mainly in the St Etienne basin, were about to go out on strike. The region was again in a ferment over the victimisation of 11 activists, disciplined by their employer and remobilised to be sent back to their units. Andrieu, alongside Jules Spriet, a reservist metal worker, and Charles-Eugène Flageollet, a long-time syndicalist in the paper industry, prepared to lead a strike in solidarity with the victimised activists, and on 18 May the first strike-wave erupted. By 23 May, street demonstrations were a regular occurrence, and there were clashes with troops and police. Women demonstrators tried to prevent the men from boarding the trains to go back to the front and at one demonstration a police officer received knife wounds. Some demonstrators opened fire with revolvers, and serious acts of sabotage involving railway signals and telephone lines were reported.45

However, the isolation of the action in the Loire resulting from the defeat of the movement in the Seine region was compounded by the failure of the movement to generalise beyond the ranks of one section of the working class, the metal workers. Once again, the CGT leadership redoubled their efforts to try to end the strikes, this time with the active involvement of Merrheim, alongside the secretary of the Metal Workers’ Federation, Marius Blanchard. By concentrating on satisfying the economic demands of the strikers while attacking the rank and file leadership (with one Raoul Lenoir condemning the rank and file leaders as having “behaved criminally towards the working class”), they helped to sow the seeds of division. And as the strike movement subsided, the local police commissioner organised a show of force on the streets of the main centres of resistance, Firminy, Saint-Étienne, Saint-Chamond and Roanne, and on 25 May had 43 lay trade union officials arrested, including Andrieu. Another 73 were removed and put at the disposal of the military for transfer to the front.46 By 28 May, the government’s representative was able to report that industrial life had resumed its normal course in the department.

Deplorably, the leaders of the CGT and of the SFIO did nothing to mitigate the sanctions imposed on the strikers, members of their organisations. They continued, however reluctantly, to adhere to their policy of backing the bourgeois government of Poincaré and Clémenceau in the prosecution of the war. Poincaré, in his memoirs, quotes Clémenceau describing his relationship with the labour and trade union leaders in these terms:

I told Renaudel and Merrheim that the young conscripts would all have to go [to the front]: they accepted this. The sanctions imposed on the agitators, whether they had been arrested or sent to the front, would be maintained. I said that I could not yield, and that I could not promise clemency, but that I was not an ogre, and that I would see what could be done when the strike ended. They sought to ask me about war aims. I replied “No.” That is not a working-class or trade union question.47

The Great War ends, the class struggle continues

Although many of the leading rank and file militants were embracing ­revolutionary ideas, the majority of the workers, while being prepared to take action to oppose the war, were not revolutionary, and the reformist leadership were able to wrest control of the movement from the activists. As the German spring offensive ran out of steam after nearly reaching Paris, the tide of war started to turn in favour of the allies, and the French government was able to see out the rest of the year without further serious challenges from the industrial working class and their rank and file leaders. But the struggle was only postponed. Almost as soon as the armistice was declared, the employers, aided by the government, began to re-establish their control of the workplace.

Women workers were the first to feel the bosses’ backlash. Minister of ­munitions Loucheur, himself an industrialist, had the following notice posted up on 13 November “To women working in factories and state-operated facilities of national defence”:

In response to an appeal by the French Republic, you forsook your traditional pursuits in order to manufacture arms for the war effort. The victory to which you have contributed so much is now assured: there is no more need to manufacture explosives… Now you can best serve your country by returning to your former pursuits, busying yourselves with peacetime activities.48

Layoffs in all the wartime industries were accompanied by measures to increase the productivity of those left in the factories, with the bosses trying to roll back whatever gains had been made by the workers during the war. Allied to the offensive in the workplace, the population was faced with rampant inflation, often caused by shortages and exacerbated by speculation. The labour and trade union leaders experienced great pressure from below to call industrial action in order to counter the actions of the bosses. What really infuriated the majoritaire ­collaborationists of both the SFIO and the CGT was the stampede by the employers to dismantle the wartime apparatus of state control and regulation of industry, and sideline both organisations in the process.

