May 1968, referring to the
period when the events occurred in France, saw the
largest general strike that ever
stopped the economy of an advanced
industrial country, the first wildcat general strike in history, and
a series of student occupation protests.
- For other events in May 1968, see 1968.
strike involved eleven million workers for two weeks in a row, and
its impact was such that it almost caused the collapse of the
government of President Charles de
. Such explosion was provoked by groups in revolt against
and technical society,
that were even more critical of Stalinist
than of Western capitalism
The movement contrasted with the labor
and the French
(Parti Communiste Français, PCF), which started
to side with the de Gaulle government in the goal of containing the
Many saw the events as an opportunity to shake up the "old society"
and traditional morality, focusing especially on the education
system and employment. It began as a long series of student strikes that broke out at a number of
universities and lycées in Paris, following
confrontations with university administrators and the
police. The de Gaulle administration's attempts to
quash those strikes by police action only inflamed the situation
further, leading to street battles with the police in the Latin Quarter, followed by a general strike by students and
strikes throughout France by eleven million French workers, roughly
two-thirds of the French workforce.
The protests reached
such a point that de Gaulle created a military operations
headquarters to deal with the unrest, dissolved the National Assembly
and called for
new parliamentary elections for 23 June 1968.
government was close to collapse at that point (de Gaulle had even
taken temporary refuge at an air force base in Germany), but
violence evaporated almost as quickly as it arose.
went back to their jobs, after a series of deceptions by the
Générale du Travail
(the leftist union federation) and the PCF.
When the elections were finally held in June, the Gaullist party
emerged even stronger than before.
May 1968 was a political failure for the protesters, but it had an
enormous social impact. In France, it is considered to be the
watershed moment when a conservative moral ideal (religion,
patriotism, respect for authority) shifted towards a more liberal
moral ideal (equality, sexual
, human rights
today better describes French society, in theory if not in
practice. Although this change did not take place solely in this
one month, the term mai 68
is used to refer to this
general shift in principles, especially when referring to its most
The events before May
On 22 March far-left groups, a small number of prominent poets and
musicians, and 150 students, occupied an administration building at
Paris University at
and held a meeting in the university council room
dealing with class discrimination in French society and the
political bureaucracy that controlled the school's funding.
The school's administration called the police, who surrounded the
university. After the publication of their wishes, the students
left the building without any trouble. After this first record,
some leaders of what was named the "Movement of 22 March
" were called
together by the disciplinary committee of the university.
The events of May
Following months of conflicts between students and authorities at
the University of Paris at
, the administration shut down that university on 2 May
1968. Students at the Sorbonne
University in Paris met on 3 May
to protest against the closure and the threatened expulsion of
several students at Nanterre.
On Monday, 6 May, the national
, the Union Nationale des
Étudiants de France
(UNEF) — still the largest student
union in France today — and the union of university teachers
called a march to protest against the police invasion of Sorbonne.
More than 20,000 students, teachers and supporters marched towards
Sorbonne, still sealed off by the police, who charged, wielding
their batons, as soon as the marchers approached. While the crowd
dispersed, some began to create barricades out of whatever was at
hand, while others threw paving stones, forcing the police to
retreat for a time. The police then responded with tear gas and
charged the crowd again. Hundreds more students were
High school student unions spoke in support of the riots on 6 May.
day, they joined the students, teachers and increasing numbers of
young workers who gathered at the Arc de Triomphe to demand that:
- all criminal charges against arrested students be dropped,
- the police leave the university, and
- the authorities reopen Nanterre and Sorbonne. Negotiations
broke down after students returned to their campuses, after a false
report that the government had agreed to reopen them, only to
discover the police still occupying the schools. The students now
had a near revolutionary fervor.
