In May 1968 (in this context usually spelled May '68) a general strike broke out across France. It quickly began to reach near-revolutionary proportions before being discouraged by the Stalinist oriented French Communist Party, and finally suppressed by the government, which accused the Communists of plotting against the Republic. Some philosophers and historians have argued that the rebellion was the single most important revolutionary event of the 20th century because it wasn't participated in by a lone demographic, such as workers or racial minorities, but was rather a purely popular uprising, superseding ethnic, cultural, age and class boundaries.
It began as a series of student strikes that broke out at a number of universities and high schools in Paris, following confrontations with university administrators and the police. The Charles 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 created 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 (De Gaulle had even taken temporary refuge at an airforce base in Germany), 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 (PCF), 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, communism or anarchism. Many saw the events as an opportunity to shake up the "old society" in many social aspects, including methods of education, sexual freedom and free love. 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 stepped into 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 - the UNEF, 'Union Nationale des Etudiants de France', the largest student trade-union in France, still today - and the union of university teachers called a march to protest against 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 more students were arrested.
High school students started to go out on strike in support of the students at the Sorbonne and Nanterre on 6 May. 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 2:15 in the morning 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 401 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 channeling it into a struggle for higher wages and other economic demands. Workers put forward a broader, more political and more radical agenda, demanding the ousting 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 29 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 23 June. 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 feeling of the students and workers faded away. 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 (the anti-work graffiti shows the considerable influence of the Situationist movement):
Lisez moins, vivez plus.
Read less, live more.
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 want nothing of a world in which the certainty of not dying from hunger comes in exchange for the risk of dying from boredom.
Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié ne font que se creuser un tombeau.
Those who make revolutions by halves do but dig themselves a grave.
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 say yes or no, it makes chumps of us.
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, une 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 I've been a chump. 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 him.
Travailleur: Tu as 25 ans mais ton syndicat est de l'autre siècle.
Worker: You are 25, but your union is 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 as you would like to find it on entering.
Je suis marxiste tendance Groucho.
I am a Marxist of the Groucho tendency.
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 cobblestones, the beach!
Ni Dieu ni maître !
Neither God nor master!
Godard : le plus con des suisses pro-chinois !
Godard: the biggest of all the pro-Chinese Swiss assholes!
Soyons cruels !
Let us be cruel!
Comment penser librement à l'ombre d'une chapelle ?
How can one think freely in the shadow of a chapel?
À bas la charogne stalinienne ! À bas les groupuscules récupérateurs !
Down with the Stalinist carcass! Down with the recuperator cells!
Vivre sans temps mort - jouir sans entraves
Live without dead time (ie. time of boredom, time at work) - enjoy without chains.
Il est interdit d'interdire.
It is forbidden to forbid.
Et cependant tout le monde veut respirer et personne ne peut respirer et beaucoup dissent " nous respirerons plus tard. "
Et la plupart ne meurent pas car ils sont déjà morts.
Meanwhile everyone wants to breathe and nobody can breathe and many say, "We will breathe later." And most of them don't die because they are already dead.
Dans une société qui a aboli toute aventure, la seule aventure qui reste est celle d‘abolir la société.
In a society that has abolished all adventures, the only adventure left is to abolish society.
L‘émancipation de l‘homme sera totale ou ne sera pas.
The liberation of humanity will be total or it will not be.
La révolution est incroyable parce que vraie.
The revolution is incredible because it‘s real.
Je suis venu. J‘ai vu. J‘ai cru.
I came. I saw. I believed.
Cours, camarade, le vieux monde est derrière toi !
Run, comrade, the old world is behind you!
Il est douloureux de subir les chefs, il est encore plus bête de les choisir.
It‘s painful to submit to our bosses; it‘s even stupider to pick them.
Un seul week-end non révolutionnaire est infiniment plus sanglant qu‘un mois de révolution permanente.
A single nonrevolutionary weekend is infinitely more bloody than a month of permanent revolution.
Le bonheur est une idée neuve.
Happiness is a new idea.
La culture est l‘inversion de la vie.
Culture is the inversion of life.
La poésie est dans la rue.
Poetry is in the street.
L‘art est mort, ne consommez pas son cadavre.
Art is dead, don‘t consume its corpse.
