By Ian Birchall
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1968: when students were the spark

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In 1968 a revolt by French students led to the biggest general strike in history
Issue 2231

The year 1968 saw student revolt spread all around the world. Everywhere capitalism was modernising itself, and needed a more educated workforce—and so higher education was rapidly expanded.

Until the 1950s a university education was a passport to the ruling class, or to a job as one of its privileged hangers-on. Now most students faced a future as white-collar workers.

Often they found their courses irrelevant and university regulations intolerable. From the USA to Japan there were occupations, demonstrations and riots.

In France, the authoritarian government of President de Gaulle had expanded the universities. By 1967 there were twice as many students in Paris as in 1958. But it was being done on the cheap. There was massive overcrowding and students were angry at outdated regulations.

One important demand was for “free circulation”—the right of male and female students to visit each others’ hostel rooms. This was the rock’n’roll generation—nobody was going to tell them when or where they could or couldn’t have sex. And many students were enraged at the murderous American war in Vietnam.


The French student movement was quite small to begin with, but it grew quickly. In April and early May 1968 there was a whole series of demonstrations in Paris. On 3 May the authorities closed down the Sorbonne university in central Paris.

But demonstrations continued. Students were attacked by the notorious riot police who used truncheons, tear gas and CS gas.

A meeting of government ministers had told the police to use all necessary force. On the night of 10 May students decided to stand their ground.

Many streets in the university quarter were still paved with cobbles. Now students began to tear them up to build barricades. A passing building worker helped them by showing them how to use a pneumatic drill.

The police attacked. Cafes and homes where students took refuge were invaded; photographers had their film seized; pregnant women were beaten.

But the students did not back down. The police brutality was widely reported and there was public indignation.

The major trade unions called a one-day strike and demonstration for the following Monday.

Prime minister Pompidou ordered the reopening of the Sorbonne and the release of imprisoned students. It was a confession of defeat. He later explained, “Let’s suppose that on Monday 13 May the Sorbonne had remained closed under police protection. I preferred to give the Sorbonne to the students than to see them take it by force.”

The police were furious. They had no sympathy with the students, but they had been told to go in hard—then seen their actions repudiated. Morale deteriorated; there was talk of police strikes. The government was

looking very weak indeed. On Monday 13 May a million people marched though Paris. The union leaders saw it simply as a means of letting off steam—but the effect was quite the opposite.

It gave a sense of power to millions of French workers, unhappy at low pay and rising unemployment.

Within days, ten million workers were occupying their factories, the biggest general strike in human history.

But there was one big problem. The largest working class organisation, which controlled the main trade union, was the French Communist Party.


This party regarded the working class as its private property, and tried to prevent contact between students and workers. Its aim was to form a coalition government with the Socialist Party, and it didn’t want any student direct action screwing this up.

The students had given the workers hope, showing them it was possible to resist. Among the students there was a ferment of ideas: revolutionaries of every brand—Trotskyists, Maoists, anarchists—suddenly found that their audience had grown.

If the students brought hope, the workers showed their power. The whole of French life was brought to a halt.

Gas, electricity and water continued to be supplied only by the goodwill of striking workers.

When de Gaulle tried to call a referendum he found that not a single printshop in France—or in Belgium—would print the ballot papers.

In the end the result was a draw.

Workers won significant economic gains, but were persuaded to go back to work by the union leaderships.

De Gaulle held elections and got a large majority—though his own inner circle manoeuvred him out the following year.

But the dream was not crushed; for years workers and students were inspired by the achievements of 1968.

Semi-literate journalists and servile academics have tried to bury the memory of 1968. They refer only to “student riots” and forget to mention the general strike.

They claim, contrary to a mass of evidence, that workers were only interested in narrow trade‑union demands, not in revolutionary ideas.

History does not repeat itself, and today’s student movement will have to invent its own tactics.

But students in Britain today have one big advantage over their French forerunners.

The NUS bureaucrats and the Labour Party have the same mentality as the French Communist Party—the same fear of spontaneous direct action.

But these groups do not have the same disciplined body of activists on the ground to enforce their will.

Above all, as students make their own history, they should remember one of the great slogans of 1968—“All Power to the Imagination”.

In the Factories: ‘An unknown world revealed’

The factory occupations began at Sud-Aviation, an aircraft factory in Nantes in western France.

A revolutionary socialist militant, Yvon Rocton, had been arguing for a strike and occupation, but he got little support.

News of the Paris demonstration changed everything, as another worker in the factory described: “A whole unknown world was revealed to the startled eyes of the majority of workers: a world of struggling students which had been forgotten…Sud‑Aviation suddenly felt less alone.”

The next day the workers voted for indefinite strike and occupation.

A couple of days later a march of a thousand students came to the factory, and hundreds spent the night inside the plant.

This picture was repeated across France. Socialist Worker at the time described the scene outside a Paris factory:

“When a student spoke to a factory gate meeting at the Renault car factory… a union official suggested that the paramilitary police were waiting nearby, and that the student had called them there.

“Little attention was paid to the officials, and the young workers suggested factory occupation and machine-breaking.

“They were talked out of the latter, but the massive Renault plant was immediately taken over.”

Another Renault worker recounted, “Every evening I took five or six workers in my car to the Sorbonne.

“When they returned to work next day they were completely changed people…

“In Renault their freedom was alienated. In the Sorbonne they felt free.

“Within Renault he was only a thing. In the university he became a human being.

“This atmosphere of freedom in the sense of being considered human gave great combativity to the young workers.”

Further reading

Chris Harman’s The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Tony Cliff and Ian Birchall’s 1968 article on France is available at


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