This year marks the 50th anniversary of the dramatic May-June 1968 upsurge in struggle by workers and students in France. The effects of this turbulent period were felt around the world — and for years to come in France.
What began as a student protest against education conditions under the nationalist government of President Charles de Gaulle, soon became, in a matter of weeks, a major political crisis. Police battled protesters as two-thirds of the French working class were swept up in a wave of general strikes. The events set the stage for the end of the de Gaulle regime the next year, and an end to post-war civil order.
1968 was only 23 years after the end of the World War II, and the de Gaulle regime ruled as a government of national unity, technocratically presiding over an increasingly high-tech consumer economy. De Gaulle’s war hero status from his leadership of anti-Nazi forces in WWII was a great political asset.
As France rebuilt after the devastation of WWII, workers moved into the modernised, large-scale factories producing cars, aircrafts and early computer electronics. “Class mobility” was offered to working-class youth in the form of increasing university admissions, promising those who graduated a place in the growing economy. Economic conditions were good, and workers enjoyed nearly full employment.
France had recently been defeated in civil wars in its colonial territories in Algeria and Vietnam. The United States' war on Vietnam that followed the French defeat was reaching a new bloody intensity in 1968.
The Socialist Party, a centre-left social-democratic party, was serving as the opposition, with critical support from the Stalinised French Communist Party (PCF). Both parties were anticipating a chance at elections later that year.
The PCF used its influence in the French trade unions, primarily the dominant General Confederation of Labour (CGT), to ensure that unrest was kept to a minimum, in exchange for regular wage rises and improvements in working conditions.
Against these establishment left forces, the revolutionary left consisted of a loose grouping of different tendencies. These were engaged in vigorous inter-group criticism at the same time as attacking de Gaulle's government and the CGT, PCF and Socialist Party.
Prominent on the far left were the anti-Stalinist Revolutionary Communist Youth (JCR). Others included groupings of Left-Communists, anarchists, left-libertarians, and the beginnings of an ecologically-conscious proto-Greens movement.
A small group of influential anti-capitalist artists and intellectuals called the Situationists were also involved in the student movement. They published pamphlets and propaganda, and engaged in political art and “counter-advertising” graffiti campaigns. They produced memorable slogans, such as: “In a society which has abolished adventure, the only adventure left is to abolish society.”
In the lead up to 1968, France experienced small-scale unrest, with students on a university campus or workers at a workplace protesting against poor conditions or for wage rises.
Trade union officials would intervene to bargain on the behalf of workers. University administrations also promised educational reforms to improve conditions and deal with the overcrowding and limited resources caused by the sharp rise in student numbers.
In 1966, the French National Students' Union (UNEF) at the provincial University of Strasbourg voted to publish a pamphlet by Situationist student Mustapha Khayati entitled On the Poverty of Student Life.
The pamphlet criticised both the material poverty of student life, and the system of capitalist production the students were being trained to serve. It protested against the transformation of students into “mechanically produced specialists”, being “mass produced” in the factories of education.
Its publication drew media outrage, with students accused of squandering funds and engaging in illegitimate political activity.
To counter these attacks, Strasbourg students went on strike. Police were brought in to break the strike, which dissipated after government promises to implement reforms. By 1968, some reforms had been implemented despite much bureaucratic heel-dragging.
The initial unrest in 1968 began at the University of Paris-Nanterre, a newly-built campus in the working western suburbs of Paris with strong Communist support. On March 22, 1968, a group of students occupied the university administration buildings. Amid widespread media attention, police were again called in to evict the occupiers.
On May 2, a further wave of student protests was met with police repression. The government ordered police to temporarily close the university to deny students the chance to occupy the university.
On May 6, a committee of staff and students met at the Sorbonne and voted to take part in a solidarity protest. Twenty-thousand students and staff marched on Nanterre, passing through working-class districts where they received cries of support and solidarity along the way. Once at Nanterre, the protesters encountered the police maintaining the lockdown on the Nanterre campus.
