May 1968: Workers and students together

May 1968 in France and its lessons

On May 13, 1968, the leaders of the French student movement and labor unions walked with a banner that proclaimed “Students, Teachers, and Workers Together.” Revolutionary students Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Jacques Sauvageot marched with Georges Séguy, the head of the Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT). Previously, Séguy had spent days attacking the same Cohn-Bendit and his student comrades in the press. He had condemned the student radicals for having “the unbelievable cheek to give lessons of revolutionary theory [to the working class] and pretend to lead its struggle.”1 Yet on May 13 they walked together, if awkwardly, in step. And a sea of 500,000 to one million students and workers marched through the streets of Paris with them.

Fifty years ago, these twin social forces in France nearly overthrew a government. What began as a student revolt, seemingly isolated on campuses, transformed into a general strike. Hundreds of thousands of youth rebelled. Ten million workers out of fifteen million struck and took over their workplaces. A once-infallible president-general, Charles de Gaulle slunk from his post in secret, giving the brief impression that he might step down. France in May 1968 was a society in ferment, and its example inspired a generation of activists and revolutionaries around the world. This was the closest that a core capitalist country had gotten to a revolution in modern times.

More than last year’s centenary of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the anniversary of May 1968 has sparked somewhat more discussion and comparison with contemporary developments.Timemagazine, theNew York Review of Books,and other noteworthy publications have all looked at 1968—though with little enthusiasm. For Jon Meacham, writing inTime, 1968 is a comforting reminder that things aren’t (yet) all that bad:

The past can, however, give us a sense of proportion–a framework in which to assess where our discontent ranks in terms of what has come before. And in that light, there’s an element of reassurance in looking back on 1968 from the perspective of half a century. . . . For all the unhappiness and madness of the present, for all the tribal conflicts of the Age of Trump, we are not––at this hour, anyway––engaged in a consuming war, and political violence is largely restricted to argumentative agitation. Tet, we should remember, was worse than any single tweet.2

For Marxists, revisiting 1968 isn’t about giving fretting commentators a calming sense of proportion. Nor is it just about celebrating a year of international protest and revolt—though that is important. Echoes of ’68 have rippled in the ears and minds of many emerging radicals. The tactics and politics of the Frenchenragéshave touched the left for two generations; their influence stretches from hot Italian autumns to American Occupy encampments. Though much has changed since then, 1968 continues to hold important lessons for the left—about the creativity of the masses in struggle, the power of the working class, the limits of reformism, and the way struggles outside workplaces can act as detonators for wider class struggle.

The conditions in France

France was a society in transition in the 1960s. It had emerged from World War II battered, but within a decade it began rapid modernization to catch up with its American and European competitors. It was in this period that France became a predominantly urban, industrialized country. Though this modernization began under the Fourth Republic, it accelerated under the Fifth Republic’s president, General Charles de Gaulle, who assumed power in 1958 (after being out of power for twelve years) following an attempted coup by generals in the Algerian War. Billing itself as a regime of national salvation, de Gaulle’s government was an authoritarian regime wrapped in the trappings of bourgeois democracy. He ran the country by holding a series of referendums; while there were direct presidential elections, few doubted de Gaulle’s ultimate victory in them. De Gaulle was so confident in himself during the 1965 election that he didn’t start campaigning until a month before the vote.

Gaullist centralism infected all aspects of society. A bureaucratic committee had censored and controlled the French radio and television service (ORTF) since 1964. On a daily basis, the ORTF television director presented the day’s news and featured programs for prior approval by government representatives. This committee of Gaullist functionaries often ordered revisions, additions, or deletions to material that might embarrass the government. Likewise, when La Pitié Hospital in Paris conducted its first heart surgery, the head of the heart surgery department didn’t provide comment to the press. Instead thegrand patronof La Pitié did, a digestive tract specialist who had not even been in Paris at the time of the surgery. The French satirical magazineLe Canard Enchainélampooned the hospital’s absurd rigidity.

So long as the fires of unrest remained smoldering beneath the surface, the system was stable. But since the whole system rested on one man, as journalist Daniel Singer argued inPrelude to Revolution, “any conflict tended to turn into a crisis of the regime.”3


Out of economic changes, the educational system changed as well. Like other powers at the time, France needed technical and research workers to compete in the world market. The number of university students exploded, from 60,000 students out of a total French population of 42 million before World War II, to 500,000 students out of a total population of 50 million. With an explosion in quantity came a transformation in quality. Economic expansion and changes in education meant more children from working-class and lower-middle-class families attended college. The inequalities of capitalism still barred many from higher education, but if before the war, barely one in a hundred sons and daughters of the working class had reached college, by 1968 nearly one in ten had made it.

More importantly, this swelling student body led to stress and strain. It ripened conditions for struggle. Students faced overcrowding, even as universities were in a construction frenzy to keep pace. Paris’ Latin Quarter, which housed colleges like the Sorbonne, had 150,000 students running through it nearly every day. Sometimes students would sit through a lecture in one subject just to secure seats for the class actually on their schedules. A rise in unemployment raised serious concerns for students about finding jobs after college, for those who were even able to graduate. Seventy percent of French university students failed to complete their studies, and 40 percent of the roughly 450,000 unemployed were under the age of twenty-five.

Yet the university system was also beset by the same problems of Gaullism as a whole. In the classrooms, professors avoided contemporary issues and lectured on the classics, expecting deference and refusing dialogue. In their dorm rooms, students were banned from putting up photographs, from adding or removing furniture, and from hosting a member of another sex.

All decisions for the individual campuses flowed to the top, to the education ministry. “All twenty-three universities in the country are state-run, on rigidly standardized lines, like a government department. The local administrative staff is impotent, the students resentful, their mutual relations hostile. Discussion is pointless since decisions are taken elsewhere.”4

Explaining the May student revolt, Jacques Sauvageot, head of the National French Student Union (UNEF), pointed out that “students are expected to have a certain critical intelligence, while . . . they are not allowed to exercise it.”5As Lynda Fryd wrote, “there existed no medium through which students, school pupils, and young apprentices could express grievances and their desire for free discussion.”6By official decree, politics were to be kept off campus.

Despite administrators’ wishes, though, politics came all the same. At modernizing campuses like the Sorbonne and the new, modern ones like Nanterre, students organized against the Vietnam War, against the government’s attempts to tighten admissions policies, and even simply for co-ed housing.

In the fall of 1965, students made their first revolt against gender segregation at the Antony student residence complex. Twenty minutes from Paris, 1,700 students prevented workers from putting up an administrative checkpoint—a symbol of the barriers erected between male and female students—in front of a women’s dorm. After three months of protests, a new ministry-appointed residential director allowed students over twenty-one (and others with written permission from their parents) to host members of another sex. As a testament to the struggle’s influence, 90 percent of minors got their parents’ written permission.

On Valentine’s Day, the struggle for sexual liberation ripped across student dorms nationwide. Led by the UNEF, thousands of students fought for “free circulation,” often with male students storming women’s dorms. University deans waited for directives from Paris, and on some campuses, they called in the police. In Nantes, students occupied the rector’s office; at Montpellier, male and female students fought off the police. The movement racked up a victory, though the minister of education only allowed women to enter male students’ rooms, and only if the men were over twenty-one.

To tackle overcrowding, the government instituted the Fouchet Reforms. Among other things, it tightened education requirements, forced students to pick a major almost immediately, and allowed them a very small window of a few years to graduate. Brutal rationalization had come to education and failed to offer real solutions to students’ problems. In response, sociology students at Nanterre went on strike for ten days in November 1967. The movement ultimately encompassed the whole faculty, and some ten thousand out of twelve thousand students, as they demanded teaching reforms, curricula changes, and an end to overcrowded lecture halls.

