"THE great popular movement that freed France from the enemy was not only a movement of national liberation, but of social liberation also." So reads the opening statement of one of the most important pieces of social legislation received by France since she recovered her full sovereignty. Quite naturally, the foremost rôle in this "social liberation" of the country was played by French organized labor. During the period of resistance against the invader it was prominently represented in the councils of London and Algiers as well as in the organizations of the interior. The President of the National Council of Resistance, comprising all underground groups, including right-wing organizations, was Louis Saillant, President of the clandestine General Confederation of Labor (C.G.T.)

Two years after the last German was driven from French territory, the C.G.T. today is one of the most important organized forces in France, boasting a record membership of more than 6,000,000, or approximately half of all wage earners in industry, trade and administration. Only once before, during the short heyday of the Popular Front in 1936-7, did it achieve comparable (though somewhat lesser) strength; and then, as often before, its membership receded sharply from its highwater mark. In the past, the French worker has overcome his general abhorrence of joining an organization only in moments of enthusiasm and excitement; he has lost interest as soon as there was a change in political or social climate.

But since the liberation the number of dues-paying members has been remarkably steady both among industrial and agricultural workers. During the last six months of 1946 more than half a million new members were reported, though the country finds itself struggling against symptoms of moral decay and physical maladjustment. The basis of such a surprising stability is a changed attitude toward trade-union membership, entirely new in the 50 years of C.G.T. history. No longer is joining a union considered an act of faith and acceptance into a circle of like-minded confederates. The French workers of today, pretty much as their brethren in the United States, consider the union membership card a natural complement of employment.

A remarkable growth of social legislation which firmly established the union's control over jobs, as well as a radical change in composition and outlook of the C.G.T. leadership, brought about the transformation of French trade unionism. Both the social legislation and the new philosophy of its leaders are determining the rôle which organized labor is playing in the difficult early days of the Fourth Republic.


Shop stewards were first introduced in France -- if one disregards ephemeral legislation during the First World War -- by the so-called "Matignon accords" concluded by employers and unions in the presence of Léon Blum in 1936. But troubled industrial relations during the prewar period, and spotty legislation, made the activities of the shop stewards ineffective and their relations with both employers and unions uneasy. For all practical purposes, the activity of shop stewards was suspended at the outbreak of the war in 1939 just when it was most needed. Vichy did away with it altogether.

A new law, promulgated by the Constituent Assembly in April 1946 and drawing its lesson from the earlier legislation, considerably enlarged the functions of the shop stewards and excluded every possibility of a dualism between them and the unions. The candidates are chosen from lists presented by the unions. Since no system of proportional representation is adopted, the union with the largest membership will elect all its candidates. In most cases this means that the shop stewards will belong to the C.G.T. and the weaker Catholic unions will not be represented. Where previously separate shop stewards were elected for manual workers and white collar employees in the same plant, both groups have now a unified representation. Only the higher technical and supervisory personnel are in a special category, and this can be dispensed with by agreement between employers and unions. Special directives issued by the C.G.T. admonish union members always to seek an entirely unified representation of all wage earners in a given plant.

As before, the shop stewards are called upon to thresh out all individual and collective grievances. But not only is their number doubled or tripled according to the size of the plant, but where previously they had often been summarily fired by an irate employer they are now fairly effectively protected against dismissal. Government factory inspectors now must seek the assistance and advice of the shop stewards; previously such coöperation was entirely voluntary. Finally, entirely new tasks are entrusted to the shop stewards: in all plants of less than 50 employees the shop stewards assume some of the functions held in larger enterprises by the Plant Committees.

The development of the legislation instituting the Plant Committees (Comités d'Entreprises) reflects the growing influence of the C.G.T. and its shifting ideologies. The historical antecedents of these committees are quite varied. The program of the Resistance Council contained somewhat vague proposals for the assumption of direct managerial responsibilities by the trade unions in all joint stock companies. As liberation progressed, committees mostly composed of workers' representatives and technicians sprang up spontaneously in many regions of France to administer enterprises whose collaborationist owners had fled. Other committees took over the direction of some of the hastily nationalized coal fields of northern France. Elsewhere patriotic employers coöperated with their workers after the liberation in order to speed up war production.

