Fifty Years Later, France Is Still Debating the Legacy of Its 1968 Protests

In an activist era, millions of French students and workers demanded radical change

France 1968
Trade union workers participate in a mass demonstration at the Place de la Republique, Paris, May. 24, 1968 Associated Press

The summer of 1968 is etched into American memory as one of nationwide turmoil, with political assassinations, anti-war protests, racial unrest and highly publicized clashes with police. But this isn’t just an American story. The conflict between a diverse, anti-war left, and a tightening of law-and-order efforts on the right spread far beyond U.S. borders, notably coming to a head in France in May 1968. That’s when a violent confrontation between police and student protestors in Paris gave way to a nationwide general strike involving 11 million workers. As the 50th anniversary of the demonstrations arrives, the French people and their government are grappling with how best to commemorate the movement. Below is a brief guide, detailing what happened in Europe five decades ago:

What were the protests about?

Students at two campuses of the University of Paris, Nanterre and Sorbonne, were campaigning for changes in student life and more say in the governance of their academic institutions, but in a broader sense, they were protesting capitalism, American imperialism, and Gaullism – the conservative policies and centralized executive power with which President Charles de Gaulle ruled. Daily horrific images of the Vietnam War deeply disturbed the students and other members of French society, and the antiwar movement became a common cause among the diverse factions of the gauchistes – the “New Left.”

Chris Reynolds, a British scholar of modern French history, says that to the activists, the Vietnam War represented everything they believed needed to change. “The Americans’ might against the poor, under-resourced Vietnamese, who despite their obvious predicament were holding off the U.S. [It was] a David versus Goliath moment, if you will,” he says. “This issue is very important in understanding the transnationalism of ’68, as it was the common denominator cause that brought activists together from all over the world.”

The Vietnam War was particularly poignant to the French student protestors, many of whom viewed the American involvement as a continuation of France’s own violent imperialism in Southeast Asia – Vietnam was a French colony for nearly a century from 1858 to 1954. Many protestors sympathized emotionally and ideologically with Ho Chi Minh, the Communist who led the fight for Vietnamese independence from the French and now symbolized North Vietnam’s struggle with south and the U.S. “The true origin of 1968 in France has everything to do with their colonial past,” says Kristin Ross, a professor of French literature and culture at New York University.

Though Vietnam provided the emotional spark for many of the protestors, Reynolds emphasizes that the students’ protests were also driven by Modernist and anti-capitalist impulses that they believed separated them from President Charles de Gaulle and his older generation of supporters.

“France in 1968 was, in many ways, a slow-to-modernize society – it was culturally conservative, it was still a very Catholic country with not a lot of diversity,” says Julian Bourg, a professor of European intellectual history at Boston College. “Education was very hierarchical, impersonal, and students at a time of growing global consciousness were really asking the question, ‘Is there more to life than just getting a technical degree and getting a job for the rest of our lives?’”

How are the protests remembered in France?

Conservatives remember the movement as a dangerous threat to society undeserving of tribute, while for the left, the anniversary remains salient, as the students, employees and environmentalists of today strive to create a modern protest movement of their own.

But both Bourg and Reynolds argue that the movement today is dwarfed in scale and influence by its 1968 predecessors, due in part to their vastly different political contexts. In the ’60s, France was poised for an especially dramatic protest movement given the domestic and international unrest that the nation faced at the time. A diverse wave of Marxism, socialism and anarchism festered throughout Europe and the Americas, and the French government’s nascent Fifth Republic, which sprung from the Algerian decolonization crisis just 10 years prior, feared it might not maintain its newfound power.

“What began as a student protest became a labor dispute which actually became a political crisis. And so by the end of the month it was possible that de Gaulle’s government – and maybe even the Fifth Republic– could fall,” says Bourg. “This is why this event is so big in French memory.”

At what point did authorities get involved? What was the response of protestors?

