The winds of May 68 in France: The LIP factory takeover

France’s May of 1968 brought on the largest industrial strike in the history of modern capitalism.  What began as a student movement quickly overflowed the walls of the universities to spread throughout french society, with hundreds of factories not only being shut down, but occupied.  What did not emerge during the strike however was the re-opening of the factories under workers’ control.  Production was brought to a standstill, but no real step was taken to create a workers’ self-managed economy.

The example would be given five years later, with the Lip watch factory occupation; an occupation that would resonate throughout the country, mobilising thousands in acts of solidarity and serving as a model for new forms of anti-capitalist protest and rebellion.

We share two extraordinary film testimonials of the Lip occupation, films that record not only a history, but seek to intervene in the present. 

For many of those who participated or witnessed the Lip movement, there was a “before Lip” and an “after Lip”.

Film: Lip – We maintain it is possible! (1973)

Filmed by Scopecolor collective film crews and with montage by Chris Marker

Since 1973 the company name Lip stands for worker self-management. A defensive struggle turns into defiant hope as the film title says: “We maintain it is possible!”!

Since April 1973, the Lip workforce is threatened with mass redundancies leading to the first demonstrations. On June 12, it is announced that wages will not be paid, triggering a “bossnapping” and the first deployment of security forces. Meanwhile, the workers confiscate the stock of watches. After a huge demonstration on June 15, the factory is occupied on June 18: production under workers self-management starts. On August 14, the police violently stops the occupation, but the struggle is far from being over…

The film follows events until the end of August 1973.


Film: LIP, l’imagination au pouvoir (2007)

dir. Christian Rouaud

At first, in April 1973, when Lip announced to some 1,300 employees that dismissals would occur in the watch company, the labor unionist Charles Piaget was hostile to the strike. His preference, for his comrades, was to slow down the rhythm of the machines and that of the hands; but “they had so much rhythm in their bodies, that it was not possible to slow down.” They stopped working ten minutes an hour. Thus began the long adventure of the “Lip” workers which, as often in the history of workers’ movements, started from very “reasonable” demands (not to lose one’s work at a time when unemployment remained modest) and, on the way, it discovered that (almost) everything is possible. In May 68, did not Fine Arts students print posters that read, “Your boss needs you, you do not need him”? Exactly, May 1968, it was only yesterday in April 1973. Lip will be a little that history, which begins again, but on this occasion, with the worker and self-managment.

“480 to let go: the decision shook us. We were not yet at a time when men were set aside like animals.” The directors of the company are sequestrated: one hears “they will be bargained for more precise information” on the fate of the company in difficulty. In the neighbourhood of Palente, in Besançon, the CRS [France’s military police] vehicles encircle the factory. Then followed the assault, the broken doors: “It shocked us, we who had been so attentive during previous strikes not to scratch a wall.” The administrators are released. So, among the workers, “there was one who said: what if we took the watches?” Ok, but what to do with them? And is it a robbery? a sin ? (the Christian tradition permeates the region). More Maoist than anything else, a Dominican worker absolves the “parishioners of Palente” in advance. Cars are loaded with watches and go “hide them”. But the workers are careful not to seize the files and plans, because they must not fall into the hands of the watch brand’s competitors. These unionists of a new kind may have very long hair and be not lacking in audacity, they are eager for the support of the bishop and share the spirit of the company …

What to do with all these watches? The decision is taken to sell them and restart the factory to produce new ones, this time without a boss (“you do not need him”). The sale is a huge success, including on the beaches. In six weeks, the benefits correspond to 50% of the total for an ordinary year. There were hiding places for the watches, there will be others for the money. Clandestine pick ups on the roads, disguises, wigs: the madness of young workers meets the wisdom of the ancients. “The stronger the wind, the better it will be,” says Piaget, exemplary delegate of a CFDT, then very active and full of imagination. “The greatest moment of excitement,” recalls a worker, “was our unofficial paycheck. We touched the fact that it was possible.”

Then the workers open the doors of the factory to everyone, including journalists. At the time, it is calculated that the contest will prevail over the disturbances. Some of the visitors attend general meetings, stay for one or more weeks; students arrive with their musical instruments.

“The women’s question had been revolution within the revolution.” To be an exemplary militant, even Piaget leaves the care of his six children to his wife. He readily admits: “It’s true that I was not very good.” As for children, this variable that weighed on activists’ time will in turn be pushed out of the private sphere to be addressed collectively. “Equal pay for equal work?” It is not so easy: do you have to pay the same to couples, to those who have family responsibilities? The Dominican is in favor of equal pay. But he has no children … “Put away your marbles”, it is said in opposition, “it will be good for next time, but for now it’s not ripe. ”

“Success”, sums up Piaget, who never succumbed to the sirens of power, “is to no longer need leaders. Their voices count only for one.” An activist admits: “I dreamed of liberation of peoples. And I thought one could free a factory as we free a people.”

Yet Besançon is not the whole of France. Power evicted the factory, proposed a new plan, with159 dismissals. The majority of the workers refuse it. Prime Minister Pierre Messmer concludes, furious: “Lip is over.” He is wrong. The company is taken over by a “leftwing boss”, Mr. Claude Neuschwander. A little more than a year later, in December 1974, the conflict seems over: on the one hand, self-management has lived; on the other, all the workers have been rehired.

But in May 1974, Giscard d’Estaing was elected to the Elysee. For him and for his prime minister Jacques Chirac, it is especially the second point that poses a problem, the tug of war won by the unions against unemployment, while layoff plans are spreading throughout France. Minister of Industry in 1973, Mr. Jean Charbonnel confided that Giscard d’Estaing considered that, in essence: “We must punish [the Lip]. That they be unemployed and that they remain unemployed. They will corrupt the whole social body.” According to Charbonnel, the employers and the Chirac government deliberately “murdered Lip”.

How? Renault, then nationalized, canceled its orders for watches overnight; the Ministry of Industry cancels a promised payment; the capital tap dries up suddenly. Revoked by the shareholders, Mr. Neuschwander will later learn that until Lip, capitalism was dominated by companies. After that, finance won. Even today, the Lip workers keep secret the place where they hid their war chest, because, they explain, “it have to be used again”.

(A free translation of an article by Serge Halimi for Le Monde Diplomatique – 20/03/2007)

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