May 1968 across the decades

Issue: 118

Matt Perry

The French events of May 1968 were a profound shock to General de Gaulle’s ten-year presidency and the French state. A student rebellion at the prestigious University of Paris sparked a general strike of roughly ten million workers. Twenty years after the event former Paris police chief Maurice Grimaud was asked in an interview, “Could the state have collapsed?” He replied in a very revealing manner:

The real danger was when the workers took part. First of all, on 13 May, a great united demonstration of solidarity after the night of the barricades, then the following days when, spontaneously, the youngest workers, without consulting the unions, decided to follow the students. At last from 16 and 17 May, when the large forces of the CGT and CFDT [union federations], understanding that their credibility was at stake, call for the generalisation of the strike. It is then that the fragility of the state appeared clearly. The police could disperse a demonstration, overturn ten or 20 barricades, it could not clear out 100 or 500 factories, workshops, department stores, banks and train stations. And less still get them back to work.1

Scenes of factory and university occupations, mass demonstrations and street fighting suggested a profound political radicalisation of both the labour and student movements, and this has been widely seen as the catalyst for the social movements of the 1970s: the French women’s movement, the environmental movement, anti-racist movements and so on. For a decade hopes of a repetition of the events, and that this would mature into a socialist revolution, circulated quite broadly. However, at the distance of 40 years 1968 has become a victim of pessimism, detractors and those who seek to erase its memory. In 2000 Perry Anderson could claim gloomily that “virtually the entire horizon of the sixties generation has been wiped away”. At his largest rally during the recent French presidential campaign Nicholas Sarkozy stated, “In this election, it is a question of whether the heritage of May 1968 should be perpetuated or if it should be liquidated once and for all.”

First critical crossing: from Nanterre to the Latin Quarter

May 1968 is often characterised as a student, youth and Parisian phenomenon. It is certainly true that a pattern of events escalated from student agitation on the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris. Nanterre epitomised the contradictions of French capitalism and its higher education system. This was an overspill campus that strained with overwhelming student numbers just four years after opening. Beneath the self-congratulatory aura of progress and technology brought about by the post-war capitalist boom, life seemed hollow, with long hours and powerlessness at work or university, supposedly compensated for by consumer goods sold with saturation advertising. Side by side with the promise of prosperity were real squalor and poverty. Next door to the Nanterre campus was a huge shantytown inhabited by unskilled immigrant workers who laboured in Paris’s engineering factories and on its building sites.

At the centre of the Nanterre protests was a group of revolutionaries of various persuasions. The 22 March Movement, which drew together the Nanterre leftists, was a mixture of anarchists, Trotskyists, Maoists and situationists.2 For example, of the “Nanterre Eight” who went before the disciplinary body of the Sorbonne in early May, one was a situationist/enragé, two were anarchists, two were Maoists, two were Trotskyists and one was a student union activist. These left wing strands rejected the Stalinism of the French Communist Party, the largest left party in France. They had emerged out of campaigns of solidarity with Algerians during the War of Independence (1954-62). They also shared a belief that the working class was the agent of revolutionary transformation. This element of cohesion in the movement is all too often forgotten by former leftist commentators who subsequently dropped their orientation on the working class.

Nanterre witnessed an escalating sequence of protests, with teach-ins, occupations and clashes with riot police on campus. Demonstrations demanded the right to visit in female halls of residence, and opposed the Vietnam War, the fascist Occident group and the interventions of the police. The dean closed down Nanterre campus before the Easter holiday, reopening it after the break only to close it down again.

It was the disciplinary hearing of the Nanterre activists in the Latin Quarter from 2 May that transported the agitation into the heart of Paris’s main student area. For several days students, schoolchildren and young workers clashed with police on Paris’s Left Bank. The protests culminated on 10 May in what became known as “the night of the barricades”. At 4.30pm a demonstration gathered at the Place Denfert-Rochereau; by about 9pm students were building barricades with paving stones and overturning cars. The night witnessed the most serious fighting up to that point—367 were hospitalised and 468 arrested. The whole area was thick with tear-gas, and street fighting lasted until the early hours of the morning. The battle inspired the Rolling Stones to write “Street Fighting Man”. News of events was broadcast live on the radio to a large and mesmerised audience. Daniel Cohn-Bendit recalled:

