The Beginning of the General Strike

On March 22nd 1968 far-left groups and some prominent poets and musicians along with 150 students invaded an administration building at Nanterre University and held a meeting dealing with class discrimination and the bureaucracy that controlled the school's funding. The police were called.

While the students left the building without any trouble this event precipitated in months of conflict between students and authorities at Nanterre University. On May 2nd the university was shut down. Several students were threatened with expulsion. At the University of the Sorbonne staged a protest on the 3rd of May against the closing of Nanterre University and the threatened expulsions. On May 6th the national student union, Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (UNEF) and the university teachers' union called for a protest march. Over 20,000 people, including teachers, students, and other supporters marched towards Sorbonne, which was sealed off by the police. The protest grew into a riot, and 100s were arrested.

By and large high school unions were supportive of the riots on May 6th. They joined the protesters and gathered at the Arc de Triomphe and demanded that: 1. All criminal charges against arrested students be dropped, 2. The police leave the university, and 3. Nanterre and Sorbonne would be reopened. They received a return that the government agreed to reopen the universities. This turned out to be false as the police still occupied them.

For the rest of the month the situation escalated with more protests and arrests. The Parti Communiste Français (PCF) supported the students though it was reluctant due to ideological differences. Two leftist union federations, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and the Force Ouvrière (CGT-FO) called for a general strike and demonstrations on Monday, 13 May. Over a million people marched through Paris that day.

In response to the growing unrest Prime Minister Georges Pompidou released the prisoners and reopenned Sorbonne. However, the protests and the strikes still grew more enraged. The students occupied Sorbonne, declaring it an autonomous "people's university". 401 popular action committees were set up in Paris.

Workers began seizing factories. While the CGT tried to turn it into a fight for higher wages and benefits the workers had more radical ideas. They demanded the ouster of the government of Charles de Gaulle. Many workers began running the factories themselves instead of simply refusing to work.

On the 25th and 26th of May the Grenelle agreements were signed at the Ministry of Social Affairs, a French government ministry that was responsible for handling labor disputes. The deal involved a 25% increase in minimum wage and 10% increase in average salaries. However, this did not satisfy the strikers and so the strikes continued.

President de Gaulle, who had already fled to Germany weighed his options. He considered threatening to impose emergency rule. However, he feared that could cause an already sensitive political situation to explode. Many police had left their jobs and joined the protesters, and a great deal of the military had begun deserting which indicated some might side with the rebels if there was a revolution. On May 31st he made a speech calling for order, and announcing France would raise minimum wage by 100% with average salaries increasing by 50%, pensions would be doubled, any work hours beyond 30 would count as overtime, and everyone would be assured one month of mandatory vacation.

However, some conservatives did not like this proposal, and the protest movement had grown increasingly radical. While many had simply called for new elections to replace de Gaulle at first many were now calling for an end to the French government. More protests continued throughout June, and factories and universities throughout France had been occupied. The worker's occupation had spread from factories to stores, restaurants, and other businesses. On June 28th the situation was grim for de Gaulle. As a last resort he announced that he would declare a state of emergency if the protests and strikes did not stop.

However, protests and strikes intensified. On July 3rd de Gaulle declared a state of emergency and ordered the military to suppress the strikers.

At first it seemed he was making headway though the strikers put up a large resistance. Sorbonne and Navarre were occupied by the military. However, on July 14th a military base near Paris was successfully overrun by defected soldiers.

On August 15th the French government surrendered. Representatives of student's, worker's, and soldier's groups met de Gaulle in West Berlin, West Germany where they signed the historic Treaty of West Berlin.


Though the revolution involved several different ideological points of view the predominant one was anarchism. Workers presumed themselves as the rightful owners of their own labor and organized into cooperatives, which elected delegates and federated together in order to coordinate work. Each field of work organized into its own syndicate, including white-collar jobs, such as the medical syndicate and several science syndicates. A few people opted out of the new social system and this was allowed as long as they did not engage in what was referred to as "capitalist property relations", meaning that they did not employ anyone to work under them. They would either work alone, or form a cooperative.

Much of France lay in ruins, and there was still considerable chaos. People's Security Collectives (PSCs) emerged, though most were put together temporarily in response to acts of coercive violence. The few that remained permanent were typically not full time and were also involved in other activities when not stopping or investigating acts of coercive violence. Anyone could form one as long as it didn't engage in the "initiation of coercion", which basically meant that they could use force against those who initiated it and in order to protect the right of workers to the product of their labor. A few rogue PSCs which did not adhere to these rules, including PSCs that wished to create a communist state emerged, which were quickly suppressed by others. When someone was accused of a crime (now something defined by an emerging stateless common law rather than an official government) they would typically be brought before a jury of volunteers and tried usually with the burden of reasonable doubt. However, with no central government this was not uniform, and only gross abuses of justice resulted in retaliation by disagreeing PSCs. Typically the PSCs would consort with the syndicates in this case and then only retaliate if the consensus supported it.

Nuclear Arms

One major issue of contention after the revolution was control of nuclear arms. During the revolution all military bases in France had been seized, including any nuclear weapons that were inside them. Some revolutionaries decided to destroy them, and after the revolution a nuclear waste disposal syndicate emerged to deal with that. However, some decided to keep the nuclear weapons. They argued that nuclear weapons would be necessary to deter invasion by the United States or the Soviet Union. Some, the communists were not afraid of the Soviet Union, but these people saw nuclear weapons as part of the Cold War strategy and unanamously kept their nuclear weapons. However, some anarchists also kept their nuclear weapons. In the end the nuclear weapons generally remained in the possession of what ever revolutionary group had them at the end of the revolution with the exception of groups that had theirs disposed of. However, these groups would become PSCs and join larger Security Syndicates. Communist groups that sought to create a state would be overwhelmed within a few months after the revolution. Aware of the conflict the United States announced that while it favored none of the sides any use of nuclear weapons by the French against France would be viewed as a human rights atrocity and the United States would retaliate against the offending side of the conflict. This prevented communists from threatening to use nuclear weapons against anarchist strongholds in France. At the end of the conflict those nuclear weapons were ultimately seized from the communists.

After the conflict through discussions that occurred throughout France it became a common belief that the only legitimate use of a nuclear weapon could possibly be it retaliation from a nuclear attack. Though some debated that there was no legitimate use and that nuclear weapons should be dismantled this viewpoint never became popular enough to make an organized attempt to forcibly remove and dismantle nuclear weapons feasible. A few believed that using nuclear weapons was acceptable just in ordinary warfare without having to be attacked, but as these people were in a minority even those that controlled nuclear weapons would refuse to use them in upcoming wars due to fear of retaliation by PSCs.

International Reaction

The revolution was condemned by all capitalist nations. The USSR and its allies as well as communist China supported the Revolution of '68 at first. Yet communist China criticized the French when they used the protection of the USSR in order to help sign the treaty. Later on when it was clear France was becoming anarchist and not adopting the USSR's model of communism it was condemned as a "petit bourgeois uprising". At this point while both United States and Great Britain strongly disapproved they opined that an anarchist France would not last, that government would soon reemerge, and that it would be capitalist because the French would be fed up with left-wing ideology. Privately, the United States and many other countries had concerns that their own New Left movements would lead to revolution.

See Also

Timeline (Revolution '68)


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