The first factory occupation of May 1968 came at the Sud-Aviation aircraft plant in Bouguenais, near Nantes, in north-west France. 2000 workers went on strike, took over the factory and imprisoned the boss in his office. This step was decisive in moving the May movement as a whole onto the terrain of industrial action, deepening the government's malaise and forcing the unions to take sides.
There had been turmoil at Sud-Aviation since February 1968, when the bosses announced a plan to reduce working time from 48 to 45 hours per week, with only a 1% raise in the hourly pay rate to compensate. Yet it was not until April 9th that the CGT, CFDT and Force Ouvrière unions even held a meeting to discuss their reaction.
They were vacillating - but with 76% of workers voting to "take action", they organised a series of short walk-outs. 1 hour on the 9th, 23rd and 24th of April; 45 minutes on the 25th and 29th; only after this yielded no results did the Lambertist activist Yvon Rocton in charge of the Force Ouvrière union section at the plant propose an all-out strike.
A fight on the 30th in which the boss, Duvochel, was chased around the factory, made clear the workers' anger - but the idea of occupying the factory, or even an all-out strike, seemed risky. The CGT, for their part, claimed that raising the intensity of the strikes would mean breaking the unity of the Sud-Aviation workers. So followed another two weeks of occasional short walkouts - two hour stoppages here and there punctuated by an all-day strike on the unions' joint day of action in the region on 8th May.
But there was a rising tide of discontent with the unions’ tactics, expressed not just through riots in the factory, but also in union meetings, and on May 10th a small majority of workers voted for an all-out strike. However, the CGT and CFDT, who were against such a change of direction, simply decreed that the decision would be deferred until a later date. There was also a lack of outside support. This isolation was somewhat alleviated when the workers' isolation was broken with the nationwide strike of the 13th, and the student revolt showed the possibility of resisting the de Gaulle administration. As Francois le Madec writes, the struggle could take on new forms:
On Monday 14th there were the usual sporadic walkouts. Management were going to meet with the union reps in early afternoon: it wasn’t exactly clear why, but something big was in the offing. The atmosphere was electric. During the first afternoon walkout, between half past two and three o’clock, there was a meeting in the corner of Workshop 4. The workers looked like ants in this massive space: they wandered in from all sides, hands dug into their pockets. There were a few whistles and shouts as the now busy crowd packed out the workshops.
The mood was explosive. Slogans were shouted, and you could see the tension on everyone’s faces. The handful of scabs who dared to keep on working were given a seeing to. You could feel drama in the air. A scab who braved the pack was sprayed with a rivet gun: he went pale and stood as stiff as a starched shirt.
The workers walked out and stood outside the windows of the bosses’ office, where the union reps were being received.
Le père Duvochel [a song about the boss] rang out, followed by the Internationale. Waiting for the next walkout planned for half past three, workers started to talk. There were lively debates and animated conversations. Would the bosses make a reasonable offer?
At half past three was another meeting of all the staff. The union reps had emerged from the bosses’ offices. The CGT rep climbed on a metal mounting-block to speak, but saw worried faces… What news did he have? When he had silence, you could only hear the dull thudding of the compressors and the echo of the machines’ belts turning. He reported that the bosses’ answer was still no.
At once the crowd started to break up: the union reps shouted “Silence!”. At first the workers ran, but then slowed to creep round the western side of the huge offices. The stairs were weighed down by the mass of men gripping the guide-rails. Low voices could be heard, chanting “Ho! Hiss! Ho! Hiss!”. Finally, the door crept open and the crowd burst into the tracing room, their cries dampened by the soundproofed ceiling. The temps were petrified: what were they going to do? The crowd called on them to join their number, but there was a moment’s hesitation… the workers tried to contact the temps’ reps; the crowd advanced through the offices; the anger mounted; but a few temps didn’t want to follow. Finally, the temps’ reps called for a walkout: there were cries of victory among the occupiers. Through the windows you could hear some of the workers crowded in the yard.
They took the stairs down to the director’s office on the first floor. Songs and slogans reverberated through the corridors as the crowd flowed into the hall and occupied the management corridor.
The director came out of his office, flanked by his personnel manager. He forced a smile and said “I am your prisoner, do with me what you will”, a statement greeted with shouts of “Duvochel will give in! We want our pay back! Sign the deal!”. The director replied “You’re not going to get very far with that”.
Anger was reaching a climax. The crowding in the corridor was terrible. The lights kept going out. Fists drummed on the walls to the rhythm “Com-pen-sa-tion”. The director was pushed about roughly, and in vain did he try and escape from the hands of this gang in their dirty blue overalls. An ORTF [French state television] reporter they found there with a camera in his hands (no doubt, he was invited in by the bosses) was precipitously pushed through an office door.
