May 1968: The 50th Anniversary

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May 1968: The 50th Anniversary
Every uprising, revolt or revolution in France draws inspiration from the previous one, so technically all can be traced back to the Jacquerie, a revolt by French peasants in the early summer of 1358, which predated the English Peasants’ Revolt, of 1381 by 23 years. But I’m sure this wasn’t the first; the Parisii must have revolted against their Lutècian Roman overlords– Asterix the Gaul isn’t totally fiction. So French revolutions must be older than France itself. It is therefore unwise to try to pinpoint a trigger for the 1968 uprising, but its inevitability was ensured by the events of 17 October 1961, when up to 300 Algerian demonstrators were massacred by French National Police and their bodies thrown into the Seine on the orders of the head of the Parisian police, Maurice Papon. The event was downplayed in the media and no one was prosecuted, resulting in the Parisian police becoming a criminal gang, unaccountable and above the law. A further massacre took place on 8 February 1962, at Charonne métro station when nine communist members of the CGT trade union were murdered by police, again directed by Maurice Papon, who by this time was no better than Al Capone, the gangster who ran Chicago in the 1930s. It is perhaps surprising that it took another six years for the uprising to begin and that it didn’t start in the liberal / socialist Latin Quarter of Paris. The 1968 uprisings actually started in Warsaw, Poland. (The election of reformist Alexander Dubček as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia on 5 January 1968, hardly counts as an uprising!) On the 8 March, a crowd of over a thousand demonstrating students at Warsaw University was violently attacked by a state organised “worker squad” (plainclothes police) as well as police in uniform. A demonstration the next day at the Warsaw Polytechnic ended in further police violence and arrests. Within a few days protests spread across Poland. The crisis resulted in the suppression of student strikes by security forces in all major academic centers across the country and the suppression of the Polish dissident movement. It was followed by mass Jewish emigration due to an anti-Semitic campaign waged by the minister of internal affairs. Yet Paris remains the iconic image associated with that year. The Paris uprising was not inspired by the events in Warsaw but was entirely due to home-grown grievances. France was very different in 1968 – married women were not allowed to open bank accounts without written permission from their husbands, and students were not allowed to entertain the opposite sex in their rooms. Even so, it did not start on the left bank, and it was not even started by a Frenchman! The following timeline is a brief summary of the extraordinary events of Paris ‘68: 22 March Sociology students at Nanterre University in a grim north western suburb of Paris, led by a 22 year old German, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, occupied the administration block in a protest against political, spiritual and sexual oppression. The authorities called the police, who surrounded the university. After publication of their demands, the students left without trouble. 2 May Following continued unrest, Nanterre University was shut down by the authorities. 3 May Students at the Sorbonne University met to protest against the closure of Nanterre. A far-right group, Occident, enflamed tempers by threatening to attack the manif’ (demo).The police scattered the “righties” and then began to remove the “lefties”, about 400 were brutally arrested. Demonstrators gathered, and the first pavés (cobble stones), were thrown at police. The Paris police, supported by the notorious CRS riot police, responded with indiscriminate baton charges and volleys of tear gas, assaulting students, journalists, passers-by, tourists, cinema-goers and even those just sitting at café terraces. 5 May Radicals occupied the Sorbonne administration building and held a general assembly. The police surrounded and closed down the university. 6 May Over 20,000 members of the National Students’ Union and the Union of University Teachers marched towards the Sorbonne, still sealed off by the police, who charged, wielding their batons, as the marchers approached. The crowd built barricades and threw pavés, forcing the police to retreat. The police responded with tear gas and hundreds more students were arrested. 7 May A 50,000 strong march against police brutality turned into a day long battle through the narrow streets and alleys of Paris’ Latin Quarter. When the police fired tear gas, some protestors responded with Molotov cocktails. 10 May Another huge crowd congregated on the Rive Gauche. When the riot police blocked them from crossing the river, the crowd again threw up barricades. 11 May The police attacked the barricades at 02:15 in the morning. The confrontation, which resulted in hundreds of arrests and injuries, lasted until dawn. A large crowd of students tried to “liberate” the Sorbonne, which had been ringed by the CRS. Trees were ripped up, cars overturned and pavés hurled – exposing the sand below, and leading to the best known anarcho-libertarian slogan of 1968: Sous les pavés, la plage (Literally; under the cobbles, the beach, but metaphorically; after the battle, a better life). 12 May The Education Minister started negotiations. The police withdrew from 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 spread throughout France. The Parti Communiste Français (French Communist Party) reluctantly participated with the major union federations – the Confédération Générale du Travail and the Force Ouvrière. 13 May The trade unions, against the advice of their own leaders, called a one-day strike and demonstration. Over a million…

Lead photo credit : May 1968/ The 50th Anniversary

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  • Nicholas Cox
    2018-05-15 14:35:36
    Nicholas Cox
    Hi Marilyn, Many thanks for your kind comments. I've received similar comments from Algerian nationals, embarrassingly grateful that a european is drawing attention to an appalling event that has largely been forgotten. But the more you study Paris's tragic history, the Paris Commune, Les Miserables, the more remarkable the city's beauty and ambience becomes, a sort of Ying and Yang, you can't see the light without darkness.


  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2018-05-10 07:23:28
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Excellent article-especially the reminder of the Algerian atrocities, so little talked about and still difficult to believe they happened in Paris in the early 60's.