The Wild Days of May
Revolutionary Worker #961, June 14, 1998
It was Spring, 1968. And in France, as April turned to May, no one would have believed that in a matter of days the suffocating atmosphere of De Gaulle's Fifth Republic would be tossed into the air; the influence of the phony communists of the PCF (French Communist Party) would be challenged; and the entire society would be in the middle of a revolutionary upsurge. Thirty years later, the story of the "Days of May" continues to astonish--and challenge--us.
In January 1968, the Tet offensive by the Vietnamese liberation forces marked a turning point in the war of U.S. aggression in Vietnam--unleashing a great wave of anti-American feeling around the world.
That same month, student demonstrators in Tokyo attacked the U.S. warship Enterprise and stormed into Japan's Foreign Ministry building. In London, on March 17, at the largest antiwar march in Britain up to that point, 25,000 people attempted to storm the American Embassy at Grosvenor Square.
On March 1 in Rome--a city controlled by the revisionist Italian Communist Party--police unleashed a severe attack on students gathered on the long, steep Spanish Steps in the center of the capital for a march to demand university reform. Burning police vehicles paralyzed the city as students fought their way through. Two weeks later, intense fighting once again threw the city into chaos as students who had seized Rome University clashed with police blocking their way to the American Embassy. Over half a million students at 26 universities were on strike. The occupation of the university at Trento was followed at Turin, where student "Red Guards" who modeled themselves on the youth of the Chinese Cultural Revolution turned the school into a focal point of rebellion against established Italian society which reached into the enormous Fiat car works in that city and spread throughout the country.
On March 11, in West Germany, Rudi Dutschke--a leader of the German Socialist Student League (SDS), who had played an important role in the militant anti-war protests in the winter of 1967-68--was shot and nearly killed by a Munich house painter who carried with him a clipping about the assassination of Martin Luther King. In the wake of this shooting, students carrying red banners and portraits of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the murdered leaders of the German communist uprising of 1919, clashed with police as they assaulted West Berlin's City Hall and the fashionable Kurfurstendamm. Similar events shook a dozen other West German cities.
In the U.S., as anti-war sentiment connected with the Black Liberation movement, on April 5, millions of Black people rose up in 110 American cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Flames filled the horizon behind the White House; the fighting against police and 75,000 National Guard troops was the most serious to rock any major imperialist power since the second world war. Also that same month, Black and white students seized New York's Columbia University and turned it into a center of revolt in that city. Sorties went to and fro between the campus and the Black and Puerto Rican ghettos. The city's middle classes were split into two hostile camps between those who supported the students and those who supported the police against them.
These events reverberated in France. At the universities, the student population had grown to more than 500,000--doubling in size in only a few short years as France pushed for more educated workers to maintain a space-age economy. Among the students there was deep dissatisfaction with the education system. A slogan on the wall of the University of Paris at the Sorbonne expressed the mood: "Thanks to teachers & examinations, careerism begins at age six." As anti-war sentiment connected with this student dissatisfaction, in March, a mass raid on the American Express office in Paris by 500 lycée (high school) and university students led to serious arrests. In response, students at the University of Paris' barren new suburban facility in Nanterre--already involved in skirmishes with authorities over the regimentation of campus life--seized the administration tower on March 22 to demand the release of arrested demonstrators. A leader of the revisionist French Communist Party (PCF) called in by the dean to calm the students was chased off campus. As conflicts escalated, the administration shut the school down. But no one was prepared for what came next.
THE DAYS OF MAY BEGIN
On May 3, 500 activists met at the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter to demand the reopening of Nanterre--among them the soon-to-be-notorious Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Police surrounded the Sorbonne courtyard and herded the students into rows of police vans. As the first of the police vehicles tried to make its way through the Place de la Sorbonne in front of the university, students who had gathered outside to see what was happening blocked its path. Lashing out wildly, the police beat youth and other passers-by in the university district without discrimination. Chanting "Free our comrades!" the students broke out of the encirclement and took to the Latin Quarter, fighting the cops along the Boulevard St. Michel. Using iron bars, or whatever else they could get their hands on, the students dug through the bloodstained broken glass and asphalt to pry up the ancient square paving stones. As the first barricades went up, the whole Latin Quarter became a battleground on a scale unseen in recent European history. By morning some 600 had been arrested and hundreds were injured, including 83 policemen.
