Paris Student Riots (May 1968)

Figure 1.-- The May 1968 Paris student riots had a fundamental impact on French and Wider European society. A part of the impact was on fashion. Just as the War in Viet Nam was having a major imact on American society. The Paris Student Riots are now seen as a major watershead event in France.

The May 1968 Paris student riots had a fundamental impact on French and Wider European society. A part of the impact was on fashion. Just as the War in Viet Nam was having a major imact on American society. The Paris Student Riots are now seen as a major watershead event in France. As Charles Dickens put it about an earlier French Revolution, "They were the best of times, they were the worst of times. Surely the virtual open warfare in the strrets of Paris during those May days shattered the old order in France more surely than any popular uprising since the Great revolution of 1789. Students and police clashed around burning cars and barricades. Half the French work force struck in solidarity-freezing the gears of a society which at the time was enjoying record prosperity. As a result, the mighty Charles de Gaulle fell from what had seemed a presidency for life. Other popular movements were underway that Spring. The U.S. anti-War movement, the Prague Spring, and violence on campuses from Japan to Italy to Mexico. A new world order seemed at hand. The events are relatively unrecognized in America as we were in the grips of our own national upheaval.


The events of May 1968 in Paris happened just after the first significant student uprising in the United States, at Columbia University in New York. But what happened in Paris, and then other cities in France, shook the foundations far more. The student revolution began with a protest against visitors of the opposite sex in dormitory rooms at a suburban Paris campus. Within a few weeks it had taken hold with the student occupation of the Sorbonne, the citadel of French learning. Far more devastating for the besieged de Gaulle government was a development that never came close to occurring in the United States during the '60s protests: The students were joined by 10 million workers, half the French labor force, who shut down the economic machinery of France for several weeks. There was no mail, no banking, no transportation, no gas and dwindling food. The scenes of students being bludgeoned by police had turned popular sentiment against the authorities, in much the same way that the Chicago disturbances around the Democratic Convention doomed the election of Hubert Humphrey in the Unites States. Merchants on the streets where cars burned and paving stones flew sided with the students. De Gaulle fled to Germany, leading many French people to wonder if things had gotten completely out of control. The French felt they were at an abyss. Just as suddenly as it had emerged, the stranglehold on France loosened when the government cut a generous deal with France's largest Communist-backed union, occupying the factories. The workers went back to work, isolating the students who were, in any case, approaching the beginning of summer vacation. A special legislative election in June, seeming to contradict what had just happened, gave a resounding majority to deGaulle's party. But the de Gaulle era was at an end. It took another year for the president and wartime hero to face the French people in a referendum that sought their confidence. By a narrow margin, they voted against him, and he resigned.

French Obsession

The French are obsessed with the heady memories and legacy of 1968. French "68ers" are now in the generation in power, just as the election of President Clinton brought the VietNam generation to power in America. The "68wes" dominate French society from the boardroom to the National Assembly. Their ideological stripes may dif- fer today, but their experience was common. They run the Government, the corporations, the labor unions; they run the universities and faculties, the culture factories and the media outlets. Philippe Thouvenin, a young documentary filmmaker, can't get enough of it. "I think it's something for us to think about-this was the last time when young French people felt idealistic. It was our last Utopia," said Thouvenin, who was born in 1965.


What was the impact of the Paris uprising? Most of the backward-looking analysis, as well as the evidence, suggests that 1968 changed French society in some respects unalterably, and in much the same way that the 1960s changed U.S. society. In the ethical, sexual, cultural and intellectual spheres, it broke apart a rigid groupthink. It set in motion political forces that brought French Socialists to power, in 1981. It installed the street demonstration as a permanent part of modern French political theater.


One major change was in immigration. Immigration regulations were loosened and a steady stream of immigrants poured in from North Africa as well as Sub-Saharan Africa.


