The May-June 1968 revolt in France and its influence today (+ videos)

By Duncan Meerding

In May and June 1968, a movement erupted in France that threatened not just the survival of the government of President Charles De Gaulle but the system that it represented — capitalism. At the height of this movement, which was sparked by radical action by youth and students, an estimated 10 million workers were on strike and 600,000 students were occupying their schools and universities, and a further 2 million farmers were supporting them. This meant that more than one in five of France’s population were on the streets during this time. The reason for the defeat of the revolution needs to be studied.

The revolt occurred in a context of rising struggles across the globe. In January 1968, the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) launched its massive Tet Offensive against the US occupation forces, which stunned the occupiers and proved to the world the futility of US imperialism’s attempts to subjugate the Vietnamese people. At one point, the liberation fighters occupied the US embassy. The US response to the NLF’s attack was horrendous — including the mass bombardment and subsequent destruction of the ancient Vietnamese capital, Hue.

The Vietnam War had a radicalising role on people around the world, especially young people. The US, and the ``liberal democratic’’ capitalist system it represented, was espousing freedom while carrying out a war that by its end had killed at least 3 million Vietnamese people. The examples of French colonialism, especially in Vietnam until 1954 and more recently in Algeria — which France was finally forced to relinquish control of in 1962 following a brutal war — also played a role in the radicalisation of ordinary French people, most notably the students.

Student revolt

It was the actions of the students, against a background of a worldwide youth radicalisation that triggered the events of May-June 1968, which took France to the brink of revolution. Sparked by seemingly small concerns at first, soon the struggles tapped deep-seated discontent.

Paris, May 1968

More graphic videos of May-June 1968 here and here.

On February 21, Paris witnessed the first mass university and high school student demonstration in response to poor conditions in overcrowded universities.The demonstrators renamed the area of Paris known as the Latin Quarter as ``The Heroic Vietnam Quarter’’. The repression meted out by police led to further protests.

This led to the formation of the March 22nd Movement, taking its name from the March 22 protest against the arrest of leaders of an antiwar rally. This group led the occupation of the NanterreUniversity campus, with the university radio station being taken over. The campus, which was synonymous with the term ``concrete jungle’’, was shut down by the authorities for two days, with the university authorities calling police to deal with student radicals.

A further series of protests addressed a range of student concerns, from conditions on campus, to the war in Vietnam and brutal police repression. The campus was established in the middle of the working-class outer suburbs, where the immigrants from Algeria were more prevalent. This expanded the minds of the students who went there.

A May 7 protest involved 20,000 high school and university students demanding the freeing of arrested students and the re-opening of both the Sorbonne and Nanterre university campuses, which had been closed by university authorities to try to quell the rise in popularity of the radical student activists.

The two universities remained closed and on May 9 the students met en masse in the streets of the Latin Quarter and decided to protest the next day. The May 10 protest involved 35,000 students. They voted to go to Sante prison, where arrested students were being held, and to stop at the education ministry to demand the reopening of the universities. The protest did not get to the education ministry, instead the students were herded into and trapped in the Latin Quarter by police. The students responded by erecting barricades.

The police did not think that the ``spoiled’’ students would last the night, and took bets as to when the students would ask to go home. However, the students refused to budge and the authorities made the mistake of using the Republican Security Companies (CRS) to brutally attack and tear gas the students.

For the French people, the CRS was not an impartial force — it had a long history as being used as strike breakers. By using the CRS, the government showed its intention of seeking to smash the student protests.

At 2.40am on May 11, the CRS launched its attack, with tear gas and smoke bombs. The students quelled the effects of the gas with goggles and rags soaked in water, supplied by the local residents. The tear gas and smoke bombs were not enough to break the frontlines of the barricades of students and from 3 am till 8 am, police used chlorine gas to break up the protesters, in combination with sending in riot police, the CRS being on the frontline of this.

According to historian Charles Sowerwine, in his 2002 book France Since 1870, ``460 people were arrested, 367 seriously wounded’’. This figure could have been higher, as some students, fearing reprisals, sought treatment from fellow medical students, rather than go to the hospitals. The police denied allegations they had used chlorine gas on the protesters, but the hospital where the students were treated reported chlorine poisoning. A reporter at the scene who asked if police were using chlorine gas was knocked out by the cops

By the time police crashed through the barricades on May 11, they found not just students but local residents angrily demanding: ``Is this any way to treat our youngsters?’’

The night of May 10-11, 1968, became known as the ``Night of the Barricades’’. These events galvanised public support for the students. The audacity and courage of the students in struggling for just demands against the anti-worker CRS caught the French people’s imagination.

The revolt spreads

After initially condemning the students — denouncing them as ``adventurers’’, ``anarchists’’ and ``Trotskyites’’ — the French Communist Party (PCF), then a mass party that controlled much of the trade union movement, voted in favour of a resolution in solidarity with the students.

Prime Minister Georges Pompidou made a speech on May 11 conceding to the demand to reopen the universities and implied the government would release arrested students. However, by this stage the student movement had gained confidence and momentum — as well as the support of large sections of the working class.

