HISTORY repeats itself in the French labor movement with a regularity that is both comforting and discouraging. It is comforting because it is easy to understand. There is no reason to be confused, nor any excuse for a misinterpretation of events that take place. It is discouraging because French labor's short periods of unity and strength are followed by times of disunity, weakness and strife when labor leaders fight labor leaders, unions fight unions, and the people are caught in the middle.

This happens to be one of the lean years. It came about quite logically. The crisis developed slowly, and suddenly on the night of December 19, 1947, France's great labor organization, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) of 6,000,000 men and women, was split wide open into two labor federations comprising perhaps 4,500,000 between them. The rest joined small autonomous unions or tore up their union cards. What had happened was that the Communists had seized control of the CGT, and the non-Communists, unable to influence CGT actions, had walked out to form their own organization. They called the latter the CGT-Force Ouvrière (Workers' Strength) to distinguish it from the Communist-led CGT. Today the CGT has about 3,-000,000 followers and Force Ouvrière has about 1,500,000.

This was not the first time that the federation had been torn apart. The struggle between Communists and non-Communists had gone on for years; and twice before -- in 1921 and 1940 -- the CGT had been divided because the two could not work together. Nor does the analogy between the events of 1921, 1940 and 1947 end there. In all three cases the reasons for the split were the same, the leaders of the opposing factions were the same, and the results were pretty much the same. The story goes back many years to a dispute between men who believed it was necessary to use organized labor as a political weapon and others who tried to keep it free from political influence. Since the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the growth of Communist parties that followed the First World War, the struggle has been waged between Communists and non-Communists. To Communists, the CGT has been a useful instrument in the war between the classes. To non-Communists it has been a defense organization to look out for the standard of living of its members in terms of wages, prices and working conditions.

If at times the two worked together for tactical purposes, there was never a reason for the observer to suppose that at last unity had been achieved. Immediate aims may sometimes have been identical for short periods; but ultimate objectives were far apart, for the Communist always sought above all a revolution that would turn his land into something like the Soviet Union and the non-Communist always thought most of higher wages, shorter hours and a better life for his family. The whole story could be told in biographical terms about the top Communist labor leader, Benoît Frachon, and the leading non-Communist, Léon Jouhaux. Both are veterans of the fight. They have worked together, quarreled, divided, reconciled their differences and quarreled again. They worked together in 1920, divided in 1921, joined forces in 1935, split in 1940, came together again during the German occupation, and in 1947 broke apart for the third time. But this has been no simple clash of personalities, no dispute over the means of achieving the same objective. It has been a struggle between two conceptions of the meaning of organized labor; and the victim has been the unity of the movement.

II. THE BACKGROUND

Trade unionism became stabilized in France about 1905, and in 1906 the CGT held a congress at Amiens at which a charter was adopted containing the principle that all social problems could be solved outside of politics and that organized labor must be divorced from politics. This was the belief in the country at the time (unlike the views held by labor organizations in other parts of Western Europe), and both young Jouhaux and young Frachon grew up with this credo. The fear of German victory in the First World War, however, and the success of the Russian Revolution awakened doubts whether politics was a weapon that could be ignored. The French Communist Party was formed, and rivalry broke out between Frachon, the Communist, and Jouhaux, the non-Communist. After a long internal dispute, the CGT cracked under the strain; in 1921 the Communists were expelled from the organization.

At the time of this first split the CGT numbered about 2,-000,000 members. When the smoke had cleared away, this was what had happened: it was found that 400,000 had followed the politically-alert, hard-working Communist faction into a new organization called the CGTU (Unitaire), 350,000 had stayed behind with Jouhaux, 50,000 had started an anarcho-syndicalist union, and more than 1,000,000 had withdrawn from the whole labor movement. In other words, half the rank and file, trained in the belief that politics was an evil, preferred to get out rather than stay in to fight for what they believed in. From that moment the state of conflict between the CGT and the Communist-led CGTU was permanent, with the former showing political independence but generally leaning toward the views of the French Socialist Party (SFIO) or the Radical Socialist Party. In this rough-and-tumble fight Jouhaux showed considerable ability and Frachon suffered because of the political objectives which his party assigned him. By 1935 Jouhaux's CGT had become by far the more powerful. Frachon acknowledged this when the Communists decided to form a Popular Front with Socialists and Radical Socialists, and he took steps to bring his followers back into the Jouhaux federation.

The Communists came back into the fold in 1936 under terms which Jouhaux dictated. In the presence of Walter Schevenals, then general secretary of the International Federation of Trade Unions, they opened the books of the CGTU and revealed that its membership had shrunk from 400,000 in 1921 to 178,000. In contrast, the CGT could boast of an increase in the same period from 350,000 to 600,000. On this basis, Jouhaux gave the Communists only two seats on the new eight-man National Confederal Committee, the ruling body in any French labor organization.

