May 1968 in France

May 1968 in France
For other events in May 1968, see 1968.
May 1968 civil unrest in France
Barricades of overturned vehicles. Paris, France.
Date May 1968 - June 1968
Location Throughout France

The May 1968 protest refers to a particular period in French history. It was historically significant for being the first wildcat general strike ever,[1] and for being the largest general strike ever, bringing the economy of an advanced industrial country to a virtual standstill.[1] It commenced with a series of student occupation protests. The strike involved eleven million workers for a continuous two weeks,[1] and its impact was such that it almost caused the collapse of President Charles de Gaulle's government. In staging wildcat strikes, the movement contrasted with the trade unions and the French Communist Party (Parti Communiste Français, PCF), which began to side with the de Gaulle government.[1] Groups revolted against modern consumer and technical society and embraced left-wing positions that were critical of authoritarianism and Western capitalism.[2]

Many saw the events as an opportunity to shake up the "old society" and traditional morality, focusing especially on the education system and employment.[citation needed] It began as a long 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 quell those strikes by 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 eleven million French workers, roughly two-thirds of the French workforce. The protests reached such a point that government leaders feared civil war or revolution. De Gaulle fled to a French military base in Germany, where he created a military operations headquarters to deal with the unrest, dissolved the National Assembly, and called for new parliamentary elections for 23 June 1968. Violence evaporated almost as quickly as it arose. Workers went back to their jobs, after a series of deceptions by the Confédération Générale du Travail (the leftist union federation) and the PCF. When the elections were finally held in June, the Gaullist party emerged even stronger than before.

May 1968 was a political failure for the protesters, but it had an enormous social impact. In France, it is considered to be the watershed moment when a conservative moral ideal (religion, patriotism, respect for authority) shifted towards a more liberal moral ideal (sexual liberation) that today better describes French society, in theory if not in practice.[citation needed] Although this change did not take place solely in this one month, the term mai 68 is used to refer to this general shift in principles, especially when referring to its most idealistic aspects.


The events before May

On 22 March far-left groups, a small number of prominent poets and musicians, and 150 students, occupied an administration building at Paris University at Nanterre 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

Entrance of the Sorbonne, in the Latin Quarter of Paris

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 Sorbonne University 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 Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (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 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 Sorbonne.

Negotiations broke down, and 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.[3]

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 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. Instead, the protesters got even more active.

When the Sorbonne reopened, students occupied it and declared it an autonomous "people's university". Public opinion at first supported the students, but quickly turned against them after its leaders, invited to appear on national television, "behaved like irresponsible utopianists who wanted to destroy the 'consumer society.'"[4] Nonetheless, in the weeks that followed, approximately 401 popular action committees were set up in Paris and elsewhere to take up grievances against the government and French society, including the Sorbonne Occupation Committee.

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. Workers had occupied roughly fifty factories by 16 May, and 200,000 were on strike by 17 May. 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.[citation needed] In fact, in the May '68 movement there was a lot of "anti-unionist euphoria,"[5] against the mainstream hierarchical unions, that were more willing to compromise with the powers that be than enact the will of the base.[1]

On 25 May and 26 May, the Grenelle agreements were conducted 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 UNEF, 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.

The French Socialists saw an opportunity to act as a compromise between de Gaulle and the Communists. On 28 May, François Mitterrand of the Federation of the Democratic and Socialist Left declared that "there is no more state" and stated that he was ready to form a new government. On 29 May, Pierre Mendès France also stated that he was ready to form a new government; unlike Mitterrand he was willing to include the Communists. Although the Socialists did not have the Communists' ability to form large street demonstrations, they had more than 20% of the country's support.[4]

Also on 29 May, de Gaulle postponed the meeting of the Council of Ministers scheduled for the day, and secretly removed his personal papers from Élysée Palace. He told his son-in-law Alain de Boissieu "I do not want to give them a chance to attack the Elysée. It would be regrettable if blood were shed in my personal defense. I have decided to leave: nobody attacks an empty palace." De Gaulle refused Pompidou's request that he dissolve the National Assembly as he believed that their party, the Gaullists, would lose the resulting election, telling Pompidou "I am the past; you are the future; I embrace you". De Gaulle then mysteriously disappeared, telling no one in the government where he was going. The canceling of the ministerial meeting, and the president's disappearance, stunned the country.[4]

