The year 1968 is widely remembered as the year in which world politics underwent tremendous but unplanned changes. France faced one of the greatest postwar period phenomena; the mobilization of protestors that was very large in scale. These protestors seemed to have a common cause, the credibility of those institutions that advocated Western democracy, and a common characteristic of these revolts is that they were the brainchild of those who supported traditional leftist groups or parties.
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However, it is in France only that the social movements were characterized by the combined efforts of both workers and students; an effort that gave rise to a general strike of such large magnitude as has never again been experienced in the history of France (Fink et al., 253). For some time, what originally seemed like a student movement, now threatened to attain political influence due to the combined forces of both the students and workers. A minor student revolt in the Nanterre suburb quickly gave rise to some general strike that paralyzed the entire country’s system and threatened to overthrow the ruling Gaullist system (Fink 259).
There was a general dissatisfaction among the students in France regarding government and university reforms that characterized the running of universities and other academic institutions and which the students termed as archaic.
A minority group of students had also been politicized through such radical policies as imperialism and the Vietnam War and this had led to the arrest of some activists. The students in Nanterre staged a protest against these arrests and a meeting held in Sorbonne to address the issue was subsequently invaded by the police and several demonstrators were beaten and arrested. This led to more protests and a night meeting on May 10 culminated in what is referred to as the night of barricades in which police were accused of using excessive force to disperse the demonstrators (Fink 259 – 262).
The labor force had expanded to include not only the privileged group but also the middle class who were radically opposed to the Gaullist regime. Authoritarian structures that managed the industrial sector had led to continuous discontent among the workers and to show their discontent against the authoritarian Gaullist regime, there was the widespread mobilization of the masses against excessive police harassment towards the students (Fink 264-266). The media also played a great role in covering the student protests and this led to the intervention of trade unions in their bid to protest against police violence (Fink 261).
Among the educated young adults mainly from the upper sector of society, there was a sudden realization that wealth and freedom no longer led to personal fulfillment and that the societies they had grown up in now glared at them as incompetent democracies in which the proclaimed ideals were hardly adhered to. Communism was also very much alive in France and this had given rise to small leftist groups that diluted the degree of solidarity in the political movement and led to a disintegration of major political parties due to diversity of ideas. The desire of the leftists to embrace communism did not go well with the masses, which were already dissatisfied with the style of wealth distribution in French society (Fink 256-257, 268-272).
President De Gaulle’s style of leadership was authoritarian and his efforts to unite the French people around his style of governance appeared a selfish move that did not please especially the students and the workers. As a result, a general feeling towards change existed among the masses. General De Gaulle also seemed to portray a complete misunderstanding of the revolt and even tried to dismiss a one-month revolt in a very short speech (Fink 266-274).
But the social movement failed to culminate into a political uprising mainly because there was a lack of a central goal between the students and workers as it lacked any form of democratic representation. There was also no established link between the strength and contents of the social movement. The French Communist Party (PCF) seemed to strongly oppose the movement and widely encouraged the workers to disassociate themselves from what George Marchais referred to as irresponsible elements in the left-wing (Fink 268).
The leftists seem to have been organized into several small and largely sectarian groups that led to more divisions among the workers and the new composition of the working class meant that it was hard to unite the striking workers under any political perspective. It is due to this reason that the Gaullists were able to get back to power through a sweeping majority in the general elections of June 1968 giving a stronghold to the existing regime. (Fink 267, 274). Though the students pledged solidarity towards the workers, their movement lacked in strength and was against the idea of unions, a factor that created a gap in the social movement. As a result, Prime Minister Pompidou managed to get hold of union leadership and engage them in negotiations.
Though the May 1968 social movement failed to have far-reaching political influence, the class struggle exhibited in the movements brought great change to French society, as well as having significant influence beyond the French borders. It was a movement that succeeded in challenging state authority, transcended the legality of the bourgeois system, and managed to bring together a great section of the population in a strike of such high magnitude (Fink 253-274).
Fink Carole, Gassert Phillip, and Junkler Detlef. “1968. The World Transformed”. May 1968 in France. The Rise and Fall of a New Social Movement. Holtey Ingrid Gilcher, 253 – 274. German Historical Institute and Cambridge University Press, 1998.