A broad historical sweep of Parisian revolutions and bridges

The Pont Neuf (New Bridge) was the first Parisian stone bridge built to cross the whole river from side to side, to have a pavement and not to have houses built on it. It was paid for entirely from King Henry IV’s coffers in 1607. A statue of Napoleon was replaced by one of Henry after British and Prussian troops put the Bourbons back in power in 1815. The shops on the bridge were finally removed in 1855. Christo & Jeanne-Claude wrapped it up in 1985 as shown in the photo, but they couldn’t take it away.

Paris is at the fulcrum of left struggles in France. Absolutist regimes were repeatedly burst apart and then restored. Having forcibly imposed a constitutional monarch on France in 1789 Paris and France were then ruled by committees, monarchs or emperors with little or no constitutional basis for the next 90 years.

Opposition and popular resistance to the Bourbons, to the Empire, to the German occupations, and to a particularly vicious capitalist class and state fed into and stimulated the Left.

Paris, unlike any other capital city, experienced five major revolutionary moments (1789, 1830, 1849, 1871, 1968) and many more insurrectionary protests over the past 250 years. Why?

Left in Paris suggests three interconnected answers:

1. The contrast between a rigid centralised political and social system and its rapidly changing economy creates periodic revolutionary explosions in France’s most industrialised city, Paris.

2. The memory of dramatic revolutionary change is widely embedded as an always present possibility. Its cosmopolitan, radical history and almost daily protests against nearly all manifestations of capitalism inspired and inspire artists, writers, revolutionaries.

3. The preserved beauty of the city attracts lovers and dreamers beneath its bridges.

The statue of Henry IV is just visible in the photo I took of the Pont Neuf (1607) where it crosses the Île du Cité on January 21 2019

Charm

In 1991 one of France’s greatest twentieth century historians, Fernand Braudel, asked:

Is it perhaps both France’s tragedy and the secret of its charm that it has never really been won over to capitalism?

There are still unresolved struggles between market freedom and social freedom, between social equality and market inequality and between class solidarity from below and top-down Jacobin fraternal reformism.

Sometimes it is easy to forget that central Paris remains small by international capital city standards, growing only five-fold during the 19th century to its less than 3 million population maximum in 1921, despite its expansion to 20 arrondissements in 1861.

Revolutionary Paris in 1793 had around half a million people living and working within the city walls. This total increased with the demolition of the walls and the absorption of the huge communes outside them in 1861. But the maximum of 2.9 million recorded in 1921 has not been exceeded since, despite the undercounting of tens of thousands of migrants

Hazan (IOP, 2009) reminds us therefore that since the 1980s ‘what has changed is not so much the mineral and vegetable setting as the way in which the city is inhabited’.

The Right Bank is as divided as ever, between the bourgeois centre and west and the still working class east and especially northeast. A sizeable section of the city’s manual and white collar working classes, particularly those from migrant backgrounds, now occupy the former ‘red belt’ suburbs, the banlieu ringing Paris from Ivry and Vitry in the south to Saint-Denis and Aubervilliers in the north.

Since the 1960s much of the inner-suburban ring of towns around Paris has been turned into high-rise high-density housing for the Parisan working classes (blue and white collar)

On the Left Bank the Chinatown in the 13th arrondissement continues to grow, but Hazan writes that everywhere else ‘the population has remained almost uniformly white and bourgeois. The Blacks are street sweepers, the Arabs are grocers, the police are rarely seen and the historic streets are as clean as in the pedestrianized zones of the provinces’.

Trade union unity on a march against Hollande’s labour law reform in April 2016

The central city streets remain the locus of much Left political action. After each demonstration passes a huge mechanised clean-up operation takes place, sweeping up and repairing the broken bus-shelter glass, and turning the city’s huge recycling containers the right way up.

Bridges

Paris means many things to many people. A catchy love song about Parisian bridges was doing the rounds in the mid-1950s when I became a teenager.

How would you like to be
Down by the Seine with me
Oh, what I’d give for a moment or two
Under the bridges of Paris with you…

I’d make your dreams come true

Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron on the set of An American in Paris directed by Vincenti Milleni in 1951

In this song Eartha Kitt (1953) and Dean Martin (1955) presented Paris as pure romance. I have felt this too, with each of Stevie, Joan, Sylvie and Marian who have shared my life, dreams and Paris walks at different times and ages from 17 to my present 74+.

Much happened under the Bridges of Paris as revolutionaries confronted reaction in the late 18th and throughout the 19th centuries

But the original 1913 French lyrics accompanying the Vincent Scotto score tells a much more nuanced tale. Both songs are available on You Tube.