The youth were not only looking at their own campus problems. Their political vision and outrage extended off campus and around the world. As French imperialism fought to squelch the Algerian national liberation movement, France’s youth played a leading role in organizing against the war. In October 1960, the UNEF mobilized ten thousand people to protest in the Latin Quarter. As the adultporteurs de valisesferried cash across France for the FLN,Jeune Résistanceurged draft refusal among young men. Eight thousand Parisian students organized inFront anti-fasciste universitaire(FAU) committees against the settlers’ far-right terrorist Secret Army Organization (OAS). After the Algerian War ended in March 1962 with the FLN’s victory and the nation’s independence, attention shifted to the US war in Vietnam, another former French colony.

All of these struggles were part of the maturity and growth of the student social body. It was a process of mass mobilization, confronting college administrations and adversaries, acquiring lessons, and testing leaders. That process also sprouted and strengthened political organization.

From Algeria to 1968, the UNEF moved more and more to the left. A core of Catholic socialists had pushed the union into politics and had collaborated with young left-wing Communists on the FAUs. This left-wing “Mino” faction won control over the union from the right wing at the September 1963 conference, and sought to continue the militant momentum from their Algerian War campaigns. While the membership fell from 100,000 in 1961 to 50,000 by 1968, its politics had deepened. Led by acting president Jacques Sauvageot, it would lead the student demonstrations in May and help draw in labor unions to the fight.

As students marched under “Victory to the NLF!” banners in anti-Vietnam War protests, they were also setting up organizations. TheComités Vietnam National(CVN) linked student radicals with left-wing intellectuals and small left parties, and soon grew into a swarm of regional groups. Most significantly, high school students organized a whole coterie ofComités Vietnam Lycéens. By late 1967, these had morphed intoComités d’Action Lycéens(CAL) to organize a left-wing movement among secondary school students. By April 1968 they had grown to 500 members in a handful of Parisian schools, but they would play an important role in the May explosion. (See Megan Behrent’s article in this issue, “Asking for the Impossible: May 1968 and the Revolt of the Lycéens.”)

Solidarity for Vietnam broke out into university struggle, too. After Trotskyist student Xavier Langlade was arrested at a protest against an American Express office near Nanterre in March, a hundred radicals occupied an administrative building on campus. They set up committees, drafted a manifesto, and scrawled the first tastes of the satirical graffiti that is often remembered. Out of the battle to defend antiwar student activists, students founded the militant and broad March 22nd Movement (M22). As Daniel Bensaïd wrote, “It defined itself as anti-imperialist (solidarity with the Indochinese and Cuban peoples), anti-bureaucratic (solidarity with the Polish students and the Prague Spring), and anti-capitalist (solidarity with the workers of Caen and Redon).”7

Young revolutionaries participated in all of these movements. After activists’ expulsions from the Communist Party’s youth wing in 1965, newly formed organizations like the TrotskyistJeunesse Communiste Revolutionnaire(JCR) and the MaoistUnion Jeunesse Communistes,Marxistes-Léninistes(UJC-ML) recruited on campuses and led in struggle. The JCR was instrumental in the CVN’s creation, while the Maoists set up their own front groups to “serve the people.” Together, anarchists and JCR militants fought off fascist invasions of Nanterre and marched for Vietnam in Berlin alongside the German Student Socialist Union (SDS). This emerging radical left found an audience of thousands on campus who, with hopes frustrated and illusions in the system exposed, were willing to hear a case for a revolutionary alternative.

The student left was dynamic, experienced, and ready to lead. Though these groups remained much too small to decisively shift the final course of May, their important contributions were still felt in the movement. As Daniel Bensaïd reflected on the 1967–1968 academic year, “there was an electric charge in the air.”8


Officially, the workweek was forty hours. The sit-down strikes in French factories during the 1930s had won that reform. But by 1968, the average workweek was forty-six hours. The eight-hour law was merely the floor over which overtime began. At the Renault facility in Billancourt, a factory with one of the best wage rates in the country, the average assembly line worker was paid less than $200 per month (about $1, 500 today). Pay was also tied to production quotas: if a worker produced only 90 percent of their quota, they would receive only 81 percent of their pay.9

The factory felt like a barracks for many workers. Even if some had a car, a washing machine, or a vacuum cleaner (and many did not), these could not substitute for dignity. Consumer goods couldn’t relieve the alienation many felt with every commute or every order from their bosses.

During the May strikes, some student radicals formed a solidarity picket at a Citroën plant. There, uniformed guards stood at the factory doors, shaking down workers for subversive literature and intimidating union activists. Chatting up one of the students, a young worker motioned to the massive metal doors segregating the factory machines from their operators’ hands: “When we call it a prison, you see what we mean.”10

French workers had their own radical tradition. As with the sit-down movement, workers’ greatest gains came through strikes, a pattern which spurred militancy and radical opposition. The French Communist Party (PCF) boasted 300,000 members, five million voters, and had control over the largest trade federation in France, the CGT.

The ensuing drama unfolded between three principal actors: the student left, the Communist Party, and the government. But they were far from the only forces on the scene. The French Socialist Party (SFIO) had split over its support for the Algerian War. Part of it entered a coalition with the Radicals and other liberals to become the Federation of the Democratic and Socialist Left (FGDS). Led by François Mitterand, this party was little more than two electoral machines stitched together by the time of May. They had cautiously cooperated with the PCF and made steps towards an alliance in 1967, but were wary of the Communists’ strong base—stronger than theirs. SFIO’s other wing formed thePartie Socialiste Unifié(PSU). It grouped revolutionaries like Sauvageot and lecturers’ union leader Alain Geismar with technocratic reformists like former minister Pierre Mendès-France. The result was a muddled mix of “revolutionary reformism.”

In 1962, the next largest union federation, theConfederation Francaise Democratique du Travail(CFDT) had elected radicals to leadership and built relations with the PSU. In the years leading up to 1968, it had formed an alliance with the CGT, a break with its Catholic, anticommunist origins. French unions competed with one another for workers’ allegiance, as there was no single-union representation in workplaces. Effective action meant united action among the unions, but the CGT could dominate over CFDT andForce Ouvrière(FO) in any agreement. It had an estimated membership of 1.5 million workers, while CFDT and FO had perhaps 500,000 each.

Though massive, the PCF had abandoned revolutionary working-class politics decades before, like all Communist parties since the isolation and degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin. Since the birth of the Fourth Republic, it had been obsessed with electoral politics and the creation of a new Popular Front government with forces to its right. When the May movement exploded onto the scene, the PCF was still stuck in this electoralism. Its politics would ultimately help doom the upheaval, but in the lead-up to ’68, the PCF still educated and inspired many (mainly older) working-class militants.

There were previews of the working-class upsurge to come. In February and March of 1967, workers struck at a fiber factory near Lyon, focusing on seniority and employment guarantees. The rank and file expressed a more militant mood compared to their union leaders.

The government, in its inhuman rationalizing of production and reproduction, attacked the social security system in the summer of 1967. It wanted to tie worker pay to factory productivity. To ensure free hands for such attacks, the Gaullists sought even more centralized powers to subvert the National Assembly. In response, the unions called out 140,000 workers in a twenty-four-hour general strike and mass demonstration in Paris.11

In October 1967, workers from Renault and other factories in Le Mans struck, fighting police in pitched battles for hours. In January 1968, an unlimited strike at the Saviem truck factory brought together young workers and students in more clashes against the police. In March, a similar battle of workers and students against cops occurred at Redon.

Youth was a factor in May, and not simply in the sense of a new world struggling to be born from the shell of the old. France had its own generation of baby boomers. By 1968, a quarter of France’s working population was under the age of twenty-five. In the factories and in the universities, this cohort of young people was more militant, more open to challenging the entire structure of society, and generally freer from the assumptions that still informed their forebears’ political horizons.

