De Gaulle and participation

Starting in the war years, de Gaulle consistently stressed the evils of "generalised mechanisation" and opposed the standardisation of our societies. The politics of participation which he began to evolve as early as the RPF days bore the stamp of the utopian socialists, of social Christianity and of left-wing personalities such as René Capitant and Louis Vallon.

The General was equally dismissive of both liberalism and collectivism, preferring a third way. "Liberalism as we knew it in the past has become something inconceivable and  intolerable in the present state of the world and especially in the current state of society.  [Communism] is a crushing solution, terrible for the people, a solution that breaks down everything (…). Neither old-style liberalism, nor crushing communism. Something else. Something simple, honourable and practical: association. It is an old French concept" (31 August 1949). 

In 1948, in Saint-Etienne, he floated the idea of the association of capital and labour which would lead to equality between the associates in a company and the disappearance of the all-powerful employer class. Each side contributing its skills and resources, each with a stake in the successful running of the company: capital-labour association would pave the way for a means of managing class conflict avoiding revolution.

His plan was criticised by some as the sign of a return to fascist-type corporations, but on 1 May 1952 de Gaulle once again attacked "the dirigisme that directs nothing and the liberalism that liberates no one".

As soon as he was back in power, General de Gaulle returned to his cherished idea. On 7 January 1959 he signed an order designed to "promote association or profit-sharing by workers in the company". It proposed employee participation in company profits, capital or management, with control exercised through  works committees or elected worker representatives. "A breach has been opened in the wall separating the classes," the General wrote in his Memoirs.

This first order was only optional, not mandatory. Two other orders were issued in August 1967. Drafting the texts was no easy matter, in view of the disagreement between the Elysée and Matignon on the issue. For Prime Minister Georges Pompidou, participation was a "chimera". De Gaulle, in contrast, saw it as no more than a continuation of the reforming campaign begun at the Liberation with the works committees. A compromise was reached and the order on "employee participation in the fruits of company growth" became mandatory for firms employing over 100 people.

The General attached great importance to this reform which would open the way to "a new social order" (27 November 1967). After the events of May 68, he pressed on with his plans to introduce real direct democracy into business or the various establishments. Once again he singled out for criticism "the mechanical society [that] entangles man in a set of grinding cog-wheels". Participation, however, meant  neither worker-management nor co-management; each side must be able to defend its interests, its viewpoint, without necessarily having joint decision-making power.

"In every one of our activities, for example a company or a university, it means each one of us involved in that activity being directly associated in the way it works, in the results it achieves, in the services  it renders to the good of the nation. In short, it means participation becoming the rule and the impetus for a renewed France" (29 June 1968).

As the General saw it, the referendum of 27 April 1969 would give a mandate for introducing participation into the administrative organisation of the regions and into a Senate merged with the Economic and Social Council and including representatives of the professional sectors. The failure of the referendum and the General's departure from power dealt a blow to this prospect of change.