Pompidou unsuccessfully requested that military radar be used to follow de Gaulle's two helicopters, but soon learned that he had fled to the headquarters of the French military in Germany, in Baden-Baden, to meet General Jacques Massu. Massu persuaded the discouraged de Gaulle to return to France; now knowing that he had the military's support, de Gaulle rescheduled the meeting of the Council of Ministers for the next day. His wife Yvonne gave the family jewels to their son and daughter-in-law—who stayed in Baden for a few more days—for safekeeping, however, indicating that the de Gaulles still considered Germany a possible refuge. Massu kept as a state secret de Gaulle's loss of confidence until others disclosed it in 1982; until then most observers believed that his disappearance was intended to remind the French people of what they might lose. Although the disappearance was real and not intended as motivation, it indeed had such an effect on France.[4]

On 30 May 400,000 to 500,000 protesters (many more than the 50,000 the police were expecting) led by the CGT marched through Paris, chanting, "Adieu, de Gaulle!" ("Farewell, de Gaulle!") While Communist leaders later denied that they had planned an armed uprising, they had overestimated de Gaulle's strength as shown by his escape to Germany. The movement was largely centered around the Paris metropolitan area, and not elsewhere. Had the rebellion grown in strength, perhaps by occupying key public buildings in Paris, the government would have had to use force to retake them. The resulting casualties could have incited a revolution, with the military moving from the provinces to retake Paris as in 1871. Maurice Grimaud, head of the Paris police, played a key role in avoiding revolution by both speaking to and spying on the revolutionaries, and by carefully avoiding the use of force.[4]

On 30 May Pompidou persuaded de Gaulle to dissolve the National Assembly and call a new election by threatening to resign. Over radio De Gaulle announced the new election, scheduled for 23 June, and ordered workers to return to work, threatening to institute a state of emergency if they did not.[4][6] Immediately after the speech, about 800,000 supporters marched through the Champs-Elysées waving the national flag; the Gaullists had planned the rally for several days. The Communists agreed to the election, and the threat of revolution was over.[4]

Events of June and July

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. Contrary to de Gaulle's fears, his party won the greatest victory in French parliamentary history in the legislative elections held in June, taking 353 of 486 seats versus the Communists' 34 and the Socialists' 57.[4] On Bastille Day, there were resurgent street demonstrations in the Latin Quarter, led by leftist students wearing red arm-bands and anarchist students wearing black arm-bands. The Paris police and the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité responded with brutal repression starting around 10 pm and continuing through the night, on the streets, in police vans, at police stations, and in hospitals where many wounded were taken. There was, as a result, much bloodshed among students and tourists there for the evening's festivities. No charges were filed against police or demonstrators, but the governments of the UK and West Germany filed formal protests, including for the indecent assault of two English schoolgirls by police in a police station.

Despite the size of de Gaulle's triumph, it was not a personal one. A survey taken immediately after the crisis showed that a majority of the country saw de Gaulle as too old, too self-centered, too authoritarian, too conservative, and too anti-American. As the April 1969 referendum would show, the country was ready for "Gaullism without de Gaulle".[4]

Slogans and graffiti

May 1968 slogan. Paris. "It is forbidden to forbid."

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).[citation needed]

