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The Strike

Page history last edited by Jonny Byre 6 years, 2 months ago


The Strike 




The events of May 1968 would bear witness to one of the largest social upheavals since the Paris Commune of 1848. They were driven by french university students who had emanated from the 'Baby-Boom' generation. Those brought up in the 1960's had a contrasting upbringing to their parents, and so they did not experience the terror of war and therefore grew up in a society roaring with economic expansion, which meant that unlike their parents, the younger generation did not appreciate the new-found norms of society, and so were used to getting what they wanted. In 1968, the 'spoilt' baby-boom generation were old enough to attend university. Be that as it may, this caused problems due to the fact that universities did not have such resources, nor were prepared for such an inflation of students, leaving universities overpopulated.  The 14th until the 27th of May was classed as the second crisis during the turn of events. It went from being a 'Student Crisis' to a 'Social Crisis', which created a general strike by workers and brought France to a stand-still. Consequently, Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou were left completely powerless as to what was about to unfold directly under their noses and perhaps more importantly, on their own conscience. 



14th May 


The 14th of May marks the day when General Charles De Gaulle left France to go on a five-day, pre-planned state visit to Romania. There was a lot of debate and speculation as to whether he would and/or should in fact, travel. Nevertheless, Georges Pompidou, the French prime minister between 1962-1968, advised him to go on behalf of France, to show that France, on the whole, was not experiencing a national crisis, yet they were soon to become embroiled in the largest student revolution that Europe had seen up to this point. Other notable reasons that one must consider is the long-standing Franco-Romanian relations, dating back to before World War One. But most importantly, the 14th of May indicates that it was no longer a student crisis, but that a worker crisis was soon developing amongst the French working class. In France, at the time, 3 million workers earned less than 600 francs per month so it would seem that there was an air of inevitability about the upcoming strikes. Unsurprisingly, the workers wanted a better salary, especially given that national minimum wage had risen between 1967-1969 by approximately 33%. This sentiment of frustration was echoed amongst students and workers alike, thus uniting and participating in the strikes as one. <<À l'Assemblée nationale, les débats commencent à partir du 14 Mai>> (Frank, 2016). The fact that negotiations only started on the 14th of May highlights the lack of forward-thinking and pre-planning by the Gaullist government. Should they have proceeded with discussions prior to this date, there could have been another outcome, perhaps less violent and radical. It also emphasises the fact that it was there could be no consternation that workers occupied the Sud-Avaiation and Renault factories respectively because it was more the nature as well as magnitude of the strikes which were most significant in defining the premature stages of May 68. The principal reasons for workers occupying said factories is primarily, to make a bold statement to the government, but in addition, to discuss the possibilities surrounding their future, their working conditions and wages amongst other things.



During the time of de Gaulle's unexpected absence in Romania, other strong political figures such as Pierre Mendès-France, questioned de Gaulle's absence and whereabouts. <<Où en est l'État, où en est l'université, Monsieur le Premier Ministre, il est temps, il est grand temps, il faut que le gouvernement s'en aille>>.  Above all, Mendès-France, leader of the Parti Socialiste Unifié, challenges the authority and integrity of the state, not to mention Georges Pompidou as a Prime Minister. What this demonstrates is that firstly, political instability was becoming more and more predominant than it has ever been, and likewise, it forces the state to question themselves in amongst this intense uproar of examination by Mendès-France. Is it nearing the end for the Gaullist government? Mendès-France himself, being an avid supporter of the student movement, expressed a great deal of sentiment for students. One could argue that this is an unconventional position to adopt for a politician of his age. This would prove to be a vital mechanism of support for the movement. Given that he was in a position of power, it gave the student movement an immense boost. 


As student dissatisfaction developed, de Gaulle provoked mockery on himself. Henrik Bering argues that de Gaulle’s career defies those who see history merely as the result of impersonal forces, beyond the influence of great men. He states, ‘All successful leaders are to varying degrees, magicians and actors’ (Bering, 2016). This may have been because many of the students believed that de Gaulle was outdated in his views. In 1968, de Gaulle was firmly in the latter stages of his life, and so at the age of 77, many people, especially those who were students, thought that the Gaullist ideologies were no longer relevant. The main principal of the Gaullist reign was that there was a common idea of France being a strong state, and to ensure that one's voice is heard, not ignored nor neglected. Such leading figures in the student revolutions such as Cohn-Bendit, Geismar and Sauvageot asserted that he could not keep up with the demands of a new, modernised and radically-changing France. 



Who is Daniel Cohn-Bendit ?


