50 Years ago today: France on May Day, 1968

While these lines are written, a student movement is agitating France….”
Olivier Delbeke reports from France. For more on the history of May Day, see this article.


Youth call for the downfall of the De Gaulle regime in May of 1968

Fifty years ago today, France experienced a great social movement characterized by the combination of a student revolt and a general strike that affected the whole country during the month of May and spilled over into the month of June. March 22, 1968 was the founding date of the movement that became May 68 for history (with a capital letter!).

The upsurge of this student movement, its repression by Gaullist power, the general strike of May 13, against this repression, then from May 14, the extension and generalization of strikes across the country to the figure of 10 million strikers, have lasting impact on the political and social situation in France, but also the consciousness of a whole generation.

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of this great social movement, Socialists must remember how this one and his strikes wave happened and developed. Lessons from these events are always needed to move towards social liberation.

1968-2018: youth always on the front line

Fifty years later, similar protests are rocking France

While these lines are written, a student movement is agitating France in the spring of 2018 to counter a reform launched by the Macron government to limit the possibilities of access for young graduates to higher education.

Through new forms of selection, the government wants to pass a system of relatively equivalent universities at the level of education, with relatively low tuition fees, to a system of very diverse universities ranging from prestigious and expensive elite faculties to low-end schools for the poor.

We can say that this is the same problem encountered by the pre-1968 student movement, particularly in the fight against Plan Fouchet in 1967.

The difference with today resides first in the existence then of a mass student union, the UNEF, oriented left after the years of struggle against the war in Algeria and the sending of the contingent to repress the Algerian people.

The UNEF of 2018 is only the shadow of what it was, minority in the university polls. The fault lies with the trade union leadership linked to the PS since 1986 but also with their rivals on the left, who are unable to impose an orientation based on the mobilization and mass organization of students to guarantee the right to study for all the youth.

May 68 was first marked with the seal of youth. During the 1950s and 1960s, the number of students in France had exploded. Thus we went from 200,000 students in 1960 to more than 600,000 in 1968 [2,500,000 today].

The bourgeoisie, through the introduction of selection, wanted to control this influx by leading a large part of the new enrollments to sectors of economic interest for the employers. It also aimed to limit the humanities and all that related to culture and access to a reflection built on the acquisition of vast knowledge and debates of scientific as well as philosophical ideas.

One of the most striking aspects of the time was the contradiction between a teaching strongly marked by a very arid academic form, linked to a hierarchical system where the authority and the competence of the teachers could not suffer the least criticism or interrogation, and a desire to the youth to shake the authoritarian yoke.

This was also manifested on the sexual ground. An anecdote illustrates this. In January 1968, the Minister of Youth and Sports François Missoffe came to inaugurate the swimming pool of the Nanterre campus. He was challenged by Daniel Cohn-Bendit who criticized him for not taking into account the sexual problems of youth. The minister replied that if he had problems of this nature, he had only to dive into the cold water of the pool!

Thus, fighting against attempts to establish selection and against sexual repression, youth also faced political repression.


Vietnam War
On March 20, 1968, a protest against the Vietnam War t
argeted the Parisian headquarters of American Express and it resulted in some arrests, including that of Xavier Langlade, JCR activist in Nanterre. In retaliation, on March 22, the students of Nanterre mobilized on the campus to demand their release and occupied the hall of the presidency of the university all night. In this action bringing together libertarian students, situationists or leftists, including those of the JCR, it was decided to create a movement said March 22.

During the anti-imperialist day of May 2, denouncing both the Vietnam War and police or university repression on Nanterre, the Dean closed the campus, which led to the departure of Nanterrois students to the Sorbonne in the heart of Paris. Against the situation of mobilization and permanent meeting in the university premises, the dean called the police on Friday, May 3 to evacuate the Sorbonne. 300 students, including the hard core of the leaders, were taken by the police in the vans for an identity check. It was then that the student crowd outside the Sorbonne began to confront the police with cobblestones shouting “Free our comrades!”.

May 1968 had just started!

Fifty years later, as the students mobilize against the ORE law and the selection it introduces with the new ParcoursSup device, the government and the university presidents use the same methods: sending the police to the universities to prevent general assemblies and occupations of premises, blitzes and gassings of the students processions. Nothing has changed because the goals of the bourgeoisie have not changed: to control the youth for dictating his future and limiting his level of qualification, to take away the right to dispose of his future. Macron replaced de Gaulle. But is not Bonaparte who wants ….

To be continued.


UNEF : Union Nationale des Etudiants de France / National Union of French Students

PS : Parti Socialiste / Socialiste Party whose political practice in governement under Hollande was anti-social and anti-socialist and led to Macron.

JCR : Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire, issued from the crisis of the PCF youth. Amongst main leaders were Alain Krivine, Daniel Bensaid, Henri Weber, Jeannette Habel, Gérard Filoche.

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