May 1968, When ‘Words Were Set Free’ in France
Posted May 5, 2018 7:19 p.m. EDT
Updated May 5, 2018 7:24 p.m. EDT
Just six weeks after France’s leading newspaper, Le Monde, pronounced that the country was “bored,” too bored to join the youth protests underway in Germany and in the United States, students in Paris occupied the Sorbonne, one of the most illustrious universities in Europe.
The day was May 3, 1968, and the events that ensued over the following month — mass protests, street battles and nationwide strikes — transformed France. It was not a political revolution in the way that earlier French revolutions had been, but a cultural and social one that in a stunningly short time changed French society.
The strikes were more than anything else a rebellion against the rigid hierarchy that characterized many aspects of French life, from the relations of teachers to students, to that between factory managers and workers. The strikes also took aim at the government, which was seen as maintaining the status quo.
“In the history of France it was a remarkable movement because it was truly a mass movement that concerned Paris but also the provinces, that concerned intellectuals but also manual workers,” said Bruno Queysanne, who at the time was an assistant instructor at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, one of the country’s most prestigious art and architecture schools.
“Each person that engaged, engaged himself all the way,” he said. “That was how France could stop running, without there being a feeling of injustice or sabotage. The whole world was in agreement that they should pause and reflect on the conditions of existence.”
Today it is hard to imagine a Western country completely engulfed by a social upheaval, but that is what happened in May 1968 in France. It is hard to find any Frenchman or woman born before 1960 who does not have a vivid and personal recollection of that month.
“Everything was enlarged by 1968; it determined all my life,” said Maguy Alvarez, a teacher of English to elementary school students, as she walked through an exhibition of posters and artworks from the period.
“In religion, in sexual things, what it meant to be a woman — that it did not mean only to serve a man or to submit to men. These are questions you think about your whole life,” she said.
Both the women’s liberation movement and the gay rights movement in France grew out of the 1968 upheaval and the intellectual ferment of the time.
While some people saw the mass strikes and protests as a shattering and painful event that upended social norms — the authority of the father of the family and of the leader of the country — for most, it pushed France into the modern world.
“The 19th century was a very long century,” said Philippe Artières, a historian and researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research and one of the curators of the show on the posters of 1968.
“We’re hardly out of it, and you have to keep in mind that in ’68 we were just 50 years after the revolution of ’17 and a century after the Paris commune,” he said, referring to the Russian Revolution and the 1871 uprising by mostly poor and working class residents of Paris that was brutally put down, leaving as many as 10,000 dead.
President Emmanuel Macron, who was born in 1977, is the first post-1968 French leader not to have personal memories of the upheaval — the exhilaration, the sense of possibility, and the potential power of the street.
Universities across the country shut down as students, often joined by their professors, occupied the classrooms and courtyards. In Paris and other major French cities, workers, students, intellectuals and anyone else who was interested thronged into the street for mass rallies. Blunting the sense of exhilaration were the daily confrontations with police. As early as May 3, police charged into the Sorbonne and ousted the students; in the ensuing melee, some 600 were arrested.
The students returned and quickly set up barricades to stop police from entering the areas where they were massing. The two factions faced off night and day: Police wearing helmets and armed with riot shields, tear gas, truncheons and water cannons; and the university students, sometimes still wearing the ties and jackets mandated at the time by the university administration. The students dug up paving stones from the Paris streets to heave at police.
The night of May 6 was particularly violent, with 600 people wounded and 422 detained, but it was overnight between May 10 and May 11, known as the “night of barricades” that people still talk about.
The protesters ripped up the paving stones from two streets in Latin Quarter, where the Sorbonne is, set fire to cars and confronted police. By the time the bloody fighting ended, hundreds of students had been arrested and hundreds more hospitalized, as were a number of police officers.
“During the night there were very violent protests, cars burned, things broken, but during the day, there was an air of vacation, of summer, a relaxed feeling,” said Queysanne, who later became a professor of the philosophy of architecture at the University of Grenoble and then at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles.
“But then the next day, people came and discussed what they had seen; some were for, some were against. This was incredible, there was freedom of speech, words were set free.”
Amazingly, somehow the violence did not taint the euphoria of the protesters.
“The feeling we had in those days, which has shaped my entire life really, was: We’re making history. An exalted feeling — suddenly we had become agents in world history,” said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the most prominent of the student leaders at the time, in an essay in the May 10 issue of The New York Review of Books. Simultaneously with the student protests, France’s factory workers walked off the job, demanding a new order.
The shipyards in Nantes stopped loading and unloading freighters, and work in much of the car manufacturing and aeronautics industries also ceased. The unions did not call the strikes but when workers and students embraced them, they acquiesced.
By the third week in May, between 10 and 11 million people were on strike.
In France, the enemy of change was the government, then headed by President Charles de Gaulle, who tried to repress the strikes and the sit-ins, but on May 29, he appeared to be overwhelmed.
In an unprecedented move, he left the country without saying either that he was leaving or where he was going. It was a startling turn of events and for a day or two the students and workers thought they had won.
But de Gaulle returned, dissolved the National Assembly and called an election for the end of June. Already, on May 27, the government and the unions had made a deal to get the striking workers back on the job, offering them generous pay increases and benefits.
But the established hierarchy and formality that permeated relationships between teachers and students, parents and children, bosses and workers, and ultimately even politicians and citizens, had been upended.
“At the level of daily life, and the relationships of people with institutions, there were big changes,” said Queysanne
When students returned to classes, they could now ask questions in class and dispute ideas — a revolution in the French educational system. Bosses had to treat their workers better.
But that heady atmosphere of social foment, excitement and a sense of deep camaraderie that cut across class and education, that touched factory workers, students, intellectuals and farmers alike had passed.
There would be other moments of social protests, but none that were quite the same as those that occurred in the Paris spring of 1968.