After work in a factory, Rodor’s young lovers, Julot and Nini, exchange kisses near the river, but at night, when everyone else is sleeping…

All sorts of types sneak under the bridges
Happy to find there a berth in the
Hotel of the Open Air,
Where you don’t pay much
The odour and the water cost nothing, my lord,
Under the bridges of Paris…

Under the bridges of Paris,
A mother and her kids
Come to lie there close to the Seine
Where in their sleep they will forget their pain
If we would help them a little
All these really vulnerable people
There wouldn’t be any more suicides or crime in the night
Under the bridges of Paris


Sous les ponts de Paris,  Jean Rodor 1913

The Paris sung about in the words written in 1913 is how I remember its feel and smell in 1956 when I first visited, and still again in 1964, when I first lived in the city for eight months.

There are now 37 bridges spanning the Seine, at least five more than when I first walked beneath them.                                                                   

Unfinished Story

Rodor’s call for action over Parisian homelessness and poverty and migrants over a hundred years ago remains just as important today, even if central Paris has been largely cleansed of its visible poor.

We on the Left, our hopes, ideas and actions are still needed to build a society ‘in which all women and men irrespective of sex or nationality will enjoy the wealth produced by the work of all workers’ (Call for the Second International founding conference held in Paris from July 14 to July 21 1889).

Left in Paris is an unfinished story.

From this historical sweep to broad overviews and detailed periods

Three broad overviews of the context in which the Left emerged in Paris cover the nearly 250 years since the first French Revolution: 1750-1914 Revolutionary Questions, 1914-1962 War War and More War, and 1962-2020 Left challenges.

Closer views of the Left histories within each of these periods can be found in the PERIODS menu and at the end of each overview.

Brief discussions of the political ideas, culture and organisations of the Left since roughly 1830 can be found in the POLITICS menu. Although they all overlap, we have presented them in ten groups: Anarchism, Art, Communism, Cooperatism, Ecology, Feminism, Human rights (including national liberation struggles and struggles for the vote), Literature, Socialism and Trade Unionism.

The people who brought these histories to life are present through the PEOPLE menu, and the locations of their lives and activities can be found in the PLACES menu.

1750-1914: Revolutionary questions

Rather romantically, Delacroix’s famous painting shown above of a barricade in the 1830 July Revolution features figures from across France’s hugely divided social classes fighting on the same side. This was rarely the case

Paris is the spiritual and material home of nearly every variation of socialist, communist, anarchist, cooperative, feminist, trade unionist, human rights and environmentalist thought.

If Left thought and action didn’t originate in Paris it was certainly influenced by it. 

Why? Keeping a centralised and absolutist tiny elite stranglehold over France from the late-16th to the last quarter of the 19th century was like shaking a bottle of champagne until the cork blows off.

Absolutism’s political survival under the Bourbons, their Orléans cousin, and the two Napoleonic Empires until 1870 largely blocked mechanisms that might enable gradual social change to reflect and smooth France’s economic and technological evolution.

Absolutism created a particularly self-pitying, aggressive and nasty capitalist class and an indomitable working class, sections of which had an exceptional readiness to both resist capitalist dehumanisation and to struggle for freedom.

Enlightenment

Enlightenment France was not just modern ideas in the field of science. It also saw Voltaire (1694-1778) publish Freedom of thought in 1763 and Republican Ideas in 1765. Nearly the whole Parisian population joined the celebratory procession taking his remains to the Panthéon in 1791. Paris, with about 600,000 inhabitants, was then the second-largest city in Europe after London.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), a citizen of the Geneva Republic who had lived in Paris for several years, published Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men in 1755, and On the Social Contract or Principles of Political Rights in 1762.

Rousseau was highly thought of by members of the club that started meeting in the canteen of the Jacobin monastery in the Rue Saint-Honoré in October 1789. From 1792 the club was called the Société des Jacobins, amis de la liberté et de l’égalité (Society of the Jacobins, Friends of Liberty and Equality).

The Jacobin lawyers and intellectuals forged a temporary alliance with the Parisian poor. They did so to bring the numbers and revolutionary fervour they needed to overwhelm the ancien regime and its very strong aristocratic, clerical and military support. In doing so they forged a Jacobin legacy of minority-led, centralised, top-down reform.

Bernie Moss (1994) suggested this Jacobin alliance first destroyed the old State-Church economic privileges in the name of economic liberalism and then ‘pushed liberalism to the limits of socialism in 1794’. In so doing the Jacobins made a deadly enemy of the Catholic Church, with its still considerable powers of mobilisation among the peasantry, but without securing a permanent ally of equal weight among the rural workers or urban tradesmen.