I toured the whole area. Residents were at their windows, offering us food and milk. The atmosphere was fantastic. It’s a moment I shall never forget. People were building up the cobblestones into barricades because they wanted—for the first time—to throw themselves into a collective, spontaneous activity. People were releasing all their repressed feelings, expressing them in a festive spirit. Thousands felt the same needs to communicate with each other, to love one another. That night has forever made me optimistic about history. Having lived through it I can never say “It will never happen”.3

Students collected vivid eyewitness accounts detailing the police violence:

Having gone into the street after having assured myself that there was no more violence at this spot, having been arrested after a few metres of walking, on the corner of Boulevard Saint-Michel and rue Gay-Lussac; having been hit in the face, in the kidneys and legs, without the possibility of explaining myself; having been searched by a CRS [riot policeman] who taking advantage of that, twisted my balls in his hands; having been hit in the face by a plain clothes policeman while two CRS were holding me. This policeman hit me in the solar plexus, the liver and the guts, so much and so well that I threw up; having been truncheoned on the head, in the Adam’s apple, in the face and kidneys; having had my ear cut by the nails of a young CRS.4

With the night of the barricades and its aftermath, three elements coincided to trigger a powerful social movement: the nature of the police violence, the vehemence of the reaction of the students and the sympathy the people of Paris felt for the student rioters. To explain why people responded to police-student clashes in this way, matters need to be put in context. A moral corruption had eaten away at the French state during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62).5 The French army had used torture systematically in the war and the political establishment had lied to cover this up. In Paris the police had attacked and killed as many as 200 Algerians on a demonstration on 17 October 1961. It was officially denied, but a folk knowledge of the event existed based on some brave journalism and the macabre spectacles witnessed by Parisians of dead Algerians floating down the River Seine.6

Algerians were not the only victims of state brutality. The Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS, Secret Army Organisation), formed by right wing army officers, organised terrorist attacks against left wing figures (and even de Gaulle himself). At a 1962 demonstration against an OAS outrage, riot police killed eight peaceful protesters at the entrance to the Charonne metro station in Paris. The truncheon loomed large in the popular imagination and acted as a political educator as to the nature of the French state. In late 1967 and early 1968 there was a willingness on the part of strikers to challenge the riot police physically. Only this forgotten, unexplained context makes sense of the reactions in early May.

The other element of the legacy of the Algerian conflict was the passivity of the Parti Communiste Français (French Communist Party, PCF) and the way in which networks of activists on the far left, especially in the student milieu, had learnt to bypass it. More than that, despite the advertisers’ image of a prosperous France subdued by easily attainable luxuries, these goods were beyond the reach of many, and the boom was built on the alienating grind of commuting and long working hours, summed up by the slogan: “Metro-boulot-dodo” (commute-work-sleep). Even the sustained increase in living standards was a mirage for many workers as the beginnings of an economic slowdown brought the threat of redundancy.

In the ten days running up to the one-day general strike of 13 May there were 107 union, student and farmers’ demonstrations outside Paris.7 These sometimes exhibited remarkable size as well as being unusually militant: with sit-downs, contingents wearing helmets, examples of worker-student unity in Brest, Rennes, Nantes, Le Mans, Saint-Etienne and Forbach, and clashes with the police in Toulouse, Strasbourg and Grenoble. The significance of this is that, although the actions of the small number of Nanterre students led by Cohn-Bendit may have acted as a catalyst to nationwide events, they were not the cause. There was already a deeper process of radicalisation taking place beyond Paris before the night of the barricades.

As in other revolutionary upsurges, during May 1968 it was as though the banks of the Seine burst under the weight of ideas expressed in leaflets, pamphlets, graffiti, posters, newspapers and speech, inundating the entire country. A great diversity of opinions cascaded through the streets, momentarily overwhelming the conformity of the mainstream press and the official stranglehold on public broadcasting. Reading these documents provides a compelling sense that the events shook French society, questioned its every institution and transformed the horizons of countless numbers of participants: that this was the beginnings of a revolutionary process prematurely concluded. This is often ignored by those who romanticise May and celebrate the lowest common denominator of a vague but strident anti-authoritarianism.

Second crossing: one-day strike to indefinite general strike

The unions called a general strike and day of action against repression for 13 May 1968. The movement spread across France, but the process was a complex one. Following national directives, union stewards now excluded far left parties, which had been associated with earlier demonstrations. The motions and appeals of the demonstrations were against repression, for student demands and assorted union claims. Slogans varied but included calls for direct democracy and transformation of the economic system. Some of the demonstrations witnessed militant action, such as refusals to disperse, sit-downs, barricades, clashes with police and the burning of the tricolour, while others called for defence of the republic or sang La Marseillaise.