Born in Montauban, France, April 4th 1945, Daniel Cohn-Bendit was one of said Baby-Boom students. He was born into a German-Jewish family . He moved to Germany in 1958 but returned to France in 1966 to study Sociology at l'université de Nanterre. Two years later he became known for being the leader and principal spokesperson of the May-Revolution in Paris during 1968. On the 22nd of May, Cohn-Bendit was prohibited entry back into France from Germany by the french government as he was believed to have allegedly disturbed French peace. Cohn-Bendit was a popular figure in France during may 1968, as being one of the leaders of the movement, he caught the media's attention. As you can see in the pictures below, he was very active and involved in the movement and did not shy away from being heard. Thus, the withdrawal of Cohn-Bendit's residency permit caused more anger as well as increased tension with the students, provoking more radical protests. 

Image result for Daniel cohn-bendit 1968Related image

 picture taken from - https://fr.sott.net/article/25663-Pedocriminalite-Cohn-Bendit-recoit-la-nationalite-francaise-au-moment-ou-eclate-un-scandale-pedophile-au-sein-de-son-parti-allemand and https://uncomradelybehaviour.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/i-am-a-megaphone/ 




On the 14th of May the University of Sorbonne was declared a 'free area' by the Government and the students of the University of Nanterre gave themselves the label of a 'self-governing' faculty, meaning that they were completely independent and thus, they were not governed by the state. They finally felt a sense of freedom as they no longer had to abide by a strict set of regulations, imposed in the Gaullist regime. This was a good thing, especially for the students as they had more of a common voice in universities, showing they had more independence and freedom within their own faculties. This also meant that they could express themselves more freely, without having to feel threatened or feel the wrath of the government lingering in the air. 


On that same day, In Nantes, the Sud-Aviation factory was the first factory to go on strike, by 3pm two thousand workers occupied the factory and locked their director in his office, positively treating him well, however, he was released by the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) delegate. This created a domino effect amongst French factories, as only 24 hours later Renaults workers went on strike and also occupied their factories. By the 19th of May 2-3 million people in France were on strike. By the 27th of May 6-10 million people were on strike,  which caused major panic as there was a lack of petrol, money and basic supplies. Judging them on their previous actions they were following the lead not only of the students in Paris, who had occupied the Sorbonne just after it reopened a day earlier, but also of agitation CGT (Gilcher-Holtey, 2008). It is puzzling some as to how and why the events of May 68 commenced, because there was no economic crisis on the eve of it. The spontaneous process of mobilization cannot be explained by structural economic factors. The conflicts were in fact, concerning distribution and an alarmingly high and still rising unemployment rate. Conversely, the French economy had suffered to a lesser extent from the 1966 recession than Germany, and they were therefore less susceptible to economic fluctuation and breakdown (Gilcher-Holtey, 2008) As the student movement bolstered in numbers, leading personalities like Daniel Cohn-Bendit began to lose control (Bernath-Plaisted, 2008) and less radical groups like the CGT and the CFDT socialist union inaugurated the process. Therefore, this highlighted that despite the initial strength and tenacity in numbers of the student movement against the Gaulliste regime, it emphasises that their youthful nature lacked indispensable experience at crucial times.



Different Parties involved


Party AKA  Leader  Who is involved 
Confédération Générale du Travail   CGT 

Georges Séguy 

National trade union 
Confederation Française Démocratique du Travail   CFDT 

Eugène Descamps


Parti Communiste Française  PCF 

Waldeck Rochet

Left sided politicians  
Union Nationale des Étudiants de France  UNEF  Jacques Sauvegeot Student unions  
Syndicat National de l’Enseignement supérieur  SNESup Alain Geismar 

Teachers, Working with UNEF

Prime Minister of France

Union des Démocrats pour la Republic  

UDR  Georges Pompidou 

The Gaullist Movement 

Charles de Gaulle

Parti Radical 


Pierre Mendès-France

Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO)

La Fédération de la gauche démocrate et socialiste 

FGDS Francois Mitterand

Groupes parlementaires socialistes et Rassemblement démocratique 




The 'social crisis', between the 14th and the 27th of May was originally thought to be a one-day stoppage, owing to closure of factories such as the Sud-Aviation and Renault. In fact, France came to a standstill after the worker's issues had not been resolved, sparking an all out general strike. The two major unions, the CGT and the Confederation Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT) as well as the Parti Communiste Française (PCF) couldn't stop the strikes spreading, but the PCF did make sure that the students were kept at a distance from them to make sure that no negative attention was drawn to themselves. On top of this, de Gaulle and Pompidou's inability to handle the situation and the rejection of the Grenelle agreement highlighted that the French government was running on thin ice, but furthermore, the state had exhausted all potential leads for a positive outcome to the situation.


