What the Non-Revolution of May ’68 Taught Us

Paris, 1968: Protesters honoring the memory of Gilles Tautin, a high school student who drowned while fleeing the police during the civil uprising that year.CreditHenri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
Paris, 1968: Protesters honoring the memory of Gilles Tautin, a high school student who drowned while fleeing the police during the civil uprising that year.CreditHenri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

For those of us in the United States who were young and politically progressive in 1968, the protests, strikes and other forms of civil unrest that overtook France in May of that year offered hope. The uprising was not simply a fight against something, like our fight against the Vietnam War. It was a fight for something — for a new way of arranging society, for new forms of economic and social and class relations.

The images of May ’68, which changed my life when I was a teenager watching them on TV, are still burned in my memory: the enormous marches through the streets of France’s major cities; the overflowing crowds of people speechifying and debating in the amphitheater of the Sorbonne; workers occupying factories and flying red flags over the gates; students occupying universities and being beaten by the police. Workers and students, it appeared, were united against a sclerotic Gaullist state.

These were images of the previously unimaginable: a revolution in the modern West. Revolution was no longer something that happened only in the past, or elsewhere, or in theory.

I never questioned this story of a unified rebellion until the past few years, when I conducted dozens of interviews for an oral history of the events of May ’68. I spoke with people from all over France who had been workers, farmers, university students, high school students, office workers and artists during the uprising. These conversations did not make me think that the uprising was a mistake or a source of today’s social evils, as many critics claim. Nor was my admiration for the participants in the protests diminished.

But these interviews helped me see that May ’68 was not one event, but many — that the reasons people fought were not the same for everyone involved — and that this divergence in goals contributed mightily to its failure. There is a lesson here for contemporary movements about the risk of underestimating the full range of social forces in play, about allowing a dramatic display of resistance to paint reality as we want it to be, and not as it is, in all its richness and confusion.

In 1968, students and workers alike wanted President Charles de Gaulle out of power, but there was a fundamental split between the utopian aims of the students and the more practical demands of the workers. Once the students occupied their universities, they began holding forums for people to vent their rage at life as it was lived, to propose new worlds. The desires of the students found their purest expression in their slogans, graffiti and posters. What they scrawled and pasted on the walls expressed not just their hatred of de Gaulle and the power structure, but also a desire for an absolute freeing of the human self: “The hindrances placed on pleasures incite unhindered pleasures”; “Life, quickly!”; “Be realistic — demand the impossible.”

At the same time, influenced by the classic Marxist and anarchist idea that the working class is the vehicle for revolution, the students strove constantly for worker-student unity, marching to factories and exhorting the workers to join them. They were not the future bosses the workers took them to be, the students declared, but rather were united with them in their struggle.

n some cases, the workers seemed to be receptive. When I asked Éliane Paul-Di Vicenzo, a university student in Nantes in ’68, what the high point of the events was for her, she said it was her first visit to Sud Aviation in Nantes, an aircraft factory with particularly militant workers. She described spending “the night around a campfire with the workers, drinking, singing, fraternizing in a way I’d never done with workers.”

But such episodes of conviviality aside, the students and the workers were fighting for radically different things. Bernard Vauselle, who worked at Sud Aviation in St.-Nazaire, made clear to me that “in ’67 and ’68 it was really the bread-and-butter demands we were interested in, not the political demands.” Seemingly small issues mattered enormously to the workers, according to Mr. Vauselle, such as an official recognition of their unions. Before the uprising, he told me, union supporters “had to distribute our tracts outside the factory,” but afterward “we entered the factory and had our own office.”

The workers I spoke with told me that their first act when occupying a factory was to clean and secure the machinery, something they did out of pride. What could such workers possibly make of the slogan “Never work,” a popular piece of student graffiti?

Mistrust of the students ran deep among the workers, as did a lack of comprehension. Colette Danappe, who worked at a factory outside Paris, spoke to me of the fear and disgust the students inspired in her. Driving to a demonstration with her husband and some friends, their car was suddenly surrounded by students brandishing paving stones. “I had the scare of my life,” she told me. She was also upset when the students set cars on fire: “I’d say to myself, ‘You save all your life to buy something and then someone destroys it.’”

The gulf between the workers and the students is nowhere more evident than in two gatherings that occurred at the tail end of the uprising, in mid-June. On June 10, a Maoist high school student named Gilles Tautin drowned while fleeing the police outside a Renault factory in Flins, one of the last hot spots of the uprising. The next day, Pierre Beylot, a worker at a Peugeot factory in Sochaux, was shot and killed by the police. If you watch footage of the funeral of Mr. Beylot, no students appear to be in attendance.

Likewise, if you watch footage of Mr. Tautin’s funeral, there appear to be no workers. Indeed, the General Confederation of Labor, a Communist-led trade union, had issued orders that its members not attend the Tautin funeral, wanting to end the strikes and not risk any further disturbance. That workers followed this order, including those not in the union, speaks volumes about the distance between the two groups.

All this goes far in explaining how and why May ’68 failed. But if we speak only of the May of the students and the May of the workers, we omit a third May — an “anti-May” that ultimately carried the day, and that the students failed to take into account. On May 30, 1968, half a million people paraded on the Champs-Élysées in support of President de Gaulle. You would never know it from the conventional accounts of May ’68, but this march was perhaps the largest demonstration of the period. The France that the students were rebelling against, that they thought was all but dead, turned out to be very much alive — and eager to put the students back in their place.

It was Charles de Gaulle, after all, who emerged triumphant from the elections in June 1968. The political right remained in power in France until the victory in 1981 of François Mitterrand and his very un-1968 brand of socialism. Since then, the left has been reduced to a shadow of its former self, while the right and neoliberalism have grown ever stronger.

May ’68 will be remembered all over the world this year as a great missed opportunity. But it was more than that: It was the end of a revolutionary illusion.

Mitchell Abidor is the author, most recently, of May Made Me: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France.

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