On April 25, 1947, a strike wave in France began when workers at Renault auto factory in Boulogne-Billancourt walked off the job due to a decline in bread rations from the government in Paris. This began as a protest against the terrible economy of postwar France without a broader political agenda. But the Communist Party soon came to lead these strikes, seriously threatening the pro-American though Socialist-led coalition government and helping usher in the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and undermine the communist appeal.
It’s hard to overestimate how bad conditions were in postwar France and really throughout Europe. Infrastructure and the broader economy generally were destroyed. Food scarcity was a real thing. Poverty was endemic. It would take a long time for the French and everyone else to rebuild and really things remained pretty tough until the mid-1950s for the western European working class.
The Renault plant had about 30,000 employees. Around 17,000 of those were members of the Confédération Générale du Travail, which was already one of the big French unions. The CGT came into existence all the way back in 1895. It was a more communist driven union than other French unions. There was a strong communist presence in the plant, though the real leader there was not a CP member, but rather a Trostkyite named Pierre Bois, as well as a lot of anarchists, which was still a thing in France if not most of the rest of Europe. So the Communist Party initially opposed the strike. A lot of this was that the CP was still doing whatever Stalin wanted and thus remained in “we have to win the war so let’s oppose any strikes or wage increases in order to help the Soviets” mode. That was pretty disconnected from the non-communist majority of the workplaces but certainly at least some rank and file workers did believe in this.
On May 8, the French government increased wages by three Francs. The CGT voted to return to work, but they didn’t have that much disciplinary power over the workers. About 1/3 of workers remained on strike and they were able to mostly shut it down. Soon this spread to other key industries, from Citroen factories to department stores. Most importantly, the CP realized that it should join the strike and doing so gave it a level of importance and power far greater than it had when it was just at Renault.
In the aftermath of the war, the Communist Party was a serious force and had to be part of the government. Those Party members supported the strike wave from inside the government. This, plus the growing crisis over what to do with the French colonies in southeast Asia, broke apart the coalition government attempting to put France back together after World War II. By supporting the strike, the CP placed itself at odds with the government’s core position of no wage increases. By May, the open support of the Communists for the strike led Paul Ramadier, the Socialist prime minister, to expel the Communist ministers from the government. The government now saw the strikes as a threat to its existence. Moreover, the strikers started attacking the Marshall Plan as American imperialism and this became increasingly important to the strategy. No longer was this a strike about the poor wages of postwar France. It was a strike about the future of the nation as the Cold War developed.
By September, the strike wave became national. On November 10, the strikes became even more intense. In Marseilles, strikes developed after an increase in tram rates. This soon spread around the nation. These were openly insurrectionist actions. They walked into a courtroom where strike leaders were arrested and threw a local Galluist alderman out the window. When the communist leader of the mineworkers was fired on November 17, the coal miners walked out too. By mid-November, 75 percent of workers in Marseilles were on strike. In December, train strikers uncoupled some rail tracks that led to an accident which killed 16 people. Overall, about 3 million workers struck during this complex and crazy year. For comparison, 1946 in France saw about 350,000 workers strike. The reasons for the growth of the strike wave were complex. For most workers, it was about wage increases, which they desperately needed. The CP claimed they were protests against the Marshall Plan. In truth they were both. Compared to the United States, the French working class was a lot more ideological and open to leftist ideas and it was not hard for many of them to think that they needed more money and that the U.S. domination of their nation and the rest of western Europe after the war would have enormously negative consequences on the road for world peace and worker power.
This all shook France to its core. By December, the CGT had thought this had gone far enough and ordered its members back to work, though many refused and remained on strike. By this time, the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency had gotten involved. Evidence later uncovered found that the CIA was both funding anti-communist union forces and paying the French mafia to beat up communist worker leaders. The government became increasingly happy to use troops to oust workers from workplaces where they had sat down on the job.
In the aftermath of the strike wave, the Americans, with assistance from the starkly anti-communist American Federation of Labor, founded the Force Ouvrière in 1948, an anti-communist set of unions with CIA support in order to counter CGT power. It mostly worked and the CGT remained pretty politically isolated until 1966. Strikes, even if they often had fewer ideological aims as what we saw in 1947, became a normal event in France and at least up to 2019, French railroads had experienced strikes every single year since 1947.
Of course this was all covered heavily in the media of the time and some of the British Pathé productions about it remain around today. Here’s one.
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