The story of what happened in France in May 1968 is a reminder to never despair about the potential of workers to resist. Fifty years ago this month workers in France waged a struggle that shook the government and the state.
Some ten million launched a general strike that at the time was the largest that had ever taken place. Groups of workers started to take control of industries and run them without bosses. And all of this came just as intellectuals had declared the working class dead.
The strike changed the shape of politics in France and across the world for decades, and fed a series of new struggles. Most importantly it showed a whole generation that the working class has the power to change the world.
Yet it also flagged up a warning about how trade union leaders, and parliamentary politicians, can help stifle struggle. And it carries a lesson about what sort of organisation can help workers win.
At the beginning of May, the British magazine The Economist predicted good things for capitalism in France. Deputy editor Norman Macrae celebrated France’s “pathetically weak” trade unions.
Capitalism had been doing pretty well since the end of the Second World War. Unemployment had generally fallen across Western societies and living standards were rising. The system seemed strong enough to cope with even major strikes and struggles.
So at the start of the year French Marxist writer Andre Gorz declared, “In the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes.”
Yet Western capitalism—sustained by arms spending—was about to enter economic crisis. And the surface calm hid a growing discontent over the stifling ideology and morals the ruling class wanted to impose on everyone else.
In the years running up to 1968, workers in France waged increasingly militant and bitter struggles. A number of mass strikes often involved confrontation with France’s notoriously violent CRS riot cops. Workers’ struggle was about to explode. But it was students who set it off.
A battle had been raging on the campuses of Paris’s Sorbonne university since February that year.
A growing movement of radical students held protests over the Vietnam War, conditions on campus, and their syllabuses. More and more, that movement brought students into conflict with the university management—and the police.
It all really kicked off on 3 May, when the university rector called in police to smash up a rally of just 500 students on the Sorbonne.
Cops invaded and arrested all the students on the rally. But spontaneous demonstrations sprang up immediately after in the Latin Quarter that fought police into the night.
In the days that followed, thousands protested in the Latin Quarter—their numbers swelled by support from workers around Paris. One student slogan, “Be realistic. Demand the impossible,” summed up the mood.
Cops attacked demonstrators with clubs and tear gas. They smashed up the cafes where students took refuge.
But the cops’ violence provoked sympathy for the students among workers. People let injured students into their homes and threw water on the ground to neutralise the gas.
On 10 May more than 50,000 students marched, but cops attacked them and stopped them from leaving the Sorbonne area. Demonstrators replied by taking over the Sorbonne themselves, throwing up more than 60 barricades to keep the police out.
The night saw some of the most vicious attacks on protesters by police. One student described being grabbed and beaten by cops.
“This policeman hit me in the solar plexus, the liver and the guts, so much and so well that I threw up. I was truncheoned on the head, in the Adam’s apple, in the face and kidneys.”
But people also described the sense of liberation and excitement that the struggle of students and workers created.
Student leader Daniel Cohn Bendit remembered, “I toured the whole area. Residents were at their windows, offering us food and milk.
“The atmosphere was fantastic. It’s a moment I shall never forget. People were building up the cobblestones into barricades because they wanted—for the first time—to throw themselves into a collective, spontaneous activity.”
Another participant described fighting on the barricade alongside people they had only just met.
“Most have never seen the others before, we are made up of six students, ten workers, some Italians, by-standers, and four artists who joined later—we never even knew each other’s names.”
Support for the students was so great that two of France’s largest trade union federations, the CGT and Force Ouvriere, called a one-day general strike and demonstration in their support.
The demonstration on 13 May was much bigger than they expected. Some ten million people joined the strike—well over the number of people who were actually union members.
More than one million marched through Paris. The sheer size of it revealed to all who took part the power they could have together. One eyewitness remembered, “Endlessly they filed past. Every factory, every workplace seemed to be represented.
“Row upon row of them, the flesh and blood of modern capitalist society, an unending mass, a power that could sweep everything before it, if it but decided to do so.”
The demonstration showed the potential for change. Now workers were ready to take action for their own demands over wages and conditions.
