The working class in occupied France

The working class in occupied France

The Vichy regime instituted rationing to cope with shortages of food. Rations were insufficient to feed people as they were accustomed: in 1941 the official ration was 1500 daily calories; the recommended ration for working men is 2500 calories. Workers in heavy industry were assigned larger rations, but never got them, as the food was not available. People could supplement their rations if they had time to queue, or relations in the countryside or extra money for the black market. Workers had neither time (conditions had worsened in the factories, the working day was extended) nor relations in the countryside, nor extra money. The working class in 1940 had nothing but their labour power, and lived a precarious existence, without state organised social security, unemployment benefit or retirement pensions. This is the ancient Roman definition of proletariat: those who have nothing but their children, translated in the modern age as those who have nothing but their labour power.
That this was a scandalous situation was clear to people on the Right and on the Left. Right-wing writers thought there should be not such category as the proletariat: labour and capital should work together, not against each other. The Left, at least in the shape of the Communist Party, thought that the proletariat should become the ruling class. The Popular Front of 1936 had given a taste of a solution to the proletarian question: a government of Socialists, Communists and Radicals had passed laws limiting the working day (to 8 hours), paid holidays (one week per year) and better wages. The Right were horrified.

What happened during the war? Did Vichy do anything, either short term or long term, to improve the condition of the working class? If reforms were made, what became of them after the war, since everything connected with Vichy was abhorred and rejected wholesale after the Liberation?

Not that much has been written until recently about the industrial working class under German occupation, because the question was a painful reminder of the situation France found itself in when it was occupied. Defeated France did not turn into a vast prison where food is doled out everyday. Food was obtained in the normal way, in exchange for money you earned, through your labour if you were a member of the working class. Workers in factories carried on with production; you only continue producing if someone buys the goods, and in many cases, Germany ordered and bought the goods.
This explains why women who went to work in First World War factories are glorified as patriotic and modern whereas women who did the same in the Second World War are passed over in silence.
It explains also why men and women returning at the end of the war from forced labour in Germany were caught up in the anti-collaborator purge: many were held on suspicion of helping the enemy, although few were actually prosecuted.
So French workers supported the German war effort. This was most obvious in the three armament factories; one of them, in Tulles, now the regional stronghold of François Hollande, was the site of an uprising at the end of the war; the uprising was put down and followed by mass executions. That is a reminder of what happened if you attacked the enemy.

Employers have been denounced for keeping the factories going, even though that prevented starvation. But did employers make a profit under the occupation? According to historians gathered in 2006 in a Conference on the subject of Firms Under the Occupation, this question has still to be studied. Production at any rate did not continue as before the war, by a long way: setting production at 100 in 1938, it was 54 in 1941, 45 in 1943 and 33 in 1944.

The German administration had offices and courts of law in each of the occupied départements. A complex network of sometimes competing sets of administrators went about organising many elements of French life, including industrial production. From 1942, when the invasion of Russia overstretched German manpower capabilities, the population of occupied Europe was put to work for German industry, either in Germany itself or in the workers’ own country. In the case of France, rival occupation administrators fought, one to force French workers to go to work in Germany, the other to keep French workers working in France for the benefit of Germany. The result was a mixture of both systems.

The Germans in 1940 had forbidden wage increases. Shortages of food and resources affected supplies to shops and firms. Britain had put in place a blockade, so that France could not receive food and other goods from overseas. The internal border (demarcation line) that divided France in two zones was a barrier to trade; the North and Alsace-Lorraine were annexed. The Occupiers requisitioned a certain amount of food and other goods. The Vichy administration instituted a regime of rations in order to cope with the shortages among the population, and a regime of distribution of resources to cope with the shortages in industry.