It was impossible to breathe. The air was thick with cigarette smoke, and the smell of oil on the workers’ overalls and sweat made the crowding unbearable. A bar of soap flew over the workers’ heads, striking the boss on the shoulder, and this was followed by a jet of water thrown from the toilet door. What was going to happen? Would somebody lose their nerve? For now at least they were only using their fists to strike up the Internationale.
Already at this stage some people scared by the power of the revolt had hurried out of the premises. But a spontaneous occupation was beginning. Union men arrived and told all the boilermakers to help them seal shut the exits in order to stop workers reluctant to strike leaving the building. Men were already guarding the main exits.
In the management corridor a state of relative calm had been restored, and the director was allowed to telephone Paris. They waited. They sat around. They offered the boss a chair. The men sat on the floor of the corridor and began a series of revolutionary anthems, which would last throughout the first night. Their throats were dry: a litre of red wine passed from mouth to mouth. They offered some to the boss but he refused. They played cards.
The union reps returned from the heart of the factory. They asked them what was happening with the blockades at the exits: they told them that the boilermakers had done a good job, and the metal doors on the western and eastern exits had been soldered shut. The other doors, albeit not soldered, were bolted shut. The occupation was a fortress. There were speeches in the yard, and the workers organised patrols to watch over the exits.
People who did not participate in the action (or barely did so) emerged from their offices and workshops, impatient in the expectation that the problem would soon be sorted out… they didn’t understand the top management. The Paris bosses were totally silent, refusing to negotiate.
The normal time for clocking off came and went, and they had to start thinking about dinner: some people went to the boulangerie and the local grocer. Helped by a few volunteers the canteen staff prepared some Viandox [a product similar to Bovril]
They rigged up a loudspeaker in the bosses’ offices, and the first refrains echoed around the factory.
At the main entrance there was something of a panic, with a few people finding good excuses to escape the plant. It must be said, people were very worried, fearing that the police would come to clear out the factory and thinking about the consequences. Food supplies were a problem: the local boulangeries would not open again until the morning.
News of the occupation spread quickly: workers’ wives and friends came to see what was going on, hoping to speak to their husbands through the gates or talk to the men perched on the walls. The food brought by the workers’ wives and their support on that first night was a vital fillip for the troops’ morale.
But still no news from Paris. Now everyone was thinking about the night ahead. For beds they used boxes, stretchers, packets of fibreglass, rags, shavings of wood…
Some scabs still hoping to escape sidled along the fences, concocting plans for escape, but the more militant pickets going round were keeping an eye out for them. Workers reluctant to strike were out in force at the main entrance, despite the authorisation given to women and workers over sixty years old to leave the plant. Some pretended that they had fallen unconscious or were having nervous breakdowns. An ambulance took them home, the noise of its siren leading many people in the surrounding area to believe that there had been a fight in the factory and the ambulance was taking away the injured.
There was in fact only one injury: someone broke their leg trying to jump across a ditch. But it would be difficult to get opponents of the strike to admit the truth.
As time passed and night came, there was more and more tension at the main gates. There was a busy crowd: people were here, there and everywhere. All the other exits were tightly guarded by pickets, already solidly in place around the factory.
But the main gates were the most vulnerable, and it was here that people wanting to leave the occupation made all their efforts to try and escape. Most of them were temps, of whom there were around 150. They were increasingly angered as all their attempts to break through the blockade were rebuffed. The gates were in the hands of “People’s Guards” who enthusiastically carried out the unions’ joint instructions.
Faced with failure the people trying to escape tried to work together. Some line managers who would later take part in the “scabs’ committee” harangued: they had to bloc and try and break through the blockade by force, even if the human blockade was five or six ranks deep in front of the gate.
The picketers were ready and stood steadfast. The confrontation was brutal, and no quarter was given. In the mêlée you could hear no few daft “philosophical” arguments the rights of the individual and the right to work. But every scab who dared say his piece would get a lecture about workers’ rights!... They were allowed to speak, but not to leave.
But these holy “philosophers” were stubborn: they insisted… The situation remained rather dangerous, since they were organised together, angry and had their eyes fixed on the gates that weren’t being opened for them. But God knows what they were waiting for or what they expected to get out of this: a pressie from the picketers, perhaps? They seemed totally unaware of the importance of what was happening; they were only motivated by their little daily routines and the desire to go home.
For God’s sake! “Democracy” can be difficult at moments like that!
The defence of the main gate was reinforced, since it was important strategically. If they managed to get through there, the whole movement might have gone under. Furthermore, given the course of events, the picketers became more skittish and more unrelenting. But these were only arguments about organisation and exasperation caused by the events: most of the time they just had to go out and get snacks or take food for a striking worker from one of their friends or relatives.
