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:
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.
Following continued unrest, Nanterre University was shut down by the authorities.
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.
Radicals occupied the Sorbonne administration building and held a general assembly. The police surrounded and closed down the university.
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.
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.
Another huge crowd congregated on the Rive Gauche. When the riot police blocked them from crossing the river, the crowd again threw up barricades.
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).
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.
The trade unions, against the advice of their own leaders, called a one-day strike and demonstration. Over a million students and workers marched through Paris. Prime Minister Georges Pompidou personally announced the release of prisoners and the reopening of the Sorbonne.
The strikes did not end as the union leaders planned. Eight million workers went on indefinite, wildcat strike. Students occupied the Sorbonne and declared it an autonomous “people’s university”. Around 400 popular action committees were set up in Paris to take up grievances against the government and French society.
The National Theatre in Paris was seized and made into a permanent assembly for mass debate.
The numbers on strike escalated to ten million, roughly two-thirds of the French workforce. 4,000 students marched from the Sorbonne to support Renault strikers, but union officials locked the factory gates and the Parti Communiste Français urged their members to stop the revolt.
An attempt was made on to burn down the Bourse (the Paris stock exchange). The Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, began negotiations with the unions. Cohn-Bendit was expelled from France. Army generals readied 20,000 troops to take Paris by force and police occupied TV stations, Post Offices and other communications centres. Parti Communiste Français officials helped coerce strikers into returning to work.
The Grenelle agreements were signed at the Ministry of Social Affairs. These provided for an increase in the minimum wage and average salaries. The offers were rejected as inadequate by workers and the strike went on.
De Gaulle left France for Baden-Baden in West Germany for talks with the French military high command.
500,000 protesters marched through Paris.
De Gaulle announced by radio (the national television service was on strike) the dissolution of the National Assembly with elections to follow. He ordered workers to return to work, threatening to institute a state of emergency if they did not. A huge counter-demonstration by De Gaulle supporters blocked the Champs Elysées.
Most workers returned to work or were ousted from their workplaces by the police. The National Student Union called off street demonstrations. The government banned a number of leftist organisations.
The police retook the Sorbonne. The trades unions accepted a 10% increase in general wages and a 35% increase in the minimum wage, a shorter working week and mandatory employer consultations with workers.
De Gaulle triumphed in the elections and the crisis in France came to an end.
No political group can claim ‘68 – it was a spontaneous mass outburst, not instigated or led by any external power. Its weakness was that it allowed the unions and the Parti Communiste Français to limit and fragment the movement. Ten million workers participated in the largest wildcat strike in history, but they allowed communist union officials to keep control. The occupations of workplaces were used by the unions to keep the workers separated from the wider movement of students.
Slogans and graffiti
Sous les pavés, la plage. (Literally; under the cobbles, the beach, but metaphorically; after the battle, a better life).
Je suis Marxiste, tendance Groucho. ( I am a Marxist of the Groucho variety.)
Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible. (Be realistic, demand the impossible.)
La barricade ferme la rue mais ouvre la voie. (The barricade blocks the street but opens the way.)
Pas de replâtrage, la structure est pourrie. ( No replastering, the structure is rotten.)
Le patron a besoin de toi, tu n’as pas besoin de lui. (The boss needs you, you don’t need him.)
Travailleur: Tu as 25 ans mais ton syndicat est de l’autre siècle. (Worker: You are 25, but your union is from the last century.)
Il est interdit d’interdire. (It is forbidden to forbid.)
La poésie est dans la rue. (Poetry is in the street.)
Ne me libère pas, je m’en charge. (Don’t liberate me, I’ll do it myself.)
Si vous pensez pour les autres, les autres penseront pour vous. (If you think for others, others will think for you.)
The death which featured most in the media was that of Police Commissioner René Lacroix in Lyon, “crushed by a truck in which the accelerator pedal had been stuck”, according to police statements. Yet contrary to reports at the time, the commissioner might not have been struck by the vehicle, but may have died of a heart attack after his arrival at hospital.
