Our Paris correspondent tells us of what shook France, and perhaps all of Europe, forty years ago this month. — Levi Asher
It’s spring of 1968. France has emerged from post World War II reconstruction with an economy that is strong and growing. Consumer goods are plentiful, and France’s gross domestic product has surpassed that of Britain for the first time in 200 years. Charles De Gaulle is president. France is a major world power. All is right with the world. Or is it?
The late 1960s also coincided with the coming of age of a population explosion, those children born between 1945 and 1965, after the Second World War. This new generation of young people was coming up against a French society that had not changed, despite economic growth, for hundreds of years. French society was authoritarian. The public morality was conservative. Religion, patriotism and respect for authority were the values of the adult generation in France in 1968.
By 1968 the number of university students in Paris had grown to over 500,000, twice as much as a decade before. To accommodate this overpopulation, the government built a series of soulless, cement university buildings among the shanties and desperate poor Parisians of the suburb of Nanterre. Overcrowding, male-female visitation issues, and criticism of the Vietnam war led to protests that culminated in the taking of the Administrative building at Nanterre on March 22.
The takeover was spearheaded by a group of radical students that would come to be called the “Movement of March 22”, led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a German sociology student and anarchist soon to be known as Dany the Red. Trouble continued at Nanterre, and the government decided to close the school on May 2. Student militants called a meeting at the Sorbonne to protest this closing and discuss further action.
The meeting was held on Friday, May 3. Although it started out in the morning with only three hundred student activists, by afternoon the Rector of the University called in the police out of fear of a potential confrontation between the leftist students and a group of right-wing “fascists”. Noting the presence of Cohn-Bendit, the authorities did not want the Sorbonne to become another Nanterre. They used the inevitable altercations with the police as an excuse to arrest some 500 students. News of the arrests spread through the Latin Quarter and sympathizers began to swell the ranks of the original group, many trying to free the arrested students from the grasp of the police. By evening full scale fighting had broken out, and rocks and teargas grenades flew over the Boulevard Saint Michel. This was the beginning of the events known as “Mai 68”.
On Monday, May 6, UNEF, France’s largest student union, called a march to protest the actions of the police. More than 20,000 teachers and students marched toward the Sorbonne, which was closed off by the forces of order. They were met by police wielding truncheons and tear gas, and hundreds of students were arrested. On Friday, May 10 an even larger crowd formed in the Latin Quarter, and when riot patrols prevented them from crossing over to the Right Bank, the students threw up barricades and battled the police until dawn, throwing rocks and bottles, while the police used tear gas and clubs. The events were reported on radio and television, and public sympathy was heavily in favour of the students after seeing their brutal treatment at the hands of the authorities.
The French Labor movement and the Communist Party, which had so far held the students at arm’s length, now decided to show their support, and the CGT, the major French labor organization, called a one day strike for Monday, May 13. Over one million people marched in Paris. The French Government, which had so far tried to contain the students, hoping the rebellion would run out of steam, now began to see the spectre of general national strikes that could paralyze France. Prime Minister Pompidou acceded to the three demands of the students: the dropping of charges against the students arrested in the prior demonstrations, the re-opening of the Sorbonne, and the removal of the police from the Latin Quarter.
The capitulation to the student demands came too late. The genie of revolt was now out of the bottle. The university students had already been joined by their juniors, the lyceens (high-school students), in the demonstrations. Now, the young workers — the working class contemporaries of the students — inspired by the actions of their student brethren, began striking and taking over factories all over France. On May 14, workers struck Sud Aviation near Nantes and occupied the plant. A wildcat strike followed on May 15 at the Renault plant at Cleon. The strikes quickly spread to the Renault factories at Flins and Boulogne-Billancourt.
