In early June, 1968, I witnessed the second round of the student and worker revolt of May and June, but I had been studying student politics in France since 1963. I can only give a sketchy account of the revolt and what led up to it in this short article. For greater detail, the reader might consult my book Student Politics in France, and my essay “The Revolution Betrayed: The French Student Revolt of May-June 1968” in S. M. Lipset and P. G. Altbach, Students in Revolt.
What initially began as a student revolt against the banning of political activity and visits by the opposite sex in dorms rooms in the newly created campus at Nanterre, just outside of Paris, eventuated in barricades and violent street battles with the police and then in a general strike in which between nine and ten million workers walked off the job and brought the country to a halt. For many of the students, the goal went from liberalization of the hierarchical university to overthrowing the government of President De Gaulle.
What Preceded the Revolt
But there was a backstory to the antagonism between the students and the Gaullist government. The major student union, UNEF (Union Nationale des Etudiants de France), had taken a position against the attempt of the French government to repress the independence movement in Algeria. France considered Algeria to be not just a colony but an integral part of France, although for most of the time the Arab and Berber population was not permitted to vote. Moreover, the French police and army regularly used torture on real or suspected independence fighters. For UNEF, which had been very passive during the Nazi occupation of northern France and the Vichy puppet regime in the south of the country, there was a moral imperative to stand up to what was morally right this time. But the costs were high. The Gaullist government suspended the students’ governmental stipend, removed them from seats on advisory councils, banned demonstrations and arrested those who broke the ban, and created a rival national student organization. All of this began soon after the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958, but it lasted well after the Algerian War finished in 1962.
So there were two general sources of student alienation: the political system and the educational system. In terms of the latter, the issue was not just the prohibition of political activity and visits of the opposite sex in the dorms, it was also the structure of the higher education system itself.
The university system was highly inegalitarian. In 1963-64, only 13.8% of the eligible age group were students in higher education. In the U.S. it was 34%. Higher education was for the upper and upper-middle classes. This offended the sense of justice of many students, even if they were the ones who benefitted from it. Relations between the professors and the students were virtually nonexistent among the undergraduates.
The typical form of instruction was a lecture in a huge room that did not have enough seats to accommodate all the students. Students who could not get into the lectures would have to purchase written copies of them. And the government cut off UNEF’s access to the Ministry of Education, where all of the educational decisions for each campus were made. The students also felt that the higher education system was woefully antiquated and underfunded. While job prospects for students in more specialized areas like commerce and public administration were more promising, they were poor for those taking degrees in the arts, literature, and social sciences. It was primarily students in these areas that were on the barricades. But they were also joined by some students in the secondary schools.
Also on the side of the students, and sometimes on the barricades as well, were university teachers in a union, the National Union of Higher Education (SNESup), which claimed about 7,000 members, or one-third of the academics in France. The leaders of SNESup tended to be young, some of whom had recently passed through activism of their own in UNEF. SNESup’s Secretary General was one of the three most public people in the uprising, although he resigned his position in the union as his involvement intensified. The somewhat more conservative teachers’ union, the General Union of National Education (SGEN), which grouped teachers at all levels of education (of which only about 1,000 were university teachers), was more reserved, supporting some of the student demands but criticizing both the students and the police for the violence in the streets, and warning students that far left groups were trying to take control of the situation.
The Students and Labor
The relationship between the students and workers was more complex. The three major labor confederations took different positions. The French Democratic Federation of Labor (CFDT), which had been a liberal Catholic-inspired organization, was by far the most supportive of the student demands and actions, even though they were an affiliate of the more conservative SGEN! The most hostile labor confederation was the Communist-controlled General Confederation of Labor (CGT). They were very fearful of losing control over their own members, as the students reached out to those members for support. The Communist Party took very seriously Lenin’s admonition against what he regarded as infantile left-wing adventurism. The 1968 events were really spontaneous, out of the control of any organization with a political strategy. UNEF had issued demands on the government, but it did not call for, or organize, the violent battles in the streets. In fact, ultimately the spiral of confrontations led to the severe weakening of UNEF, whose leaders tried to keep up with the events but were increasing seen as irrelevant to the street action. The CGT and the Communist Party saw this all as leading to the strengthening of the Gaullist regime and legitimizing even more state repression. In between the CFDT and the CGT was another confederation, the General Confederation of Labor–Workers’ Force (CGT-FO), the smallest confederation, whose creation the CIA had supported to challenge the Communist-dominated CGT. Early on the CGT-FO denounced the violence of the students, but then it came around and joined the CFDT in supporting a major student rally on May 24.
Like the student union UNEF, the labor unions were swamped by spontaneous worker strikes and plant takeovers, which brought the country to a virtual stand-still for several weeks. As a last desperate resort in putting down the revolt, President De Gaulle went to Germany, where he got General Massu, the Commander of the French troops in Germany, to agree to use his troops to put down the revolt if need be.
Ultimately, that was not needed. Public tolerance for the street confrontations waned and the workers went back to their jobs. Many of the governmental ministers who took a hard line against the students were transferred from their posts. And the government agreed to some of the university reforms that UNEF had been demanding, including greater local university autonomy and the creation of governing bodies with student representation. The regime survived, but De Gaulle overplayed his hand and went down to defeat in a referendum in April, 1969. In the longer term, the 1968 uprising paved the way for other emancipatory movements that arose or regenerated in the 1970s and 1980s, such as a vibrant women’s movement, and anti-racist, anti-imperialist, gay and lesbian liberation, and worker ownership and control movements. It also affected philosophy, the social sciences, journalism, and the arts, particularly the cinema. (For the enduring effect of the sixties on cinema, see Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott, “Are We the Sequel to the 60s?,” New York Times, Arts and Leisure, pp. 30-31, 20 May 2018).
All hierarchies were called into question in ways and intensities that they had not been before 1968. Perhaps the slogan that best captures the epoch was “C’est interdit d’interdire.” It is forbidden to forbid!