The week of May 6-13 in France saw the seizure of all of France's universities and many lycées (secondary schools). And the protest spread to the workers. In the preceding months some young workers--especially in the lower sections of the working class--had launched a series of violent strikes. Now trains from Paris' drab outskirts brought in young workers, unemployed youth, young men recently demobilized from military service, and trade school youth, as well as a great many students from the academic lycees who had been organized through the nationwide Comites Vietnam de Base. They all took part in the debates and fighting in the Latin Quarter alongside the more elite university students. Young women joined the fighting in nearly equal numbers to the men.
When the police entered the campuses it was for the first time in the 20th century (except for the Nazi occupation) that the autonomy of the university was violated. People all over Paris witnessed the savagery of the police and were sickened by the system's dependence on force to maintain order. On May 8, after nearly a week of riots, the French public opinion poll IFOP reported that four-fifths of the people of Paris were sympathetic to the rebellious students.
A collective spirit swept the country as a call went out to form Action Committees: "If you are a group of comrades, form a committee, draw up your own leaflet, set a place for daily meetings, make dates for demonstrations. Contact the provisional coordination committee of the AC's and name a liaison delegate. If you are alone, contact the coordination committee." Within two weeks, more than 250 action committees were formed in Paris alone. A General Assembly of ACs was created--subject to instant recall and with no power beyond coordination--and Action, the newspaper of the ACs, was an immediate success with a daily circulation of 30,000.
NIGHT OF THE BARRICADES
The night of May 10, students and youth built dozens and dozens of cobblestone ramparts to defend the Latin Quarter. The previous night Action Committees had conducted strategy meetings throughout the Latin Quarter. At 6:30 p.m., the government sent proposals to the students offering the immediate withdrawal of police from the Latin Quarter, permission for the students to hold a meeting there that night, and reopening of the Sorbonne on Saturday. But when these proposals were put to the crowd, they roared "Liberez nos camarades!" The government's gesture had come too late. To the cry of "We must take back the Quarter at all costs!" thousands marched in to "liberate" the Latin Quarter.
Over 60 barricades--some of them more than 10 feet high--were built from overturned cars, sawed-down trees, lampposts, and anything else at hand. People working at the rear with pickaxes, and occasionally a liberated jackhammer, ripped up the streets as paving stones were passed from hand-to-hand up to the front lines where they were rained down on the police. Spotters on rooftops signaled what the police were up to. Barricade builders tuned to transistor radios for news reports on the position of the police and accounts of rebel comrades in other sections of the Quarter and the city.
One rebel described some of the innovations in the streets:
"Where a building was going up in rue Gay-Lussac they went in to get wire. They made a barricade that was normally high enough, 8 to 10 feet, and about 150 feet long in rue de l'Abbe-de-l'Epée, which was dark because they'd knocked out all the street lights. They really fucked things up with the wire, strung so that any cop that went into that street would get it right in the throat, no one could move! And then you read in the papers that the guys had been trained for this! On the contrary, the first barricades that were built were very badly done, but the last, the ones in rue Gay-Lussac, had genius in them; the guys put stakes in front of them, the way they must do it in Vietnam; the guys devised great technical solutions with the material that was available."
The mood in the Latin Quarter that night was described by one observer: "In a large number of participants and spectators the barricades awakened recollections: 1830, 1848, 1871. The site itself was propitious: it had known barricades before. `Barricades,' a word steeped in history, was translated, in this area steeped in history...as `heroic deaths.' Gavroche, Baudin, who knows? All of us, especially on that night, thought of gunpowder and bullets, of the Versaillais and the Communards..." At midnight a terrified police inspector stumbled out of breath into the office of the Ministry of the Interior, exclaiming, "If you could see that! It's unbelievable! It's the Commune!" "Not yet," replied a high official bitterly, "But it's already an insurrection."
