The way in which events unfolded in 1968 seemed at first sight to confirm the claims of students throughout the world that they could “detonate” revolution. No doubt the governments of a number of countries were beginning to tremble at such a prospect! The world was experiencing an unprecedented wave of student unrest – Poland, Italy, Spain, Germany, Britain and America. Some of these struggles had reached a higher pitch than in France.
In Spain the students fought the dictator Francisco Franco. In the United States, students were to the fore in the movement against the Vietnam War and in the black consciousness and civil rights movements. In Northern Ireland, students were involved in an upsurge of struggle against anti-Catholic discrimination. Intellectuals, students and sections of the workers in Czechoslovakia were being drawn into a profound political ferment known as the “Prague Spring.”
Big battles had erupted in all the major university towns of Germany. An attempt was even made on the life of the student leader Rudi Dutschke. In Britain as elsewhere students were on the march in their tens of thousands against the American war in Vietnam. Although the student struggles were symptomatic of deeper social conflicts, nowhere else other than in France did they spark off a general strike of workers, let alone one that could have brought to an end the rule of capital.
What is the explanation? It lies not in any superior methods adopted by the French students, but in the coming together of all the political and social preconditions for revolution – the combustible material. The Bonapartism of de Gaulle acted as an additional and aggravating “detonator.”
French students had been involved in big movements against the Algerian war in the early 1960s. They had demonstrated as vociferously as any in support of the struggle in Vietnam for independence. This was a particularly potent issue because it revived the memories of France’s inglorious attempt to hold on to its former colony of Indo-China. It was after France’s catastrophic defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 that US imperialism had assumed domination of South Vietnam.
In early 1968 it was protests against a restrictive education system and archaic rules which erupted into open clashes on the campuses across France. With the renowned subtlety of a frightened bureaucracy, the authorities called in the forces of the state. On a number of occasions, police “put down” the troubles. At the beginning of May some students from Nanterre, including Daniel Cohn Bendit, were to be tried in the university courts for “disrupted behavior.” A battle between students and fascists loomed. On May 2, the administration closed Nanterre University.
The next day students from Nanterre, gathering peacefully with those of the Sorbonne, were viscously attacked by the hated riot police (the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité or CRS), and hundreds of students were arrested. Lectures at the Sorbonne and the Censier Annexe were suspended. Anger mounted and the University Teachers’ Union (SNESUP) called a strike. This was promptly declared illegal by the Education Minister, Alain Peyrefitte.
On Sunday May 5, students arrested on the previous days’ demonstrations were summarily imprisoned and fined. All hell broke loose! Demonstrations were banned and the university strikes spread to the secondary schools. Each application of the iron fist aroused more anger and determination on the part of the students.
On Monday May 6, a defiant 60,000-strong demonstration in the Latin Quarter of Paris was attacked by the riot police, with a brutality which aroused widespread sympathy for the students among the population of Paris. It aroused, too, the indignation of workers everywhere as news of the atrocities reached them over the radio. To protect themselves, the students began to throw up barricades with anything to hand. This was the first time barricades had appeared on the streets of Paris since 1944, when the workers rose up against the German army before the Allied forces had reached the capital city.
At the end of a night of bloody battles, 739 injured were taken to hospital. Many hundreds more were cared for in the homes of Parisians. The middle class was stunned and horrified. In the days that followed numerous eyewitness reports appeared in the French newspapers. One doctor wrote “with all the bitterness of my powerlessness” to Le Monde of what he had just seen from his window:
I saw, coming out from a cafe, young foreigners bent double, four or five policemen to each, battering them violently on the face whenever possible, otherwise on the shins. The youths had tried to protect themselves with books then the books had gone flying. The blows rained until they were thrown into the police van thirty meters away. How long that short distance seemed! Residents of this bourgeois quarter were shouting their indignation. One black youth who had been walking normally when he was put in the ‘Salad Basket’ (Black Maria) emerged fifteen minutes later with his face covered in blood. He staggered and collapsed. They laid him out on a stretcher and took him away. I suppose the color of his skin had warranted him being ‘taken care of’ inside the van.