On May 13, workers went on strike and up to 1 million people marched in Paris in support of the students, with demonstrations occurring across France. On May 14, the revolt took a further turn with workers at an aviation factory occupying the factory. On May 15, the workers at Renault also took over their factory; by May 21 almost every section of the French economy was on strike.

Responding to the role of the students in sparking a wider rebellion against the government, President De Gaulle referred to the students as cette chienlit (``this shit in the bed’’). The students occupying the Ecole des Beaux Arts responded by putting out an iconic poster picturing a silhouette of De Gaulle with their response: La chienlit c’est lui! (``He is the shit in the bed!’’).

The movement that erupted was increasingly taking on broad support, both in the breadth of the population being drawn into it and the degree of its radicalisation — the insistence that a better world was possible. The situation was rapidly developing into a revolutionary situation that could overthrow the regime.

French workers had been involved in strikes through out the ’60s, but nothing on the scale reached during May and June 1968. The power of the working class was imposing itself on French society. Nothing moved unless the working class wanted it to. A desperate government sought to host a referendum to attempt to defuse the situation, and channel the discontent back into safer, more passive electoral channels — however French workers refused to print the ballots. The government tried to get them printed in Belgium, but Belgian workers refused in solidarity. Journalists and TV technicians refused to broadcast government propaganda.

A more powerful democracy was emerging on the streets — mass action of working people and students, beginning to take over the running of society in the occupied universities and factories. In some parts of France, strike committees were more or less in total control.

De Gaulle was forced into hiding. He secretly went to French troops stationed in Baden-Baden in Germany. He asked them: ``If Paris falls, will you help me to retake it?’’ He got a commitment to do this from the top brass, in return for an assurance that the leaders of the Algerian (right-wing) coup would be released. De Gaulle, agreed to this, but the French troops stationed in Germany being never used to defeat of the strikers. On June 15, De Gaulle used the events 1968to release 50 members of the Secret Army Organisation (OAS) far-right troops who had participated in the Algerian coup.

Role of PCF

However, while the revolt shook the foundations of the system, it failed to overthrow it. The movement slowly lost momentum and the government took the initiative to organise elections for June. The strike movement came to an end, with the workers winning significant gains, but the fundamental situation remained unchanged.

A significant factor in saving the system was the role of the PCF. The PCF sought to distance itself from the student revolt at the time of the Night of the Barricades, and the subsequent May 13 general strike was called by the PCF-controlled General Confederation of Labour (CGT) due to pressure from below.

Although at the height of the revolt, the working class was moving beyond the pro-capitalist, reformist politics of the PCF, the student-based groups that led the movement’s anti-capitalist trajectory and were leading the student revolt were too new and lacked a working-class base.

The PCF had been dragged into the revolt kicking and screaming. Rather than seeking to lead the movement in a revolutionary direction, it manoeuvred throughout to attempt to limit the struggle of the workers to seeking reforms within the existing system.

When the regime sought to consolidate itself in June, the PCF worked to convince workers to end the strikes and the occupations of the factories, in preparation for the June election organised by the De Gaulle regime as the way out of the crisis. The PCF fully supported the election and even ran on a ``law and order’’ platform.

A different way forward could have been for the CGT to encourage and organise the election of strike councils and democratic mass meetings, as was occurring in the occupied universities, and to seek to coordinate elected delegates nationally to pose an alternative to the existing regime. However, the PCF was afraid of losing its control over the situation.

In the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolshevik Party was not afraid of losing control of the movement. At one point it was a minority in the Soviets (workers’ and peasants’ councils), yet called for ``All power to the soviets!’’

If the PCF had maintained the pressure, leading up to the June election and had maintained the political pressure, the character of post-1968 France would have been different. The movement which erupted in 1968 was a movement that challenged the capitalist government and was motivated by opposition to the inadequacies and inequities of capitalism. If the PCF had, rather than stifling the movement, tried to build it, before and after the election of the new government – whatever party took office – that government would have had to make its decisions under the mass pressure of a powerful, mobilised popular movement.

With the mass revolt dying down, and with no clear alternative on the left (not only had the PCF refused to provide a lead to the growing anti-capitalist sentiment, the revolutionary groups that did were outlawed and banned from running) in June De Gaulle’s right-wing Gaullist Union for the Defence of the Republic increased its vote to win a parliamentary majority.

However, the revolt had fatally wounded De Gaulle’s reign, and he stepped down less than one year later — Pompidou having already resigned as PM in July 1968.

Role of the JCR

The void left by the PCF, in terms of the absence of a mass revolutionary party, was large. The events of May-June 1968 may have looked quite different if there had been a revolutionary party capable of initiating action, one which saw the power on the streets and called for an overthrow of the existing order, not for waiting for the ballot box. There were formations that did play this role, but none with a mass base. One such organisation, the Revolutionary Communist Youth (JCR), did initiate action and was at the forefront of the revolt, at the beginning of the movement and at the end.

