France: May '68 — Students and workers' revolt shakes the world

May 17, 2008

In May and June of 1968, a movement erupted in France that threatened not just the survival of the government of President Charles De Gaulle but the system that it represented — capitalism.

At the height of this movement, which was sparked by radical action by youth and students, an estimated 10 million workers were on strike and 600,000 students were on strike and occupying their schools and universities.

The revolt occurred in a context of rising struggles across the globe. In January 1968, the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) launched its massive Tet Offensive against the US occupation forces that stunned the occupiers and proved to the world the futility of US imperialism's attempts to subjugate the Vietnamese people. At one point, the US Embassy was occupied by the liberation fighters.

The US response to the NLF's attack was horrendous — including the mass bombardment and subsequent destruction of the ancient Vietnamese capital, Hue.

The Vietnam War had a radicalising role on people around the world, especially youth. The US, and the "liberal democratic" capitalist system it represented, was espousing freedom while carrying out a war that by its end had killed 3 million Vietnamese people.

The examples of French colonialism, especially in Vietnam until 1954 and more recently in Algeria — which France was finally forced to relinquish control of in 1962 following a brutal war — also played a role in the radicalisation of ordinary French people, most notably the students.

Student revolt

It was the actions of the students, against a background of a worldwide youth radicalisation, that sparked the events of May-June 1968, which took France to the brink of revolution and, at its height, had more than one in five French citizens on the streets.

It was sparked by seemingly small concerns at first, but soon the struggles unleashed tapped into deep-seated discontent. On February 21, Paris witnessed the first mass university and high school student demonstration in a protest that was sparked by poor conditions in overcrowded universities.

The demonstration re-named the area of Paris known as the Latin Quarter as "The Heroic Vietnam Quarter". The repression meted out by police led to further protests.

This led to the formation of the March 22nd Movement, taking its name from the March 22 protest against the arrest of leaders of the February 21 rally. This group led the occupation of the Nanterre University campus, with the university radio station taken over.

The campus, which was synonymous with "concrete jungle", was shut down by the authorities for 2 days, with the university authorities calling in police to deal with student radicals. A further series of protests addressing a range of student concerns relating to everything from conditions on campus, to the war in Vietnam and the brutal police repression.

A May 7 protest involved 20,000 high school and university students demonstrating for the freeing of arrested students and the re-opening of both the Sorbonne and Nanterre university campuses, which had been closed by university authorities to try to quell the rise in popularity of the radical student activists.

The two universities remained closed and on May 9 the students met en masse, in the streets of the Latin Quarter, deciding to protest the next day. The May 10 protest involved 35,000 students who voted to go to Sante prison, where arrested students were being held, on the way to the education ministry to demand a re-opening of the universities.

The protest did not get to the education ministry, instead the 35,000 students were herded into and trapped in the Latin Quarter by police. The students responded by erecting barricades.

The police did not think that the "spoiled" students would last the night, and took bets as to when the students would ask to go home. However, the students refused to budge and the authorities made the mistake of using the Republican Security Companies (CRS) to brutally attack and tear gas the students.

For the French people, the CRS were not an impartial force — it had a long history as being used as strike breakers. By using the CRS, the government showed its intention of seeking to smash the student protests.

At 2.40am on May 11, the CRS launched its attack, with tear gas and smoke bombs. The effects of the gas was quelled by goggles, as well as rags soaked in water, supplied by the local residents. The tear gas and smoke bombs were not enough to break the front lines of the barricades of students and from 3 am till 8 am the police used chlorine gas to break up the protestors, in combination with sending in riot equipped police, the CRS being on the frontline of this.

According to historian Charles Sowerwine, in his 2002 book France Since 1870, "460 people were arrested, 367 seriously wounded", although the real figure was probably even higher.

The police denied allegations they had used chlorine gas on the protesters, but the hospital where the students were treated revealed chlorine poisoning. A reporter enquiring on the scene as to whether police were using chlorine gas was knocked out by the police.

By the time police crashed through the barricades on May 11, they found not just students but local residents angrily demanding: "Is this anyway to treat our youngsters?"

The night of May 10-11 1968 became known as the "Night of the Barricades". These events galvanised public support for the students, who were seen to be standing their ground against attempts to crush them using the anti-working class CRS. The audacity and courage of the students in struggling for just demands caught the public's imagination.