On Friday, 10 May, another huge crowd congregated on the Rive Gauche
. When the riot
again blocked them from crossing the river, the crowd
again threw up barricades, which the police then attacked at 2:15
in the morning after negotiations once again foundered. The
confrontation, which produced hundreds of arrests and injuries,
lasted until dawn of the following day. The events were broadcast
on radio as they occurred and the aftermath was shown on television
the following day. Allegations were made that the police had
participated, through agents
, in the riots, by burning cars and throwing
The government's heavy-handed reaction brought on a wave of
sympathy for the strikers. Many of the nation's more mainstream
singers and poets joined after the heavy-handed police brutality
came to light. American artists also began voicing support of the
strikers. The PCF reluctantly supported the students, whom it
regarded as adventurers and anarchists
and the major left union federations, the Confédération
Générale du Travail
(CGT) and the Force Ouvrière
(CGT-FO), called a
one-day general strike and demonstration for Monday, 13 May.
Well over a million people marched through Paris on that day; the
police stayed largely out of sight. Prime Minister Georges Pompidou
personally announced the
release of the prisoners and the reopening of Sorbonne. However,
the surge of strikes did not recede. Instead, the protesters got
even more active.
When Sorbonne reopened, students occupied it and declared it an
autonomous "people's university". Approximately 401 popular action
committees were set up in Paris, including the Occupation Committee of
, and elsewhere in the weeks that followed to take up
grievances against the government and French society.
following days, workers began occupying factories, starting with a
sit-down strike at the Sud Aviation
plant near the city of Nantes on 14 May,
then another strike at a Renault parts plant
near Rouen, which
spread to the Renault manufacturing
complexes at Flins in the Seine Valley and the Paris suburb of
16 May, workers had occupied roughly fifty factories, and by 17
May, 200,000 were on strike. That figure snowballed to two million
workers on strike the following day and then ten million, or
roughly two-thirds of the French workforce, on strike the following
These strikes were not led by the union movement; on the contrary,
the CGT tried to contain this spontaneous outbreak of militancy by
channeling it into a struggle for higher wages and other economic
demands. Workers put forward a broader, more political and more
radical agenda, demanding the ousting of the government and
President de Gaulle and attempting, in some cases, to run their
factories. When the trade union leadership negotiated a 35%
increase in the minimum wage, a 7% wage increase for other workers,
and half normal pay for the time on strike with the major
employers' associations, the workers occupying their factories
refused to return to work and jeered their union leaders.
On 25 May and 26 May, the Grenelle
were signed at the Ministry of Social
. They provided for an increase of the minimum wage by
25% and of the average salaries by 10%. These offers were rejected,
and the strike went on. The working class and top intellectuals
were joining in solidarity for a major change in workers'
On 27 May,
the meeting of the UNEF, the most outstanding of the events of May
1968, proceeded and gathered 30,000 to 50,000 people in the
The meeting was extremely militant with
speakers demanding the government be overthrown and elections
On 29 May,
Charles de Gaulle fled to the headquarters of the French military
in Germany, in Baden-Baden, to meet general Jacques
Massu; he came back the next day.
Though this move was
initially appraised as a political maneuver, Massu's later
testimony was that Charles de Gaulle was really disheartened when
he arrived in Baden.
On 30 May, 400,000 to 500,000 protesters (many more than the 50,000
the police were expecting) led by the CGT marched through Paris,
chanting, "Adieu, de Gaulle!
" (Meaning: "Farewell, de
While the government appeared to be close to collapse, de Gaulle
remained firm, even though he had had to go into hiding. After
ensuring that he had sufficient loyal military units mobilized to
back him if push came to shove, he went on the radio the following
day (the national television service was on strike) to announce the
dissolution of the National Assembly, with elections to follow on
23 June. He ordered workers to return to work, threatening to
institute a state of emergency
they did not.
Events of June and July
From that point, the revolutionary feeling of the students and
workers faded away. Workers gradually returned to work or were
ousted from their plants by the police. The national student union
called off street demonstrations. The government banned a number of
leftist organizations. The police retook the Sorbonne on 16 June.
De Gaulle triumphed in the legislative elections held in
, and the crisis came to an end. On Bastille Day, there were resurgent street
demonstrations in the Latin Quarter, led by leftist students wearing red arm-bands and
anarchist students wearing black arm-bands. The Paris police and the Compagnies
Républicaines de Sécurité responded with brutal repression
starting around 10 p.m. and continuing through the night, on the
streets, in police vans, at police stations, and in hospitals where
many wounded were taken.