Napoléon

While the Bourbon absolutist cork suppressing freedom and equality had exploded off in 1789, it was pushed back down by Napoléon Bonaparte’s military coup of 1799. His alliance of army generals and state administrators offered central control over the decentralised peasant-worker economy and gave wealthy merchants comparative stability of interest payments.

The vengeful Bourbons took up the task of holding the cork down from 1814 until 1830, when the July Revolution burst it off again.

The Three Day largely peaceful Revolution of July 1830 (fewer than 1000 deaths)

Reinserted by the Bourbon’s cousin Louis-Philippe d’Orleans, the cork was again expelled in 1848, when Paris’ population was close to one million.

The Second Republic was declared after two days’ fighting overthrew Louis-Philippe on the 24 and 25 February 1848

For three months liberté and égalité flourished.

Barricades went up all over working class Paris on June 23-26 1848. This is the first daguerreotype ever taken showing barricades down the rue St Maur, now beautifully hand-coloured

Then, in June 1848 the closure of the National Workshops sparked resistance in working-class Paris. The new bourgeois government brutally suppressed it. Some 5,000 died on the barricades and another 1,500 were summarily executed. 11,000 other leftists and resistance fighters were then jailed or deported.

Daumier sees Napoleon III as having first seized power in 1851 by the cannon then being defeated by it in 1870

From 1851 to 1870 the new Emperor, Louis-Napoléon, kept liberty and equality bottled up before losing his freedom to the Prussians, his imperial crown and Paris to the short-lived and viciously-suppressed 1871 Commune.

The Commune

The Paris Commune declared in March 1871 was crushed in May

The ‘Bloody week’ began on May 21 1871 with the Versailles army ‘hacking their way into Paris in the bloodiest and most brutal fashion, executing anyone they suspected of having played an active role in the Commune’ and leaving ‘more than 20,000 Communards dead, nearly 40,000 imprisoned, and countless others in flight’. It took out over 3% of Paris’ two million population.

Communards at a barricade waiting for the Versaillais army May 1871

Harvey (2003) goes on to quote a letter from the ageing bourgeois Republican responsible, Adolpe Thiers, detailing the ruling class agenda: ‘The “reds”, totally vanquished, will not recommence their activities tomorrow; one does not engage twice in fifty years in such an immense fight as they have just lost.’

A few of the executed Communards after the Bloody Week of May 21 – May 28 1971

The Commune was produced out of a search to transform the power and social relations within a particular class configuration constituted within a particular space of a capitalist world that was itself in the full flood of dramatic transition. We have much to learn from the study of such struggles. And there is much to admire, much that inspires there, too.’


Paris: Capital of Modernity, David Harvey

Third Republic

Over decades from the 1870s Republican governments balanced liberalism and the construction of a centralised modern capitalist state with peasant protectionism. The growth of endemic inequality alongside the shaping of a nationally dispersed industrial working class enabled the emergence of increasingly popular socialist currents.

While the working lives of at least half of France’s nineteenth century population were dominated by the weather, most of the rest experienced lives of job insecurity, job mobility and/or immigration.

The migrants (from poverty-ridden rural areas) and immigrants (from Belgium, Italy and Germany) who found themselves in coal mining, factory work or in desperate urban poverty, alternated between moments of total passivity when they believed these experiences were only temporary, and violent rebellion when they realised they were trapped.

Along with the more coherent and socialistic attitudes of the urban artisans, migrant worker responses to industrialisation made up the disparate and rebellious workers’ movement of what should be seen as a ‘long’ French nineteenth century that began in 1789 and only ended around 1918.

Fear of the poor and their potential to revolt was a constant concern. The sociologist Robert Castel (1995) argues that ‘what can properly be called an anti-worker racism was spread right through the nineteenth century bourgeoisie’.

Republicanism redefined itself as support for an elected head of state with limited powers combined with strong elements of both nationalism and secularism, defined largely as opposition to Catholic influence over government, education and social policy. It was only in 1892 that Pope Leon XIII finally asked French Catholics to recognise the reality of the Third Republic.

The Dreyfus affair in which a Jewish army captain was framed for treason in 1894 divided France politically between most of the socialists (increasingly influenced by Marxist ideas) and some left republicans and on the other side conservative Catholics and right republicans and anti-Semites who had never become fully reconciled to a democracy that allowed workers to influence government actions.