Shortly afterwards in battles with the police the students succeeded in pushing them back – vans and all. Some bottles hurtled down from several stories up on the forces of law and order. The sympathy of the population goes visibly to the students who remain masters of the terrain. Tomorrow there will be police denunciation of ‘foreigners’ and the real demonstrators will have smashed the cops and I say this with satisfaction … I admit it!
On various occasions when the police were forced back applause burst out on the balconies. No hostility was displayed towards the demonstrators – on the contrary radios, food and refuge were provided. A poll indicated that 80 percent of the Paris population was behind the students. The government had misjudged and banked on a tiny group of agitators being isolated. Peyrefitte had spoken of “a handful of troublemakers.” Scandalously the leaders of the “Communist” Party had echoed these sentiments, suggesting that the movement of the students was the work of grouplets or “groupuscules” – Trotskyists, anarchists – even CIA agents!
Young Workers Join In
The events of May 6 led to days of demonstrations, street fighting and the setting up of barricades. As the students’ numbers grew and the young workers joined them on the barricades, they taunted the government and the Communist Party leaders with shouts of “we are a groupuscule.” On their growing demonstrations the cries went up: “Students and workers solidarity” “Free our comrades!” “Police out of the Latin Quarter!” and “Re-open the universities!” After the revolution of 1848, the Prefect of Police, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, had ordered the redesigning of Paris with wide boulevards to prevent the city ever again from being blockaded by barricades. The very cobblestones with which the boulevards were made formed ideal building blocks for the barricades of May 1968. Workers lent their expertise and their pneumatic drills to assist with digging up the pavés (cobblestones) for the more rapid and effective construction of defenses.
On May 10, on what became known as “The Night of the Barricades,” more than 60 such constructions were thrown up. The police resorted to everything but shooting. Tear gas and smoke bombs and even CS gas were used. Residents, at the request of the students, poured water from their houses to relieve the irritation to eyes and skin. The gas had penetrated the Paris Metro, even causing distress to passengers traveling underneath the Latin Quarter!
In one incident thirty rounds of tear gas were launched into a cafe. Since the first attacks by the riot police students had chanted “CRS-SS,” comparing the riot police to the murderous Nazi Schutzstaffel. In this incident the CRS sought revenge, threatening, “You’ll see if we’re the SS!” A first-year philosophy student described how she had been forced back a number of times into the downstairs toilet of this cafe. A number of other women were with her screaming and lying on the floor praying. She was overcome by the gas and the hysteria. Half-conscious, she was unaware until she was brought out of the cafe that she had lost the sight of both eyes.
The results of the battles on the Rue Gay Lussac were so horrific that doctors demanded publicly that the police be prosecuted. Police vehicles were reported to have mowed into demonstrators. On one occasion a pedestrian was carried thirty yards on a front bumper and the driver said he hadn’t seen him. On the night of May 10, when the CRS stormed the barricades, they would not even allow the Red Cross to move in and pick up the injured.
The previous day Peyrefitte had refused to allow Nanterre to be opened. Generalized anger against the government’s brutal response to the students’ protests had reached boiling point. The leaders of the major trade union federations and the left parties were compelled to make the call for a 24-hour general strike for Monday, May 13. Prime Minister Georges Pompidou announced the reopening of the Sorbonne and the withdrawal of the police. But it was too little, too late! The floodgates were open and would not be firmly closed until well into the month of June. De Gaulle’s dictum “the state never retreats’ turns to dust. It is the beginning of the end for him.
The government’s partial climb-down did not satisfy the students but it was sufficient to encourage millions of workers to follow the students’ example – to strike and occupy for their own demands. The workers, especially young workers, were fired by the example of action – the boldness and the élan demonstrated by the students engaged in struggle. The students had moved initially over grievances arising from the highly centralized education system but rapidly they began to question the whole structure of society. They acted as a trigger to the movement of the workers. Unfortunately this gave the students the illusion that they were a motor force. In reality the conditions for the workers’ movement had already been prepared.