In order to guide and unify such developments, the de Gaulle Government promulgated a decree early in 1945 instituting plant committees composed of representatives of management and labor in all industrial and commercial establishments of more than 100 employees. With explicit reference to wartime experiences in the United States, Great Britain and Canada these committees were relied upon to increase production by improving working methods and conditions. In social matters the committees were entrusted with the management of welfare activities, such as cafeterias, nurseries, housing projects, retirement funds and the like. Only for joint stock companies and for very large enterprises were the committees entitled to information about profits; but in these they were invited to "submit suggestions" concerning the management of financial affairs -- a phrase which might mean much or little.

The employers and their organizations accepted the new statute, once they had eliminated most of the provisions that would have given the committees an effective control in management. However, in some quarters it was hoped that the committees would continue to play the rôle of the Social Committees of Pétain's Labor Charter, which had been imbued by an archaic paternalism, and that they might develop in the direction of company unions.

The C.G.T. and its affiliated organizations complained that the decree in its final form had incorporated none of the more stringent provisions proposed by the Consultative Assembly. Nevertheless, they declared their willingness to coöperate wholeheartedly in applying the new statute. Since the leadership of the C.G.T., for reasons to be discussed, was sincerely striving to "win the battle of production," the Plant Committees were given a part in that battle. Moreover, the union leaders were confident that a dynamic labor movement such as had developed since the liberation could easily defeat any attempt to play off the committees against the unions, and that the statute's curtailment of the unlimited managerial responsibility of the employer could be broadened. Wherever differences of opinion arose within the Plant Committee, the union membership was advised not only to invoke the legal possibilites provided by the statute but to conduct a campaign with the aid of leaflets, speeches and other means of mobilizing the workers of the plant. The National Union of the Metal Workers called a congress attended by a thousand members of Plant Committees to discuss the best methods of using the committees as an "instrument of class struggle."

Shortly thereafter, with a sovereign parliament reinstituted and a former secretary of the Metal Workers Union as Minister of Labor, practically all of the earlier suggestions of the C.G.T. concerning the Plant Committees were incorporated into a new statute. First of all, the institution was made compulsory in a vastly increased number of plants. It is now applicable to approximately 15,000 shops employing more than 3,000,000 wage earners. All Committees are now entitled to information about profits and can verify such information by auditors appointed by the unions. In joint stock companies, Committee members participate in a consultative capacity in meetings of the executive committee of the management. The Plant Committees are now also empowered to give advice on price increases and on related wage matters. Various provisions strengthen the ties between trade unions and Plant Committees; for example, the unions which nominate Committee members can now initiate proceedings to recall a member who has incurred their displeasure.

It is too early to predict to what extent this legislation will change economic and industrial relations in France. The traditional secretiveness of French management -- heritage of a peasant race that had to seek protection from an insatiable tax collector -- will be lessened. But the actual power of labor in the management of industry is not likely to amount to much as long as the Committee act only in a consultative capacity. Even in its newer and bolder version the French law does not go farther than the German statute of 1920 on Works Councils, and that attempt to give the working class a direct share in management was not successful.

French management does not seem to be particularly concerned about the legislation; and trade union leaders admit that, except in the nationalized enterprises, the Committees have not proved their worth. The workers in general lack interest in them, and the Committee members themselves are not prepared for the complicated economic task which the statute has thrust upon them. On the other hand, the C.G.T. leadership is determined not to let the Committees "degenerate" (except for efforts at increased production) into instruments of coöperation between management and labor for the betterment of industrial relations. At least for the time being, the Plant Committees are essentially just one more instrument by which the union movement exercises its grip on the working class, mainly through the administration of welfare activities.


This influence is all the more important to the trade unions since the normal field of general trade union activities is still very restricted. There is no collective bargaining and there are practically no strikes.

The government has invited management and labor to depart from the strict state regulation of industrial relations to which they have been accustomed since 1939. For nine months some of the most important trade-union federations have been preparing new collective bargaining contracts. However, the employers and their organizations are hesitant to conclude such agreements, declaring that they cannot take back their responsibilities for the fixing of wages as long as the government fixes prices. The reluctance of management to enter into collective bargaining also stems from the fear that this would necessarily involve the entire wage-price structure. It is admitted on all sides that in October 1946, even after the Bidault Government had granted an 18 percent average increase of all wages and salaries, real wages of industrial workers had diminished by 54 percent since October 1938. Yet such figures do not consider black market prices. Food, the most important item in the workers' budget, is still badly distributed by regions as well as by social classes, so that the urban proletariat is at a disadvantage on two counts.

