French May, 1968
The 1960s brought a cultural sea-change in attitudes across the globe, radically opposed to the conservatism of the post-war years. Social norms changed to embrace a liberal sexuality, racism and sexism were no longer seen as attractive qualities, and peace and tolerance, rather than warmongering, were the order of the day. Inevitably, students were important to this change. Free from the conservatism of their parents, and inspired by a younger generation of teachers and lecturers, they could explore a different way of doing things and living that was utterly revolutionary. Nevertheless, the decade saw its fair share of bloodshed.
There were many student protests in the 1960s, and the year of 1968 was particularly rich in Higher Education disturbances. France at the time was ruled by President Charles de Gaulle, whose Gaullist Party was stifling and tediously conservative. On 22nd March, 150 students at Nanterre University, Paris, staged a sit-in to protest against the ban on male and female students sleeping together. This ended peacefully when the police were called, but the tensions between students and the Nanterre officials did not. Nanterre was eventually shut down on 2nd May after months of friction between students and university authorities.
This was, in turn, protested by the University of Sorbonne, and when police were called to close the university, the Union Nationale des Ãtudiants de France organised a protest of 20, 000 students, teachers and supporters. There were violent clashes, with the police responding to being attacked and pelted with stones by using teargas and batons. Hundreds of protestors were arrested, and another protest against the arrests and police brutality was arranged for May 10th 1968. Their demands were for Nanterre and Sorbonne to be reopened, the police to leave the universities, and for the criminal charges to be dropped.
There followed a huge riot in the early hours of the morning of 11th May, with police again using teargas, and protestors fighting back and setting things on fire. Sympathy for the students was widespread, and left-wing thinkers including Jean-Paul Sartre addressed disgruntled workers and told them of the coming liberal revolution that the protesting students would bring, urging their support for the movement. The workers’ unions called a one day strike, and 1 million people marched through Paris in support. But even when the Sorbonne reopened and the police left, protests against the Gaullist Government did not end.
The workers continued to protest with the students, organising 50 factory occupations with 200, 000 on strike in protest at workers’ rights. Charles de Gaulle left France for Baden-Baden, where he liaised with the military to ensure that he had their support, though this lead to dangerous rumours of his resignation. Eventually, the workers managed to negotiate better pay and working conditions, and left the students to it in early June. France had narrowly avoided another revolution. The 1968 protest very nearly toppled a government and has left a lasting legacy of liberalism and tolerance in French culture.