May 16

This Day in History

General Interest

May 16, 1968:

Protests mount in France

In France, the May 1968 crisis escalates as a general strike spreads to factories and industries across the country, shutting down newspaper distribution, air transport, and two major railroads. By the end of the month, millions of workers were on strike, and France seemed to be on the brink of radical leftist revolution.

After the Algerian crisis of the l950s, France entered a period of stability in the 1960s. The French empire was abolished, the economy improved, and President Charles de Gaulle was a popular ruler. Discontent lay just beneath the surface, however, especially among young students, who were critical of France's outdated university system and the scarcity of employment opportunity for university graduates. Sporadic student demonstrations for education reform began in 1968, and on May 3 a protest at the Sorbonne (the most celebrated college of the University of Paris) was broken up by police. Several hundred students were arrested and dozens were injured.

In the aftermath of the incident, courses at the Sorbonne were suspended, and students took to the streets of the Latin Quarter (the university district of Paris) to continue their protests. On May 6, battles between the police and students in the Latin Quarter led to hundreds of injuries. On the night of May 10, students set up barricades and rioted in the Latin Quarter. Nearly 400 people were hospitalized, more than half of them police. Leftist students began calling for radical economic and political change in France, and union leaders planned strikes in support of the students. In an effort to defuse the crisis by returning the students to school, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou announced that the Sorbonne would be reopened on May 13.

On that day, students occupied the Sorbonne buildings, converting it into a commune, and striking workers and students protested in the Paris streets. During the next few days, the unrest spread to other French universities, and labor strikes rolled across the country, eventually involving several million workers and paralyzing France. On the evening of May 24, the worst fighting of the May crisis occurred in Paris. Revolutionary students temporarily seized the Bourse (Paris Stock Exchange), raised a communist red flag over the building, and then tried to set it on fire. One policeman was killed in the night's violence.

During the next few days, Prime Minister Pompidou negotiated with union leaders, making a number of concessions, but failed to end the strike. Radical students openly called for revolution but lost the support of mainstream communist and trade union leaders, who feared that they, like the Gaullist establishment, would be swept away in a revolution led by anarchists and Trotskyites. On May 30, President de Gaulle went on the radio and announced that he was dissolving the National Assembly and calling national elections. He appealed for law and order and implied that he would use military force to return order to France if necessary. Loyal Gaullists and middle-class citizens rallied around him, and the labor strikes were gradually abandoned. Student protests continued until June 12, when they were banned. Two days later, the students were evicted from the Sorbonne.

In the two rounds of voting on June 23 and 30, the Gaullists won a commanding majority in the National Assembly. In the aftermath of the May events, de Gaulle's government made a series of concessions to the protesting groups, including higher wages and improved working conditions for workers, and passed a major education reform bill intended to modernize higher education. After 11 years of rule, Charles de Gaulle resigned the presidency in 1969 and was succeeded by Pompidou. He died the next year just before his 80th birthday.

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