Yet the C.G.T. leadership has so far prevented any widespread strike movement. Even when the Bidault Government cut down the unions' demands for a 25 percent wage increase, which had been declared justified by a National Wage Conference, the C.G.T. confined itself to relatively mild protests. On the whole, the slogan launched by the Communists, Produire d'abord, revendiquer ensuite, still prevails and is tantamount to a no-strike pledge.


The hold which the Communists have today on the C.G.T. is virtually complete, and almost uncontested. With the exception of the white-collar federations such as those of the civil servants, teachers and office workers, they control all of the big national unions and all the regional unions. After his return from a German prison camp, Léon Jouhaux, perennial Secretary General of the C.G.T., regained his position; and other non-Communists by agreement occupy half the positions on the governing bodies of the C.G.T. But they would find themselves powerless if they ever thought of asserting their independence. At the last national convention the non-Communist forces mustered a protest vote of not more than 23 percent of the membership. If one considers that the Communists, at the apogee of their influence in the prewar C.G.T., hardly came close to a majority and were altogether excluded from the union movement at the moment of the Hitler-Stalin pact, their present position is impressive indeed.

Once Hitler's assault on Russia had helped the French Communists to overcome their "revolutionary defeatism," they assumed the ascendancy. Their superior energy in the underground struggle won them a place of leadership, and in the general confusion at the moment of liberation they employed their influence to turn Communistically-inspired strike committees into full-fledged union directorates. Superior funds also made it possible for them to buy ample paper supplies on the black market and to launch a vehement propaganda campaign among the rank and file of the trade unions.

The fact that some of the most violent anti-Communist leaders of the prewar C.G.T. had turned collaborationists under Vichy redounded to the advantage of the party now. And with ingenious distortions of history it worked energetically at the task of wiping out all memories of Communist tergiversation during the period of the German-Soviet pact. Once in control of a local, national or regional union the Communists did not hesitate to silence or to expel dissidents and rivals, even if they were trade-unionists with an outstanding record in the resistance movement.

However, such manœuvres alone do not explain the full extent of Communist domination of the French labor movement. Their talents as organizers, their special appeal to the youth returning from Germany, their down-to-earth approach to the problem of workers' education, and their skilful campaigns to associate every popular social or economic law with the name of a Communist trade-union leader have won them the confidence of the working masses. To give but one example: the nationalization of the coal mines has resulted in rent-free housing for miners living in quarters that were previously company-owned; and the fact was that many miners lived and worked under conditions described in a Zola novel. Indeed, many still do. Yet there has been a notable improvement, and since the Communists present themselves as the foremost promoters of nationalization, they are given the credit for it by the miners. A mentality has developed among a majority of the French workers which is very similar to the loyalty of an American miner to John L. Lewis -- one utterly remote from the proud traditions of French syndicalism. The Communist union leadership encounters little difficulty in enforcing discipline, even where their course of action is not easily understood by the rank and file. A contributing factor to this is the general lassitude due to war and postwar privations.

The non-Communist elements in the C.G.T. are laboring under the same difficulties that have befallen the French Socialist Party. Evolutionary in outlook, scrupulous in methods and poor in funds, they have little appeal for the masses. It is not easy for them to oppose present Communist policy and tactics with a constructive program, and they abhor mere anti-Communism, which once before led trade-union leaders to the treacherous collaboration with Vichy and the Germans. In the summer of 1946 there were two short-lived revolts against the Communist leadership; first the postal workers and later the employees of the Treasury, both particularly underprivileged public servants, called unauthorized strikes. The Socialist Party avidly seized this opportunity to present itself, in complete reversal of earlier rôles, as the defender of strikers against what was termed the strike-breaking tactics of the Communist trade-union leaders. Léon Blum himself termed the movement a "reaction against those who have abandoned the fight for labor's demands in favor of the interest of the party." But the revolt did not spread.

