May 68: the student movement in France and the world

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Forty years ago on 22 March 1968, at Nanterre, in the western suburbs of Paris, there began one of the major episodes of international history since the Second World War; what the media and French politicians usually call the ‘events of 68.' In itself, what happened that day was nothing exceptional: protesting against the arrest of a student of the extreme left from Nanterre suspected of being involved in an attack against the American Express offices in Paris during violent demonstrations against the Vietnam War, 300 of his comrades held a meeting in an amphitheatre and 142 of them decided to occupy a room of the University Council in the administrative building overnight. It wasn't the first time that the students of Nanterre had demonstrated their discontent. Thus, just a year before at this university, we'd already seen a fight between students and police over the free movement of students in the university residence - allowed to the girls, but forbidden to the boys. On March 16 1967, an association of 500 residents, the ARCUN, decreed the abolition of the domestic rule that, amongst other things, treated the students, even the older ones (older than 21 at this time), as minors. Following which, on March 21 1967, on the demand of the administration, the police had surrounded the girls' residence with the plan of arresting 150 boys who were found there and who were barricaded in on the top floor of the building. But, the following morning, the police themselves had been encircled by several thousand students and had finally received the order to leave without touching the student barricades. But these incidents, as well as other demonstrations of student anger, notably against the ‘Fouchet Plan' for university reform in the autumn of 1967, were short-lived. March 22 1968 was something else entirely. A few weeks later, a succession of events led not only to the strongest student mobilisation since the war, but above all the biggest strike in the history of the international workers' movement: more than 9 million workers on strike for almost a month.

For communists, contrary to the majority of speeches that were already being dished out, it wasn't the student agitation, as massive and ‘radical' as it was, which constituted the major fact of the ‘events of 68' in France. It was rather the workers' strike which, by far, occupied this place and which took on a considerable historical significance. We are going to treat this question in the columns of our press in other articles. Here, we want to limit ourselves to examining the students' struggles of this time and to drawing out their significance.

From March 22 to May 13 1968

Before leaving, the 142 occupants of the Council room decided, so as to maintain and develop the agitation, to constitute the March 22 Movement (M22). It was an informal movement, composed at the beginning of Trotskyists of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire (LCR) and some anarchists (including Daniel Cohn-Bendit), joined at the end of April by the Maoists of the Union des Jeunesses Communistes Marxistes-Leniniste (UJCML), and which brought together over some weeks, more than 1,200 participants. The walls of the university were covered with posters and graffiti: "Professors, you are old and so is your culture", "Let us live", "Take your dreams for reality". The M22 announced a day of ‘university criticism' for March 29, following similar action from German students. The dean decided to close the university until April 1 but the agitation restarted when the university reopened. In front of 1000 students, Cohn-Bendit declared: "We refuse to be the future cadres of capitalist exploitation". The majority of teachers reacted in a conservative fashion: on April 22, 18 of them, including those of the "left", demanded "measures and means so that the agitators can be unmasked and sanctioned". The dean adopted a whole series of repressive measures, notably giving free rein to the police in the passages and paths of the campus, while the press was unleashed against the "madness", the "small groups" and the "anarchists". The French Communist Party fell into line: April 26, Pierre Juqin, a member of the Central Committee, held a meeting in Nanterre: "The agitators are preventing the sons of workers from passing their exams". He couldn't finish and had to flee. In Humanity of March 3, Georges Marchais, number 2 in the Communist Party, said in his turn: "These false revolutionaries must be energetically unmasked because objectively they serve the interests of Gaullist power and the great capitalist monopolies".

On the campus at Nanterre, scuffles became more and more frequent between the students of the extreme-left and fascist groups of the Occident group, coming from Paris to ‘beat up the Bolshies'. Faced with this situation the dean decided on May 2 to again close the university, which was ringed by the police. The students of Nanterre decided that the following day they would hold a meeting in the courtyard of the Sorbonne in order to protest against the closure of their university and the disciplinary proceedings against 8 members of the M22, including Cohn-Bendit.

