The political roots of student revolt

Jack Conrad looks at the role of students in the May 68 events

Local student unions and various ad hoc groups of students and junior teaching staff were seeking to win far-reaching reforms of university life in France. Given the rapid growth of the whole university sector, there were well judged calls for a proportional expansion of facilities (staff, lecture halls, libraries, etc). There was stifling overcrowding and generally very poor conditions. Extra finances had to be found. Other demands for an overhaul of courses were formulated too. In form and content university teaching often reeked of catholic scholasticism. The rigid and highly bureaucratic academic hierarchy was another target for well aimed criticism.

Either by design or accident, this immediate programme served to unite a wide student body. On the one hand, those looking towards future job prospects (the careerists - who thought that the curriculum ought to be more relevant to employers). On the other hand, those studying and rejecting traditional syllabuses in history, sociology, philosophy, etc, as being hopelessly reactionary (the politicos - for whom future employment was a necessary evil to be put off as long as possible).

Opposition to sexual segregation and the existing disciplinary rules cemented both wings of student discontent with a particular passion. St Valentine’s Day 1968 saw the students’ union, the Union Nationale des Etudiants de France (Unef), under the direction of vice-president Jacques Sauvageot, stage a well planned nationwide protest for free movement and free speech (unofficial political activity was banned on many campuses). Male and female dorms were occupied by members of the opposite sex. Political teach-ins were organised too.

Numbers mobilised were not huge. Nevertheless, minister of education Alain Peyrefitte and the conservative university authorities scattered petty concessions as they ran to catch up with the second half of the 20th century. A morale-boosting success for student radicalism.

Nanterre university, in the bleak outer suburbs of Paris, was something of a hotbed. In January the minister of sports and youth had been forced to abandon his official visit. A humiliation. In April there had been mass student meetings which expressed unmistakably revolutionary sentiments. A manifesto was issued which called for the “Outright rejection of the capitalist technocratic university”. On March 22 the administrative offices of the university were occupied under the incendiary leadership of Daniel Cohn-Bendit. In effect the first student council, the ‘March 22 movement’, had constituted itself.

Similar molehills were to spring up all over France. Marx’s velvet-suited engineer was at work. Soon a familiar black snout would once again be sniffing the Parisian air.


Arm in arm with Cupid strove Mars. Unef was slowly reviving after having been virtually moribund. Showing the crucial role of ideas in student politics, Vietnam provided the motivating cause. It should be noted, of course, that a calculating Charles de Gaulle had distanced himself from the escalating US war in France’s former Asian colony. He was no Atlanticist. Instead de Gaulle sought to play the role of honest broker (peace negotiations between the two warring sides took place in Paris).

So the anti-Vietnam war movement was not in direct opposition to the French state. Yet in a very real way solidarity with Vietnam continued, built upon or took over the baton from earlier protests over Algeria (which were unmistakably directed against the French state). All the main actors knew or somehow felt this. Therefore in France the US war in Vietnam served as a refracted anti-state symbol (the same was true in Britain, where Harold Wilson steadfastly refused all US entreaties to send a token force to Vietnam). Moreover, Vietnam also symbolically united protesters in France with the rest of the world. Vietnam thereby became a metaphor in the late 60s for opposition to the existing order and internationalism.

Let us backtrack a bit. After initial apolitical hesitation, the national students union agreed in 1957 to explicitly come out against French colonial rule in Algeria. Those economistically seeking to limit Unef to so-called bread and butter issues found themselves soundly beaten and deservedly marginalised. Their perspective of making Unef into a ‘real’ trade union effectively meant social-imperialism. Instead Unef became a bastion of leftwing politics and one of the main organisers of anti-Algerian war demonstrations (it agitated for an end to conscription too - on balance surely a mistaken policy).

Outraged by this treacherous impertinence, de Gaulle’s government retaliated. In 1960 recognition of Unef was withdrawn, along with state funding. A compliment of the first order. Unef’s standing grew and grew. However, once Algerian independence was finally conceded in 1962, Unef rapidly declined. In the early 1960s the organisation boasted 100,000 members (out of a student body of 240,000). By 1968 that had shrunk to some 50,000 (total student numbers had meanwhile ballooned to 514,000).