After the armistice an avalanche of petitions [from the employers] swamped the government demanding a quick end to wartime controls. The Chambers of Commerce orchestrated a campaign in the name of “commercial and industrial freedom” beginning in December and gaining momentum through the first half of 1919. Local governments, liberal parliamentarians and academics, and business associations of all types added their voices to the clamour.49

The government readily supported the employers’ reactionary offensive, and now the CGT leaders, shunned by their former partners, treated with contempt by the bosses, and under intense pressure to call for strike action by the shop-floor militants, were compelled to resort to the methods of class struggle. This meant that 1919 saw an even greater wave of strikes and demonstrations than that of 1917 or 1918. But even though the CGT leadership used the revolutionary rhetoric of the pre-war years, it was now firmly established as a reformist trade union federation. Its theorists developed an ideological position that embraced cooperation with industrialists and the state. So the CGT’s “minimum programme” announced in December 1918:

We must turn our efforts toward constructive action and become capable not merely of rioting in the streets but of taking in hand the management of production. Up to now we have been too busy repeating that workers must emancipate themselves to try to teach them, as the first step, how to handle the instruments that will free them.50

It was a vision that was rejected by many of the rank and file militants who, influenced by the success of the Bolsheviks, had aligned themselves with the revolutionaries of the newly-formed Third International.

Within two years of the Armistice, the wartime SFIO majoritaire leadership of Renaudel and Leon Blum had been overthrown by the revolutionary left in the party, a process that eventually culminated in the historic decision by SFIO congress in December 1920 to join the Third International and become the Parti Socialiste, Section Française de l’Internationale Communiste, committed to the overthrow of the existing order and to world revolution. The SFIC was eventually to become the Parti Communiste de France, beginning a new chapter in French working class history.

Many of those answering the call to the colours were inspired by the belief that the corollary of the right to vote was the obligation to perform military service—which was known colloquially as the impôt du sang (or “blood tax”)—in the tradition of the citizen armies of the 1789 French revolution.51 The burden of this “blood tax” fell most heavily on the subordinate classes; the industrial workers, those working in agriculture and the peasantry, whose communities suffered the greatest losses of all at the front. Returning soldiers, disillusioned by their experiences in the war, contributed to a general increase in social and political unrest in the country, and the bourgeoisie of the Third Republic feared the worst. The Russian Revolution had inspired French workers with a vision of how society could be better organised, and the politics of the Bolsheviks had become better understood and assumed a greater prominence among the leading elements in the working class. But this did not immediately translate into the creation of a revolutionary party capable of uniting the multitudinous strands of resistance. The government of Poincaré and Clémenceau was able to ride out the storm.

Steve Guy is a long-time revolutionary socialist, anti-racist, trade union activist and campaigner, currently involved in the fight to save the NHS.


1 Stevenson, 2012, p517.

2 Fischer, 1967. See also Mombauer, 2002, p126.

3 Doughty, 2005, p22.

4 Keiger, 1983, p13.

5 Andrew and Kanya-Forstner, 1981, p35.

6 Keiger, 1983, p115.

7 Doughty, 2005, p24.

8 Krumeich, 1984, p124.

9 Krumeich, 1984, p129.

10 Berry, 2002, p24, footnote 37.

11 Clark, 2012, p500.

12 Clark, 2012, pp306-307.

13 Krumeich, 1984, p230.

14 Krumeich, 1984, p131.

15 Krumeich, 1984, pp273-274, footnote 12.

16 Clark, 2012, p503.

17 Becker, 1992, p34.

18 Hobsbawm, 1987, pp315-316.

19 Hardach, 1992, p59.

20 Godfrey, 1987, p50.

21 Godfrey, 1987, p225.

22 Godfrey, 1987, p132.

23 Godfrey, 1987, p47.

24 Hardach, 1992, p70.

25 Hardach, 1992, p60.

26 Caron, 1979, p246.

27 Godfrey, 1987, p47.

28 Magraw, 1993, p128.

29 Horne, 1992, p248.

30 Becker, 1985, p207.

31 Kedward, 2006, p79.

32 Dubesset, Thébaud and Vincent, 1992, p204.

33 Dubesset, Thébaud and Vincent, 1992, p217, footnote 99.

34 Quoted in the translator’s introduction to Lenin’s Moscow—Rosmer, 2016.

35 Downs, 1993, gives a riveting account of the women’s strikes, and the consequences that resulted as the authorities moved to purge the ringleaders, often with the complicity of the CGT leadership.

36 Becker, 1985, p239.

37 Hardach, 1992, p63.

38 Becker, 1985, p251.

39 Horne, 1992, p269.

40 Lenin, 1964.

41 Stevenson, 1982, p68.

42 Becker, 1985, p269.

43 Hatry, 1992, p228.

44 Hatry, 1992, p230.

45 Becker, 1985, p290.

46 Becker, 1985, p292.

47 Watson, 1974, p286.

48 Dubesset, Thebaud and Vincent, 1992, p208.

49 Kuisel, 1981, p51.

50 Kuisel, 1981, p60.

51 Horne, 1989, p202.


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