Susan Ram looks back at the tumultuous events of May 1968, where students and workers united against the establishment, and asks what we can take from them today
Fifty years ago this spring, people across France turned their world upside down. In one of the world’s most developed capitalist economies, the ‘impossible’ – the prospect of revolution from below -- struck suddenly with resounding force, fury and festivity. Students and workers in their millions spilled onto the streets, closing factories, triggering the biggest general strike France has ever known, and throwing the government of President Charles de Gaulle into paroxysms of panic.
Across several glorious weeks, large sections of French society began questioning the nature of capitalist society and the constraints it imposed on their lives. Behind the acrid yellow smoke of the tear gas deployed by cudgel-wielding riot police, people became aware of exciting new possibilities, of different ways of living together and running society. Everywhere discussion was in the air: students debating and sharing experiences with young workers; high school students questioning the rigidity of the school curriculum; workers confronting the banality of their existence under capitalism along with their poor pay and long working hours. In contrast to the stultified atmosphere of a country normally under unyielding Establishment control, this was a heady moment, a blossoming democratic turn when history seemed to quicken its pace, ushering a different sort of world into the realm of the possible.
What ignited the May events, and the combustible mixture of processes underlying them, were the actions of students, particularly those crowded onto the overspill campus of the University of Paris at Nanterre, just outside the city. Here, a group of revolutionaries of various persuasions, united in their opposition to the Stalinist bent of the French Communist Party (PCF), then the country’s largest left-wing party, had from late 1967 been organising a sequence of protests, teach-ins and occupations: against the Vietnam War, the far right Occident group, and campus interventions by riot police.
In early 1968, in the context of a mass demonstration at Nanterre against the arrest of militants during a previous protest in Paris’s Latin Quarter, the 22 March Movement was formed and the students occupied the university. The Dean’s decision to close the campus and place activists before a disciplinary hearing scheduled to open in the Latin Quarter on 2 May enabled the Nanterre spark to make its critical leap into the heart of Paris.
Days of rage & jubilation, 3-13 May
For the next ten days, the Latin Quarter became a theatre of war as students, high school pupils and young workers clashed repeatedly with police and heavily armed goons of the CRS riot squad. Improvisation seemed to spring out of the ground along with the Paris cobblestones, famously deployed as weapons or heaped into barricades. “The police could neither cope nor understand,” writes Daniel Singer. “Their forces were impressive and armed to the teeth. There was a time when, faced with such a black armada, the students would have turned and run. Now fear was turned into passionate determination, and they tended to run forward. In daring hands, the cobblestone was a match for the hand grenade.”
On 10 May, ‘the night of the barricades’, street-fighting students upped their resistance to extreme police violence, battling into the small hours with the aid of sympathetic Parisians who kept them going with supplies of food, milk and solidarity.
By now events had spread far beyond the capital. In the ten days running up to the one-day general strike of 13 May, there were 107 workers, student and farmer demonstrations outside Paris, suggestive of deeper processes of radicalisation. The tinder was ready for the spark.
Enter the workers: from one-day strike to indefinite general strike
The years immediately prior to 1968 had seen a heightening of struggle by French workers. A sequence of factory occupations of factories, detentions of bosses and managers, and bloody encounters with the CRS provided dress rehearsals for May 1968. At the same time, workers often found their radical instincts dampened down by union organisers of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), then closely linked to the PCF. Controlled by bureaucracies hostile to the very idea of radical change, the CGT and the PCF struggled desperately to maintain a tight rein. But their efforts were swept aside as workers, emboldened and inspired by the courage of the street-fighting students, rushed to join forces. A general strike and day of action against police repression was called for 13 May.
In Paris, brilliant sunshine illuminated the biggest demonstration the city had ever seen. Something in the order of one million people took to the streets, led by crash-helmeted students bearing red flags. Behind a giant banner proclaiming “Students, teachers and workers together!” marched student and labour leaders and an ocean of jubilant participants, chanting slogans while bathing in their new-found sense of collective strength.
For the French state, the fusion of students and workers on May 13 escalated the crisis to a dangerous new level. “The real danger was when the workers took part,” recalled Maurice Grimaud, the then Paris police chief. “The police could disperse a demonstration, overturn 10 or 20 barricades, it could not clear out 100 or 500 factories, workshops, banks and train stations. And still less get them back to work.”
Across every key sector of the French economy, from the mines to transportation, workers now rose up in defiance of union strictures and timidity. Events in the strategic car industry set the pace, with the occupation by workers of Renault Cléon, near Rouen, on 15 May, and a strike at Citroën from 20 May to 24 June. Actions moved quickly towards a nationwide stoppage. Occupations at Sud Aviation, near Nantes, and at the multiple sites of Dassault Aeronautics brought the French aviation sector to a standstill. Striking railway workers threw their combativeness and ingenuity into the mix, using station-based telex systems to relay information, and activating direct democracy through general assemblies. Radio and TV presenters and technicians; telecommunication workers: by 24 May, up to ten million workers were on strike, the impetus building inexorably.
A revolution cut short
Various factors intervened to abort France’s late twentieth-century revolution. After a panic-fired wobble which saw de Gaulle briefly flee Paris, the General and fellow guardians of the French state girded their loins, called a general election and mustered forces for a return to ‘normality’. In this, they received the ready support of union and PCF bureaucracies already engaged in behind-the-scenes talks with employers. Despite this, strikes and occupations continued throughout the month of June. Workers who fought on witnessed unprecedented police brutality on picket lines (two were killed by riot police at a Citroen plant). Factories that returned to work left others exposed, enabling the state and its willing accomplices to re-establish control.
Could the momentous events of half a century ago resurface in France this year? On the face of it, much has changed: the student movement has lost something of its former clout, as has the organised working class, weakened and demoralised by long years of austerity and neo-liberal assault. On the plus side, French Stalinism has all but disappeared, and the CGT these days is a fighting organisation of the working class. And there are some uncanny parallels with the situation 50 years ago.
Once again students are occupying university campuses across France, this time in protest at government proposals to restrict young people’s access to higher education. At the frontline of the public sector, rail workers are continuing the rolling strike they began in early April: attendance at mass meetings is high, and a long strike is in prospect. At a political level, new forces are in place to carry things forward, chief among them the combative, action-ready La France Insoumise, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. And if Emmanuel Macron lacks the war-leader spurs and gravitas of Charles de Gaulle, his pro-rich agenda, disdain for democracy and Napoleonic hauteur resonate negatively with millions of angry French citizens.
With memories of May 1968 and its inspirational message active at so many levels, who knows what might happen during the long hot summer ahead?
Further reading on the events of May 1968: The Fire Last Time, by Chris Harman (1998) / Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968, by Daniel Singer (2013).
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.
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