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FRANCE: We’re In The Army Now!

5 minute read

“We’re In The Army Now!”

Just before the stroke of twelve one night last week, squadrons of steel-helmeted, fully-armed troops and blue-caped policemen marched from their barracks to strategic spots in Paris and its suburbs. A battalion of mounted machine gunners clattered through the deserted streets to the Communist-populated workers’ suburbs of Saint-Denis and Belleville, where they took up positions around the huge gas tanks, water reservoirs and electric plants which supply the capital. Bands of Mobile Guards and policemen began to patrol the Paris streets. An infantry company clumped to the City Hall, nine truckloads of troops surrounded the Chamber of Deputies building. Other patrols stacked arms on important street corners and public squares. The authority of the Premier of France to govern by decree power granted him by Parliament was about to be disputed in a 24-hour general strike called by the French Confederation of Labor. The Republic’s troops were posted to see that the Premier’s authority was upheld.

Weeks of proclamation and polemic had made the positions of both sides of the dispute clear. Labor Leader Leon Jouhaux had declared that the decree laws were “unacceptable as written.” Particularly unacceptable to Leader Jouhaux was the decree extending the work week from 40 to 45 hours in war industries. French labor had won the 40-hour week from Leon Blum’s Popular Front Government. Leader Jouhaux could not afford to lose it, even in one group of industries, without a fight.

Premier Edouard Daladier denounced the strike as “political,” a test not only of his administration but of the French democracy’s ability to withstand minority pressure in a crisis. He believed he could beat the strike and maintain his Government’s prestige if he could maintain the public services, so he invoked a statute on the books since July and militarized all transport, communications, war industries and the Government service. He also served notice that workers who obeyed Leon Jouhaux’s orders to report for work in military plants and then “fold arms” would be jailed.

At 4 a.m. the crucial hour arrived for Paris. At the Gare St. Lazare, a train stood with steam up. Troops with fixed bayonets stalked the cold, empty station. Soldiers tossed mail sacks aboard. At 4: 10 the engineer climbed into the cab.

“Are you going to disobey the strike order?” correspondents questioned.

“Hell yes,” shouted the engineer, “We’re in the army now.” The trainmaster’s whistle shrilled, the train chuffed away.

In Paris the strike fell flat. Trains, trams, busses, trucks moved. The Government offices operated without a hitch. The factories opened and the workers, except in a very few instances, went to work. For example, of the nearly 20,000 Paris subway workers, only 200 failed to report for duty. At 8 a.m. the powerful Subway Workers Union revoked its strike order and by noon Paris was doing business as usual.

In the rest of France, the strike took more effect. Although the industrial regions in the north were also patrolled by troops, metal and mine workers in many plants “folded arms” and in seaports like Marseille and Le Havre dock workers struck 100% strong.

Individual employers dismissed 30,000 strikers next day. Some 700,000 others were temporarily locked out. But the Daladier Government announced a policy of “appeasement,” discouraged reprisals. However, the Premier immediately crossed Leader Jouhaux’s name from the directorate of the Bank of France and several railway union leaders were booted from the National Railway Board. This was followed by a flurry of sympathy strikes. At Le Havre the 1,500 crew members of the Normandie were discharged when they refused to sail the liner out of port on schedule. Reservations on the Normandie, including that of Anthony Eden, on his way to the U. S. were transferred to the Cunarder Aquitania.

There was no doubt but that the Government had won. That it had been expected to do so by the financial and commercial interests was significant. On the morning of the general strike, the franc, which had been depressed, bobbed up confidently in foreign exchange. This was followed by a mild boom on the Bourse.

Emerging from his trial as the strongest Premier France has had since Pierre Laval, Edouard Daladier called Parliament to sit this week, confident that the Centre and Right would respond to any reasonable demands he might make to implement his “Three Year Plan” of internal and external bulwarking. And to the French people he broadcast: “What triumphed today was the principle of the Republic itself—its respect for law, its respect for the right to work and its respect for the nation. The French people showed that they realized that their liberties were not threatened by the Government.

“You showed that you remembered that these general strikes were what in other countries had opened the way for dictatorships. … You showed that you had learned a lesson and understood that the best guarantee of liberty is the authority of the State, and that is why you refused to strike against the Republic, which is the mother of the right to organize labor as well as other privileges of a free government. … I said that I would enforce respect for republican law. It was respected.”

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