At 2 a.m., a police barrage of tear-gas projectiles and hand grenades began to pour down on the fortifications. Millions of people were following the events on live broadcast radio. Many residents rallied to the support of the rebels. As one resident described: "All of us spent the night of May 10-11 in the street. All the neighbors were there--shopkeepers, teachers, launderers. We were curious and a little uplifted: the atmosphere was definitely out of the ordinary. Everyone contributed stuff to help the kids build their barricades: cellars were emptied, even flower pots and old packing cases were donated..." Residents opened up their gates, taking in and treating the wounded at the risk of beatings or gas grenades being fired point blank through their windows by the marauding CRS police. Taxi drivers responded en masse to a call to help evacuate the wounded.
"People on their balconies were so revolted by the behavior of the forces of order that they stood up on those high floors and flung huge pieces of furniture down on the cops who were huddled under their shields like old Roman soldiers." The police had to fight for every inch of ground gained and were finally only able to demolish the ingeniously constructed barricades with a two-story-high bulldozer borrowed from the army corps of engineers.
By morning the police finally dislodged the rebels, but "the night of the barricades" brought about the political isolation of the government. The country was seized by the sentiment that the regime had become intolerable. The government was forced to declare amnesty for the students. Students and their allies took over the Sorbonne and began a permanent political meeting which drew participants from every class and corner of the country. What was said there was taken seriously in all quarters.
At least a thousand people joined the few dozen students who had seized the Fine Arts School and turned it into a poster factory. Working in teams of 200, and submitting each design to the Sorbonne General Assembly, during the six-week occupation they were able to put out 350 different posters in print runs of tens of thousands. The imagination, impatience and forcefulness with which they mocked authority incited astonishment and delight below and grim horror above.
FACTORY OCCUPATIONS AND PHONY COMMUNISTS
There is a story told about how at 4 in the morning on the "night of the barricades," several students phoned up George Séguy, head of the General Trade Union Confederation (CGT), led by the PCF, and told him: "We can't hold out. We need the proletarians to come and help us." "One does not mobilize the working class at this time of night," Séguy reportedly replied.
When France awoke the morning after the "night of the barricades," the phony communists of the PCF and CGT found themselves faced with a wave of outrage at the suppression of the young rebels. The PCF stepped forward to seize the mantle of "the party of order" from the hands of the encircled ruling Gaullist party. From the beginning the phony communists had denounced the Nanterre and Sorbonne students as "provocateurs." The right blamed everything on the "Jew red" Nanterre student leader Danny Cohn-Bendit; the PCF was to support the government in banning Cohn-Bendit from France. But the PCF also had its own interests and methods.
In an attempt to both put itself at the head of the rising tide and calm the waters, the PCF called a 24-hour general strike May 13. In fact, strikes were to paralyze the country for over a month. This situation was extremely complicated. Some factories closed because the PCF union leadership wanted to keep "the ultra-leftist plague," as they called it, away from "their" workers and retain the initiative. For instance, the powerful revisionist leadership of the CGT union at the Billancourt Renault car factory near Paris thought that seizing the plant and chaining its doors tight was a good way to keep out student radicals. Nevertheless, some young workers climbed out onto the roofs to fraternize with the students. In other factories radical influences predominated among the strikers.
A wave of takeovers swept through the factories as the CGT, unable to prevent the occupations, struggled to control them. On the morning after the 24-hour general strike, the young workers at the Sud-Aviation plant near Nantes seized and occupied the factory, and with the Internationale blasting over the public address system, they imprisoned the management in the factory offices and fortified the plant against police attack. One day later, managers were seized at the Renault plant in Cléon and workers occupied the Renault plant at Flins. The imprisonment of the managers caused an uproar in the government, and the CGT sent a special delegation to intervene.
Within two weeks, more than 10 million workers had seized hundreds of factories, mines, shipyards, government offices, a nuclear facility and even at least one whole town. Wave upon wave of strikes cut off all public transportation, air, rail and sea service, communications and even the banks and the Paris stock exchange. In one of the longest strikes, 13,000 producers, journalists and technicians shut down the government-run radio and television, raising slogans like "The police on the screen means the police in your home." And at one point, the technicians responsible for communication between the Ministry of the Interior and police headquarters went on strike.
Paris--the heart of France--was paralyzed, and the whole country was in turmoil. Everywhere public officials were held up to ridicule.
