A brief chronology of the events which swept France in May and June 1968. Starting as a student revolt, the events culminated in mass workplace occupations and a general strike of 10 million workers. Followed by a short international chronology.
[b]May 68 - 40 years on[/center][/b]
It was a festival without beginning or end; I saw everyone and no-one, for each individual was lost in the same enormous strolling crowd; I spoke to everyone without remembering either my own words or those spoken by others, because everyone's attention was absorbed at every step by new objects and events, and by unexpected news.
— Bakunin, Confessions
May 1968 has entered into legend - to the point where when new waves of struggle break out in France young people get irritated by the inevitable comparisons to 68 that are aired in the media. The 2006 anti-CPE movement is only the most recent example. Yet May 68 was the most advanced movement of an exceptional year of struggle that remains a high-point of the post-WWII era. Hopes and possibilities were raised high - yet the revolution never came, even though the idea of revolution (though often limited and confused) was a part of the general ferment and atmosphere in a way that seems extraordinary now, looking back from where we are. Our times are in many ways the era of counter-revolution that followed - the outcome of the defeat of the struggles of the 1960s and 70s, when 'the social question' dominated life to varying degrees.
Revolt flared in many places; across Europe, in France and Italy particularly - and in the East, the Prague Spring. In Mexico there was a massacre of demonstrators to ensure social peace prior to the Olympics of that year. Yet May 68 in Paris remains the iconic image associated with the year.
There was something in the air that year - the events that led up to May were all part of it. But if the student disruptions at Strasbourg in December 1966 and Nanterre in March 68 and their Situationist inspirers cannot claim to have been the spark that led to the huge upheaval of May, they can claim a contribution; and the Situationist International can claim that they foresaw more clearly than others that such a revolt was becoming possible. The SI can also claim to have written most of the best leaflets and texts during and after the events, as well as many of the grafittied slogans.
But no political group can claim 68 - it was notable that it was a mass spontaneous outburst, not instigated or led by any external power. (Though part of its weakness was that it allowed the unions and Communist Party to eventually limit and fragment the movement.) 10 million workers participated in the largest wildcat strike in history - yet most of them allowed the (often Stalinist) union bureaucrats to keep control; the occupations of workplaces were used by unions to keep the workers separated from the wider movement of students and other youth. Those who went to the factories to engage with workers were usually met with locked gates manned by union stewards. The Communist Party and unions were exposed, for all who didn't already know, as the agents of counter-revolution and the party of order and business as usual.
Chronology of events in France
22 March 1968; student radicals and associates invaded an administration building at Nanterre University and held a meeting in the university council room dealing with class discrimination in French society and the political bureaucracy that controlled the school's funding.
The school's administration called the police, who surrounded the university. After the publication of their wishes, the students left the building without any trouble. Later, leaders of what came to be known as the "Movement of 22 March" were called together by the disciplinary committee of the university.
Thursday 2 May 1968; following months of conflicts between students and authorities at the University of Paris at Nanterre, the administration shut down that university. Students at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris met on 3 May to protest against the closure and the threatened expulsion of several students at Nanterre.
Sunday 5 May; Radicals occupied the administration building and held a general assembly. The police surrounded Nanterre, closing down the university.
Monday 6 May; Nanterre students came together in the centre of Paris and, after continual harassment and over 500 arrests, erupted into five hours of rioting with police. The national student union, and the union of university teachers called a march to protest against the police invasion of the Sorbonne. A complete ban on demonstrations and the closure of large sections of central Paris brought thousands of angry students onto the streets. In the face of increasing police brutality, more than 20,000 students, teachers and supporters marched towards the Sorbonne, still sealed off by the police, who charged, wielding their batons, as soon as the marchers approached. While the crowd dispersed, some began to create barricades out of whatever was at hand; “Literally thousands helped... women, workers, people in pyjamas, human chains to carry rocks, wood, iron.” Others threw paving stones, forcing the police to retreat for a time. The police then responded with tear gas and charged the crowd again. Hundreds more students were arrested. By the end of the night, 350 cops had been injured in the fighting.
