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Reviewed by:
  • Workers’ Participation in Post-Liberation France
  • Kathryn E. Amdur
Workers’ Participation in Post-Liberation France. By Adam Steinhouse (London: Lexington Books, 2001. xvi plus 245 pp.).

This study of attempts to transform workplace industrial relations adds usefully to the scant literature on early post-Liberation France but reveals many of the weaknesses (plus some strengths) of a political science approach to an historical subject. British lecturer in government Adam Steinhouse has drawn helpfully on archival and scholarly sources but has often allowed his theoretical ambitions to obscure the substance of the work.

The author’s goal is to explain France’s “failure” to expand labor participation in workplace management and decision making, despite the opening offered by Communist participation in post-Liberation governments. He analyzes in turn the roles of industrial managers, state officials, and labor’s own union and party leaders, all of whom (for different reasons) prioritized the “battle of production” over any real increase in labor’s voice in economic or political affairs. Indeed [End Page 1096] (as stated three times in the first 37 pages), “French exceptionalism in industrial relations consists mainly in the exclusion of labour from both firm and national decision making.” While other scholars have (he says) targeted mainly the state, Steinhouse highlights instead the “microdealings between state officials and workers” so as “to bring together the state and the workplace in a uniform analysis” (pp. 7, 38–39). All this, he says, will illustrate “the central theoretical claim of this book, that the representation of workplace demands can best be located in the interplay between the industrial and political arenas” (again echoed verbatim, pp. 4, 7, 22, 43, 79, 202).

France’s new postwar “comités d’entreprise” (workplace committees) began as a means to bring workers and unions into management, toward the aim of increased productivity and reduced social conflict. But entrenched employer opposition, plus meager support from labor leaders and state officials, limited the committees’ powers to a consultative, not decision-making, role. An early version was the “comité de gestion” at the Berliet truck firm in Lyon, requisitioned by the state in late 1944 as a penalty for economic collaboration with the Nazis. Despite advancements in productivity and industrial efficiency without the punitive or collaborationist sting of wartime, the case appears here as a “failure” (pp. 102, 109) because it did not yield the firm’s nationalization—however unlikely an economic or political boon for workers. State officials also sometimes touted employee profit-sharing, “an old social catholic nostrum” (p. 68 n. 77) that failed to win either union or employer support.

In all, the state as engine of change proved too weak against labor’s and capital’s inertia: hence “the paradox of an interventionist state at the mercy of old-fashioned industrial relations” (pp. 134, 171). But the state had constraints of its own, especially as its growing centralization kept departmental and regional officials from promoting worker participation at the level of the firm. “In theory, a powerful, centralized state could be an advantage for workers,” but in fact “the relative success of economic planning [in France] came about at the expense of workers,” in their exclusion from decision-making processes and in higher prices for subsidized food (pp. 183–84).

To show the state’s predominant role in industrial relations, Steinhouse relies on the records of labor inspectors plus departmental prefects and regional “commissaires” for selected industrial centers—though only from national, not local, archives, despite his claim to have used “all extant reports” for those departments (p. 3). Workers and employers appear only through the eyes of public authorities, without the press to supplement the private archives that are admittedly scarce. Published union or party documents are quoted mainly from secondary sources. Scholarly opinion is all cited in the present tense, even for works from the era in question. Quoted passages are left untranslated, although often introduced by a paraphrase redundant to the Francophone reader, thus adding needless bulk to the text.

Beyond procedural or stylistic infelicities, the author’s conclusions prompt further reflection. His comparisons to Sweden, Germany, and the United States cite the relative “interventionist capacity of the state” and the...

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