< p>From the beginning, and partly thanks to the political intervention of revolutionaries, many French student radicals recognized that their struggles would have to break out of the confines of campus and connect with workers. As one May leaflet published by the March 22 Movement put it to workers:

Your struggle is more radical than our legitimate demands because it not only seeks an improvement of the worker’s lot within the capitalist system, but it implies the destruction of that system. Your struggle is political in the real sense of the term; you are not fighting to replace one prime minister by another, but to deprive the owner, the boss, of his power in the factory and in society. The form of your struggle offers us students the model of really socialist activity: the appropriation of the means of production and of the power of decision by the working people.12

As Daniel Singer observed, “neither the example of the students nor the magic of their words alone could have driven workers to strike on such a scale. The huge general strike was the outcome of accumulated discontent, itself a product of the conditions under which people work and live.”13

Still, though pressure built throughout society, the student struggle served as the critical social detonator. When campus administrators repressed a 400-person leftist organizing meeting at the Sorbonne, thousands of students battled cops and erected street barricades for over a week. Driven by mass sentiment in support of the students, the unions declared a one-day general strike in solidarity. That initiated a process that quickly, albeit too briefly and without a strongly organized alternative, slipped out of the hands of the union leaders and challenged capitalism itself.

A rebellion emerges

A battle over the freedom of assembly on campus kicked things off. Four hundred student militants gathered at the Sorbonne on May 3 (“Not a mass meeting,” according to Singer. This alone provides a marker of radicals’ political horizons at the time).14They assembled to discuss how to advance the rapidly growing student movement, how to oppose the Nanterre administration’s closing of campus and threats to expel eight student leaders including Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and how to oppose the fascist Occident movement threatening political violence against activists.

The Sorbonne university rector, likely in consultation with the education ministry, assumed most ordinary students would be busy with final exams and called in the police to break the burgeoning student militancy once and for all. By 4:30 p.m., the police had surrounded the school grounds, forced their way in, and violently thrown dozens of students into police vans.

But rather than ignore the repression and keep their heads in their books, hundreds and then thousands of students gathered and marched themselves into police lines. Chants of “Libérez nos camarades” (Free our comrades) rang out from the crowds. For the next seven days, the seemingly once-passive and not-exactly-proletarian students faced down police batons and gas grenades steeled with determination and airborne cobblestone projectiles. This went far beyond a radical minority masking up and waging confrontational tactics. This was the reaction of a student social body in its tens of thousands.

Michel Morin, a second-year medical student, described how police violence drove these thousands into motion:

What was extraordinary was the way we, who had hardly raised our noses from our textbooks, were suddenly swept into political activity. . . . On May 3 one of my fellow students went to collect his car on the Boulevard St-Michel. A group of CRS [riot police] fell on him, beat him up and called him a “filthy student.” A day or two later, when he heard on the radio that fighting had flared up again, he leaped into his car to go and take part. He remembered to take a screwdriver to dislodge thepavés. I met him the next morning: He’d become an active rebel—and was even quite articulate aboutwhyhe was fighting.15

In the course of these early battles, the students charged, as did the bystanders who bore witness to the police’s abject brutality. From onlookers in windows above the street, the appeals to police to “stop it, stop it” soon turned into pails of water poured down to neutralize clouds of tear gas choking student fighters below. Revolutionaries played a part, like when JCR turned its meeting into an open forum at the Mutualitéhall to discuss next steps for the movement. On May 9, nearly 6,000 people packed in to hear Ernest Mandel and Daniel Cohn-Bendit on students and socialist revolution. As the government took an active role in the crisis and organized radicals put forward slogans and tactics, students raised their sights from truncheons to ministers.

May 10 was a major turning point. The UNEF, the CAL, and others assembled their forces at the Lion of Belfort statue, a mile south of the Sorbonne, and stepped off into the Parisian streets. As the 35,000 to 40,000 students marched through working-class neighborhoods, bystanders and protesters sporadically broke into shared choruses of “The Internationale.” “The shout ‘Join us in the street!’” recountedThe Militant, “was answered spontaneously from the windows and the sidewalks with the cry ‘We’re with you in the street!’”16Starting late that night, students and a growing number of workers set up barricades in the Latin Quarter war zone.

“Without any instructions or directions, completely spontaneously, the first barricade appeared,” JCR leader Alain Krivine said later. “At that point all of the revolutionary organizations, especially the JCR, far from trying to stand in the way of the movement, on the contrary joined in building the barricades.”17

One eyewitness to this “Night of the Barricades” described the scene:

Literally thousands help build barricades (Europe No. 1 Radio reported thatmore than 60barricades were built in different streets), women, workers, bystanders, people in pajamas, human chains to carry rocks, wood, iron. A tremendous movement is started. Our group (most have never seen the others before, we are composed of six students, ten workers, some Italians, bystanders, and four artists who joined later; we never even knew each other’s names) organizes the barricade at the angle of Rue Gay Lussac and St Jacques. One hundred people help carry the stuff and pile it across the street . . . Our barricade is double: one three-foot high row of cobblestones, an empty space of about twenty yards, then a nine-foot high pile of wood, cars, metal posts, dustbins. Our weapons are stones, metal, etc. found in the street. (Emphasis in original)18

Singer would write later that

The barricades were going up and up, some of them reaching a height of about three yards. Anything could serve the purpose. Automobiles were often a foundation. A neighboring building-site was a real treasure. The most precious find there was an air hammer, which once mastered made it possible to open up the streets wholesale. The paving stones then went from hand to hand. Young men and women were seized with a building fury . . . The atmosphere behind the barricades was one of determination, exhilaration, and also optimism.19

For hours, students defended themselves against gas grenades. By some estimates, the police had thrown five thousand grenades on this night alone. By six that morning, they had crashed through and destroyed all the barricades, but their violence wasn’t over. In their mop-up, the cops went on a manhunt, barging into private homes, brutalizing suspected militants with batons, and throwing them into police vans. As Singer writes, “the image that sticks in the mind is 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.’”20

Such savage actions had their effect on the population, though it wasn’t the paralyzing fear the ruling powers had intended. Instead, solidarity with the students and disgust with the authorities emerged from the thick clouds of tear gas.

Already, the government was feeling the pressure. In a May 11 press conference, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou announced the reopening of the Sorbonne and the release of jailed students. Yet this only generated more confidence among the population. With the students’ example, ordinary people saw they could make General de Gaulle and his government bow.

As the tides of sympathy for the students washed in from the working class and other sections of society, the Communists and union officials were pushed onto their side. The morning after the first clashes on May 3, the Communists’ newspaperL’Humanitéhad targeted student radicals: “Already now, the great mass of students, including, we are sure, many of those who were led astray, can measure the serious consequences to which political adventurism inevitably leads, even if it is concealed behind pseudo-revolutionary phrases.”21

In the twilight before the Night of the Barricades, the PCF was still calling the students “a small minority of adventurers, anarchists, and Trotskyists.”22 Shortly after two o’clock in the early morning, as possibly millions of people had spent hours glued to minute-by-minute radio accounts of the Latin Quarter battles, the PCF declared its solidarity with the students.

While earlier CGT leader Georges Séguy had publicly attacked student leftists for having “the unbelievable cheek to give lessons of revolutionary theory [to the working class] and pretend to lead its struggle,” he and the leaders of other union federations called a one-day general strike and mass demonstration with the UNEF for May 13.23Despite their disdain for the student-led explosion, the Communists and the unions still had to maintain their leadership over their rank-and-file base—which looked on with great sympathy, and as individuals were already joining in.

May 13 served as another critical turning point. Nearly a million people came out to the streets of Paris for the afternoon march, the biggest demonstration in the country’s history up to then. Attendance in sister marches across France hit record numbers. Amid the sea of humanity, amid the meeting of two raging rivers of students and workers, people gained even greater confidence and a real sense of their power.

An eyewitness report gives a sense of the powerful beauty of the scene:

Où sont les disparus des hôpitaux?” (“Where are the missing injured?”). Every factory, every major workplace seemed to be represented. There were numerous groups of railwaymen, postmen, printers, Metro personnel, metal workers, airport workers, market men, electricians, lawyers, sewermen, bank employees, building workers, glass and chemical workers, waiters, municipal employees, painters and decorators, gas workers, shop girls, insurance clerks, road sweepers, film studio operators, busmen, teachers, workers from the new plastic industries, row upon row upon row of them, the flesh and blood of modern capitalist society, an unending mass, a power that could sweepeverythingbefore it, if it but decided to do so.24

It was massive, but also militant. More red flags flew than in years past. The “Internationale” rang out again and again. Anti-Gaullist chants like “Ten years, that’s enough” mixed with students’ chants of “All power to the workers,” “Socialist revolution,” and “Power lies in the streets.” Young workers were drawn to and mixed with these student militants.

