Institution: University of Aberdeen

Author: Christopher J. Grundy

History 1022
Tutor name: Dr. Thomas Weber

“May ’68 was the largest mass movement in French history, the biggest strike in the history of the French workers’ movement, and the only “general” insurrection the overdeveloped world has known since World War II.”

This essay sets out to distinguish clearly the main reasons behind the students and workers protest of 1968. This will be achieved by utilizing electronic, primary and secondary sources as well as extensive analysis of published works by prominent scholars in order to come to an inference which clearly outlines the key interpretations of the protests of 1968.

The question of why students and workers took to the streets in May of 1968 and brought about one of the most formidable uprisings during the post-World War II period is a source of much argument and debate amongst prominent scholars and historians. Gordon Wright argues in his book France in Modern Times that the uprisings began as a culmination of months of student unrest in Universities in and around Paris. Kristen Ross, a prominent scholar and historian on the protests of 1968, disagrees with this notion and argues in her book May ’68 and its afterlives, that the events which led to the students and workers protests were the result of deeply embedded struggles between classes in the society of 1960s France.

Julian Jackson propounds his theory on May 1968 in an article named De Gaulle and May 1968 in which he points the finger of blame on two key factors: the first being the unnecessarily harsh actions of the police in quashing the student demonstrations and the second being De Gaulle’s inability to realize his intentions of modernizing Universities to accommodate the record number of students in French universities. The historian Hagen Schulz-Forberg pinpoints the reasons for the protests in an article entitled Claiming Democracy: The Paris 1968 May Revolts in the Mass Media and Their European Dimensions. In this article he makes the supposition that the new and considerable economic prosperity France was enjoying in the 1960s had effectuated a complete overhaul of the value systems French society was based on, which in turn caused dissatisfaction and subsequently protest.

The author then goes on to underline the significance of the heightened critical tension inside many Western societies due to anti-war movements and the disillusionment of the younger generation with the old social, political, cultural and economic structures. Schulz-Forberg also points to events which took place inside Western Europe and the USA and conveyed the profound conflict within Western societies, for instance the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. a leader of the African American civil rights movement and Rudi Dutschke, the leader of the German student protest, as reasons for the heightened tension within France in May of 1968. Support for Schulz-Forberg’s analysis of the situation can be found in Michael Seidman’s book The imaginary revolution: Parisian students and workers in 1968, which views the events as “a rupture with the past and the beginning not of proletarian revolution, but rather of cultural rebellion that led to a more emancipated society.”

In opposition to this interpretation of the 1968 protests, stand Cole and Raymond who articulate the reasoning that the upheavals in France were a vigilant effort by politically poor informed and undynamic citizens to achieve active participation in government. It can be deduced from the above that there are a myriad of different legitimate interpretations into this particular episode of history and a continuing theme throughout this essay will be the debunking or verification of these opinions through the use of reliable sources and the benefit of hindsight.

Considering the information available about the protests of May 1968 it would be easy to succumb to the notion that 1960’s France was a state wracked by political and cultural turmoil with insignificant economic growth and a weak political leadership. Quite the opposite is true however: “In retrospect, the middle years of the 1960’s appear as the Gaullist golden age. France was at peace and a master of her own destinies, for almost the first time since 1939.”

Political stability nurtured feelings of safety and stability within French society which were enhanced by Georges Pompidou who remained in the office of prime minister for six years, the longest time in office for any French prime minister. The people of France could now turn their attention from the fluctuating nature of politics to the challenges of economic growth and the fruits of prosperity. Despite Pompidou being an extremely able prime minister, the president, Charles de Gaulle, dominated French politics, reveling in his chosen role as elective monarch and intervening at will in domestic and international policy.

The feelings of security and stability, so strong and full of promise in the early 1960’s, were tarnished and shaken however, as de Gaulle’s term as president ended in 1965 and he was left with two choices. He could either seek reelection or retire from politics. De Gaulle was 75 years old at the time and was well aware that a retirement from politics would spell the end of his distinguished political career and retirement would allow him nothing other than to bask in the admiration and veneration of his fellow citizens.