After initially condemning the students — denouncing them as "adventurers", "anarchists" and "Trotskyites" — the French Communist Party (PCF), then a mass party that controlled much of the union movement and had reformist politics, voted in favour of a resolution in solidarity with the students.

The revolt spreads

The prime minister, Georges Pompidou, made a speech on May 11 conceding to the demand to reopen the universities and implied the government would release arrested students.

However, by this stage the student movement had gained confidence and momentum — as well as the support of large sections of the working class.

On May 13, workers went on strike and up to a million people marched in Paris in support of the students, with demonstrations occurring across France.

On May 14, the revolt took a further turn with workers at an aviation factory occupying the factory. On May 15, the workers at Renault also took over their factory and by May 21 almost every section of the French economy was on strike.

Responding to the role of the students in sparking a wider rebellion against the government, De Gaulle referred to the students as cette chienlit ("this shit in the bed").

The students occupying the Ecole des Beaux Arts responded by putting out an iconic poster picturing a silhouette of De Gaulle with their response: "La chienlit c'est lui!" ("He is the shit in the bed!").

The movement that erupted was increasingly taking on a broad sweep, both in the breadth of the population getting drawn into it and its radicalisation — the insistence that a better world was possible. The situation was rapidly developing into a revolutionary situation that could have overthrown the existing regime.

French workers had been involved in strikes through out the '60s, but nothing at the scale reached during May and June of 1968.

The power of the working class was imposing itself on French society. Nothing moved unless the working class wanted it to. Journalists and TV technicians refused to broadcast government propaganda.

A desperate government sought to host a referendum to attempt to defuse the situation, and channel the discontent back through safe, passive electoral channels — however French workers refused to print the ballots. The government tried to get them printed in Belgium, but Belgium workers refused in solidarity.

A more powerful democracy was emerging on the streets — mass action of working people and students, beginning to take over the running of society in the occupied universities and factories. In some parts of France, strike committees were more or less in total control.

De Gaulle was forced into hiding. Lacking confidence that the army, whose ranks where drawn from the same families as the workers on strike, could be relied on to repress the revolt, De Gaulle sought agreement from Germany that the German army would intervene if necessary.

However, while the revolt shook the foundations of the system, it failed to overthrow it. The movement slowly lost momentum and the government took the initiative to organise elections for June 23.

The strike movement came to an end, with the workers winning significant gains, but the fundamental situation remained unchanged.

Role of PCF

A significant factor in saving the system was the role of the Stalinist PCF. The PCF sought to distance themselves from the student revolt at the time of the Night of Barricades, and the subsequent May 13 general strike was called by the PCF-controlled General Confederation of Labour (CGT) under pressure from below.

Although at the height of the revolt, the working class were moving beyond the pro-capitalist reformist politics of the PCF, the student-based groups that reflected the movement's anti-capitalist trajectory and were leading the student revolt — such as the Revolutionary Communist Youth (JCR) — were too new and lacked a working-class base.

The PCF had been dragged into the revolt. Rather than seeking to lead the movement in a revolutionary direction, it manoeuvred throughout to attempt to limit the struggle of the workers to reforms within the existing system.

When the regime sought to consolidate itself in June, the PCF worked to convince workers to end the strike and the occupation of the factories, in preparation for the elections organised by the regime for June 23 as a way out of the crisis.

The PCF fully supported the elections and even ran on a "law and order" platform.

A different way forward could have been for the CGT to encourage and organise the election of strike councils and democratic mass meetings, as was occurring in the occupied universities, and to seek to coordinate elected delegates nationally to pose an alterative to the existing regime. However, the PCF was afraid of losing its control over the situation.

With the mass revolt dying down, and with no clear alternative on the left (not only had the PCF refused to provide a lead to the growing anti-capitalist sentiments, the revolutionary groups that did were outlawed and banned from running), De Gaulle's right-wing Gaullist Union for the Defence of the Republic increased its vote to win a parliamentary majority.

However, the revolt fatally wounded De Gaulle's reign, and he stepped down less than one year later — Pompidou having already resigned as PM in July 1968.

Forty years on, the struggle against anti-people policies is continuing — this time against President Nicolas Sarkozy's government. Last year, a mass movement of students and workers forced the government to withdraw a particularly nasty anti-worker law, and this year has already seen strikes and student protests.

It is clear the spirit of 1968 has not been extinguished. Many people in France have realised the best form of democracy is the democracy of the streets — the building of a mass movement of ordinary people against the attacks from conservative governments.

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