These actions were instigated by the rank and file, not the union leadership, and the union leaders had to struggle to maintain control over the waves of strikes sweeping the count. While the union leadership tried to keep the focus on demands for higher wages, the radicalized workers were calling for, among other things, an end to the De Gaulle government. By the following week, ten million workers were on strike, roughly two-thirds of the French work force. In the meantime the students had occupied the Sorbonne, the Odéon theatre and the School of Fine Arts. Red flags and posters of Marx and Chairman Mao covered the walls. Slogans like “It is Forbidden to Forbid” (Il est interdit d’interdire) were plastered on posters all over the Latin Quarter. Calls for the end of the De Gaulle regime and a government of the people were being heard from all quarters.
On May 25, the Government drafted and signed, with the union leaders, the Grenelle accords. The agreement called for an increase of 25% in the minimum wage and a 10% salary increase. The workers were not impressed, even though the terms were comparatively generous, and continued to strike. On May 30, the CGT led a march through Paris, chanting “Adieu, De Gaulle.” François Mitterand and Pierre Mendes France both jockeyed for position to lead a new leftist government. It looked like the De Gaulle government was dead.
But Charles De Gaulle had one more trick up his sleeve. On May 29 he “disappeared”, flying to an airbase in Germany. During this period, he assured himself that he had the backing of the army in case of a full out revolution. Satisfied that the army was still behind him, he returned to France, and went on the radio May 30. He announced the dissolution of the government, with new elections to be held the 23rd of June. He urged the French people to stop the strike and return to work. After a month of turmoil the French were ready for an end to the events of May. The students ceded the Sorbonne to the administration, and by mid-June the strikes were over. In the elections of June 23, the Gaullist party came back stronger than ever. The dream of a people’s government was dead.
Looking back at the events of May, 1968, we see that France came very close to a complete social and political revolution. The fact that the students did not push further, along with the fact that the traditional left, such as the Communist Party and the CGT did not completely support the students perhaps explains why total revolution did not occur. However, the Gaullists gained seats in the June elections, to the detriment of the Left. Were the events of May meaningless?
No, because even though the political gains of the left were minimal at best, the social gains of the workers were impressive. Not only did they achieve wage gains above those of the initial Grenelle accords, but many in France today speak of May 68 as being a “break”, where France passed from the old, authoritarian society to the liberal morality of France today, where equality, sexual freedom and human rights are the watchwords. It was the students who engineered the shift in values. The “soixante-huitards” (68ers), as they are called, awakened France to the cultural values of love, peace and tolerance that were sweeping the world at the time, and this point in history marks the beginning of continuing changes in French society.
It’s a strange article on May
It’s a strange article on May ’68 one that forgets to mention the demonstration in favor of de Gaulle on the 30th of May. Depending on sources, from 300,000 to 1,000,000 people took part in what was arguably very important in bringing the events to an end — and winning the elections for the Right. It is similarly strange that the article claims that over 1,000,000 marched in Paris on May the 13th, when, again, sources counted from 200,000 to 1,000,000 max… 1,000,000 can only be topped if you count the demonstrations outside Paris.
I wasn’t even close to alive
I wasn’t even close to alive at the time, but the student riots definitely shook the world enough that their effects are still felt today, especially in the art world. Godard and Truffaut both talk about it as a major turning point in their lives. Bertolucci’s The Dreamers is set against it. And if I remember right, Flicker, an odd novel by Theodore Roszak, uses it as a background as well.
The strange part of the story to me is that there were students protesting all over the world at the same time. In the US over Vietnam and civil rights, in Mexico against fascism (I think the bloodiest), The Czech Republic had the Prague Spring, and Spain against Franco. I’m sure plenty of other countries protested US involvement in Vietnam as well. Crazy time, sorry I missed it. Interesting that none of that is going on now in America. Apparently, complacency is the new irreverence.
Reasons for this revolutionary wave: First kids to grow up after WW2 (possibly lack of fathers, freer societies, boom), first kids to grow up with TV, greater first-world wealth (more students)? Who knows?
You bring up a good point,
You bring up a good point, François. I left it out of this article because of the length, but there was a “backlash” if you will by many French people, and a huge manifestation by the Right on the 30th of May in which many more than the 50,000 (as you say 300,000 or more) people expected by the police marched in support of de Gaulle.
