Fifty years later, we look back at the student-led protests that shook Paris in May 1968 and have occupied the French political imagination ever since.
The events of May 1968 in France emerged seemingly out of nowhere, yet they brought the country to a halt. High schools and universities in all corners of the country were occupied by students, and millions of workers went on strike. Although some have maintained that the uprising was actually an outgrowth of the strike movements that had swept the country in the previous year, May ’68 was not the result of worker discontent: they only joined the fray ten days after the students set it off. The movement emerged from the students. Its premonitory signs appeared at the new University of Nanterre in late 1967 and early 1968 with protests over the right for boys to visit girls’ dorms and vice versa and in defense of the students who were threatened with expulsion for their participation in an anti–Vietnam War demonstration. What would become known as the May events began when students gathered at the Sorbonne in Paris and threw stones at police occupying the courtyard.
Why, in the midst of the trente glorieuses, the thirty glorious years of postwar prosperity, did France suddenly find itself in a revolutionary crisis?
The issues that directly set off the uprising hardly seem to be enough to detonate a revolution. In my book May Made Me, an oral history of the events, I interviewed those involved in the moment in an attempt to understand. Jean-Michel Rabaté, now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania but then a student in Bordeaux preparing his entrance to the École Normale Supérieure, offered his explanation for May. “De Gaulle lied. He lied to everyone … There were so many lies, so many lies about our heroic past. France needed more truth, and that was the effect of May ’68: May ’68 allowed for greater truth.” For Jean-Michel, the goals of the movement were difficult to inscribe on a banner: “May was, We’re going to be more true, and that was the case. We came closer to the truth.”
Myriam Chédotal, a high school student in Saint-Nazaire, spoke of the lies that ruled her personal life, of hiding her relationships with boys or “pretending to conform.” When she and her boyfriend drove to Paris to see what was going on at the heart of the events, she even lied to her parents about that. She told me, “It was all so hypocritical. I lied all the time.”
For the students, France was a daily falsehood that needed to be overturned. It was a country where Éliane Paul-Di Vicenzo, who was then a college student from a Sicilian family living in a working-class neighborhood in Nantes, “didn’t have the right to wear pants, tights, short skirts.” She explained, “I had no right to go out alone. If I went out, I had to be accompanied by my little brother or sister.” Neither birth control nor abortion were legal, and fear of pregnancy led to strict codes of behavior for young women.
High school students spoke of being infantilized. Even Dominique Barbe, a high school student who identified as a Communist and whose aims were almost strictly worker oriented, told me that “the central axis of our demands was dignity … being recognized as young adults and not as children in short pants.”
Against the ambient infantilization, against the feeling of living in a blocked society, the instrument that was most freely used, most famously used, was speech. Everyone I spoke to agreed that May ’68 freed speech. Words burbled up everywhere, in university amphitheaters, on street corners, in neighborhood action committees, in posters on the walls. The result was, to again quote Jean-Michel Rabaté, “a great lyrical community.”
All that had been silenced, all that had been repressed, all that was felt but had gone unexpressed could now be spoken. The loneliness in which people were imprisoned was smashed. About the occupation of the Odéon theater on the night of May 15, the artist and organizer Jean-Jacques Lebel told me that “people talked about their own lives, how they felt.” In his telling, a man who worked for Hachette had taken the mic and said, “All my life, I thought I was crazy because I couldn’t obey. I fought everything the bosses or the union leaders wanted. I was against everything, but I was alone and felt in total revolt.” He told Lebel that he’d “internalized the fact that [he] was crazy.” But then at a demonstration he saw hundreds of thousands of people, their banners, their flags, and “all of a sudden, I realized I wasn’t crazy but that everybody was, and we were right to be crazy. To be against the rules of capitalism.”
This was the galvanizing effect of May ’68. Yet none of it was generated or supported by the working class except for a core of young workers, and here lies the source of its ultimate failure. The workers were a conservative force within the movement, interested almost exclusively in wage gains and improved working and labor-relations conditions. The Utopian dreams of the students were uninteresting to them. “Listen,” Guy Texier, a Communist and union leader at the naval shipyard in Saint-Nazaire, told me, “much is said about May ’68 as a political movement. But ’68 as we lived it here was not a political movement. It was a bread-and-butter movement … We were concerned mainly with wage, but also with working conditions. Elsewhere, it had political repercussions, but that can’t be said about here.” When students came to fraternize with the workers, he told me, “We kicked them in the ass.”
The great watchwords of May—“all power to the imagination,” “it is forbidden to forbid”—emanated from the students. But the students, though they were thoroughly imbued with the workerist ideology so dominant in the French Left, were also aware that without the workers, no real change could be implemented. They vainly sought unity with the workers up till the final days in mid June. Alain Krivine, the leader of the Trotskyist Jeunesse communiste révolutionnaire, made clear the unbridgeable gap: “We marched with the workers, but there was no connection.”