There was, as a result, much
bloodshed among many students and tourists there for the evening's
festivities. No charges were filed against police or
demonstrators, but the UK and West Germany filed formal protests, including for the indecent
assault of two English school-girls by police in a police
Slogans and graffiti
It is difficult to identify precisely the politics of the students
who sparked the events of May 1968, much less of the hundreds of
thousands who participated in them. There was, however, a strong
strain of anarchism
, particularly in the
students at Nanterre. While not exhaustive, the graffiti gave a
sense of the millenarian
spirit, tempered with a good deal of verbal wit, of the strikers
(the anti-work graffiti shows the considerable influence of the
- Boredom is counterrevolutionary
- We don’t want a world where the guarantee of not dying of
starvation brings the risk of dying of boredom.
- In a society that has abolished every kind of adventure the
only adventure that remains is to abolish the society.
- Those who make revolutions half way only dig their own
- Run, comrade, the old world is behind you!
- We will ask nothing. We will demand nothing. We will take,
- When the National Assembly becomes a bourgeois theater, all the
bourgeois theaters should be turned into national assemblies.
(Written above the entrance of the occupied Odéon Theater)
- Warning: ambitious careerists may now be disguised as
- Stalinists, your children are with us!
- Be cruel.
- A single nonrevolutionary weekend is infinitely more bloody
than a month of total revolution.
- Under the paving stones, the beach.
- Live without dead time.
- Be realistic, demand the impossible.
- If God existed it would be necessary to abolish him.
- I love you!!! Oh, say it with paving stones!!!
References in popular culture
- Released in August of 1967, Jean Luc
Godard's film La Chinoise
portrays the ideas of a small group of students, while his 1972
film Tout va bien (made with
Jean-Pierre Gorin and the Dziga Vertov Group) portrays attitudes
four years after the May movement.
- René Viénet's 1973 film
Can dialectics break
bricks? dealt with the concepts surrounding May 1968,
parodying the events within the narrative.
- Guy Debord's 1973 film The Society of the
Spectacle dealt with the motivations around the events of
May 1968. The film also contains large amounts of archival footage
of the events.
- Alain Tanner's 1976 film
Jonah Who Will
Be 25 in the Year 2000 follows the lives of couples in the
wake of the social and political tumult of May 1968, the various
people including a history professor, a trade unionist and a bohemian.
- Chris Marker's 1977 film
A Grin Without a Cat
is a three-hour-long film documentary portraying the history behind
the social unrests of the sixties. Made with archival images, it
deals with May 1968 in depth.
Paskaljević's 1984 film Varljivo leto '68 (The Elusive
Summer of '68) tells a story of a young man growing up in a
small Yugoslav town, during the students' protests provoked by the
events in France.
- Milou in May is a 1990
film by Louis Malle which portrays the
impact of revolutionary fervour on a French village.
- Roman Coppola's 2001 film
CQ depicts the Paris film-making
world of the late 1960s and makes repeated reference to the events
of May 1968.
- Bernardo Bertolucci's 2003
film The Dreamers is
about three young students and their experiences in May 1968,
although it features the events mainly as a backdrop and not
predominantly within the primary plot.
- Philippe Garrel's 2005 film
Regular Lovers is a
three-hour-long rejoinder to The Dreamers that portrays
the May 1968 events through the eyes of a group of young artists
who grow increasingly absorbed in a world of drugs and free love
upon what they see as the failure of the May 1968 events.
- Robert Merle's book Derrière la
vitre is a novel set in the May 1968 events.
- Rocío Durán Barba's
book Tengo algo que decir: 1968-2008 is a novel about this
revolution and the consequences of the movement.
- Alfredo Bryce
Echenique's book La vida exagerada de Martín Romaña
has a few chapters surrounding the events of May 1968.
- The Merry Month of
May is James Jones's
1971 novel concerning the 1968 events in Paris. It is centered
around a rich American family, the Gallaghers, living as
expatriates in Paris.
- Mavis Gallant wrote two essays
covering the May 1968 events for The
New Yorker. Entitled "The Events in May: A Paris
Notebook", Parts I and II have been anthologized in her essay
collection Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews.
