The spirit of May ’68 on display in France today 

Sometimes a date makes history, something more significant than those countless missed opportunities in the calendar of workers’ struggle. That date, for reasons that are both specific and general, becomes an event, a catalyst and a link. 

On 22 March, the French public sector (nurses and doctors, teachers, post office workers) and students converged on Bastille Square, Paris, and other parts of the country, joining railway workers. 

The trigger for this union demonstration, which gathered close to half a million protesters, was a government-commissioned report calling for the creeping privatisation of the French railway system and the contractualisation of its workforce. 

Railway workers are some of the most class conscious in France; a unionised labour force with the power to paralyse the economy and bring other workers out with them: energy, sanitation and airline workers have now taken prolonged strike action as well. 

The spectre of May ’68

The memory of May 1968 still resonates in everyone’s minds. The tremendous upheaval of that time did not start in May but on 22 March. Students at the University of Nanterre occupied the top floor of the university tower, where the faculty headquarters are located, to protest the arrest of students who had staged an anti-Vietnam War rally two days earlier. They spearheaded one of the most significant social upheavals of the 20th century, and one of the largest general strikes in history. 

A recent poll found that slightly more than 50 percent of French citizens hope for a movement similar to that of 1968 in 2018. For the workers’ movement, struck down by years of counter-reforms and austerity measures, the outcome now seems either total collapse or outright rebellion. 

President Emmanuel Macron’s attacks since his election last year are unprecedented in scope. His government has dismantled labour law regulations, cut pensions and aims for a complete overhaul and restructuring of the public sector, deemed unprofitable, and the introduction of selective entry to university. 

Parallels with the movement 50 years ago are telling. The first time selective entry was proposed was 1967, in the context of student enrolments increasing tenfold. The proposal was to be discussed in parliament in May 1968, but was abandoned. Instead, a new law passed in November to enforce the principle of non-selection instead. 

French universities today are critically underfunded, and booming student numbers, like 50 years ago, work to their disadvantage. The Macron administration’s proposal was initially met with only mild opposition by universities and also high schools faced with the destruction of the baccalaureate. 

Yet 22 March was a turning point. The student mobilisation is now escalating, with general assemblies and occupations across the country, some more promising than others, such as Tolbiac (Paris 1), which has been renamed Commune Libre de Tolbiac (Free Commune of Tolbiac) with a radical, open, student-run curriculum offered to replace cancelled classes. 

And just like in ’68, police repression and attacks from the far right have helped galvanise the student movement. Images of the dean of the Law Faculty of Montpellier applauding the bashing of students as they were evicted from an occupied lecture room by black-hooded men carrying wooden bars, was a shock to many. 

The left’s response 

Political parties maintain a complex relationship with unions in France. In theory, the 1906 Amiens Charter established a strict separation between the two, enshrining the autonomy and independence of the union movement. The leader of left wing party la France Insoumise (Unbowed France – FI), Jean Luc Mélenchon, wants to put an end to this. It has meant in practice a rather conflicted relationship with the union leadership of the Confédération Générale du Travail (General Confederation of Labour – CGT). 

An FI-initiated demonstration last year against the destruction of the labour code was seen by the union leadership as an attempt to encroach on, and compete with, the union movement. One of FI’s rising figures, François Ruffin, has proposed a “citizens demonstration” for 5 May. 

This is part of a left populist strategy to reach beyond organised labour, which paid off during last year’s presidential elections: Mélenchon garnered almost as many votes as Macron in the first round. Yet it isn’t clear that such a strategy will pay off in the class struggle.

The far left New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) strategy is to offer a common left front with other political organisations to support the railway workers’ strike. This was done without confronting the union bureaucracy and so far has succeeded. 

But the question of the union leadership’s refusal to call for unlimited strike action that could lead to a general strike remains unsettled, after years of self-defeating strike days and roll-backs of our rights and conditions. 

The CGT’s adoption of a weekly two-day rolling strike over three months, meant to reap maximum effect for minimum cost, risks demobilising rank and file activists. 

The situation is fluctuating rapidly and may take yet another radical turn with the entry of the private sector into the struggle on 19 April, when an inter-professional day of action is scheduled. Carrefour retail food workers, on strike over Easter after the company announced restructuring plans, and Ford factory workers threatened with the offshoring of their jobs, are two examples that suggest possible convergence of public and private sector struggles. 

10 April will mark a new day of high school and university mobilisations and the intensification of the student-teacher movement. The students’ demonstration could merge with the railway workers’, should the latter decide on another mass protest on that day. 

Alain Krivine, an NPA member and a leader of the May ’68 student movement, said at a recent public meeting that the official commemoration of 1968 is a way for the ruling class to bury its revolutionary heritage. 

Our goal is to bring it alive again.