At the end of the 1960s, a crisis of confidence shook the modern Western world, challenging institutions and the consumer society. In France,May 68 originates in universities where students worry about their future and reject the selection system. At the same time, they express their aspiration for other forms of human relations, for a liberal evolution of mores and an abolition of hierarchies. This student protest movement becomes a social movement when the unions in turn call for a strike. After faltering, Gaullist power and institutions will emerge strengthened from the ordeal of the May 68 crisis. The latter will nevertheless initiate profound changes in French society.
The germs of May 1968
All over the world, the spring of 1968 was marked by student unrest which crystallized in the protest against the Vietnam War but, beyond the event, aimed in powerful America at the modern "consumer society", accused of producing in order to produce, without asking the fundamental question of human destiny. In this student discomfort, a critique of the University was to develop which, in both the capitalist system and the Soviet system, is increasingly reduced to the role of a factory of executives, distributing knowledge in accordance with standards. utilities.
The French crisis of May 1968 therefore appears to be one of the aspects of a more general crisis of civilization, but it must have been particularly acute in a country which, after ten years of authorities of ministerial stability, of personalization of power, was experiencing the confused need for a big "party" which would allow him, for a few weeks, to escape the heavy constraints of modern society. In France, the student movement has its roots in a current of libertarian thought, anchored on the left, which denounces the mix of consumer society, bourgeois values and what is described as "American imperialism". It is also a reaction to the growing gap between the aspirations of young people and the functioning of higher education, and even of the French social system as a whole. An even greater challenge, when union demands are added, in reaction to various economic difficulties.
The student revolt
The student revolt, which had been brewing at the University of Nanterre since March 22, 1968, the date of the arrest of some militants of the Vietnam Committee ”, broke out following the closure of the Sorbonne on the orders of the government and at the request of Dean Roche (May 3). In the eyes of those who witness the scene, this represents an unacceptable violation of the old university franchises: the police cars are bombarded with various projectiles taken on the construction sites of the Latin Quarter. The police, overwhelmed for a moment, responded by charging the student groups (bludgeoning ordinary passers-by and consumers on the café terraces) and throwing tear gas canisters which suffocated motorists trapped in a gigantic traffic jam. With radios reporting the event live, a number of students rushed in as police reinforcements were dispatched to restore order: the clashes continued for much of the evening.
The next day, student mobilization developed: the Parisian universities went on strike one after the other, processions formed here and there in the capital, punctuated by small clashes with the police. The National Union of Students of France (UNEF), chaired by Jacques Sauvageot, the March 22 Movement of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the majority of the National Union of Higher Education (SNE-Sup) organize major events every evening to demand the withdrawal of the police from the Latin Quarter, the reopening of the Sorbonne and the release of the imprisoned students. On Tuesday 7, several tens of thousands of students cross Paris, go up the Champs-Elysées and sing "the International" in front of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On Friday 10, a considerable crowd literally surrounded the Sorbonne, still "protected" by the police. From May 10, the Latin Quarter experienced several "nights of the barricades", and extremely violent clashes were now linked between the students (from 10 to 30,000) and the police, police and C.R.S.
From the Sorbonne to the factories
Surprised as much as the government by the scale of the student movement, at the head of which affirmed themselves young anarchist, Maoist or Trotskyist leaders like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Alain Geismar, Jacques Sauvageot, politicians of the parliamentary opposition, the Communists, Socialists, F. Mitterrand, P. Mendès France, showed their solidarity. Joined by the unions, a large popular parade brought together nearly a million staff on May 13, the tenth anniversary of the Algiers putsch which had sounded the death knell for the Fourth Republic. That same evening, the students occupied the Sorbonne. The next day, the working class began to move.
Despite the announcement of the first strikes, General de Gaulle, who did not understand the extent of the danger, undertook a long-planned official trip to Romania. In the following days, strikes with occupation of factories multiplied in Paris and in the provinces. From the 18th, General de Gaulle was to interrupt his trip and return to Paris. On the 20th, there were 6 million strikers in France. The government, abandoned by the O.R.T.F. who claims objectivity of information, appeared stunned, apathetic, helpless. The head of state, who had proclaimed on his return to the capital: "The reform, yes, the bitch, no!" ", Announced in his address on May 24 his intention to hold a referendum on participation, but his words seemed to meet with immense indifference.
France suddenly lived in the era of direct democracy, in an atmosphere which was not without analogy with that of 1848. After years of "depoliticization", a sort of frenzy of total freedom, of "contestation" took hold of the fields of education, trade unionism, theater, cinema, architecture, literature, the bar, medicine, scientific research, the Church ... The main themes the May movement (university and professional autonomy, co-management, self-management, student power, workers' power, etc.) were passionately discussed, in the midst of torn cobblestones and cars set on fire by the demonstrators. A flowering of slogans and often imaginative and poetic formulas, reminiscent of the times of surrealism, burst in graffiti on the walls and in posters hastily made.
We discussed at the Sorbonne, at the Odeon transformed into a permanent forum, in the offices, in the factories, in the streets. This movement went far beyond politics and completely eluded professional politicians. From top to bottom of society arose an immense questioning of the meaning of the world, of culture, of social and personal life. Prime Minister Georges Pompidou let himself get a little carried away by this movement when he declared that "things will never be the same again".