- The Rolling Stones' song
"Street Fighting Man" was
heavily influenced by the student riots.
- Vangelis released an LP, dubbed a poème symphonique, entitled
Fais Que Ton Rêve Soit Plus Long Que La Nuit, which was a
recording collage reflecting the May
1968 strikes. Vangelis was in Paris at the time recording with
- The video for Röyksopp's single
"Only This Moment" depicts events
from the May 1968 riots.
- The Stone Roses's song "Bye Bye
Badman", from their eponymous
album, is about the riots. The album's cover has the
tricolore and lemons on the front (which were used to nullify the
effects of tear gas).
- Renaud wrote the song "Crève
Salope" during the protests, and it became a favourite of the
- The Pretenders' song 'When Will I See You' references the
slogan 'soyez realistes - demandez l'impossible' and mentions 'when
the people come out in the streets at night', and being one of the
- The Beginning of an Era, from
No 12 (September 1969). Translated by Ken Knabb.
- De Gaulle, Televised speech of June 7th, 1968. Quoted in
Viénet (1968) Enragés et situationnistes dans le mouvement
des occupations (Paris: Gallimard)
- "Ils voulaient un patron, pas une coopérative
Monde, interview with Michel Rocard, 20 March 2007
- Mattei Dogan, How Civil War Was Avoided in France,
International Political Science Review / Revue internationale de
science politique, Vol. 5, No. 3, Political Crises (1984), pp.
- Speech of 30 May 1968
- Roy Carr, The
Rolling Stones: An Illustrated Record, Harmony Books, 1976.
ISBN 0-517-526417. p. 55.
- Adair, Gilbert. The Holy Innocents
- Bourg, Julian. From Revolution
to Ethics: May 1968 and Contemporary French Thought.
- Castoriadis, Cornelius
with Claude Lefort and Edgar Morin. Mai 1968: la brèche.
- Cliff, Tony and Ian Birchall.
France – the struggle goes on. Full text at marx.org
- Cohn-Bendit, Daniel.
Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative.
- Dark Star Collective. Beneath the Paving Stones:
Situationists and the Beach, May 68.
- Feenberg, Andrew and Jim Freedman. When Poetry Ruled the
- Ferlinghetti, Lawrence.
Love in the Days of Rage (novel).
- Gregoire, Roger and Perlman,
Fredy. Worker-Student Action Committees: France May
'68. Full text
- Jones, James. The Merry Month of May (novel).
- Knabb, Ken. Situationist International
- Kurlansky, Mark. 1968: The
Year That Rocked The World.
- Marcus, Greil. Lipstick
Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century.
- Emile Perreau-Saussine, "Liquider mai 68?", in Les droites en
France (1789-2008), CNRS Editions, 2008, p. 61-68
- Plant, Sadie.
The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a
- Quattrochi, Angelo and Nairn, Tom. The Beginning of the
- Ross, Kristin. May '68 and its
- Seale, Patrick and Maureen
McConville. Red Flag/Black Flag: French Revolution
- Singer, Daniel.
Prelude To Revolution: France In May 1968.
- Touraine, Alain. The May Movement: Revolt and
- Casevecchie, Janine. MAI 68 en photos:,Collection
Roger-Viollet, Editions du Chene - Hachette Livre, 2008.
- The Philippe Zoummeroff Collection of May 1968
protest posters at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale
- May 68:
Collection on Zazzle, MAI 68 on Zazzle,
- May 1968: 40 Years Later, City Journal,
- Maurice Brinton: Paris May 1968
- Posters from May 1968
- More Posters from May 1968
- Picture gallery
- Pictures of May 1968 in Paris by Jean-Claude
- May 1968,
Essex students revolt
- May Events Archive of Documents
- May 68 : A Contested History, Chris Reynolds,
Sens Public Review
- May 68, the
revolution in pictures Pictures and sounds of the revolution,
in France and in the whole world
- Marking the French Social Revolution of 1968,
an NPR audio report
- Barricades of May ’68 Still Divide the French
New York Times
- Situationist International Online