Gradually left and right-wing Republican formations emerged. In the early twentieth century the left Republicans increasingly faced competition for working class votes first from the Socialists and after the First World War also from the Communists, while right Republicans competed for votes among the Catholic, peasant and small business electorates.

Nobuhito Nagaï’s study of the Paris municipal council election results after the defeat of the Commune shows how the broad republican left (the two left columns) secured majorities from 1887 to 1900 and then again from 1904 to 1912, with the far-right present throughout. The numbers of SFIO councillors in the unified socialist party of 1905 are shown in brackets in 1908 and 1912.

Trade unionism

Living under trade union illegality between 1791 and 1884, with both occasional counter-revolutionary repression and constant harassment of worker organisations and activities, deep divisions appeared among the slowly cohering working class.

Most workers with the courage to conduct illegal workplace organising were strongly anti-capitalist but there was little unanimity about what this meant.

Some rejected party-political activity in favour of trade union militancy pure and simple. But these activists were divided between those who wished to organise to overthrow capitalism, and those who used militancy to negotiate advantageous collective agreements with the employers.

In 1906 the CGT (Confédération générale du travail) trade union called its first General Strike to try and impose an eight-hour day on the employers. Later the same year it adopted the Amiens Charter, a programme embodying the key elements of revolutionary syndicalism – the rejection of the political process as a means of advancing workers’ conditions, and the adoption of the view that the trade union movement itself provides the organising framework for a new society.

Among those who believed it was possible to capture political power for the workers, there were different divisions. Broadly these were between revolutionary syndicalists, those who wished to orchestrate a revolutionary seizure of power, and the socialists who believed in forming electorally-oriented workers’ political parties to represent their interests and who in 1905 establlshed the French Section of the International Workers Association (SFIO).

In 1914, however, nearly all the socialists and trade unionists chose to support a ‘Holy Union’ against the German invaders rather than carry out their promises to mobilise in support of peace and internationalism.

A closer view

1787-1794: The French Revolution

1794-1815: Directorate and Napoleon’s First Empire

1815-1830: Bourbon Restoration and Revolt

1830: Glorious Revolution from one monarch to another

1830-1848: Republicans and Socialists under the Orléans monarchy

1848: Revolution and insurrection

1848-1870: Coup d’État, Second Empire and military defeat

1871: Paris Commune

1871-1914: Between one war and another, socialism and trade unionism

1914-1962: War, War and more War

The French left was as divided as ever in 1914 at the onset of France’s half century of devastating and divisive wars.

There were those in the footsteps of Blanqui and Babeuf who wished to orchestrate a revolutionary seizure of power and use the state to dispossess the capitalist class; many of Proudhon‘s supporters believed workers should take state power and then run society through the workers’ own organisations; and there were those like Jaures who believed that workers’ political parties could represent their interests and change capitalism without a bloody revolution.

None of these strands had fully anticipated the damaging impact war would have on their hopes and organisations. Most of the Left, with the notable exception of the then-assassinated Jaures, began by supporting the war as a war against ractonary Prussian imperialism and as an opportunity to recover Alsace-Lorraine.

World War 1

During World War 1 Germany used aircraft, Zepplins and a huge gun to bomb and shell Paris. The photograph shows the limited damage done at 5 boulevard de Grenelle on May 22 1915

By the end of World War 1, however, several of the different socialist strands came together after under the influence of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. This coincided with the eclipse of the peasant-worker economy and emergence of a mass working class, particularly strong in Paris and other growing cities. The 20 arrondissements of central Paris attained their all-time peak population of 2.9 million in 1921.

France was then staggering under the loss of 1.25 million soldiers with half a million civilian casualties and three-quarters of a million permanently injured in World War 1 out of a total population of 39 million. The horrific experience gave new impetus to the still present ideas of class conflict and fraternité.

In 1919 the passage of new laws to enforce sectoral collective negotiations in industry and the eight-hour working day to ‘reward’ workers for their wartime sacrifices led French employers to set up the first national multi-industry employers’ organisation, the General Confederation of French Production (CGPF).  

In the ”soldier blue’ national election of November/December 1919, two -thirds of the Parisian National Assembly deputy seats were won by the anti-Communist nationalist Bloc National. In the Municipal Elections held at the same time the Parisian socialists of the SFIO won 20 seats to the Bloc National’s 47.

The Left that survived the war was totally reshaped by World War 1 and the Russian Revolution. A French Communist Party (PCF) was formed in December 1920 by the majority of delegates at the French Socialist Party (SFIO) congress at Tours. However, only 13 of the then 68 Socialist deputies joined the new party.

