What the May 1968 revolts did and did not do

To what extent did the events of May 1968 transform Western European society?

Mai 68 Paris
Protestors display a banner which reads ''May 1968, they commemorate, we start again" during a demonstration against French government reforms in Nantes, France, 2017 [Stephane Mahe/Reuters]

Over the last couple of months, many of us have been speculating on how French President Emmanuel Macron will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the May 1968 student uprisings. It seems unlikely that the young French president will choose to honour the revolutionary event in an appropriate manner.

In his first year in office, Macron’s university and labour reform plans have already sparked student and worker protests across FranceMoreover, he was (for a brief period) the assistant of a philosophy professor who called the police on protestors 50 years ago: Paul Ricoeur.

Considered an important philosopher of the second half of the 20th century, Ricoeur was the dean at the University of Nanterre in 1968. He had a bin full of trash dumped on him when he attempted to calm a group of students who were preventing professors from entering the cafeteria. This event, among many others, led Ricoeur to request the police to patrol the streets of the campus. He later decamped to Chicago.

If the 1960s were a time of “revolution of the intellectuals”, as late historian Tony Judt said, Ricoeur certainly was not one of the engaged thinkers of the time.

Elisabeth Roudinesco, a renowned historian, who was 24 at the time, said, “For me, May ’68 was above all an opportunity to cast off the bad teachers.” While Ricoeur was not a “bad teacher” in this sense, he was out of touch with the critical attitude toward authority that marked the ideas of most intellectuals of the epoch.

It is impossible to know whether the actions of his former professor are now on Macron’s mind, but what is certain is that he is afraid another May 1968 could take place.

From a student protest to a massive strike


The revolts began on March 22, 1968, with what seemed at the time a minor incident at the student dormitories of the University of Nanterre. These dormitories had for some time been home to clandestine radicals, as well a small number of drug dealers.

The problems began after male undergraduates were denied access to the floors reserved for their female counterparts by old-fashioned university rules set by a conservative, authoritarian and conformist post-1945 society.

At this point, students decided to occupy a lecture hall, and soon barricades against the police were erected. This incident sparked student anger across other campuses already protesting against the Vietnam war and in solidarity with workers demanding better pay and work conditions.

Soon a movement formed, and this led to the biggest, most diverse, and longest general strike in Europe since World War II, involving 9 million people, from immigrant workers to doctors to taxi drivers. As Tariq Ali recalls, the “students began by demanding university reforms and moved on to revolution.”

Although Paris was at the centre of the revolts, as it had been in 1884 and 1789, they were not limited to the capital, or even to France. They spread to Germany, Italy, and the United States.

In Mexico and Pakistan student protests erupted, demanding the end of oppressive rule and corrupt, US-backed military dictatorship. But in both countries troops opened fire, killing dozens and injuring hundreds of students and workers. As Michael Seidman explained in his famous study of these events:

In 1968, worldwide revolutionary agitation was greater than at any time since the end of World War I. From Paris to [Beijing], governments were forced to deal with varieties of unrest … Revolutionaries and radical reformers throughout the world believed that combined student and worker protests in France were nearly successful in overthrowing the government and creating a new society.

While the movement failed politically, it succeeded socially and culturally. The conservative, hierarchical, and authoritarian society of the “ordre etabli(established order) was replaced by new forms of participation, libertarianism and individualism. This is probably why the great French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan told the protesters that “what you aspire to as revolutionaries is a new master. You will get one.” 

This new master is intrinsically bound to the form taken by the politics of individual emancipation after 1968, already evident in many graffiti of the epoch: “Neither God, nor Master”, “God is me”, and “It is forbidden to forbid”. While the Right criticised the replacement of traditional family structures with more flexible sexual arrangements based on the needs of each partner, the Left was alarmed about the privatisation of universal public education.

The ‘capitalist dominion’ after May 1968

But the greatest problem of this individualistic politics was not in these social transformations, which today are for the most part accepted by both sides, but rather in the way that factory work, as Slavoj Zizek said, became “more and more outsourced or, in the developed world, reorganised along the post-Fordist non-hierarchical interactive team-work.”

This links the current network-based form of organisation, which demands employee initiatives and autonomy in the workplace, to the radically individualistic character of 1968, which Franco “Bifo” Berardi, a philosopher and a veteran of Italy’s 1968, believes to be “its greatest failure”: “The Movement did not have the political ability to break the capitalist dominion over technology.”

This dominion is evident today in the continued commercialisation of the internet, where individual desires and needs are constantly targeted, and in social networks’ ability to influence political views, as the recent Facebook scandal demonstrates.

For Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the leaders of the original Nanterre uprising, who later became president of the Green Parliamentary Group in the European Union, the “Movement wanted to change lifestyles more than to change a government […] May destroyed moral hypocrisy.”

This is why former French President Nicolas Sarkozy‘s famous statement – “May 68’s heritage … should be liquidated once and for all” – still sounds absurd. Without this revolt, a divorced man of ethnically mixed background would never have entered the Elysee Palace. And neither could a man under 40, married to a divorced older woman, have become president of France.

While Macron’s recent university and labour reforms have again united students and workers, it is unclear if this will be enough to remind him that just as calling the police to conserve the “ordre etabli” did not work in 1968, it will not work today.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.