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“France is bored,” proclaimed an editorial in Le Monde for 15 March 1968. Six weeks later, on 3 May, student demonstrations at the University of Paris shattered this malaise. Fully aware of the effectiveness of the American anti-Vietnam War protests, French students, many of whom were frustrated with overcrowding in the universities and fearful about future employment, took to the streets of the Latin Quarter demanding university reforms.
Flamboyant leaders such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a.k.a. “Dany the Red,” taunted riot police and used Marxist rhetoric to energize the demonstrators. Soon disgruntled workers, many of whom worked a forty-eight-hour week in government-run automobile factories, joined the student rioters. By 14 May, 700,000 workers had joined in the student demonstrations, and on 20 May, 7 million French workers throughout France went on strike demanding a shorter work week and better pay. Initially, the government of President Charles de Gaulle and Prime Minister Georges Pompidou ignored the rioters. De Gaulle was in Romania while riots paralyzed Paris. After a hasty return, he went on television and gave a limp, uninspiring speech. Shaken and confused, de Gaulle secretly flew to Baden, Germany, on 29 May. There he met with the commander of French forces in Germany. Although it remains unclear what transpired in Baden, appearances suggest that de Gaulle was preparing to use troops against the rioters. Back in Paris, de Gaulle blamed the communists for the riots, refused to make concessions, asked his supporters (and the police) to reclaim the streets, dissolved Parliament, and called elections for 23 June. De Gaulle’s Gaullist Party won a large majority in the elections and seemingly an endorsement of his handling of the “May events.” One month later, however, de Gaulle replaced Pompidou as prime minister with Maurice Courve de Murville and hinted he would propose a national referendum early in 1969. Despite warnings from his advisors that a referendum would be political suicide, de Gaulle offered a poorly worded referendum proposing reform in regional governance and restructuring the French Senate. On 27 April 1969, 53 percent of French voters rejected the referendum, and de Gaulle immediately resigned. The events of May 1968 ended the decade-long presidency of Charles de Gaulle, who died seventeen months after leaving office. May 1968 also rekindled briefly the dream of a student-worker alliance. Perhaps the most durable effects of May 1968 were the election of Georges Pompidou as the new president of France and the recognition that French universities needed reform.
Suggestions for Term Papers
1. When President de Gaulle met with General Massu, commander of the French army in Germany, he gave the impression that he was not above using troops against the protesters. Investigate the use of the military against protesters in recent history and write a paper about the dangers such actions entail.
2. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a.k.a. “Dany the Red,” was probably the most celebrated student leader of May 1968. What was the basis for his appeal? What kind of program did he offer?
3. Write a one-act play in which a French automobile worker and a student from the University of Paris meet during the events of May 1968. What would be some common concerns uniting the two? Use John Ardagh as a starting point (see Suggested Sources).
4. Write a paper contrasting the support of the French students by the French labor unions with the hostility to American students protesting the Vietnam War by American labor unions. How would you explain the differing attitudes?
5. Investigate Charles de Gaulle’s role in the events of May 1968. Why was he in the end so effective in rallying France to his leadership?
6. Consider the proposition that France, despite a long revolutionary tradition, needs and admires strong leaders such as Napoleon and de Gaulle. Base your essay in part on an examination of the constitution of the Fifth Republic, especially the powers given the president. Use also books by Charles Cogan and Jean Lacouture (see Suggested Sources).
In addition to the boldfaced items, look under the entry for “France and the Algerian Revolution, 1954–1962” (#56). Search under student revolt, French Fifth Republic, Gaullists, educational reform, Francçois Mitterrand, and trade union movement.
Bourges, Hervé. The French Student Revolt: The Leaders Speak: Daniel CohnBendit and Others. Translated by B. R. Brewster. New York: Hill and Wang, 1968. Good first-person accounts of what the leaders of May 1968 attempted to achieve.
Cohn-Bendit, Daniel, and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit. Obsolete Communism: TheLeft-Wing Alternative. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968. Stridently Marxist in tone, this book suggests why the French political left has had such difficulty making allies.
Ardagh, John. The New French Revolution. New York: Harper and Row, 1969. A readable account of France in the 1960s with material on French labor relations.
Caute, David. The Year of the Barricades: A Journey Through 1968.New York: Harper and Row, 1988. Contains two chapters on France. Also useful for placing France in the context of events around the world.
Cogan, Charles. Charles de Gaulle: A Brief Biography with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1996. A crisp outline of events with good bibliographical leads.
Hoffmann, Stanley. Decline or Renewal: France since the 1930s. New York: Viking, 1974. Hoffmann’s chapter on the May confrontation shows how far out of touch de Gaulle and his government had become by 1968.
Lacouture, Jean. De Gaulle: The Ruler, 1945–1970. Translated by Allan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. The best English-language treatment of de Gaulle’s vacillation in Paris and strange behavior in Baden.
Marwick, Arthur. The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c. 1958–c. 1974. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. A detailed and useful analysis by a prominent British historian.
Seale, Patrick, and Maureen McConville. Red Flag/Black Flag: French Revolution, 1968. New York: Putnam, 1968. Although written and published a few months after the May riots, this remains the most accessible treatment of May 1968 in English.
Wylie, Laurence William, et al., eds. France: The Events of May-June 1968: A Critical Bibliography. Pittsburgh: Council for European Studies, 1973. Based largely on French sources, this has the major contemporary accounts of the riots.