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The Violence


The build-up to the 24th of May: Violent events


During de Gaulle’s long silence and the mishandled response by the government to the first outbreaks of street violence, the police had become the only representatives of the State. On either side of this absolute division were two figures: the beaters and the beaten. According to Kristin Ross, The relation between the so-called beaters and the beaten is based on “pure violence”. The police violence used against the demonstrators was shocking and mobilised a public opinion, and notably because of the radio, the french society were under the impression of having directly lived through the “événements”.

Some of the violent events worth mentioning that contribute to the violence that took place in May 24th are the following:


21st of May: Almost every section of the French economy was on strike. There was a right-wing demonstration march through Paris, which eventually concluded in clashes between around 1500 right-wing demonstrators and communists outside the office of ‘L’Humanites’, a communist newspaper in Paris. The tensions escalated as the right-wing protestors were throwing stones and eggs against the building. Responding to the attack, several members of staff threw bottles against the right-wing demonstrators from the windows in the building. As a result, 4 demonstrators were injured during the fights.


22nd of May: As the student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit is expelled from France, the Government offers an amnesty to all students for illegal acts committed during the demonstrations. The majority reject the motion. As a consequence, 3 home-made bombs explode in the south of France. One of the bombs goes off outside the building of the Communist Party in Marseilles, another goes off outside the flat of the secretary of the Christian Trade Union Federation in Montpellier and the remaining one, outside the office of the CGT, also in Montpellier.


23rd of May: Some student demonstrations in the Latin Quarter are detected. The police storm the barricades in the Latin Quarter of Paris, using methods such as tear gas and water cannons against the students. The tensions between the students and the police where boiling, which will eventually implode the next day.


It was said by many that the police had turned on isolated and sometimes wounded protestors, throwing tear gas grenades into the apartments where some had found shelter, or beating the demonstrators with the so called “matraque", clearly shown when professor Ross depicts in her book a witness’ experience: “I saw street battles up close, I saw cops break peoples’ heads open. When you see cops charge, it marks you for the rest of your life.” All these violent episodes eventually lead to the events of the 24th of May.



Events of 24th may (other countries)


Even though the 24th of May was a symbolic date in the history of May 68, there were other significant events that occurred all over the world.


In America, thousands of students from Columbia University in New York, protested against the ongoing war that the USA was taking part in, in Vietnam. Students showed how angry they were about the schools ties to the defence industry,the university’s outdated curriculum and Columbia’s plan to build a gym on the site of a Harlem neighbourhood park (to which non student Harlem residents would not have been eligible to use the faculty). More than a thousand policemen were used to disperse the demonstrators and to clear the buildings. Roughly 45 students and 10 to 15 police officers were injured during the violence.


In China about 3 million people participated in mass demonstrations in support of workers and students in America and Europe.


Denmark was also a victim of demonstrations, as an estimate number of 25000 workers participated in a demonstration rally outside Christiansborg. The workers were protesting against the governments law that prevented the seamen to strike, and so demanding their free right to strike.


In Great Britain numbers were smaller but still useful, about 100 students at London School of Economics staged a sit in in support of striking workers and at the University of East Anglia about 300 students boycotted the visit of Queen Elisabeth and arrange an open air seminar on university campus.


In Italy there were demonstrations in the support of making opposite sex visitors in the students rooms legal.


A hunger strike was held in Sweden in protest against the Swedish development aid policy.


Students at Frankfurt University, in West Germany, blocked the entrance to the university and declared it a “Karl Marx University” in protest against the ““Notstandsgesetze” meaning emergency legislation. 


In Canada, violence escalated as a bomb exploded outside the US consulate in the city of Quebec. The “Quebec Liberation Front” a left-wing nationalist and socialist paramilitary group that was active between 1963 to 1970 – took responsibility for the attack. The organisation is regarded by the government as a terror organisation in support of the Quebec Sovereignty Movement.




Events of 24th May in France 



It is clear that key events occurred on the 24th May 1968 which had a huge impact on society in France and violence was a main theme centred around these events. As you can see down below is a summary of the major events which changed the nation and people as a whole. 


  • Power struggle occurs between student and labour unions
  • Daniel Cohn Bendit is denied entry in to France

  • Around 9 to 11 million workers- a third of the country's workforce - are now on strike, at the start of a third week of social unrest: Weeks of striking left the economy on the verge of collapse. Although the workers monopolized the government’s attention at the time, May 1968 would also be remembered for its origins in the Sorbonne. A student uprising challenged the university administration, which ignited a firestorm of anti- government protests.

