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May 1968

MAY 1968.


No other city in Europe is more synonymous with revolution than Paris, and the events of May 1968 are no exception. Just as in 1789, 1830, and 1848, students, young workers, and ordinary citizens built barricades in the Latin Quarter of Paris and took to the streets to fight the forces of public order. Like the previous revolts, the state's attempt at suppressing the enragés only widened the conflict throughout the entire country. However, unlike the previous revolutions, the governing regime remained intact after 1968. Most scholars agree that although the May events were the most spectacular west of the Iron Curtain during that eventful year, the French political system held and Charles DeGaulle's Fifth Republic did not go the way of the previous four. May 1968 proved to be the great rebellion in postwar Western Europe and represented the culmination of both international trends common to all West European countries and national forces unique to France.

By nearly any sociological, demographic, political, or financial measure, 1960s France was not ripe for revolution. Wages stood at relatively high levels, having grown 3.6 percent between 1963 and 1969, and automobile and television ownership had become more common. A growing middle class could afford to send its children to university, and public opinion polls showed that the French, like their European neighbors, cared little for politics. The postwar French seemed wary of political controversy and sought to delegate decisions to their great Resistance hero, de Gaulle. Furthermore, President de Gaulle remained enthroned in power under a constitution that he had written for France in 1958.


Despite these indicators of affluence and political complacency, a growing and potentially explosive cohort of young people had begun to voice their disapproval of French society. The spirit of anti-colonialism that spread through Western Europe and the United States had found a unique expression in France in the late 1950s. The French government had relinquished some of its former colonial holdings in North Africa and handed over its entanglements in Indochina to the United States, but still held onto its rule in Algeria. The civil war in Algeria lasted until 1962 and deeply divided the French people in much the same way that the Vietnam conflict would later divide Americans. Although de Gaulle had negotiated the French withdrawal from Algeria, many students and young workers felt that de Gaulle's time had passed and demanded new leadership.

Not only were the French baby boomers increasingly dissatisfied with politics, at the university they faced a new set of problems created by postwar prosperity. At the same time that enrollment numbers were mushrooming in West Germany and Italy, French universities had become perilously overcrowded by the mid-1960s. From 1958 to 1968, the number of university students in France had jumped from 170,000 to 514,000, and schools in Paris accounted for 130,000 of the total. Like their counterparts in West Berlin, Turin, and London, the universities of Paris could not expand fast enough to meet the needs of the growing student population. By the mid-1960s, the French government faced a crisis in higher education and chose to deal with the problem by simply limiting the number of students. The minister of education, Michel Fouchet, proposed a restructuring of university degrees in an attempt to limit those seeking the traditional four-year degree; his successor Alain Peyrefitte later suggested a plan to limit the number of students accepted to the universities. Students interpreted these political moves as an attempt to turn back the clock by limiting higher education to an elite few rather than expanding and reforming the entire university system. Such attempts to limit the French university, similar to proposed plans in West Germany and Italy, became part of a growing list of student grievances that included outdated curricula, authoritarian professors, ineffective pedagogy, overcrowded classrooms, and abysmal dormitories. Taken as a whole, the students' critique of university conditions, their professors, de Gaulle's politics, and later, the United States' war in Vietnam amounted to a potent mixture of dissent and anti-authoritarianism.


The spark that was to ignite the students occurred in the unlikely place of Nanterre, a suburban campus of the University of Paris located far from the main university district in Paris's Latin Quarter. The university at Nanterre had been built in the early 1960s to accommodate more Parisian students and became a center for the social sciences. Paradoxically, at Nanterre there were hundreds of sociology students studying alienation at an institution located in the center of a community filled with thousands of poor foreign workers crammed into squalid urban housing. The students at Nanterre also found themselves subjected to a greater number of restrictions on dormitory visitation privileges and social life than their peers at the Sorbonne and the main campus of the University of Paris. Beginning in January 1968, the students at Nanterre made their dissatisfaction known and would ultimately produce some of the key student leaders during the "events of May."

