- Interview by
- Martin Greenacre
The effects of May 1968 were still echoing across France in April 1973, when a renowned watchmaker filed for bankruptcy, drawing up plans for massive layoffs. The LIP factory in Besançon, close to the Swiss border, would become the site of one of the most famous and hardest-fought workers’ struggles in modern French history.
Starting on June 18, 1973, around one thousand workers, including six hundred women, occupied their factory to protest against its closure, seizing the leftover stock of watches, assembling others, and selling them, with the slogan, “C’est possible, on fabrique, on vend, on se paie” (It’s possible, we produce, we sell, we pay ourselves).
May ’68, which saw as many as ten million workers go on strike, was a moment in which traditional hierarchies were being challenged wherever in society they were found. In parts of the labor movement, this was articulated around calls for autogestion — workers’ self-management — in contrast to the Taylorist management regime and lack of dialogue with employees that characterized factories up and down the country.
On May 16, one of France’s largest trade unions, the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT), published a communiqué that had clearly adopted the principle as a political aim. It wrote: “The industrial and administrative monarchy must be replaced by democratic structures based on autogestion.”
The conflict at LIP captured the imagination in France and abroad, as it symbolized these hopes for a new way of organizing the workplace. On September 29, 1973, around one hundred thousand people attended a march in Besançon in support of the workers.
A number of activists within the Unified Socialist Party even put forward the CFDT’s Charles Piaget, the most recognizable figure in the LIP struggle, as their choice to run in the 1974 presidential election. Despite receiving the support of Jean-Paul Sartre, Piaget was not chosen to run for president, but the “outlaws” of LIP nonetheless inspired a generation of activists.
They were ejected from the factory by Republican Security Corps (CRS) riot police on August 14, but the movement continued until January 1974, when a new boss was appointed and the workers were progressively rehired. LIP filed for bankruptcy a second time in April 1976, and the factory was occupied once more, but the company was liquidated in September 1977.
Monique Piton was thirty-nine in April 1973 and working as a secretary for a researcher at LIP when she learned she would be losing her job. She would become a vocal figure in the movement, notably pushing for the women of LIP to be taken just as seriously as the men, who dominated leadership positions in the trade unions.
In 1975, Piton published a book about her experiences, C’est possible!, which was republished in 2015. She spoke to Jacobin for the fiftieth anniversary of a struggle that remains a symbol of a time when anything seemed possible.
What role did women play in the strike, and how did this role evolve?
We shouldn’t use the term “strike,” as we did not stop working voluntarily. We no longer had a boss, and there were no unemployment benefits at the time. We were brutally left with no income.
When on June 18  we were told “You are no longer being paid, starting yesterday,” we began fighting for our jobs, without wondering if there was a problem between men and women.
Certain women volunteered to clean or peel vegetables, in acceptance of these customs, and the typists were evidently very useful for typing up tracts. Others, like myself, chose another role: spreading our message and selling watches all throughout France. My daughter was nineteen, and I was no longer with my husband — I was free.
Were there women who started out doing “feminine” tasks, and took on more responsibility as the weeks went by?
Yes, those who had been washing the dishes and peeling onions and potatoes — one day they realized it wasn’t normal. They told the others, and we all protested to support them. We asked the men to chip in, but they didn’t know how to do the dishes. I had one who didn’t know how to dry the cutlery and put it away. He was completely lost.
In the end, a few women stayed in the canteen, but it rotated. They were there for two weeks, and then they were free to go out, speak to journalists or visitors, or attend meetings in Paris or Bordeaux.
You wrote that certain women realized that they were capable of things they had never imagined. Reading your book, we have the impression that the struggle was a form of liberation in itself.
When a woman worked on the assembly line, she couldn’t talk all day, just a bit at lunchtime (then she would go home, and she would talk to her children), but she couldn’t really meet people. Whereas during the fight, we had the whole day ahead of us to meet and talk to people.
Lots of journalists arrived and started asking questions. There were women who couldn’t believe they had been able to answer; they would say, “Wow, I didn’t stutter, I didn’t mess up, I told him this or that.”
It is clear from reading your book that women were more comfortable outside the structures of traditional trade unions. Why was that?
I noticed early on that, during union meetings, women weren’t listened to. A woman would make a suggestion, people would smile at her and then move onto something else. A few days later a man would make the same suggestion, and the others would exclaim, “Ah, what a good idea!”
That’s why I felt better in the Comité d’action (Action Committee). It was created before the struggle by Jean Raguenès, a worker and Dominican priest who never spoke to us about religion, but was able to give even the quietest people confidence. The Comité d’action was not anti–trade union, it was open to ideas, there were no leaders. We were free to express ourselves completely.
Were there also comments or behaviors which were overtly sexist?
Not really, it was never meant in a bad way. We were these little things they wanted to protect. They liked us, and would smile at us, but they didn’t listen to us.
Were the specific experiences of female workers something you had previously thought about? The term “intersectional feminism” didn’t exist at the time, but it is clear you were already thinking about these questions of dual exploitation.
Certain male leaders reproached us for protesting in the town center, saying we were straying from the fight for our jobs, but we were participating in a national movement for women’s rights. There was a large movement in those days for abortion to be authorized, and for rape to be recognized as a crime, rather than just a misdemeanor.
They told us we were wasting our time. Which meant all those men prevented their wives from protesting. There were some who disobeyed them and went anyway.