The general strike initiated a second phase of demonstrations (14-23 May), with 78 held in 37 departments. The majority were sectional union demonstrations, although there were also student and high school demonstrations, and, especially on 22 May, general demonstrations of students and workers. There were fewer demonstrations than in the first fortnight of May, but they were sometimes immense and, while being formally apolitical, the majority mixed economic and anti-government/political slogans.

One element of the movement often neglected in the accounts was the high school students (lycéens) who had become politicised over the issues of Algeria and Vietnam, and the repressive and rigid character of the school system itself. They campaigned against the expulsions of high school students who participated in demonstrations and out of these activities formed the Comité d’Action Lycéens (High School Students’ Committees of Action) from late 1967 onwards. High school students organised in these bodies played a role in the mobilisations of early May around the Sorbonne that led to the night of the barricades. Alongside a nationwide teachers’ strike from
19 May there were many school occupations involving experiments in direct democracy and teaching reform within the schools. For example, this is an extract from the Action Committees’ Commission on Examination:

We are preoccupied with curricula, we cram, we bluff, and learn more for the sake of the exam than to form our personalities. We are judged on bookish knowledge hastily stocked and that one quickly forgets as soon as the exam is finished. The exam privileges competition, emulation for social success, and reinforces individualistic mental habits.8

However, for all the students’ desire for a fundamental transformation, the role of workers is the litmus test for interpretations of May. It is taken for granted that strong revolutionary currents flowed in the student body, in the arts, theatre, architecture and so on, but not so with the workers.

The question of a radicalisation of the workers beyond the limits set by the trade unions is the principal axis along which interpretations of May can be plotted. Mirroring the line of the PCF, Michael Seidman in The Imaginary Revolution views the striking workers of 1968 as exclusively concerned with bread and butter issues: they were seduced by the consumer society that the student leftists were objecting to. The movement came to an end therefore through a combination of state repression and the desire to consume. However, recent work by French labour historians largely contradicts this perspective. They have revealed that, despite the PCF’s efforts to insulate workers from revolutionary ideas and politicisation, physically barring the students from the occupied factories on several occasions, the strikes of May-June 1968 went far beyond an “economic” strike movement. Important glimpses of radicalisation can be detected: many working class activists, like the students, were questioning French capitalist society, imagining just where their strike might take them.

The car industry was central to the French economy and to the strike movement. The car industry witnessed the key moments of the movement: the occupation of Renault Cléon on 15 May, the closure of the gates of Renault Billancourt to the students, the collapse of the Grenelle agreement designed to halt the movement, as well as the violent confrontations with the riot police at Renault Flins and Peugeot Sochaux.9 The workers’ seizures of the plants were largely spontaneous. From the beginning the strikes had a radical and political dimension, to the extent that in the first instance no strike demands were elaborated and the movement spread like a “great rumour”. Despite the “filter” of the CGT union organisation, there were links with revolutionary students, for example, workers travelled from Sochaux or Billancourt to the Latin Quarter and students joined the mass pickets of Flins. The action committee at the Renault Cléon plant near Rouen produced an account of the “fraternal and unforgettable experience” of the 34 days of strike action and occupation, after which they returned to work with a “new spirit”.10

At Citroën, the strike started late and ended late (20 May-24 June).11 The management was hostile to unions, so the strike and occupation became a means of shifting power relations and gaining union recognition in the plants. At the main Javel works a section of 50 younger unskilled workers, who were frustrated with the CGT bureaucracy, established their own occupation in one of the adjacent buildings and affiliated to one of the Maoist revolutionary groups.

After June 1968 industrial relations in the car industry were transformed—as studies of Citroën, Renault and Peugeot confirm. For about five years the revolutionary left was able to gain a hearing in some car plants. Hostility to management sharpened. The cause of the lowest paid, vulnerable unskilled workers many of whom were immigrants, was taken up, as were the questions of the pace of the assembly line, the wage system and bullying foremen.

