The Events of May 1968 in France: Points of Analysis

“I take my desires for reality, because I believe in the reality of my desires.”

Various labels have been attached to the ‘events’ of May 68: a ‘revolution’, a ‘student uprising’, a national strike of which the Western world had never previously witnessed, an ‘episode’ that transformed French society and intellectual thought. Personally, I believe the most appropriate and generic definition of these events is the term ‘explosion’, found in Phillipe Beneton and Jean Touchard’s seminal piece The Interpretations of the Crisis of May/June 1968. Certainly, the events were explosive in the various catalytic factors that ground France to a halt for nearly a month. Yet, there is evidence that the events were implosive in that they were a product of French national consciousness and characteristic of the youth movement of the Sixties. This eventually provided no veritable ‘fallout’ or conclusive reforms in the aftermath of De Gaulle’s resounding electoral victory of June 1968. In order to examine this argument I will focus on two areas of analysis that could be further developed in an extended piece while offering a conclusion that will aim to place these two ideas into the broader context of a historical evaluation of the events of May 1968.


Baby Boom and Bust

The Sixties saw an unprecedented amount of attention being given to the position of youth within society. Concerns relating to juvenile delinquency became manifest in the moral, social and sexual freedoms that adolescents so passionately demanded. This was an era where the young physically disowned any Victorian notions of being ‘seen and not heard.’ They were being heard, across the globe, with enormous consternation and increasing importance by 1968. In 1970, President Nixon callously refereed to the students of America as ‘bums, blowin’ up the campuses.’ David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, published nearly a decade earlier, offers a more coherent thesis:

“…the link between character and society…is to be found in the way in which society ensures some degree of conformity from the individuals who make it up. In each society, such a mode of conformity is built into the child, and then either encouraged or frustrated in later adult experience.” (David Riesman; The Lonely Crowd; p. 5; Yale University; 1961).

Riesman’s argument is relevant to a discussion of the Paris events if we interpret the movement as led by a misguided youth forced into conformity. The French baby-boom generation were misunderstood by their elders who saw that the young had ‘never had it so good.’ Yet, students were consistently marginalised and forced into an educational and social conformity which, through oppression, urged an explosion. Raymond Aron notes that “The young people accepted and amplified anti-Americanism, and found a meaning of life in the outlook of the guerrilla, in the mob passion of the third world, in pure violence and anarchist Utopia- not in a ‘certain idea of France’, an idea which belonged to their grandparents” (Aron; The Elusive Revolution; p. 141; Pall Mall Press; 1969). Aron touches a raw nerve: disgruntled French students were acting in a youthful outburst of somatic impetus. There were clearly definite reforms that students yearned for: yet after the initial explosion of events the May ‘revolution’ took on the tone of a carnival. Subsequently, there was an immediate implosion as students across France were unable to reconcile and direct their action with those of the workers, trade unions et al. This loss of direction is epitomised in a May 20th (1968) interview between Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Jean-Paul Sartre (Herve Bourges; The Student Revolt; p.107; Jonathan Cape; 1968):

Cohn-Bendit: …something has begun and must necessarily keep going (Italics added).

Cohn-Bendit’s remark is reminiscent of Nicolas Ray’s depiction of youth in his 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause. As two young men are about to engage in a game of ‘chicken run’, where stolen cars are driven off a cliff and the first man to leap from the vehicle is a ‘chicken’, the protagonist, Jim Stork, turns to his opponent and asks ‘why do we do it?’ The reply: ‘We gotta do something.’ The events of France 1968 clearly demonstrate this image of ‘youth’ bursting with an unbridled energy that can find no direction: from Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the desire to acquire something becomes the emotive force of protest and discontent. However, this was an implosive force which could not provide the radical social and political change that some at the time envisaged was possible.

‘France is Bored’

‘Le Monde’ journalist Pierre Viansson-Ponte’s editorial that appeared on the 15 March 1968 was not only ironically prophetic of the events to come but a damning indictment of the French national consciousness:

“The French are bored…Youth is bored…And so nothing disturbs the calm (Quoted in: Roger Absalom; France: The May Events 1968; p. 22; Longman; 1971).

For a nation that had enjoyed over twenty years of relative political and economic security, the explosion of May 1968 can be seen as an implosion of the French sense of insecurity and joie de vivre. The revolutionary spirit that captured the imagination of the French people was more a celebration of stability and a reaction to government complacency than it was an attempt to radically embrace a new national ideology: “May 1968 was a carnivalesque inversion of all rules and norms imposed by society…” (Robert Gildea; France Since 1945; p.152; OUP; 1996). This is not to play down the significance of the May explosion, but to relate the events in terms no more fundamentally different than those sweeping the globe. In essence, this event was a very French expression of ‘revolution’: mixing national pride with Gallic notions exalting the ‘spirit of youth’ and revolution. Raymond Aron sums up this consciousness:

“…France is a country which is afraid of modernity, and whose aspirations to the impossible are condemning it to a form of underdevelopment, and whose revolutionary spirit- still verbal, but potentially (italics added) perhaps effective- has become its spiritual point of honour” (Aron; The Elusive Revolution; p.141).

