Striking for peace in France

16 Dec 1912
  • France
Carte de la Greve de Protestation
Carte de la Greve de Protestation

On 16 December 1912 the Confédération générale du travail (CGT) organised a 24-hour general strike against war throughout France. The strike was called in response to the Balkan War, as a result of a resolution agreed at an Extraordinary Congress of the CGT held on 23-24 November.

On the day that the Extraordinary Congress met, France's ally Russia had begun to mobilize. Delegates at the Congress were faced with the possibilty that France, too, would be mobilizing by the time they were in position to act on the Congress resolution.

The capacity of the CGT to organise a general strike was quite limited. It claimed about 600,000 members at that time, but other sources put the figure at 300-350,000 [1]. The CGT represented a majority of France's unionised workforce, but only a very modest fraction of the country's 6 million industrial workers. In the same period there were about 4 million trade union members in Britain and 2.5 million in Germany.

The French authorities made determined efforts to disrupt organisation for the strike [2]. The Interior Ministry instructed prefects to monitor strike preparations and disperse illegal gatherings, and ordered the closure of all the Bourses de Travail. Workers in public services were threatened with "serious disciplinary measures" if they did not turn up for work.

By the day of the strike, an armistice had been agreed in the Balkans and a peace conference of the six great powers was about to begin in London. The danger that France might go to war must have appeared much less pressing than when the decision to call the strike was taken.

According to the French Government, a total of 80,000 workers (30,000 of them in Paris) took part in the strike [2]. In Saint Etienne, even though the local bourse had not supported the strike, a quarter of the miners and two thirds of the glass-workers stayed away from work. The bourse was closed by the authorities despite its caution, so several hundred workers congregated at a boules game instead.

Much of the French media, predictably enough, reported the strike to have been ineffective. Théodore Steeg, the Interior Minister, declared that: "Thanks to the steadfastness of the public powers this strike... did not produce the effect expected."

The dissipation of the threat of war at the beginning of December has left the CGT strike looking like a footnote to history.  If World War 1 had broken out that month, repression might have made the strike even harder to organise than was actually the case. On the other hand, there might very well have been an upsurge of opposition to war for which the CGT plans could have provided a rallying point. The delegates at the CGT Congress in November had no way of guessing the outcome, and neither do we.