Riot in france

May 1968 in France

For other events in May 1968, see 1968.

May 1968 is the name given to a series of student protests and a general strike that caused the eventual collapse of the De Gaulle government in France. The vast majority of the protesters espoused left-wing causes, but the established leftist political institutions and labor unions distanced themselves from the movement. Many saw the events as an opportunity to shake up the "old society" and traditional morality, focusing especially on the education system and employment.

It began as a series of student strikes that broke out at a number of universities and lycées in Paris, 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 such a 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 23 June 1968.

The government was close to collapse at that point (De Gaulle had even taken temporary refuge at an air force base in Germany), but the revolutionary situation evaporated almost as quickly as it arose. Workers went back to their jobs, after a series of deceptions carried out 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.

May '68 was a political failure for the protesters, but it had an enormous social impact. In France, it is considered to be the watershed moment that saw the replacement of conservative morality (religion, patriotism, respect for authority) with the liberal morality (equality, sexual liberation, human rights) that dominates French society today. Although this replacement did not take place solely in this one month, the term mai 68 is used to refer to the shift in values, especially when referring to its most idealistic aspects.

The events before May

On 22 March far-left groups and a small number of prominent poets and musicians, along with 150 students, invaded an administration building at Nanterre University and held a meeting in the university council room dealing with class discrimination in French society and the political bureaucracy that controlled the school's funding.

The school's administration called the police, who surrounded the university. After the publication of their wishes, the students left the building without any trouble. After this first record, some leaders of what was named the "Movement of 22 March" were called together by the disciplinary committee of the university.

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 2 May 1968. Students at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris met on 3 May to protest against the closure and the threatened expulsion of several students at Nanterre. On Monday, 6 May, the national student union, the UNEF - still the largest student union in France 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 student unions spoke in support of the riots 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. The students now had a near revolutionary fervor.

On Friday, 10 May, another huge crowd congregated on the Rive Gauche. 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 floundered. 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. Allegations were made that the police had participated, through agents provocateurs, in the riots, by burning cars and throwing molotov cocktails .

The government's heavy-handed reaction brought on a wave of sympathy for the strikers. Many of the nation's more mainstream singers and poets joined after the heavy-handed police brutality came to light. American artists also began voicing support of the strikers. The Parti Communiste Français (PCF) reluctantly supported the students, whom it regarded as adventurers 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, 13 May.

Well 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. However, the surge of strikes did not recede. In fact, the protesters got even more enraged.

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, including the Occupation Committee of the Sorbonne, and elsewhere in the weeks that followed to take up grievances against the government and French society.

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 14 May, 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 16 May, workers had occupied roughly fifty factories, and by 17 May, 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 25 May and 26 May, the Grenelle agreements were signed at the Ministry of Social Affairs. They provided for an increase of the minimum wage by 25% and of the average salaries by 10%. These offers were rejected, and the strike went on. The working class and top intellectuals were joining in solidarity for a major change in workers' rights.

On 27 May, the meeting of the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (National Union of the Students of France), the most outstanding of the events of May 1968, proceeded and gathered 30,000 to 50,000 people in the Stade Sebastien Charlety. The meeting was extremely militant with speakers demanding the government be overthrown and elections held.

On 30 May, several hundred thousand protesters (400,000 to 500,000—much more than the 50,000 the police were expecting) led by the CGT marched through Paris, chanting, "Adieu, de Gaulle!" (Meaning: "Farewell, De Gaulle.")

While the government appeared to be close to collapse, de Gaulle remained firm, though he had to go into hiding. 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 leftist organizations. The police retook the Sorbonne on 16 June. De Gaulle triumphed in the legislative elections held in June, and the crisis came to an end.

Slogans and graffiti

It is difficult to identify precisely 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 graffiti gave 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).

1968 in an international context

France was far from the only country to witness student protests in 1968. The events were preceded by the announcement, in the United States, that United States President Lyndon B. Johnson would choose to withdraw from the 1968 presidential campaign in March due to rising domestic opposition. This was soon followed by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on 4 April and a student-led occupation and closure of Columbia University on 23 April.

