1936

Popular Front Factory Occupations

1936 saw a dramatic rise in working class confidence

By 1930 the growing advance of Taylorist management in France’s larger workplaces against the backdrop of the 1919 48-hour week law meant that their workers’ annual hours had fallen to about 2,300, a reduction echoed elsewhere in Europe. Working time then, however, dropped dramatically and uniquely in France by another 400 hours a year between 1935 and 1937.

This was the result of a wave of mass factory occupations, that were legitimated by the Matignon agreements and the Law of June 24 1936. What was significant about this reduction was that while it reflected the temporary weakening of the hold of French employers, it was essentially politically-driven rather than the outcome of  worker demands.

Election, Factory occupations, Matignon agreement, Blum Popular Front Government – in progress

The factory occupations that followed the 1936 Popular Front election victory initially called upon local mayors to arbitrate the reinstatements of workers fired for striking on the May Day that fell between the two rounds of elections. Other workers then used the same defensive tactic (to prevent non-strikers from working) over wages.

Factories occupying – in progress

As the movement spread occupying workers began first to call for trade union rights and the recognition of shop stewards and, less frequently, for two weeks’ paid holiday and, even more rarely, for the 40-hour week. The reduction of the working week without loss of pay, however, had been included in the Popular Front’s 1936 election programme.

What difference did the factory occupations make?

The reformist CGT leader, Jouhaux, had campaigned vainly for years for a 40-hour week agreement, and in 1935 a measure proposing two weeks’ annual paid holiday was brought before the Senate. But these were not major rallying issues for French workers devastated by the loss of 1.3 million industrial jobs between 1931 and 1936. Between 1919 and 1935 only 1.3% of single-issue strikes and 13.1% of multi-issue strikes recorded in France concerned a shorter working week.

When faced with employers who, even as thousands of their factories were being occupied, still refused to negotiate with the unions, the new prime minister Léon Blum saw the opportunity to go considerably further than had the 1919 Law in reinforcing the collective bargaining machinery that had been increasingly ignored since the mid-1920s by the employers. 

The 1936 Law gave the Minister of Labour powers to convene ‘joint commissions’ of ‘the most representative’ of employers’ associations and trade unions in a regional or national ‘branch’ of any industry to negotiate collective agreements. It reintroduced a First World War procedure whereby the Minister could order all the employers in the branch to comply with the agreements – whether or not they had participated in them – if their workers were trade union members.

And it prescribed a minimum substantive content (the 40 hours, two weeks’ paid leave, minimum wages for different job classifications and periods of notice) and minimum procedures (recognising workers’ rights to trade union membership, the election of workplace delegates). Labour inspectors were, however, also granted powers to make exemptions, powers that were used more and more frequently as the slow economic growth from 1937 was blamed by the employers on the 40-hour week.

The law of June 24 1936 was the most important pre-Second World War advance in state intervention on wage formation. It specified that the collective agreements negotiated should lay down minimum wages for each level of worker in the sector and included the possibility that the agreements reached between the negotiating parties could be extended by Ministerial order to all firms within the particular industry or region. It thus created a state mechanism for generalizing standard minimum rates for all workers.

Communism

Communism as an international struggle for freedom. This 1951 socialist realist painting by Boris Taslitkzy shows French dockers fighting to stop arms going to French Indochina

What is shared between those who define themselves or are defined by others as ‘communist’? And how may ‘Communism’ be distinguished both from French anarchism and French socialism, with which it shared much common history and ground?

Babeuf was guillotined on 27 May 1797 as leader of the Conspiracy of Equals against the Directorate

Manifesto of Equals

The 1795 Paris revolutionary ‘Manifesto of Equals’ inspired by François-Noel Babeuf and rescued from oblivion by Philippe Buonarroti (1761-1837) summarised what remained (and remains) common to nearly all those who described themselves as communist across the following two hundred and some years:

We need not only that equality of rights written into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen; we want it in our midst, under the roofs of our houses… We lean towards something more sublime and more just: the common good or the community of property! No more individual property in land: the land belongs to no one. We demand, we want, the common enjoyment of the fruits of the land: the fruits belong to all.

We declare that we can no longer put up with the fact that the great majority work and sweat for the smallest of minorities. Long enough, and for too long, less than a million individuals have disposed of that which belongs to 20 million of their kind, their equals.

Let it at last end, this great scandal that our descendants will never believe existed! Disappear at last, revolting distinctions between rich and poor, great and small, masters and servants, rulers and ruled.’

After agreeing to this general statement of belief, communists had much more to disagree with each other upon.  

We have divided the considerable history of Communism in France into five periods:

Communism 1830-1917

For nearly 80 years before the redefining of communism with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the 1920 formation of the…

Communism 1918-1938

The Communist (Third) International was formed in Russia in 1919. The Soviet Communist Party directly dictated French Communist Party policy from…

Communism 1939-1947

From the shock of the 1939 non-aggression pact between Moscow and Berlin to holding ministries in the French government from 1945…

Communism 1978-to date

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the end of the Soviet Union, changes to its traditional working class constituency…