It began at the Sud-Aviation factory in the city of Nantes the following day. For weeks activists had been agitating for a strike and occupation.
But after the demonstration, according to one worker, “A whole unknown world was revealed to the startled eyes of the majority of workers—a world of struggling which had been forgotten.”
Workers at the factory voted to walk out indefinitely then lock out the manager. As news of their action spread over the next few days, others joined the walkout. Workers in major Renault car plants struck, then visited surrounding engineering factories to bring them out too.
They were followed by workers in other industries and workplaces across France. By 20 May well over nine million were taking part in an indefinite general strike.
One worker in a railway sorting office gave a glimpse into what went on. “When we came into work on the night shift we heard that the Montparnasse railway workers were on strike. We did not need a vote to decide and do the same, enthusiastically.
“The next morning, some of the day shift workers wanted to come in. We had to convince them. We then understood that we had to occupy the place and protect it with a strike picket.”
Thousands of workers joined picket lines and strike meetings at workplaces across France.
The strike became a challenge to the authority of the bosses in the factory. In just one example, workers at Sud-Aviation locked twenty managers in the factory for over a fortnight, voting every day on whether to release them.
But as the strike went on new problems emerged, and the solutions put workers in control of core functions of society.
An indefinite general strike can’t carry on without some level of services running. People still need to eat, travel and communicate with each other. So strikers started making their own decisions about what services would run and how.
Water was supplied to Paris under the direction of a workers’ strike committee. Print workers allowed papers to appear so as not to give state-run TV a monopoly on media coverage. But they demanded changes to headlines and refused to print issues that attacked the strike.
Rank and file action committees organised practical tasks such as clearing rubbish or collecting money and food for strikers’ families. They also produced posters and leaflets.
The important thing was that in all these instances, workers were in control. So the power of the strike had become a threat to the rule of the government and the state itself. The government readied its forces—including the army—to crush the strike.
Yet it wasn’t the state that saw the end of the strike—but union leaders. From the very beginning they had set out to make sure the strike didn’t escape their control.
They made sure strike committees were filled with their own officials and in many cases sent other workers home, limiting their involvement in the strike. In other cases students were banned from visiting picket lines.
Union leaders also tried to negotiate an end to the strike early on, but were forced to continue after workers rejected an agreement they had struck with the government.
President Charles De Gaulle fled to Germany to meet army chiefs and consider military intervention. But in the end he halted the strike by calling a general election. The French Communist Party (CP)—which some of the largest unions were linked to—saw its opportunity to get elected.
The CP had long turned its focus to getting elected to parliament. But with this focus came an attitude that it had to be a respectable and responsible party of government.
So with the prospect of an election, the CP set out to end the strike – and used its members in the trade union officialdom to help it.
The government offered a number of concessions—including wage rises, cuts to working hours and extensions of trade union rights. Individual ballots on the return to work were held in every workplace—which CP officials used to engineer a return to work.
In many places they did their best to ensure the vote was as confusing as possible. In one place the union said the vote was not about whether to return to work, but on whether to accept the offer.
In other places non-strikers and even managers were allowed to vote.
CP officials spread lies and rumours about who had returned to work in order to encourage other workers to do the same. In this way the general strike began to peter out. And as it happens, the CP and the left did miserably in the election.
De Gaulle hoovered up right wing votes as the party of “law and order,” while the CP’s aim at appearing respectable couldn’t compete with its softer rival, the Socialist Party.
The end of the strike exposed one of its weaknesses—the lack of a revolutionary organisation that could have influenced the outcome of the struggle.
Rather than a focus on parliament, revolutionary parties look to workers’ struggle to change society—and organise to grow and strengthen it wherever it takes place.
For a number of reasons, there was no party like that in France. If there had been, it could have helped to coordinate struggle and stood a chance of countering the drive to return to work.
The strike of May ’68 is still one of the most inspiring examples in history of the power that workers have. But it’s a lesson about where the dangers of defeat can lie—and what sort of organisation is needed to resist them.