In May 1968, student strikes broke out at a number of universities and high schools in Paris, France, following confrontations with university administrators and the police. The de Gaulle administration's attempts to quash those strikes by further police action only inflamed the situation further, leading to street battles with the police in the Latin Quarter, followed by a general strike by students and strikes throughout France by ten million French workers, roughly two-thirds of the French workforce. The protests reached the point that De Gaulle convened a military operations headquarters to deal with the unrest, dissolved the National Assembly and called for new parliamentary elections for June 23, 1968.
The government was close to collapse at that point, but the revolutionary situation evaporated almost as quickly as it arose. Workers went back to their jobs, urged on by the Confédération Générale du Travail, the leftist union federation, and the Parti Communiste Français, the French Communist Party. When the elections were finally held in June, the Gaullist party emerged even stronger than before.
Most of the protesters espoused left-wing causes, be they Communism, Anarchism or the rejection of the Vietnam War. Many saw the events as an opportunity to shake the "old society" on many social aspects, including methods of education and sexual freedom . A small minority of protesters, such as the Occident group, espoused far-right causes.
The Events of May
Following months of conflicts between students and authorities at the University of Paris at Nanterre, the administration shut down that university on May 2, 1968. Students at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris met on May 3 to protest the closure and the threatened expulsion of several students at Nanterre. Prominent student activist Daniel Cohn-Bendit rose to the limelight.
The Sorbonne administration responded by calling the police, who surrounded the university and arrested students as they tried to leave the campus. When other students gathered to stop the police vans from taking away the arrested students, the riot police responded by launching tear gas into the crowd. Rather than dispersing the students, the tear gas only brought more students to the scene, where they blocked the exit of the vans. The police finally prevailed, but only after arresting hundreds of students.
On Monday, May 6, the national student union and the union of university teachers called a march to protest the police invasion of the Sorbonne. More than 20,000 students, teachers and supporters marched towards the Sorbonne, still sealed off by the police, who charged, wielding their batons, as soon as the marchers approached. While the crowd dispersed, some began to create barricades out of whatever was at hand, while others threw paving stones, forcing the police to retreat for a time. The police then responded with tear gas and charged the crowd again. Hundreds of more students were arrested.
High school students started to go out on strike in support of the students at the Sorbonne and Nanterre on May 6. The next day they joined the students, teachers and increasing numbers of young workers who gathered at the Arc de Triomphe to demand that: (1) all criminal charges against arrested students be dropped, (2) the police leave the university, and (3) the authorities reopen Nanterre and the Sorbonne. Negotiations broke down after students returned to their campuses, after a false report that the government had agreed to reopen them, only to discover the police still occupying the schools.
On Friday May 10, another huge crowd congregated on the Left Bank. When the riot police again blocked them from crossing the river, the crowd again threw up barricades, which the police then attacked at 02:15 after negotiations once again foundered. The confrontation, which produced hundreds of arrests and injuries, lasted until dawn of the following day. The events were broadcast on radio as they occurred and the aftermath was shown on television the following day.
The government's heavy-handed reaction brought on a wave of sympathy for the strikers. The PCF reluctantly supported the students, whom it regarded as adventurists and anarchists, and the major left union federations, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and the Force Ouvrière (CGT-FO) called a one day general strike and demonstration for Monday, May 13.
Over a million people marched through Paris on that day; the police stayed largely out of sight. Prime Minister Georges Pompidou personally announced the release of the prisoners and the reopening of the Sorbonne. The surge of strikes did not, however, recede.
When the Sorbonne reopened, students occupied it and declared it an autonomous "people's university". Approximately 400 popular "action committees" were set up in Paris and elsewhere in the weeks that followed to take up grievances against the government.