  • All power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
  • We want structures that serve people, not people serving structures.
  • The revolution doesn’t belong to the committees, it’s yours.
  • Je suis Marxiste – tendance Groucho. (I’m a Marxist – of the Groucho variety.)[7]
  • Comrades, let’s lynch Séguy! [Georges Séguy, head bureaucrat of the Communist Party-dominated trade union]
  • Man is neither Rousseau’s noble savage nor the Church’s or La Rochefoucauld’s depraved sinner. He is violent when oppressed, gentle when free.
  • A single non-revolutionary weekend is infinitely more bloody than a month of total revolution.
  • Those who lack imagination cannot imagine what is lacking.
  • A cop sleeps inside each one of us. We must kill him. Drive the cop out of your head.
  • We don’t want to be the watchdogs or servants of capitalism.
  • “The cause of all wars, riots and injustices is the existence of property.”(attributed to St. Augustine)
  • Commute, work, commute, sleep . . .
  • Since 1936 I have fought for wage increases. My father before me fought for wage increases. Now I have a TV, a fridge, a Volkswagen. Yet my whole life has been a drag. Don’t negotiate with the bosses. Abolish them.
  • The future will only contain what we put into it now.
  • The more you consume, the less you live. Commodities are the opium of the people.
  • Abolish copyrights: sound structures belong to everyone.
  • This concerns everyone.[8]
  • L'ennui est contre-révolutionnaire. (Boredom is counter-revolutionary.)
  • L'imagination prend le pouvoir! (Imagination takes power!)
  • Soyez réalistes, demandez l'impossible. (Be realistic, ask the impossible.)[9]
  • Prenez vos désirs pour la réalité. (Take your desires for reality.)
  • On achète ton bonheur. Vole-le. (They are buying your happiness. Steal it.)
  • Presse: ne pas avaler. (On a poster with a bottle of poison labelled: "Press: Do not swallow.")
  • Même si Dieu existait, il faudrait le supprimer. (Even if God existed it would be necessary to abolish him.)
  • Le patron a besoin de toi, tu n'as pas besoin de lui. (The boss needs you, you don't need him.)
  • L'été sera chaud! (Summer will be hot!)
  • On ne revendiquera rien, on ne demandera rien. On prendra, on occupera. (We will beg for nothing. We will ask for nothing. We will take, we will occupy.)
  • Travailleur : tu as 25 ans mais ton syndicat est de l'autre siècle. (Worker: You are 25, but your union is from another century.)
  • Nous ne voulons pas d'un monde où la certitude de ne pas mourir de faim s'échange contre le risque de mourir d'ennui. (We don't want a world where the guarantee of not dying of starvation brings the risk of dying of boredom.)
  • In a society that has abolished every kind of adventure the only adventure that remains is to abolish the society.
  • Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié ne font que se creuser un tombeau. (Those who make revolutions half way only dig their own graves.)
  • Run, comrade, the old world is behind you!
  • Sous les pavés, la plage. (Under the paving stones, the beach.)
  • Vivre sans temps mort et jouir sans entrave. (Live without wasted time and enjoy without hindrance.)
  • La barricade ferme la rue mais ouvre la voie. (Barricades close the street but open the way.)
  • When the National Assembly becomes a bourgeois theater, all the bourgeois theaters should be turned into national assemblies. (Written above the entrance of the occupied Odéon Theatre)
  • Warning: ambitious careerists may now be disguised as “progressives.”
  • Stalinists, your children are with us!
  • Be cruel.
  • I love you!!! Oh, say it with paving stones!!![10]
  • Under 21? [Picture of a brick] Here is your ballot!

References in popular culture


  • Released in August 1967, Jean Luc Godard's film La Chinoise portrays the lives of a small group of Marxist revolutionary students and proved to presage the events of May 1968. His 1972 film Tout va bien (made with Jean-Pierre Gorin and the Dziga Vertov Group)[11] portrays attitudes four years after the May movement.
  • Jacques Rivette's 1971 film Out 1 is a sprawling impression of post-May 1968 angst.
  • 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.
  • Alain Tanner's 1976 film Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 follows the lives of couples in the wake of the social and political tumult of May 1968, the various people including a history professor, a trade unionist and a bohemian.
  • Chris Marker's 1977 film A Grin Without a Cat[12] 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.
  • Goran Paskaljević's 1984 film Varljivo leto '68 (The Elusive Summer of '68) tells a story of a young man growing up in a small Yugoslav town, during the students' protests provoked by the events in France.
  • Milou in May is a 1990 film by Louis Malle which portrays the impact of revolutionary fervour on a French village.
  • 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.
  • Bernardo Bertolucci's 2003 film The Dreamers is about three young students and their experiences in May 1968, although it features the events mainly as a backdrop and not predominantly within the primary plot.
  • Philippe Garrel's 2005 film Regular Lovers[13] 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.