It was a stage-managed affair, at least as much as the CGT stewards could manage. When students tried to lead the march beyond its intended ending point, onto the Champs de Mars, loudspeakers repeated orders to disperse. The thousands of students could not contend with the full weight of the union and PCF machinery. Still, while hundreds of thousands of workers left for home, nearly 25,000 students did march onward. Under the lattice steel legs of the Eiffel Tower, a mass meeting began. It concluded with the cry, “Everyone to the Sorbonne!” “The strike will go on!” declared Jacques Sauvageot.25

The student radicals’ dreams had their feet planted in reality. Prophetically, one of the most popular chants in the day’s million-strong protest was “Ce n’est qu’un début. Continuous le combat.” (“This is only a beginning. Let’s continue the fight.”)

The swell peaks: General strike, student occupation

The next day, workers answered the chant with action. At a nationalized aircraft factory in Nantes in western France, the first factory occupation and unlimited strike took place. A small group of Trotskyists and anarchists in the local branch of the Force Ouvrière union had been agitating for months on the shop floor. Workers had faced cuts in hours and demanded higher pay to compensate. But the mass mood following the student battles and outpouring of protest the previous day gave rank-and-file workers, particularly the young, the confidence to go over their union officials’ heads, occupy the factory, and lock up their manager. As one account reports, “To keep the boss from getting bored, a loudspeaker playing earsplitting revolutionary songs was installed next to his door, which no doubt enabled him to learn theInternationaleby heart without ideological strain.”26

This was indeed only the beginning. The Renault factory at Cléon went out followed by all the other factories in the company. The growing movement gained legitimacy from the unions.

On May 17, engineering and chemical workers started sit-down strikes; trains stopped running; the post offices closed. Now the tide rushed quickly across the country. Within days, workers had paralyzed basic production. Within a week or so, the strike wave crashed over all sectors of society.

At the same time, students were taking action across France. After the May 13 massive protest, they had begun their occupation of the Sorbonne, their “revolutionary commune.” The school building could comfortably fit 6,000. On a daily basis, 20,000–30,000 people flooded the university—participating in debates, finding political organizations, organizing popular power, and just enjoying the courtyard’s air of liberty. Mary-Alice Waters described the scene for the US weekly newspaperThe Militant:

As you enter the Latin Quarter you meet people hawking political literature of virtually every shading and you notice a sharp increase in the number of posters and leaflets plastered on the walls. By the time you reach the courtyard of the Sorbonne you are well prepared. . . .

Nearly every organization has been cleaned out of literature as the desire to read all different points of view has soared. When a new stack of leaflets or newspapers arrives on the scene, distributors are mobbed as students rush to get their copies. . . .

The walls are covered with huge banners designating the various organizations, leaflets announcing meetings, and political comments of all sorts. All tendencies who support the occupation of the university have the right to post their material, and this right is strictly observed. Portraits of Trotsky, Lenin, Mao, and Marx have decorated the court for weeks . . .

On the second floor of one wing an administrative center has been established to coordinate the occupation. From time to time a loudspeaker announces the beginning of a meeting on some subject, requests a volunteer for some kind of job, or pages some individual. An infirmary, a kindergarten, a dormitory, and many other services have been organized in different sections of the building.27

The Grand Amphitheatre served as the heart of the occupation, the site of a nearly continuous general assembly with an audience of at least a thousand or more. Whoever wanted to speak could take the floor for any length of time, but the audience was always free to cheer and jeer, to raise their voices in either agreement or protest. When Jean-Paul Sartre came to speak one night, 7,000 packed the hall. An occupation committee was elected at nightly assemblies to carry out the commune’s administration, but it liberally encouraged the use of facilities for self-expression and political organization of every stripe. As Seale and McConville wrote inRed Flag/Black Flag:

One could see an eager gaggle of boys and girls bursting into an empty office, posting up on the door who they were and what they were about, and then sending a courier off to the Rooms Committee to lay formal claim to their premises. They would appoint a chairman and secretary, hold their debate, draft a motion, and then fight their way downstairs to theGrand Amphito present it to the masses.28

Just as the strike had spread from Nantes, the occupation spread from the Sorbonne. The National Theatre at the Odéon became another red base. The CALs led the occupation of Parisian high schools starting May 14. The “overwhelmingly bourgeois” students of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques liberated their school, too. “We gave ourselves to revolution with all the fervor of late converts,” third-year Blanca Camprubi said. “Overnight the Institute of Political Studies of the University of Paris became the Lenin Institute; there was a Che Guevara Hall, a Mao Tse-Tung Library, a Rosa Luxemburg Amphitheater.”29The faculty of medicine became a makeshift hospital for wounded street fighters. At the Cité Universitare residential hostels, the scourge of gender segregation was swept away by an occupation. The bourgeois cosmopolitan housing there became sites of solidarity with international struggles. For example, the Spanish House became the Spanish Workers’ and Students’ House, where exiles of the Spanish Civil War and immigrant workers mingled with the new generation of radicals. In short time, student power swept the country along with worker power. Just like the workers in its factories, Nantes saw its youth occupy their university and high schools and open them up for the population.

The professional classes and technical workers participated as well. Teachers joined students in popular strike assemblies. Doctors occupied the Medical Order. Actors closed all the theaters in Paris. Workers in the Atomic Energy Commissariat struck, shuttered the nuclear research center at Saclay, and compelled military institutions to follow their lead. Writers seized the building housing the Society of Men of Letters. Even some young executives held token occupations, including at the National Council of French Employers.

By May 24, ten million people out of fifteen million in the labor force were on strike, and only three million of these were in a union. Few if any areas of society were spared. As one eyewitness reported, “On Wednesday the undertakers went on strike. Now is not the time to die.”30

The students, having a core of revolutionaries within them and having unleashed the freeing power of their imaginations, developed even more democratic institutions. Comités d’Action sprung up in Paris. Consisting of anywhere from ten to thirty members, they organized first schools and then neighborhoods as sites of resistance. As the general strike shuttered society, some committees took up tasks like clearing garbage and setting up kindergartens. Others, like the Maine-Montparnasse committee, provided support for the picket lines going up across their neighborhoods. Like the local councils and local coordination committees in Syria or the working groups of Occupy, they were a messy mix of new activists and longtime radicals. Revolutionary groups set up some, won leadership in others, but the committees lacked general coordination across the country. Still, they spread. On May 19, 148 Parisian committees were represented by delegates at the Sorbonne general assembly. By the end of May, Paris alone had some 450 action committees operating within the city limits.31

These were not embryos of a new state power. They lacked the social force, the roots in a class with real radical chains, or the collective cohesion, to achieve that. Had this model infected workplaces across the country, these institutions just might have become that power. But the CGT and PCF did everything it could to prevent the contagion from spreading.

On Thursday, May 16, over 1,000 students from the Sorbonne marched to the main industrial belt near Paris—Boulogne-Billancourt. For eight miles they marched to the Renault factory, buoyed by the spirit of revolt ripping across the country. But when they arrived after dark, the factory gates were barred. The local CGT leader thanked the students for coming but asked them to leave. The official claimed their presence could provoke a police action. Meanwhile on the inside of the factory walls, where the CGT had 60–80 percent support, posters had appeared warning young workers from interacting with “provocateurs” who serve the bosses by trying to divide “the unity of forces on the left.”32The Communists’L’Humanitéhad earlier claimed the student radicals were objectively “serving the interests of the Gaullist government and of the big capitalist monopolies.”33

Though the CGT had official allegiance in the factory, they could not fully control workers. Students passed cigarettes to workers through the windows. They swapped politics and stories as members of the rank and file bucked their leaders and fraternized with the students. Workers took the red flag that led the students’ procession and hoisted it above the factory. “You occupied the Sorbonne with thousands of red flags. Now we have occupied the factories in the same way.”34Some workers connected with revolutionary groups. Others made and kept promises to visit the Sorbonne. Yet in spite of the contamination at Renault-Billancourt, the CGT’s actions and the PCF’s screeds prevented student and worker links from deepening beyond a minority of workers, mostly the young.