The same day, high school student unions spoke in support of the riots. The next day, they joined the students, teachers and increasing numbers of young workers who gathered at the Arc de Triomphe to demand that: (1) all criminal charges against arrested students be dropped, (2) the police leave the university, and (3) the authorities reopen Nanterre and the Sorbonne. Negotiations broke down after students returned to their campuses, after a false report that the government had agreed to reopen them, only to discover the police still occupying the schools.
Tuesday May 7th; a 50,000 strong march against police brutality turns into a day long battle through the narrow streets and alleys of Paris’ Latin Quarter. When the police fired tear gas, protestors answered with molotov cocktails. When they were told to disperse, the protestors answered with chants of “Long Live the Paris Commune!”
Friday May 10th; Another huge crowd congregated on the Rive Gauche. When the riot police again blocked them from crossing the river, the crowd again threw up barricades, which the police then attacked at 2:15 in the morning after negotiations once again floundered. The confrontation, which produced hundreds of arrests and injuries, lasted until dawn of the following day. The events were broadcast on radio as they occurred and the aftermath was shown on television the following day. Allegations were made that the police had participated, through agents provocateurs, in the riots, by burning cars and throwing molotov cocktails.
After massive demonstrations, the Education Minister started negotiations. But in the streets, 60 barricades had been built and workers came down to support the students.
After the massive protests, the police were forced out of the Latin Quarter. Students seized the sections of Paris which police had sealed off and created an assembly to spread the struggle. Occupations and demonstrations soon spread throughout France. From Sorbonne University (previously cordoned off by police but taken back by the students) came leaflets, proclamations, telegrams and posters. Graffiti like “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible!”, “Beneath the paving stones – the beach!” and “All Power to the Imagination!” were painted on walls. One wall had the phrase “The most beautiful sculpture is a paving stone thrown at a cop's head!”
The Parti Communiste Français (PCF) reluctantly participated in, with the major union federations - the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and the Force Ouvrière (CGT-FO) - calling a one-day general strike and demonstration for Monday, 13 May.
Monday, 13 May; well over a million people marched through Paris; the police stayed largely out of sight. Prime Minister Georges Pompidou personally announced the release of the prisoners and the reopening of the Sorbonne. The surge of strikes did not, however, recede. In fact, the protesters got even more enraged.
When the Sorbonne reopened, students occupied it and declared it an autonomous "people's university". Around 400 popular action committees were set up in Paris, including the Occupation Committee of the Sorbonne, and elsewhere in the weeks that followed to take up grievances against the government and French society.
Tuesday 14 May; a sit-down strike begins at the Sud Aviation plant near the city of Nantes, where workers lock management in their offices. In the following days, other workers began occupying factories, then another strike at a Renault parts plant near Rouen, which spread to the Renault manufacturing complexes at Flins in the Seine Valley and the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt.
Wednesday 15 May; that night, the National Theatre in Paris was seized and made into a permanent assembly for mass debate.
Thursday 16 May; by now workers had occupied roughly fifty factories.
Friday 17 May; 200,000 workers were now on strike.
Saturday 18 May; two million workers on strike.
Monday 20 May; during this week numbers escalated to ten million, or roughly two-thirds of the French workforce, on strike.
4,000 students occupying Sorbonne University went down to support the Renault strikers. 10,000 cops were called up for back up, union officials locked factory gates and the Communist Party urged their members to try and stop the revolt.
These strikes were not led by the union movement; on the contrary, the CGT tried to contain this spontaneous outbreak of militancy by channeling it into a struggle for higher wages and other economic demands. Workers put forward a broader, more political and more radical agenda, demanding the ousting of the government and President de Gaulle and attempting, in some cases, to run their factories. When the trade union leadership negotiated a 35% increase in the minimum wage, a 7% wage increase for other workers, and half normal pay for the time on strike with the major employers' associations, the workers occupying their factories refused to return to work and jeered their union leaders, even though this deal was better than what they could have obtained only a month earlier.
May 24th; the Paris Stock Exchange is set on fire by protestors.