  • 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.
  • The Merry Month of May is 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.
  • Mavis Gallant wrote two essays covering the May 1968 events for The New Yorker. Entitled "The Events in May: A Paris Notebook", Parts I and II have been anthologized in her essay collection Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews.
  • Michel Houellebecq's book Atomised refers to a group of "68 veterans" who found the Lieu du Changement: a liberal attempt at utopia.
  • Graham Robb's book Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris has a chapter dealing with the events of May 1968.
  • Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel "Inherent Vice" starts with the quote Sous les pavés, la plage.


  • The Rolling Stones' song "Street Fighting Man" was heavily influenced by the student riots.[14]
  • 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.
  • The video for Röyksopp's single "Only This Moment" depicts events from the May 1968 riots.
  • The Stone Roses's song "Bye Bye Badman", from their eponymous album, is about the riots. The album's cover has the tricolore and lemons on the front (which were used to nullify the effects of tear gas).[15]
  • Renaud wrote the song "Crève Salope" during the protests, and it became a favourite of the protesters.
  • The Pretenders' song 'When Will I See You' references the slogan 'soyez realistes - demandez l'impossible' and mentions 'when the people come out in the streets at night', and being one of the 'starry eyed'.
  • The Sterehoes' song 'May 68' refers to the events, featuring the quotation "Be young and shut up".
  • There are numerous references to Paris, May '68 in the songs and artwork of the 1983 album Did You Ever Feel Like Killing Your Boss? by Arizona Punk Rock band The Feederz
  • The Refused song "Protest Song '68" was inspired by the events.
  • The Sweet song "The Six Teens" refers to the events - "And tried to make us all aware, Too bad, too late"
  • The artwork for all releases by The Chemical Brothers during the Push The Button era were based on protest signs from this movement.

Video Games

The event was referenced in a briefing file with Cecile Cosina Caminandes in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.


See also


  1. ^ a b c d e The Beginning of an Era from Situationist International No 12 (September 1969). Translated by Ken Knabb.
  2. ^ De Gaulle, Televised speech of 7 June 1968. Quoted in René Viénet (1968) Enragés et situationnistes dans le mouvement des occupations (Paris: Gallimard)
  3. ^ "Ils voulaient un patron, pas une coopérative ouvrière", Le Monde, interview with Michel Rocard, 20 March 2007 (French)
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Dogan, Mattei (1984). "How Civil War Was Avoided in France". International Political Science Review / Revue internationale de science politique 5 (3): 245–277. 
  5. ^ Derrida, Jacques (1991) "A 'Madness' Must Watch Over Thinking", interview with Francois Ewald for Le Magazine Litteraire, March 1991, republished in Points...: Interviews, 1974-1994 (1995).pp.347-9
  6. ^ Speech of 30 May 1968
  7. ^ Lejeune, Anthony (2001). The Concise Dictionary of Foreign Quotations. Taylor & Francis. p. 74. ISBN 0953330001.,+tendance+Groucho&hl=en&ei=zXP2TPOvB8P98Aaa8qGvBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false. Retrieved 1 December 2010. 
  8. ^ MAY 1968 GRAFFITI
  9. ^ Watzlawick, Paul (1993). The Language of Change: Elements of Therapeutic Communication. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 83. ISBN 9780393310207.,+demandez+l%27impossible.&hl=en&ei=8nT2TKfFKsP58Aayr8CQBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false. Retrieved 1 December 2010. 
  10. ^ Ken Knabb, ed (2006). Situationist International Anthology. Bureau Of Public Secrets. ISBN 9780939682041. 
  11. ^ imdb
  12. ^ IMDb
  13. ^ IMDb
  14. ^ Roy Carr, The Rolling Stones: An Illustrated Record, Harmony Books, 1976. ISBN 0-517-526417. p. 55.
  15. ^ John Squire. "Bye Bye Badman". John Squire. Retrieved 3 November 2009. 

Further reading

External links

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