Mai 68 is crucial for a whole generation (my mother's). This is when the baby boom generation was in their 20s. Their parents had suffered from restrictions after the war but now the country was getting richer and there was no reason why they should accept restrictions, financial or moral. That's when in the US the students marched against VietNam. Che Guevara was a hero, and so were Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong etc... Western countries were feeling guilty about colonisation and people who freed their countries were heroes. Morally, people could not accept patriarcal society anymore and that's when feminism really started, together with free love and such theories... Actually, one of the first demand from the students (in France) was coeducation. But there were protests everywhere in France (mostly Paris), all the time, and about anything (Viet Nam, coed, domestic politics etc...). Finally , in May, all the universities went on strike and students started demonstrating in the streets. The police attacked them so they built barricades. They were occupying the universities, they were having meetings and sleep-ins 24h/day, they thought they would build a better world, they thought of a revolution. It must have been exhilirating for those who lived it. Free sex was certainly a good motivartion for some of them... (a cousin of my mother admitted joining one of the numerous parties depending on where were the cutest guys!). Most active were Trotskysts and Maoists (the Maoists robbed Fauchon, the most expensive grocery store in Paris and stole foie-gras, like Robin Hood, to give it to the poor!). Posters were everywhere in Paris and some very funny sentences come from this era (have you heard of "sous les paves, la plage" = under the cobblestones, the beach. Meaning under the cobblestones, the sand but also meaning if you take those cobblestones and throw them to the police's face, you'll be free). One figure that came out of that is Daniel Cohn-Bendit. He was the head of the students, very bright, very funny, and he is still around although he was sent to Germany and stayed there (he had both citizenships). At first, the communist party was againts this uprising, calling it a bourgeois uprising (it's kind of true but it also shows how stupid the french communist party is) but then, in June, it decided to call for a national strike. The barricades were over but nobody went back to school this year (if somebody you know got a diploma in France in 1968, it doesn't worth much...). De Gaulle was president at the time and he got really scared, thinking a revolution was taking place. At some point (we know it now) he went to see the army chiefs and asked them to get ready to march on Paris. But in the summer, the bourgeois revolutioanries went on vacation and it was over. He called for new elections and won them. The students had called for a boycott of the elections which was a big mistake. But even though they "lost", they actually won a lot.The next decade was very different from the previous one. First of all, the university changed a lot. Coed of course, burt also the professors lost some power and the students gained some. Even the society became more feminist, and televison became much more free to talk about everything and to criticize the government, and many other things that people probably don't even realize it came from "Mai 1968". And this whole generation in the 70s would demonstrate all the time, against nuclear power, for economic reforms, political reforms. Everybody was concerned. Demonstrations always ended with fights with the Police. even I remember the tear gas. It was a violent decade. All this decade ended in the 80s. Partly because of Mitterand but mostly because the80s is the shitty yuppy selfish decade...
I'll try to summarize some of the causes of Mai 68:
-It's obvioulsy related to the babyboom since the number of students in universities was multiplied by 10 between the early and the late 60s.
-Another obvious reason is that France was getting rich. Things were getting built. No more of the war feeling. Some people were getting rich, and buying comfort stuff rather than just food. But some people (the workers) were left out. At some point they got angry. The 13% raise in salary after Mai 68 was just fair, and affordable.
-You have to see that it was NOT a communist rebellion. It was inspired by Marxism but it was against the French Communist Party and the USSR. So it was some kind of "new communism".
-You also have to realise the international context. Youth was rebelling all over the world (baby boomers) and third-worlds fight were inspiring everybody: Vietnam war of course, the Prague spring revolution, Nixon, Kennedy and Martin Luther King assasinated, black-power (at the Olympic Games). Che Guevara hero in Cuba. Revolts in Paris, Tokyo, Berlin, Rome, Dakar, Sao Paulo, Biafra, Mexico, China...
I'm trying to summarize the positive consequences that it had, 30 years later:
-It was a rebellion against the "societe de consommation". How do you say that in english? "consumer society"?
-It changed some rules in companies and in universities. Mostly, it refused the simplistic hierarchy with ONE guy at the top (professor or boss) and all the others as slaves. It included much more dialog before decisions are taken and, for example, the inclusion of "Maîtres de Conférence" in the decisions, beside the "Professeurs" (nicknamed "Mandarins"). Laterally, more dialog also started between different departments (science, humanities...). It is also true to some extent in high-schools.
-That's when people were allowed to vote at 18 instead of 21. It's almost a consequence of the previous change: young people are judged more responsible.
-That's when the debate on abortion and pills really started and resulted in the current legislation. I guess it means women are also judged responsible. Simultaneously, laws on marriage and divorce also changed to become more gender symmetric. Generally speaking, the family is changing.
-That's when coed became the law rather than the exception in universities and high-schools, and the control over who was visiting women in dorms became looser, judging that they could do what they wanted with their bodies.The government cannot decide the moral which is personal. It was of course the era of free sex, and drugs, pre AIDS...
-No more uniforms in high-schools and, slowly, girls were able to wear jeans and make-up.
-Generally speaking, feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, communities, psychoanalysis and also single moms got boosted at that moment.
-Other questions that bacame commonly discussed were: why are we studying and what for? Why are we working and what for?
-That's when laws tried to spread the power from Paris only, to other french cities, locally. Also in the same spirit of giving responsability to everyone instead of just a few people.
-That's when the government media became much more independent from the government. Same idea again...
-That's when the debate started about legalizisation of immigrants, and making it easier to travel, and fighting against racism.
-After Mai 68, the workers ALL got a 13% raise in their salaries. Meanwhile, that's also when unemployment started to appear in France.