The government had long term plans to take workers out of the proletarian condition; it also, together with employers, put in place short term measures.
Employers sometimes gave their workers days off to enable them to queue or go to the country to barter when they had been paid in kind; for example Dunlop gave part of the pay in the form of bicycle tyres and coal miners received coal. A Vichy regulation of 16 August 1940 encouraged employers to open non-profit making factory canteens. The law had up to then forbidden factories to have canteens on their premises.
Employers were also encouraged to open cooperative-type shops in the factories, and this, as well as canteens, was effective after a while, when the question of how to stock these shops and supply the canteens was solved.
Company social committees were created, and one of the first tasks they took on was running factory canteens and shops.
These Company social committees were the product of long term Vichy policy. The fate of the workers was very prominent in the minds of Vichy policy makers.
The tremendous shock of the defeat and occupation produced a desire for a new society, stronger, better organised, of the sort that would not be beaten by an enemy like Germany, or be subservient to British foreign policy. The ‘National Revolution’ that was to bring forth this new society would give the workers the place they deserved; workers would no longer be the helpless and unrecognised half of the productive process, but they would be rewarded properly and given a voice in the running of the factories; this representation would be supported by compulsory trade unions within professional corporations. This would defuse the class antagonism that had weakened France. Vichy had an ideology of celebrating labour, its motto: ‘Travail, Famille, Patrie’ (Labour, Family, Homeland) put labour first.
A Labour Charter was accordingly written.
There were supporters of the National Revolution, and in particular for the Labour Charter, among French commentators who were not in based in Vichy. To take an example, the political editor of the influential illustrated Paris weekly L’Illustration, Jacques de Lesdain, wrote long articles about a new regime, still capitalist, but where all employees, from the managers to the technicians to the shop floor workers worked together to run the factory. Capitalists provided capital but did not have a say in the running of the firm, simply receiving a share of the profits. Lesdain soon despaired of the Revolution happening. According to him, Vichy, which welcomed an American envoy (until he was recalled in 1942) and was infiltrated by English interests, was not serious in its proclaimed endeavour of giving the working class its proper place.
The reality was that Pétain could not impose a Labour Charter; he had taken on the responsibility of Head of State as an individual; he was not supported by a party, or even a coherent group. The men around Pétain tasked with writing the Labour Charter had little in common with each other and could not reach agreement on what it should contain. When the Labour Charter finally saw the light of day on 4 October 1941, it was already too late, and the ‘modernisers’ had replaced the traditionalists at Vichy and the worsening war situation made its implementation impossible.

8000 Company social committees (comité social d’entreprise) were nevertheless created. It was a new form of worker representation, and it did happen in many firms, not just in firms of over 100 employees where it was compulsory, even if not all committees managed to be active, although existing on paper.

The situation of workers varied throughout France and over time; round ups of workers for the Compulsory Labour Draft did take place, but strict enforcement was not necessarily the rule: for example in the Peugeot factory men called up for the draft went on strike and the Germans suspended the departures.
Trade unions were only banned at the top; on the shop floor, unionists continued to have a presence. There were strikes and go slows for example there were strikes in the mining regions in spring and summer 1941 against food shortages.
Larger firms were able to help workers get food more easily than small firms: Michelin in Clermont-Ferrand acquired large stocks of food for its 25 000 workers and families, paid for in tyres. The St Etienne mining firms illegally sent lorries over the demarcation line to Brittany to collect food, paid for in coal.
The works canteens functioned in regions of concentrated industry that were situated near agricultural land (Paris, Lille, Lyon), and also where there existed a tradition of firms offering workers services such as transport and housing.
The actions by management to improve the workers’ lot were significant enough however to provoke the BCRA (Bureau Central de Renseignement et d’Action, part of the Resistance) to produce leaflets to warn workers off this paternalism.

Vichy and the occupying authorities worked in parallel; both wanted French industrial production to continue. Vichy had an immediate objective, the survival of the workers, and a long term one: to enable France to regain her rank in the world, and even gain a more prominent rank than before. Pétain had talked about the spirit of facility that had made the French flabby and helpless, and looked back to a more vigorous old rural France; others in the ministries analysed the weakness of pre-war French industry and set about making plans to modernise it. This modernising aspect of the Vichy regime is described in the article “The Vichy origins of modern France. — How the Vichy Government superseded traditionalism and promoted modernity” in Church and State Spring 2012. That article quotes the American expert on Vichy, Robert Paxton, as follows:
“In agriculture, as in industry, the evolution at Vichy was away from nostalgia toward modernization and toward power for the well-organised and efficient.”