In February-March 1968 Unef organised, or sponsored, a whole series of impressive anti-Vietnam war protests. The Tet offensive in January had obviously proved inspirational. Militarily a failure. But in terms of propaganda, in terms of politics, in terms of US self-belief, Tet was a stunning success. The beginning of the end of US involvement in Vietnam.

De Gaulle’s ministers considered anti-Vietnam protests were getting out of hand. There had been clashes with the police, along with ominous threats from rightwing fighting squads. As far as the government was concerned, the spoilt children were misbehaving. Order had to be restored. A number of protest leaders were arrested, among them Nicolas Boulte of the National Vietnam Committee and Xavier Langlade, a student at Nanterre and member of the Fourth International’s Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire.

Their demonstrations were dominated not by tame anti-war calls for peace, as enjoined by the Parti Communiste Français (and their co-thinkers in Vietnam). Slogans were loudly, militantly and aggressively partisan: for US defeat and for the victory of the National Liberation Front (or Viet Cong). The rhythmic chant ‘Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh’ rang out almost ubiquitously.

While slogans calling for the defeat of US imperialism were undoubtedly correct, the vicarious desire to support ‘official communism’ in Vietnam was a sure sign of political disorientation. Of course, for the numerous Maoist groups this came naturally (with the launch of the Cultural Revolution by Mao Zedung in 1966 there was a second wave of Maoism in the west which sucked in a not inconsiderable layer of radicalised youth - the first Maoist wave came with the Sino-Soviet split).

But for variants of Trotskyism surely a case of ‘Leftwing Stalinism - an infantile disorder’. Ho Chi Minh was portrayed as a blunt instrument of the world revolution. Even an unconscious Trotskyite. Some will never lean. Some can never learn. Whereas they followed, adapted to and excused Ho Chi Minh in their youth, today we find them doing exactly the same … except with Ken Livingstone, George Galloway and John McDonnell. Older but none the wiser.

Brilliantly successful as the leader of the Vietnamese national independence struggle against Japan, then the French reoccupation and finally the Americans, Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) became a revolutionary icon. His name was commonly mentioned alongside martyrs such as James Connolly, Emiliano Zapata, Leon Trotsky and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.

And yet Ho Chi Minh constructed a state in North Vietnam closely modelled on Stalin’s system. Property was nationalised and the bourgeoisie expropriated. However, the popular classes, including the working class, remained exploited and politically powerless. There was no control from below. No democracy. No freedom. The party-army bureaucracy ruled.

Today a united Vietnam appears set to follow the example of China. Under the banner of national economic development Vietnam aspires to become a sweatshop for international capitalism. Hence bureaucratic socialism proves to be a long and costly route from colonialism to neo-colonialism.

In part pro-Hanoi slogans in 1968 expressed a desire to emulate. Not only Maoists and similar Stalinites dreamed of a French people’s republic. There were Trotskyites too who envisaged ‘third world’ revolutions surrounding the ‘first world’ and eventually giving them state power. Too many on the left wrote off the working class in France, and elsewhere in the imperial heartlands: embourgeoisified or Americanised (an assessment made by Ernest Mandel just prior to May 1968).

But there was also a widespread, straightforward and quite understandable revulsion against a blood-splattered US imperialism that was crazily attempting to “bomb Vietnam back to the stone age” (a gruesome phrase that originated with airforce general Curtis LeMay). The US dropped twice the tonnage of bombs on Vietnam as it did in the whole course of World War II. Between one and two million Vietnamese perished because of the conflict.

Taking into account the carnage, the massive US financial and technical superiority and the heroic tenacity of Vietnamese resistance, there was a natural desire amongst radical students to side with Ho Chi Minh. He was the detested enemy of US imperialism. Therefore, so ran the logic, he must be our friend. Official anti-communism thereby produced its opposite.


