On Friday 3rd May a meeting was called in Paris's Sorbonne University to protest against the closure of Nanterre University the day before. This followed a week of clashes there between extreme right wing groups and students campaigning against the Vietnam War. The Sorbonne meeting had been attended by only about three hundred student activists. But by evening a pitched battle raged up and down the Boulevard St Michel, and by the end of it 72 policemen and untold number of young people had been injured, 600 had been arrested and what has now gone down in history as France's May events had begun.
Using the excuse of a rumour that the right wing were going to attack the students meeting, the university authorities called in the police. At first the police encircled the Sorbonne, then after negotiation agreed to let the students leave, peacefully, in groups of 25, men and women separately. The women were allowed out, but when the first batch of men came out they were immediately arrested and forced into waiting police vans. A crowd developed and started to angrily push forward. When the first of the vans tried to leave onto the Boulevard St Michel, their path was blocked by a crowd of students getting bigger by the minute.
In the end the police cried for tear gas, and May's first street battle began. Choking, coughing, eyes stinging, people scattered up and down the Boulevard. But they soon regrouped and came down again to stop the vans. More and more young people were now joining the protest, streaming out of the cafes and bookshops, schools and colleges to join the fray. The police and the CRS (French riot police) had to charge repeatedly and use round after round of tear gas, but every time the students fought back.
The next day the press and media were full of comments about the unexpected reaction of the students. There was total surprise and incomprehension at the events. While, as usual, the government blamed a small group of agitators, one thing would become increasingly clear over the days and weeks ahead - a seeping sense of anger and frustration throughout French society, not just in the colleges and universities, but also in the factories and workplaces, was about to explode.
Over the weekend that followed 'defence committees' and 'action committees' sprung up in halls of residence, colleges and schools, to demand the release of all the students arrested and the reopening of the Sorbonne. A government minister spoke derisively of the trouble being organised by a 'groupuscule.'
On the Monday morning, 6th May, a crowd of over 20,000 gathered on the Place Denfert-Rocherau. Chanting 'We are a groupuscule,' and 'No to repression' and 'Free our comrades,' the march made its way peacefully towards the Sorbonne, still sealed off by the CRS. As the marchers turned into Rue St Jacques they were met with a huge police cordon. Almost immediately the police drew their truncheons and charged. Of course the main body of the march was still in the main street and still advancing, so there was nowhere for the front of the march to go, and the police waded in with their truncheons.
Regrouping on the main boulevard, people started to pull up metal grilles and paving stones, then hurl them at the police lines, forcing them to retreat. They in turn would retaliate with tear gas and more charges.
The next day there were twice as many demonstrators, and not just students. Thousands of young workers, school pupils, teachers and lecturers were there too. To prevent further clashes the organisers took the march across the Seine, up the Champs-Elyses, to sing the Internationale under the Arc de Triomphe. Violence was avoided, but the right wing were enraged all the more.
The next day rumour was rife that the authorities were about to 'compromise' and reopen Nanterre and the Sorbonne. On Thursday morning the announcement was made, but when students began to turn up for lectures they found the police and CRS still in residence. The Minister of Education had vetoed the reopening, claiming that 'irresponsible elements' were about to occupy. Debate now raged on the streets: what should be done now?
On the Friday evening another huge crowd congregated on the Left Bank. Once again they tried to march across the river, this time every bridge was blocked by CRS, and the crowd found itself hemmed into the Latin Quarter. Spontaneously barricades were thrown up and down the Boulevard St Michel and the other streets around the Sorbonne. Just after midnight a delegation was sent into the Sorbonne with their demands: withdrawal of the police from the Quarter, reopen the Sorbonne and release the prisoners.
As the crowds waited, residents in the mainly middle class and prosperous flats along the Boulevard brought down food and drink for the crowd, showing just how far public opinion had travelled over the last few days.
Soon the announcement was made, no guarantees on the release of the prisoners could be made. It was only a matter of time before the police would now move in to clear the streets.
