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May 68

Not so much a month - more a movement

Article published on the 2008-05-11 Latest update 2008-12-12 17:28 TU

It was a revolution - or, at least, a mini-revolution. From 21 March 1968 with the first student protests at Nanterre University, through to the end of June when a new government was appointed, France lived through one of the most turbulent months in its history.

Students riot on the streets of Paris.(Photo: AFP)

Students riot on the streets of Paris.
(Photo: AFP)

Spurred on by both left-wing political ideals and a desire for increased liberty in a stifling post-war society, French students revolted. They occupied the Sorbonne University and set up barricades in the streets of Paris.

Their movement was soon joined by downtrodden factory workers wanting improved wages, better working conditions and more democracy within the workplace.

Unlike other countries around the world that had major student movements in 1968 - Germany, Italy, US, Mexico, Czechoslovakia… - the movement in France led to a general strike. It was the biggest ever in Europe, with an estimated nine million people putting down their tools.

They ground France to a halt and came close to toppling the government.

Forty years down the line, France is "commemorating" that time with a flood of books, TV and radio programmes, articles, conferences, film retrospectives ... RFI’s English-language service is doing its bit, too.

What is there to commemorate?

In the short term, the general strike led to a strengthening of the trade unions, who won the legal right to recognition in all companies. The minimum wage went up by a third (even if rampant inflation cut into it soon after) and a fourth week of holiday was awarded.

The year 1968 ushered in sexual emancipation. Schools became mixed; universities no longer had single-sex dorms. In the years that followed, women’s rights were strengthened. The age of majority was lowered to 18 and women no longer needed their husbands’ permission to open a bank account. Additionally, the first steps were taken towards the legalisation of abortion in the mid-1970s.

Attitudes within the family, at school and in the workplace changed, becoming more open. According to historian Philippe Artières, none of this happened overnight. Gradually the hierarchical, daddy-knows-best nature of President Charles de Gaulle’s France was shaken up.

Above all, it was a time of verbal emancipation when workers, students and women spoke out and dared to answer back. The French still savour that “right to reply” now.

May 68 today

The French are not sure what to make of the legacy of May 68.

“French society is torn between fascination and revulsion,”  says sociologist and philosopher Jean-Pierre le Goff  - fascination for the way it dared to question the whole of French society, revulsion at what some on the political right see as an anarchist, leftist and morally decadent spirit.

During the 2007 election campaign, soon-to-be-President Nicolas Sarkozy lashed out at May 68, calling for its heritage to be definitively buried.

Ironically, if so much attention is being given to that period now, we have him to thank!