A mood of autogestion (self-management) took hold. Some workers such as utility workers continued production, assuring regular supplies of gas and electricity for the community. In Cheviré workers refused to readmit managers to the plant despite an offered increase in monthly wages averaging 150 francs. One worker explained, "The managing staff has been away for two weeks and everything is going fine. We can carry on production without them." At the Atomic Energy Center in Saclay, the Central Action Committee organized production so that when gasoline was running low in the area, 30,000 liters were delivered with the compliments of the Finac strikes in Nanterre. In Vitry at the Rhone-Poulenc factories, workers established direct exchange with nearby farmers and made their own contacts with chemical workers in Western Europe.
In the city of Nantes, food and gasoline distribution, traffic control and other activities in the life of the city were conducted by an elected Central Strike Committee--which seized the town hall for six days and even developed its own currency.
A NEW WORLD
On Monday May 13, 800,000 workers and students marched in Paris in support of the student revolt. The Sorbonne had been retaken and a student soviet declared. Managed by a general assembly, the student soviet took charge of medical services, food, space allocations and all other functions at the liberated university. The university was opened to all--a university without borders. And the floors of the amphitheaters and lecture halls groaned under the weight of often as many as 30,000 people at a time awaiting their turn at the microphones in mass debates on the future of society and everything under the sun. Many wanted a new mode of education. Many wanted to turn the university into a base area for revolution throughout the society and the overthrow of the system. Every radical political trend contended and the influence of Mao and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution spread widely. Those who came to be known simply as "les maos" encompassed a wide range of political views.
An internationalist spirit of "to hell with borders" took hold.
Immigrant workers were received as comrades. In early June the General Assembly of Worker-Student Action Committees passed a resolution "For Abolition of the Status of Foreigners in France." Invoking the international composition of the leadership of the Paris Commune, the resolution called for an end to residence cards, work cards, and deportations:
"These foreigners come under an oppressive special status which subjects them to almost permanent special police checks and threats, which we, Frenchmen, avoid simply because of our nationality. This concept of `nationality' is profoundly reactionary. People work, are exploited, dream, and fight for their freedom in a specific geographic and social context; there they have every right."
In opposition to government deportations of foreign activists and the sealing of French borders to young radicals from Germany and Italy who were attempting to get to Paris--an Action Committee for the Abolition of Borders was formed in Paris, urging Europeans to spread the revolution throughout Europe.
Such was the power of this upswell that tumultuous mass meetings were called by people in almost every conceivable walk of life. A mania for organization swept the people. Housing estate (project) housewives, office employees and highly paid professionals, astronomers and museum curators, hospital staff members and people in the most varied workplaces and neighborhoods set up "action committees" to organize the practical needs of the struggle as well as the details of daily life, since official authority seemed paralyzed.
By the end of May, 450 such committees had sprung up in Paris alone in loose coordination with the Sorbonne General Assembly.
Film directors staged a revolt and took over the Cannes Film Festival, where their action committee issued a revolutionary manifesto. Other action committees sprouted all over France.
THE PARTY OF FEAR
Fearing that the soldiers would fight side-by-side with the workers and students, the government was reluctant to send the army against the strikers. And fearing the radicalization of the military, the government had called up reservists and kept the soldiers on base and out of touch with the outside world. By late May French Prime Minister Pompidou, his voice weary and heavy with pessimism, warned against impending civil war. Historians would later call this the first day of France's "dangerous week."
Two days later, on May 25, the government, employers' federation and unions met to negotiate a country-wide pact called the Grenelle accords, patterned on the 1936 accords that had helped contain the turbulent proletarian unrest of that time. Now they agreed to raise the minimum wage (the prevailing wage for many workers) by over a third at one blow, to hike other wages 10 percent overall and to cut the work week from 48 hours to 40. But when the PCF took these agreements to the plant it considered its stronghold, Billancourt Renault, they were rejected. Even stronger rebuffs came from other combative factories where pro-Mao students had "gone to the workers" during the previous months. Carrying portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, students marched from the Latin Quarter to Billancourt with the banner, "the hands of the workers will take from the fragile hands of the students the banner of revolt against the regime."
The rejection of the Grenelle accords--together with the anti-capitalist effigies hung outside the factories--showed that many workers were fighting for more than better conditions of wage slavery. They were after a new mode of production.
