May 1968: The French general strike that changed the world
Policemen during a demonstration in Paris, France, 7th May 1968. (Reg Lancaster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive)
This month marks the 50th Anniversary of protests that saw around 10 million people take to the streets of Paris, sending shockwaves across the globe.
The joint protests by students and workers became one of the largest general strikes ever seen, influencing discussion, politics, music and art across the decades since.
What happened in May 1968?
Civil unrest rocked much of the world in 1968 — with protests in Prague, Mexico City and Chicago — but it was in France that the revolts took hold, bringing the economy to a halt and even causing President Charles De Gaulle to flee the country.
Events began in the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris in the western suburbs of the city, where there were a series of student occupations and strikes over, among other things, the right for male students to visit the women’s dormitories.
The university, the Sorbonne, was then shut down by the administration of President De Gaulle. The major student demonstration was attacked by police using gas and truncheons.
Thousands of students held their ground and set up barricades in the streets of Paris’ Latin Quarter.
Students in Paris set up behind barricades and withstood attacks from police armed with truncheons and gas. (Supplied)
They tore up cobblestone pavers and held off police all night from behind the barricades.
As the protests unfolded, the students’ grievances were greeted sympathetically by workers elsewhere in Paris and throughout much of French society.
On the morning of May 11, the leading French trade union federations, the CGT and CFTT, decided to call for a general strike in opposition to the police brutality seen that night on the barricades, together with a mass demonstration in the streets of Paris and in the provinces.
For weeks, students and factory workers were joined by other workers, including footballers occupying the headquarters of the National Football Federation, and radical priests occupying churches.
By the last week of May, 10 million workers — roughly two-thirds of the French work force — were on strike and the fifth largest economy in the world was paralysed.
On May 29, with the government on the brink of collapse, de Gaulle jumped on a plane and flew to Germany.
Upon his return he dissolved the National Assembly and called an election for the end of June, in an effort to appease the people.
The entire country had been gripped by two months of widespread civic upheaval, economic paralysis, and vigorous public debate.
What lead to the protests?
As the protests and strikes were spread across the entire French society — and throughout the world — there was not one particular political current that dominated.
Part student revolt, part anger with the broken promises of post-World War II society, part trade union opportunism and partly, it has to be said, a massive street party.
In the factories there were demands to lessen the power of what was seen as authoritarian management, and calls to increase workers’ pay and improve conditions.
The radical student protestors took their cues from the civil rights movement a decade earlier.
There had been a rapid expansion in higher education that had not been properly funded, with the result that universities became overcrowded.
Zachary Scarlett, the co-editor of The Third World in the Global 1960s, said there was also a great concern about international events, particularly the war in Vietnam.
“Students in the United States, Europe and all over the world began to see images coming back from Vietnam. They were really quite horrified and shocked,” he said.
“This was the first war in which the daily events of the war were reported on the news on a nightly basis.”
Author of the French Exception, Adam Plowright, said taken together, the demands of students were more utopian than practical.
“This was about a societal change they were seeking to put in place,” he said.
“So their ambitions were far larger and therefore perhaps vaguer and less focused than the American students that we see now.”
What was the immediate fallout?
For the most part, the systems of the Fifth Republic remained in place.
There were still a few people on strike by the time elections arrived, but they soon went back to work.
And the June elections actually increased the majority of incumbent President de Gaulle.
However, Mr de Gaulle was soon driven into retirement when he held a referendum early in 1969 and was defeated.
Historian and social activist Ian Birchall said there were many important shifts made in factories.
Strikers in Southern France with a sign reading “Factory Occupied by the Workers.” Behind them is a list of demands, June 1968. (BeenAroundAWhile at en.wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
“I think the more authoritarian managements often found it very hard to be quite as authoritarian as they had been before,” he said.
“And the strength of trade union organisations, the strength of workers’ organisations in the workplaces was considerably increased.”
But Adam Plowright said the results in other parts of the country were mixed.
“I think for part of the country the legacy was very little,” he said.
“The workers got what are typical demands for workers: pay rises, greater worker rights, and I think they were successful with that.
“But the legacy of the student protests, I think that continues to be something that we are debating 50 years later.”
How are the protests remembered today?
Today the events of May 1968 are commonly seen as the moment when conservative views on authority, religion and morality began to be challenged by liberal views on sexuality, individual freedom and human rights.
Ten years ago, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy referenced the strikes in a speech, calling for an end to the spirit of ’68 once and for all.
Current French President Emmanuel Macron has chosen to side step the issue, and there will be no official commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the protests.
Dr Scarlett said the era’s legacy is important because it is still deeply embedded in our societies, not just in the western world but around the globe.
He pointed to its influence on the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements.
Women hold signs outside the State Library of Victoria during a Black Lives Matter rally in the Melbourne, July, 2016. (ABC News: Guy Stayner)
“The 1960s I still think remains central to how protest movements composed themselves, how they build their slogans, how they confront power,” he said.
“A lot of this is taken directly from the example of the 1960s.”
Ian Birchall said the lessons of May 68 still resonate with mass protests today.
“It really showed what happens if the people who do the work in society, the people who produce the goods and drive the trains and buses and generate the electricity and so on, that if they stop work, then the world stops,” he said.
“Which is a very powerful lesson and which is still very much relevant today, something that many people would like us not to remember too vividly.”