At Nanterre university, on the outskirts of Paris, militant students have a dilemma: how can they pass their end-of-year exams while simultaneously fighting to derail the French government’s education reforms? “It’s a worry, but we’ll find a way,” says Annaël Lombe, a student union leader who is taking his political science finals in a few weeks. “Exams or not, we won’t stop the protest. We will carry on the action.”
Fifty years ago, Nanterre students issued much the same warning. It turned out to be far from an idle threat. Subsequent protests at Nanterre sparked the May 1968 civil unrest that drew 10 million students and striking workers on to the streets and brought France to a halt. It was a dramatic – some thought revolutionary –moment in French history that nearly toppled a government. In the end, the protests fizzled out, but even now the events remain a model of how people power can rattle French political leaders and in doing so change society.
Today, as France again faces revolts from students and workers, the left sees a rare opportunity to reignite the spark that set the country alight in 1968: railway workers opposed to legislation to change their status have taken to the streets en masse and halted much of the train network; Air France pilots are striking over pay; the elderly are furious about pension reforms; students are protesting over proposed changes to access to higher education. President Emmanuel Macron plans to change the baccalaureate requiring students to specialise earlier and to introduce more selective entry requirements for universities as opposed to the current lottery system. Opponents say the measures go against France’s tradition of free education for all and will penalise poorer students.
For Macron, this is the biggest challenge to his leadership since his election a year ago. For others, such as the hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, this chaos has the makings of a long-awaited convergence des luttes: a coming together of various worker and popular struggles into one general movement. May 1968 revisited, in other words. “The president of the rich has decided to confront us,” Mélenchon said last week. “We will fight back. We will see who will have the final word. If we have the wisdom to unite across the country … the final word will be ours. To those who suggest with a wry smile that I dream of May ’68, I say, yes it’s a fine dream. I prefer my lovely dream to the nightmares that are in the process of happening.”
Protest – often violent and disruptive – is part of France’s political culture. As the historian, writer and commentator Jacques Julliard pointed out: “To go from Louis XVI to Louis XVIII, that is to say from moderate absolutism to parliamentary monarchy, those maladroit foreigners would have gone by way of a Louis XVII. Instead, we went via Robespierre and Napoleon.”
May 1968 still divides France, half a century on: a triumph of idealism and emancipation for the left; a tragedy marking the beginning of the end of the Gaullist era and the disintegration of French society for those on the right. Les évènements were unexpected but did not come out of the blue. Charles de Gaulle, 77, had been in power for almost a decade, and while France was economically prosperous, it was run by a rigidly conservative administration. Women were not allowed to open bank accounts without their husband’s permission; homosexuality and abortion were crimes; there was a record number of university students, who were strictly segregated into separate dormitories.
The Nanterre students took their protests to the heart of Paris: the Left Bank and the Sorbonne, ripping up paving stones to lob at CRS riot police, whom they taunted with CRS SS placards. Paris’s most celebrated quarter became both a battleground and a debating club. The students joined forces with eight million angry workers – who worried De Gaulle’s government more – but union leaders were as traditional and paternalistic as the president, and spooked by his suggestion that the youthful revolution was heading towards a Communist takeover.
The government wobbled, saving itself by making major concessions to the striking workers. Despite the rallying call of Jean-Paul Sartre, committed to the strikers’ cause, workers went back to work and the students returned to their studies. “The Communists are afraid of the revolution,” Sartre wrote afterwards. Thomas Guénolé, of Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise party, says May 1968 was not just about 60s sexual emancipation or a “spiritual revolution” but was also part of a “global revolt against capitalism” which carries on today. “From beginning to end, May ’68 was a social movement, with the aim of overthrowing the system. It didn’t succeed, but it would confirm the fundamental lesson of the massive strikes of 1919-1920 and 1936, and that is: when a large strike paralyses the economy of a country, the government and employers give in after a few weeks at the most. Fifty years on, this lesson is still valid,” Guenolé said recently.
Others see little chance of today’s protesters, with their diverse demands, forming a strong enough alliance to force the reformist Macron and his government, elected only a year ago, to capitulate.
Laurent Bouvet, a political scientist, believes today’s protests are the French left’s attempt to rerun last year’s presidential and legislative elections, in which they were defeated (and in the case of the Socialist party trounced). “This is Mélenchon, the unions, the far left and even the Parti Socialiste trying to get their revenge for Macron’s election. It’s a return match,” Bouvet told the Observer. “But having voted Macron in only a year ago, I cannot see the French in massive numbers turning against him – even those who didn’t vote for him and don’t agree with his reforms.”
He added: “People have forgotten the reality of May ’68. They forget the general strike that paralysed transport and remember it as a student revolt. What happened, and this is particularly French, is the people who organised this revolt quickly became people who had responsible jobs in the media, and when the left finally arrived in power in 1980 they began celebrating ’68 because it was such an important date in their youth. “And so a mythology emerged about the events on both sides, left and right, that was completely false.” It was really the last big movement in which the left played a big part, and everyone on the left wants to keep that illusion.”
As the current wave of rolling strikes by rail workers, and sit-ins and blockades by students continues, opinion polls show France is divided over support for Macron’s economic reforms, a pillar of his presidential manifesto. La France Insoumise has been leafleting students across the country, and Mélenchon has called for two anti-Macron demonstrations in Marseille, his parliamentary constituency.
Outside the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter of Paris, there is no blockade, and many students seemed indifferent to the protests. “I’m not happy with the reforms, and I think Macron is being authoritarian,” said Anya, a humanities student reading in the sunshine. “We have to protest for what we believe; that’s what young people do. But this isn’t May ’68. The social context is completely different.” Nor was there any sign of students revolting at Nanterre on Friday. But Lombe, 24, the treasurer of France’s main student union UNEF, which has 30,000 members, including 800 at Nanterre, says the protest movement is growing, directed at a society in which “precariousness has replaced prosperity”.
“1968 was our grandparents’ battle. In every era the young have decided to mobilise because they have had something to say and they don’t agree with society. It’s what we do: we challenge, fight, make demands. Although our demands are different, the young today, like those in 1968, want to be autonomous, emancipated, recognised as equals to the rest of society. We want people to listen to us,” Lombe said.