Now there was a united federation of 778,000 members and the Popular Front Government was in power. The strengthened CGT went to work and obtained astonishing results in a short time. The system of sit-down strikes was inaugurated, and proved successful. By the end of the first year, the CGT was collecting dues from 4,000,000 men and women, more than at any time in its history. The 40-hour week was won. Workers in the provinces got equal pay with workers in Paris. The wages of women went up. The first collective bargaining agreements were signed.

A more spectacular victory was the concession of paid holidays, wrung from nervous employers. In 1937, 5,000,000 more men and women were taking holidays at management's expense than ever before and the hotel business at seaside and mountain resorts was turned upside down. This gold rush, however, did not last any longer than gold rushes usually do. The year 1938 was one of economic crisis. The war was coming on. The CGT could not keep it up, and the young membership was getting tired of paying its dues. Mr. Schevenals says that by the end of that year the 4,000,000 members had shrunk to 800,000 and that in 1939 the 800,000 dropped to 600,000. This was the situation when the Soviet Union signed its pact of friendship and nonaggression with Hitlerite Germany, just a few weeks before Germany and France went to war. The news tore France apart and the CGT with it. One night Jouhaux called in Frachon and ordered him to disavow the Soviet-German pact or get out of the CGT. Frachon asked for two days in which to think it over. On the third day he refused to take any action, and that afternoon he and his followers were expelled from the CGT for the second time.

Five months later France was overrun by the German Army and the occupation began. From then on there was no longer any question of a labor organization or a split. There simply was no organization. It was not until the summer of 1941 (when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union) that Frachon's followers began to think of active resistance. It was not until about the same time that Jouhaux and his men felt they had a chance to do anything. In the early period only a few union leaders did much that is worth recalling. One was Christian Pineau, now Minister of Transport, who three times was parachuted into France on underground missions and under the name of "Garnier" started resistance work that was effective. After early 1942, however, others took heart, among them Frachon, Jouhaux and Jouhaux's young protégé in the labor movement, Louis Saillant, now secretary-general of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). In later years Saillant became head of the Committee of National Resistance (CNR), succeeding its wartime presidents, the late Jean Moulin and Georges Bidault, until recently Minister of Foreign Affairs.

For a while the old enemies worked independently, still harboring the mutual distrust and suspicion that had been made so acute by the signature of the Soviet-German pact. Common sense and the need for collaboration, however, eventually combined to bring them together, somewhat as they had joined forces again in 1936. In April of 1943, during a secret meeting at Perreux, an underground CGT was founded. In the new confidential National Confederal Committee (CCN) each side was allotted four seats and two secretaries-general were named, one Frachon, the other Jouhaux. Once more there was a CGT, and for the second time Communists and non-Communists were united.

III. AFTER THE LIBERATION

With the liberation the reconstituted CCN came into the open and was enlarged to include six men from the Communist following of Frachon and six from the non-Communist following of Jouhaux, which during the war had worked under the name of Force Ouvrière. A thirteenth man, Pierre Lebrun, who was supposed to be neutral, was named to keep the peace. Jouhaux soon found out, however, that Lebrun always voted with the Communists and that Jouhaux's friend, Saillant, did so with suspicious regularity. The result was that the Communists controlled the highest committee in the organization by the comfortable margin of eight votes to five. In self-defense Jouhaux kept his Force Ouvrière as a unit within the CGT and published a weekly newspaper distinct from the CGT organ. The old dispute of 1921 and 1940 was still alive, though for a time it was kept quiet and there were hopes that another split could be avoided.

Neither Frachon nor the French Communist Party leadership was content, however, with control of just the CCN. If they had been, their power would not have lasted long. When the occupation ended and police pressure was lifted, they went after the leadership of every union and to a large extent were successful because they had better discipline, were better prepared and had a clearer understanding of their objective. Early strike committees were turned into union committees. There was work to be done, and it had to be done fast. A whole new organization was being started. That meant rapid elections in industry-wide federations and departmental trade-union bodies. By 1946 Jouhaux and his Force Ouvrière were unable to challenge the supremacy of their rivals. The Communists had gone into the war by being expelled from the CGT. They were to come out of it in the driver's seat. How did it happen? Non-Communists are still trying to find the answer, but the most reasonable explanation has been given by Robert Bothereau, one of the leading founders of Force Ouvrière. In a recent booklet entitled "Le Drame Confédéral" he says that the Communists simply worked harder, and that anyway it was an unfair fight because the non-Communists honestly aimed at syndicalist unity while the Communists never forgot that their real objective was to take over the movement.