Three issues, the closures of non-essential firms, the question of training and the Labour Draft provide examples of how the parallel efforts of France and Germany worked out in practice.
The German administration and Vichy each had their own lists of priority firms.
The occupying authorities did not use a free hand in their dealing with French firms; for example, noting a non-essential firm whose manpower they wished to transfer to another firm, they did not close it, but encouraged it to close. But the local branch of the French Ministry for Industrial Production (MIN) would tell the firm not to close, and it did not close. There was some leeway; for example the MIN could reclassify a firm, so that it might not be closed.
It was necessary to continue training. Vichy passed a decree on 15 February 1943, obliging firms over a certain size to create a training school. The Occupiers tried to take that as an opportunity to create a training school in France themselves. This did not prove feasible, so instead they encouraged firms to establish their own training workshops. Again here, it was larger firms that were able to provide a service to the workers. Alsthom opened a training school in 1941. The SNCF (national railways) kept their training schools open.
The policy of STO (Obligatory Labour Service) was very unpopular, men went underground, for example by joining the Resistance, rather than go to work in Germany. But such was the need for manpower, both from a German and a Vichy point of view, that an agreement was reached in September 1943 enabling men who had evaded the Draft and gone underground to have their situation regularised and to be given work in France. In one French département 60% of men in that situation came forward to resume work.

The Resistance was also making plans for a strong post-war France. Richard F. Kuisel in his book “Capitalism and the State in Modern France, Renovation and Economic Management in the Twentieth Century” has pointed out the similarities between the Vichy and Resistance economic planning, and the number of government departments created by Vichy and taken on, with practically the same personnel, by the new post war government.

Both Vichy and the Resistance were anxious that France might not regain her rank after the war; both saw that France had lagged behind Germany and Britain in industrial development. Both wanted France to be able to compete on world markets, by modernising agriculture and investing in technology. They saw, as reported by Kuisel, that “Simple rural, artisanal peoples were “the prey” of industrial nations.” Both wanted state intervention and planning and modern technology deployed on a large scale.
The continuity in industrial policy between the occupation years and the years that followed is being examined today. For example the report on the 2006 Conference on Firms under the Occupation mentioned above said in its introduction:
‘The issue of firms under the occupation used to be considered as not worth studying from the point of view of trade unions, the economy and society, as it was so exceptional. But now lots of young researchers are studying the question. The CNRS [French National Centre for Scientific Research, the largest governmental research centre] has a study group ‘Firms under the Occupation’. The period can be studied as part of French growth (la croissance française). One should not overestimate the weight of circumstance or of Vichy ideology. The period can only be understood by studying the years before and the years after, which were years of reconstruction and intensive growth.’

Vichy elaborated a 10-year plan and an immediate two-year reconstruction plan. These plans were got hold of, printed and distributed by De Gaulle’s government and used by the post war provisional government. Vichy had established a new “Ministry of Industrial Production” and a new National Statistics Service which were retained after the war; the information gathered by the Statistics Service was obtained and used by the Resistance during the war to formulate their own long term plans.
Retirement pensions by repartition, or “pay as you go” pensions were created on 14th March 1941. They were kept on, and are the basis of today’s system, as was recalled with embarrassment when Sarkozy was trying to replace them with individual savings.
There were differences: for example the Vichy regime did not call for nationalisations, and aimed at self-sufficiency, whereas the post-war government called for nationalisations and looked to the United States for economic help.
Like Vichy the Resistance was a coalition of diverse political strands. De Gaulle took on the task of harnessing all strands on a common programme. His view of himself as leader allowed him to do this: he was ‘above parties’, strove to put forward ideas that could be accepted by all, the grandeur of France above all. He put the realisation of his project of a strong France before ideological considerations. For example when nationalisations looked inevitable, he said that “Such a policy as nationalisation does not exist because it is inherently just or desirable, but because through nationalisation economic change can be promoted.”
This quote comes from an article by Douglas Johnson published in October 1965 by Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs). In this article Johnson pointed out that “the historian of ideas might well find that the difference in terms of ideas between, say, Gaullism, Vichyism and Giraudism is disconcertingly slight.” (Giraud was a onetime rival of de Gaulle in the Algiers government).
De Gaulle, according to Johnson, “realised that in our time technology dominated the universe, and the great debate of the century was whether the working classes would be the victims or the beneficiaries of this technical progress. Hence the need for profound and rapid social change. Hence the need for technicians and administrators who would answer the aspirations and fears of the masses and, by implication, remove the need for the various political banners (Liberal, Marxist, Hitlerian) which floated over the battlefields.”
His speech to his hometown of Lille in October 1945 could have been spoken by some Vichyists:

“What we want is to harness in common all that we possess on this earth and, to do this, there is no other way than what is called the planned economy. We want the State to plan the economic effort of the entire nation. To the benefit of all and to do so in such a way as to improve the life of every Frenchman and Frenchwoman. At the point at which we find ourselves it is no longer possible to accept those concentrations of interest that are called in the world, trusts. The collectivity, that is to say the State, must take direction of the great sources of the common wealth and supervise certain other activities without, of course, excluding those great levers in human activity, initiative and fair profit.”