The self aggrandizement and
The self aggrandizement and self-mythologizing of the 60’s seems to be endless.
“Looking back at the events of May, 1968, we see that France came very close to a complete social and political revolution.”
I’m assuming this means they were that close to going on a murderous rampage?
Sonnez le matins mon ami. Il fait beau.
A nous la liberte.
59 nuclear power plants supply nearly 80% of France’s electrical energy making France the largest exporter of electricity in the world.
I don’t think Michael Norris
I don’t think Michael Norris is remiss for not reporting the counter-demonstrators, as there are usually counter-protestors in one form or another. I took for granted that the entire nation of France wasn’t trying to can de Gaulle. If that had been the case, no demonstration would have been necessary.
On a much smaller scale, in 1970, there was a demonstration at Virginia Tech, about 16 miles from my hometown, in which 200 anti-war students disrupted a group of military cadets on the drill field. A handful of anti-protestors stepped in to support the cadets, and scores of others wrote letters the next day, denouncing the protest.
Yeah, I know. I said it was on a much smaller scale, but things like that happened all over the country. And people beat up hippies.
Ok, “beat up hippies” sound
Ok, “beat up hippies” sound flippant. What I mean is, during the late 60s & early 70s, there was a large, conservative anti-activist force that made its presence know, sometimes subtly by their attitudes, sometimes more vocal, as when Governor George Wallace said that any protestor tried to block his car by laying in front of it, it would be the last time he ever laid in front of a car. I’m almost positive it was Wallace who said that but I haven’t yet found a source.
Bill, we had a little dust-up
Bill, we had a little dust-up in my home town of Chicago that I will never forget. In August, 1968, we hosted the Democratic Convention, and thousands and thousands of protestors came to town to protest against the war in Vietnam. Talk about beat up hippies! The Mayor at the time, Mayor Daley père (his son is currently Mayor) was antagonistic to the protestors and tried to keep them in Lincoln Park, miles from the convention. The police were even more hostile – they went on a rampage and beat up hippies, by-standers, little old ladies. They even roughed up Hugh Hefner. Hefner! And the funny thing was that it was all televised, so the whole country watched as Chicago’s Finest “beat up hippies”. That said, it was a very dangerous time for young men with long hair, especially in your neck of the woods. As a long-haired freak in those days myself, I had many a run-in with the local law enforcement in small towns who of course wanted to “beat up hippies” or at least insult you or try to degrade you. And this was only forty years ago! Times have changed to the extent that long hair doesn’t attract that much attention, but I think the underlying mentality is still there.
“200 anti-war students
“200 anti-war students disrupted a group of military cadets on the drill field”
Turn it around. 200 anti-hippy students disrupted a rock concert etc…
There’d be a name for them: thugs or goons or fascists.
Many young mean cloak their sociopathy under a guise or rubric of revoltuion, social justice, antiwar or some other ostensibly do-gooder crusade.
Interesting debate here. I
Interesting debate here. I see both sides of the argument.
When I think of Paris ’68, I also think of Robespierre and his guillotine. Paris knows all there is to know about revolutions, and many have suffered on all sides of these revolutions. It’s not child’s play, that’s for sure.
Speaking of child’s play, though — I was part of a strange “mini-revolt” at Albany State when I was a freshman in the spring of 1980, prompted by a campus visit by ex-hippie Jerry Rubin, who delivered a rabble-rousing speech against the now incoming age of Ronald Reagan, against the “American ayatollahs”. After his speech, about 20 of us gathered in the Campus Center and decided to stage an action. We had trouble thinking up a cause and ended up voting to occupy the campus book store, which was guilty of price gouging on textbooks. I found this disappointing — I wanted to storm the ROTC, but I gave in to the consensus vote. We took over the bookstore in the middle of the night, gathered over a hundred students to join the next morning, and got our pictures in the Albany newspapers the following day. The protest was entirely successful — the bookstore (which was in total shock that a near-riot had emerged from nowhere in a single night) literally accepted all our demands.
