What happened in May 1968 in France?

What happened in May 1968 in France?

by Clara Avrillier

Updated May 12, 2022

France is a country rich in history. With important figures like Napoleon and revolutionary changes in the political and social landscape, it is a dream for history buffs across the world. This article will discuss a significant series of events that took place in May 1968 in France. We’ll cover what happened, why it happened and the impact it had on this country.

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Who was in power in France in 1968?

For a little background, Charles de Gaulle was the sitting French president in 1968. He was voted into power back in 1958 however it was by extra-constitutional means. Let us explain: the Fourth Republic was falling apart due to political instability and the Algerian War, amongst other things. De Gaulle had previously been a political figure, playing an active role in the French Resistance, before taking a step back. 

As a result of the weak and failing Fourth Republic, the president at the time, René Coty, requested that de Gaulle help him to recreate the framework and structure of the Republic and reform the institutions. De Gaulle agreed to help, while also placing himself as the sole executive of this new system, which came with special executive powers. The new constitution then won the support of the public via a referendum, although some people felt de Gaulle maneuvered himself into the Presidency in an unfair, or unconventional way.

What happened in May 1968 in France?

Unrest was high in France, and in the rest of the world, in May 1968. Various global events contributed to a desire to revolt and rebel, and there were many protests taking place in different countries.

Why were students protesting in May 1968?

In France, the May 68 strikes began as a small, student revolt. The student population in France had greatly increased and many young people felt the French political system was rigid and autocratic. Add that to the dire world events at the time, like the Vietnam War, and this led to young people feeling angry and frustrated at the state of the world. 

At the beginning of May 1968, groups of students on the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris were protesting against various situations, including that some of their peers were arrested during the Vietnam War protest and the fact that men were not permitted in the women’s dormitories. The turning point in this story was when the de Gaulle administration responded by shutting down the university. This is one of many reasons for the Paris riots.

A mass of students took to the streets of Paris. The riot police were called in and the events of the night of May 10 – 11, 1968 will forever be ingrained in French history, known as the Night of the Barricades. Students held off the police through the use of barricades – the police retaliated with violence and this earned the students many more supporters of their cause.

Why were workers protesting in May 1968?

The following day on May 11, a general strike was called by French trade unions to fight for better working conditions and against police brutality. By the end of May 1968, a whopping 10 million workers were on strike. This was around two-thirds of the working population in the country at that time. The country’s economy was stopped in its tracks, causing chaos.

What began as a student protest turned into one of the biggest general strikes ever seen in France. It got so bad that de Gaulle left for Germany for a few days to rally some support. However, he later returned and set up an election for the end of June, which he won. 

What did the May 1968 strikes achieve?

The strikes did affect many changes in the country, including having an impact on the economy and politics. The 1968 strikes could be considered a mini-revolution, or the revolution of 68. Traditional, conservative views began to be questioned by more liberal thinkers, allowing for more space on the political and social landscape.

This therefore opened the door to many important social issues, such as the rise of feminism and gay rights. More concrete changes were also implemented, such as pay rises for workers and shorter working days.


A period to remember

The events of May 1968 remain an important part of French history. While some French people consider this period as a time of anarchy and chaos, most people would agree that the 1968 strikes did impact the country in a variety of different ways, the effects of which are still felt today.

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Clara Avrillier is a writer, linguist and content manager living in the South of France. She loves getting out in nature, doing sport, reading and playing music. She also works with many expats looking to move to France. Find out more on her website, ON IT Translations, or connect with her on LinkedIn

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