Even without linking with students’ action committees, workers developed the molecules of a future society in their workplaces. The massive general strike, the raw power of the working class and their allies, posed a challenge to the wealthy and their politicians’ spiritual control over the factories and society at large. Unevenly, sections of the working population reached out and began moving the levers of power for themselves. Here, postal workers agreed to transmit telegrams only where human life was at stake. There, printworkers insisted on changes to newspaper headlines or refused to print certain issues ofLe FigaroorLa Nation. Workers at a CSF factory in Brest began producing things they decided on, like walkie-talkies for their fellow strikers and activists. At some Citroën factories in Paris, workers took initial steps to requisition trucks for the struggle.

In certain factories, the strike committees acted as democratic bodies for the rank and file, more like the Sorbonne and the action committees: mass institutions that could reflect the rising consciousness of workers, unleash their creativity, and collectively organize their power. At the Orly-Nord airport maintenance plant, 3,500 workers met every morning to hear updates and debate proposals for next steps. However, in most others the strike committees were appointed and run by the unions’ bureaucracies, and mainly the CGT at that. Again fearing “provocations,” this time by their very constituents, these union committees simply sent most workers home and kept token occupations or pickets running themselves.

In Nantes where the strike wave began, the swell hit its peak. For a week, worker and student organizations effectively ran the city, taking actions like controlling all traffic in and out of Nantes, lowering grocery prices in collaboration with farmer organizations, and reserving gas supplies for doctors. The official city government could only stand aside powerlessly, shocked by the emergence of dual power in embryo. But the surging tide only hit this high-water mark in a single city.

The unevenness of workers’ consciousness, the unevenness of their struggle, was a challenge that emerged from capitalism itself, but for Nantes to be repeated elsewhere and open up the road toward a real revolution, that unevenness would have needed to be addressed. This would have required the active intervention of a mass, revolutionary socialist party that could coordinate activity across the country and in as many factories and schools as possible—only a party with a sizable cadre and deep roots would have been in a position to challenge the political dead weight of the Communist Party and CGT on the struggle.

For their part, revolutionary groups like JCR andenragéorganizations like the March 22 Movement did seek to deepen the struggle. With their help, the student and rank-and-file worker action committees expanded in the region around Paris. However, despite valiant efforts, the revolutionary groups were much too small and socially rootless to provide a political lead.

Sadly, the party in the best position to lead the movement, the one with hundreds of thousands of militants across the country, was that of the Communists. The small revolutionary groups couldn’t carry the massive general strike forward, and the Communists wouldn’t.

From the dangerous week of possibilities to defeat

The government had been caught flat-footed when the spontaneous sit-downs started. As the workers at Nantes occupied their factory, de Gaulle had just left for a trip to Romania. After a stressful two week wait-and-see period, the government attempted a response. On May 24, de Gaulle took to the airwaves and called a referendum. If he lost, he promised to step down. The same day, Prime Minister George Pompidou invited the unions and employers’ organizations to sit down for negotiations.

The unions’ willingness to negotiate, and their intent, were clear from the words of Georges Séguy:

If the government and the employers are ready to have a discussion with the CGT . . . we are ready for such a debate and will pursue it without interruption until an agreement is reached or a disagreement recorded . . . This is not a time for empty talk about profound transformations of society into which everyone packs whatever he likes.35

The weekend’s Grenelle agreement included wage hikes, greater medical coverage, and a slow reduction in work hours—many of the things CGT and CFDT had proposed for years. The unions also gave up many demands, including back pay for strikers, as they tried to quickly wind down the strike. Unfortunately for them, the workers, having tasted real power, were well beyond an economic program from yesteryear. In strike assemblies in one factory after another, workers voted down the agreement. As for de Gaulle’s referendum, workers in every print shop in France refused to print the needed ballot papers. They remembered de Gaulle’s elitist rule by such false “participation” schemes. The government couldn’t even get Belgian workers to print them, as printers rejected the work in solidarity with their French comrades. Facing such mass pressure, the Conseil d’État ruled the referendum unconstitutional.

At the same time, the state attempted savage violence against the student movement.Der Spiegelcollected eyewitness reports from May 24 and 25. A twenty-eight-year-old woman fled with ten others into an apartment on Boulevard Saint-Michel, chased by the CRS. The riot police broke down the door to a bathroom, dragged out a couple, and beat them. “I heard how the woman screamed, ‘I’m pregnant.’ But she was beaten anyway. ‘You slut, you’ll soon find out how pregnant you are.’”36According to a volunteer nurse, the police turned the Beaujon hospital into “a kind of concentration camp”:

As we got out of the police van, blows rained on us. After being driven through a gauntlet of CRS cops, I came into a barbed-wire enclosure. From time to time, the CRS vans brought in men and women who had been beaten or were suffering from tear-gas poisoning. Some of them had serious head wounds and broken arms. Chinese, Vietnamese, and Negroes were given especially brutal treatment . . .

I was locked in a cell . . . Through the bars I could see out into the court. A half-naked young man went by, his legs lacerated by club blows. He was bleeding and constantly had to urinate. From a young woman who was with him I learned that the CRS had beaten him unconscious and then spread him out and beaten his genitals until the skin hung in tatters.

Young girls were brought in. Among them was a 16-year-old girl who had been arrested by the CRS on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. They had dragged her into a police van where four cops gang-raped her.37

While the police remained reliable agents of the state—at one point even going so far as to claim de Gaulle wasn’t hardenoughwith the students—the same wasn’t true for the military. Among the 168,000 soldiers, 120,000 were conscripts and some made attempts to set up action committees of their own. Sailors reportedly mutinied on the aircraft carrierClemenceau. A leaflet issued by members of the 153rd mechanized infantry regiment declared “the soldiers of the contingent WILL NEVER SHOOT ON WORKERS . . . WE SHALL FRATERNIZE.”38

The situation was reaching a true fever pitch, and control was slipping from both the union leaders and the state. This was a critical moment in which a genuine revolutionary party might have fought for an independent direction—by taking workers’ militant sentiments, linking them up with students’ radical demands, and pushing the movement to a new stage of struggle. Instead, the PCF’s general secretary described their strategy as this:

Act in such a way that the strike would permit the essential demands of the workers to be satisfied, and . . . pursue at the same time, on the political level, a policy aimed at making necessary democratic changes by constitutional means.39

The student revolutionaries made their play. On Monday, May 27, Sauvageot called a mass assembly at Charléty Stadium, drawing between 35,000 and 50,000 people, to cohere a common program for those to the left of the PCF. Though called by the student left, CFDT leaders had endorsed it, and workers, mostly young militants, made up nearly 40 percent of attendees. JCR marshalls led the crowd into the stadium; the anarchists marched in with their black flags flying. PSU backed the meeting. After all, Sauvageot and lecturer union leader Alain Geismar held party cards and the party had shifted left as May progressed. But endorsing it provided neither the party nor the assembly with a clear path forward. The assembly’s broadness didn’t translate into any depth or direction. While the PSU’s star personality Pierre Mendes-France was stationed on stage, he didn’t get the massive cheers ex-PCF member André Barjonet did when declaring “Revolution todayispossible!” Mendes-France wanted his presence seen, not heard. Throughout the night he stayed silent; he didn’t want to get behind a revolution. Within a month he would abandon the PSU.