And so May was doomed to fail. The students were striving for a working-class revolution without working-class revolutionaries.
As a revolution, there is no question that May ‘68 ended in defeat. The dreams of the students were not realized then, have not been realized since, and will likely never be realized. The working class has been defanged. But there are some defeats that are as important as victories. Just as the Paris Commune of 1871, crushed in blood after barely seventy days, has lived on in historical and popular memory, May ‘68 still represents a hope that, even if it will never be fulfilled, was worth, is worth having. A revolt on that scale leaves an indelible trace. Its memory serves to teach and inspire.
Those who participated in the movement saw its transformative effect. Jean-Pierre Fournier, a high school student who had been politically active well before the events, told me, “Here was this class which I annoyed with my politics and my newspapers, which had a tendency to react with irony or refusal, which had other concerns, that was conformist, and from one day to the next, they declared themselves in favor of the revolution.” Jean-Pierre told me there was a more general lesson to be drawn from May. “Afterwards, I would come to think that there were moments when there could be sudden leaps, when nothing could be foreseen, which weren’t in the natural course of events, the current of ideas. Inversions of tendency that were absolutely unpredictable.”
There was joy, and there was playfulness. Wally Rosell, a third-generation anarchist, proud of the anarchists’ black flag, told me, “On May 23, I was with a bunch of guys who called themselves anarchists, and we tore up these huge black curtains at the Sorbonne and made scarves out of them.” Wally and his comrades used the same spirit of improvisation to build barricades in the Latin Quarter: “There were guys who had axes—I have no idea where they got them—and I had a helmet, and we cut down trees on rue de Lyon, where there’s now a promenade.” He continued, “After de Gaulle’s speech, on the twenty-fourth, we were all at Gare de Lyon, the university and high school students, and the idea was to seize the Hôtel de Ville and proclaim the Paris Commune.” That was the night the stock exchange was set on fire, which Wally missed, though his father and grandfather were there. Wally refused to accept that May had been a defeat. “Now I see better that militarily, we lost in May ‘68, but we won politically. Politically vis-à-vis the reactionaries, but also the Communists.”
When the uprising ended in mid June, many viewed what they’d just lived through as a dress rehearsal for the successful revolution that would soon come. Some, like Suzanne Borde, abandoned politics for a while, but even their abandonment of politics was inspired by May. Suzanne had been a proper young schoolteacher from Grenoble before the events, but in the heat of the struggle, she changed her appearance and her life. She cut off all her hair, and instead of the modest pleated skirts she’d previously worn, she told me, “I made myself a skirt—red—that only reached to here, and I wrote along the bottom, in black marker, INDECENCY IS NOT IN THE CLOTHING BUT IN THE GAZE.” In the winter after May ’68, she opted for communal living in the countryside. She and her friends did so virtually on a whim. “Several of us—six of us—went to Switzerland. We were really happy living together, and when the time came to return to Paris, it was raining cats and dogs, and we didn’t feel like leaving. Then the sun came out, and we decided that was it: we’re staying. So those who had jobs quit.” Suzanne, like Wally Rosell, refused to accept May as a failure. When I said that it didn’t accomplish anything concrete, she corrected me. “Sure it did. It completely changed the way I live.”
The men and women who rejected their soixante-huitard past went on to form the core of France’s intellectual Right. They came to view May as a source of evil. Yet it’s also true—it’s truer—that others whose consciousness was forged by the movement have been a part of every progressive movement in France.
Between 1971 and 1981, the decadelong fight against the expansion of a military base in Larzac was fought by veterans of May, as was that against the airport in Notre Dame-des-Landes in Brittany, which has just recently ended in success. The great lyrical community of May has lived on in a less spectacular, more subterranean fashion, providing education and support to undocumented workers, prisoners, and those fighting for same-sex marriage.
Jean-Jacques Lebel denied that any of the social movements that arose after May could have happened without it. “We really needed it. You can’t compare the U.S. and old Europe. The cultures and societies were different. Capitalism doesn’t function on Wall Street as it does here [in Paris], in London, or in Milan.”
Pierre Mercier, who went to work in a factory after May ’68 before becoming a mathematician, has never wavered in his belief in a radical overturning of society. “Things never progress as we would have predicted. Never.” When I asked him if despite all the reversals of the past half-century he still had hope, he replied, “It can’t be otherwise.” As people take to the streets of France to demonstrate against the Macron government’s anti-labor proposals, as students all over the U.S. mobilize on a series of issues, as the Black Lives Matter movement grows in force, it is clear that the sprit that animated Pierre still animates others.
In May and June 1968, for a month and a half, the barriers between people fell. Strangers spoke to each other. People felt free to dream, to express their dreams, and worked to make them happen. That is not nothing. As the revolutionary farmer in La Chapelle-sur-Erdre Joseph Potiron told me, “just from the fierceness with which May is attacked, you can see how useful it was. You don’t spit on something that never existed.”
Mitch Abidor is the author, most recently, of May Made Me: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France.