Subsequently de Gaulle announced his decision to stand for presidency once more, believing that a serious challenge was unlikely. The assumption proved erroneous however, as two other rivals: Francois Mitterrand and Jean Lecanuet, made promising bids for the presidency. To his extreme vexation, de Gaulle won only 44 per cent of the votes cast, and was forced into a runoff election. Despite his eventual victory, de Gaulle’s reputation and prestige had been inexorably tarnished, sending reverberations through France, exposing the dwindling support of de Gaulle and more significantly implying modern society’s disaffection with the old political methods and ideologies.

This is supported by the historian Gordon Wright who states: “the close race dimmed his prestige considerably.” This was not the last setback suffered by the Gaullist bloc as only two years later, 40 seats were lost in the elections for a new National Assembly. These events mark a significant shift in French public opinion towards a more liberal and progressive form of government and away from old conservative ideologies. “By 1966 the young [20-35 year olds] were among the most anti-Gaullist sections of the population. It was the over- 65s, on the other hand, who were most consistently loyal to de Gaulle.”

It is clear therefore, that there was enough social disenchantment amongst the French populace to provide fertile ground for student and worker protests before May of 1968.

Although it is now established that there was a significant basis of public discontent and desire for change, the question of why the protests of 1968 occurred still remains. There are multiple theories and interpretations on the cause of the protests in May 1968 and one of the most prominent accredits the ossified universities with the blame.

This interpretation suggests that the universities proved too resistant to change. Since late spring 1968, accusations of centralization, “uniformity, paralyzing control” and lack of autonomy within universities had become more substantial allegations by intellectuals and politicians. In order to combat these derogations, lecturers from the universities debated at great length about the amount of autonomy and conformity that should be granted to students and concrete plans were set up which would have implemented a more progressive and individualistic approach in universities. These texts were scheduled for publication in the spring of 1967 but were postponed and rescheduled for publication for April of 1968. Again the plans failed to be published however, and it became clear that the universities would not acknowledge or accept any of the propositions made at the conference in Caen.

The unwillingness to accept progressive reform and the fact that student numbers quadrupled between 1950 and 1968-69 combine to make a strong argument against the universities inability to control and satisfy their students. It could thus explain why students took to the streets in May 1968, as suggested by the historian Gordon Wright in his book France in Modern Times. When put under scrutiny however, the theory collapses, as a great many reforms had indeed been passed within universities such as referendums on the subjects of Law in 1954 and 1959 and medicine in 1958 and 1961 in order to provide more appropriately to the students needs. Furthermore, it is important to understand that the movement started and was at its most powerful in innovative and liberal Universities such as Nanterre rather than, as one would expect if this theory were to ring true, in more traditional institutions. This argument is supported by Keith Reader who stated: “Nothing would thus be more misleading than to suppose some connection of cause and effect between the out datedness of structures and the scale of contestation.”

A further interpretation of the protests of 1968 suggests that it was the fundamental shifts in French class structure that were the key factor in the student and workers protest, as propounded by Kristin Ross author of May 68’ and its afterlives. It is indeed undeniable that a fundamental shift in French class structure had taken place since the end of World War II as it was extremely evident in the case of the universities, once dominated by the bourgeois were now filled overwhelmingly by the middle classes.

This brought with it a new set of problems, because student with a middle class background, due to the lack of university education in their families, could not expect to receive advice on such significant decisions as the type of degree to read at university. Development in the technological and economic fields opened up a whole new vista of job opportunities and increased the variety of professional activities, of which there were now a whole range of courses that were completely unknown only ten years previously, such as psychology. A typical student in 1968 therefore had to make a far more complex decision than his father for example, and one for which the social peer-group of the prospective student could not adequately prepare him/her for.

“Thus, while they may occupy the rank of ‘heirs’ to culture, the students of 1968 certainly do not enjoy that security. Difficulty in making choices, along with fear failure, social regression or unemployment, account for students’ anxiety about their professional future.” With this statement, Reader articulates the anxiety, unease and insecurity felt by many of the middle class students in 1968, expressing indirectly, his opinion that the trend of the middle class being educated at university was a key factor in the cause of protests in 1968. It is extremely contentious however, to deduce just from the general anxiety and insecurity which pervaded the universities, a key factor for the protests of 1968. The main reason is the reality that success rate is and was similar, whatever social class a student belonged to and it is therefore irrational to assume that a protest fueled by uncertainty would consist merely of students from a middle class background, such as the protests of 1968.