On 8 January 1968, a group of students at Nanterre jeered the minister for youth and sport, François Missoffe, who had come to Nanterre to dedicate a new swimming pool. Prior to his visit, some students had expressed anger over the university's strict regulation of visiting hours in female dormitories, prompting a feisty redhead named Daniel Cohn-Bendit (b. 1945) to mockingly ask the minister about his plans to study students' sexual behaviors. The minister replied that perhaps Cohn-Bendit ought to take a dip in the pool. To this answer, Cohn-Bendit accused the minister of acting like the head of the Hitler Youth. Seemingly insignificant, the exchange marked the emergence of Cohn-Bendit as the main leader of the student revolt. He later earned the nickname "Dany the Red" for his red hair and supposed political leanings.

In February 1968, a new round of student activity broke out throughout the world following the Tet Offensive. French students began a more concerted effort to oppose the U.S. war in Vietnam and staged demonstrations in Paris on 7 and 13 February. In both cases, the police responded with violence and university administrators condemned the student actions. Many students in both French universities and lycées (high schools) demanded their rights to free speech and assembly within the school campus, much as American students had done a few years before. Near the end of February, the minister of education publicly announced his intention to reform and improve access to the universities.


On 22 March, Nanterre would lead the way in escalating the growing youth rebellion with the occupation of the administration building by 150 students. The students claimed to be anarchists and cited the numerous problems within the university and the French government as the cause for their actions. Once again "Dany the Red" figured prominently among the Nanterre rebels and was immediately subjected to disciplinary actions along with several others, a group that became known as the "22 March Movement."

The suspension of the 22 March group and closure of Nanterre only fanned the flames of the student movement at Nanterre. Cohn-Bendit, a child of German-Jewish parents who had fled to France during the war, was catapulted into the national spotlight. Although he claimed to be an anarchist during the 22 March occupation, his views were more akin to the Situationists who believed that one need only create revolutionary situations with outcomes that would be determined as they developed. Generally speaking, the students' politics fell within the spectrum of the New Left in their rejection of Soviet communism and disdain for hierarchical structures. Cohn-Bendit's prominent role in the demonstrations also ensured political controversy as he had claimed West German citizenship to avoid serving in compulsory French military service and the hardnosed de Gaulle sought to have Cohn-Bendit deported. De Gaulle inflamed the students even more with his bigoted remark, "What's all this fuss over a German-Jew?" Throughout the month of April, the Nanterre activists moved their protests to the Sorbonne and other universities throughout Paris. On 27 April, "Dany the Red" was formally arrested. By the end of April, a growing youth rebellion had taken hold in the historic "Red Zone" of Paris, the Latin Quarter. Ominously, the prime minister Georges Pompidou (1911–1974), who sought a more conciliatory approach to the students, left town on a state visit to Iran and Afghanistan.


The closure of Nanterre had shifted the focus of the movement to the Sorbonne and students from all over the city were converging upon the medieval university for meetings, demonstrations, and sitins. The suspicious President de Gaulle, fearing a socialist conspiracy, seized upon the minister's absence to call in a special police force known as the Companies for Republican Security (CRS) that had been trained to deal with labor strikes and demonstrations. On 3 May, the CRS swept into the courtyard of the Sorbonne, brutally clearing the campus of all protesters. In a scene that was to be repeated throughout the Western world in 1968, police would enter the hallowed grounds of university campuses. The CRS raid marked the first such intrusion in the Sorbonne's seven-hundred-year history. The 3 May incident resulted in 100 injuries and 596 arrests and began a process of escalation that would continue through the entire month. Each time the students demonstrated, the police would attack and the resulting violence and arrests only served to fan the rage of France's youth. The following day, the rector of the Sorbonne closed the university for an indeterminate time and the students took their protests to the heart of the city, often gathering near the Place de l'Etoile, Arc de Triomphe, and Boulevard Michel.

