22ndMarch1968


Background to the events of 1968

May 1968 in France is mainly known to be a student protest. It was, in its origins, “a revolt against the stifling papa-knows-best conservatism, and dullness, of General Charles de Gaulle's economically booming 1960s France” (Independent, 2008). This whole protest and questioning of everything originated in Nanterre (a campus on the outskirts of Paris for social sciences and law students). The campus of the University of Nanterre was opened in the mid-1960s, as an extension to Paris-Sorbonne, in order to accommodate the surge in university students due to the baby boom after the second World War. There were more students than ever studying at French universities: In 1962 –1963, the number of students enrolled in university was 280,000. However, this number rose in 1967 – 1968 with the number of students enrolled being 605,000 (Seidman, 2004, p.18). This demographic growth gave students huge power. The French state tried to accommodate this rise in students by expanding old universities and creating new ones.

 

Many of the students there were not content with this building as it was very isolated and students felt that it was constructed without any consideration to the ‘student life’. They didn’t have any of the regular amenities nearby that students often enjoy and they felt disconnected from society in different ways. Not only were they placed on the outskirts of Paris, they also felt disconnected from the president Charles de Gaulle himself and their parents. At the time of the revolution, de Gaulle was 78 years old and therefore this presented a huge generational gap between himself and the students. He didn't understand the students as he lacked modernity and his policies reflected this. Students felt frustrated that their lives were being dictated by an archaic system so they became very vocal about their dissatisfaction and politically active. They sought to challenge both societal norms and university rules as they were displeased with the very conservative society - this is perfectly exemplified in people not having access to contraceptives or the prohibition of abortions. Furthermore, women were still very dependent on their husbands as they were in need of their spouse's approval to work and open a bank account indicating women's inferior role in society and their submission to their husbands. Also universites were subject to very strict and sexist rules for example students could not enter the rooms of the opposite sex.

 

In addition to creating new campuses to cope with the rising number of students, the government employed more university staff who were often young assistants in order to save money. This created more problems in the lead up to the events of 1968 because the younger staff identified more with the students and their cause whilst the older staff held onto university traditions. "A gulf had emerged between the baby-boom generation and its elders with the attitude of those in authority considered outdated and conservative" (Reynolds, 2011, p.87). Students and the younger staff worked together to come up with plans that would reform the university system and the assistants were eager to join in with the protests. They believed that the lack of reform prevented universities from dealing with the new rise of students and as a result, university diplomas were devalued and students found it very hard to cope with the competitive job market. The French university system hadn't changed for over a century and students felt that universities should also be modernized just as the French society was.

 

Not only were there tensions between students and the older university staff, there were also tensions present between students themselves. Extreme left-wing groups present on campus known as the 'gauchistes' who were inspired by figures such as Marx, Mao, Trotsky and Lenin. They thought that the French university system reinforced the consumer society and their primary concern was not university reform, but a socialist revolution. This difference in thinking led to an unease between students. 

 

The videos below show the university of Nanterre's surroundings (namely the slums) and the campus. As mentioned above, it is a rather bleak and grim and quite cheerless. 

 

1967, Les bidonvilles de Nanterre (Youtube / Nabil Akoff, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3S8D-V7wyyM. Last accessed: 5/3/18)

 

La faculté de Nanterre en 1968 (Youtube / Ina Histoire, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpzd60yw_I8. Last accessed: 5/3/18)

 

Events of March 1968

On the 20th March 1968, 300 students participated in an anti-Vietnam war demonstration organized by the CVN (Comité Vietnam National). However, this protest soon turned violent, with protesters throwing stones at the windows of an American Express branch - then a symbol of American imperialism. This resulted in six students getting arrested. 

 

2 days later, on the 22nd March 1968, around 150 students of the University of Nanterre in Paris led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit occupied the administrative building, which was of huge symbolic importance. Their main aim was to protest the student arrests and demand their release. The “Mouvement du 22 mars” was officially born; over the next few weeks, it would grow to include over 1,200 participants (until it was officially banned by the government in June 1968).

 

In an interview with Le Figaro for the 40th anniversary of the events, historian Philippe Artières described the two main consequences of this day: 

Daniel Cohn-Bendit emerged as a leader of the protests and later became a symbol of May 1968. Additionally, this day marked the entrance into the student movements of May 68 and started a chain reaction: because of the student protest in the administrative building, the entire university was shut down, which in turn resulted in the occupation and police intrusion of the Sorbonne (Le Figaro, 2008).