The eventual consequences of the May—June revolt are perhaps only now starting to become visible in France. The months since the great explosion have been marked by swift changes in both the economy and polity of French capitalism: the monetary crisis of November last year, the April referendum that led to De Gaulle’s resignation, the election of Pompidou in June, and the devaluation in August. What is the significance of this succession of events for the pattern of bourgeois power, and what are the present perspectives for class struggle in France?
The original vocation of Gaullism had a certain resemblance to that of Mendèsism. French capitalism needed in both cases to end a disastrous colonial war and to implement rationalizing and modernizing reforms at home. Mendès terminated the expeditionary adventure in Indochina; De Gaulle disengaged the Army from Algeria. But neither were able to achieve substantial or comparable successes in France itself. The fundamental reason for this is that there does not exist in France an adequate social base for a coherent modernizing programme, nor a hegemonic group within the capitalist class capable of winning the whole bourgeoisie to acceptance of such a programme. Capitalist rationalization thus had to be imposed on the bourgeoisie itself. For this, a central State at once authoritarian, liberal and technocratic was necessary. Yet constituted by an ‘outsider’, it then lacked a stable social foundation. This phenomenon is, indeed, a constant of French history: there is no other advanced capitalist country where central State power assumes such a directly techno-bureaucratic and administrative form, and in which its political mediations are so fragile. It was this tradition that produced the advent of the Fifth Republic.
Nevertheless, despite every effort of its own propaganda machine to claim major changes, the striking fact is that the reformist ‘performance’ of Gaullism was very limited. Even at the zenith of the régime, the French State never had sufficient political strength to impose indispensable
The fragile social equilibrium of Gaullism was thus badly shaken by the main economic result of the May/June revolt—the Grenelle agreements between employers and unions. Ironically, the 15 per cent wage increases of 1968 functioned as a very effective substitute for the capitalist rationalization policies which the régime had never dared to introduce. For this 15 per cent increase in no way affected capitalist accumulation in industry: the result was just the opposite. The state cleverly accompanied the wage increases (which reached 30 per cent in some sectors such as textiles and shoes) with fiscal and financial subventions in such a way that the employers, panicking because of the wage pressures, at last found the will and means for a rationalization of their concerns. The balance-sheet of the Grenelle agreements is eloquent: 8 per cent increase in productivity; 12 per cent increase in industrial production; 19 per cent increase in capital investment. Profits for 1968 rose, often substantially, in the majority of enterprises with a ‘scientific’ management, despite the two or three weeks lost in strikes in May–June.
The industrial and financial bourgeoisie thus lost nothing and gained much by the consequences of Grenelle. But this only meant that other groups had to pay the price of the concessions it had made—above all petty-bourgeois commerce and the small peasantry, in other words pre-capitalist sectors, and elements of the liberal professions and technicians. Pompidou was thus able to play on the discontent of these groups with polished cynicism, allowing it to be understood that he would save the pre-capitalist sectors, reduce taxes and avoid a recession, which the employers feared De Gaulle’s credit restrictions might provoke. He thereby succeeded in separating the majority of the employers and of the petty-bourgeoisie from classical Gaullism. For in the last months of Couve’s Premiership, the régime had abandoned its traditional conciliation of different interests, and was sacrificing the petty-bourgeoisie to big capital, while proclaiming verbal concessions (‘participation’) to the trade-unions. This course broke the unity of the ‘conservative bloc’. Economically, it was the only rational capitalist policy in the present conjuncture. Politically, however, it was unacceptable to the bourgeoisie once another ‘strong man’—Pompidou— promised to maintain the political unity of all the possessing classes with a different strategy, which he was careful to leave somewhat vague.