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 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.
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.
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.