originally published October 8, 2013

During my recent studies at the University of Alberta, the level of student activism was remarkably low. I’ve told the tale before, of how an organized protest against rising tuition costs was thwarted when the school handed out free ice cream outside the Administration Building.

This didn’t bother me as much as it might have when I was 18. Back then I was still naïve enough to believe a few well-crafted picket signs and expertly-penned folk songs were what ended the Vietnam War. I romanticized my parents’ age. It seems magical; even if the 1960’s counterculture didn’t change the world like they wanted to, they believed it would. I’d take that brand of blind optimism over the snarly pessimism that splashed its cold limp carcass all over the 1990’s.

But there wasn’t just magic and hope in the eyes of the youth in America. Over in France they had their own cultural awakening. And in May of 1968, it very nearly brought the entire system down.

Earlier in the year, the French Communists and French Socialists decided to team up and try to oust President Charles de Gaulle. They weren’t looking to stage a coup, but they did rally a number of poets and students at Paris University at Nanterre to discuss class discrimination and the unsympathetic bureaucracy that ran the school. The University’s admin called the cops. This was the beginning of the unpleasantness on campus.

After a few months of quarrelling, the school up and shut its doors on May 2. Students at the Sorbonne gathered the next day to protest the closure, and the fact that a bunch of Nanterre students were about to be expelled. The police moved in and sealed off the Sorbonne campus. Then the following Monday, the Union Nationale des Etudiants de France  (basically a country-wide students’ union), along with the union of university teachers, marched toward the university. 20,000 of them. This was doomed to get ugly.

A few thrown rocks and canisters of tear gas later, Paris jails were packed with a few hundred more students. An immense rally at the Arc de Triomphe the next day showed the support for the students was spreading. Now there were high school students involved and a swarm of young workers. Their demands were clear: drop the charges against the students, reopen the university and get the cops off campus.

The next big protest occurred on May 10 around the Rive Gauche, the Left Bank that forty years earlier had been inhabited by artists, writers, and according to that Woody Allen film, Owen Wilson. This one ended in burnt cars and Molotov cocktails piercing the air, though some say the police were the ones lighting the fires. Support for the protestors grew around France, leading to the country’s largest unions calling for a one-day general strike on Monday the 13th.

More than one million people marched in the streets of Paris that day. The police hung back, and Prime Minister Georges Pompidou announced that the strikers had won – the prisoners would be released and both shuttered campuses would reopen. Hooray! Happy ending!

Except no, the strikers were just getting their groove on. When the Sorbonne reopened, students occupied it and declared it a ‘people’s university’. Public opinion began to turn on the kids, who were talking like they wanted to bring down the consumerist society. Young workers, who didn’t want to miss out on the off-chance that these drastic movements might actually bring about some change, began occupying factories and organizing sit-ins and strikes.

By May 16, over fifty factories, from Renault to Sud Aviation were occupied, with more than 200,000 workers on strike. A week later that number had exploded to roughly ten million. Two-thirds of France’s workforce were on strike.

The unions even thought things were going too far now. They’d started out looking for wage increases and better benefits for their workers, but now the strikers were demanding a complete change of French government. The unions scored a 35% bump in the minimum wage and a number of other concessions from the government, but workers were refusing to return to work. Now the union leadership were thrown into the same ugly light as de Gaulle. They were all the bad guys.

On May 28, the Socialists declared there was essentially no state left to be governed, and called for a new government headed up by (surprise!) the Socialists. De Gaulle told Socialist leader François Mitterrand to chill out. Then the next day, he left.

In all fairness, de Gaulle taking off wasn’t so much an act of cowardice as it was an effort to keep the strikers from attacking Elysée Palace. Or maybe it was a bit of both, I don’t know. At this point the government had ceased to function, and everyone was just waiting for the seemingly inevitable revolution. Half a million marched in the streets the next day, celebrating de Gaulle’s departure. Then a strange thing happened. The other side stood up.

As powerful as this movement was, its strength lay in the heart of metropolitan Paris. De Gaulle still had a bunch of supporters nationally, and on May 30, 800,000 of them took to the Champs-Elysées waving the national flag, sticking up for the guy in charge. Over the following two months, the revolutionary spirit drifted slowly away, probably because nobody wanted to call for an all-out civil war. Gradually, people returned to work. De Gaulle moved back to his seat at the top, and things returned to normal.

In April of 1969, Charles de Gaulle resigned. Two months later former Prime Minister Georges Pompidou would ride de Gaulle’s party to a presidential victory. Perhaps the most profound effect of the strikes occurred when the University of Paris was officially disbanded into a number of smaller universities. This was an institution founded in the eleventh century, shut down only twice – in 1229 and again in 1940 when the Germans marched in – calling it quits after May of 1968 got a little too real.

Whether or not the end-game of the student action in 1968 was achieved – that’s not important. Those kids got to be a part of something, a movement unfathomably more powerful than even they could realize. That’s what I missed out on – that’s what my mopey generation never could quite grasp.

That said, who knows… if the Paris police had just wheeled out some ice cream, the entire mess could have been thwarted.

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