The bookstore (a national chain of campus bookstores) then hurriedly pulled out and the school brought in a new bookstore company that continued to overcharge for textbooks, though not as drastically as before. As for Jerry Rubin, he quickly after lost whatever hippie cachet he had by starting a “yuppie networking” craze in Manhattan. I remember the whole event as hilarious play-acting by a bunch of eager wannabe-activists students (in a conservative campus, in a conservative year) who got to put on a little show for two days in Albany. There was no revolution here, though the incident was briefly televised on local Albany news.
Correct, TKG, that’s exactly
Correct, TKG, that’s exactly what most of the letters to the college newspaper, as well as the local city paperswers, said. Here’s an excerpt from one letter:
“You violate those very rights which you say you are in favor of. By attempting to disrupt drill Tuesday, April 14, were you not denying the members of the VTCC [Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets] their right to a scheduled class?”
John R. Coiner, Jr., and Lee P. Gibson, “Anti-corps demonstrations debated,” The Collegiate Times (24 Apr 1970), 3.
I’m not saying the demonstrators were right, just that there were people on both sides, like in France, 1968 .
Ha Ha! Levi, you were worked
Ha Ha! Levi, you were worked up about book prices even as a young student!
On a serious note, yes Paris
On a serious note, yes Paris had Robespierre and the “Committee of Public Safety” ie the guillotine. Although I think only one person was killed (at a factory) and only hundreds of people were injured, the events of May 68 in Paris could have really turned into a major revolution, but didn’t, something along the lines of the Paris Commune in 1871 where the people took over the city. I think that both sides of the conflict in 1968 tried to avoid violence.
We can’t even incite people
We can’t even incite people to protest against the price gouging of gasoline, let alone anything else. What’s happened? Why have we given up as a society?
Ha, Michael, you’re right! I
Ha, Michael, you’re right! I didn’t think of that. Ironically, though, I voted against occupying the bookstore (though I joined in once the decision was made). But, hell yeah, college textbook pricing is some racket. Somebody ought to go to a guillotine when you can’t buy a philosophy book for less than $50. Hardcover only too, hah.
A very interesting
A very interesting discussion, and a great piece of (French) history that I wasn’t aware of. Thanks, Michael Norris for this excellent article. And thanks to Rubiao for the interesting questions on spontaneous revolt. As a shocker to Levi Asher, I’ve always taken the conservative reaction – try to fix the system instead of burning it down. (Yeah, me and Bill Ectric remember Rap Brown, Watts and Detroit, even the Chicago convention).
But the older I get, the more I feel like things don’t matter, only people matter. And the systems we live under don’t merit survival nearly as much as the people do. The problem has always been an absence of leadership. The great social revolutions have never had a leader who could steer, once the destruction of the old commenced.
Supposedly the best revolution was America breaking from England. But that’s such a pathetic example, is like going to prison and asking “which of you is the most honest crook?” Bottom line – revolution is at hand, and WE need to be the leaders.
Anarchy for the UK, coming
Anarchy for the UK, coming sometime, maybe…
Nice comments Mike, nice ones everybody. Fun thread.
Non, rien de rien, no, je ne regrette rien
I am serious about sociopathy in young men being cloaked under a guise of social justice or revolution or some such ostensibly do-good or noble crusade.
That cuts both ways. It’s an outlet that mitigates the sociopathy, but it can lead to Stalins and Maos and whole scale slaughter and murder.
It never is truly revolutionary, though, it only destroys human beings and their lives.
I wish they all could be California girls
Back in undergrad time the big demonstration when I was à la université was a sit in at the library to get the Regents to divest from S. Africa. I remember this one dude I knew (total deadhead) starts telling me how he went to the demonstration the night before, he’s talking this and that, and finally last thing he says with a very happy smile is, “I met this cute girl”.
C’est la guerre.
Vive la Différence
Regrets, I’ve had a few…
Havoc plaisure mays sewers