At 2.15am the police moved. The violence was the most intense seen in France since the war with hundreds of casualties on both sides and miraculously no deaths. Millions listened live on radio and the next day on television they saw the devastation left behind: the burnt out cars, the remnants of barricades, paving stones, broken glass and tear gas canisters scattered across the ground.
The government had clearly gone too far. The trade unions were calling a one day general strike and massive demonstration for the Monday.
Strikes and demonstrations were being prepared across the country and the government was now being forced into retreat. The Prime Minister himself announced the release of the prisoners and the reopening of the Sorbonne. But it was not enough to hold back the movement.
On Monday over a million people marched through Paris and the police stayed well away. The trade union leaders were pleased: they had made their voice heard, the government had backed down and 'normal' life could be resumed. But it was not to be.
The Sorbonne once reopened, had been occupied and students formed a 'constitutional assembly.' And across the country reports came in that many workers were not just content with one day of action, more strikes were being planned, factories were being occupied, By the 16th about fifty factories were occupied, by the 17th 200,000 were on strike. On the 18th seeing the magnitude of the movement, the trade union leadership moved to try and control it by linking the action into a campaign for pay increases and better conditions. That evening there were two million on strike and within five days that figure had risen to ten million. France had been brought to a standstill, the rule of the government and the class it represented now lay in ruins.
The mainly young workers at the Sud Aviation factory had been downing tools for 15 minutes every Tuesday morning in their long running dispute with management.
On Tuesday 14th May, the day after the 24 hour general strike, things would be very different. The workers decided to spread their action to every section of the plant. They locked up 20 of the management in their offices, formed an action committee and decided to spread the action.
By the next day the strikes and occupations had spread with lightning speed to Renault, the shipyards, the hospitals. By the 16th all 60,000 Renault workers were out and the six main plants had been occupied. Citroen was out and the main ports of Le Harvre and Marseille were closed. Everywhere workers moved into action. The dam had well and truly burst.
By the 18th over two million were on strike and the trade union bureaucracy, seeing a movement well beyond their control, were forced to try and 'harness' it under there control. They now called for an all-out general strike to demand better pay and conditions. The response confirmed the breadth and depth of discontent - by next Wednesday, ten million were out.
However, for the mass of workers and students the strike was not just about pay and conditions - it was about power. Starting with demands for the resignation of the government and President de Gaulle the strike was not just about economics, it was very much political. By trying to limit it to some economic demands the trade union leaders were in reality trying to derail the movement by denying it the scope and breadth it quite obviously had. 1968 was a social movement, a revolution.
Work had stopped, factories were occupied, the TV was off, debate raged. People changed more in a few hours or a few days than they had in a lifetime. People who would have seen themselves as conservatives yesterday, now talked of revolution.
On May 24th, de Gaulle addressed the nation on TV. Even by his own admission it was a flop. He was the old man in charge of the old world. The same day, student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit was denied re-entry into the country after a trip abroad. Paris lived through another night of barricades as students and young workers protested. During the night a twenty six year old man was killed by shrapnel from a grenade - the first death of the events. At the height of the protest , the crowd ransacked and set fire to the Bourse, the Paris stock Exchange building.
After that revolution was truly in the air. Big demonstrations were now daily and strike committees were more and more taking over the functions of civil administration, joining together to form the embryo of an alternative system of government. Dual power existed.
By the 29th and another huge demonstration through Paris the situation was becoming over-ripe. Government officials later admitted that they believed they could last no more than a few hours. The demonstration itself, with proper leadership, could have taken the Elysee Palace and seized power. Unfortunately there was no such leadership.
The trade union leaders entered negotiations with the government. For two days and nights they discussed at the Ministry for Social Affairs.
According to the Sunday Times, 'any amateur could have negotiated huge concessions in such a situation.' The ruling class was facing destruction, yet the workers leaders emerged smiling with its list of concessions that it had 'skilfully' negotiated: 7% wage increase this year, the minimum wage up by a third, strikers would receive half normal pay for the time on strike.
CGT leader Georges Seguy went proudly to the giant Renault plant at Billancourt. But he was immediately booed and heckled. At every Renault plant in fact the deal was rejected as a sellout and workers dug in for a longer struggle.