In the aviation industry, a study of the Dassault plants highlights the connections in memory between the great factory occupations of 1936, the liberation of France after the Second World War and 1968.12 Reforms did not arrive gradually through parliament but were linked to these episodes of extra-parliamentary mass activity. There had been sporadic struggle from the autumn of 1967 at Dassault. It was the news of the occupations at Sud Aviation and Renault Cléon that prompted union activists to call a meeting that led to occupation, despite the hesitancy of the unions. The CGT remained in control of events during the occupation, maintaining a majority on the strike committee. It refused to enter into dialogue with leftist students and leafleted the strikers to boycott a meeting of the non-Stalinist left at the Charléty stadium. There were, however, daily general assemblies, and the canteen was transformed into a place of debate and culture, with visits from musicians, actors and singers. The Dassault workers ended their strike on 10 June, having won increased pay, a reduction in hours and payment for strike days. A section of the workforce was reluctant to return to work and the CFDT union federation had withdrawn from negotiations, but the CGT declared that elections were the way to continue the struggle.

While there have been numerous testimonies provided by those within the regime, the best account of the movement from below is Le Madec’s recollection of the occupation of the Sud Aviation plant near Nantes. This was the first factory to occupy, inspiring others to follow suit. He describes the rapid turn of events that transformed a simple stoppage into an occupation and the imprisonment of the boss in his office. The occupation had initially been suggested by Yvon Rocton, a Trotskyist and strike committee member, as early as 29 April, and was taken up because of the fear that the workplace faced closure or a lockout. Le Madec relates the impressive level of self-organisation and direct democracy required to frustrate the scabs, maintain unity between manual and technical staff, and feed and entertain the workforce. He records the excitement when news arrived that Renault Cléon had followed their lead and occupied. In Nantes striking workers and revolutionary students did mix, and in so doing mutually deepened their politicisation:

In the evening, the students…demonstrated in the town in favour of the strikers of Bouguenais; they distributed leaflets to the population. Their own struggle took on a new significance and new size. Their enthusiasm is overwhelming… For a lot if not for most of them this will be a veritable discovery of the realities of the workers’ struggle. In the first hours of the morning, a delegation made contact with the unions. Bringing real solidarity, they hand over, in the name of AGEN [the students’ union of Nantes], to the inter-union committee of the factory, a sum of 500 francs, destined for the strike fund, as well as blankets.

In the night of the 15th to 16th, around 10pm, a march of students from Nantes arrives at the factory. There are about 1,000, in little groups. Their arrival assumed the character of a “historic meeting”. The workers—perched on the walls of the perimeter—salute them with great gestures, welcome them with cries of sympathy. The contact was warm and good natured. They spread among the workers, around the fires that marked out the street in front of the factory. Several hundred of them will pass the night there, intensely living their first experience of workers. Around the shelters, in the cold night, we eat, we drink fraternally, and above all we discuss. But about what! If not the revolt, the revolution, the worker-student relations, the necessity to unite the struggles into one struggle, of the free university, of student power, of workers’ power, of the role of the middle management in the strike, of the refusal of students to become exploiters, of self-management.13

If the Sud Aviation plant was at one end of the spectrum of the occupations, with its direct democracy and mass involvement, in many workplaces, as Michel Seidman correctly observes, small proportions of the workforce occupied plants, the CGT dominated many of the strike committees, and many general assemblies were run tightly from a top table.14 But Seidman’s view of the French working class is too static and homogeneous. For him no worker was interested in questions of workers’ control (autogestion) or revolution—they were simply exploiting the momentary vulnerability of the state to gain material concessions. In fact, the movement’s shortcomings he describes reflect the efforts of the CGT to limit the movement rather than an inherent conservatism or narrow economism on the part of French workers, and there were significant examples of events escaping the CGT’s parameters.

In the mines, strikes began on 20 May, having as their reference point the miners’ strike of 1963. That strike had foreshadowed 1968 through its impact on workers’ identity, its anti-Gaullist character, its broad questioning of the future and the disillusion felt with the CGT.15 Both 1963 and 1968 highlighted the willingness of miners to fight for the future of their communities in a context of the looming crisis of French capitalism, perhaps most apparent in the coal industry. Many of these communities are now prey to mass unemployment, despair and Le Pen’s National Front.

On the railways, strikers used the telephone and telex systems connecting the stations to relay information about the progress of the movement such as decisions to join the strike, general assemblies, troop and riot police movements and votes on management’s offers.16 The telex records provide a fascinating insight into rank and file attitudes towards the strike. Unlike in some other industries, there was a considerable degree of direct democracy through general assemblies. In addition, a worker’s memoir from one train station in the Alps shows an enthusiasm for the strike movement as well as a scepticism towards official trade union circulars. The rail strike also exhibited a high degree of organisation and discipline, with the impeccable running of essential rail services that were exempted from the strike.