The rest of the broad “adult left” offered little more than the Communists. On Tuesday the 28th, FGDS’s François Mitterrand addressed the press. With de Gaulle’s and Pompidou’s failed efforts, he offered a provisional government. He made oblique overtures to the Communists but put himself and Mendes-France at its head. This only angered the Communists, but the reformists had little choice. The FGDS and Mendes-France faced a contradiction: they wanted to be the premiere partners in government, but their real social base couldn’t measure up to that of the Communists. They wanted to replace de Gaulle, but their reformism wrote off a direct assault. The general strike had shown the true balance of the left, the true power of the Communists in the streets. On May 29th, the PCF and CGT called out more than a half-million workers to march for a “people’s government,” and the reformists’ verdict was confirmed. The liberal-capitalist Radicals in the FGDS certainly wouldn’t abide a Communist-led government. Neither would they abide a forced removal of de Gaulle. Yet the man would not simply leave.

For a brief moment, it seemed the president-general had done just that. On May 29, de Gaulle disappeared. He could not be found at his announced destination, his country home in Colombey. The night before, the prime minister is rumored to have argued with him to resign, to sacrifice de Gaulle to save Gaullism. Pompidou’s memoirs later suggested the president-general was genuinely considering his resignation, that he had slunk off in secret. But six hours later, he had turned up in West Germany, meeting with General Massu, the butcher and brutalizer of the Algerian War. With sick irony, de Gaulle agreed to release the fascist OAS leaders from jail in exchange for the right’s loyalty. This was the same group that had plotted against de Gaulle in 1962, and had fought antifascist students in the streets at the end of the Algerian War. As Mendes-France was meeting with FGDS leaders in a Paris flat, furiously trying to come to a compromise with the factions of FGDS and PSU, de Gaulle was readying his comeback. By Mendes-France’s late evening press conference at the National Assembly, where he declared his intention to lead a provisional government, de Gaulle was sleeping at ease. Mitterand and Mendes-France’s window for action had shut. The counteroffensive would soon begin.

From then on, the government took a hard line to regain control and smash the movement. It called a general election. It called its supporters out into the streets: over half a million members of the middle class and the right wing turned out. It banned the revolutionary groups that played a key part in the student uprising. And then it began breaking the strike with force.

Late on Thursday afternoon de Gaulle addressed the nation. The television workers’ strike only allowed him the radio. “France is menaced by dictatorship,” he warned listeners. But with “dictatorship,” de Gaulle did not mean his own one-man, ten-year-long rule; he did not mean the stifling apparatus against which the students, technicians, and workers had rebelled. Instead he meant communist revolution, the dictatorship of workers and students that had spooked capital but remained more specter than substance. “In the circumstances I will not resign. I have my duty to the people, I will fulfill it.”40He would not sacrifice himself. Instead, he had accepted Pompidou’s resignation, triggering a snap election on June 23 and 30 for the National Assembly.

After his speech, the counterrevolution flexed its muscles on the streets. Half a million, perhaps as many as a million, Gaullists flooded Paris. Buses had been organized to bring many from the provinces to bolster turnout. Like the massive pro-regime protests seen in Syria and Libya during the 2011 revolutions, the counterrevolution often has its own mass armies to claim an air of democratic legitimacy. In de Gaulle’s case, upper-class socialites mixed with reactionary shopkeepers and junior office clerks; OAS fascists and Vichy supporters mixed with middle-class liberals. So long hidden in shadow during the strike, the right and left wings of Gaullism shrieked into the light, united in their revulsion at Communist ghosts and genuine popular power. Amid the sea of tricolors and full-throated renditions of “La Marseillaise,foul chants like “Cohn-Bendit to Dachau” howled out the lips of this counterrevolution on the march.

As he shifted the terrain of struggle from general strike to general election, de Gaulle had help from the PCF and CGT. The Communists could dismiss a referendum. After all, de Gaulle had used them for years to secure his one-man rule. An election, however, called PCF’s bluff on its entire strategy. Rather than turn the right-wing’s communist specter into a terror with substance, the PCF jumped headfirst into the parliamentary campaign. The union they controlled acted in turn. As Séguy stated, “the CGT declares that it has no intention of impeding in any way the conduct of the election.”41Likewise, the CFDT’s Eugene Decamps had backed Mendes-France hours before de Gaulle’s speech. Therefore the unions arranged an end to the strike. Unlike the Grenelle agreement, this time they were successful.

Rather than ensure a united agreement on benefits and wages across the class, the unions allowed the back-to-work movement to diffuse into thousands of different workplaces. Any details not hammered out nationally were to be negotiated locally. Teachers learned of their back-to-work order over the radio. Individual worksites voted on the question to go back, with little communication between them. Unions even spread false rumors to encourage certain votes:

In Paris transport—underground and buses—the trade union representatives were the only ones who went from one depot to another. To the workers of each depot they said: “You are against the return to work, but you are on your own. Everybody else wants to return to work.” Thus while the depot at rue Lebrun had voted to carry on the strike, other depots had been told it had voted for a return. After talking to union officials, the elected strike committee at Lebrun, hearing that all the other depots were back at work, ordered a return, ignoring the vote already taken.42

So anxious were the unions to end the strike, they often allowed foremen, supervisors, and even management to vote. At Thomson-Gennevilliers, before the ballot took place, the CGT distributed a leaflet and soldL’Humanité, both declaring that Thomson had returned to work having gained great advantages. To make sure their declarations would be proved correct, they allowed nonstrikers to vote. In unorganized shops, the bosses were happy to encourage, cajole, or intimidate workers into returning to work.

Even in spite of this pressure, the masses would not entirely shuffle back in silence. They had tasted power. Despite receiving a big pay raise, state power-plant workers in Cheviré continued to strike. “The executives have not been here for two weeks and the plant still runs,” one worker explained. “We don’t need them to provide current.”43Television workers, fighting government censorship and control of the airwaves, would continue their strike for another several weeks. Meanwhile, red flags still hung above the Sorbonne and Odéon, and action committees still carried out their work. The strongest backs of the working class and student social body had to be broken by force.

At the Renault factory in Flins, the forces of reaction began their brutal attack. At three in the morning on June 6, some 1,000 CRS and Mobile Guards surrounded the factory and bulldozed the strikers’ barricades. For the next two days, young workers and CFDT militants joined students in battles with the CRS as it tried to break the strike. Outside the factory and in the corn and beet fields surrounding it, grenades and truncheons clashed with the occasional motorcycle helmet and stick. Though Renault factories stayed on strike until June 18, it was not without cost. A young Maoist Gilles Tautin drowned as he tried to flee the police, becoming one of the first martyrs of the repression.

He would not be the only one. On Monday, June 10, the same day as Tautin’s death, gendarmes and the CRS assaulted the Peugeot factory in Sochaux. Evicted from their occupation, workers returned with makeshift weapons and fought the police; a hail of bullets killed two workers and wounded several more. In anger, the student movement took to the streets on Tuesday night. CRS grenades and Molotov cocktails arced over battle lines, drawing out the fire department over 300 times. Seventy-two barricades went up that night, but this time they represented an ebb and no longer a beginning.44

The repression tightened. On Wednesday, June 12, the government banned all demonstrations in France and declared all the revolutionary groups illegal. The JCF, UJC(M-L), the March 22 Movement, and all the other Trotskyist and Maoist organizations of the student and independent left were driven underground and their leaders hunted and arrested. “A dozen comrades, including Pierre Rousset, Isaac Joshua and Alain Krivine . . . found themselves in the Santé prison,” Daniel Bensaïd wrote, “while a number of women comrades, including Pierrette Chenot, were imprisoned in the Roquette.”45Bensaïd spent the next few months holed up in an acquaintance’s apartment. After its massive march on May 29, the Gaullist counterrevolution had unleashed its own popular committees for reaction, which launched armed attacks in several cities. “Troublesome” immigrants were expelled. Plainclothes police burst into the room of an Intercontinental Press journalist and his photographer, seized their documents and photos, and questioned them for some twenty-seven hours.