In Mexico, on the night of 2 October 1968, a student demonstration ended in a storm of bullets in La Plaza de las Tres Culturas at Tlatelolco, Mexico City, ten days before the celebration of the 1968 Summer Olympics in the same city.

Interestingly, in Chile, the student movement had its own national revolution in August of 1967, with many reform processes as a result.

The American 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.

In Belgium, students from the Flemish university Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Leuven protested against the dominance of the French language in the university, which resulted in a separate Francophone university, Université Catholique de Louvain.

In Eastern Europe, students also drew inspiration from the protests in the West. In Poland and Yugoslavia, students protested against restrictions on free speech by Communist regimes. In Czechoslovakia, the Prague Spring offered a broadening of political rights until it was crushed by the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies.

Many of the student groups involved with May 1968 were also inspired by a strain of political thought called tiers-mondisme (third worldism). Students idealized and followed socialist movements in countries such as Cuba, Vietnam, or China, and revered figures such as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara or Mao Zedong. Their struggles in their own countries were tied to their support of these third world socialist movements.

In Brazil, student protests against the military dictatorship increased sharply in 1968, with students forming a majority among armed revolutionary movements combating the police and the military and orchestrating operations such as the kidnapping of foreign diplomats (most notably the ambassador of the United States Charles Burke Elbrick in 1969) in order to demand the release of previously imprisoned revolutionaries. This escalation of student protests led to the declaration of the Institutional Act Number Five, which consolidated the absolute power of the military dictatorship, dismantling congress and revoking constitutional rights of citizens.

In Pakistan also, student protests played a major role in toppling the dictatorial military regime of General Ayub Khan.

References in popular culture

  • Robert Merle's book Derrière la vitre is a novel set in the May 1968 events.
  • Rocío Durán Barba's book Tengo algo que decir: 1968-2008 is a novel about this revolution and the consequences of the movement.
  • Alfredo Bryce Echenique's book La vida exagerada de Martín Romaña has a few chapters surrounding the events of May 1968.
  • Vangelis released an LP, dubbed a poème symphonique, entitled Fais Que Ton Rêve Soit Plus Long Que La Nuit, which was a musique concrète/folk recording collage reflecting the May 1968 strikes. Vangelis was in Paris at the time recording with Aphrodite's Child.
  • 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 three-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.
  • Milou in May is a 1990 film by Louis Malle which portrays the impact of revolutionary fervour on a French village.
  • 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.
  • Roman Coppola's 2001 film CQ depicts the Paris film-making world of the late 1960s and makes repeated reference to the events of May 1968.
  • The Rolling Stones' song "Street Fighting Man" was heavily influenced by the student riots.
  • The Beatles' song "Revolution" was based upon the May 1968 uprising.
  • Philippe Garrel's 2005 film Les Amants Réguliers IMDb ("the regular lovers") is a three-hour-long rejoinder to 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.
  • The Stone Roses song "Bye Bye Badman" on their eponymous debut album was said by lead singer Ian Brown to be about the riots. The lemon the band commonly uses as a logo represents the lemons used by protesters to sooth their eyes from the effects of tear gas.
  • The video for Röyksopp's single "Only This Moment" depicts events from the May 1968 riots.
  • The Merry Month of May is author James Jones's 1971 novel concerning the 1968 events in Paris. It is centered around a rich American family, the Gallaghers, living as expatriates in Paris.
  • Renaud wrote the song "Crève Salope" during the protests, and it became a favourite of the protesters.
  • Jean Luc Godard's film La Chinoise portrays the ideas of a small group of students on the eve of the May 1968 events.
  • Artist Jamie Reid was inspired by the poster "A Youth Too Often Worried About the Future", produced during the May events, for his artwork on the Sex Pistols' 1977 single "God Save the Queen."
  • Jorge Volpi's 2003 book "El Fin de la Locura" (The End of Madness) tells the story of an aging Mexican psychiatrist whilst in the middle of the event, crossing paths with characters such as Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault, among others.

See also

References

Further reading

External links

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