On the other hand, for a few vulnerable souls ill-prepared for such happenings the workers’ “militia” banded together at the entrance raised a few moral and intellectual dilemmas! Without doubt, many of them only had a few fairly naïve ideas about factory occupations gleaned here and there from little history books or sentimental and superficial memories of June 1936.
But those who wanted to leave met with failure, and their exit-by-force was never carried through… their rubbish leaders eventually gave up. They thought about making a few individual openings through the security ring surrounding the factory, hoping to evade the patrols who continued to circle the factory and scoured through the bushes; the bushes where a few scabs had planned to hide themselves for a few hours before reaching their selfish little abodes.
The other scabs stood silent in front of the entrance or returned in small groups to the yard, waiting for better times. Most of them, despite everything, did manage to escape during the first days and nights of the occupation. But that would be no great threat to the success of the factory occupation. Nor was it a great loss for most of the people actively involved in the “new commune” which was being born. These people would later be found in the scabs’ committee. To each his own: the fainthearted outside, the “workers making history” inside.
What mattered was that the gates held, and the movement with them… Some will always make great play of criticising the harsh measures taken to achieve this, at a crucial stage of the occupation. But this type of preaching has no grip on events. They talk a lot about the brutal attitude of over-zealous pickets and of kidnapping… But to the over-zealous preachers who make these easy criticisms we say “Could it have been done differently?” Given the circumstances, the so-called “prisoners” were agents provocateurs causing trouble and regrettable confrontations which would not have taken place if it was not for their reactionary and anti-democratic attitude to a strike which was proven to be supported by the majority of workers. They are poor little preachers who know nothing except how to jabber on about the little ‘morals’ of their exploiters.
The seals on all the doors and exits of the factory were now secure. All along the 1800 metre perimeter wall which encircled the factory, workers devoted themselves to careful work planning and strengthening guard-posts. Personal and collective initiative burst forth everywhere. They set up installations reminiscent of soldiers’ watchtowers in the countryside. The blockade took place quickly and efficiently. They had to hurry as night closed in: it would be a night of unforgettable memories for all concerned, on one side or the other. A clear, cool night… brimming with activism: hard for a few splitters but exciting for the participants.
Revolutionary anthems blaring from a powerful loudspeaker echoed around the huge management offices. The director’s “guard of honour” sang along. This guard of honour was scattered pell-mell, albeit clustered in the tight, smoke-filled corridor which led to the director’s office: the men were sat, either on chairs or the floor, in an entanglement of arms and legs in overalls.
Outside a ring of fire was in the works. The cold of the night fell on the workers’ lightly-clothed shoulders, and everywhere a thousand flaming braziers cast arabesques into the spring night. All these hungry fires consumed an incredible amount of fuel. Contraptions went round in all directions carrying huge quantities of planks, logs and boxes… All night you had the feeling of living in the middle of a tank column, such was the noise of engines cutting through the silence. The enormous reddish flames lit up the walls and also served as spotlights, which was of great help to those watching from guard-posts along the walls.
Small groups of scabs wandered round the factory all night, like sleepwalkers, with their little bags in their arms, hoping to find a way out or some gap in the surveillance that would allow them to escape. These people’s wandering around, clasping little bags in which people normally carried snacks, displayed the “reluctant” workers’ lack of understanding of what was taking place.
The posts which were rather more spread out 'into nature' were served by some odd contraptions: boxes which normally served as packaging for fridges made by Frigeavia, a workshop at the factory which made fridges. The workers wedged themselves into these improvised 'coffins', lay down and closed the boxes again to protect themselves from the cold. Seeing all these bodies lined up in rows in these boxes, one could not help but think of mummies in their tombs! They only took off their work shows. This morbid sight had a fantastical allure, added to by the hallucinogenic effect of the brazier flames. The few white faces you could see in the boxes had a spectral quality when lit up by the flames. The effect was eye-catching, and you couldn’t help but smile, knowing that they were alive and well and your friends. But few of them managed to get much rest, since the day’s events had been so exciting. How could you sleep on a night as special as this? That morning they left their families at home and now, voilà, they suddenly found themselves thrown into an extreme confrontational situation. Groups of people who couldn’t sleep gathered round fires and conversed in hushed tones. There was an amazing feeling of solidarity, brotherhood and power in this bivouac assembly.
News of the occupation quickly spread to the households of Nantes and the surrounding area. A few cars driven by worried wives circled the plant, stopping before the guard post fires. Names were shouted over the walls and through the bars. But it was difficult to make contact with this or that occupier lost in the mas of men scattered across the workshops, offices, wagons and boxes. Only later, when loudspeakers were installed at the main entrance to beam out the names of the comrades asked for, could contact finally be made more easily.