However, the French nation did also have genuine concerns that encompassed those of the students: they were dissatisfied with the modus operandi of government bureaucracy. This was certainly a legitimate concern, yet it did not form the basis of a national urge to overthrow the current regime, merely to iron out the creases of an extremely ‘young’ Fifth Republic. Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville elaborate:

“…it (the events) was a revolt against ruling bureaucracies, administrative machines, professional apparatuses. It found expression in an urge to run one’s own affairs…This aspect of the disturbance was specifically French- because French professional life is more hidebound than most …what happened in May…was compared to the Utopian rebellions against the first Industrial Revolution” (Seale and McConville; French Revolution 1968; p. 226; Penguin; 1968).

The most active echelons of society in the explosion, notably the workers, were not nearly as enthused as the students in taking the Gaullists to the guillotine. Indeed, many were unenthusiastic to strike until urged to by the CGT and CFDT. Many of the older generation of workers regarded the students as ‘les agitateurs-fils a papa’ (agitators with rich daddies). Younger workers, though interested in what the students who greeted them at the gates of French industries had to say, did not take up a call to arms. In the words of Seale and McConville, “…it was just a good old-fashioned strike for bigger take-home earnings and a shorter working week” (French Revolution, p. 227).

On the night of 29th June, 1968 De Gaulle delivered a spectacular speech which successfully reminded the adult population that enough was enough: the carnival was over. For the majority of France, they too agreed it was time to return the status quo and responded to his call with overwhelming electoral support. Tyler Stovall notes that: “While many French people were obviously dissatisfied with the normal order of things, they did not want a Communist Revolution. Moreover, by this time ordinary citizens were simply getting tired of disorder, of long lines at gas stations and mountains of uncollected trash” (Tyler Stovall; France Since the Second World War; p. 75; Longman; 2002). The explosive fervour that had rocked both the nation and the world for nearly a month had now imploded into a desire to return to ‘normalcy.’


Conclusion

This paper has examined the conceptual framework for an argument of the events of May 1968 based upon the theory of implosion. Specifically, this includes an examination of the relationship between the mores and milieu of French society with the broader theme of youth vis-à-vis the ‘Sixties.’

Below are some major points of consideration in order to achieve this:

  • The use of primary material to support these analyses. There is a wealth of information that could support my argument: opinion polls of the time, editorials, written and oral statements to name a few.
  • An extensive consideration of the literary, historical and social thought of the sixties. This would apply more, yet not exclusively, to the concept of ‘youth’ rather than French national consciousness.
  • A thorough conclusion as to the aftermath of the events of May 1968.
  • A detailed explanation of the theory of ‘explosion’ versus ‘implosion’.
  • A broad perspective of French History and its implications on May 1968.

With these in mind I believe it would be possible to use my points of analysis and transform them into a fresh dialectical interpretation of the events of May 1968 in France. Furthermore, with speculative History becoming an increasingly legitimate discipline, there is an imperative to relate the events of May 1968 and the Sixties as a whole to our society. With Afghanistan and the ‘war on terrorism’ having replaced Vietnam, anti-American sentiment a prevalent force and the ever-increasing issue of University and infrastructure funding plaguing Great Britain, the ‘explosion’ of May 1968 has re-emerged as a topical subject of analysis.

The world spins around us
We search for a balance
The secrets lie in darkness and light
Our lives are like treasures
Unveiled as perfection
A gift to us from spirits on high
Equator. Divider. Equate us. Combine us.
To seek the answers beyond our sight…

Spirits, Gil Scott-Heron


Bibliography

  1. Absalom, Roger; France: The May Events 1968; Longman; 1971.
  2. Aron, Raymond (trans. Gordon Clough); The Elusive Revolution; Pall Mall Press; 1969.
  3. Bourges, Herve (trans. B.R. Brewster); The Student Revolt, The Activists Speak; Jonathan Cape; 1968.
  4. Gildea, Robert; France Since 1945; OUP; 1996.
  5. Reader, Keith A.; The May 1968 Events in France; Macmillan; 1993.
  6. Riesman, David; The Lonely Crowd; Yale U.P.; 1961.
  7. Scott-Heron, Gil; Now and Then, The Poems of Gil Scott-Heron; Payback Press; 2000.
  8. Seale, Patrick and McConville, Maureen; French Revolution 1968; Penguin; 1968.
  9. Stovall, Tyler; France since the Second World War; Longman; 2002.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.