Events began to move with lightning speed. Under the ‘spokesmanship’ of Cohn­Bendit the March 22 student movement managed to turn Nanterre into an anti-capitalist training ground. Concessions and clampdowns by the authorities alternated in a desperate attempt to calm things down. But the mood grew ever more exited. Each stunt, protest meeting and occupation triggered another. In late April the exhausted rector closed the university. He also decided that eight leaders of the March 22 movement, including Cohn-Bendit, should be expelled. They were told to present themselves before a disciplinary committee to be held at the Sorbonne. Four lecturers agreed to defend them.

The response was swift and it proved explosive. Five hundred leftwing students gathered in the square of the Sorbonne on the morning of Friday May 3 for a meeting/rally in solidarity. Some came from Nanterre itself. Others were Sorbonne activists. The Nanterre eight were due to face trial the next Monday. As numbers swelled, the jittery university authorities decided to call in the police. Soon the entire area was ringed by the hated Campagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (the CRS riot police).

Students were pushed, abused, beaten and then arrested. As news of the CRS and their behaviour spread, students rushed to the Sorbonne from all over Paris. Punches were exchanged. Missiles thrown. Fighting erupted. The students wanted the release of their comrades.

Things further intensified on May 6. The Nanterre eight passed through massed CRS cordons singing The Internationale on their way to face their disciplinary committee. Minor scuffles followed. Unef and the union of university teachers had, though, united together to call a protest demonstration for that day against the police invasion of the Sorbonne.

More than 20,000 students, teachers and their supporters marched. The public expressed mild sympathy. But, as the demonstration headed towards the Sorbonne, the police suddenly launched a savage attack. A baton-wielding charge. Brutal, unprovoked, stupid. Perhaps the CRS considered that the students ought to be taught a sharp lesson. They were. But not the one intended by police commanders.

As the demonstration dispersed, a large minority stayed put. Cars and whatever came to hand were used to form makeshift barricades, and to their joy they forced the police to temporarily retreat under a hail of broken paving stones. Reinforcements were called in. Soon tear gas canisters were launched. The CRS drove the students into the narrow, winding streets and alleyways of St Germain. That night the area became a battlefield. Hundreds of students were badly injured and 422 ended up in police cells, including Jacques Sauvageot and Cohn-Bendit - the latter earning the opprobrium of the PCF’s then number two and later its general secretary, Georges Marchais. He dismissively branded Cohn-Bendit as a “German anarchist”.

No simple statement of fact: rather an act of filthy, chauvinistic sectarianism. The PCF was playing what we in Britain would call the Daily Mail card. Cohn­Bendit’s real crime in 1968 was not his German parentage. Rather what offended Marchais was his revolutionary convictions, his imaginative leadership and fearless willingness to unite words with deeds (a crime for which he was to be deported from his country of birth).

Neil Kinnock’s claim that the miners’ violence in the Great Strike of 1984-85 helped keep Margaret Thatcher in power comes into mind. Marchais had it that “objectively” Cohn-Bendit served “the interests of Gaullist power and the great capitalist monopolies”. It hardly needs saying, but in 1968 it was the PCF’s leaders who “objectively” served “the interests of Gaullist power and the great monopolies”.

Anyway, such was the intensity of student anger, their proud determination to fight, their revolutionary zeal and the shock that this caused in complacent official society, that the Sorbonne’s faculty deans decided that enough was enough. They announced an indefinite closure of the university. Only the second time that had happened in the institution’s entire 700-year history. The other being in 1940, when Adolph Hitler’s armies triumphantly entered Paris.

The next day, the next protest. Between 20,000 and 30,000 marched on May 7. Unef and SNESup, the university teachers’ union, issued three simple demands:

1. Reopen Nanterre and the Sorbonne.

2. Withdraw the police.

3. Release those arrested.

Clearly, the politicised student minority had become an agitation which now could mobilise a student majority. Moreover, mild public sympathy was translating into solidarity. Militant workers in particular began to respect the students and their fighting spirit.