A study of the CSF telecommunications factory in Brest shows the scope, limits and myths of the strike. Here it had been suggested that production had been continued under autogestion (self-management), which was one of the slogans of the CFDT union federation and the left reformist Unified Socialist Party. One group of students from Rennes even came to the factory in the belief that it was producing walkie-talkies to assist the mobilisation of the movement.17 In reality, the myth served the purposes of the CFDT union, which deployed autogestion in its rivalry with the Communist-led CGT.

Autogestion has become a major focus for studies of May 1968. Alexis Bonnet has examined the influence of the idea in the CFDT in Lyon. It arose in the mid-1960s when the former Catholic union shifted to the left. A circular, issued during the events of 1968, called for self-management, and this became CFDT policy at its 1970 conference. The policy fell victim to the right shift in the union in the mid-1970s.18 The term assumed a wide currency after 1968, being taken up by both the Socialist and Communist Parties in the 1970s.19 During this decade it was connected to a number of factory occupations and work-ins (often against redundancy), especially those at Lip in Bescançon, PIL in Cerizay, Pédernec in Brittany and (in 1983) Talbot in Poissy. The meaning of the term varied according to its protagonists. Some connected it to the experience of workers’ control of production after the liberation of France in 1944,20 and this was articulated in a famous article by Daniel Mothé, a Renault worker, in the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie in the 1950s. Others looked to the deceptive Yugoslav version of “self-management” as a model. Autogestion was a concept vague enough to blur the distinction between reform and revolution. So Mitterrand’s Socialist Party used it in 1970 while seeking credibility with the 1968 generation, only to forget it when in office in the 1980s.

The state is shaken

On 24 May, with up to ten million on strike, de Gaulle miscalculated during a broadcast to the nation—calling for a referendum and hysterically warning of civil war. He had abused the students some days earlier (with a pun about “crapping the bed”). This only served to exacerbate his problems. Indeed, between 24 and 30 May a new phase witnessed an intensification of protest and the deepest crisis of the state. In addition to protests in the Paris region, there were an astonishing 465 provincial demonstrations. One in ten of these were farmers’ demonstrations.21 Most were in solidarity with students and workers. While the farmers’ union called for calm, the prefectures of Quimper, Rennes and Agen were stoned, suckling pigs were hung on the railings of the sub-prefecture of Guingamp and there was street-fighting in Le Puy.

The students’ UNEF union also called demonstrations, especially after 22 May to protest at the deportation of Cohn-Bendit. Often the Trotskyist FER played an important role within local UNEF leaderships, with revolutionary slogans prominent where this was the case. For instance, in Nantes the banner at the head of the demonstration read “No to Capitalism, Yes to a Complete Revolution of Society”. Barricades were erected in Strasbourg, Lyons, Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand and Nantes. In Toulouse the town hall was seized. Clashes with police led to 55 injuries in Nantes and 109 in Bordeaux. The CGT’s demonstrations lacked the effervescence shown by the student ones, but was able to mobilise greater numbers, usually attracting support from other unions. There was a notable politicisation during this phase, with fewer demonstrations merely calling for economic demands. Tartakowsky notes that in the provinces there was much greater unity among different groups than at the national level, and the level of mobilisation was not on the wane when de Gaulle regained his nerve and the political initiative on 30 May. Those studies that focus too narrowly on Paris therefore tend to give a distorted picture, underestimating the radicalism of the movement and the role of workers.

On 29 May General de Gaulle fled Paris, causing intense speculation in the movement and panic in government circles. Those who wish to downplay the significance of the events of 1968 have difficulty explaining away de Gaulle’s actions that day. Seidman, for example, overindulges de Gaulle: “The general prudently abandoned the presidential residence…looking for the best way to bolster his authority”.22 Taking a helicopter from his home in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, he arrived in Baden, a French army base in Germany, to visit General Massu. In 1983 General Massu published his account of the event. Massu recalled de Gaulle’s arrival:

I advanced towards him and greeted him, he said to me in downcast fashion, “Everything is f***ed, the communists have provoked paralysis across the whole country. I’m in charge of nothing. There I’m retiring and as I feel threatened in France, my family too, I’ve come to find refuge with you, in order to decide what to do”.23