There were only 300 at the meeting: the majority of students were actively preparing for their end of year exams. However, the government, which wanted to finish with the agitation, decided to strike a blow and occupy the Latin Quarter and encircle the Sorbonne with police. The police entered the university, something which hadn't happened for centuries. The students, who had fallen back into the Sorbonne, obtained assurance that they would be able to leave without hindrance but, while the girls were able to go freely, the boys were systematically led into the prison vans, from which they escaped. Rapidly, hundreds of students assembled on the square of the Sorbonne and insulted the police. Tear gas began to rain down: the area was taken but the students, more and more numerous now, began to harass the groups of police and their wagons. The confrontations continued for four hours during the evening: 72 police were wounded and 400 demonstrators arrested. The following days, police completely surrounded the approaches to the Sorbonne while four students were sent to prison. This policy of firmness, far from stopping the agitation, gave it a massive character. From Monday May 6, confrontations with the forces of the police deployed around the Sorbonne alternated with more and more sustained demonstrations called for by the M22, the UNEF and the SNESUP (union of head teachers) and regrouped up to 45,000 participants to the cries of "Sorbonne to the students", "cops out of the Latin Quarter" and above all "free our comrades". The students were joined by a growing number of schoolchildren, teachers, workers and unemployed. The processions quickly crossed over the Seine and covered the Champs-Elysees, close to the Presidential Palace. The Internationale reverberated under the Arc de Triomphe where one usually heard La Marseillasie or the Last Post. The demonstrators also prevailed in some towns of the provinces. The government wanted to give a token of good will by reopening the university of Nanterre on May 10. That evening, tens of thousands of demonstrators were to be found in the Latin Quarter in front of the police surrounding the Sorbonne. At 2100 hours, some demonstrators began to build barricades (there were about sixty of them). At midnight, a delegation of 3 teachers and 3 students (including Cohn-Bendit) was received by the rector of the Academie de Paris but, while agreeing to reopen the Sorbonne, he could make no promises about freeing the students arrested on May 3. At two in the morning, the CRS led the assault on the barricades after spraying copious amounts of tear gas. The confrontations were extremely violent provoking hundreds of wounded on both sides. More than 500 demonstrators were arrested. In the Latin Quarter, numerous inhabitants demonstrated their sympathies by welcoming demonstrators into their homes and throwing water onto the street in order to protect them from the tear gas and offensive grenades. All these events, and notably the witnesses to the brutality of the forces of repression, were being followed on the radio, minute by minute, by hundreds of thousands of people. At six in the morning, ‘order reigned' in a Latin Quarter that seemed to have been swept by a tornado.

On Saturday May 11, indignation was immense in Paris and the whole of France. Processions formed spontaneously throughout the country, regrouping not only students but also hundreds of thousands of demonstrators of all origins, notably many young workers or parents of students. Everywhere universities were occupied; in the streets and squares, people discussed and condemned the attitude of the forces of repression.

Faced with this situation, the Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, announced in the evening that from Monday May 13 the police would be withdrawn from the Latin Quarter, that the Sorbonne would be reopened and the imprisoned students would be freed.

The same day, all the centres of the trade unions, including the CGT (which up until then had only denounced the ‘leftist' students), and even some police unions, called for a strike and demonstrations for May 13, so as to protest against the repression and against the policy of the government.

On May 13, every town in the country saw the most important demonstrations since World War II. The working class was massively present at the side of the students. One of the most used slogans was: "Ten years, that's enough!" with reference to the date of May 13 1958 which had seen the return of De Gaulle to power. At the end of the demonstrations, practically all the universities were occupied, not only by the students but also by many young workers. Everywhere, anyone could speak. Discussions were not limited to questions about universities and repression. They began to confront all the social problems: conditions of work, exploitation, the future of society.

On May 14 discussions continued in many firms. After the immense demonstrations the day before, with the enthusiasm and feelings of strength that emanated from them, it was difficult to carry on as if nothing had happened. In Nantes, the workers of Sud-Aviation, carried along by the youngest workers, a spontaneous strike broke out and they decided to occupy the factory. The working class began to take up the reins.

The student movement world-wide

Given the connection of events which led to the immense mobilisation of 13 May 1968, it's clear that it wasn't so much the action of the students which was responsible for the breadth of the movement but rather the action of the authorities themselves that continued to pour oil on the fire before beating a sorry retreat. In fact, the student's struggles in France, before reaching the scale of May 68, were much less massive and profound than those in other countries, notably the United States and Germany.

