In May 1968, mass protests, street battles, and nationwide strikes shattered France as the country was still recovering from World War II. Economic inequality, government corruption, and limited representation concerned Les Soixante-Huitards, or 68ers, as they were called. The social and political unrest broke out first among French students, who were later joined by workers, eventually involving 10 million people. Protesters demanded democratic and educational reforms, cultural liberation, social justice, and better working conditions. The May 1968 protests had a lasting impact not only on French society and politics but also on a global level, paving the way for greater social and political freedoms worldwide. The demonstrations inspired similar movements in other countries, including the United States, Germany, and Italy.
France Before the Student Demonstrations of May 1968
Crucial socio-political and economic developments occurred in France between World War II and the 1968 demonstrations. The Trente Glorieuses (Thirty Glorious Years) was an era of rapid economic development and modernization in France following World War II. France’s government, led by Charles de Gaulle, developed policies to rebuild France. However, the benefits were not equally distributed.
The political environment was characterized by a strong presidency, a centralized government, and a focus on national sovereignty. De Gaulle’s reconstruction policy was limited to certain regions, particularly the West and South of France, with a strong emphasis on modernization and industrialization. However, the North and East of France struggled to keep up with the rapid pace of change, resulting in deteriorating socio-economic conditions among the working and rural populations. De Gaulle’s focus on French sovereignty and national economic growth rather than the equal distribution of welfare caused many of the benefits of his policy to go to large corporations and the wealthy rather than ordinary citizens.
In addition, France lacked a political party that the opposition-minded youth could rely on and join. They viewed the French political establishment as bourgeois. The majority of communists were keener on the Soviet Union, which did not enjoy greater popularity either.
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Discontent was rising among the younger generations, especially among students. They saw de Gaulle as being dismissive of their concerns regarding democratic participation, equal representation and distribution of welfare, gender balance, the high levels of unemployment, and inflation, the latter two particularly affecting university graduates.
Significant cultural developments during that period also influenced the young generation. The emergence of new art forms like free jazz and cinema and new literary movements like existentialism challenged traditional French customs and values and opened new prospects for the youth to reconsider the existing socio-political system. Additionally, free jazz musicians represented one of the most devoted and active groups of supporters of the May demonstrations. The spontaneity of the uprising seemed to be aligned with the impulsive and improvisatory character of free jazz.
Broader social and political activism was also enhanced by the Vietnam War. The young generation opposed the French government’s decision to support the war.
All of these factors contributed to the escalation of a revolt in March on the University of Paris at Nanterre campus. The university was located near the quarters of factory workers and immigrants with low wages and poor living conditions.
Additionally, during the early 1960s, the number of students enrolled in French universities had increased dramatically. Before World War II, around 60,000 (of a population of 42 million) students were enrolled in French universities. By 1968, it had increased to 500,000 (of a population of 50 million). Eventually, French universities were overcrowded as more working-class students enrolled in higher-education institutions, shedding light on rising unemployment.
The frustration and concerns for their future prospects influenced a relatively small group of left-oriented students to organize a revolt on the University of Paris at Nanterre campus. Protesters had a broad spectrum of demands, including granting students the right to visit dorms of the opposite sex and ending France’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The lack of attention or goodwill from the Nanterre administration to address these issues led to the protesters’ occupation of the university building on March 22.
In this way, The March 22 Movement was born. Soon, it would significantly impact the May student uprising as it galvanized the support of diverse student activists with different political orientations, many of whom played key roles in the May student uprising. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, widely known as “Danny the Red” for his political orientation and hair color, was one of the key leaders of the March 22 movement and later the May uprising.
During the following month, the tensions between the members of the March 22 Movement and the right-wing group Occident intensified to such a level that the administration of Nanterre closed the university on May 2.
Events of May
Students from Nanterre and Sorbonne University met on May 3, 1968, and discussed ways to oppose the Nanterre administration and the impending attack of the far-right movement Occident. Four hundred students attended the meeting. The Sorbonne administration relied on the police force to disband the students as well, resulting in clashes and the arrest of several students.
This confrontation sparked the student protest. In this case, the Sorbonne administration also declared the university closed. This step proved the key incentive for students to declare a nationwide strike. As a result, on Monday, May 6, the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (UNEF), which remains one of the largest student unions in France to this day, coordinated a rally with the slogan “Sorbonne for the students! CRS-SS! Down with police repression!”
Eventually, teachers and other people who supported the revolt joined the march. More than 20,000 protesters headed toward the Sorbonne, still under police control. The situation got out of control when police turned to coercive means to contain the protests, using tear gas and forcefully detaining about 600 students. To avoid injuries, some of the protesters erected barricades and threw paving stones at the police.