Regardless of the cause, however, by 1946 Frachon was running the CGT, and it now was a powerful movement of 6,000,000 members, greater than ever before. Its quick victories in the early days of the liberation, including the establishment of factory committees with a voice in management and the nationalization of several important industries, gave it great prestige. From this time on the Communists might possibly have held the organization together, but they could have done so only by surrendering the principle of the Communist Party that organized labor is a political weapon. When it suited the Party, before the spring of 1947, to work for higher French production, the CGT worked for higher production. When it suited the Party to base the labor program on higher wages, the CGT worked for higher wages.

There was no consistency outside of the consistency of Communist Party tactics, and the inevitable outcome was mounting dissatisfaction within the labor ranks. First the postal workers, seeking gains which the Communists were not prepared to support at the time, withdrew from the movement. The railroad workers followed suit. Small unions broke away. Throughout 1947 there was widespread uneasiness in the CGT and by the end of the year it was too late to assuage it. Against this background the Communists decided to sponsor a general strike in November and December, calling for wage increases that already had been granted in part by the Government and ignoring the protests of the Jouhaux faction which pointed out that the Communist motives were entirely political. In the face of considerable opposition from the rank and file, the crippling strike was announced. Jouhaux and his friends protested. Frachon went ahead regardless; factories were closed down without union balloting; irresponsible elements seized the opportunity for sabotage that cost some lives.

Jouhaux went to the radio on the night of December 2 and used his influence to break the paralyzing strike which had alarmed public opinion and which he contended had been ordered without consulting the workers. On December 3, 6 and 8 he met with government representatives, hoping to win a few more concessions so that the stoppage could be called off. Finally at 7 o'clock on the night of December 9 the Communist strike committee gave up the fight and accepted the terms it had refused on November 30. "The trade-union movement," says Jouhaux, "was literally murdered by this adventure. Workers deserted the ranks of the CGT by the thousands, the only means they had of protesting against methods they knew were senseless and contrary to their interests."

On December 18, Force Ouvrière met again to see what could be done. The following day Jouhaux abandoned his effort to keep his troops within the CGT. He had no more troops. They had quit the CGT. There was nothing left for him to do but to join them on the outside and organize a new federation. "An unwillingness to share the responsibility for a deed they had had nothing to do with," he wrote afterward, "was stronger than the reasonable arguments we made in favor of unity."

IV. FRENCH LABOR TODAY

Thus it was that a CGT of 6,000,000 members went to pieces in just a little over one year. Today it is struggling to keep the 3,000,000 men and women who decided to stay within its ranks or who had no choice.

Jouhaux's Force Ouvrière held a constituent congress last April, merged with a few autonomous unions, and went about the disagreeable and difficult task of creating a new organization. It had no money, no buildings or meeting halls, and no material with which to work. It had to collect its following, issue new cards, found county councils in the 90 departments of the country, start or rebuild its industry-wide federations, and at the same time carry on enough syndicalist action to prove to the workers who joined it that it was a force which intended to stay in business. All this was complicated by the fact that in France an individual cannot join the CGT or Force Ouvrière; he comes in with his union or not at all.

While Jouhaux worked, Frachon was, of course, not idle. Whenever a union voted to join Force Ouvrière, the CGT organized another made up of the minority that preferred to stay with the CGT. Thus today both have federations in all the 35 recognized trades and both claim to represent a majority of the workers in a given industry. The warfare between them has been carried on over a wide front, and it is a fair guess that neither is particularly satisfied with the results. The CGT has lost 1,500,000 to Force Ouvrière; but Force Ouvrière, for all its handicaps, had hoped to pick up far more than that.

It is hard to say what will happen in the next year or two, but there are two definite forces at work which should be remembered. The first is the desire of the leaders of both factions to see the split healed once again. Jouhaux deplores the division and says his men will come back when they can be sure to be free from Communist influence.

The second is the bad tactical situation in which Force Ouvrière finds itself. Unsupported by any political party, without funds, believing in straight syndicalist action, it came to the conclusion some months ago that it was to the best interests of its followers to check the inflationary spiral in the country. It therefore abandoned immediate demands for higher wages and went along with a middle-of-the-road government in an effort to knock down prices. The Communists, of course, pressed their wage claims, and this spring and summer there has been a struggle between the two lines of thought. If prices had gone down enough to help the working man, Force Ouvrière might have come out of it with colors flying. Unfortunately for Jouhaux, they did not.

It is equally true that the CGT has its tactical problems, above all those created by requirements of the party line, which insists that the Marshall Plan for European recovery is an American capitalist trick. But high wages are sound propaganda and help to offset this unpopular argument.

It may be that in the end this situation will lead once more to a repetition of the previous history of French labor, and that the CGT which has been disrupted three times in less than 30 years will unite for the third time. Much will depend on the international situation and the possibility of a general settlement between the east and the west.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • WALTER KERR, Chief of the Paris Bureau of the New York Herald Tribune; formerly its correspondent in Latin America, Moscow and elsewhere; author of "The Russian Army"