The French Strikes of May–June 1936 Revisited

By Antoine Prost

This paper explains the social explosion of May–June 1936 through three movements which occurred at different times in different domains. Firstly, the short term of the political culture of the Front Populaire, which makes the factory occupations an extension of the huge demonstrations and parades of the years 1934–1936. Secondly, the intermediate trend of economic crisis, the effect of which was not to throw the working class into destitution but to increase disciplinary constraints in the workplace, and to force an intensification of the pace of work. Thirdly, the long trend of Taylorization, which made such an over-work possible. This set of reasons explains why the main workers' achievements of 1936, the 40 hours and paid holidays, concern time. However, it does not explain the meaning of the factory occupations and the feasts in occupied factories. A new interpretation is proposed. The point for the workers was not the property of factories but the nature of bosses' authority: the rules applied in the workplace are not private but public ones. The factory is not the “house” of its master: it is a public place, governed by public rules. This is precisely what collective agreements mean. From this perspective, the 1936 strikes marked an end to legitimate and accepted paternalism.


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