The closing of the Sorbonne prompted a meeting led by Jacques Sauvageot, the president of the National Union of French Students (UNEF), Alain Geismar, the head of the National Union of Teaching Assistants (SNESup), and Cohn-Bendit representing the 22 March Movement. The student leaders demanded the reopening of the universities, the withdrawal of the police, and the release of all those arrested. The state and the university responded on 5 May by convicting thirteen demonstrators and giving four of them jail sentences. Predictably, mushrooming crowds of young people, including many high school students, returned to the Sorbonne for another day of bloody street battles. This time, the students charged the CRS and fighting raged back and forth throughout the Latin Quarter; by day's end, around 600 students and 345 police had been injured and 422 were arrested. In the nineteenth century, French people joked that Paris sent the provinces revolution by telegram. In 1968, television had replaced the telegram and as news filtered out of the capital, many began to sympathize with the students. Throughout the entire May period, the local residents of the Latin Quarter would aid protesters and offer blankets and food to the chagrin of the police.


On 10 May, a new round of protests and battles with police shook the Latin Quarter as students threw up barricades of paving stones and overturned cars. When the tear gas cleared, there were 367 people hospitalized and 468 people arrested. The street battles of 10 May initiated an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy from the workers of France as the major trade unions—the communistled General Confederation of Labor-Workers (CGT), the Catholic workers' French Democratic Confederation of Labor, and the French schoolteachers' Federation of National Education (FEN)—called for a general strike on 13 May to protest the state's repression of the students. Prime Minister Pompidou, having returned to France to find its capitol on the verge of anarchy and realizing that the repressive measures taken during his absence had only swelled the numbers of the enragés, attempted to calm students by announcing the reopening of the Sorbonne for 13 May. Pompidou hoped that his conciliatory gesture to the students might also detach the workers' support from their allies in the university. Ultimately, French leaders correctly viewed the students' protests and workers' strikes as two separate struggles.

The offer to reopen the Sorbonne had no effect and on 13 May 1968, thousands of workers all over France downed their tools or refused to report for work. The country experienced its largest general strike since the mid-1930s, and hundreds of workers in and around Paris joined the students in the Latin Quarter. Nowhere else in 1968 had the workers risen up at the same time as the students and the resulting convergence of labor and university unrest effectively shutdown the French economy and created a national crisis at the highest levels. The following day, workers at the Sud-Aviation factory in Nantes, acting outside union directives, spontaneously occupied their factory; on 15 May, workers at the Renault plant in Cleon followed suit. By 18 May, two million French workers were on strike and about 120 factories were closed down. Coal mining had ceased, dock-workers in Nantes had requisitioned cargoes, and city workers had proclaimed a "People's Republic." Electrical plants in France continued to function but workers limited their production to domestic users, and postal and rail services ceased by the 19 May. The following day, France's air traffic controllers came out on strike and the teachers' union (FEN) officially went on strike on 22 May.

By 20 May the strike had spread to an estimated ten million workers and France was literally closed for business. Left-wing politicians in the National Assembly narrowly failed in their motion to censure the president and prime minister and the Gaullists within the administration succeeded in withdrawing Cohn-Bendit's residency permit and threatened to deport him. Clearly, the events of May surpassed any of the students' or workers' expectations. The trade unions and the French Communist Party (PCF) began to fear that the revolution might slip from their hands and began to take steps to reassert their control over the workers.

The social theorist Raymond Aron (1905–1983) observed in late May that most people in Paris believed that government no longer existed and that anything was possible. France's renowned writer Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) applauded the students' actions and frequently visited them at the Sorbonne. The perception of anarchy delighted some but frightened others and on 24 May, President de Gaulle addressed the nation by radio and noted that France needed reform but not violence and called for a national referendum on his presidency. De Gaulle's referendum idea was immediately ruled unconstitutional by the government and instead had the effect of bringing thousands more protesters out into the streets of Paris calling for de Gaulle's removal. The night of 24 May turned into the bloody culmination of weeks of street fighting in Paris, with 795 arrests and 456 people injured. At one point a group of protesters attempted to burn down the Bourse, or national stock exchange.