With the sale of watches, we all had the same salary as before. The previous year, the principle of equal pay between men and women had been inscribed in the Labor Code, for equal work or work of equal value. I should explain: working on the assembly line, doing meticulous and repetitive actions, which prevented you from lifting your head and sharing a few words with your neighbor — these jobs were reserved for women. It’s just as tiring, and even more grueling, as moving crates or drilling holes in metal with a machine.
The management at LIP hadn’t respected this law. But during the fight, the trade unions should have created this justice. But no! The women received the same salary as before, even though they were active and committed to the struggle.
You realized that the women at the factory had it more difficult than the men?
We realized that a long time ago. I had previously been fired from another watch factory in Besançon because I didn’t want to sleep with the boss.
I was at the Kelton factory, and we were fighting in May ’68 before the rest of France. We had already been on strike for a week to defend women who worked in a workshop with no windows. There were some who would faint, and were sent to the infirmary, and they had that time deducted from their salaries. We were on strike, then, boom, May ’68 happened all across France.
In C’est Possible, you explain that in 1976, when the factory was occupied once more, you were forbidden from distributing your book to visitors during an open day. Do you feel that the unions stopped you from talking about women’s problems?
Absolutely. We were supposed to be nice, and when we were outraged about something, they didn’t accept it.
The unions were like religions — they didn’t want to hurt us, but we had to keep quiet. There was a stage in a corridor, and one day I got up and delivered a speech that didn’t mean anything. I said things like, “We women have been suspended so that the social will improve and the unions understood with the prefect . . .” Afterward, a woman said, “I didn’t understand a thing,” and I said, “You’re right, there’s nothing to understand. But since we women are not listened to when we say something intelligent, we’re going to speak to say nothing.”
Some women struggled to reconcile the activist life with household chores, or children. Was this a topic of discussion?
I regret not addressing this more. We could have created a crèche [day care]. There were women with four-year-olds, or twelve-year-olds, who they couldn’t leave alone. So they left them at a crèche in town or with the grandparents, so they could come to the General Assembly [the morning meetings attended by workers including the various trade unions] — at 9:00 a.m., everybody was there. But if you asked them to come to Lille with you, for example, they couldn’t because of the kids. The husband wouldn’t have understood — he could have looked after the children in the evening, but that wasn’t the thing done at the time.
There was even a woman who was the wife of a well-known trade unionist. When the factory was invaded by the CRS, she came to protest in front of the factory because it was August, and for the first time, all of her four children were at a summer camp. She told us, “This is the first time I’m able to walk without having a child on my arm.” She was a housewife and had never even been able to come to our General Assemblies. She said, “I’m happy, I’m free, I can’t believe it, I can walk and turn around, with nothing in my hands.”
Could you talk a bit about your interactions with foreign workers? There is this video from the time, from the filmmaker Carole Roussopoulos, in which you describe how women are treated, but you replace the word “man” with “white,” and the word “woman” with “Arab.”
In France, Arab men did the most difficult jobs, and lived uncomfortably in hostels. They were looked down upon by the government, and French people treated them as subhumans. There was no policy of family reunification at the time.
At the factory, there were a few Arab men. They participated in the struggle, and I think they were accepted, as women were, but I never saw one of them speak into the microphone. The video was partly for the union leaders. They weren’t racist; I never heard an inappropriate word. But as with women, they didn’t insult us, but they didn’t listen to us either.
You sold watches from a stock you kept when you occupied the factory. But you also started to make watches to sell as well, is that right?
That has always irritated me. It was a rumor that spread, but we didn’t make any, we didn’t have the time. You can’t make a watch just like that. There were demonstrations of how they were made, so there were watchmakers who returned to their workbenches, and visitors and journalists took photos and said we had gone back to work, but it wasn’t true.
We used the slogan “We produce, we sell, we pay ourselves,” which just meant that it was our production, and that we were selling the product of our labor.
When LIP is referred to as an experiment in autogestion, or self-management, do you identify with that term?
You cannot have autogestion when there is not equality, and since there was not equality with women, it cannot be autogestion. There were the beginnings of autogestion, and a whole struggle which operated with men alongside women, but the term is excessive.
The leaders would ask questions and we would vote, but sometimes it was a yes or no question, and not always the questions we would have wanted.
And for it to be autogestion you would have had to restart production.
Yes, we restarted the canteen, the cleaning, but we wanted a boss! We never wanted to make the factory run. We took the stock so we could be paid, as there was not even a notice period — from one day to the next we found ourselves with nothing. We all agreed, there was not a single person who said we shouldn’t do it.
The watches were hidden in cool places, so they wouldn’t be damaged. I didn’t know where they were. They were hidden in five locations, and nobody knew about all five, so that if somebody was arrested and tortured, they couldn’t give away all five. We were able to pay ourselves for almost a year, and when we were rehired, we returned the rest of the stock.
Do you think there are any lessons that activists today can take from your struggle?
We never gave up so long as every one of us had not been rehired. We held out in the face of rehiring offers that would have left a few people behind.
We were able to use a local cinema for our worker-assembly meetings every morning, communicated with each other using posters in the church basement, and made a canteen in a fortress provided to us by the town hall.
We had the support of the whole of France. We sold watches all over and had money to pay ourselves, and to make food. I remember in December 1973, I was going to Gennevilliers in the Paris suburbs, because immigrant workers were on strike there. I told the LIP union leader Charles Piaget that I wanted to give them something, because they weren’t being paid, they had nothing, and he gave me 3,000 francs to give to them.
There was never a problem in terms of a man bothering or harassing a woman. Even if I’ll grumble about two or three things in relation to women, we did all fight together.