The rebellion was under attack, but no one campaigning in the election defended it. De Gaulle had framed the campaign and claimed that the voters’ choice was between France (embodied by the president-general and his ten-year regime) or revolution. The Communist Party, the target of Gaullism, and the FGDS made no attempt to take their place on the axis of revolution. “Against disorder and against anarchy—vote Communist!”46This was the slogan the PCF deployed on the walls of Grenoble. PCF general secretary Waldeck Rochet called his party “the party of order.”47They had nothing to say about the decree against other revolutionary groups, even as a young Communist campaigner was murdered by Gaullist thugs. Their newspaper sang joyful tunes about the return to work, while demoralizing the very workers upon whom their electoral power relied. The alliance of Radicals and SFIO inside FGDS bickered over candidate lists but remained united as the milquetoast liberal-left. Meanwhile, the PSU had shifted leftward. It broke from its policy of electoral agreements with Communist and Federation forces in the first round. Although it tried to contest in every district it could, the party remained disorganized and still lacked deep and widespread roots in society. Many PSU candidates were drafted to run only hours before the filing deadlines.

With the rebellion on the ropes, the election campaign served only to further its backward slide. The regime planted each step more firmly with each passing day. The workers and students had gone from tasting the sweetness of real power to swallowing bitter pills. They had been cajoled, repressed, and abandoned to the narrowing ballot box. Police removed the red flags at the Sorbonne on June 16, reoccupying the university and meeting little resistance. By the elections on June 23 and June 30, the wave of optimism and workers’ power had been deflated—if not permanently, certainly for a long period thereafter. The very last strike holdouts, the television workers would be summarily fired in July, their strike isolated and utterly routed.

Yet despite all it had done in June, the left had expected to reap May’s whirlwind and improve its position. The results were a bald-faced repudiation of that; only the counterrevolution prospered from the demoralized movement. De Gaulle’s “Union for the Defense of the Republic” (UDR) party won 294 seats out of the total 485. Instead of the end of Gaullism, de Gaulle won more seats than he had in the previous election. In the first round, the UDR received 1.2 million votes more than the Gaullists did in 1967. By the second round, it had increased its share of the vote to 46.4 percent. Holding up the scarecrow of revolution, it had squeezed out and won over the country’s vacillating centrists.

Overall the left lost nearly 680,000 votes; the Communists’ vote share fell by barely two points. The PSU even improved its position on the left—increasing its share from 2.2 to 4.7 percent. But overall, the left’s voice in the National Assembly shrank decisively. The PCF and the FGDS each saw half their seats disappear. The PSU lost its only three deputies in the Assembly—including Mendes-France.

One can chalk up the electoral loss to certain mitigating factors. Voting laws barred the most dynamic section of the movement, the millions of students and young workers, from participating in the election. As with previous elections, only those older than twenty-one could vote. Two million immigrant workers were also barred from voting. But these facts only provide detail. The real explanation lies in the last month of struggle, as the largest left parties sacrificed the movement on the altars of respectability and parliamentary hopes. The most bitter betrayal and the greatest blame for defeat rest at the feet of the most organized left party in France: the Communists. In spite of the student occupation, the general strike, the groping for power, and the adult left’s shameful capitulation, Waldeck Rochet congratulated his party: “We didn’t lose our heads,” he told the Central Committee on July 8.48It’s true; the Communists stayed consistent. In its supposed pragmatism, the PCF had not only doomed a possible revolution, but its electoral fortunes as well.

Lessons of May ’68

Was revolution an option at all? Certainly there were powerful forces like the PCF and CGT that didn’t want things to lead in that direction: wash the dirt of rebellion off your hands and clean up for elections. Seale and McConville, in a book written shortly after May’s events, make this argument:

This was not 1789, or Russia in 1917, or even Germany after the defeat of 1918. The great mass of French workers and peasants wanted more bourgeois comforts, not a new social order . . . Locked up with their machines and dreaming of their summer holidays, the strikers had nothing remotely in common with the revolutionary theorists of the JCR, except as links in a turbulent chain of events.49

One can look back from the failed elections and read revolution as a hopeless fever dream. But such a perspective does a disservice to the explosion of mass creativity unleashed over those warm May days — a creativity that stretched far beyond Sorbonne assemblies and Latin Quarter barricades. Seale and McConville ignore those flashes where a new class groped for power: the electrical workers who refused to return to work, the people of Nantes who took over their town, the young Billancourt assemblymen who raised the red flag. In an interview with Sartre amid the heights of May, Daniel Cohn-Bendit offers a key corrective:

There has always been a disjunction in workers’ struggles between the strength of the action and the initial demands. But it might be that the success of the action, the dynamism of the movement, could alter the nature of the demands en route. A strike launched for a partial victory may change into a movement for insurrection.50

True, those “might have beens” did not become realities in May. Even as workers’ sights were raised, even as their hands pulled levers to stop the system, they didn’t ultimately take over its operation en masse. Instead, reformism carried the day. But there was nothing inevitable about that. The development of struggle at every stage had as much to do with political leadership as the class’s growing (and then declining) confidence. The students and workers who made ’68 could not fully shake political leaderships inherited from the past.

No party of sufficient size had a revolutionary perspective, while those who had the latter lacked the former. The Communists had long ago written off revolution. In condemning left-wing Communist dissidents in 1958, former PCF general secretary Maurice Thorez declared: “We will not let ourselves be turned away from our theses . . . on the possibility of a peaceful road to socialism.”51Meanwhile, the PSU responded to the rebellion as most centrist socialist parties do: it shifted left but it could not lead. It was torn between an activist core (embodied in Jacques Sauvageot) and politicians with broader appeal (seen in Pierre Mendes-France). Lastly, the groups with revolutionary politics that could relate to broader forces had little time to build their cadres. The JCR had held its founding conference on April 2, 1966, in a café at Place Saint-Sulpice. No more than fifty delegates, fresh from their expulsion from the PCF, packed into the tiny meeting room; by 1968 they had merely 300 members.52Could 300 revolutionaries lead 10 million? Revolutionary leadership needs more than sound political ideas; it needs vibrant connections to real people. These must be built in advance.

1968 did begin to break the PCF’s hold, but workers mostly remained linked to that party through May and June. Most of the student masses, on the other hand, rejected parties— stultifying Stalinist ones and revolutionarygroupusculesalike. Instead, they carried the spirit of rebellion directly into the action committees and street battles. Cohn-Bendit and Jean-Pierre Duteuil of M22 reflected this view in an interview:

We never had any intention of creating a new party, but rather an objective situation that would make self-expression possible at all levels. . . . Thequartierand factory committees should themselves be the revolutionary forces opposing the authorities. You don’t oppose the bourgeoisie by imitating its organizational schemata.53

Yet the experience of May 1968 proves exactly the opposite. Mass self­expression and political parties complement each other. Different ingredients would have made for a different stew, and parties and leadership were determinant ingredients. Admittedly, that stew may not have tasted like socialist revolution right out of the pot—but it could have contributed to the deepening and the extension of the radical impulses of May that would have had the potential to open up the possibility of revolution. De Gaulle may have abdicated; Mitterand and Mendes-France’s provisional government may have filled the void. That might have kept the pot on the burner, so to speak, or workers and students may have been beaten back or cajoled all the same. Victory was still not guaranteed. But reformism squandered these possibilities at every turn. These political misleaders disrupted the very force—the working class—that could have won even their most selfish desires for political office. Only a mass revolutionary leadership, organized into a party, could have taken the class’ incredible self-expression and brought it into a real contest for power.

May ’68 and today

There can be no crude application of France’s revolutionary rehearsal to our own reality. But understanding the dynamism of May ’68 does put today’s conditions in stark relief. Neoliberalism, the wealthy’s decades-long assault against us, has transformed both the factory and the university. Following the stagnation of the early 1970s, capital smashed and grabbed its way towards profitability. These trends only got worse during the recession, as the rich and their politicians broke our backs for their bank bailouts. Now Trump has started swinging the hammer even harder.

Real hourly wages are below their 1972 level. Nearly a third of the workforce relies on dwindling public assistance. Manufacturing output has increased 131 percent from 1982 to 2007, but manufacturing employment has shrunk from 27 percent of private employees in 1980 to 11 percent of them in 2010.54Lean production, squeezing more profit out of each worker using modern production techniques, has taken hold everywhere from manufacturing to high-growth service sectors like health care.