As students demonstrated at Nanterre and Sorbonne, police interventions became increasingly forceful, only escalating the protestors’ vehemence. Police occupation of the universities shut down the campuses, pushing the increasingly dangerous clashes out into the streets. The violence came to a head in the wee hours of May 10, the fateful “Night of the Barricades,” when riot police attacked demonstrators in Paris’s Latin Quarter, resulting in almost 500 arrests and hundreds of injuries on both sides.

The French public was largely sympathetic to the students, and the police aggression spurred the movement to expand beyond the universities and into the workforce. Laborers disenchanted with their economic and political status saw unique inspiration and opportunity in the student movement to voice their own discontent. What started as a one-day grève sauvage, or ‘wildcat’ strike, on May 13 burgeoned into a general strike of ten million workers that lasted for weeks and across various industries.

“The ideals of liberation that the students spoke of, especially among young workers who shared the generational element – they shared that,” says historian Donald Reid. “They were open to saying, ‘Yes, we too want something more out of our lives than somewhat better pay and somewhat better access to consumer goods.”

As the protests wore on, shuttering businesses, the government repeatedly failed in its attempts to cut deals with the strikers. The de Gaulle regime appeared to have lost control of the situation. Calls for revolution from different leftist factions intensified – the Communist minority in Parliament demanded that the government resign, and the popular socialist leader François Mitterrand (who would later serve as President from 1981 to 1995) voiced his desire to replace de Gaulle.

How did the conflict end?

De Gaulle, for his part, was beginning to look despondent. He announced on television that he would resign if it was in the interest of France and mandated new elections in the National Assembly. He even mysteriously fled the country for a few days at the end of May. Though he did not inform his prime minister or the public at the time, it turned out that de Gaulle had secretly traveled to a French military base in Germany to make sure he had the support of the army if the crisis deepened.

“To us today, it sounds really bizarre that he would feel that the crisis was so bad that he would have to [use military force],” says Bourg. He frames de Gaulle’s alarm in the context of France’s recent history of political turmoil: “We have to remember that not only his government, but the entire Fifth French Republic had been born in 1958 out of another crisis, during the Algerian war, where things collapsed.”

According to Bourg, de Gaulle’s absence created a brief power vacuum, when the protestors believed that they may have succeeded in overthrowing the government. But upon returning to France on May 30, de Gaulle doubled down against the protests, displaying newfound strength in a restore-to-order radio address to the public. To the dismayed surprise of the protestors, de Gaulle’s speech was well-received. By the time the protests subsided later in June, the new elections had ushered in a strong Gaullist majority. De Gaulle would keep his job, not needing a military intervention.

What did non-students think of the protests?

“There was a large part of the population who had been sitting by quietly, many of them at first sympathetic to the students, especially when the police were beating them up, but had grown increasingly frustrated by the end of the month,” explains Bourg, comparing the resurgence of Gaullism to Nixon’s “silent majority” back in the U.S. “The momentum of the students and workers [turned] toward the momentum of the Gaullists.”

However, the end of the protests and the electoral win were but a short-term victory for de Gaulle, who ended up resigning the following year. “He was old and out of touch, and the general movement of French society was no longer favorable to him,” says Bourg. “Although in the short term, students and workers were defeated, [May ‘68] was the beginning of a really sustained period for a number of years of increased tension, activism and strikes.”

What is the ultimate legacy of the protests?

Despite early projections of failure, the events of May 1968 inspired a gradual series of social reforms and modernization in education, welfare, labor, and criminal justice. But Bourg says that the legacy of the movement extends beyond these eventual reforms, demonstrating to the global activist community a “dramatic extreme of what was possible.”

“It was a moment of great global inspiration. We think about globalization all the time now, but it was so new at that moment that people felt really connected in a visceral, emotional way to what was happening in other parts of the world,” says Bourg. “Because of the scale, magnitude and intensity of the French events, it was immediately cited everywhere as the furthest reach of possibility. If we are working to change society in the world, this is an example of how far things can go.”

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