In France, The Protests Of May 1968 Reverberate Today — And Still Divide The French : Parallels Students are again occupying universities and workers are protesting an overhaul of the state railway. "The struggle is still the same," says a labor leader. But the protests are on a smaller scale.

In France, The Protests Of May 1968 Reverberate Today — And Still Divide The French

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This year we have been reflecting back on the upheaval of the year 1968, and this morning our series shifts to France. Fifty years ago this month, that country was paralyzed when striking students and workers joined forces and almost brought down the government of President Charles de Gaulle. That moment was short-lived, but, as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, May 1968 still reverberates deeply in France today.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Just weeks before the events of May 1968 began, a journalist from the newspaper Le Monde claimed the French were too bored to take part in the upheaval that was sweeping other countries. There was peace and prosperity in France and apparently nothing that would bring people out into the streets. But there was an entrenched patriarchal society led by a deeply conservative President Charles de Gaulle, who had been in power 10 years with no change in sight. On top of that, there was a generation of baby boomers yearning for freedom. Josette Preud'homme was 20 years old at the time. She says May 1968 changed her life.

JOSETTE PREUD'HOMME: (Through interpreter) Everything was patriarchal. It started in the family, where you couldn't speak at the dinner table unless spoken to. You couldn't go out with friends. Everything was forbidden, everywhere. You had to obey orders in the factories, in the schools. We were suffocating.

BEARDSLEY: The movement began in earnest on May 3, when a minor student protest at the Sorbonne University in Paris was brutally dispersed by the police. Hundreds were beaten and 400 arrested in what turned into a night of rioting. The Sorbonne was then closed, but more students arrived in the following days to hold larger and larger protests. They dug up Paris's cobblestone streets and hurled the rocks at police, who responded with tear gas and billy clubs.


BEARDSLEY: There were protests every day and riots every night. Paris's Latin Quarter became a battlefield as students built more than 600 makeshift barricades. Many people were shocked by the brutality of the police. Journalist Jean-Luc Hees wrote a book about May '68. Though he was 16 and living in a small town in Normandy, he says the whole country was affected.

JEAN-LUC HEES: When you fight in the streets, something happens. You know, people get the news. And it was really impressive to watch the pictures of it. It looked like a civil war, in fact. So people stopped to think about it, and people were expecting something that they couldn't put names on it.

BEARDSLEY: As the student protests spread to cities around France, there was an excitement and a sense that things might be about to change, says Hees.


BEARDSLEY: Soon workers began joining the students, and by mid-May, 10 million workers had walked off the job. Factories closed or were occupied. There was no gasoline, no trains, no mail delivery. France ground to a halt. The government was paralyzed.



BEARDSLEY: Even though the state-controlled radio and TV censored the news, private radio networks brought live coverage to millions of French people. Christian Brincourt was a young reporter on the barricades. He says even though the government tried to block transmission from their radio cars, they were still able to report live from the scene.

CHRISTIAN BRINCOURT: (Through interpreter) We went to the people living on the second-floor apartments who were following this day and night, and they wanted to help us. We pulled their phone lines out on the balconies and hooked up our equipment and continued to broadcast live, thanks to the state telecom. That made the government furious.

BEARDSLEY: Today, May '68 has taken on romantic, mythic proportions in France. On this 50th anniversary, there are magazines and exhibitions devoted to it. It's being analyzed and reanalyzed in documentaries and conferences. But May '68 can still divide the French. Conservatives like former President Nicolas Sarkozy charge the events of that year degraded public morals and respect for authority. For those on the left, it brought much needed progress but didn't go far enough.



BEARDSLEY: There are even echoes of 1968 in what's happening this May in France. Students are again occupying some universities, this time to protest President Emmanuel Macron's plans to introduce a selection process to getting into college. And train workers are in the streets protesting Macron's overhaul of the state rail company.



BEARDSLEY: At a recent student occupation at Nanterre University, several train conductors showed up to give their support. Philippe Martinez is the head of the CGT union.

PHILIPPE MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) Today's work world is completely different from May 1968. Back then there were fewer unemployed and not as many precarious jobs, and there was no Uber, of course. But the struggle was the same, and there's no reason we can't come together with the students like we did in 1968.

BEARDSLEY: The events of May '68 ended as suddenly as they began. Unable to quell the crisis, on May 29, President De Gaulle disappeared. For a few hours, it looked as if he'd fled the country and the students had won. Even today, it's unclear exactly what happened. But De Gaulle returned and the next day addressed the nation on the radio.


CHARLES DE GAULLE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: He told the French he would not resign, back down or change prime ministers. But he said he would dissolve parliament and call new elections.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in French).

BEARDSLEY: The next day, nearly a million De Gaulle supporters marched up the Champs-Elysees calling for an end to the anarchy. And with that, May '68 came to an end. De Gaulle's party overwhelmingly won parliamentary elections in June, but he had to resign the following April after losing a referendum. Many say nothing formally changed after May 1968. The students on the barricades are now members of the establishment. But in other ways, nothing would ever be the same again. May '68 ushered in the women's movement and the sexual revolution in France. Fifty years on, polls show that most French people think May '68 was a good thing, a brief moment when everything seemed possible. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.


CLAUDE NOUGARO: (Singing in French).

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.