The 1920 Christmas-time congress of the Socialist Party at Tours splits with the majority setting up the French Section of the Communist International

In the 1924 Paris municipal elections the now divided left won just 15 seats, with eight being won by the Socialists and seven by the Communists. By the 1928 municipal elections the Communists were doing better than the Socialists, but both were doing much worse than four years earlier: the PCF won five seats, the SFIO just two, and in addition there were two radical-socialists compared to the centre-right Union National’s 30 seats.

While some of the left supporters of the PCF quit it in the mid and late 1920s, largely in sympathy with the Russian Left Opposition, the PCF declined more significantly in the early 1930s. This decline largely resulted from its adopting the ‘Third Period’ policy of Stalin’s Communist International. Social democrats everywhere were attacked as ‘social fascists’. In France this meant attacking the socialist SFIO, both politically and sometimes physically.

Fighting for the 39 municipal councillor seats in the elections of 1932 the Communists won just one, a far left Party of Proletarian Unity (Parti de l’Unité ProlétariennePUP) won three, and the Socialists won 12.

Popular Front

The Communist Party’s sectarianism ended after a French fascist demonstration on February 6 1934 caused a massive riot outside the National Assembly, leaving 15 dead and 1,500 wounded. The reformist-led CGT called a one-day general strike and the Communist-led CGTU trade union confederation and PCF joined in, demonstrating together against the semi-military fascist groups being created.

Militants from both the SFIO and the PCF took up the slogan ‘Unity’ on the march and within months negotiations had begun that led to an agreement between the Socialists, Communists and Radicals not to split the vote in the Second Round of the next elections.

In the 1935 Paris municipal elections the Left won a majority of votes and 23 of the 39 seats.

Popular Front Election manifesto for the Radicals, Socialists and Communists April 1936

The following year saw the elections for the National Assembly. In the first round on April 26 1936 the Communists, Socialists and Radicals won 57% of the vote on a programme calling for Bread, Peace and Freedom. All the conservative parties offered was anti-communism. But many of the Radicals and some of the Socialists who were elected could only be described as ‘of the Left’ if the term was stretched a very long way.

The composition of the National Assembly in May 1936 changed considerably without, however, being anchored strongly to the Socialist and Communist left.

Leon Blum became the new prime minister of France. And working class militancy was once again uncorked.

The 1936 election victory triggered huge happy demonstrations on May 1 and a dramatic rise in working class confidence

Huge joyful demonstrations on the Friday 1 May 1936 led many employers sacking some of the strikers. This was followed by mass protest strikes and factory occupations. Many of the two million workers taking part occupied their workplaces to prevent the employers from introducing strike-breakers.

Under this pressure Léon Blum’s first Popular Front government brokered an agreement between the employers and the CGT that introduced the 40-hour week, two weeks’ annual paid holidays and granted trade union recognition and limited employee representation in large firms. The government then passed these measures into law.

Blum’s government of Socialists and Radicals and Left Republicans was immediately faced with the crisis created by German and Italian support of General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Non-intervention became its official policy, although it turned a blind eye to the work the Communist Party did to facilitate Russian weapons transiting France to support the Republican government.

French employers also sharpened their teeth after the strike wave and factory occupations of 1936. They then changed their organisation’s name to the General Confederation of French Bosses (Confédération générale du patronat français), most of whom collaborated more or less closely with Vichy and spurned De Gaulle’s Free French resistance movement during World War 2.

In June 1937 Blum, faced by an intransigent right-wing Senate, was forced to resign and was succeeded first by one Radical-Socialist and then by another before the Popular Front was dissolved in the autumn of 1938.

Occupation

In 1940 the German occupation of Paris and Northern France and the Vichy government in the South put the cork back in the bottle.

German soldiers parade down the Champs Elysée in June 1940

Vichy fascism and German economic demands played an important role in preparing French capitalists for post-war state direction of the economy. The Vichy Government, through its local préfets, not only directly dictated wage rates, but also required all employers to join the ‘family’ corporatist trade organisation relevant to their sector.

The fascist Milice Francaise was formed in 1943 to fight the Resistance

Communist Party

The FTP Snipers and Supporters (Franc-Tireurs et Parisans Francais) was formed by the Communist Party in 1942. the poster states: The French partisans shed their blood for the People of Paris.

From the May 1941 northern coalminers’ strike until the Liberation the PCF played a major role within the resistance movement inside France. This cost the left dear: up to 75,000 of its members and sympathisers were executed.

French communists gained great prestige for their sacrifices in the resistance after 1941

But the PCF massively broadened its support. In the October 1945 elections for the Constituent Assembly of the Fourth Republic the PCF attracted 25% of the vote. It won 28% of the first ballot vote for the National Assembly in 1946. Communist Party members then entered the government.