Image result for 14th may 1968 france

Picture taken from- https://libcom.org/library/general-strike-france-1968-factory-factory-account 



Other Countries 


France during 1968 was not the only country to have experienced outbreaks of riots. Germany was obviously experiencing manifestations, as this is where these events had originated from. In 1968, Television and Radio had only recently been in circulation, making it more accessible for the public, especially students to access news around the world. It had been known that German students were fighting for demands from the government, which prompted and heavily influenced the majority of French students to follow in their footsteps. Other countries around the world were also evoked by these events. For example, from May 13th to May 22nd, a continuous student revolt was taking place in Brussels, Belgium, known as 'Assemblés Libres', which many staff members also helped to set up and supported at the time. Some consider this movement as the start of a transformation of the society into becoming more of a democratic community.


Other countries met with political events on May the 14th which were significant changes, as well as France.

  •  In Czechoslovakia, citizens fought for their fundamental rights, such as their social rights and freedom of expression as Prime Minister Cernik announced extreme political and economic reforms for the country.
  • In Indonesia, there had also been extreme tensions within the same student movement that had been previously heavily conducive to revolting against the regime of President Sukarno, which then led to his downfall two years earlier.   
  •  Whilst on March the 8th in Poland there was also a crisis which began at the University of Warsaw with students who marched for their rights but unfortunately were brutally beaten with clubs by the police. Following this, on the 9th of March, over 2000 students marched in protest of the police involvement on campus, Sadly they were yet again beaten by clubs and arrested. By March 11, the general public had joined the protest against the violence. The protests lasted for twenty days and ended when the state closed all of the universities and arrested more than 1000 students. This effected the country as most Polish Jews left the country to avoid persecution by the government. 
  •  Italy also experienced strikes from big car companies such as Fiat.
  • Furthermore, outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square iLondon, England, a demonstration against the Vietnam war took place, which led to hours of street fighting between police and those involved in the demonstrations; it ended with 200 demonstrators arrested and 86 people injured.


Therefore, this shows that it was not just France that were experiencing outbreaks of riots, but students and workers around the world were fighting for more changes.



Popular Culture During May 1968


During the protests in May 1968 many people were inspired and influenced by the events in France in May 1968. Through the Social Crisis, people from every social background stood together to fight for a better life for themselves, their futures and their families, and therefore this then reflected through art, literature and film from 1968 to present day. 


When the events in May took place, slogans and art were used on posters printed over the cities of France as forms of expressions, and ways to share how people really felt in an eye catching way. Alain Kahan, a women who was living as a second year University student in France during the times of the riots explains how as a woman from a French working class background, she was impressed at how "the imagination, immediacy and originality" of the posters expressed how people really felt, and how "you did not have to have read any political texts in order to get the message." She also explains how when we look at the posters at first glance, the people who created them did not necessarily represent ideologies from any specific or particular party or organisation, but these ideas of a need for reform which were shown through the posters "seemed to rise up from the street. The 'PEOPLE' had spoken." 


Resultado de imagen de france 1968 posters

Image taken from https://www.wcml.org.uk/our-collections/object-of-the-month/may-1968-france-revolution-posters/


Graffiti, another aspect of art, was a way for many protesters to express how they felt freely and anonymously, expressing their raw emotions in a spontaneous matter. This shows us how people truly felt during the riots. Many graffiti works were slogans that caught the eye and would stay in the mind to make a statement, so others can see them plain in site on the sides of buildings. Although there were a lot of graffiti drawings and paintings during this time, whether many people resonated with them is another matter. Although it is possible that many will have read the slogans and would have been inspired to revolt with them in harmony, it is unclear what exact impact the slogans had. However, it is clear that whatever views people had on graffiti drawings and slogans, no one could ignore them, or get away from them. It also showed the amount of political unrest from all types of people around this time, from students to workers. Therefore, this highlights the political unrest of France at this time, and explains to us why many slogans were used for graffiti in France during the riots throughout the month of May, but especially during the end. 


-Different slogans that were used during the riots include:


  • "Soyez Réalistes, Demandez l'impossible."
  • "Être libre en 1968, c'est participer."
  • "La barricade ferme la rue mais ouvre la voie."
  • "Un homme n'est pas stupide ou intelligent, il est libre ou il n'est pas."


All slogans located above are available at  https://libcom.org/history/slogans-68 [Accessed 21 Mar. 2018]. 