Ever since the Communist Co-Secretary General of the C.G.T., Benoît Frachon, announced in 1944 that the battle of production was just as important as the battle of liberation had been, the French trade union philosophy has taken a novel aspect. The C.G.T. in the past perhaps paid less attention to the problem of productivity than did the labor movement of any other country. Even during the Popular Front period, when the social legislation might have been expected to result in an increase of individual output, the trade unions hesitated to recommend an attitude not popular among the workers. The new Communist leadership used the wave of patriotic exhilaration following the liberation to convince urban and rural workers that it was in their interest -- not merely in the interest of a decaying economic system -- to produce more and better. In neo-Jacobin accents they proclaimed that the cause of the nation and of its most numerous sons had merged. The slogan of a movement for a "French renaissance" was interwoven with the vocabulary of the French Revolution, when the annual convention of the metal workers' union was adorned with the proud title of "States General of the Renaissance of French Metallurgy." And occasionally the Robes-pierrean civic virtue of the working classes is contrasted with the spread of criminality among bourgeois black-market profiteers.

That this campaign has yielded appreciable results is undeniable. In the nationalized enterprises a regular "Stakhanovism" is being pursued. Especially in the mines, where working discipline had fallen to an all-time low after liberation and nationalization, the efforts of the Communist union organizers were spectacularly successful. Individual output today has reached 120 percent of 1938, a level not attained in any other industry. (That the per capita output, even so, does not amount to much more than one-fourth of that of the American miner is due to the obsoleteness of machinery and methods.) The Communist trade unionists have by no means abandoned their doctrines of anticapitalism and the class struggle, but they have rephrased them cleverly. They now denounce the trusts, not as "exploiters of human labor," but as the "enemies of democracy" and the "saboteurs of the French renaissance," on the ground that they refuse to undertake the retooling of the country's industrial plant with the necessary speed. To leftist objections that the Communist drive for more production will strengthen the class enemy, the reply is made that it would be untrue to Leninism not to take into consideration the changes of the national and international situation. "Everything depends," declared Frachon at the last National Convention of the C.G.T., "on the direction which we shall succeed in giving to the general political development of our country." Here lies the clue to present and future orientation of French labor.

The Communist trade unionists reject the principles of the Charter of Amiens which some 40 years ago tried to preserve the French labor movement from entanglements with politics and which had been religiously, though sometimes hypocritically, upheld as the basic law of French trade-unionism until the dissolution of the C.G.T. by the Vichy Government. For the present C.G.T. leadership, the interests of organized labor and of one political party, the Communist, are identical. And since the French Communist Party is looked upon with suspicion by all organizations, except by the ones it controls, the C.G.T. lashes out not only against the Right but also against Socialist ministers such as André Philip as "potential Fascists," and against the Christian trade unions as "myrmidons of the Vatican."

Before the liberation, hopes had often been expressed that a solid basis for the new republic could be created by an alliance between Catholics of liberal and Socialist leanings, and the Socialist and Communist trade-union leaders. Such hopes have vanished with the quick and complete Communist control of the C.G.T. Fusion between the C.G.T. and the French Confederation of Christian Workers (C.F.T.C.) was also expected during the period of the underground struggle. But today the relations between the two organizations are on the whole more strained than ever. The influence of the Catholic trade unions was on the increase before the war, but it did not extend beyond their traditional strongholds among white collar workers, textile workers in the north, and some conservative districts of Brittany. Even if the Catholic unions have maintained their prewar strength (approximately 800,000 members) as they claim, they have lost greatly in relative strength. Such a development is in part due to the new social legislation, which assures the control of the "most representative" union and renders all minority movements impotent. But equally damaging to the cause of Catholic unionism are the polemics directed against it by the Communist trade unionists, who in their attacks against the C.F.T.C. air the mutual hostility between the Communist Party and Bidault's M.R.P. -- and between Moscow and the Vatican.

Under its new leadership the C.G.T. continuously links its domestic and international predilections and antipathies. Its propaganda frequently points out that if the reaction at home has again become more daring, this is solely due to the support it is receiving from abroad, especially from big business in Great Britain and the United States: the influence of the French trusts would be negligible were it not for the backing they receive from across the Channel and the ocean. In the name of national independence -- sometimes with outright chauvinistic accents -- military preparedness is constantly advocated throughout the ranks of a traditionally pacifist movement. There can be little doubt that the present emphasis of the C.G.T. on maximum production has its roots in the continuous concern for the strengthening of the country's military potentialities.

The animosity of the labor movement to the Anglo-Saxon countries reaches particular acerbity in regard to the German question. Here the perpetual fear of the aggressive neighbor feeds itself on what are considered British and American efforts to rebuild the German war potential. The quest for the Ruhr coal sometimes takes the form of a veritable obsession. Since it is deemed impossible to achieve the rehabilitation of the country without the coal from the Ruhr and Saar, the western democracies, allegedly denying it to France, are denounced for sabotaging the French "renaissance" and by the same token helping reactionary Germany to get on her feet.