One of the major complaints Was the French system of education. French schools were strictly centralized and realied heavily on memorization. Some changes have been made in French schools, but HBC does not yet have a good assessment on the extent of those changes. One French reader believes that the student riots were the begunning of a real decline in French education. The attitude changed from a teacher in charge to everyone being equal, the students and teachers alike as well as children and adults.

Gender roles

Another imact was a reassment of gender roles. Equality of women in the work place became increasingly accepted. This has now become widely accepted in France. This include family roles. You can today frequently see in the street or elsewhere a father or granfather pusshing a child stoller or giving a bottle to his baby.


There was a definite impact on fashion. One clear impact was that it no longer was fashionable for boys to wear traditional short pants with formal collared shirts. Boys no longer wore short pants when they dressed up. Boys wanted to wear jeans and other casual clothes.


After 30 years, France's institutions remain little-changed. This is the critical current that runs through all the retrospection underway. France's past two decades of economic stagnation and chronic unemployment have left its people questioning their commitment to social justice and bleakly looking to the future.

Reader Comments

There are quite varied assessments of the Paris studen riots. About the only point of agreement in this debate is that the riots were a turning point in French history and had an enormous social impact. The evaluation of that impact is what French people disagree abouut.

Various comments

A French reader reports, "Yes this event was very important. The late-1960s and early-1970s was a very important era in France, not only because of the Paris student rioys, but also increasing influences from other countries. Peole today in France increasingly find problems with the reforms adiopted after the 1968 riots. The current Government is in the process of making important changes in the schools, in part they involve returning to the pre-1968 system. The American school system has been very influential here.

A Canadian reader writes, "I was in Paris during " La contestation de Mai " which followed California's Berkeley demonstrations. You know that quote 'Il est interdit d'nterdire' ('It is forbidden to forbid'.)"

Another French reader writes, " The 1968 Paris riots were a left-revolt and was the beginning the decline my country. The whole the society has been affected by the event, undermining some of our most cherished values. The notion of Homeland, Nation was discussed. Students wanted to challenge parental as well as state authority. The school methods that had proven a long time before were questioned. They said 'Students should be equal with their teachers'. They wanted to address them in familiar terms and used the thou! Students contradicted themselves by their aggressiveness and resort to violence while shouting slogan of peace, love, equality for all. The good manners was stained with the request to liberalize morality, 'It was love for all'. The army was criticized. There were many new conscientious objectors, and the slogan was 'Made love and not war!' They said, that the police were the enemy of the people and they shouted 'Police equal SS !' They were demanding; It should have no longer borders and all people are at home with us. After the independence of our territories in Africa, these countries were quickly plunged into poverty and the immigration of Muslims increased. Before 1968 France that was 97 percent Christian, and today there are more than 5 million Muslims living among us. Inside the prison, more 60 percent are of immigrant origin! In 1968, the students wanted to dress in jeans. The younger pupils stopped wearing sjmocks, but still kept a juvenile touch. It was after 1978 that the children started to be dressed in the adult styles that we see today. In 1968, I just was 24 and was a young military officer. Consequently I couldn't contest. But into my conscience I was for the state authority and the police work, I guessed this revolt should have some bad consequence later. If I had participated at the riots, it would been of course, on the side the police to quell these stupid students."

French rompers

An American reader writes, "I remember being in France the summer of 1970. I was with a study group for me to learn French and interact with French youth and learn more about their society and they ours. One of the French Teachers (a man who had spent some time in the United States where the people he was with wanted him to be careful because they lived in a very old home of about 200 years. He laughed because his house in Paris was 700 years old and he did not have the heart to embarrass them. Anyway ... I remember he talked a great deal about the Paris riots and French parents learning that they could not baby their sons anymore. Barboteuse were for infants and not young boys and culottes were for boys not teens. He then talked about Americans would be having a revolution soon too about being treated as children. Now that I look back at what he said, I believe that to some extent he was correct."


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Created: May 27, 1998
Last updated: 8:44 PM 10/27/2017