-The newspaper Liberation was created after Mai 68. Everybody there had the same salary (from the boss to the printer), every decision was voted, Sartre was director. Today nothing is left from that, just a normal newspaper, slightly on the left...
-NGO ("french doctors") were created after that period.
-Generally, it was an era when it was OK to question the laws, the norms, the values and I guess it's healthy and it feels good...
-There was a desire to brek the moral rules. In France in 2001 there is a debate on how far did they go, whether it was too far, whether it opened the way to some of the pedophilia cases of the next decades (question to Cohn-Bendit)... More generally speaking, they were "in" and those who were "out" try, 30 years later, to get a revange and find the "soixantehuitards" guilty of so many things (question to Joshka Fisher, minister of foreign affairs in Germany, accused of having been violents with cops in the 60s), without reminding all the beneficial aspects... Exemple of some articles in french.(1) (2) (3) (4)
March 22: students headed by Daniel Cohn-Bendit occupy the University of Nanterre.
May 2: the university of Nanterre is officially closed
May 3: students occupy the university of La Sorbonne. The police throws them out, resulting in the first demonstration.
May 6: more demonstrations, getting more violent (barricades). Spreads to other cities.
May 10: more barricades in the latin quarter. The battlewith the police lasts all night.
May 13: for the first time, unions decide to side with the students (or to take advantage of the "mess"), in contradiction with the communist party, and decide for a general strike. The "worst" strike the country ever had. 10 million people are on strike. Demonstrations now include students AND workers.
May 15: the Odeon theater and the Sorbonne university are occupied by students, factories (like Renault) are occupied by workers.
May 19: De Gaulle was on a trip to Romania, he comes back and says he agrees to negociate but not to resign. The whole country is paralysed by the strike. De Gaulle calls that "la chienlit", which is a very old-fashion way to say "a big mess". Students reply: "La chienlit, c'est lui".
May 22: Daniel Cohn-Bendit, jew and german citizen, is officially "persona non grata" in France. Students reply "nous sommes tous des juifs allemands". He manages to come back to France anyway.
May 24: There will be a referendum in June says De Gaulle. Fights keep going. A student and a policeman die.
May 27: negociations between the government and the Unions: salaries are raised, union rights are increased. A big student meeting in Paris suggests a new government if De Gaulle resigns.
May 29: De Gaulle flips. He goes to Baden Baden where the head of the french army is, and checks that the army would back himup in case of a civil war.
May 30: De Gaulle confirms that he won't quit. He "disolves" the congress and calls for new elections. The "Gaullists" call for a demonstration on the Champs-Elysees: it's very succesful (and quiet).
May 31: the government is modified. The strike is over.
Epilog: the students reply "élctions piège à cons", don't vote and De Gaulle easily wins the new elections. May is over. Daniel Cohn Bendit is thrown to Germany. He doesn't even appeal and starts a new political career there...
Posters of the Revolution. May 1968:
Paris 1968. Pent-up anger and frustration over poverty, unemployment and the conservative government of General Charles de Gaulle, gave rise to a mass movement for sweeping social change. In the month of May, workers and students took to the streets in an unprecedented wave of strikes, walkouts and demonstrations. By May18th, 10 million workers were on strike and all factories and universities were occupied. During those days of turmoil the ATELIER POPULAIRE (Popular Workshop) was formed. The faculty and student body of the Ecole desBeaux Arts were on strike, and a number of the students met spontaneously in the lithographic department to produce the first poster of the revolt, "Usines, Universites, Union."
On May 16th, art students, painters from outside the university and striking workers decided to permanently occupy the art school in order to produce posters that would, "Give concrete support to the great movement of the workers on strike who are occupying their factories in defiance of the Gaullist government." The posters of the ATELIER POPULAIRE were designed and printed anonymously and were distributed for free. They were seen on the barricades, carried in demonstrations and were plastered on walls all over France. Their bold and provocative messages were extremely influential and still resonate in our own time.
Statement by the ATELIER POPULAIRE:
"The posters produced by the ATELIER POPULAIRE are weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it. Their rightful place is in the centers of conflict, that is to say, in the streets and on the walls of the factories. To use them for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or to consider them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect. This is why the ATELIER POPULAIRE has always refused to put them on sale. Even to keep them as historical evidence of a certain stage in the struggle is a betrayal, for the struggle itself is of such primary importance that the position of an "outside" observer is a fiction which inevitably plays into the hands of the ruling class. That is why these works should not be taken as the final outcome of an experience, but as an inducement for finding, through contact with the masses, new levels of action, both on the cultural and the political plane."
1.Youth disturbed too often by the future
2.Return to normal
3.We are all undesirables
7.Borders = Repression
9.The boss needs you - you don't need the boss
10.Reforms - Chloroform
11.The vote changes nothing - the struggle continues
12.We are the Power
15.Press - Not to be swallowed
16.Factory, University, Union.
17.Workers, French/Immigrant, Unity
18.Down with the deadly rhythm of the production line
19.The struggle continues
20.Yes to occupied factories
22.Attention, the radio lies
23.I participate...You participate...They profit.
24.To yield a little is to capitulate a lot
25.No to Bureaucracy!
26.The police speak to you every evening at 8:00
28.Let's break the old cogs
29.Light Wages - Heavy Tanks
- Incredible as it may sound there is a mai68.com site!
- Sites made by french media: french national television / Libération
- a site on 1968 worldwide
- You can also check the very conservative site (made by UNI, the right wing student union) that has a complete chronology and many posters and mottos.
- original copyright by Dror and Gina