But the strike movement could not in and of itself issue a real challenge to the whole bourgeois state, despite the depth of the political crisis in which the government was caught. On May 27, the same day these proposed accords were announced, an enormous rally at the Charléty sports stadium brought together some student and union leaders and forces from the Socialists to propose "a political solution" to the crisis. Pierre Mendes France, the "man of the left" who had led France in the beginning of its war against Algeria, clamored to be made head of a "provisional government" pending elections. "Today," a Socialist trade union leader proclaimed, "revolution is possible. Actually, what they proposed was a change of regime without a revolution.
On May 29 President de Gaulle, his wife and aides climbed into three helicopters and vanished. The only words reporters could get from him were directed at his wife: "Hurry up, Madame, I beg you." Panic brought the country's propertied classes to the edge of madness; on the streets the mood was the greatest jubilation imaginable. In fact, de Gaulle's helicopter took him to a secret meeting in Baden-Baden, West Germany, with the commanders of the French Army. Plans were made to bring 20,000 troops from France's army stationed in West Germany to deal with Paris. The military men who had once opposed de Gaulle's end to the war in Algeria were to be pardoned, including the general who had almost been successful in having de Gaulle shot.
The next day de Gaulle issued the country's propertied classes an ultimatum: close ranks around him or else. If he were toppled, he threatened that the pro-Soviet PCF would end up in power. This argument was accepted even by the Socialists, who had managed to co-opt a section of the student movement and others under the guise of supporting the revolt. The Socialists feared that under the conditions of the time any government formed by the opposition was liable to be dominated by the PCF. The PCF, too, pulled back; this kind of revolt against Gaullism was neither liable to bring them the shared place in the ruling alliance they sought, nor was it in the interests of the Soviet Union and its allies. De Gaulle's men are said to have appealed to the PCF leadership to stand with them to protect France against the Socialists who would subordinate French foreign policy to U.S. interests. Thus all the reactionary parties, right and "left," agreed: it was de Gaulle or disaster.
In response to the president's call, the swank Champs Elysées swarmed with hundreds of thousands of well-dressed men and women thronging to support their government, their fatherland and their God. Maids were obliged to march with their masters. But there were people of the lower classes as well. The "party of fear" as the press called them, could organize too. The Gaullist Committees for the Defense of the Republic were at least as serious about preparing for civil war as the rebels that threatened them.
The temporary unity of the Socialists, the PCF and its unions and the student radicals collapsed. By mid-June, the police were once again to have the Sorbonne to themselves. To set an example, thousands of troops were sent against the workers at the Flins Renault plant, 50 kilometers from Paris, where revolutionary students had worked and established links during the preceding winter. At 4 in the morning 36 mobile machine gun batteries arrived and broke through the gates, flushing out the workers with guns at their backs. Unprepared for this armed assault, the workers at Flins regrouped and--joined by 1,500 students who had slipped through police blockades--several thousand workers fought to drive out the riot police who had seized their factory. The fighting lasted several days in the woods in the surrounding countryside. A 17-year-old Maoist student was drowned by riot police.
Once again, the student quarter in Paris exploded into flames. In the following days, two more workers were killed fighting riot police at the Peugot plant at Sochaux. Battles raged at the Cléon gearbox plant and at a non-union Citroen plant where over a third of the workers were immigrants living in company barracks. The government ordered all the organizations associated with the rebellion dissolved and moved to arrest their leaders. By spring of 1969 the de Gaulle regime would be forced to step down--his power and prestige shattered by the events of May.
"Look at it this way," one worker summarized, "What happened in May was a dress rehearsal." And there lies the challenge. Lacking an organized vanguard with a real perspective on seizing power, the Days of May could not fulfill their potential. But the audacity and the radical vision of those days put the possibility of proletarian revolution in an imperialist country back on the agenda for the whole world to see. And it is this possibility that draws us to revisit the wild days of May and to ask ourselves how we would respond if such a crisis suddenly presented itself.
This was based on information in "Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible," A World to Win magazine, 1988/12;
"The Days of May," Revolutionary Worker, No. 150, April 9, 1982; and
The Imagination of the New Left: a Global Analysis of 1968 by George Katsiaficas.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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