Mainstream French media continues to claim that there were no demonstrator fatalities during May, while socialist / liberal media point to a small number of fatalities in June:
Gilles Tautin, a 17 year old high school student, drowned in the Seine at Flins after a brutal beating, trying to escape a CRS charge outside the Renault plant in Meulan.
Pierre Beylot, shot dead, and Henri Blanchet, killed by a grenade, during a CRS attack on the Peugeot factory in Sochaux.
Marc Lanvin, an 18 year old communist activist shot dead by assassins hired by the Union des Démocrates pour la République, (UDR), a Gaullist political party. The murder weapon had been provided by the Service d’Action Civique (SAC), a Gaullist militia responsible for covert actions in North Africa.
Surprisingly, both main stream and left wing media ignore the following:
Philip Mathérion, aged 26, who died on the barricade in Rue des Ecoles, 75005 Paris. He left an orphaned son who gave this poignant interview 30 years later:
“On May 24, 1968, between the rue des Ecoles and the Sorbonne, my father was wounded by a burst of offensive grenade, which caused internal bleeding. The relief brigades were overwhelmed, he waited between three and four hours before being rescued, a time that was fatal. To attribute my father’s affiliation to various political movements is certainly related to the troubled times when everyone had to choose an ideology. My father sought instead to be in the movement of existence, movement that had already taken the life of his wife, dead three years ago, and left him alone with a little boy.” — Gilles Mathérion 09/04/1998 
Of course history is written by the victors but the 1968 uprising in general and the death of Philip Mathérion in particular have been air brushed out of French history in a way that the Paris Commune and the massacre of the last 147 communards has not. There is no memorial to the 1968 uprising anywhere within the Boulevard Périphérique which defines central Paris. The only one that I could find was in the communist controlled outer suburb of Malakoff, and this was specifically dedicated to Marc Lanvin, a Parti Communiste Français member.
It took 40 years for Paris to erect a memorial to the Algerians killed in the 1961 massacre, in only two years it will be the 50th anniversary of the 1968 uprising, surely long enough to wait for a memorial to Philip Mathérion and his comrades?
So apart from six dead and more than a few bruised heads, what did the uprising achieve? Who actually won?
On the one hand, De Gaulle won his election and was able to cling to power for a little longer. On the other, France joined the permissive society, and the swinging sixties finally started to swing. The workers achieved a huge pay rise, a shorter working week and improved conditions. By joining together to fight De Gaulle and the ancien régime, the students and workers won better lives for themselves. France became something of a workers’ paradise in a way that the Soviet Union never was. Even today, standards of living in France are comparable with Britain and Germany, while the quality of life is significantly better. Compare France to its Mediterranean neighbors, Spain and Italy, and its economy is spectacularly miraculous! So everyone was a winner and all the players walked away with prizes? Up to a point yes, but there were serious consequences for Paris, France and the rest of the world:
The main boulevards in the Latin Quarter were tarmacked over rather than re-cobbled, you now have to walk the back streets to find traditional cobbled roads.
The Parti Communiste Français and unions were exposed, to those who didn’t know already, as agents of the establishment, counter-revolution and status quo.
The Sorbonne was broken up and divided into 13 universities managed by a common rectorate, the Chancellerie des Universités de Paris. Three universities now have the word in their name: Panthéon-Sorbonne University, Sorbonne Nouvelle University and Paris-Sorbonne University.
Worse was the destruction of Montparnasse on the orders of Georges Pompidou, trying to demonstrate that he was tougher than De Gaulle and wanting to inflict punishment on the left bank for supporting the uprising. The artists’ quarter and beautiful old railway station, where the Nazis surrendered Paris to the Allies and scene of the famous train accident, were bulldozed and replaced by a 209 meter 59 floor brutalist tower symbolizing a huge grey tombstone in reference to the adjacent Montparnasse cemetery. It casts its malevolent shadow over the left bank as a warning and deterrence against future unrest.