French Students and Workers Rebel Against the Political Order Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A leftist rebellion by students, workers, and others fundamentally questioned the political order and unchecked prosperity of Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth French Republic.

Summary of Event

The events of May ’68, as the leftist rebellion in France in 1968 came to be known, were as unexpected as they were momentous. In the years after World War II, French society had become increasingly stable and prosperous and, after the rise of General Charles de Gaulle to power in 1958, politics in the Fifth Republic (which de Gaulle inaugurated) had also appeared to stabilize under his firm leadership. During the 1960’s, de Gaulle had led France back to a position of importance in European and world affairs. To many, France had become a model of an emerging affluent, technocratic, postindustrial society. May, 1968, French uprisings[May, nineteen sixty eight, French uprisings] Civil unrest;France Dissent;France Activism French leftist uprisings (1968) Night of the Barricades Student protest movement [kw]French Students and Workers Rebel Against the Political Order (May-June, 1968) [kw]Students and Workers Rebel Against the Political Order, French (May-June, 1968) [kw]Workers Rebel Against the Political Order, French Students and (May-June, 1968) [kw]Political Order, French Students and Workers Rebel Against the (May-June, 1968) May, 1968, French uprisings[May, nineteen sixty eight, French uprisings] Civil unrest;France Dissent;France Activism French leftist uprisings (1968) Night of the Barricades Student protest movement [g]Europe;May-June, 1968: French Students and Workers Rebel Against the Political Order[09770] [g]France;May-June, 1968: French Students and Workers Rebel Against the Political Order[09770] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May-June, 1968: French Students and Workers Rebel Against the Political Order[09770] [c]Social issues and reform;May-June, 1968: French Students and Workers Rebel Against the Political Order[09770] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;May-June, 1968: French Students and Workers Rebel Against the Political Order[09770] Cohn-Bendit, Daniel Gaulle, Charles de [p]Gaulle, Charles de;student uprisings Pompidou, Georges Séguy, Georges

In May and June, 1968, however, the prosperity and national grandeur of de Gaulle’s France was challenged by a series of uprisings that came close to a revolutionary upheaval. The initial explosion in France was triggered by radical students Education;France dissatisfied with the overcrowded classrooms, irrelevant curricula, and unresponsive faculty that they considered characteristic of the French university system in the 1960’s. The first protests occurred at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris in November, 1967, when sociology students opposed the introduction of a reform plan by the minister of education. This “Fouchet Plan” responded to some student complaints, but what especially aroused student resentment was the refusal of the ministry of education and the deans of the faculties at Nanterre to include them in the discussions concerning the proposed changes. Student demands for participation in determining curricular change and for more socially relevant curricula won over many younger faculty members at Nanterre to the idea of reform of the educational system.

Although the initial protest at Nanterre failed, over the course of the next several months student and younger faculty radicals became more and more vocal around four major issues: student freedom, opposition to Gaullism, university reform, and protest against the Vietnam War. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a radical sociology student at Nanterre, emerged as the most vigorous leader of the dissidents. For Cohn-Bendit, the repressive atmosphere of French universities reflected the alienation and repression of bureaucratic capitalist society as a whole. Radicals like Cohn-Bendit saw the transformation of the university system as inseparable from broader social and political transformation.

An attempt by university officials to expel Cohn-Bendit escalated the conflict, and when leaders of the protest against the Vietnam War were arrested at Nanterre on March 22, 1968, students occupied the administration building. From that date on, the Nanterre campus witnessed a rapid collapse of traditional academic relationships, as numerous student and student-faculty groups critically discussed the war, the structure of French universities, the potential revolutionary relationships between radical students and workers, and the repressive character of French social and political life. On May 2, the dean at Nanterre decided to close the university; this move shifted the focus of radical activity to the centerpiece of French university life, the Sorbonne in Paris, and the “events of May” began.

On May 3, left-wing students, including many of the Nanterre militants of what became known as the March 22 Movement, met at the Sorbonne to discuss their future course of action. The university rector, fearing violence, called in the police, the first time since 1791 that police in Paris had entered any university grounds. The jailing of student activists revealed the repressive face of the French state and spurred increasing sympathy for them not only among fellow students but also from other groups within French society, especially young workers.