De Gaulle had admitted to the prime minister, Georges Pompidou, “For the first time in my life I faltered.” Edouard Balladur, a policy adviser in Pompidou’s cabinet and later himself a prime minister, revealed in his memoirs, “The government no longer existed as an organ of deliberation and decision. It was just an incoherent group of confabulators”.24

After the infamous meeting with Massu, de Gaulle regained his composure and the events seemed to end as quickly as they had begun. On
30 May de Gaulle returned to Paris and made a public statement in which he dissolved parliament and called elections. Unlike the earlier tactic of announcing a referendum, which had been universally ridiculed, the prospect of an election hypnotised the reformist left, including the PCF, and they did what they could to bring the movement to a close. A second factor was that, on the same day and for the first time, the right mobilised in large numbers on the streets. Many see 30 May as the symbolic end of the movement, but this obscures the dynamics of the moment.

The return to work

A single day of demonstrations by the right and the threat of force were not enough to explain the end of the movement. Union leaders had already brokered an agreement or “protocol” with employers and the government at Grenelle on 27 May. The leader of the CGT was booed when he presented the deal to a mass meeting at Renault Billancourt. The Grenelle deal became a dead letter and the strikes continued.

The outlook of the PCF and the CGT leaders was contradictory. In workplaces they sought to limit the profound radicalisation taking place. The PCF also repeatedly condemned the student left: “These false revolutionaries must be energetically unmasked because objectively they serve the interest of Gaullist power and the capitalist monopolies.” In a collection of interviews, one Union of Communist Students activist remembered shouting at his fellow students to put the cobblestones back as they were building barricades on 10 May.25

At the same time, the PCF had to associate itself with the popular movement. It directed the strike movement towards “safe” economic demands and sought to use the movement to bolster the bargaining position of the CGT. Only by supporting calls for strikes could the PCF quarantine the factories from the far left. Accounts of meetings between PCF representatives and the Soviet embassy, and secret central committee meetings confirm this ambivalence.26 The PCF also hoped its association with the movement would pay off in elections. In particular, the PCF was pushing for unity with the Socialist Party through the creation of a common programme, and was willing to sacrifice the revolutionary passions and potential of 1968 to further this dubious and purely electoral project.27

When the Gaullists increased their majority in the parliamentary elections at the end of June 1968, Waldeck Rochet, general secretary of the PCF, blamed the far left for scaring off the middle class. He added that “the most pressing danger…is today leftism”.28 He ignored the workers’ rejection of the Grenelle agreement, which the Communist leadership had pushed, and condemned the Unified Socialist Party, which had opposed the return to work. Answering the criticism that the PCF had failed to act as a revolutionary party, Waldeck Rochet congratulated the party for avoiding a “bloody and hopeless adventure”.

The party rushed to print to rebut the criticism that it had betrayed the revolution and that it “neither recognised nor understood” the students.29 PCF journalist Laurent Salini’s Mai des Proletaires sought to explain how the party that had led France’s greatest general strike could lose 600,000 votes in legislative elections less than a month later. Salini blamed the rest of the left, especially focusing on the “improvisation of the irregular army of the petty bourgeoisie” (as he calls the revolutionary left).30 His analysis confirmed the leaden dogmatism of Stalinism and the failure to understand the open-ended character of the process of revolution. From 30 May he argued there was only one possible outcome—a return to work and elections. As Salini unwittingly revealed, this was certainly the outcome that the PCF intended and it had sufficient influence to ensure its realisation. Salini regarded each return to work as a victory for the workers for the perversely illogical reason that it prevented the isolation of those still on strike.

With equal absurdity Salini asserted that the far left were responsible for violent police interventions to force returns to work. In reality the CGT and the PCF—from Grenelle and particularly after de Gaulle’s announcement of elections—were desperate to end the strike movement. It was this that exposed more militant sections to the violence of the riot police’s strikebreaking. The return to work exposed both the students and more militant sections of the workforce to fierce state repression. On 12 June, Raymond Marcellin banned the far left groups, subjecting them to waves of arrests and harassment. Police numbers were massively increased. Campuses and high schools were saturated with police. To intimidate the left further, on 15 June Raoul Salan and Georges Bidault, notorious right wing terrorists of the OAS, were released from jail.