It had taken the trade union leaders two years to get round the table with the government. They had achieved a deal that would have been unthinkable only one month ago. But the workers rejected it. They had come this far and they would not retreat for so 'little.'
One of the chants at Renault was for a 'people's government.' They wanted more than just better wages or talks on union rights. What more sign did the leadership, especially the PCF, need. What had they spent their lives fighting for? If they had moved just one finger they could have swept de Gaulle and the capitalist class backing him aside. But at that decisive moment they failed, the leadership did everything but lead and the movement was left to inevitably falter.
De Gaulle had by now left the country for secret discussions with General Massu, commander of the French troops stationed in West Germany to discuss military intervention.
He returned to once again address the nation on TV. 'The country is threatened with communist dictatorship,' he stated. He then announced that the Assembly was dissolved and that a general election would take place in June. Work should start as normal otherwise a 'state of emergency' would be called and 'appropriately tough' action taken.
That same afternoon, nearly a million of France's reactionaries had now found the strength to take to the streets. Troops were now being sighted near Paris, tanks were on the ring-road. Given the inaction of the trade union leaders and, in particular, the leadership of the French Communist Party, the revolutionary 'moment' began to ebb.
At the head of such a mighty movement of the working class the Communists could have easily taken power, they should have taken power. Yet when de Gaulle attempted to seize the initiative they offered no response. 'When he (de Gaulle) declared that the state was still there, the Communists appeared almost relieved.' (The Economist, June 1st, 1968).
The PCF entered the election campaign, welcoming it as an 'opportunity for people to have their say.' What they thought the workers of France were doing up till that point we can only guess. They called on workers to negotiate the best possible deals and return to work.
In the days that followed, after some economic concessions to the workers, work slowly began again in the public sector and police set out to systematically expel the occupiers from all official buildings. The rank and file resisted, while the trade union leaders welcomed the return to order. The PCF welcomed de Gaulle's electoral challenge and did not want to be associated with any 'extremist' attitudes.
After June 7th those still resisting were, as they put it, isolated and therefore subject to the most violent repression yet. One school student was drowned in the Seine in the battle to end the Renault occupation at Flins, and two workers were shot dead at the Peugeot factory in Sochaux.
On the 12th the government banned several student organisations and some 'left' groups. The national union of students called off all street activity to avoid further clashes. The movement was losing its impetus almost as fast as it had grown. Then on the 16th, the Sorbonne was finally retaken by a vast police assault. There were a few clashes in the Latin Quarter, but no barricades. The movement was finally over.
At the end of June, the Gaullists, having laid down a challenge to the reluctant Communist Party, scored a sizeable victory in the elections. Capitalist order had been restored.
For some the strike came out of the blue. Wages were rising by an average 5% a year. Expectations were rising. Car ownership had doubled over the previous ten years, fridge ownership had trebled and TV ownership was up five times.
However it is not grinding poverty and economic slump that necessarily generate revolution. France was 'modernising' fast, and workers and students were getting some benefits, but also a lot of the heartache.
The Economist described the production line at Renault as a 'sight from Hell.' Workers talked of 'les cadences' - the intense rhythm of the line, the pressure, the strain, the sweat. Like Britain today, France in 1968 was a powderkeg ready to explode. A society which offered so much but, in the end, gave so little.
When the workers struck, it was more than just about the bread and butter issues. It was about all the social ills that had built up. It was about the management culture that existed. It was about getting revenge for all the speed-ups and bullying. That's why the movement could so rapidly develop into a revolution.
All that was needed was leadership. But the workers leaders were just as buried in the past as the Gaullists. 1968 was the biggest general strike in history. The fact that the workers went back to work undefeated, with huge concessions is testament to that.
But it could have been so different. Workers should be inspired by this movement. Just like today the academics, cynics and bureaucrats had written off the working class, not just as a fighting force but as a class in itself. But these ideas were swept away by the movement. One thing was made clear, and remains clear to this day; when the working class of one of the major capitalist powers moves into action it can be unbeatable.