Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Mantes-la-Ville, where Paris – Nice started last weekend, is a small town on the River Seine, 20 kilometers outside Paris. From there, if you take the A13 road into the city you will pass through Nanterre, a trendy suburb with a phalanx of high-rise towers. And 54 years ago, Nanterre was the birthplace of a social revolution.
In March 1968 journalist Pierre Viansson-Ponté wrote an editorial in Le Monde in which he claimed ‘France is bored.’ He was referring to the ultra-conservative rule of 78-year-old Charles de Gaulle, a hero of World War Two but now an out of touch and autocratic military leader. In America, Poland, Britain, and elsewhere, youth protest movements were erupting, challenging the status quo. In France, a kind of cultural isolationism had set in. De Gaulle criticized the Americans, while prescient French intellectuals like Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber published books about how American culture would soon speed ahead of old Europe.
At the University of Nanterre, on the outskirts of Paris, groups of students began to protest. Some groups were politically extreme, others less so. The university had uncomfortable living conditions for the students, and despite having a reputation for being progressive, in reality, it was as autocratic and reactionary as most others. The initial protests were small and focused on relatively minor matters, but as soon as the Dean of the university made it clear he wasn’t listening, and attempted to break up any gatherings, the situation escalated.
On May 2nd the government shut down the University of Nanterre. Students from the Sorbonne joined those from Nanterre, then high schools and other universities joined the movement. Within days hundreds of thousands of students marched the streets of central Paris, occupied buildings and bridges, erected barricades, and fought in running battles with police. When police brutality came to light, writers and artists joined the students’ cause, and in mid-May, factory workers showed their solidarity by going on strike, led by the Renault factory in Nantes. By the third week of May ten million French workers were on strike. Negotiations between unions and the government failed. A revolutionary fervor gripped the rebels.
On May 29th, President de Gaulle fled Paris in a helicopter, citing a concern for the personal safety of those around him. For 24 hours France effectively had no government, revolution looked possible. De Gaulle had secretly traveled to Germany and seemed on the brink of abdicating his responsibilities. Prime Minister Georges Pompidou telephoned him and persuaded him to return to Paris. A huge rally in Paris chanted ‘Farewell, De Gaulle!’, and the police made the decision to talk to the protesters rather than attack them. This was a critical moment, for a harsh response at this point would have escalated the situation just when the government was weakest. De Gaulle returned, told the workers to go back to work, and called an election. The threat of revolution ebbed.
In the June election, De Gaulle won a comfortable victory, partly because the opposition vote was split between the Communists and the Socialists. By the middle of July, as the Tour de France offered something of a distraction, the student protests had been comprehensively defeated.
Though they’d been defeated, the students created a legacy of the revolutionary spirit that bled into the wider changes going on around the world in 1968. The Situationist International, avant-garde intellectuals, artists, and activists were a key influence on the events of May 1968.
The Situationists undertook a critique of society and an analysis of Marxism. Marx, they said, had correctly seen how capitalism would develop through industrialism and control of the means of production. What he had not seen, however, was just how pervasive social alienation would become. Central to the Situationist thesis was the idea of the Society of the Spectacle. Guy Debord, in his famous book of the same name, laid out this representation of society: in advanced capitalist societies, relationships were now defined solely in terms of commodities. All human interaction is degraded because it is controlled by images, usually pursuing material consumption. The mass media are guilty of constructing this world. Essentially, people are too busy chasing shiny material goods to understand that their true happiness lies in deeper kinds of fulfillment. The spectacle is an elaborate construct, shiny and enticing and fun, and we are all trapped in it. Sound familiar?