"All Power to the Imagination"
By Andrew Feenberg
1968: THE YEAR OF STUDENT REVOLT Mass university education arrives in the 1960s, along with a radical youth culture. The War in Vietnam is a trigger for youth activism worldwide. Huge demonstrations in the United States and Europe mobilize tens of thousands of young people in the streets. Universities are challenged too. In Berkeley in 1964 the students demand the right to oppose the war and racial discrimination on campus. France is relatively quiet but suddenly on May 3 of 1968 the universities explode. A small demonstration at the main building of the Sorbonne is suppressed by the police and the university closed. A month of escalating demonstrations and strikes follows. Soon, for the first and only time a New Left student movement inspires a general strike. Nearly ten million workers join the strike throughout the entire country. The regime is threatened by a revolutionary upsurge.
CLOSING OF THE SORBONNE The Sorbonne is occupied by the police. The students fight to return to classes. Police batons teach lessons of revolt. The students discover revolutionary uses for the old cobblestones covering Paris streets. Many are injured but each day more join the fight.
THE NIGHT OF THE BARRICADES The night of May 10 the students, now joined by many young workers from the suburbs, build barricades of cobblestones throughout the Latin Quarter. The repression is so violent it shocks the nation.
BACK IN THE SORBONNE The Government retreats and reopens the Sorbonne. The students return but not to class. A "General Assembly" holds continuous sessions in the large auditorium. Daniel Cohn-Bendit rejects the role of leader but everyone listens to him just the same.
THE END OF SILENCE A sudden outpouring of speech and writing blankets Paris with revolutionary messages. The walls are covered with graffiti and posters, leaflets by the thousands are handed out in the streets, new newspapers and magazines spring up, and most important, people stop to talk in streets that are now abandoned by cars as gasoline runs out.
THE GENERAL STRIKE BEGINS The students organize a protest march with the unions and left political parties. Scheduled for May 13, the protest mobilizes hundreds of thousands of Parisians. The student movement has become a headache for the government, as illustrated on the cover of the new student newspaper, "Action."
WORKERS IN REVOLT After the May 13 demonstrations workers refuse to go back to work. They occupy hundreds of factories, lock the gates and put out red flags. The economy is paralyzed, the country in chaos.
SELF-MANAGEMENT The movement is not unified and has no single group of leaders or ideology. Action committees form in neighborhoods and factories. Their long term goals are not easily defined. But dissatisfaction with the steep social hierarchies of management and administration is a common theme. Socialist self-management is discussed everywhere as an innovative alternative to capitalism and Soviet communism.
THE CHARLETY MEETING After weeks of demonstrations and riots, the opposition parties, the unions, and the students call a huge political meeting at the Charlety stadium on May 27. The state apparatus is collapsing as government ministries join the strike. Only the police and the state controlled television remain in the service of the government.
THE RETURN OF DE GAULLE De Gaulle was faced with a choice: either resign or threaten civil war to remain in power. On May 29 he flew to Germany to gather the support of the professional army. On May 30 he returned and gave a speech in which he vowed to "defend the republic" against its enemies. His supporters rejoiced in a huge counter-demonstration.
THE REACTION De Gaulle threatened repression but also promised reforms to satisfy the demands of the population. The Gaullist youth movement claimed to continue the revolution under de Gaulle's leadership. The Communist Party and the main union federation, the CGT, now worked to end to the strikes.
THE DEATH OF THE MOVEMENT Despite the combined pressure of the government and the unions, some of the most militant strikes continued into June. On June 9 the police attacked the occupiers of the giant Renault factory at Flins, in a rural area near Paris. Students traveled from Paris to defend the plant but in vain. A high school student was killed in the scuffles. Soon even the last strikes ended. The government prepared new elections, which it won easily. The May Events of 1968 were over.
THE AFTERMATH The May Events was an immense historical turning point for France. Although it was defeated, it initiated cultural changes that created a more open and progressive society than the one it challenged. The election of the socialist Francois Mitterand as President in 1981 was a long term consequence of these changes.
Contributor: Creator—Andrew Feenberg