Police attacked the student protesters with batons and tear-gas. Hundreds of students were arrested. In response, protesters assembled makeshift barricades with the aid of local residents, and hurled loose paving-stones to repel attacking police.
On May 7, a group of students from six Parisian high schools called a solidarity strike and walked out of their schools. A mass rally at the Arc de Triomphe called for the release of the arrested protestors and the re-opening of Nanterre.
After negotiations with the government broke down, 1 million students and workers marched through Paris to denounce the police violence. The CGT bureaucracy, eager to maintain control of the situation, declared a one-day general strike. The French government capitulated and re-opened Nanterre.
Upon returning to Nanterre, the students, led by anti-Stalinist left factions who had won the confidence of the mass student movement during earlier confrontations, occupied their campus. They declared it a free university and renamed buildings after figures such as Karl Marx and Fidel Castro.
During this unrest, asides from backing the one-day strike against police brutality, the CGT and PCF remained neutral. They were keen to ensure that student unrest did not spread to the broader working class and upset the established balance of power. They were also interested in maintaining a respectable appearance for upcoming elections.
The JCR were active in various committees established to support the students and their working-class allies. Its influence was based less on controlling individual committees than it was on having a network of activists with contacts across the entire movement.
The success of the movement owed itself to the alliance between students and workers combined in the pursuit of a shared social and political opposition to the de Gaulle government and police repression.
Inspired by the militant students, workers at many of the large factories began to spontaneously occupy their workplaces, declaring strikes and holding mass meetings.
About 200,000 workers were on strike by May 17, and by May 25, the number was about 10 million. These included workers at the most well-organised and modern factories, such as Renault and Sud Aviation.
Workers in control of their factories began to discuss issues of workers’ control. Some began operating their factories “as normal”, with the intention of distributing their products, such as clothing, cars and technology, on a socialist basis.
The CGT and Communist Party were unprepared for this locally-led, spontaneous action. Recognising a strike they had not called or organised was embarrassing, but more tolerable in the circumstances.
The CGT undertook to negotiate with the government “on behalf” of these workers. Workers heckled and jeered at CGT leaders sent around to address the factories and bring the strike under union control. An ironic slogan raised to express the workers' attitude to small wage rises as a trade-off for capitalist wage slavery was: “Bigger cages, longer chains!”
In the face of the unrest de Gaulle, in negotiations with his own party, was hesitant to resign. When it was reported that he had retired to his country house to consider the situation, the CGT held a rally with banners that read “Adieu, de Gaulle!”
But rather than retire to his country home, the president travelled by helicopter to Baden-Baden, Germany, the location of France’s military headquarters within NATO. He consulted with French and German military leaders to request armed support in the event of a mass revolution in France. Once assured of this support, he returned to France.
On May 30, de Gaulle announced his resignation and election for mid-June. In early June, his government passed a series of laws banning revolutionary organisations and restricting popular organising.
This was a critical situation — the government and civil service were paralysed, and students and workers were increasingly occupying and managing their own workplaces and schools. But workers and students had not yet occupied French government buildings or attempted to seize power. The protesters were afraid of military repression, and the military and police were afraid of the politically-conscious masses.
By June 7, a combination of police repression and joint CGT-Communist Party workplace agitation had led to a general dissipation of the protest movement. The CGT, Socialist Party and Communist Party also slandered the leaders and forces to their left, accusing them of deliberate attempts to endanger democratic elections.
Elections began on June 12. De Gaulle’s government was returned to power on a law and order platform promising to stop the unrest. While the election was a success for the right, elections the next year returned a Socialist government, with the de Gaulle-era finished.
The 1968 events failed to achieve a revolutionary change in French society, but their after-effects, like that of other movements in the 1960s, would become part of the fabric of French society. The recent wave of protests against French President Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal attacks on workers and students prove that the memory of the May-June days of 1968 is not dead among a new generation.
[Stanley Blair is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]