On April 29 1945 the first municipal elections took place with women voting. Nine were among those elected. In Paris, where there were then 90 salaried councillors, voting was for 108 lists drawn up by different groups.

The Communists won 27 council seats, the Socialists 12, the Radicals 5, the ‘Resistance’ list 8, the Christian-Democrat MRP 14 and the right-wing ‘Moderates’ 22. A socialist Parisian deputy who had defended Blum at his 1942 trial, André le Troquer, was elected to chair the council.

After the Second World War

The presence of a substantial Communist party articulating a discourse of capital-labour conflict made it more difficult after 1944 for those sections of the employers who were looking for dialogue to find accommodating worker representatives, and reinforced anti-trade union attitudes among the employers.

It also strengthened workers’ sense of class identity and kept up pressure on the Socialists and centre-left Republicans to promise significant reforms. There was (and remains) a constant threat of strikes and street demonstrations if workers’ distinct interests are overlooked.

In 1947 the right consolidated its hold on Paris. Voters chose from 74 lists this time/ De Gaulle’s conservative RPF won an absolute majority with 52 seats. The Communists won 25, the Socialists 8 and the MRP just 5. De Gaulle’s brother, Pierre, became president of the largely powerless municipal council.

After 1950, the size of the PCF and the growing strength of the conservative right outside and inside the National Assembly after it had recovered from its collaborationist role during the Second World War, created considerable government instability.

The 1953 Paris municipal elections showed the continuing hold of the Communist Party over most of working class Paris. They were against the largest party with 28 elected alongside 9 Socialists, but the independents and right-wing parties held a clear majority.

None of the political parties were prepared to dismantle the French empire at the speed with which the colonised peoples of Asia, the Middle East and Africa were demanding it.

Military attempts under the Fourth Republic (1945-1958) to preserve France’s empire and influence in Vietnam, Algeria and Egypt all failed.

Coup d’État

Generals Massau and Salan head the Army Algerian coup d’etat of May 1958

In 1958 the French Army staged a pre-emptive military coup in Algeria to prevent a new French government from negotiating French withdrawal. The colony had faced a nationalist liberation struggle since 1954.

In the subsequent stalemate, when the Algerian-based officers were not sure enough of their conscripts to invade France and the French government lacked the authority to do anything about the military uprising, General de Gaulle announced he would respond to a ‘legal’ summons to return to power.

Socialists and Communists protest against the coup d’etat in May 1958

Despite some left opposition, De Gaulle was voted Premier in the National Assembly on June 1 1958 on his condition that he could rule by decree for six months. In September 1958 he submitted the constitution of a new Fifth Republic to a referendum and won a 78% Yes vote.

Effective legislative power was then transferred from the Assembly to a seven-year term President, who became responsible for nominating the Prime Minister.

In Paris the 1959 six-yearly municipal elections saw Communist (29) and Socialists (9) representation unchanged while the new Gaullist party, the UNR (25), and the less dirigiste right-wing CNI (19) and MRP (6) had a majority.

The cork went back in the bottle.

Fifth Republic

The establishment of the Fifth Republic partly represented the reassertion of the old state bureaucracy over the broader democratic political process. But De Gaulle’s new governing alliance was not just between the right-wing generals, the senior civil service administrators and technocratic modernisers. It also embraced a significant part of the traditional Catholic conservative right.

While initially receiving considerable support as a way of ending the chaos of Fourth Republic politics and the Algerian War, the Fifth Republic was increasingly experienced as a mechanism for freezing French social relations at the very moment when economic growth was threatening to burst them apart.

Tens of thousands marched against the Algerian curfew and for independence on 17 October 1961

In October 1961 a huge peaceful Algerian demonstration in Paris was attacked by the Paris police.

Police attack Algerian demonstrators in Paris killing dozens on 17 October 1961

Dozens of Algerian demonstrators drowned when thrown by the police into the Seine. Many on the left gave unconditional support to Algerian independence. Henri and Clara Benoîts, for example, were CGT trade union activists at the Renault-Billancourt factory. There, they carried out solidarity actions with Algerian workers and on October 17 were asked to be official observers for the FLN.

De Gaulle finally recognised that Algeria could not be forcibly retained as a French colony. So France’s last major war ended with the Evian Peace Agreements signed on March 18 1962.