L‘alcool tue. Prenez du L.S.D.
Alcohol kills. Take LSD.
Debout les damnés de l‘Université.
Arise, wretched of the University.
Même si Dieu existait il faudrait le supprimer.
Even if God existed he would have to be suppressed.
SEXE : C‘est bien, a dit Mao, mais pas trop souvent.
SEX: It‘s good, says Mao, but not too often.
Je t‘aime! Oh! dites-le avec des pavés!
I love you! Oh, say it with cobblestones!
Camarades, l‘amour se fait aussi en Sc. Po, pas seulement aux champs.
Comrades, love is being made in the Sciences Po [a prestigious academic institution] too, not just in the fields.
Mort aux vaches!
Death to the cows (police)!
Travailleurs de tous les pays, amusez-vous!
Workers of the world, have fun!
Pouvoir à l'Imagination
Power to imagination.
May 1968 in an international context
May 1968 was not an isolated 'French affair'; on the contrary, there were student protests throughout the world. The events were preceded in the United States when President Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the 1968 presidential campaign]] in March due to months of protests, Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, and students occupied and shut down Columbia University on April 23. In Mexico on the night of October 2, 1968, a student demonstration ended in a storm of bullets in La Plaza de las Tres Culturas at Tlatelolco, Mexico City. The US and German student movements were relatively isolated from the working class, but in Italy and in Argentina students and workers joined in efforts to create a radically different society.
Philippe Garrel's 200] film The Regular Lovers is a 3-hour-long rejoinder to Bernardo Bertolucci's film The Dreamers, that portrays the May 1968 events through the eyes of a group of young artists who grow increasingly absorbed in a world of drugs and free love upon what they see as the failure of the May 1968 events.
Bernardo Bertolucci's 2003 film The Dreamers was based on three young film-loving students and their experiences in May 1968, although it features the events mainly as a backdrop and not predominantly within the primary plot.
Jean-Luc Godard's 1972 film Tout Va Bien is a film starring Yves Montand as a former French New Wave film director, and then radical Jane Fonda as a news reporter. The film goes into what an intellectual's place is during the post May 1968 world. Available through The Criterion Collection.
Milou en Mai (Milou in May, also released under the English title May Fools), is a later film (1990) by Louis Malle. It portrays the impact of revolutionary fervour on a French village.
René Viénet’s 1973 film Can Dialectics Break Bricks? dealt with the concepts surrounding May 1968, parodying the events within the narrative.
Guy Debord’s 1973 film The Society of the Spectacle dealt with the motivations around the events of May 1968. The film also contains large amounts of archival footage of the events.
Chris Marker's 1977 film A Grin Without A Cat IMDB is a 3-hour-long film documentary portraying the history behind the social unrests of the sixties. Made with archival images, it deals with May 1968 in depth.
- Movement of March 22 which initiated May 1968
- Occupation Committee of the Sorbonne
- Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité
- University of Paris strike of 1229
- French civil unrest of 2005
- 2006 labor protests in France
- Prague Spring
- Maurice Brinton: Paris May 1968
- Posters from May 1968 (French)
- More Posters from May 1968
- Picture gallery
- Cohn-Bendit, Daniel - Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative
- Dark Star Collective - Beneath the Paving Stones: Situationists and the Beach, May 68
- Gregoire, Roger and Perlman, Fredy - Worker-Student Action Committees: France May '68
- Jones, James - The Merry Month of May (novel).
- Adair, Gilbert - "The Dreamers" (novel).
- Ross, Kristin - May '68 and its Afterlives
- Quattrochi, Angelo and Nairn, Tom. The Beginning of the End.
- Singer, Daniel - Prelude To Revolution: France In May 1968
- Touraine, Alain - The May Movement: Revolt and Reform
- Vienet, Rene - Enrages And The Situationists In the Occupation Movement, France May '68
- Debord, Guy - The Society of the Spectacle
- Raoul Vaneigem - The Revolution of Everyday Life
- Knabb, Ken - The Situationist Anthology
- Plant, Sadie - The Most Radical Gesture: Situationist International in a Postmodern Age
- Tony Cliff - France – the struggle goes on
- Mark Kurlansky - 1968: The Year That Rocked The World
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