May 10 was the decisive flashpoint - a Fahrenheit 415 moment. Defying the police, 35,000 university and lycée students assembled at the Place Denfert-Rochereau. At 6.30pm news was relayed of concessions being offered by Louis Joxe, the acting premier. Police would be withdrawn from the Latin Quarter, the Sorbonne opened and students allowed to meet there straightaway.

The proposal was put to the assembled mass. It was a monster with many heads but one voice - in a huge roar the answer came: “Libérez nos camarades!” Demand three had to be met. On that there could be no compromise.

Guarded by their service d’ordre, the demonstration moved off towards Santé prison, where their arrested comrades were held. Massed police ranks kept them from the gates, but clenched fists reached out from behind barred windows to greet them.

Wheeling in a great arc, the students then headed of to the hated Maison de la Radio, a fortress of Gaullist prejudice, patronage and propaganda. Finding their way blocked by one black phalanx of police vans after another, the demonstration was inexorably directed back to the Latin Quarter. Police moved to encircle the entire area, and to finish the job the CRS were once again readied. They would disperse the student mob.

This threat served not to demoralise, but galvanise. Defiance became tireless activity. What is a trap can become a redoubt. Fanning out, working to no plan but with a plan, a system of barricades took shape - the first in Paris since 1944, when the communist-led workers rose against the Nazis. Here that door, that hoarding, that scaffolding, that car; and everywhere paving stones. Straight from the pages of Victor Hugo, ‘Tear down all, bring all, throw all’ was the work of that night. Sixty barricades were built. Sometimes two, three, four or more in the same street. There was no military logic to it whatsoever. The barricades were purely psychological.

The 2am announcement, relayed over hastily rigged up tannoys, that the PCF was offering its ‘solidarity’ with the students breathed proletarian iron into their souls. The Internationale was sung. Hopes soared. Not long afterwards the Confédération Générale du Travail declared it would be calling a one-day general strike - the date set was to be May 13. “Bliss was it to be alive, but to be young was heaven” (William Wordsworth). Doubtless, a poetic cliché. But so true.

Here was change indeed. Till then, after all, the PCF had characterised student protests as the work of pseudo-revolutionaries and agents provocateurs. Now Roger Garaudy was wheeled out to tell anyone who cared to listen that the PCF “welcomed the human ferment”. More important than the revolutionary avowals of this liberal ornament of ‘official communism’, the working class would be moving into action - clearly due to pressure from below. There was everything to fight for.

With the prime minister Georges Pompidou still far away in Iran meeting the shah, the deteriorating situation was constantly monitored by a select emergency committee. Chaired by his deputy, Louis Joxe, it consisted of four government ministers: Christian Fouchet - interior, Pierre Messmer - army, Georges Gorse - information, Alain Peyrefitte - education. Besides them there were from the Elysée, Bernard Tricot, de Gaulle’s aide-de-camp and Jacques Foccart, his expert on security matters.

At 2.30am they ordered the CRS to go in. Tear gas and baton charges were met with stones, molotov cocktailsand the torching of lost barricades. The booming thud of exploding petrol tanks could be heard across the city and acted as a claxon call for thousands of young workers and alienated malcontents.

In the acrid, choking air there was fierce hand-to-hand fighting. The students and their allies gave ground but did not give up. With the morale-boosting help of locals, their coffee and food, their sheets and rags to protect against the CS gas, their shouts of encouragement, they fought back. As dawn broke the battle was still raging. When the call to disperse came, the wounded lay everywhere and another 500 were under arrest. But it was worth it. Under such circumstances to have fought so long is to be victorious.

On Saturday night, May 11, Pompidou, having returned from abroad, went on the airwaves. He attempted to put the velvet glove back on the bloodied mailed fist. The Sorbonne would be opened on Monday morning. The court of appeal would pronounce on the jailed students.

As an excellent and on the spot contemporary account by Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville reports, “The clear implications were that the police would be withdrawn and the students released” (P Scale and M McConville French revolution 1968 Harmondsworth 1968, p90).

The heroic night of the barricades in the Latin quarter had forced de Gaulle’s government to capitulate.