Despite the uproar of 24 May, the government began to meet with major union leaders at the Ministry of Social Affairs in the Rue de Grenelle and hammered out labor agreements that gave significant concessions to French workers. The accords announced on 27 May included a minimum wage increase of 35 percent, a general 10 percent wage increase for industrial workers, a lower retirement age, and a forty-hour workweek. Clearly the unions had won a major deal for their workers, but many were still dissatisfied with the continued dominance and hierarchical structure of the unions. Renault workers refused to return to work and 30,000 students and workers held an antigovernment demonstration at Charlety stadium in Paris. The continued chaos and fact that the Grenelle agreements had not brought all of France back to work prompted President de Gaulle to secretly fly to Baden Baden on 29 May to meet with the French army's general staff. At the meeting, de Gaulle received assurances that the military would support him if the president needed troops to restore order.

Emboldened by the military's promise of support, President de Gaulle addressed the French nation on 30 May. De Gaulle again noted the need for reform and stated his decision to remain in office and keep Pompidou as prime minister until new elections for the National Assembly could be held at the end of June. De Gaulle also noted that force would be used to put down further threats to public order. The following day, thousands of French citizens, weary of the violence and eager to return to work, staged pro-government demonstrations. On the first of June, gas stations reopened for business, and in keeping with the Grenelle agreements, the minimum wage was raised to three francs per hour. After the holiday weekend, most workers returned to work on 3 June and the crisis beyond the universities had subsided. The quick resolution of the labor unrest shattered the illusion of a student-worker alliance. In truth, the workers of France, like their counterparts in Europe and the United States, lived in a world apart from the students who came from the middle and upper classes, and the two groups that turned France upside down in 1968 were, in fact, parallel but nonintersecting movements. The government granted a general amnesty to participants in the May events and the electoral campaigns of June witnessed a few violent incidents but only the universities continued to experience disruptions.

The French election in June 1968 resulted in a swing to the right as Gaullists won large numbers of seats in the National Assembly and the Communists and Socialists lost support. The government authorized the police to begin checking identification cards of university students, a measure that lasted until December. The following year, French voters finally tired of the old General de Gaulle and elected Pompidou president. The French student movement continued into the early 1970s, until the end of the Vietnam War and a severe economic crisis precipitated by the oil embargo diverted student attentions away from "permanent revolution." The mass support among the students had already faded by the fall semester of 1968.


More important than the failed political rebellion of May 1968 was the victory recorded by labor allowing the working class of France to take its rightful share of the postwar prosperity, and French universities did liberalize access for lower-class students following the events of 1968. Culturally, the May events constituted a true revolution—many scholars have noted that people talked to each other as they had never done before, overturning traditions of deference and authority that had persisted since the last century. Creative new ideas and slogans entered the popular vocabulary and fired the imagination. Furthermore, in France as elsewhere, fashion changed and sexual attitudes became more open and tolerant. Art reflected the change as well. Italian historian Peppino Ortoleva wrote that 1968 blurred the line between fine art and Pop Art, between High Culture and low culture. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris during May 1968. Students at Paris's premier fine arts school established an Atelier Populaire or "people's workshop" that produced hundred of posters supporting the students that were distributed and pasted all over Paris. Ultimately, the events of May 1968 proved to be a failed political rebellion that produced a true cultural revolution.

See alsoCohn-Bendit, Daniel; 1968; Student Movements.


Bureau of Public Secrets. "May 1968 Graffiti." Available from Berkeley, Calif., 1999. Includes a list of slogans from May 1968.

Caute, David. The Year of the Barricades: A Journey Through 1968. New York, 1988.

"The Chronology of 'May '68'." Available from Paris, 1988. A good chronology of the May Events.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, and John Ehrenreich. Long March, Short Spring: The Student Rising at Home and Abroad. New York, 1969.

Fraser, Ronald. 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt. London, 1988.

Institute National de l'Audiovisuel. "History and Society: May 1968." Available from Includes actual video footage of the May 1968 events.

Kurlansky, Mark. 1968: The Year that Rocked the World. New York, 2004.

Marwick, Arthur. The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c. 1958–c. 1974. Oxford, U.K., 1998.

Victoria University in the University of Toronto. "Paris, May '68: Icons of Revolution." Available from Images from the Ecole des Beaux Arts' Atelier Populaire.

Stuart J. Hilwig

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