The hostility to ‘trusts’—large industrial and financial concerns—is a point in common between de Gaulle and Vichy, as was a desire to lift the working class out of a proletarian existence, a hostility to the Anglo-Saxon world, and a hostility to the parliamentary system. Both wanted to bring an end to the class struggle through giving the working class a proper position in society, both moral and material.

There was however a complete break between the Liberation government and Vichy. There could be no acknowledgment that anything Vichy had done could be of value and worth keeping. In practice, as we have seen, a lot was kept. What happened in the case of worker participation, and the Company social committees Vichy had created?

The long and short term plans of the Resistance were embodied in the Charter of the National Council of the Resistance (15 March 1944), which did call for worker participation.
In May 1945 an ordinance created works committees for firms over 100, extended to firms over 50 employees in May 1946. It would be interesting to find out what happened when the new works committees were instituted. Did they merge with the Company social committees already set up by Vichy? Or were new personnel found to make up the new committees?
‘Commissaires de la République’ (Commissars of the Republic) were created in 1944 ‘to restore law and order, and republican legality’ (they lasted until May 1946). The Commissaires, together with labour inspectors and préfets, in many instances supported attempts by workers and their organisations to involve themselves in the management of the work place. Between 1945 and 1947, labour inspectors, under the Ministry of Labour, called meetings between workers and employers to settle disputes, and fined employers who tried to dismiss union activists.
The Commissaires and the labour inspectors were hampered in their efforts to encourage worker participation by the State structure, by the employers and by the CGT (the main union organisation). The employers were hostile to worker participation. According to Adam Steinhouse in ‘Workers’ Participation in Post-Liberation France’ (2001) ‘French bosses liked to have complete control; they were often family firms, small and middles sized; they provided their workers with housing, transport schools and hospitals.”
The CGT was allied to the Communist Party, which was in government and behaving as having State power; the nation needed to get back on its feet economically. So the CGT conducted a ‘productivity drive’, which did not have time for worker participation.
In 1947 came the Cold War, the Marshall Plan and the expulsion of the Communists from government. The CGT then encouraged workers to strike, in strikes that according to Steinhouse were so political in character as to justify, on the government’s part, the deployment of riot police to put them down. By the end of 1948, Steinhouse says, the French labour movement was weaker than before the war, unlike labour movements in other parts of Europe.

The Vichy regime started State planning and large scale modern industry, helped by the fact that ‘technocrats’ and higher civil servants could work quickly and efficiently without being hampered by parliamentary fights between divergent interests. It is not that state pensions for workers had not been thought of before 1941, on the contrary they had been discussed in parliament on numerous occasions. The issue divided elected representatives and was never resolved. It is not that no one had seen before the war that a united transport system in Paris would work better that a piecemeal system, but agreement could not be reached. In 1942 civil servants created the system that still works today, the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens (RATP). Before the war, the automobile industry built excellent cars but in a great variety of models and small numbers; it reformed itself during the war, to favour less variety and greater output, i.e. modern mass production. To achieve mass production, some of the production methods introduced by the occupiers were kept after the war, for example, in one of the armaments factories, the Germans imposed the three 8 hour shift system, instead of the French 2×12; the 3×8 system was kept on after the war.

The Vichy regime instituted new laws which improved the workers’ lot, such as state pay-as-you go retirement pensions. During the war it helped to keep industry going and preserved employment. It encouraged employers to provide factory canteens and shops. The traditionalists and corporatists of the early Vichy period had plans to create intermediate bodies like corporations and compulsory mass trade unions with the intention of doing away with the proletarian condition; corporations and compulsory mass trade unions did not happen, but a start was made with firm committees. The ‘modernisers’, technocrats and higher civil servants did not share the early Vichy ideology, and they are the ones who made a start on the modernisation of France; this gave the workers a better standard of living in the long run, but left them with only strikes and political representation in parliament as a means of influencing the course of events in industry.


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