  • In Lyon, a policeman became the first person to die in the demonstrations, he was run over by rioters driving a lorry in to a line of riot police

  •  the Paris Stock Exchange ( the Bourse ) is set on fire by protestors

  • 3 police stations attacked

  • 2 deaths - 26 year old student and a policeman ( Lyon)

  • Barricades and The Latin Quarter of Paris- 456 injured as well as 795 arrests

  • De Gaulle proposes referendum - televised speech - 

    • Within minutes of president de Gaulle's speech, riots erupted again in Paris, Lyon, Nantes, Bordeaux and Strasbourg


De Gaulle released a televised speech due to failed censure motion. This presidential speech announced a referendum that would be held in June. The proposed referendum offered the people a choice, “Yes to de Gaulle and continued stability, prosperity and progress; or No to de Gaulle and a vote for anarchy and bloodshed.” 


Ref : Donald H. Louchheim, “De Gaulle Seeks New Mandate: Gives No Details,” Washington Post, May 25, 1968, p. A1. 




Media Coverage of Events 


Evidently there was media coverage of the events which took place, however it is debatable whether it was as widespread as it could've and should've been. There were black-and-white photographs of students demonstrating, occupying universities, constructing barricades, setting fires on street corners, throwing flaming Molotov cocktails, and fighting with the police, taken during the events in Paris in May 1968. To start with these images were published in newspapers, magazines, leaflets, and activist material, and were later reproduced on the internet, in photobooks, in academic books, in institutional displays, and kept in public and private archives. Over the years, people such as historians, political theorists, and sociologists have used these photographs to illustrate the brutality of the ’68 events. Furthermore some student newspapers that were published during the events, namely, Action, Barricades, L’Avant Garde Jeunesse, Servir Le Peuple, Le Monde Libertaire, and Lutte Socialiste, and three French dailies published in Paris, Le Figaro and L’Humanité


In contrast with the photographs of the police’s brutal behavior in the student press, neither in L’Humanité nor in Le Figaro were these photographs customary. Both newspapers released photographs which were positioned at the center of the pages and depicted a group of policemen attacking students, with the students hardly visible in the background.

Despite these similarities, their headlines had a completely different tone indicating the political orientation of each newspaper. In fact, L’Humanité directly accused the government of being responsible for the escalation of the violence in the Latin Quarter, while Le Figaro presented the events in a rather neutral tone without being biased in any way, shape or form. 

Nevertheless, photographs of the police never became the focus of the attention in the mainstream press, and gradually disappeared from their coverage at the end of May and during the month of June. 

Image result for french barricades 1968

Picture taken from: Anon, (2006). [image] Available at: https://libcom.org/history/1968-chronology-events-France-%2526-internationally [Accessed 8 Sep. 2006], (Anon, 2006)


Image result for media france may 68





















Picture taken from: Anon, (2017). [image] Available at: http://www.openculture.com/2017/01/a-gallery-of-visually-arresting-posters-from-the-may-1968-paris-uprising.html [Accessed 5 Jan. 2017].



Charles de Gaulle: The speech of the 24th of May


General Charles de Gaulle, who returned from Romania on the 18th of May from an official visit, gave his analysis on the situation with a concise statement “La réforme, oui, la chienlit, non”, which can be translated to “A reform, yes, a carnival, no”. The word “chienlit” was a very old fashioned concept, which further proved how obsolete and disconnected to the situation Charles de Gaulle was. 

In his televised speech, which was announced several days before the 24th, and also his first public intervention since the beginning of the events of May’68, General Charles de Gaulle addressed the "academic and social events"  that had been happening all over France, promising profound reforms in society through a referendum. The result of this referendum will decide whether he would stay in power or leave for good. In the broadcast, the president of the Republic asserts the crisis and blames it on a mutation in society, which is considered to be a wink to what he considered to be the threat of communism. He claimed that France was "on the brink of paralysis", and warned of civil war if the situation persisted. Charles de Gaulle called for an adaptation of structures, especially in the academic world in the French society, since the youth was worried for their future showed impatience. The french historian Serge Berstein (2011-2013) explains how, through his speech, de Gaulle asked the people to give him, by referendum, the mandate to accomplish this new task. 

When analysing the outcome of the speech, Alan Woods (2008) depicts how even Charles de Gaulle’s biographer, Charles Williams, described the broadcast of May 24th: "The speech of May 24, when it happened, was a total failure. Throughout the whole speech, the General looked and sounded insincere and scared […] his voice lacked its old resonance and its phrases, although they still used the old solemn language somehow, they no longer carried the same conviction.” He presented himself as an outsider, someone who did not fully comprehend the situation, and although in the short term, it was a loss, when the referendum came and General Charles de Gaulle won, he considered it a victory. Aro Velmet (2010) portrays in his paper how even though the speech made may have marked the beginning of an official response from the Government, it was also widely criticised and rejected, as it mainly did not cater the needs of the french population. Hagen Schulz-Forgerg (2009) declares in his paper that Charles de Gaulle’s proposition of a referendum as a solution to the crisis was a combination of his emblematic way of mixing the so-called destiny of the nation with his own, which according to Schulz-Forgerg explains why de Gaulle inserted the referendum into his personal approach of direct democracy.

Serge Berstein (2011-2013), analyses the speech by claiming that de Gaulle’s response to the crisis mainly lied in ensuring order in the government and and increase in participation from the french society through reforms, which later proved that in fact it provoked even more strikes from both the students and the workers. Matt Perry (2008) insists that the immediate response to the president’s speech was violence, with the 24th starting a new phase of the intensification of protests and a deep crisis of the state that would last until the 30th of May, when de Gaulle will make his next speech. The televised announcement made by the president of the Republic was later followed by negotiations between Georges Pompidou and workers’ unions at Grenelle on May 25th and 26th, which were considered a step forward in the reforms promised by Charles de Gaulle.

Picture taken from: https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/license/600211297




Charles de Gaulle:

"Everyone understands, of course, what is the scope of current events, academic, then social. We see all the signs that demonstrate the need for a change in our society. Mutation which must involve the more effective participation of each one in the march and in the result of the activity which concerns him directly. Admittedly, in today's upset situation, the first duty of the state is to ensure, in spite of everything, the basic life of the country, as well as public order. He does it. It is also to help the restart, taking the contacts that could facilitate it. He is ready. So much for the immediate. But then, there are undoubtedly structures to modify. In other words: there is to reform. Because in the immense political, economic, social transformation that France is doing in our time, if many obstacles, internal and external, have already been crossed, others still oppose progress. From there, the deep troubles. Above all in the youth who is concerned about their own role, and that the future worries too often. That is why, the crisis of the university, a crisis caused by the powerlessness of this great body, to adapt to the modern necessities of the Nation, as well as to the role and employment of young people, triggered in many other environments, a tide of disorder, abandonment or work stoppage. As a result, our country is on the brink of paralysis. Before ourselves, and in front of the world, we, French, must settle an essential problem that poses us our time. Unless we roll through the civil war, to the most odious and ruinous adventures and usurpations. For almost 30 years, events have imposed me on several serious occasions, the duty to bring our country to assume its own destiny, to prevent that some do not take care in spite of him. I'm ready, this time again. But this time again, this time especially, I need. Yes, I need the French people to say they want it. However, our Constitution provides exactly what way it can do it. This is the most direct and democratic way possible, that of the referendum. In view of the very exceptional situation in which we are, and on the proposal of the Government, I have decided to submit to the suffrage of the Nation, a bill, by which I ask it to give to the State, and first to his boss, a mandate for the renovation. Rebuilding the university, based not on its age-old habits, but on the real needs of the country's evolution, and on the actual outlets for student youth in modern society. Adapt our economy, not to diverse categories, interests, special interests, but to national and international needs, improving the living and working conditions of staff, public services and enterprises, organizing its participation in professional responsibilities by expanding the training of young people, ensuring their employment, by implementing industrial and agricultural activities within the framework of our regions. This is the goal that the nation must set itself. French, French, in June, you will decide by a vote. In case your answer is no, it goes without saying that I will not assume my function any longer. If by a massive yes, you express me your confidence, I would undertake with the public authorities, and I hope, the concurrence of all those who want to serve the common interest, to make change wherever it is necessary, the structures narrow and outdated, and open more widely the road to the new blood of France. Long live the Republic, long live France!"







On the 25th of May the Grenelle Agreements were negotiated between the trade unions and a government team led by George Pompidou and a dynamic young employment minister Jaques Chirac. The negotiations went on throughout the weekend and at 7am on Monday 27th of May they yielded a joint series of proposals including an increase of three francs in the basic hourly minimum wage, a 10% increase in average real wages, an advance of 50% to those who had lost money while on strike, and perhaps most important of all, the nationally agreed right for a recognition of trade union and the representation of individual firms. This package was put to mass factory meetings yet rejected everywhere. The Grenelle proposal did not only provoke more strikes but days later the first death of may 68 was recorded.


The events of May 68 were a turning point in the history of France. Although the movement was defeated, it initiated a series of cultural changes that allowed the creation of a more open and progressive society. The election of the Socialist François Mitterrand in 1981 proved that the violence that unfolded in May 68 had long term consequences as he was voted as the first socialist president of the fifth republic. 



 Bibliography Violence


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