may 68 demonstrations

May 68 Demonstrations



dispute solidarity sweep/swept/swept (2)
occupy wave (3) watershed (2)
reform dormitory heavy-handed
hostage prisoner take to the street
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dissolve strike (2) conference
deal (2) point (3) headquarters
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variety wildcat (2) insurrection
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vote relativism disciplinary
shift (3) pay raise free speech
support pay raise counterattack
riot mobilize quarter (2)
side (2) negotiate instinctively
role legitimize make it out
reject benefits retirement
boo stage (2) throw/threw/thrown
reelect consumer the rest of my life
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shove take over when push comes to shove
legacy uprising address (3)
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moral hedonism individualism
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setback presence committee
compel upsurge demonstration
erupt tranquility minority (2)
weld wide (2) out of nowhere
halt proceed overwhelming
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We begin today with our latest edition of 1968, forty (40) years later.

May 1968 was a watershed month for France, when a wave of student and worker protests swept the country and changed French society forever.

It began when university students in Paris occupied the area of Sorbonne and Nanterre Universities in response to a dispute over visiting rights to a female students dormitory.

The protests grew into a call for wider university reforms and greater personal freedoms that led to three weeks of mass demonstrations. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest heavy-handed police treatment.

And in a show of solidarity, ten million workers or roughly two-thirds of the French workforce went on strike, and marked the biggest general strike in French history.

This is one of the 1968 student leaders being questioned at the time at a news conference in Paris.

Journalist: “What is your purpose in being here?”
Danny Cohn-Bendit, French Student Leader: “Continue, continue political work.”
Journalist: “Are you calling for the overthrow of capitalists governments in France, in the United States, in Germany?”
Danny Cohn-Bendit, French Student Leader: “Yes, everywhere.”
Journalist: “By violent means?”
Danny Cohn-Bendit, French Student Leader: “If they use violent means against us, violence will be met with violence.”

The French protests reached such a point, that President Charles de Gaulle created a military operations headquarters to deal with the unrest. He dissolved the National Assembly and called for new parliamentary elections.

George is a professor of humanities and sociology at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. He’s the author of many books, including The Imagination of the New Left, The Global Analysis of 1968.

He joins me in our Firehouse studio.
Amy: Welcome to Democracy Now.
George: Thanks for having me on the show.
Amy: Talk about what happened in May 1968 in France. Set the scene.
George Katsiaficas, Author, “Global Analysis of 1968”: Well, in 1968 there was a global movement against the United States and against capitalism, as well as against the Soviet Union, and the Soviet variety of socialism.

And the relationships of those movements to each other is one of the primary reasons that we see France erupt. In fact in his New Year’s address in 1968, de Gaulle said that France of all countries was an example of peace and social tranquility.

But by May 68, it was the biggest strike in the history of France, a wildcat insurrectionary general strike that called for the overthrow of capitalism.

Essentially, disciplinary hearings against students who had been trying to be treated as adults and not as children, turned into police brutality of an unprecedented level, and students refused to take the violence against them.

The student government in all of France voted to support these students who were being put on disciplinary trials and the police arrested the student government leaders when they congregated in Paris.

The vans, much like the free speech movement in Berkeley, the vans taking away the arrested students were surrounded. One of the vans never made it out. The prisoners were released. And the police then attacked, the students counterattacked, the residents of the Latin Quarter supported the students.

The special riot police that had been created after the workers’ strikes of 1958 were then mobilized. And then workers instinctively sided with the students.

Soon, within a few weeks there were ten million workers on strike in France.

And no one knew what they wanted.

The Communist Party negotiated with the government, trying to legitimize its own role in society, and got a 35% pay raise for more than a million workers, ten percent (10%) general pay raise, reduced work week, better benefits, lower retirement age.

And workers reject it. Workers booed them off the stage, threw their lunches and beer bottles at them.

And said, “No. We want an end to capitalism. We don’t want to work in factories for the rest of our lives in exchange for some consumer goods.

We want a free society.”

So no one really knew what to make of the situation.
Amy: Yet, Charles de Gaulle was reelected.
George: He absolutely was reelected, in part because elections are so small a segment of the population involving a one minute act in a booth. But also in part because there was no clear alternative that emerged at that moment.

Student leaders like Danny Cohn-Bendit didn’t believe it was possible, when push came to shove to take over the government. The stock exchange was set on fire. But the parliament building, which hundreds of thousands of people had marched past, remained as it was before the uprising.

Amy: Last year when Nicholas Sarkozy was running for president, he blamed the legacy of 1968 for leading to intellectual and moral relativism and hedonistic individualism.

George: Yes I think here in the United States, we’ve heard similar comments from people like Richard Nixon and George Bush. In fact the legacy of 1968 involves greater freedoms for women and homosexuals.

Amy: At the time, homosexuality was a crime, women couldn’t wear pants to work, they needed their husband’s approval to even open a bank account. There was one TV channel that to get government approval to get the news out.

George: Abortion rights, students’ lives were forever changed. Young people have much greater freedoms. Minorities in France, despite continuing setbacks, at that time everywhere welcomed in the factories, strike committees, and said they felt at home in France for the first time.

So what yo have really was a thorough going cultural shift.

Now capitalism, the world’s system, has benefited from every upsurge against it. If we look at the 1830, 1848, the Paris Commune, even the Russian Revolution had strengthened the world capitalist system.

So May 68, like other events has also worked to strengthen the capitalist system or to Americanize French capitalism.

Any: How did the protest end?

George: The protest ended as individual factories were compelled to go back to work. Some factories held out. Massive police presence was used to bring them to leave their occupied factories.

But remember, this was a strike that erupted out of nowhere. And it involved, as it emerged, workers in one factory welding the doors shut to their managers’ offices, so the managers were held hostage until they would agree to negotiate
with these wildcat strikers.

But the overwhelming majority of the people didn’t know how to proceed further.

The society had come to a halt, and there was no socially legitimate, hegemonic block that could lead people forward, in a direction that made sense.

Amy: Professor George, put this in a global context.

George: Well, when we look at 1968, under Hagel’s understanding that history moves from East to West, is verified. We had the Vietnamese Tet Offensive.


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1. The protests and demonstrations in France had been planned years before. True or false? How did it begin?

2. Did most people sympathize with the student protesters or oppose them?

3. Were the police passive and defensive, or aggressive and offensive?

4. “The stock exchange was set on fire. But the parliament building, which hundreds of thousands of people had marched past, remained as it was before the uprising.” What does this mean or imply?

5. Was the government concerned about the protests, strikes and riots?

6. What were some of the results or consequences of May 68?

7. Today, does everyone see May 68 as a victory, something positive and good?

8. The strikes and demonstrations ended because they achieved their goals. Is this right or wrong?


A. Do you remember the events of (May) 1968? What about your parents or grandparents? How do they describe it?

B. Were the 1960s considered a time of great social upheaval and change?

C. Have protests and demonstrations been “effective” in changing or reshaping government, the economy and society?

D. Do people “enjoy” protesting and demonstrating? Is it common and an integral part of society?

E. Are there great arguments, debates and controversy over the events of the 1960s?

F. What will happen in the future?

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