The night of May 6 appeared particularly vicious. Reportedly, 600 people were wounded, and 422 were arrested.
May 10 and 11, also called “the night of barricades,” remain two of the most known dates during the May uprising. The situation escalated following the breakdown of negotiations and false information that de Gaulle was willing to make concessions and reopen the universities. Students returned to their campuses but were met by the police. The frustration and disappointment resulted in another strike with around 40,000 participants.
On the night of May 11, hostilities between the police and the protesters escalated. Police forces with tear gas and truncheons were confronted by street paving stones and Molotov cocktails. The violent clashes lasted until sunrise. The police arrested 400 students, and hundreds were beaten and hospitalized, including 250 police officers. Student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit wrote in an essay published in The New York Review of Books’ May 10, 2018 issue,
The May 10–11 events and aftermath were widely broadcast on the radio and television. The French government’s harsh reaction helped the protesters gain wider public sympathy. The major left union federations, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and the Force Ouvrière (CGT-FO), called for a one-day general strike on May 13 to oppose the brutality of the Paris police during the “night of barricades.” Over one million people joined the demonstration that day.
Finally, the government backed down. Hoping to calm the wave of discontent, de Gaulle’s government announced the release of the detained students and the reopening of the universities. However, the concessions made by de Gaulle were not enough.
Students declared Sorbonne University an autonomous “people’s university” and set up the Sorbonne Occupation Committee along with nearly 400 other related committees throughout France. The main goal of this was to coordinate students and their supporters in expressing their concerns against the French government and political elite.
French Workers Strike
The students’ fierce opposition and struggle against the governmental elite and bourgeoisie managed to galvanize support among the French working class. They also joined the wider mass protests and strikes, demanding the improvement of working conditions.
Workers at the Nantes shipyards were the first to join the protesters, and by the end of May, nearly two-thirds of France’s working force went on strike, paralyzing the whole country. France was on the brink of collapse.
In response to the crisis, President de Gaulle delivered a radio address rather than television on May 30 because the television service was on strike. He announced the dissolution of the National Assembly and new elections scheduled for June 23. De Gaulle sounded firm and confident during the speech, concluding, “Well, no. The Republic will not abdicate. The people will collect themselves. Progress, independence, and peace will prevail.”
De Gaulle’s address proved to be a success. On the same day, a counterdemonstration with about 50,000 participants was organized. The participants expressed support for the French government with the following words: “De Gaulle, you are not alone.”
The government’s initial response to the May demonstrations was repression and violence, which led to clashes with protesters and further radicalization of the movement, leading some, especially the working class, to believe that the protests were doomed to fail. However, de Gaulle released the arrested protesters and reopened the universities. He also agreed to make important changes in the conditions of the workers, offering them average salary increases of 10% and a slight reduction in working hours.
Legacy of the French Student Demonstrations of May 1968
The events of May 1968 marked a turning point in the history of France. Even though the young revolutionaries could not replace the bourgeois system, they planted the seed for future transformation. Charles de Gaulle himself saw in the riots of 1968 an urgent need to transform France. The riots convinced him that France needed to reinvent itself. As the French writer Arnaud Teyssier outlined, de Gaulle’s response to the botched revolution on the streets was a revolution of his own. De Gaulle kept his promise of conducting the referendum and envisaged a broader participation of the middle class in politics.
Over time, equal rights and social justice acquired the wider attention of the French population, and by the late 1970s, the young people who stood on the barricades in 1968 had become part of the middle class. Bruno Queysanne, who at the time was an assistant instructor at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, outlined in a New York Times interview:
“In the history of France, it was a remarkable movement because it was truly a mass movement that concerned Paris but also the provinces, that concerned intellectuals but also manual workers… At the level of daily life and the relationships of people with institutions, there were big changes. When students returned to classes, they could now ask questions in class and dispute ideas — a revolution in the French educational system. Bosses had to treat their workers better.”
The 1968 upheaval and its consequences served as the basis for both women’s liberation and the LGBTQ rights movement in France. While some viewed the widespread strikes and protests as a traumatic event that disrupted social and cultural norms, they also pushed France toward greater individual and social freedom. The most freely and famously used instrument was speech, and acquiring freedom of speech helped shape France’s social, cultural, and political environment in the future.
After the protests of May 1968, demonstrations in support of the French students were held in different cities across Europe, including Berlin, Amsterdam, Rome, and Madrid, highlighting the all-embracing nature of the struggles for freedom and equality.