Despite the rejection of Grenelle, the CGT was influential enough to get a piecemeal return. It concluded deals on 1 June in the nationalised mining industry and Electricité de France (EDF), but the EDF workers would not go back without the rail workers. The sentiment of not wishing to break ranks was strong. On the rail the CGT pursued informal contacts with management to resolve the dispute. When the CGT argued it would take 200 million francs to get the rail workers to go back to work, de Gaulle and Pompidou agreed. They knew that this would drag the public sector workers back and then allow negotiated returns to work industry by industry. A rail agreement was signed on 4 June, but there was still strong rank and file opposition to the return. The CGT and CFDT sold the deal—branches where the CGT was strong voted to end the strike, and these votes were circulated by the union to undermine the resolve elsewhere. Despite these tactics, there were some strong “no” votes. At Nevers 95 percent voted against the offer; at Vaires, 500 rail workers voted unanimously “no” to unconditional return and the majority voted for a continuation of the strike until strike days were paid in full. When rail workers returned on 6 June and read the detail of the deal, many felt they had been conned. But, as the government had hoped, a general return in the public sector took place at this time.

The sections that fought on, such as the car industry, were now exposed. They witnessed unprecedented police brutality on picket lines at the larger plants. After days of violent clashes with riot police at Renault Flins the CGT was barely able to secure a majority in favour of a return to work. Having been on the pickets at Flins on 10 June, Gilles Tautin, a teenage Maoist, was chased into the Seine by riot police and drowned. At Citroën Sochaux riot police killed two on the picket lines.

A short fly on the wall documentary made by a film student captures the bitterness of the return to work among those who wished to go “right to the end”. The film, entitled the Return to Work at the Wonder Factory, observes an overwrought young woman arguing with a union official against the return to work in a factory in Saint Ouen in the Parisian suburbs.31 After three weeks of occupation employers called the workers together. They voted 560 to 260 in favour of the return to work. The woman worker cries and pleads with the local CGT officials against returning; they tell her that a 6 percent pay increase is “a victory” or a “stage in a process”:

We haven’t even had a month’s break from there… No, I will not go back. No, I will not go back in there. I wouldn’t put a foot in that prison. You could see what a shithole it is. We’re disgusting up to here [pointing to upper arms], covered in black. The women [secretaries] sit in their offices, they don’t give a shit, chatting up the boss. We’re not going to get anything now… First of all, for the vote, they’ve rigged it… It was sabotaged, the vote. It was rigged… Why for all that, we’ve got an extra half day paid leave… Hey, look, yeah, not bad! [Sarcastically, having been shown the agreement]… Why would I return? It’s not worth the bother of returning… Go back in there, see what it’s like… We don’t even have stuff to wash ourselves with. We don’t even have a sink. Everything is disgusting in there… Even to go to the bog, we aren’t allowed.

This anonymous woman, like millions of French workers, had tasted freedom and power, and dreamed about a life beyond the control of the bosses. She knew that she had been sold short by the union.


Writing shortly after May 1968, Tony Cliff and Ian Birchall characterised the events as an illustration of the dynamic of workers’ struggles frustrated by the dead weight of the Stalinist bureaucracies of the CGT and the PCF.32 In this regard, though with different inferences, the recent work of French labour historians has basically confirmed this picture. So too, implicitly, has the second element of Cliff and Birchall’s analysis been corroborated—their critique of the cult of spontaneity. Although the students provided a largely spontaneous trigger for a generalising strike movement, spontaneity could not challenge the entrenched position of the bureaucracies of the PCF and CGT or mount a sustained challenge to the French state.33

In France the Revolutionary Communist League made a similar argument in an open letter to Cohn-Bendit published in late 1968 in their paper Rouge.34 This crucial point is lost on many of those on the left—such as Kurlansky or Freedman and Feenberg—who naturally enough wish to find an alternative to Stalinism, but who situate May 1968 as the beginning of a new style of autonomist or movementist politics that exists among a section of the anti-capitalist left today.

Twenty years after the event Chris Harman wrote an international history of 1968 looking at the cycle of rise and decline of the revolutionary hopes and episodes that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s that confronted global capitalism.35 While much interesting new research has illuminated a rich level of detail about the events, from an analytical point of view these works, by Harman, and Cliff and Birchall, have not been surpassed. Given that May 1968 remains a point of reference for so many on the anti-capitalist left, this is worth remembering amid the commemorations, nostalgia and inevitable rash of publications and documentaries in this, its 40th anniversary. Finally, to return to Sarkozy, if the transport strikes of last October and his retreat in a celebrity lifestyle of divorces and dating former models are anything to go by, his desire to liquidate the heritage of 1968 is failing.


