It’s 50 years since Paris witnessed the incredible power of workers and students united, as millions took to the streets to challenge the reactionary French state, and shook the very class system to its core. We look at how events unfolded, and why the demands and action at their heart remain relevant today.
On the 22nd of March 1968, 150 students, far left groups, poets and musicians occupied the administration building of Nanterre University outside Paris to protest /discuss class discrimination in French society and political bureaucracy that controlled university funding. The university was still under construction, and some 12,000 students were expected to study in what was effectively still a building site. Not only that, but there was strict segregation between male and female students – which didn’t go down well at a time of growing sexual emancipation. In response to the occupation, the administration called the police. After announcing their demands, students left without incidence. But then they took their protest movement to the Sorbonne in the very centre of Paris.
On the 2nd of May, following months of conflict, the administration shut down Nanterre university. Students at Sorbonne university met on the 3rd to protest the closure and expulsion of several students at Nanterre.
On May 6 the national student union (UNEF) and the union of teachers called a march. More than 20,000 students, teachers and supporters marched toward the Sorbonne, which was still sealed off by the police, who charged wielding their batons. As the students dispersed some started building barricades and throwing cobble stones, forcing the police to retreat. The police responded with tear gas and charged again. Hundreds of students were arrested
The following day the protest numbers swelled as high school students joined in. Students, teachers and workers gathered at the Arc de Triomphe with three demands. First, that all criminal charges against arrested students be dropped. Second, that police leave the campus. And thirdly, that the authorities to reopen the university.
On Friday another huge crowd congregated on the Rive Gauche, when they were blocked from crossing the river. Again they threw up barricades. Police attacked at 2.15 am, there were hundreds of injuries and arrests, fighting lasted until dawn the events were covered on television and radio with allegations that police provocateurs burned cars and threw Molotov cocktails, causing sympathy for the students.
After initially being very critical of the students, the major unions, the CGT and the CGT-FO – embarrassed by the support from rank and file worker for the students, contrasted with their own inaction - finally called a general strike and demonstration for the 13th. Well over a million people marched through Paris on that day. The police stayed out of sight – clearly vindicating Marx’s view that the workers are the only group in society capable of overthrowing the bourgeois capitalists. Alone, the students had been victim to police violence; with the backing of the workers, their power was unstoppable.
In a very telling interview with the head of police afterwards, he said “The real danger was when the workers took part… when the large forces of the CGT and the [union federations], understanding that their credibility was at stake, call for the generalization of the strike. It is then that the fragility of the state appeared clearly. The police could disperse a demonstration, overturn 10 or 20 barricades. It could not clear out 100 or 500 factories, workshops, department stores, banks and train stations, less still get them back to work."
The prime minister announced the release of all the detained students, the reopening of the Sorbonne, and the students moved in and occupied, naming it the people’s university.
A total of 401 action committees were set up to take grievances to the state and French society. The workers started occupying factories - 50 by the 16th May, 200,000 on strike on the 17th, 2 million by the 18th. Then 10 milion – two-thirds of the workforce and 20% of the population of France – took part the following week.
The CGT tried to channel the energy into wage demands, but the workers and students demanded the ousting of the government and President de Gaulle, and attempted to run their own factories. The CGT negotiated a 35% increase in the minimum wage and a 7% increase for all workers, but the workers and students jeered at the officials.
This is another important lesson, demonstrating the follies of reformist parties.
The French communist party was a Stalinist reformist organisation that had ambitions of being in a coalition government with the socialist party. It was wedded to the parliamentary system and did not want revolution because it would destroy their privileged position in the capitalist system. It was their influence on the workers that discouraged them from going the whole hog and achieving a workers’ and people’s democracy based on workers’ soviets and people’s councils as opposed to the fake so-called democracy based on voting every few years. And then leaving the lying politicians to look after the interests of the corporate powers .
The general strike continued for 2 weeks until finally De Gaulle fled the country and most officials believed the revolution was a fait accompli.
On the 30th May, thousands of protesters marched through the streets chanting ‘Adieu de Gaulle!”. That same day, de Gaulle announced an election on the 23rd of June, which he won by a large majority.
But the lessons of May 68 remain clear and relevant. First, the importance of having an organised group of socialists ready to respond when these events erupt - which they can at any time. Workers will, and should, be the ones to make the revolution but the role of an organised group that can cut through the fakery of reformism and guide workers to taking power, is key. A group which has won the confidence of workers well beforehand by supporting them in their struggles. Another important point, often discussed among socialists and anarchists, is the question of violence in a revolution. In May 68, when a small group of radicals were involved, the state used violence against them, but once the workers came out en masse, the police were nowhere to be seen.
This has been demonstrated repeatedly in history; the police and army are very brave when they outnumber you easily and obviously but when revolution is imminent they start reconsidering there options.
A la victoire!