Throughout the night a team of volunteers went from one post to the next carrying an enormous stew pot full of burning hot bouillon and snacks, which served as some comfort on this cold night. For almost everyone this was a night without sleep, a night of nervous tension, all eyes focused on the guard-posts and ears straining to hear news from Paris. But Paris slept…
The big offices were lit up, a permanent headquarters. There, there was no question of trying to sleep even for a minute. It was the place where picketers and activists came to see the boss. For many this was the first time they had met: each of them introduced themselves. In the last few hours “power” had changed hands in the factory. An atmosphere of free discussion reigned; conversation with the old “authorities” was direct and good-humoured; there was curiosity but not hatred.
Revolutionary anthems followed one after the other without end. The corridor was very musical indeed: some songs were moving, sung in unison or listened to in complete silence by the bosses’ guards, and made these people of strength and solidarity - smoking cigarette after cigarette as they supervised the door – watch the birth of this new brash and loud working-class order with deadpan faces. What did they feel as the night wore on? Without doubt, they could only have a limited view of given their lack of direct participation in events outside the office at the guard-posts.
The cold, pale dawn had not yet come to an end, an odd sight for these tired men shivering with insomnia and the nerves build up over the last month. The frippery bodies started to clamber out of their boxes. Their bearded faces hung heavy; their eyes were as red as the last night’s brazier fires. But the moment would pass: time to wake up and have a coffee. Down the length of the wall they could feel the hawthorns; a perfumed bouquet for the “campers” every breakfast-time. Spring and the strike had both arrived: in the morning daisies and hawthorns would start to flower on the cabin roofs.
Throughout the day on 15th May, the factory and its surroundings looked like a giant building site, but the workers soon improved the scene and their ramshackle structures, beginning to construct coverings and cabins. No need for leaders or orders from the union for this ant colony. Solidarity and self-discipline could work wonders.
The “commune” took shape, a “People’s Administration” putting things in place with surprising efficiency. Participants, supporters and locals were struck dumb by all this upheaval. Soon enough, around a kilometre down the road from the factory, a sign put up by the trade unions’ joint committee delineated the borders of the occupied area. It invited passers-by to take a diversion down the Couëts road to get to the Château-Bougon aerodrome.
A hundred metres from the plant they duly erected a blockade with chicanes for cars; there was a special way through for pedestrians. Notices were dug into the ground. New regulations were enacted: to take the “rue de l’Aviation” required a special pass: the “exterior” guard stopped people not from the factory venturing within their “perimeter”.
Only trade union, political party and student delegations that came in the early hours of the morning to bring solidarity to the striking workers were allowed in: but they were not allowed past the red barriers placed around the plant.
At the main entrance they set up an information service with loudspeakers: its work was unceasing and tiring, since workers’ relatives, delegations and all sorts of visitors kept coming in. By the end of the afternoon the square in front of the entrance was packed with people. Until late in the night the loudspeakers did not stop calling people and broadcasting communiqués and trade union instructions. From now on this noise would be a constant part of occupation life.
The speakers were relentless: such-and-such comrade was called to the main entrance… this comrade… that comrade…
After the last day’s anger, an unbelievable tumultuous mood continued to reign at this “iron gate”, both on the walls and among the crowds. Some of them had spent practically a whole day and night on the wall. Wives, mothers and friends were pressed up against the gates trying to see this or that friendly face, get a message across or pass across some food. Along the walls of the offices loads of young women were pressed against each other, trying to hold the hands of their young husbands or fiancés stretched through the bars of the windows.
Whatever comfort this may have offered the striking workers, the situation was plenty confused and tense. The picketers kept the doors firmly sealed, since the success of the occupation could hardly allow for any laxity. Despite this there was a certain degree of movement between the occupation and the outside world, with small groups of men going out to see their family on the other side of the gates: there was time to embrace, have a little chat and hand over a basket of food before going back. When these men had returned, others could go out in their place. They therefore tried to have some sort of balance between the numbers going out and the numbers coming in. Although there were, inevitably, some confrontations between the “supporters at the gates” (who were not exactly delighted) and the workers coming out, the men understood that they had to return all the same.
To guarantee permanent control over this worn-out post the exhausted picketers were taken off duty. They decided to “liberalise but formalise” the exits with a system of badges. Each worker was given a little card on which was written his name, the time of exit and return. The badge was signed by a trade union rep and recorded in a book. This safe-passage also allowed him through the road blockades. This “administrative and regulatory” measure allowed them bit by bit to relieve the gates while maintaining the strength of the occupation. All these details did nothing to cloud the mood.
But a bolt out of the blue in the afternoon changed the atmosphere, as the first report of success passed into the hands of the information service. The speaker cried with joy: the Renault factory at Cléon is on strike! The news spread through the aisles… the men crowded at the gates were overcome with fresh enthusiasm, and the announcement met with cries of joy.
Now the question was on everyone’s lips: is the strike going to spread? Renault: that meant something… everyone was filled with hope. Would there be a general strike tomorrow? They had talked about it so much before, but never really believed it.