A closer view

1914-1918: World War One

1918-1936: Rise of the Communist Party

1936: Popular Front Factory Occupations

1936-1940: From the Spanish Civil War to World War Two

1940-1944: Occupation and Resistance

1944-1948: From Liberation to the Marshall Plan

1948-1958: Fourth Republic and Colonial Wars

1958-1968: Coup d’État and De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic

Since 1962: Left challenges

The photograph above shows the huge boulders placed under the La Chapelle bridge to deter migrants from sleeping there in February 2017. A collective of stone masons then moved the blocks sufficiently to allow sleeping spaces between them. All in the last months of the Hollande ‘socialist’ presidency. The camp was still being used and regularly evacuated under Macron in 2019.

1962 was the year France lost its last major colonial war. This was a key material and emotional turning point that unlocked modern France without removing either its right-wing nationalist or its left-wing social justice historical inheritances.

Both inheritances are still present as LeftinParis is being written. So this overview sketches a continuing story who end is still being struggled over.

In 1962 De Gaulle organised two referendums. The first on April 8 endorsed the Evian agreements, ending the Algerian War with 91% voting yes. The second, on October 28, introducing the election of the president by universal suffrage was carried by 62% voting yes.

De Gaulle’s Bonapartism was endorsed in the first Presidential election in 1965. He received 55.2 percent in the second round compared to Mitterrand’s 44.8.

These results were mirrored In the Paris 1965 municipal elections, the first in the capital to take place over two rounds. The Gaullist UNR (L’Union pour la nouvelle République) party won 27 seats and its allies another 12. There were 13 centrists elected and on the Left, 25 Communists, 9 Socialists, 2 from the ‘new left’, the PSU (Parti socialiste unifié), and 2 Radicals.

But De Gaulle’s absolutist time was running out. De Gaulle’s new governing alliance was not just between the right-wing generals, the senior civil service administrators and technocratic modernisers. It also embraced a significant part of the traditional Catholic conservative right. Thus while initially receiving broad support as a way of ending the chaos of Fourth Republic politics, it was increasingly experienced as a mechanism for freezing French social relations at the very moment when economic growth was threatening to burst them apart.

The 1967 National Assembly elections saw the Communist Party taking 6 of the 31 parliamentary seats in Paris, with the Socialists taking just one and the Union Progressiste, an alliance of left-socialists close to the PCF, also winning one.

1968: All change

In 1968 the cork blew off again, triggered by the vicious militarised police response to student demonstrators.

Armed police reinforcements waiting for action May 1968

May 1968 involved a massive challenge to De Gaulle and the bureaucratic, conservative and aloof Gaullist regime. Anger came particularly from students and younger workers, the sign that the first post-Second World War generation born and raised in an era of full employment and job security had reached maturity.

The Latin Quarter of Paris became a battle ground in May 1968 between students (and many young workers) and the police

Like their equivalents elsewhere in much of Western Europe, the new generation of largely middle class university students clashed with administrators used to dealing only with the children of the elite. In the factories and offices, experiencing near full employment for the first time, the new generation of more educated young workers clashed with the authoritarianism and arrogance of their managers.

What made a big difference in France, taking its revolt further than elsewhere in Europe, was the combination of the spark created by the state-absolutist repression of student demonstrators with the presence of a discourse of class conflict that harked back to the achievements under the 1936 Popular Front.

A mass meeting at the giant Paris Renault-Billancourt factory in May 1968. Nearly half the workers were migrants.

At its peak some nine million workers were on strike and hundreds of thousands of ‘new’ manual and white-collar workers participated actively in workplace occupations and street demonstrations.

While some on the Left considered the strikes could have led to a socialist revolution, the employers and government backed down. On May 27 they conceded a 35% increase in the minimum wage and what amounted to a 10% wage rise for most workers.

De Gaulle then dissolved the National Assembly and subsequently won an overwhelming majority in the ‘preserve law and order’ election of June 30 1968. In Paris the Gaullist party, the UDR, won 28 of the 31 National Assembly seats, with three being taken by other right-wing parties.

While nothing structural in terms of administrative power had changed, everything intangible had. Workers gained enormously in confidence. The Communist Party, the left socialists and the Trotskyist, Maoist and anarchist left groups all grew significantly in the aftermath of ’68.

In 1969 De Gaulle resigned after losing a referendum he did not have to call. He was succeeded by his prime minister, Georges Pompidou, who died in 1974. The more neo-liberal Valéry Giscard d’Estaing then narrowly beat François Mitterrand by less than 2% in the second round of that year’s election.

Left unity

The Union of the Left‘s Common Programme – bringing the Communists and Socialists into an alliance from 1972 to 1977 – began to make headway. In the 1973 National Assembly elections, the Communist Party regained the seats it had lost in Paris in 1968 and also took two more to achieve a total 8 out of the 31 seats.