1: Grimaud, 1988, p68.

2: Some authors tend to select their preferred political strand of leftism-in the case of Viénet, 1992, or Freedman and Feenberg, 2001, the enragé/situtationists-and attribute the movement to their actions. Freedman and Feenberg celebrate 1968 as the end of socialism and the beginning of a new movement of opposition to capitalism. For them, the movement began from the “meagre beginnings of a dozen anarchists”, but this is simply misrepresentation. To say that “one of the most outstanding aspects of the movement” was its “anti-communism” is to conflate the Stalinism of the French Communist Party with the Marxism of other leftist currents and to obscure their participation in events (Freedman and Feenberg, 2001, p9).

3: Fraser, 1988, p186.

4: UNEF/SNESup, 1968, p66.

5: Ross, 2002, chapter one, gives the best account of this. Ross’s book is the best recent history of the French events, with a refreshing focus on the workers, and the media distortions at the time of their anniversary.

6: The police chief of Paris until 1967, the ubiquitous Maurice Papon had served under the Vichy regime, signing away the lives of French Jews. He had been responsible for colonial repression in Algeria at the end of the Second World War and later as Parisian police chief he had instituted “rat hunts” against Algerian immigrants as a common practice. During 1968 he was a managing director at Sud-Aviation!

7: Tartakowsky, 1992.

8: Comités d’Action Lycéens, 1968, p122.

9: Hatzfeld, 2000.

10: Comité d’Action, 1968.

11: Hassenteufel, 2002.

12: Capitaine, 2002.

13: Le Madec, 1988, p66.

14: Seidman, 2004. Seidman has an implicit hierarchy of evidence, relying disproportionately on sources from the Ministry of the Interior, the Parisian police, the engineering employers, which he treats as reliable, whereas those of trade unions and the parties of the left are absent, and evidence from the movement itself is judged as belonging to a realm of fantasy.

15: Kouchid and Eckert, 1992, mention this last element but, given their reliance on union sources, they do not discuss it fully.

16: Mouriaux et al, 1992, pp119-140.

17: Porhel, 2000, p395.

18: Bonnet, 2000.

19: Georgi, 2003.

20: A recent study of Marseilles examines the forgotten experience of 14 workplaces-docks, electricity, steel, shipyards with 14,000 workers-under workers’ management between 1945 and 1947. See Mencherini, 1994.

21: Tartakowsky, 1992.

22: Seidman, 2004, p215.

23: Massu, 1983, pp79-92. They had always seen eye to eye. In 1958 de Gaulle asked Massu if he was still a prat. Massu replied, “Yes, I’m still a Gaullist.”

24: Pompidou, 1982, p201, Balladur quoted in Dogan, 1984, p252.

25: Translations from Cercle Barbara Salutati, 2002. Even more starkly, another recalled, “I remember being ashamed of being a communist. I remember feeling obliged to ‘participate’ and dared not do otherwise. I remember never having been beaten and having cruelly suffered. How it was difficult to swim against the stream! I remember not knowing what to say or how to respond. I remember the enthusiasm, the blossoming of words, and in front of that, my enclosure and silence. I remember … May 68 was a nightmare.”

26: Moullec, 1998.

27: An electoral alliance with the Socialist Party was achieved in 1972 but it fell apart in 1977. During that short space of time the PCF allowed François Mitterrand’s Socialist Party to displace it as the main force on the left-the PCF vote roughly halved.

28: Rochet, 1968.

29: Salini, 1968, p8.

30: Salini, 1968, p172.

31: Jacques Willemont, La Reprise du Travail aux Usines Wonder (1968). For a fascinating follow-up documentary see Hervé Le Roux’s Reprise: un Voyage au Coeur de la Classe Ouvrière (1996).

32: Cliff and Birchall, 2001.

33: For an excellent social science analysis of spontaneity and its limits, see Gilcher-Holtey, 1998.

34: Rouge, number 3, 16 October 1968. The article is entitled: “What Organisation Do We Need?: Spontaneity And Organisation: Response To The Cohn-Bendit Brothers.”

35: Harman, 1988.


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