Just six weeks after France’s leading newspaper, Le Monde, said the country was “boredToo bored to join ongoing youth protests in Germany and the United States, Parisian students occupied the Sorbonne, one of Europe’s most illustrious universities.
It was May 3, 1968, and the events that followed the following month – mass demonstrations, street battles and nationwide strikes – transformed France. It was not a political revolution like previous French revolutions had been, but a cultural and social revolution that, in an incredibly short time, changed French society.
“In the history of France it was a remarkable movement because it was really a mass movement which concerned Paris but also the province, which concerned intellectuals but also workers”, declared Bruno Queysanne, who, at the was an assistant instructor at the school. Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris, one of the most prestigious schools of art and architecture in the country.
“Everyone who has committed has committed to the end,” he said. “This is how France was able to stop racing, without there being a feeling of injustice or sabotage. The whole world agreed to stop and reflect on the conditions of existence.
Today it is hard to imagine a Western country completely engulfed in social upheaval, but that is what happened in May 1968 in France. It is difficult to find a Frenchman or Frenchwoman born before 1960 who does not have a living and personal memory of this month.
“Everything was extended in 1968; it determined my whole life,” said Maguy Alvarez, an English teacher to elementary school students, as she perused an exhibition of posters and artwork from the era.
“In religion, in sexual things, what it meant to be a woman – it didn’t just mean to serve a man or to submit to men. These are questions you think about all your life,” she said.
The women’s liberation movement and the gay rights movement in France grew out of the upheaval of 1968 and the intellectual ferment of the time.
While some saw strikes and mass protests as an upsetting and painful event that upended social norms – the authority of the father of the family and the head of the country – for the most part, it propelled France into the modern world.
“The 19th century was a very long century,” said Philippe Artières, a historian and researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research and one of the curators of the 1968 poster exhibition.
“We hardly got out of it, and it must be kept in mind that in 68 we were barely 50 years after the revolution of 17 and a century after the Paris Commune,” he said, making a reference to the Russian Revolution and the 1871 uprising by mostly poor, working-class Parisians (although the leadership was middle-class) which was brutally suppressed, killing up to 10,000 people.
President Emmanuel Macron, born in 1977, is the first post-1968 French leader to have no personal memories of the upheaval – the euphoria, the sense of the possible and the potential power of the streets.
Universities across the country closed as students, often joined by their professors, occupied classrooms and lectures. In Paris and other major French cities, workers, students, intellectuals and anyone else who was interested thronged the streets for mass rallies.
The daily clashes with the police dulled the feeling of euphoria. From May 3, the police charged into the Sorbonne and ousted the students; in the ensuing melee, some 600 people were arrested, according to Agence France-Presse.
The students returned and quickly erected barricades to prevent police from entering the areas where they were massing. The two factions clashed day and night: the helmeted police armed with riot shields, tear gas, truncheons and water cannons; and university students, sometimes still wearing the ties and jackets mandated at the time by the university administration. The students dug up the cobblestones of the streets of Paris to attack the police.
The night of May 6 was particularly violent, with 600 people injured and 422 arrested, but it was the night of May 10 to 11, known as the “night of the barricades” which is still talked about.
Protesters ripped up cobblestones from two streets in the Latin Quarter, where the Sorbonne is located, set cars on fire and clashed with police. By the end of the bloody fighting, hundreds of students had been arrested and hundreds more hospitalized, along with a number of police officers.
“During the night there were very violent demonstrations, burning cars, things being broken, but during the day there was an air of holidays, of summer, a feeling of relaxation,” said Mr Queysanne. , who later became a professor of philosophy of art. architecture at the University of Grenoble then at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles.
“But the next day people came and discussed what they had seen; some were for, some were against. It was amazing, there was freedom of expression, the words were liberated.
Surprisingly, the violence did not taint the euphoria of the demonstrators.
“The feeling we had back then, which really shaped my whole life, was: We are making history. An elated feeling – we had suddenly become agents of world history,” Daniel Cohn said. Bendit, the most prominent student leader at the time, in an essay in the May 10 issue of The New York Review of Books.
Simultaneously with the student protests, French factory workers walked off the job and in many places camped out on factory floors, refusing to work and demanding a new order.
The Nantes shipyards stopped loading and unloading cargo ships, and work in much of the automotive and aeronautical industry also ceased. The unions did not call a strike, but when workers and students embraced them, they acquiesced.
By the third week of May, between 10 and 11 million people were on strike. There was no gasoline for the cars because the refineries shut down; the trains weren’t running, nor was the Paris metro.
In France, the enemy of change was the government, then led by President Charles de Gaulle, which tried to suppress strikes and sit-ins, but by May 29 it seemed overwhelmed.
In an unprecedented move, he left the country without saying either that he was leaving or where he was going. It was a surprising turn of events and for a day or two the students and workers thought they had won.
But Mr. de Gaulle returns, dissolves the National Assembly and calls elections for the end of June. Already, on May 27, the government and the unions had reached an agreement to put the strikers back to work, offering them generous wage increases and social benefits.
But the established hierarchy and formality that permeated the relationships between teachers and students, parents and children, bosses and workers, and ultimately even politicians and citizens, had been upended.
“At the level of daily life, and people’s relationships with institutions, there have been great changes,” said Mr. Queysanne, the professor of philosophy of architecture.
When students returned to class, they could now ask questions in class and debate ideas – a revolution in the French education system. The bosses had to treat their workers better.
But that heady atmosphere of social advancement, excitement and a sense of deep camaraderie that ran through the classroom and upbringing, affecting factory workers, students, intellectuals and farmers was gone.
There will be other moments of social protest, but none quite the same as those that took place in the spring of 1968 in Paris.