The university has transformed as well. Furthering a trend since after World War II, higher education has expanded even further to meet capital’s need for a skilled workforce and advanced technology. In 1949, 2.4 million students attended college. In 2014, that number increased to 20 million. In October 2016, nearly 70 percent of those who had graduated high school that spring were enrolled in colleges or universities.55Among the entire population aged eighteen to twenty-four in the United States, 40 percent are enrolled in college. Compare this to the 12.7 percent of the university-age population enrolled in college in France in 1967, or the 26 percent enrolled in college in the United States in 1970.56

To fulfill that labor need, both capital and the state have intervened to shape higher education. Even still, under neoliberalism the financial costs of training a new generation of workers increasingly falls onto these prospective workers themselves. Ballooning college enrollment has coincided with slashes in public higher-education funding, grants, and family incomes. Both college sticker prices and the number of students relying on debt to pay them have increased as well. All of this has driven more students to pay for school by working; 40 percent of college undergraduates work thirty or more hours a week, many of them in low-paying jobs like fast food.57The class composition of the student body is even more working class and is an even greater proportion of the university-age population than France in 1968.

This means that students are susceptible to the same pressures facing the working class under neoliberalism and under economic crises. What happens off campus has even more potential to shape student struggles, and vice-versa. More students are organically connected to the working class, both because of where they come from and their direct connection to a workplace.

Of course that doesn’t immediately translate into struggle. It’s also true that students are under far, far greater pressure to succeed than students in the 1960s and 1970s. Students must incur high debt and are under pressure to succeed in order to have a chance at a decent job when they graduate. So it works both ways: students are more “integrated” into an off-campus world, but for this same reason they are also far more stressed than in the past—which can lead to both passivity (“I’ve got to bear down and study”), and also explosions (“I can’t take this any more”).

For that reason we can say that upsurges in student struggles, as with other sectors, are inevitable but at the same time, not altogether predictable. In a sense, the situation today has some parallels with that described by the late Marxist Tony Cliff in his essay comparing May 1968 with the 1905 Russian Revolution, “On Perspectives,” written in 1969:

For decades Marxists used to infer the state of mass consciousness from new institutional barometers—membership of organizations, readership of papers, etc. The deep alienation of workers from traditional organizations smashed all such barometers to pieces. This explains why there was no way of detecting the imminence of the upheaval in May 1968. And also, more important, it explains the extreme, explosive nature of the events. If the workers in France had been accustomed to participate in the branch life of the trade unions or the Communist Party, these institutions would have served both as an aid and as ballast preventing the rapid, uncontrolled spread of the strike movement. The concept of apathy or privatisation is not a static concept. At a certain stage of development—when the path of individual reforms is being narrowed, or closed—apathy can transform into its opposite, swift mass action. However, this new turn comes as an outgrowth of a previous stage, the epilogue and the prologue combined. Workers who have lost their loyalty to the traditional organizations, which have shown themselves to be paralyzed over the years, are forced into extreme, explosive struggles on their own.58

Though defeated and betrayed, the May ’68 rebellion should remain a beacon for those seeking radical transformation in an advanced capitalist country. The nature of today’s student population means that it will, as it already has across the globe in recent years, be driven into struggles, and those struggles will feed into larger, more explosive struggles of the working class and the oppressed, as they did in Paris in May 1968.

  1. Daniel Singer, Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013), 131.
  2. Jon Meacham. 50 Years After 1968, We Are Still Living In Its Shadow, Time, January 18, 2018.
  3. Singer, Prelude to Revolution, 310.
  4. Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville, Red Flag/Black Flag: French Revolution 1968 (London: Penguin Books, 1968), 23.
  5. Quoted in George N. Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (Boston: South End Press, 1987), 92.
  6. Linda Fryd. French Students Initiate Decisive Struggle. International, June 1968, 8–9.
  7. Daniel Bensaïd. An Impatient Life: A Memoir. (London: Verso, 2015), 57.
  8. Bensaïd, 53.
  9. Mary-Alice Waters. “French High School Youth Joined in the Battle.” The Militant, June 14, 1968, 8.
  10. Angelo Quattrocchi and Tom Nairn, The Beginning of the End: France, May 1968, What Happened, Why It Happened (London: Verso 1998), 54.
  11. Henry Tanner, “France Is Tied Up by General Strike,” New York Times, May 18, 1967.
  12. Quoted in Singer, 65–66.
  13. Ibid., 88.
  14. Ibid., 118.
  15. Quoted in Seale and McConville, 113.
  16. Gisela Mandel. “Paris on the Barricades: an On-The-Spot Report.” The Militant, May 31, 1968, 4.
  17. “Special: Interview with Leader of Banned French Movement.” The Militant, June 21, 1968. 1, 6–8.
  18. Quoted in Ian Birchall, “France 1968,” in Colin Barker, ed., Revolutionary Rehearsals (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2002), 11.
  19. Singer, 139.
  20. Ibid., 142.
  21. Ibid., 123–4.
  22. Mandel, 4.
  23. Singer., 131.
  24. Quoted in Birchall, “France 1968,” Revolutionary Rehearsals, 12.
  25. Quoted in Seale and McConville, 90.
  26. “Nantes: A Whole Town Discovers the Power of the People,” Action, June, 15, 1968.
  27. Mary-Alice Waters. “Inside the Sorbonne—a Firsthand Account.” The Militant, June 14, 1968, 9.
  28. Seale and McConville, 102.
  29. Ibid, 111.
  30. Quoted in Birchall, Revolutionary Rehearsals, 14.
  31. Seale and McConville, 121.
  32. Mary-Alice Waters. “Interview with Renault Workers.” The Militant, June, 14, 1968, 8.
  33. Quoted in Seale and McConville, 185.
  34. Waters, “Interview with Renault Workers,” 8.
  35. Quoted in Singer, 174.
  36. “Eyewitness to Cop Brutality in Paris.” The Militant, July 5, 1968, 5.
  37. Ibid, 5.
  38. Quoted in Birchall, Revolutionary Rehearsals, 26.
  39. Ibid, 28.
  40. Quoted in Seale and McConville, 213.
  41. Quoted in Singer, 205.
  42. Quoted in Birchall, Revolutionary Rehearsals, 37.
  43. Quoted in “Nantes: A Whole Town Discovers the Power of the People,” in When Poetry Ruled the Streets: the French May Events of 1968, eds. Andrew Feenberg and Jim Freedman (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 175.
  44. Seale and McConville, 224.
  45. Bensaïd, 61.
  46. Quoted in “How the French CP Campaigns,” The Militant, June 28, 1968, 8.
  47. Quoted in Singer, 215.
  48. Quoted in Seale and McConville, 184.
  49. Seale and McConville, 188, 232.
  50. “Daniel Cohn-Bendit Interviewed by Jean-Paul Sartre,” in The French Student Revolt: The Leaders Speak, Hervé Bourges and Ben Brewster, eds. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1968), 73–74.
  51. Quoted in Richard Johnson, The French Communist Party Versus the Students (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 40.
  52. Alain Krivine and Daniel Bensaïd, “We Are the Heirs of May 68,” International Viewpoint, July 1, 2014,
  53. “Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Jean-Pierre Duteuil: the March 22nd Movement,” 58–59.
  54. Kim Moody, “The State of American Labor,” Jacobin, June 20, 2016,
  55. United States Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “College Enrollment and Work Activity of 2016 High School Graduates.” News release, April 27, 2017,
  56. United States Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. “Percentage of 18- to 24-Year-Olds Enrolled in Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions, By Level of Institution and Sex and Race/ethnicity of Student: 1970 through 2015.” Table 302.60,
  57. S. Waheed, J. Shadduck-Hernandez, A. Alvarez, M.K. Amin, et al., I Am a #YOUNGWORKER: Restaurant and Retail Workers in Los Angeles, (Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Labor Center, 2015), 15.
  58. Tony Cliff, “On Perspectives,” International Socialism(1st series) No. 36, April–May 1969,

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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