Until May 13, the upheaval was limited primarily to students, as ever-larger numbers of demonstrators clashed with police in the streets of the Latin Quarter. The government refused to listen to students’ demands, and confrontations continued; the more students were injured and jailed, the more popular their insurrection became. The night of May 10-May 11—known as the Night of the Barricades—witnessed an estimated thirty thousand students demanding the removal of police from the Sorbonne. During the night, the students erected barricades on major Latin Quarter streets that were then attacked by the police. There were large numbers of injuries and arrests, but the battle ended with a victory for the students. They occupied most of the Latin Quarter, and the police withdrew from the area at the request of Premier Georges Pompidou, who returned on May 11 from a state visit to Afghanistan and Iran.

The student protest spread to the working classes, and over the course of the next several weeks French society came to a virtual halt. The major French trade unions were invited to call a one-day general strike for Monday, May 13. On that date, some 700,000 people demonstrated in Paris. Neither the French Communist Party Communist Party, French nor the Confédération Générale du Travail (the General Confederation of Labor, General Confederation of Labor or CGT), usually dominated by the Communists, was eager to see a close association of students and workers, but CGT leaders were aware that events appeared to be moving beyond their control and complied with the decision to strike.

Wildcat strikes spread across France beginning on May 14, and by May 17 close to ten million workers had struck across the nation. Young workers in large numbers joined students in protest demonstrations. By May 20, most normal activity in France had either halted or been seriously impaired: Workers at Sud-Aviation, Renault, and other major state-owned companies were on strike; railways, airlines, and the postal services were at a standstill; and a large segment of the private sector was affected.

This massive show of worker unrest forced the Communist and Socialist Socialist Party, French parties to support labor’s demands for reforms. On May 25, the major unions met with the government and arrived at the Grenelle agreements Grenelle agreements (1968) , which gave the workers unprecedented material gains. When Georges Séguy, the secretary-general of the CGT, met with the striking workers at Renault on May 27, however, they resoundingly rejected the Grenelle accords. On the same day, a demonstration took place at Charléty stadium in Paris, and some fifty to sixty thousand people took part. Both François Mitterrand Mitterrand, François , the leader of the Socialist Party, and former premier Pierre Mendès-France Mendès-France, Pierre offered to head provisional governments. The two weeks of extraordinary events gave many of the student and worker protesters ample reason to think that the government was collapsing and that France was on the brink of revolution.

Up to that point, de Gaulle had been uncharacteristically indecisive in responding to the rebellion. In a speech on May 24, he had called for a referendum on whether he would have a mandate to engage in the reconstruction of France. This speech detonated the worst episode of violence in Paris since the outbreak of revolt three weeks before, but the continued opposition of the Communist Party and CGT leadership to the most radical activists’ schemes coupled with the complex divisions among the many leftist groups gave de Gaulle sufficient breathing space to recover his nerve and act decisively.

De Gaulle left Paris mysteriously on May 29, secretly flying to Germany to assure himself of the loyalty of French military commanders there. On May 30, he delivered a radio address appealing to supporters of law and order, dissolved the French national assembly to prepare for new elections, and presented himself as the sole bulwark against either anarchy or Communist rule. A mass demonstration of a million people in support of de Gaulle occurred after his speech. The traditional leaders of the French left, the Communist Party and the CGT, refrained from any attempts to assume leadership of the radical movement and refused to countenance the use of force. In the ensuing weeks, the theater of confrontation in France moved from the streets to the ballot box, where in elections on June 23 and June 30 de Gaulle and his supporters won an impressive majority in the national assembly.

Significance

The impact of the crisis of May-June, 1968, on France was profound. De Gaulle’s personal victory was short-lived; within a year he had resigned from office. The government made a series of concessions to the protest groups, both student and worker: a university reform bill, better wages and working conditions, and some concessions to militant workers’ demands for joint management of the enterprises in which they worked. Despite these significant institutional changes, the hopes and visions of the radicals for a dramatically changed France were extinguished with the Gaullist victory.