Related image 

picture taken from- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Situationist.jpg  url 


Cinema was also significantly influenced by the events of May 1968. Some films that were made during this time and going on into the 1970s were influenced by the events of May 1968. For example the film 'Mourir d'Aimer' by André Cayatte is closely based on the true story of a teacher that has an affair with one of her 17 year old students during the riots. The films based around scandal and shocking accusations that question the legal system in France. This could be a reason why André Cayatte decided to publicly share this story, as it shows flaws in the French society at this time, and a desperate need for change. Therefore, this film could have had an underlying theme of total reform for the academic system. Cinema was also an effective way to inform the public on current events at the time. Newsreels were popular at this time, which were 10 minute videos that were shown before a film would start, explaining current political or public events around the world, such as the riots in France at this time. This was a great way for people to be informed on what was going on in the world around them. For example, in the United Kingdom Pathé news was one of the organisations that were able to inform the British public with video coverage of the riots. As so many countries like the UK were hearing more and more about the riots in France, it shows how it was becoming a greater problem for the government to handle. We can also see this in France when Charles de Gaulle is torn on whether to continue with his ministerial duties to go to Romania. Arguably, by going to Romania De Gaulle was attempting to strengthen the government by carrying on with normal duties. However, he was also being ignorant to the fact that there were serious issues currently in France and more to yet come, such as the social crisis between the 14th and 27th May. It could also be argued that the information on the riots were limited, as media coverage, television and radio were all heavily censored and filtered at the time of the riots. This therefore may have distorted people's view of the riots as the public would have been given a false picture on what is truely happening.


Music was also influenced by the events of May in 1968. The anarchist singer-songwriter Léo Ferré found a lot of inspiration for his songs through the events of May 1968. On May 10th the singer performed at the famous Gala de la Mataulité, organized by the Anarchist federation. This arguably may have spurred on supporters in protesting against the government, as he was a famous figure with many followers that people would have admired. Having a Gala as a type of protest may have rallied up people to come together and unite in social unrest, which could have contributed to the social crisis between the 14th and 24th of May. Ferré then went on to write a new album in 1969 dedicated to the events of May 68. Furthermore, France was not the only country where music was influenced by the events in May, especially the social crisis. For example, the Stone Roses wrote the song ‘Bye Bye Badman’ in relation to the Paris riots. Ian Brown, a band member of the Stone Roses explained the song, saying “imagine a protester singing [it] in a policeman’s face during the Paris riots. Then you’ll get some idea what it’s about.”  With lyrics like “I’m throwing stones at you man, I want you black and blue and I’m gonna make you bleed”, it highlights how serious the protesters were, and how the events from May 1968 were not narcissistic students who were acting spoilt to get what they wanted from the government, but it was a joint societal effort where morale for the country as a whole was incredibly low, and people wanted change.  





To conclude, the 14th of May was a very important day during May 1968, as the Sud-Aviation factory going on strike meant that the crisis became a social crisis rather than a student crisis. It can be argued that nowadays the events are deeply biased as at the time the media was heavily censored by the government. This is shown on a recent article in the INDEPENDENT.co.uk website, as their first subtitles is;" It began with a demand by students for the right to sleep with each other. And it ended in one of the greatest upheavals in French society since the revolution." This shows that the first thing people think of when they think of the events during May 1968 is that students were spoilt and sexually frustrated. The departure of de Gaulle to Romania meant that France was left uncertain about the severity of the situation. In addition to this, Kristin Ross suggests that <<C'est l'énorme littérature sur le sujet - et non son occultation - qui, paradoxalement, a favorisé l'oubli des événements en France>>. The hidden accounts from the events of May 68 accentuates the disparity between the Gaullist regime and the beliefs of the workers, but more importantly, the students. And finally, the subject of the strike is important as France had never experienced strikes as big as May 1968. 








Comments (4)

margaux vallat said

at 9:19 am on Feb 28, 2018

for titles, ive taken away the underline, because Phill said that its best not to, and its best to just make them bold and big.

margaux vallat said

at 6:47 am on Mar 7, 2018

picture found here ...

margaux vallat said

at 5:51 am on Mar 13, 2018

it can be argued that nowadays the events are deeply biased as at the time the media was heavily censored by the government. This is shown on the INDEPENDENT.co.uk website, as their first subtitles is;" It began with a demand by students for the right to sleep with each other. And it ended in one of the greatest upheavals in French society since the revolution."

margaux vallat said

at 5:55 am on Mar 13, 2018

The departure of De gaulle going to Romania meant that france were left not knowing if the situation was serious or not.

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