A propaganda which capitalizes at the same time on hurt national pride, on the fear of Germany, on the dislike for American plutocracy and British imperialism, and on hunger for coal and reparations has an immense appeal for the French masses. And it bolsters the strength of the present C.G.T. leadership in yet another way: the fact that the few outstanding non-Communists in the union movement, such as Jouhaux and Saillant, are making this outlook their own and are defending it in the councils of the World Federation of Trade Unions, renders the Communist control of the C.G.T. almost unbreakable.


Shortly before the close of 1946 the Commissariat Général du Plan de Modernisation et d'Equipement, originally appointed by de Gaulle, presented its four-year plan for economic recovery. By modernization of antiquated plants and of outdated working methods, the plan proposes eventually to raise productivity, when compared with 1938, by 13 percent in mining, 46 percent in steel production, 57 percent in the automobile industry, 40 percent in building, 27 percent in agriculture. The tremendous effort which the objectives of the plan require is illustrated by the fact that almost one-fourth of the estimated national income will be needed for gross capital expenditure (as compared with 16 percent in 1938) and must hence, except for whatever sums France might be able to obtain through foreign loans, go into savings instead of consumption. To the picture of sacrifices thus imposed, it must be added that such a rise in productivity demands an increase in the labor force of 1,200,000 workers, after the return of the German prisoners of war. Such a deficit in manpower can be covered only by attracting women into productive employment, by shifting workers from the distributive trades, and by mass immigration.

Friends of France everywhere will hope that the goals of the plan can be attained. For, as has been officially stated, the alternative is not a return to prewar conditions, but a progressive material decline. In strictly economic terms the goal is difficult but not impossible. All will depend on whether the political and psychological conditions necessary for the modernization can be realized without abandoning the fundamentals of democracy.

In its elaboration the plan has been a model of democratic planning. More than 1,000 representatives of trade unions, industrial management and government departments worked on it by industry groups. From time to time Communist trade unionists commented slightly ironically on the "overambitious" schemes of the various modernization committees, thus voicing the traditional Communist distrust of whatever economic planning might originate outside of Soviet Russia. (Before the war the Communists had violently attacked an economic plan elaborated by the then majority of the C.G.T., as well as the nationalizations proposed therein.) However, at the end the trade unions agreed to a 48-hour week (instead of the legally prescribed 40 hours), concurred in a policy of heavy immigration. That the main objective of the plan -- namely the increase of individual output -- is being emphatically and effectively promoted by the C.G.T. has already been stated. Since the working masses seem now to heed almost without questioning the directives given by their unions, it would seem that never have the conditions for overhauling the country's economic structure been so favorable.

If the present leadership of the powerful C.G.T. were genuinely and permanently interested in the preservation of French democratic institutions, such conclusions might be warranted. And it would then be possible for France, with Great Britain, to find that middle course between unbridled capitalism and totalitarian planning for which millions of Europeans hope. But since the French trade-union movement is firmly in the hands of the Communist Party, one fears that the atmosphere of confidence indispensable for the success of the plan will be hard to establish.

The Communist union leaders have frankly declared that their present slogans will be held only as long as their party believes that the political situation, domestic and international, warrants the call for more production and for partial collaboration. But even if no radical change in policy should occur in the near future, the mere possibility of seeing the C.G.T. leadership exercise their considerable influence in exactly the opposite direction to the one now prevailing, has already led to a stiffening of opposition to both Communism and the C.G.T. Without public reliance on the stability of currency, prices and industrial relations, the schemes of the economic planners will remain blueprints. With governmental instability and increasing antagonism between parties, groups and classes, there is but dim hope for uniting the nation to support the indispensable sacrifices.

"Besides a grave economic situation," concludes Force Ouvrière, one of the surviving non-Communist trade-union papers, "we witness the ferocious development of egoisms, the political split of the nation into two clans, the increasing needs for mystique . . ." And the workers are warned that if such a situation is not reversed the country will have the choice only between two forms of dictatorship.

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  • HENRY W. EHRMANN, formerly of the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research; author of "French Labor from Popular Front to Liberation" and other works
  • More By Henry W. Ehrmann