It was in the biggest world power, the United States, that from 1964 witnessed the most massive and significant movements of this period. More precisely, it was in Berkeley University, North California, that student protest took on a massive character for the first time. The demands that initially mobilised the students came from the ‘free speech movement' in favour of free political expression (notably against the Vietnam War and racial segregation) in the surrounds of the university. At first the bourgeoisie reacted with extreme repression, notably by sending police against the ‘sit-in', a peaceful occupation of the premises, making 800 arrests. Finally, at the beginning of 1965, the university authorities authorised political activities in the university which went on to become one of the principal centres of student protest in the United States. At the same time, it was with the slogan of "cleaning up the disorder at Berkeley" that Ronald Reagan was, against all expectations, elected Governor of California at the end of 1965. The movement developed massively and radicalised in the years following, around protest about racial segregation, for the defence of women's rights and above all against the war in Vietnam. At the same time as young Americans, above all students, fled abroad in numbers in order to avoid being sent to Vietnam, the majority of universities in the country were affected by anti-war movements. At the same time, there were also outbursts in the black ghettos of the major towns (the proportion of young blacks among soldiers being sent to Vietnam was much higher than the national average). From April 23 to April 30, 1968, Columbia University in New York was occupied in protest against the contribution of its departments to the activities of the Pentagon and in solidarity with the inhabitants of the neighbouring black ghetto of Harlem. It was one of the peaks of student protest in the United States, which saw its most violent moments at the end of August in Chicago, with real riots at the Democratic Party Convention.

Many other countries saw student revolts during the course of this period.

Japan: from 1965, students demonstrated against the Vietnam War, notably under the leadership of the Zengakuren, which organised formidable fights against the police. In 1968, they launched the slogan: "let's transform the Kanda (the university quarter of Tokyo) into the Latin Quarter".

Although the student movement in Britain was not on the same scale as France or the US there were expressions of it as early as October 1966 at the London School of Economics where students protested against the new director because of his links with the racist regimes of Rhodesia and South Africa. The LSE continued to be affected by protests, for example in March 1967 there was a five-day sit-in against disciplinary action that led to an experimental ‘free university' copying American examples. In December 1967 there were sit-ins at the Regent Street Polytechnic and the Holborn College of Law and Commerce, both demanding student representations in the institutions decision-making process. In May and June 1968 there were occupations at Essex, Hornsey College of Art, Hull, Bristol and Keele leading to further protests in Croydon, Birmingham, Liverpool, Guildford, and the Royal College of Arts. The most spectacular demonstrations (which involved a whole range of different people and different causes) were a series around the Vietnam War: in March and October 67, in March 68 and in the most massive and celebrated demonstration in October 1968, all of which involved violent clashes with the police with hundreds of injuries and arrests outside the American embassy in Grosvenor Square, London.

Italy: students mobilised in March in numerous universities, and notably in Rome, against the Vietnam War and similarly against the policies of the university authorities.

Spain: in March, the university of Madrid was closed ‘indefinitely' faced with student agitation against the war in Vietnam and the Francoist regime.

Germany: student agitation was already developing from 1967 against the war in Vietnam and that increased the influence of the extreme-left SDS movement, coming out of a break with the young Social Democrats. The movement then radicalised and took a mass character with the attack in Berlin against the main leader of the extreme-left, Rudi Dutschke, committed by a youngster who had been wound up and influenced by the hysterical campaigns unleashed by the press of the magnate Axel Springer. For several weeks, before attention was turned towards France, the student movement in Germany was a reference point for all of the movements that touched the majority of countries in Europe.

This list is obviously far from exhaustive. Many countries on the periphery of capitalism were equally affected by student movements during the course of 1968 (Brazil and Turkey, amongst others). We should however mention what happened in Mexico at the end of the summer, when the government decided on the bloody suppression of student demonstrations (several dozen killed, possibly hundreds, on October 2 at the Place of Three-Cultures, Tlatlolco, Mexico) so the Olympic Games could take place ‘in peace' from October 12.

What characterises all of these movements is clear: above all, the rejection of the war in Vietnam. But whereas the Stalinist parties, allies of the Hanoi and Moscow regimes, would have logically been found at their head, as was the case with the anti-war movements around the Korean War in the early 1950s, it was nowhere the case here. On the contrary, these parties had practically no influence and, quite often, they were in complete opposition to these movements.

This is one of the characteristics of the student movements of the end of the 1960s, and it reveals their profound significance. We are going to examine this further in the next article. Fabienne 23/2/8

Historic events: 

History of the workers' movement: