May 1968 and the revolt of the lycéens

Asking for the impossible

If 1968 lives in the popular imagination as the year of student rebellion, the student-led revolt of May 1968 in France is one of its most indelible high points, an event whose sense of possibility is memorialized in its most famous slogans and graffiti: “It is forbidden to forbid,” “All power to the imagination,” “Under the cobblestones, the beach,” “The barricade closes the street but opens the way,” and perhaps most famously, “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” Its pivotal role in the history of student struggle was brought home by a banner at a campus in Paris during mass student protests, sit-ins, and train strikes that marked 1968’s fiftieth anniversary in France: “The train due for May 1968 has arrived,” it read, “with a delay of 50 years.”1

For all the differences in the political context that sparked student rebellions then and now, there are nonetheless parallels in their expression of student outrage at a world gone horribly wrong, an observation highlighted by Antoine Guégan, a participant in the student takeover at the Censier (part of the Sorbonne) that was raided by the police days away from the fiftieth

anniversary of the sit-ins his father participated in on the same campus in May 1968. “If there’s one thing in common between 1968 and today,” he said, “it’s young people’s despair.” Citing anger at high unemployment, declining prospects for youth, and increased police repression, Guégan explains, “We’ve grown up with talk of environmental crisis, economic crisis, and now we’re looking for answers and solutions.”2

This is a theme echoed in the student-led movement against gun violence that marked the fiftieth anniversary of 1968 in the United States, culminating in student walkouts and the national March for Our Lives on March 24, 2018. Speaking on February 17, 2018, only days after the shooting at Parkland High School in Florida propelled its students to the front of a national debate on gun violence, Emma Gonzalez, a Parkland student survivor, galvanized students nationally when she spoke out against a system that would treat them as collateral damage while dismissing an entire generation of so-called millennials as apathetic and egocentric: “The people in the government who are voted into power are lying to us,” she said, “and us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and are prepared to call BS . . . They say . . . [t]hat us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.”3 The student movement that emerged in school walkouts and the national March for our Lives also challenged an entire industry of millennial-bashing pundits who had long ago written off today’s youth as apathetic, selfish, and unable to do anything without an app,4 even as burgeoning discontent simmered beneath the surface.

If students today have much to learn from the student revolt of May 1968, so too does the punditry that has time and again touted the passivity of the masses only to find them pounding at the door of power shortly thereafter. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine today that on March 15, 1968, one week prior to the protest that would light the spark that became the student movement of May 1968 in Paris, one shortsighted journalist wrote an article titled “Quand la France s’ennuie” (When France is Bored), in which he argued that students in France—and the populace as a whole—“don’t participate in any way in the great convulsions shaking the world.” The author, Viansson-Ponté, makes fun of students who “are concerned with knowing if the girls of [the universities] in Nanterre and Antony can freely access boys’ rooms” while internationally students were part of radical anti-imperialist movements.5Viansson-Ponté was hardly alone in failing to predict the May rebellion. Norman Macrae decried “France’s ‘pathetically weak’ trade unions” in The Economist that same May; earlier that year André Gorz argued in olorInherit" href= espi “in the foreseeable future, there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes or armed insurrections in support of their vital interests.”6

Despite Viansson-Ponté’s assertions to the contrary, the student movement that erupted against a repressive university was part of a broader movement simmering beneath the surface against the repressive government of General Charles de Gaulle and imperialist forces globally. This struggle would soon electrify students, radicals, and revolutionaries internationally, providing a vision of revolutionary solidarity between workers and students and a sense that another world was indeed possible—even if the ied a buil d commissions to discuss student and worker struggles, class inequality, and imperialism. From this occupation was born the March 22 Movement which would be an influential group in the May student revolt. Growing tensions be the Mar that is the focus of this article, is an often overlooked chapter of this history that reminds us of the transformative impact of student struggle and the radical experiments in education that it engenders. That we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of this revolt as a new generation is just beginning to find its voice lends political urgency to remembering and learning from the radical reimagining of education and society that occurs when students organize en masse to expose a system that lies to them and denies the fulfillment of their human potential under the guise of meritocracy and civility, then brutalizes them when they challenge its legitimacy. The revolt of May 1968 in France gives a brief glimpse of the transformative power of solidarity when students and workers dare to reimagine their worlds and expand the limits of the possible.

Prelude to a revolution: From students to workers

Education has historically been a site of explosive class struggle, as it exposes the lie of meritocracy upon which capitalist ideology rests. The revolt of students in France in May 1968 provides one of the most inspiring examples of a student-led struggle to dismantle a hierarchical and repressive system that institutionalized inequality. As students occupied universities and lycées (high schools), creating democratic committees with teachers and other staff to run schools, they transformed the meaning and practice of education.7 The events of May 1968 began with small numbers of students at Nanterre, a university in a banlieue of Paris that was in many ways a testament to the immensely alienating nature of education under capitalism. As a “modern” university dedicated to progress and technology, the overcrowded campus was located near the living quarters of many of the poorest workers, among them many immigrants who labored for low wages in France’s factories—a not-so-subtle reminder of the squalor and misery that was the reality of much of working-class life in postwar France.8

The rebellion of May 1968 had deep political roots in the contradictions of Les trente glorieuses (“the thirty glorious years,” a term that refers to the thirty years immediately following the end of World War II), which was characterized by massive economic growth even as its benefits were unequally distributed.9 The highly centralized government established under France’s Fifth Republic, with right-wing authoritarian General de Gaulle at its helm, dominated the landscape of French politics even as opposition grew and discontent brewed beneath the surface. The period had seen a massive expansion of education as a result of demographic shifts so that the number of students enrolled in college had grown from 60,000 out of a population of 42 million before World War II, to 500,000 out of a population of 50 million by 1968.10 Despite immense class inequality throughout the French educational system, the expansion of higher education also led to a growing number of working-class students in universities, even if they remained a minority.11 The increasing significance of higher education in France and in other industrialized countries highlighted the dynamic between student and working-class struggle that has been a characteristic of several revolutionary upheavals of the twentieth century in which student struggle detonates a much wider working-class rebellion. In France, the growing student population concerned by rising unemployment and their post­university prospects increasingly challenged the “rigid centralism” of the French educational system, a hierarchical top-down educational model in which routine lectures dominated with minimal meaningful interaction between students and professors, and the harsh judgment meted out by what reporter Daniel Singer aptly describes as the “ruthless guillotine of examinations.”12

Radicalized by the Algerian and the Vietnam wars, a small group of leftist students began to organize on campus for goals as diverse as the right to visit opposite-sex dorms after hours, to ending the Vietnam War and police repression. On March 22, students at Nanterre occupied a building where they created commissions to discuss student and worker struggles, class inequality, and imperialism. From this occupation was born the March 22 Movement which would be an influential group in the May student revolt. Growing tensions between the March 22 group, the right-wing group Occident (which burned down the offices of a student association at Sorbonne), and university administrators led the latter to close Nanterre on May 2 and bring disciplinary charges against eight student leaders. On May 3, students from Nanterre joined students from the Sorbonne in a meeting that drew four hundred people to discuss “how to counter the offensive of the authorities at Nanterre” as well as “how to reply to the planned attack of the extreme right-wing movement called with unflattering symbolism, Occident.”13 When police tried to force their way into the building, attacking and arresting students in the process, students rose up refusing to be cowed, leading to a night of skirmishes that foreshadowed the battles to come. By the next day, the Sorbonne was also closed and a nationwide university strike called by students and lecturers.14

The protests grew and violence escalated on May 6 as tens of thousands of students marched through Paris, chanting “‘Sorbonne for the students! CRS-SS! Down with police repression!’”15 The police attacked students with shocking brutality, provoking them to fight back with cobblestones from the streets.16 Singer describes the scene as follows:

That night Saint-Germain was not Greenwich Village, nor Chelsea; it was a battlefield. . . . In daring hands the cobblestone was a match for a hand grenade. Le pavé—the new hero of May, the Parisian paving stone, small enough to fit in the hand, heavy enough to hurt, provided munition for the fighter and a brick for his barricade. It was also the symbolic stone thrown against the edifice of the established disorder.

A riot? No sir, it’s an insurrection. Here with the help of cars, billboards, railings, torn-off branches, trees, as well as cobblestones, the first serious barricade went up.17

That night saw 422 arrests and nearly a thousand injured.18 But student protests continued the next day and throughout the week as the student revolt became increasingly organized, putting out its own newspaper, creating action committees, and spreading to other universities, the lycées, and beyond.

The night of May 10 would become known as the Night of the Barricades as students occupied the streets around the Sorbonne and built barricades to defend themselves against riot police. As Singer writes, the barricades were not only “a sign that the students would not yield until their demands were met,” but also appealed “to the collective memory of the French workers, whose grandfathers had fought in the Commune.”19 The state’s intense violence included the use of 5000 grenades that night, both traditional tear gas but also “CS” grenades used by the US military in Vietnam.20 Faculty members who came to join their students were attacked, and health care workers faced truncheons as they sought to help wounded students. The police’s brutality (and misogyny) was epitomized by the scene of “a young woman, dragged naked into the street and then into a distant van by representatives of law and order who were yelling, ‘We’ll teach you, you whore.’”21

While most barricades had fallen by early morning on May 11, the immense repression and violence from the police and the state shifted public opinion and expanded the student movement far beyond Nanterre and the Sorbonne, as students and workers joined forces to bring the state to its knees. A general strike was called for May 13, which galvanized workers and students to organize demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins, and occupations of factories and schools. May 13 was, according to Singer, the biggest demonstrations the city had ever known, as students marched in Paris under a banner that read “Students, Teachers, and Workers Together,” crowds held fists in the air while singing the Internationale, and the air was filled with slogans such as: “Happy birthday, mon General!” “Ten years, that’s enough!” “All power to the workers!” “Socialist revolution!” “Power lies in the streets!” and “Ce n’est qu’un debut . . . Continuous le combat!” (It is only a beginning . . . We must continue the fight!). The struggle also spread beyond Paris to other parts of France, with large demonstrations in Toulouse, Marseilles, and other cities.22

The Sorbonne, as an occupied university, became the cultural center of the student movement with general assemblies of up to 2,000 people daily.23 As Matt Perry writes of the events:

As in other revolutionary upsurges, during May 1968 it was as though the banks of the Seine burst under the weight of ideas expressed in leaflets, pamphlets, graffiti, posters, newspapers and speech, inundating the entire country. A great diversity of opinions cascaded through the streets, momentarily overwhelming the conformity of the mainstream press and the official stranglehold on public broadcasting. Reading these documents provides a compelling sense that the events shook French society, questioned its every institution and transformed the horizons of countless numbers of participants: that this was the beginnings of a revolutionary process prematurely concluded.24

However, it was the growing solidarity of workers who occupied factories around the country that gave the movement its strength. As Singer notes, “If the politically conscious students provided the vision, rebellion was changed into potential revolution when the workers intervened.”25 From the beginning of the student revolt, the movement had consciously sought solidarity with workers with one early leaflets proclaiming, “Long live the solidarity between workers and the fighting students,” while another argued, “The bourgeoisie fears above all . . . that the student revolt will get linked with that of the workers.”26 A banner carried by a student captured the sentiment: “The Workers will take from the fragile hands of the students the flag of their struggle against the anti-popular regime.”27

A national strike began May 14 at Sud-Aviation and sit-down strikes were revived, growing rapidly and spreading over the whole of France within a week.28 Involving as many as ten million workers, it was the largest strike in European history.29 The movement unleashed an immense outpouring of creativity and political discussion as workers everywhere sought to remake their worlds and contribute to the struggle. Beyond workers in industrial factories, the struggle saw architects and painters join the struggle, as actors went on strike closing theaters in Paris, and writers occupied the building of the Society of Men of Letters.”30 Singer describes how the revolutionary potential erupted as the struggle unleashed political debate and questioning of every aspect of society:

In the occupied factories, in the offices, in the laboratories, in the streets, people were talking to each other, questioning the hierarchical structures and their function in society. Teachers, sociologists, scientists were debating their own role in the existing order. All over, the thinking cogs were pondering their place in the machine.31

The revolt of the lycéens

In occupied universities and high schools, this revolutionary transformation of consciousness led students to fundamentally challenge the existing order and the education and pedagogy to which they had been subjected. A notice posted on May 13 gives expression to this revolutionary fervor as students rejected both the politics and pedagogy of the old university. With the headline “13 Mai = Rentrée Scolaire” (May 13 = Back to School), a leaflet satirically proclaimed the success of all students on their required examinations (many of which were suspended for the duration of the strike). The notice congratulates all students for passing the tests of: “Spirit of Initiative, Developing a Political Conscience, Revolutionary Discipline, Solidarity, and Protests and Barricades.”32 The leaflet continued by noting that classes were set to begin once more and invited all students to participate in a program of: “Critical University, Critique of Society, Student-worker Alliances, and Autonomy of the University.”33

Many historical accounts of the student revolt in 1968 in Paris focus primarily on institutions of higher education, but the activism of high school students is an often overlooked contribution to the movement as a whole. As members of high school committees explain:

The presence of lycéens on the barricades, in the protests, the rallies, at Flins, at Charléty, in the occupied lycées, reflects the breadth and depth of the crisis of May: it is indeed a crisis that concerns society as a whole, where indifference is impossible; and one part of the high school milieu, chose its camp: challenging the system, questioning university, social and political institutions.34

The national revolt of students and workers in May 1968 inspired students to rebel against top-down educational institutions in which learning was reduced to isolated nuggets of knowledge that were measurable and testable. As one high school action committee put it: “We must put an end to the high school snack-bar of culture and with the student as consumer who digests passively and alone the food imposed on him.”35 The student movement took particular aim at the test-and-punish educational regime that dominated all levels of French education arguing, “Examinations are only the expression of the aberrant, intolerable contract which connects university users to each other, on the one hand, and capitalist society on the other.” The same leaflet called on students to “Reject the rule of a macabre game which . . . endorses the inequality and hierarchy of the university, which deliberately destines thousands of students to ineligibility, unemployment, exploitation.”36 The High School Action Committees’ Commission on Examination joined their university counterparts in vehemently denouncing testing as “technically absurd and socially reactionary,” describing its effects with words that resonate today: “We are preoccupied with curricula, we cram, we bluff, and learn more for the sake of the exam than to form our personalities. We are judged on bookish knowledge hastily stocked and that one quickly forgets as soon as the exam is finished. The exam privileges competition, emulation for social success, and reinforces individualistic mental habits.”37 Thus, it encourages a pedagogical environment in which “Man is a wolf for other men.”38

Like their counterparts at the universities, these students were radicalized by the war in Algeria (which had culminated in independence for Algeria in 1962) and the ongoing war in Vietnam, and angered by a rigid educational system that was hostile to student initiative and independent thought. High school students had participated in antifascist struggles, and protested against the Algerian War and the war in Vietnam. Hundreds of high school students had protested US Vice President Humphrey’s visit to Paris. When one high school student was suspended from school for participation, protests were organized to defend students’ right to free speech.39 The committees established to organize against the Vietnam War would become the basis for the high school action committees of 1968; thus, as student organizers explained: “From anti-imperialist struggles a large number of activists came to the anti-capitalist struggle.”40

In response to police repression against students at Nanterre and the Sorbonne, the lycéens organized Comités d’Action Lycéens (High School Students’ Committees of Action, CAL according to its initials in French) and mobilized to democratize their schools and support the demands of university students and workers throughout Paris. Action committees were not limited to high schools but a key organizational feature of the revolt of May 1968 more generally. After the first mass student protests of May 3, leaflets began featuring calls to join these action committees, followed by open calls at mass student meetings.41 After the Night of the Barricades, the committees spread rapidly to number approximately four hundred.42 Action committees responded to the need to organize specific tasks during the general strike—everything from clearing garbage to setting up kindergartens and restaurants—while also providing organizational and political form to the struggle.43

In high schools, the CAL played a key role in mobilizing lycéens to support students at Nanterre and the Sorbonne. By May 6, fifteen high schools were on strike. Growing protests over the next few days led the CAL to call for a general strike in the lycées and join protests on May 10. That day, 10,000 high school students gathered to join the protest called by the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (National Union of Students of France, known by the acronym UNEF).44 Many of these students would participate in the Night of the Barricades. Along with striking teachers, they joined the protests on May 13, contributing both numbers and politics. Student activists produced huge numbers of leaflets to respond to political questions and debates that flowered during the May events and mobilized more students who were radicalizing daily. Thirty thousand copies of a leaflet titled “10,000 Agitateurs” (agitators) were distributed by the CAL explaining that the lycéens joined the protest “in support of student demands” and their refusal of the “structures and content of teaching.”45 It continues:

Today in the lycées the situation is clear:
on one side the police state and its attempts at repression
on the other the lycéens determined to respond.

Tomororow the lycéens united in the CAL will fight for:
the right to political action in the high schools
the right to strike for high school students
the right to challenge the university system

In each high school:
elections of class delegates
general assemblies of high school students
teacher-student liaison committees
protest newspaper
Assemblies of young people everywhere:
against repression in all its forms
for the right to education for all.46

On May 19, after the teacher unions issued a call to strike, the CAL decided to put out a general call to occupy the schools (some of which had already been occupied),47 embarking on an experiment in democratic education that has rarely been replicated. By June 1, “60 Paris high schools were occupied, of which 20 were occupied day and night, and 400 schools outside Paris.”48 Teachers who went on strike in many cases went to occupied schools to maintain contact with student activists. As a result, “Open politics—as opposed to the subtle weight of the establishment—and the questioning of hierarchical orders made a spectacular entry into French schools, and the authoritarian lycée will never recover from the shock.”49 Student and teacher delegates organized committees to discuss all aspects of education and school organization. As one leaflet explained: “The problem is not to demand a bit more of this or a bit more of that . . . it is to demand something else.50

A proposition put out on May 20 gives insight into the ways in which students generalized from their experiences to help spread school occupations. It proposes that students in occupied schools begin by setting up an occupation committee made up of high school students, teachers, and other school personnel that will be responsible for the “life of the high school.” It includes logistical suggestions for everything from who controls the keys, to taking care of younger students, dealing with security problems, keeping the infirmary open, and more.51 Among the priorities, it calls for students to establish a schedule for the occupied school day, which should be presented to students, teachers, and personnel at a general assembly. It included instructions to “organize working committees (teachers-students and eventually parents) on exams, problems of culture and leisure, current political events (Vietnam, strikes . . .), the press (create a magazine),” noting further that “the results of these commissions will be communicated at the end of the afternoon at the G.A. [General Assembly] (open to the population).”52 The leaflet goes on to suggest that students “prepare a leaflet to announce the goals of the movement and the opening of the lycée (among others: film sessions, theatrical performances, library, etc.) to the population” and perhaps, even “shoot a film on the occupation of the school.”53

Traditional “classes” were abolished, as students were grouped based on knowledge, not exams or grade. In some cases, schoolwork was divided between cooperative learning in the morning and “free and collective” learning in the afternoon, including discussions of politics, arts, and sports, which, despite being more “recreational,” were nonetheless meant to “establish continuity with the work of the morning which it will contribute to illustrate and nourish.”54 Participant descriptions of life in democratically-run occupied schools give a small glimpse into the creative energy and intellectual ferment that thrived in these conditions. The following is a description of a day in the life of a high school occupation, May 20 at the Lycée La Fayette:

A little before 8 in the morning, the students in the senior classes went on strike. When the teachers arrived, they informed some of them of their action, with the intention of establishing real unity of action with the teachers. The teachers, surprised for the most part, met in their usual room and decided to join the movement.

At around 8:15 one of their union delegates . . . announced to the gathered students that the teachers were joining them. He asked them whether they would prefer to start with a general meeting or two hours of discussion between teachers and students in their classes about the problems posed by the crisis of the university. The students went with the second choice.

Thus, between 8:30 and 10 animated discussions ensued; in an amicable and relaxed climate, as teachers and students freely exchanged their points of view on teaching, its goals, its methods, its programs and its outcomes.

As of mid morning, some responsible students were chosen by their peers from the upper classes; some were to organize work, the others take charge of the younger students and assure order with those supervisors not on strike. . . . The administration for its part tried to come to terms with the new situation that had been created.

At 10 a.m. there was a general meeting in the gym . . . During this meeting, debates were directed by the bureau of older students and teachers [but also included younger students].

The decision was made to elect one delegate of students per class . . . it also appeared necessary to inform the population and students’ parents about the movement in progress.55

As students drafted a leaflet to distribute, they learned that similar actions were happening all over Paris, and this was all before lunch. Elections of delegates were held at 2 p.m. and an interior committee created to help run the occupied school. Work continued throughout the school as young people and their teachers discussed the theme of education reform. That night, between 8:30 and 11:30 p.m., delegates of students and teachers were joined by presidents of two parent associations who shared their perspectives, which were in overall agreement with those of students and teachers. They came up with new rules to ensure the active participation of students in the life of the building.56

Students challenged every aspect of education under capitalism. Not only did they oppose testing, but they also opposed awards and classification by grade, advocating for major changes to the grading system.57 They opposed the rigid delineation of learning by subject, and argued for smaller class sizes with a mix of student levels in every class.58 They demanded greater emphasis on the arts so that students could, in the words of the CAL Rodin, “allow free reign to their imaginations.”59 At the Lycée Paul Bert in Paris, students proposed a plan in which the school lobby would be a place of discussion and relaxation with information about cultural activities in Paris, asking for a piano and a discotheque to facilitate a music program created by students.60 The CAL De Hoche in Meudon proposed the creation of a cinema club to organize film screenings followed by debates open to all classes and directed by students, a theatre troupe that would perform plays to be determined by majority vote, and regular art exhibits.61 They objected to the practice of teaching literature as isolated passages from canonical works in textbooks in favor of whole works chosen by students. Other schools demanded courses in sexual education that would explore contraception, gender roles, and living a free sexual life, specifying that such courses should be conducted in discussion format.62 Another CAL argued against gender segregation in schools at all levels.63

The CAL also argued against “the social segregation that characterizes education”64—thus, all occupied high schools were open to the general population. Workers would, in some places, join student activists at schools to, as one student describes, “inform us and they stayed to participate in our meetings” which included “discussions about sexual emancipation, political emancipation, talks about authors, historical events.”65

Student occupations thoroughly transformed the repressive and hierarchical structure of schools. By working with teachers, lycéens transformed the relationship between student and teacher from one of unequal power to one of collaboration. This was reflected in one of the more practical yet radical and political demands of the movement to eradicate the raised platform upon which the teacher’s desk was placed in most French classrooms. As the Bordeaux CAL explained, “It was proven during the lycée occupation that student participation was much more effective and much more free when the teacher was among the students and no longer on a pedestal, the respect vis-à-vis the teacher not being proportionate to the difference in height of the teachers’ chair and pupils’ desks. We also suggest that desks be differently arranged in a circle or in the form of a horseshoe.”66 Another CAL argued for the principle of the three-day week for teachers “to give them time to work on enlivening their lessons.”67

Students argued for ongoing critical exchange between students and teachers based on mutual respect, noting that special rooms should be dedicated for this purpose,68 while the Bordeaux CAL argued that “it goes without saying that the establishment of dialogue with teachers can not happen without a reduction in class size (22 students maximum).”69 The Mounier CAL in Grenoble further called for the election of principals by teachers every three years (recallable with a two-thirds vote) to ensure greater democracy in the schools.70 The effect of students and educators working together in solidarity with workers and students nationally had a transformative effect as, in the words of high school student activists, “students who were confronted directly with the repressive apparatus of the state became conscious of their relative isolation, and the importance of the development of working class fight . . . This spontaneous solidarity is expressed in the creation of worker-student committees, collections for strikers, discussions with workers at the doors of factories.”71

Students became conscious of the precarious conditions in which many of the staff worked, particularly cooks and lower ranking workers. Thus, at the Lycée Balzac, a leaflet informed fellow students that 150 members of the school staff had left in ten years due to poor working conditions, and reminded students of their importance to the educational project of the school, saying:

We need to be conscious:
That 80 people work to improved our learning conditions
That much more than us they suffer repression from the administration
Threats to their licenses
Categorical refusals of dialogue (meeting room not granted)
We need to react against such deplorable work conditions.72

In the process, students built solidarity and began to understand their own power as militants who could contribute to the struggle. As student Myriam Chédotal recalls, in a moment that encapsulates the period, she went into classrooms where she proclaimed, “‘Comrades’—because they were already my comrades, you see—‘here’s what’s going on, here’s the news, I propose we all go to town to demonstrate for the abolition of wage labor.’” Reflecting on the moment, she notes that as she went from class to class, “My life shifted: I realized I had a gift for speaking, for finding the right words. It was that day I gained confidence in myself. It was brilliant.”73

Not all were happy with this new militancy, confidence, and collaborative spirit of students and workers in schools. As the president of a parents’ association recalls,

One day in the beginning of May, I received a call from the parent of a student who said: “My son leaves every morning to the Lycée Rodin, very relaxed without books, and the evening returns even more relaxed than the morning and with furthermore lots of revolutionary ideas in his head and me, I don’t like this given that I do not share his ideas, furthermore I do not have the right to share them because I am C.R.S. [a national paramilitary police force used for riot control]. 74

While there were many skeptics, the seriousness of the occupiers had a profound resonance on many observers. As one participant explains:

They imagined that the lycéens would take advantage of the occasion to run wild and even damage places. But why should they damage their materials, smash up their classrooms, sabotage their own work? It is on this point that the lycée occupations run parallel to the factory occupations. In both cases, the work tools were respected because they felt so much more responsible on discovering that they could function by the activity of the rank and file alone, without the interference of administrative hierarchies or the bosses.75

Students consciously identified with the broader class struggle and saw their efforts at reforming the educational system as part of a broader struggle against capitalism. As one CAL explains: “To change education, one must change society.”76 Noting that working-class children were disproportionately excluded from higher education, they envisioned an educational system based on human liberation, in which collective and collaborative work would combat competition and individualism, and “conditioned passivity” would be abolished in favor of “infinite creative possibilities and spirit of initiative.” This vision of education went beyond the four walls of the lycée, as they advocated for lifelong learning and against the false separation of work outside the school from learning within it. They wrote:

Education must permit the total development of individuals and therefore is in opposition to all ideas of specialization and precocious selection: no specialized idiots. Humans should not stay as fossils confined to the limiting horizon of their jobs. They should have varied activities. . . . School should not exist in solitary confinement, but be an interaction of equal groups that mutually help each other to progress. Currently manual labor is opposed to intellectual work: we need to bring about the union of both.77

This understanding of the “union of both” was nurtured in the radical climate of May 1968, which broke down barriers between students and workers and transformed both in the process. Daniel Pinos, a fifteen-year-old student at technical high school Villefranchesur-Saône, describes that when his father’s factory went on strike and was occupied, he went to the GA and “spoke of the strike and how we had to be involved in it as future workers,” and called for a strike in solidarity with the workers and students. He remembers:

There was a demo and we found ourselves shoulder to shoulder with the workers from every factory that was on strike. And it was almost every factory: even small ones, that had never been on strike before had gone out. It was incredible. At my father’s factory, a big textile factory, they were used to strikes, strikes that lasted a day, that’s all, never prolonged ones: occupations like these had never been seen before. So there we were, shoulder to shoulder with all these workers on strike, and it was the first big demo of my life. I was only a kid, there with my father and my brother, and I was totally swept away.78

This vision of solidarity was, for many, the lasting image of the French May. College student Eliane Paul-di-Vicenzo echoes this idea when recounting her two most powerful memories of the period:

The first was when I settled in the boys’ dorms, and all of them came to greet me. Plus I was on the fourth floor so the school authorities would have had to climb the three others before I could be dislodged. That was a great moment. And then there was the first visit to Sud-Aviation [an aircraft manufacturing plant that launched the first factory sit-down strike of May], where we spent the night around a campfire with the workers, drinking, singing, fraternizing in a way I’d never done with workers, even though my father was a worker.79

Another student, Jose Chatroussat, describes similar meetings at the university, in which students and workers discussed

how we were going to construct a new society, what it was going to be. What would self-management mean, how would it be done? We discussed the war in Vietnam, and the black protest movement in the US excited an enormous number of people. All these themes were discussed. There was a dream-like side to it, a resemblance to the Paris Commune in the sense that nothing was settled, and even though de Gaulle was not gone we had already moved on to the future society.80

This is the generation of May

High school students participated en masse—alongside their camarades in the universities—in all the major strikes and demonstrations and the state attacked them no less ruthlessly. One high school student and Maoist militant, Gilles Tautin, who joined a demonstration in solidarity with the Renault workers, was killed by the police on June 10, drowning after being chased to his death in a police manhunt as the state sought to break the strike in Flins, a working-class stronghold. His death served as a chilling reminder of the brutality of the state, and a stunning example of the bravery of students who heeded the call to defend the Renault plant in Flins, fighting side by side with workers against the police around the factory and in the surrounding area. In addition to the murder of Gilles Tautin, the police shot two workers in an attack on the Peugeot plant at Sochaux.81 As the struggle waned, the UNEF organized a demonstration on June 12 to protest these murders. On June 15, thousands of students joined a silent funeral march through Paris in honor of Gilles Tautin. At the head of the procession was a painting of Tautin created by students of the Beaux-Arts, carried by workers from the Renault plant at Flins who also had a contingent immediately following his family who walked behind the portrait.82 A longtime activist and revolutionary was deeply struck by the mood and described it as follows:

I arrived there. There was an instinctive and spontaneous discipline. As an activist, I had been to many burials . . . Well, the ceremony of Gilles Tautin, that one made me forget the rest. First of all, there was an extraordinary silence. You could feel a tense anger, a feeling of revenge to be taken. Then, all these kids carried a rose in their hands. Gilles’ parents had said: “No wreaths.” So, the JCML [La Jeunesse Communiste Marxiste Léninist, Communist Marxist-Leninist Youth] had bought thousands of red roses and had distributed them around them. And then, there was this extreme youth, so serious: the majority (we were between 5 and 7 thousand) must have been between 16 and 18 years old. And then, they were whistling: the Internationale and it’s so beautiful when one whistles it softly like a clandestine chant, it leaves an impression. Finally, at the cemetery where there were no speeches, no superfluous words, nothing. Only a young factory worker who had come from Flins who said a few words. Something like: “You have fallen, we will continue the fight” and the kids dispersed as they had come, spontaneously, without a word of order, in the same communal and instantaneous discipline. I watched them leave. I thought, “This is the generation of May.”83

Faced with intense political repression meted out by the de Gaulle government and a rightwing backlash, at the same time as concessions were offered and parliamentary elections promised, strikes waned. This, along with the conservatism of the French Communist Party (the largest organized left force) and resulting divisions on the left, ultimately led to the defeat of the revolutionary movement of the generation of May. Nonetheless, their revolt marked a high point of struggle for the radical left that profoundly shaped French politics and served as an inspiration to radicals internationally.84

The student movement fell short of many of its goals, but it won lasting reforms at both the university and high school level. New universities were created and all universities were given greater autonomy, as they were to be governed cooperatively with students playing a leading role in these decision-making bodies.85 Experimental schools were opened and many schools saw changes in teaching methodologies.86 In high schools, the teacher’s platforms were removed, and students won the right to smoke—perhaps dubious as a right from the perspective of modern health standards, but still, a reflection of the assertion of students’ rights. As one young communist high school student in Nantes, Dominique Barbe, explains:

The central axis of our demands was dignity. Being recognized as young adults and not as children in short pants. That was the focus of the high school fight . . . I remember an important demand was the right to smoke, that we not be forced to hide in the toilets to smoke a cigarette. We wanted to be recognized and have the right to smoke like the others. And we won. And it was a victory that was symbolic of the fact we were young adults and not kids.87

Perhaps more importantly, students won the right to elect peer representatives at the councils that evaluated students, the right to criticize teachers in these councils (or through leaflets), and the right to discuss politics in the school and distribute political materials.88 This latter victory on the right to political free speech was a particularly important demand for high school students who had fought to hold meetings in schools, to conduct political study groups, and to post distribute political flyers and leaflets. Students also demanded the right to vote at the age of eighteen instead of twenty-one, a demand won in 1974.89

In the schools, these reforms meant “the staff had to radically revise their attitude and for the first time regard pupils as human beings.” As Suzanne Borde, member of the Comité d’Action of the 3rd and 4th arrondissement and a teacher of chemistry and physics remembers: “May ’68 showed me I was on the right road. As a teacher it led me to have a different relationship with the children, and I saw that the way the school functioned wasn’t right at all. All of this was made concrete by May. May showed me the way I should live.”90

While the struggle at schools and universities was crucial to the revolt of May 1968, the struggle did not end there. Through committees against the war in Vietnam and worker-student solidarity committees, students learned to see themselves as part of broader struggle that transcended school walls and national borders. “To those who said that the revolution of May was fundamentally selfish,” students in the CAL wrote, “we ask why spontaneously we came to speak of Vietnam, or the condition of the worker, so far removed from the immediate concerns of high school students?”91 Indeed, the internationalism of the student movement was one of its most remarkable features. A popular slogan of the movement was, “We don’t give a damn about frontiers.”92 One of May 1968’s most memorable imprints on the radical imagination was when “fifty thousand young Frenchmen, standing within sight of the Bastille, shouted at the top of their voices: ‘We are all German Jews,’” after the student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit was refused reentry to France. 93 Notably, the writer Aimé Césaire, a revolutionary from Martinique who attended this protest remarked, “I am quite willing to shout it, only nobody will believe me.”94 This chant, along with “We are all undesirable,” and “We are all foreigners” epitomized a “scene that at once became part of revolutionary lore.”95 This internationalism was part of a broader turn toward radical solidarity, as May 1968 played an important role in the struggle for women’s liberation and gay liberation.96

This revolutionary solidarity was part of a political radicalization that transformed consciousness, teaching students that their struggle could not be isolated from the broader social and political struggle for liberation in France and internationally:

We were able to see in may [sic] that the mobilization is multi-dimensional, that fighting for a democratic education is not counterposed to activism for the Vietnamese cause. There too, we need to revise certain conceptions of mass organization . . . The challenge now is to understand the meaning of may, that situated the struggle of college students and high school students in the national context of social struggles, and in the international context of anti-imperialist struggles . . . We must now preserve what we learned in may in the facts, understand that all the concessions that will be made to us are not proof of the good will of the government, but the fruit of sustained struggles, and that action is our principal weapon.97

Although the events of May 1968 fell short of a revolution, the lasting image of students and workers struggling in solidarity to transform both education and society at large is a powerful image—one that inspires radicals today much as it terrifies rulers the world over. As Raul Ferrer, the architect of the Cuban literacy campaign, says in words that resonate in the United States today: “Ever since the student upheavals in Paris during May of 1968 hundreds of people have been traveling the world in an attempt to isolate the crisis of our pupils from the moral struggles of our times. It is a gross diversion. We deny that there is ‘a crisis in the schools’ . . . It is not a crisis in the classroom. It is a crisis in the social order.”98

This is a legacy the corporate education “deformers” would love to have us forget. It is for this reason that it is so important to remember. Reflecting on the lessons of the French May, Singer writes:

The purpose of our pundits and preachers is to doom as impossible a radical, fundamental transformation of existing society. In contrast, let us recall what is probably the best-known slogan of the French May: “Be Realistic. Ask for the Impossible,” a slogan that is not a call for escapism. What we must recover is the conviction that we can change life, changes la vie, through collective political action. When this conviction is regained, all the establishments will once again begin to tremble.99

  1. Hugh Schofield, “Protesters Revive Ghosts of France’s 1968 Revolt,” BBC News, April 28, 2018,
  2. Quoted in Angelique Chrisafis, “France’s 1968 Uprising, 50 Years on: ‘It’s Harder for the Youth Today,’” The Guardian, May 1, 2018,
  3. Quoted in Julie Turkewitz, Matt Stevens, and Jason M. Bailey, “Emma González Leads a Student Outcry on Guns: ‘This Is the Way I Have to Grieve,’” New York Times, June 8, 2018,
  4. See, for example, John McCarron, “Millennials’ Surprise: There Isn’t an App to Solve All Problems,”, Sarah Kliff, “Study Confirms: Millennials Are Apathetic,” Newsweek, February 8, 2010,
  5. Quoted in Mitchell Abidor, May Made Me: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France, Kindle Edition (AK Press, 2018), 1. For full text in French, see “15 mars 1968. Quand la France s’ennuie,” Langlois,
  6. Quoted in “1968: Revolution Reaches the Heart of Europe,”,
  7. An earlier version of this article was published as part of the chapter “Literacy and Revolution” in Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012).
  8. See Matt Perry, “May 1968 across the Decades,” International Socialism 118 (Spring 2008),
  9. For more on this, see Jonah Birch, “How Beautiful It Was,” Jacobin, May 23, 2018, and Ernest Reed’s article in this issue of the International Socialist Review.
  10. Daniel Singer, Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013), 44–45.
  11. Singer, Prelude, 52. Singer notes that while before the war, a “workman’s son” was “barely more than one in a hundred” in colleges, “by now, he is nearly one in ten.”
  12. Singer, 54.
  13. Singer, 118–19.
  14. Singer, 120–24.
  15. The CRS are a national paramilitary police force used for riot control with roots in the Vichy regime.
  16. Singer, 125.
  17. Singer, 127.
  18. Birch, “How Beautiful It Was”; Singer, 128.
  19. Singer, 138.
  20. Singer, 141; Jean-Claude Perrot et al., “La Sorbonne Par Elle-Même: Mai–Juin 1968,” Le Mouvement Social, No. 64 (1968): 92,
  21. Singer, 142.
  22. Singer, 148–49.
  23. Abidor, May Made Me, 40.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Singer, 23.
  26. Singer, 124.
  27. Singer, 152.
  28. Singer, 155–57.
  29. Birch, “How Beautiful It Was.”
  30. Singer, 159.
  31. Singer, xxi–xxii.
  32. “13 Mai = Rentree Scolaire.” The May Events Archive, Simon Fraser University (The translation is by the author; all subsequent translations are by the author unless otherwise indicated.),–111–001–001.jpg.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Comités d’Action Lycéens, Les Lycéens Gardent La Parole (Paris, France: Le Seuil, 1968), 7.
  35. CAL Janson de Sailly, Paris, quoted in Comités d’Action Lycéens, Les Lycéens, 36.
  36. Perrot et al., “La Sorbonne Par Elle-Même,” 22.
  37. Comités d’Action Lycéens, Les Lycéens, 122; translation from Perry, “May 1968 across the Decades.”
  38. Comités d’Action Lycéens, Les Lycéens, 122.
  39. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 20.
  40. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 10.
  41. Singer, 270; Perrot et al., “La Sorbonne Par Elle-Même”; “Journal Électronique de La Commune Étudiante-Accueil,”
  42. Birch, “How Beautiful It Was.”
  43. Singer, 273.
  44. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 23.
  45. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 24.
  46. C.A.L., 13 MAI 1968, quoted in Comités d’Action Lycéens, 25.
  47. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 26.
  48. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 30.
  49. Singer, 158.
  50. Quoted in Singer, 272.
  51. Comités d’Action Lycéens, Les Lycéens Gardent La Parole, 26–27.
  52. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 27.
  53. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 27.
  54. Chanie Rosenberg, Education and Society: A Rank-and-File Pamphlet (London: Rank and File, 1973), 34.
  55. Comités d’Action Lycéens, Les Lycéens Gardent La Parole, 28–29.
  56. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 29–30.
  57. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 120.
  58. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 73.
  59. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 98.
  60. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 148.
  61. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 150–51.
  62. C.A.L. Saint-Quentin Comités d’Action Lycéens, 97.
  63. C.A.L. Buffon, Paris Comités d’Action Lycéens, 134.
  64. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 31.
  65. Abidor, May Made Me, 162.
  66. Comités d’Action Lycéens, Les Lycéens Gardent La Parole, 137.
  67. Quoted in Rosenberg, Education and Society, 36.
  68. Lycee Octave Greard, Paris. Comités d’Action Lycéens, Les Lycéens Gardent La Parole, 134.
  69. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 137.
  70. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 55.
  71. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 30.
  72. Comite´s d’Action Lyceens, 31.
  73. Abidor, May Made Me, 166.
  74. Monsieur LaPorte, quoted in Comités d’Action Lycéens, Les Lycéens Gardent La Parole, 158.
  75. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 26; translation from Rosenberg, 31.
  76. CAL La Fayette, Brioude, Haute-Loire Comités d’Action Lycéens, Les Lycéens Gardent La Parole, 41.
  77. Comités d’Action Lycéens, 42.
  78. Quoted in Abidor, May Made Me, 221.
  79. Quoted in Abidor, 166–67.
  80. quoted in Abidor, 178.
  81. Singer, 208–9; Perry, “May 1968 across the Decades.”
  82. Kristin Ross, Mai 68 et ses vies ultérieures (Editions Complexe, 2005), 70; “Plusieurs milliers de personnes ont assisté aux obsèques du lycéen Gilles Tautin,” Le, June 18, 1968,
  83. Attributed to Francois G, from an excerpt from Ce n’est qu’un début in Comités d’Action Lycéens, Les Lycéens Gardent La Parole, 32–33.
  84. Due to space constraints, this is a necessarily truncated and therefore potentially reductive summary of this history. For more on the end of the mass struggles of May 1968 and their legacy, see Birch, “How Beautiful It Was.”
  85. See Alain Touraine, The May Movement, Revolt and Reform: May 1968—the Student Rebellion and Workers’ Strikes—the Birth of a Social Movement, trans. Leonard F. X. Mayhew, (New York: Random House, 1971).
  86. Abidor, May Made Me, 84.
  87. Quoted in Abidor, 143.
  88. Rosenberg, 36–38.
  89. Comités d’Action Lycéens, Les Lycéens Gardent La Parole, 156.
  90. Rosenberg, 39.
  91. Comités d’Action Lycéens, Les Lycéens Gardent La Parole, 187.
  92. Singer, 389.
  93. Singer, 17.
  94. Singer, 178.
  95. Singer, 17;176–77.
  96. Abidor, May Made Me, 111, 153; Birch, “How Beautiful It Was.”
  97. Comités d’Action Lycéens, Les Lycéens Gardent La Parole, 188.
  98. Jonathan Kozol, Children of the Revolution: A Yankee Teacher in the Cuban Schools (New York: Dell, 1980), 84.
  99. Singer, Prelude to Revolution, xxvi.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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