Apart from lacking a working-class base, the organisation was relatively young. It had only formed two years prior to the May revolt, in April 1966. In the autumn 1965, a number of the militants with in the Union of Communist Students (UEC) did not support the left-capitalist politician François Mitterrand in the general election, and they were expelled from the organisation. These students formed the JCR, which by the time of the May 1968 revolt had between 600 and 700 highly political radical members, inspired by the Vietnamese and Cuban revolutions.

While the JCR was small in comparison to the PCF, it had a large impact during the May-June events. The JCR was the dominant political tendency in the Union National des Etudiants Français (UNEF – the National French Student Association). During the events of May, almost every day the major newspapers mentioned the JCR. This was partly due to the fact that the JCR had launched itself straight into the rising student movement.

While the CGT was calling off the strike through the July days, the JCR, through its leadership of the UNEF, was calling more protests and continuing to try to fuel the mass movement and overthrow bourgeois order. The students only made up a minority and lacked the ability, as the workers did, to bring the economy to a standstill. After waiting for the CGT and other mass-based unions to organise a protest against the suspension of the parliament and De Gaulle’s open threat of military dictatorship, the JCR decided to initiate action. After De Gaulle’s May 30 speech, on June 1 the JCR organised a protest of 30,000 students. The PCF-led CGT instructed its members to stay away. The protesters sung the Internationale – the song of the communist movement, reflecting the mood of the students.

The JCR grew during the revolt, doubling its membership in Paris. This was a reflection of the political popularity of the JCR due to its leading role in the revolt, giving it a hearing among many young people and students.

`Death of May ‘68’?

In 2008, President Nicolas Sarkozy came to power saying, ``My victory shows the death of May ’68 and that legacy in France, and I will destroy it forever.’’

Is this true? Sarkozy’s France has seen a range of actions against the conservative agenda that he represents. Sarkozy’s popularity is at an all time low, lower even than that of his predecessor Chirac. Forty years on, the struggle is continuing — this time against Sarkozy’s government.

Last year, a mass movement of students and workers forced the government to withdraw a particularly nasty anti-worker law, and this year has already seen strikes and student protests. In a poll taken in 2005 by the Globe Scan institute, only 36% of the French people agreed with the claim, ``the free enterprise system and free market economy is the best system on which to base the future of the world.’’ Sarkozy must not have seen these results.

Forty years after May-June, socialist commentator and 1968 participant Tariq Ali pointed out that the government which came after De Gaulle and Pompidou actually made a lot of concessions in terms of wages, working conditions and the conditions inside universities. So, in order to prevent revolution, it acceded to a number of the workers’ and students’ demands. He pointed out that the 1968 movement won the French working class a relatively high standard of living, and a number of the large movements have developed in response to attacks on those rights.

Birth of the LCR

After the events of May 1968, the parties to the left of the PCF were banned by the De Gaulle regime. This subsequently meant that the JCR was dissolved, but reformed as the Communist League (1969) and then later as the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR). As both the Socialist Party (social democratic) and Communist parties placed a priority on preserving the bourgeois order, the need for such an organisation was vital for advancing the struggle for socialism in France.

The May-June 1968 revolt shook the foundations of French society. The LCR was born out of a key lesson learned from the revolt: that there needs to be a revolutionary party that is open and spirited in the tradition of the Bolshevik Party, one that is not afraid of leading movements which it may not necessarily ``control’’.

In last May’s presidential election, the LCR’s Olivier Besancenot polled 4.1% of the vote in the in the face of a concerted effort by other left groups to throw their weight behind the Socialist Party candidate. The 34-year-old postal worker is the spokesperson for a left movement deeply rooted in the traditions of 1968. An IFOP poll in November 2007 found that Besancenot would receive 7% in a presidential election. In the same poll, the figure climbed to 12% for people born between 1977 and 1982.

The fact that a party with its origins in the 1968 revolt is still so prominent goes to show that Sarkozy is dead wrong when stating that the legacy of May-June 1968 is dead.

A range of young people are joining the organisation, which champions a multitude of movements for democratic change and equality; from the feminist, to the environmental and the global justice movements. While a number of its policies are highly popular among the French people, the LCR has not shied away from addressing the immigrant rights struggle, even to the detriment of immediately winning sections of the working class over. As Besancenot told Marc Perelman in the May 29, 2008, US Nation – in an article titled ``Letter From Lille: Echoes of '68’’ -- ``a leftist doesn't hesitate when it comes to defending the disenfranchised’’.

The LCR has doubled its membership since 2002. With the growth in the ranks of the LCR mainly being among young people, the LCR has also seen an increase in its membership from people from a working-class background. This is in contrast to the aging ranks of the PCF and the increasingly non-working-class composition of the Socialist Party.

The spirit of 1968 has not been extinguished. As long as the workers and students of France continue their struggles, and continue to grow in confidence, the spirit of May-June 1968 is alive and well. The next time a May 1968 situation arises, the workers and students may be successful in revolution. If the LCR is, through its new left party project, firmly based in the working class, is democratic and not afraid to fight the capitalist system, Sarkozy and his ilk may be forced to eat their words.

[Duncan Meerding is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist tendency within the Socialist Alliance of Australia.]