What did not disappear so easily were the discontents that underlay the extraordinary mélange of social critiques and utopian programs that the events of May produced. Students and young workers spoke for and acted in the name of rights and values—self-expression, comradeship, spontaneity, antiauthoritarianism, self-management—that they hoped would be the basis for radically changing the consumption-oriented, technology-driven, repressive society of post-World War II France. They argued that a democratic yet authoritarian government had shown its repressive face in the streets of Paris during the month of May. Affluence produced alienation in their vision of modernity; advanced capitalism was capable of integrating within itself even self-described opposition movements, as the behavior of the Communist and Socialist parties and of the CGT had demonstrated.

Drawing from a complex intellectual and political heritage—Karl Marx, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, Rosa Luxemburg, Jean-Paul Sartre, surrealism, and Dadaism—the leftist rebels sought to develop new principles for reorganizing society and new modes of action to effect that reorganization. Their successes were often at the same time a reason for their failures. For example, student action committees proliferated across France in May. Radically democratic, without overall direction, these committees saw themselves as the nuclei for change in the workplace, in government, and in the provision of social needs such as child care. Their very diversity and radical democratic organization prevented them from becoming the basis for an organized nationwide left-wing assault on the bastions of power, something that the older forms of leftist political practice in France were also unable to provide.

The leftist rebels in 1968 did not make a revolution. The student-worker movement did, however, reveal the conflicts and contradictions that lay beneath the prosperous society of 1960’s France. The upheaval in May was a symptom both of the emergence of what many commentators called a “postindustrial” society and of new forms of political action that would emerge to seek change within that society. Together with the uprising against Soviet hegemony in Prague in the same year, the events of May revealed discontents that would not go away and aroused hopes that would not disappear. The political culture of Europe had been changed irrevocably. May, 1968, French uprisings[May, nineteen sixty eight, French uprisings] Civil unrest;France Dissent;France Activism French leftist uprisings (1968) Night of the Barricades Student protest movement

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aron, Raymond. The Elusive Revolution: Anatomy of a Student Revolt. Translated by Gordon Clough. New York: Praeger, 1969. Incisive analysis of the student revolt by one of France’s leading twentieth century political thinkers. Critical of the student movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoffmann, Stanley. Decline or Renewal? France Since the 1930s. New York: Viking Press, 1974. A series of important reflections on French political life by a leading American expert. Contains an excellent chapter on the May events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Katsiaficas, George. The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968. Boston: South End Press, 1987. Interesting comparative discussion of the worldwide insurrectionary events of 1968. Important for placing French events in broad perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Larkin, Maurice. France Since the Popular Front: Government and People, 1936-1996. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Solid analytical history of France since the 1930’s. Places the events of 1968 in broader historical perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Poster, Mark. Existential Marxism in Postwar France: From Sartre to Althusser. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975. Broad-ranging intellectual history of postwar France that provides ample discussion of the intellectual background of the ideas of the 1968 radicals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ross, Kristin. May ’68 and Its Afterlives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Ross, a historian who researches and writes on French history and culture, provides an updated study of the May ’68 rebellion and its aftermath.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schnapp, Alain, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, eds. The French Student Uprising, November, 1967-June, 1968: An Analytical Record. Translated by Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971. Essential compilation of a wide range of documents concerning the events of May. Vidal-Naquet’s introductory essay provides an excellent overview of who was active in the movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Singer, Daniel. Prelude to Revolution: France in May, 1968. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2002. Part of the Radical Sixties series. An essential study of the May ’68 rebellion, originally published in 1971. Parts include “The Meaning of May,” “The Hidden Powder Keg,” “The Explosion,” “The Fallout,” and “In Search of the Future.” Highly recommended as a classic, indispensable work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Touraine, Alain. The May Movement: Revolt and Reform. Translated by Leonard F. X. Mayhew. New York: Random House, 1971. A sympathetic analysis of the May movement by a sociologist who taught at Nanterre at the time of the insurrection. Compare with Aron. Touraine has been one of the leading proponents of the thesis of the emergence of a postindustrial society.

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