In the following days workers began occupying factories, starting with a sit-down strike at the Sud Aviation plant near the city of Nantes on May 14, then another strike at a Renault parts plant near Rouen, which spread to the Renault manufacturing complexes at Flins in the Seine Valley and the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. By May 16 workers had occupied roughly fifty factories and by May 17 200,000 were on strike. That figure snowballed to two million workers on strike the following day and then ten million, or roughly two-thirds of the French workforce, on strike the following week.
These strikes were not led by the union movement; on the contrary, the CGT tried to contain this spontaneous outbreak of militancy by channelling it into a struggle for higher wages and other economic demands. Workers put forward a broader, more political and more radical agenda, demanding the ouster of the government and President de Gaulle and attempting, in some cases, to run their factories. When the trade union leadership negotiated a 35% increase in the minimum wage, a 7% wage increase for other workers, and half normal pay for the time on strike with the major employers' associations, the workers occupying their factories refused to return to work and jeered their union leaders, even though this deal was better than what they could have obtained only a month earlier.
On May 29 several hundred thousand protesters led by the CGT marched through Paris, chanting, "Adieu, de Gaulle!"
While the government appeared to be close to collapse, de Gaulle chose not to say adieu. Instead, after ensuring that he had sufficient loyal military units mobilized to back him if push came to shove, he went on the radio the following day (the national television service was on strike) to announce the dissolution of the National Assembly, with elections to follow on June 23. He ordered workers to return to work, threatening to institute a state of emergency if they did not.
The Events of June
From that point the revolutionary élan of the students and workers ebbed. Workers gradually returned to work or were ousted from their plants by the police. The national student union called off street demonstrations. The government banned a number of left organizations. The police retook the Sorbonne on June 16. De Gaulle triumphed in the elections held in June and the crisis had ended.
Slogans and graffiti
It is difficult to pigeonhole the politics of the students who sparked the events of May 1968, much less of the hundreds of thousands who participated in them. There was, however, a strong strain of anarchism, particularly in the students at Nanterre. While not exhaustive, the following graffiti give a sense of the millenarian and rebellious spirit, tempered with a good deal of verbal wit, of the strikers:
L'ennui est contre-révolutionnaire.
Boredom is counterrevolutionary.
Pas de replâtrage, la structure est pourrie.
No replastering, the structure is rotten.
Nous ne voulons pas d'un monde où la certitude de ne pas mourir de faim s'échange contre le risque de mourir d'ennui.
We don't want a world where the guarantee of not dying of starvation brings the risk of dying of boredom.
Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié ne font que se creuser un tombeau.
Those who make revolutions half-way only dig their own graves.
On ne revendiquera rien, on ne demandera rien. On prendra, on occupera.
We will claim nothing, we will ask for nothing. We will take, we will occupy.
Plebiscite : qu'on dise oui qu'on dise non il fait de nous des cons.
Plebiscite: Whether we vote yes or no, it turns us into suckers.
Depuis 1936 j'ai lutté pour les augmentations de salaire. Mon père avant moi a lutté pour les augmentations de salaire. Maintenant j'ai une télé, un frigo, un VW. Et cependant j'ai vécu toujours la vie d'un con. Ne négociez pas avec les patrons. Abolissez-les.
Since 1936 I have fought for wage increases. My father before me fought for wage increases. Now I have a TV, a fridge, a Volkswagen. Yet my whole life has been a drag. Don't negotiate with the bosses. Abolish them.
Le patron a besoin de toi, tu n'as pas besoin de lui.
The boss needs you, you don't need the boss.
Travailleur: Tu as 25 ans mais ton syndicat est de l'autre siècle.
Worker: You may be only 25 years old, but your union dates from the last century.
Veuillez laisser le Parti communiste aussi net en en sortant que vous voudriez le trouver en y entrant.
Please leave the Communist Party as clean on leaving it as you would like to find it on entering.
Soyez réalistes, demandez l'impossible.
Be realistic, ask for the impossible.
On achète ton bonheur. Vole-le.
Your happiness is being bought. Steal it.
Sous les pavés, la plage!
Beneath the pavement, the beach!