With widespread anxiety and uncertainty in universities it is logical to reason that the timing of the protests was not a coincidence in itself as the crisis erupted just when students were sitting their examinations. The correspondence between the timing of the examinations and the protests can be credited with only mitigated significance however, as the crisis would by no means have spurned nearly 11million workers into strike merely because of the stress of examinations felt by students. In addition, it is important to consider the verity that student around Europe were as apprehensive about examinations as their French counterparts but exclusively in France did the protests spread to the rest of society with such remarkable rapidity. This reasoning is substantiated in The May 1968 Events in France by Keith Reader:”It seems hard to maintain that the university crisis… was in any way radically different from those that erupted at the same time in many other countries. What was unique to France was that the… crisis spread with extraordinary speed to the rest of society.”

The historian Schulz-Forberg advocates a concept encompassing the change of values in democratic society as explanation for the protests of 1968, stating: “I want to argue here that values need to be performed and that a universally true meaning of so-called European values does not exist.” Michael Seidman supports this idea by positing “…especially social science students at Nanterre, as major actors who challenged the civilization of a bureaucratic-consumer society and nearly succeeded in making a revolution.”This statement expresses the opinion that the protests were an active defiance and attempted overhaul of the basic values held by French society. This interpretation is undermined by Rene Vienet who says:” By their own admission, nearly all the student rebels consciously sought to avoid strategies, plans and programs, refused organization and discarded ideologies.” Vienet disproves the interpretation that the protests of 1968 were caused by fundamental shifts in the value system of French society.
The final analysis discussed in this essay focuses on the psychological or psychoanalytical aspect of the revolt. The prestigious historian Reymond Aron explains this as follows:”The more peaceful character of our collective life leads to a kind of repression of our more aggressive drives.” The author propounds the view that the revolt of 1968 was a culmination of the destructive tendencies within French society in the 1960s an opinion shared by Reader:”A pacified, ‘peace-sick’ society suddenly went from boredom to fever, compensating in a moment’s utopian explosion for the rigidity of its structures, the hierarchy of its spaces, the anonymity of its institution. The lonely crowd was replaced by the fraternal community, relationships of subordination by a mysticism of equality… it was… a joyous release.”

“May 1968 was, in its origins, a revolt against the stifling… conservatism, and dullness of General Charles de Gaulle’s economically booming 1960s France. It was, at one level, a catch-up, fast-forward revolution for the right to wear long hair and purple trousers.” Reader then goes on to coin the phrase:“ A rush of blood to the head: A youthful revolt” to explain the sudden and unpredictable nature of the 1968 protests.

“Young people who were merely acting, playing out roles, with no real desire to start a genuine revolution. Coming from the most privileged strata in French society, they had little enough to protest about.” This quote from McMilan expresses accurately, the key factor in the cause of the protests of May 1968. The French revolts of 1968 were the result of an impulsive and primitive reaction to all of the interpretations discussed in this essay.

The new dominance of the middle class in university life, the anxiety and uncertainty felt by the students, the huge increase in student numbers, the weak political situation in France, economic growth and a significant change in the value system of French society merely functioned as catalysts for the protests of 1968. The fundamental cause of the student and workers protest of 1968 was, as Aron and Reader point out the desire to: “make a break with everyday life and to go beyond the differences of age, origin and ability in a lyrical illusion, to transcend in fraternal celebration hierarchies and divisions, in a word to free the imagination and evict the rational.”The inference is that students and workers protested in 1968 because: “It was a utopian parenthesis, an explosion of the power of life and freedom.”


Aron, Reymond. La revolution introuvable. Fayard. 1968.
Lichfield, John.Egalite! Liberte! Sexualite!: Paris, May 1968. The Independent, February 23, 2008

McMilan, James F. Dreyfus to de Gaulle: Politics and Society in France 1898-1969.Edward Arnold Ltd. 1985.
Schulz-Forberg, Hagen. Claiming Democracy: The Paris 1968 May Revolts.

Seidman, Michael M. The imaginary revolution: Parisian students and workers in 1968. Berghahn Books. 2004

Reader, Keith A. The May 1968 Events in France.

Ross, Kristin. May ’68 and its afterlives. Chicago UP, 2002

Vienet, Rene. Enrages and Situationists in the Occupation Movement: Paris, May, 1968.Autonomedia. 1993.

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