As street demos grew and occupations continued, the state prepared to use brutal force to crush the revolt. Army generals readied 20,000 troops to take hold of Paris with force and police had occupied communications centres like TV stations and Post Offices. Communist Party officials helped manipulate strikers into returning to work. In the case of the Metro, they visited one station and told workers that other stations had re-opened, then they proceeded to move around all the stations saying this.
Friday May 25 and Saturday May 26; the Grenelle agreements were signed at the Ministry of Social Affairs. They provided for an increase of the minimum wage by 25% and of the average salaries by 10%. These offers were rejected as inadequate by workers and the strike went on.
Wednesday 30 May; several hundred thousand protesters (400,000 to 500,000—much more than the 50,000 the police were expecting) marched through Paris.
Thursday 31 May; while the government appeared to be close to collapse, de Gaulle remained firm, though he had to go into hiding and considering abandoning his position. After being assured that he had sufficient loyal military units mobilized to back him if push came to shove, he went on the radio (the national television service was on strike) to announce the dissolution of the National Assembly, with elections to follow on 23 June. He ordered workers to return to work, threatening to institute a state of emergency if they did not.
Tuesday June 5; Most workers have gradually returned to work or were ousted from their plants by the police. The national student union called off street demonstrations. The government banned a number of leftist organizations.
6 June; the police retook the Sorbonne. De Gaulle triumphed in the legislative elections held later in June, and the crisis came to an end.
The international situation
1968 and the whole era of the 1960s and 70s were characterised by worldwide struggles; of workers, of youth, of students. Against work and exploitation, against state, against class society, against authority, against racial, sexual and gender repression, against war, against the stifling morality and conformities of daily life.
Chronology of a few of the significant international events of 1968
March 8; the 1968 Polish political crisis began with students from the University of Warsaw who marched for student rights and were beaten with clubs. The next day over two thousand students marched in protest of the police involvement on campus and were clubbed and arrested again. By March 11, the general public had joined the protest in violent confrontations with students and police in the streets. The government fought a propaganda campaign against the protestors, labeling them Zionists. The twenty days of protest ended when the state closed all of the universities and arrested more than a thousand students. Most Polish Jews left the country to avoid persecution by the government.(See; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_Polish_political_crisis)
March 17; a demonstration against the Vietnam war outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, London led to hours of street fighting between police and demonstrators; it ended with 86 people injured and 200 demonstrators arrested. There were worldwide protests against the US involvement in Vietnam, as well as widespread draft-dodging by US youth and insubordination in the US Army.
April 4; assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr in ,USA. In response, a wave of riots spread through black areas in over 115 American cities, notably Louisville, Baltimore and Washington, D.C, where rioting lasted for 4 days.(See; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_Washington,_D.C._riots)
April 20th; Tory MP Enoch Powell makes his anti-immigration "Rivers of Blood" speech; this sparks several demonstrations across England, including one by some London dockers in support of Powell.
April 23; a student occupation and closure of Columbia University. (See; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbia_University_protests_of_1968)
May-June; a mass revolt and general strike across France. (See above.)
Last week of August; the Democratic Party's National Convention in Chicago was disrupted by the new Youth International Party ("Yippies"), the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (Mobe) and thousands of other youth protesters. Chicago’s Mayor Daly organised a massive police operation, backed by the National Guard and the army to deal with the protests, leading to clashes that dominated the streets for 8 days. (See; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_Democratic_National_Convention_Protests)
August 21; Russian troops invade Czechoslovakia to put an end to the Prague Spring; instigated earlier in the year by Dubchek's moderate reform policies gving greater press freedom, civil protests had developed.(See; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prague_Spring)
2 October 1968; In Mexico, on that night a student demonstration ended in a storm of bullets in La Plaza de las Tres Culturas at Tlatelolco, Mexico City, ten days before the celebration of the 1968 Summer Olympics in the same city. Police, paratroopers and paramilitary units fired on students, killing over a hundred people.This was to enforce a social peace to protect against against any disruption of the Olympics.(See; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tlatelolco_massacre)