The Grenelle agreements
However, the Fifth Republic was to be saved by the absence of a common political project among its opponents. The student revolt had immediately found strong sympathy among the unionists of the C.F.D.T. On the other hand, the C.G.T. and the Communist Party, considering that there was no real revolutionary situation in France, saw in this irruption of leftism (denounced in its time by Lenin) the number one danger. While following the movement, Cégétistes and Communists were determined to bring it back to the ground which was familiar to them, that of workers' demands. This attitude corresponded, moreover, to the feelings of the majority of the working-class world, which in no way thought, like the students from the bourgeoisie, of destroying the "consumer society", but rather of obtaining a fairer distribution of its advantages. Between the students and the intellectuals, who aspired to a radical revolution (as much spiritual as social, and of a rather anarchist orientation) and the mass of the working class, who essentially demanded increases in wages, an improvement in working conditions, the divorce quickly escalated.
Skillfully taking advantage of this situation, Pompidou forced the employers to make very significant concessions during the Grenelle agreements. in particular, these provide for a sharp increase in the minimum wage (around 35%), an increase in other salaries of around 10% to be achieved in two installments, recognition of the company union section, a reduction in user fees for Social security, payment at 50% of strike hours; Consideration is also being given to reducing weekly working hours by one hour, improving staff training, and upgrading the pensions of older workers.
The Gaullian regime falters
For the "revolutionary" elements who want to make this vast movement an instrument for challenging capitalist power, as for most of those who would like to obtain substantial changes concerning working conditions and the definition of tasks, it is not necessary to this is just a few "quantitative" advantages that will evaporate with inflation. Rejected by the grassroots who disavow the union leadership, they will not be signed, but a certain number of provisions will however be applied (in particular concerning wage increases).
The situation therefore appears to be totally blocked. Moreover, this same May 27, a new student demonstration followed by a big meeting at the Charléty stadium takes place at the call of the UNEF, the PSU of Michel Rocard, and part of the CFDT; Pierre Mendès France attends. The comments made there affirm that the solution to the crisis is "revolutionary". It is true that nothing works any more in the country and that, within the high administration as in the ministries, the persons in charge "prepare their bags". However, the traditional political class did not want to be overwhelmed: the next day, May 28, François Mitterrand gave a press conference during which he noted the vacancy of power and proposed the constitution of a provisional government chaired by P. Mendès France; he asks for the election of a new President of the Republic and also puts forward his candidacy. Likewise, the Communist Party, denouncing the “anti-communism” of the leftists of Charléty, calls for the formation of a “popular government”.
Will the power of the street and the workers' determination get the better of the regime and the “most illustrious of the French”? One can think so when on May 29 the “well informed” circles learn that General de Gaulle has left the capital for an unknown destination. We will learn that he went by helicopter to meet in Baden-Baden General Massu, commander-in-chief of the French forces in Germany. We will never know for what reason. Was he going to ensure the loyalty of the army? Or was it a staging intended to create a fear of heights favoring his return?
At the end of May began to be felt, in Paris and especially in the provinces, the weight of the "silent majority", which stunned by the brutality of the crisis, had passively attended the demonstrations and violence, but felt a growing irritation at the paralysis of the country by strikes, by the closure of banks, the stopping of public transport, the lack of gasoline. General de Gaulle, comforted by his contact on May 29 with the military leaders of the troops stationed in Germany, then decided to return to the scene. On May 30, when many observers in France and abroad were already awaiting the news of his resignation, he delivered in a very energetic tone a short radio speech in which he announced the postponement sine die of the referendum, the dissolution of the National Assembly and new legislative elections. A few hours later an imposing demonstration of a million Gaullists in the Avenue des Champs-Elysées responded to this speech. The next day, the government achieved great psychological success in ensuring the distribution of gasoline. However, the work in the factories resumed very slowly, in the first half of June.
The institutional left can therefore only accept the verdict of the ballot box. Only the PSU and the leftist students denounce the “treason-elections”. And if they try to establish a united front with the striking workers, the efforts of the CGT to avoid contact with these "uncontrolled and irresponsible elements" are crowned with success. The student "revolutionaries", moreover very marginal, will not succeed in dragging the working class into the insurrection. However, on June 7, a high school student chased by the CRS drowned in the Seine after clashes at Renault-Flins. In Peugeot-Montbéliard two demonstrators are shot dead. The Latin Quarter is still the scene of night clashes where trees are felled and cars set on fire. But this is only rearguard fighting. Little by little, work is resuming in the country. The Odeon was evacuated on June 14 and the Sorbonne on the 16th; on the 18th the strike ended at Renault. As the elections approach, the country has almost regained its "normal" image.
The end of the May 1968 crisis
While the left was deeply divided, the Gaullists focused their electoral campaign on the theme of the defense of the Republic against Communist subversion. The fresh images of demonstrations and student depredations were systematically used to create a climate of "great fear". The surge of the Gaullist majority, already very clear in the first round of the elections (June 23), turned into a triumphant success, in the second round, on June 30, 1968: the majority took 358 of the 485 seats in the new assembly. The Gaullist party alone secured an absolute majority of seats, as the left emerged politically crushed, the Communist Party losing 39 seats, the Federation of the Left 61 seats, the opposition centrists 15 seats.
Thanks to the concerted action of Georges Pompidou and the main union leaders, the social crisis will find a peaceful outcome, after nearly a month of blocking economic life. If the crisis of May 1968 was over, it had deeply shaken the Fifth Republic and less than a year later, General de Gaulle lost the referendum of April 28, 1969 and decided to step down. Since 1968, these complex and variously interpreted events have been the subject of numerous studies, and are still frequently used as a reference (positive or negative) by French politicians.
- May 68, by Maurice Grimaud and Olivier Wieviorka. Tempus, 2018.
- May 68, the impossible inheritance, by Jean-Pierre Le Goff. The Discovery, 2006.
- May 68. A history of movement, by Laurent Joffrin. Points Histoire, 2008.