School of Business
University of Alberta
T6G 2R6 CANADA
The background to the events of June 1936 which led to the Matignon Agreement
was the economic crisis that had gripped France since 1931 and whose origins lay
in the Wall Street crash of 1929. Though it was less deep than the crisis which
affected the US, Britain and Germany, the economy began to suffer --
unemployment rose, wages fell, agricultural prices tumbled and there was a spate
Inspired by the coming to power of Hitler the year before, fascist organizations
led thousands of Parisians and war veterans in an assault on the French
parliament on 6 February 1934. Fifteen people were killed and thousands injured
in the battle which followed. Though the police emerged victorious, the
government was forced to resign. It was replaced by a right wing government of
national unity -- to the delight of the fascists who thought they were on the
way to power.
They had reckoned on there being little response from the working class,
which had suffered ten years of defeat and demoralization. But if workers were
unable to go onto the offensive in the workplace over economic matters, they
could still fight to defend their democratic rights. The trade unions called for
a general strike for 12 February. The Socialist Party also called for a
demonstration on the same day. At the last moment the Communist Party decided to
The strike was a resounding success. In Paris 30,000 out of 31,000 post
office workers stopped work. Transport did not run. Building sites were empty.
The CitroŽn car plant shut down. Newspapers failed to appear. The same pattern
was repeated in many provincial cities. Overall some 4.5 million workers came
out on strike and 1 million demonstrated.
In Paris, the Socialists and Communists marched separately to the Place de la
Nation. The Communist Party was still in its 'Third Period' stage -- the
grotesque belief that social democracy was the twin of fascism since both were
opposed to working class revolution. Given Communist hostility to the
Socialists, would the demonstrations end in conflict when the two merged?
According to one observer, 'After a silent, brief moment of anguish, to the
astonishment of the party and union leaders, this encounter triggered off a
delirious enthusiasm, an explosion of shouts of joy. Applause, cries of
The future Socialist prime minister, Lťon Blum, who had also participated in
the march, recalled: 'By a sort of popular groundswell the people's will had
imposed unity of action of the working class.'
This one day general strike marked the beginning of the movement which would
lead to the great upheavals of June 1936. Spontaneous unity from below was a
sign that workers were determined not to repeat the mistakes of Germany and
allow divisions in their own ranks to help the French equivalent of Hitler to
power. It also forced the Communist Party to abandon its suicidal politics of
'social fascism'. The Popular Front was born -- an alliance of working class
parties, which could extend even to the middle class, to ensure the defeat of
The Popular Front was primarily an electoral alliance designed to bring the
left to parliamentary office. It reflected and fed off workers' desire for
change. But electoral arithmetic meant that it had to rely on securing the votes
of the middle class Radical Party. And to do that the Popular Front had to play
down anything which would frighten the middle classes -- such as working class
demands which attacked profits. So, at the CP's insistence and against the
wishes of many of the Socialist leaders, nationalization of banks and industries
was not included in the Popular Front's program.
It would take the strikes and occupations of June 1936 to bring out the
contradiction between workers' aspirations and the limits of the Popular Front.
In the meantime the Popular Front seemed an unqualified success. The movement
for unity grew. The municipal elections of May 1935 showed a marked swing to the
left. Even more impressive was the enormous demonstration in Paris on Bastille
Day, 14 July 1935. In response to the call for defense of democratic rights,
bread for workers, work for the young and world peace, something like half a
million people filed through the streets.
The desire for unity forced the trade unions to heal the split between the
70,000 strong reformist CGT and the 200,000 strong Communist led CGTU, which had
existed since 1921. Being closer to workers, the new, united CGT plan included
much of the economic reforms which the Popular Front program had left out,
reaffirming the need 'to break the enormous power of big business' and calling
for 'nationalization of credit and key industries where all the power of the
financial and industrial oligarchy is concentrated'.
Between March and May 1936 a quarter of a million joined the unified CGT. May
Day 1936 saw 120,000 engineering workers in the Paris area stop work for the
day. Renault was shut for the first time in 20 years as 25,000 struck. Many
sections of the middle class were inspired by the workers' example and began to
glimpse the possibility of a new and better life. On 3 May, the Popular Front
scored a massive victory. The Socialists became the biggest single group in
parliament and the CP won 72 seats.
This political triumph encouraged workers' confidence to go onto the
offensive. Three separate strikes in the aircraft industry broke out within a
week of the election to demand reinstatement of militants who had been sacked
for going on the May Day demonstrations. What was new was the form of the strike
occupations in which the whole of the workforce participated. The bosses quickly
By the end of May the tactic of factory occupation was taken up in all the
major engineering factories round Paris. The lead came from Renault where 35,000
workers stopped work on 28 May and occupied the factory. Soon close on 100,000
engineering workers followed their example. This time the demands were economic.
Having secured a political victory against the right, workers wanted a better
life for themselves and their families. In particular, they wanted a substantial
pay increase, a 40 hour week, paid holidays and union recognition.
The new government, under Blum, was not yet in office thanks to
constitutional procedure. But the right could hardly wait to give up
parliamentary control, so eager were they for the Popular Front government to
control the movement.
The first week of June saw the strike and occupation movement sweep across
France. The big battalions of engineering, building, printing and transport were
followed by workers in traditionally weaker sectors: shoe factories, sugar
refineries, locksmiths, carpets and bedding are just some examples. It wasn't
just blue collar workers either. Shop assistants in the big Paris stores and
even newspaper sellers went on strike. Something like 2 million workers were on
strike at the height of the struggle. Economic life was paralyzed. Workers were
in control of their factories. To regain control the bosses had no option but to
agree massive concessions. Under the auspices of the government, who made it
clear that legislation would enforce the 40 hour week, paid holidays and
collective agreements, they signed the Matignon
agreement with the union leaders on 7 and 8
June. In the end, the agreement was for wage rises between 7 and 15
But if workers made fantastic gains, the union leaders had difficulty selling
the agreement and ending the occupations. A second round of the Matignon
agreement took place on 10 June.
The union leaders were under pressure from workers to negotiate for the wage
increases to be on top of those already won after 24 May and not before
as the Matignon agreement specified. Having tasted their power, workers were now
asking for a living wage and not just for an end to low wages.
They were also suspicious of the bosses' willingness to abide by the
agreement and of the government's ability to enforce legislation on them. The
best organized factories in the Paris region pledged continuation of the strike
until all the unions' demands were fully met, a pledge which went well beyond
what the union leaders were urging.
Matignon had other effects as well. It encouraged the less well organized
workers to strike and advance their own demands. Far from putting a restraint on
the upheaval, it looked for a time as if the opposite would happen. No wonder
Leon Trotsky wrote, 'The French Revolution has begun.'
But that was not to be. Section by section workers were cajoled back to work
under pressure from their union and political leaders. 'Everything is possible',
wrote Marceau Pivert, leader of the left wing current inside the Socialist
Party. 'Not so', replied Maurice Thorez, the leader of the Communist Party. 'We
must know how to end a strike when satisfaction has been obtained.'
The Stalinist argument was that there was no question of taking power at the
time. The conditions were not ripe and the risk was that isolation from the
peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie would destroy the Popular Front. Thorez's
moderation was met with rapture by the press and confirmed one right wing MP's
hope that the CP would help the prime minister 'to ensure that the strikes do
not spread and that the factories and workshops are freed from occupation.'
The consequence of ending the occupations was that the Popular Front itself
did not survive. The following May, Blum was replaced by a more right wing
leader and the following year the Popular Front fell. The right was back in the
saddle, determined to wipe out workers' gains.