The 1970s and 1980s brought in huge social welfare reforms under both right and left governments. French inequality declined significantly.

Trade union membership in the 1970s averaged one million more than it had in the 1960s.

In 1977 for the first time since the Paris Commune, Paris was able to elect a mayor and a municipal council with power rather than be governed directly by a prefect. Still divided between the left-leaning Eastern manual workers’ areas and the rightist West, the large conservative majority elected Jacques Chirac as its mayor. He had been Giscard d’Estaing’s first prime minister from 1974 to 1976 and stood in Paris as the highest profile job he could win and hold while waiting for a chance to stand for President.

The Common Programme of the Socialists and Communists in 1977 saw its electoral support reflecting the historica divide in Paris between North and Eastern working class revolutionary Paris and the more conservative West and South. This was the year when Chirac became Mayor of all Paris.

The Communist Party pulled out of the Left Union in 1977, and as a result the Socialists took seats from it in the 1978 National Assembly elections: the Socialists secured two deputies to the PCF’s four.

By 1981 it was Mitterrand’s turn to beat Giscard d’Estaing by over 3.5%. Three months later the National Assembly elections saw the Socialists route the Communists in Paris. Not a single PCF deputy was elected compared to 12 Socialists. This was the beginnings of the recapture of Paris for the Left that continued through the next three decades.

Despite the corrupt Jacques Chirac (Paris mayor 1977 to 1995) also securing right-wing mayors in all 20 arrondissements in 1983 and 1989, this graphic shows how in the First Round of muncipal elections Paris slowly moved leftwards in the 1980s and early 1990s

Mitterrand served two terms until dying of cancer in 1995 shortly before the end of his second term of office.

After Mitterrand

When in the autumn of 1995 President Chirac‘s first government tried to take away the protected pensions of railway workers and others in the public sector a mass strike movement was unleashed., eventually forcing the Juppe government to do a u-turn.

It was not just trade unions who felt empowered by the evidence that direct action through strikes and political demonstrations could influence government policies. According to police estimates some 6.25 million people participated in political street demonstrations in Paris alone between 1993 and 1999.

In 2002 around a million marched on May 1 calling upon voters to reject the Front National fascist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen and to vote for Chirac in the second round of that year’s presidential election.

On May 1 2002 nearly a million people demonstrated against Le Pen. This picture was taken at the Bastille. I remember struggling to get through the crowds from the Place de la Republique up to the Gare du Nord that day.

Most on the left held their noses and voted back in the clearly corrupt Gaullist Chirac. He got 82% of the vote. After his second term as president, another financially dubious but significantly much further to the neo-liberal right politician, Nicolas Sarkozy, was elected to succeed him. He won 53% in the second ballot to a leading Socialist woman, Segolene Royal.

In 2012 Sarkozy, who had largely failed in converting the French voters to accepting his neo-liberal agenda, was in turn defeated by Royal’s former partner, Francois Hollande. The colourless secretary ‘fixer’ of the Socialist Party secured just over 51% of the vote in an election whose result demonstrated disquiet with the corruption and flamboyance of Sarkozy rather than confidence about the incoming Socialist.

Hollande failed dreadfully as President, being persuaded to attack the trade unions and promote new attempts to cut public sector workers’ pensions, as if this would somehow restore the French economy to some previous glory. He also made a young banker his minister of finance, and it was this person of no fixed political abode, Emmanuel Macron, who was elected by just 66% of the vote against Marine Le Pen in May 2017.

Hollande did not stand for a second term in office. The Socialist Party vote in Paris collapsed. It was left with just one deputy in the National Assembly compared to the ten out of 18 who had been elected in 2012. Since 2002 presidential elections and National Assembly ballots have taken place at the same time.

Macron’s brand new political party, En Marche (LREM – The Republic on the move), took six of the Socialist Party’s 10 Parisian seats in the National Assembly. One of the others was taken by the further left Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (Untamed France – LFI). One other went directly over to the still neo-Gaullist right-wing Republicans (LR), and one was captured by the centrist ModDems (Democratic Movement). The Greens lost both of their National Assembly seats.

Paris National Assembly election results from 1988 to 2017: the move to electing Left deputies comes to am abrupt halt in 2017

A closer view

1958-1967: Coup d’État and Fifth Republic

1968 Student revolt and Mass strikes

1968-1981: Reforms from the right

1981-1995: Reforms from the left

1995-2007: All to fight for

2007-2022: Neo-liberal reforms and continuing resistance