Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Student arrests in Paris bring country to standstill: French May begins

Trying to accurately portray what “really” happened leading up to and following the events of March 1968 in France is next to impossible. This is not due to a lack of information. On the contrary. It is impossible because the many different visions of what took place creates a situation where the historian is forced to (has the luxury to) make a decision regarding which history will take precedence, which versions of the story will be included, and how to acknowledge the discrepancies. Like it or not, our biases consciously or unconsciously inform our stories.  Even such “truths” as the day of the week corresponding to the number of the month comes into dispute when trying to research the events of May 1968.  The contradictory perspectives allows one to see how subjective events are when seen through different eyes.  What I have chosen is to present an apparently objective format, a chronology of the events, with a stated biased perspective. The story you will read comes from my interpretation of the students rather than the school, the workers rather than the unions, the farmers rather than the police.  If you do not like this version of these historical events, it is followed by links and resources so you can create your own version.. 

We join the story already in progress. It is March 1968, and in the context of anti-Vietnam demonstration, some students are arrested. We are now in the third week of March.

...More students arrested

March 22nd 1968      In protest to six students being arrested a few days previously (the first arrestees being members of the National Vietnam Committee arrested while demonstrating against the undeclared war in Vietnam), eight students break into the Deans' office at Nanterre University on the outskirts of Paris, France. One of the students arrested in the Deans' office is Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who was active in the anti-Vietnam war and other student-led protests, and would rise as one of the main leaders of the May French movement. Already well known for his activism, Cohn-Bendit had helped organise a 10,000-12,000 people strong student wide strike in response to Nanterre University overcrowding- a population which had risen from 170,000 to 514,000 over a period of ten years without commensurate increases in resources.

March 22nd Movement is formed

Late April                   Students campaigning against the Vietnam War are met with increasing resistance from pro-intervention supporters, clashes between the two groups heighten tensions in an already volatile environment- politically, economically, socially, locally and nationally. 

The suburb of Nanterre is a working class area with a severely underpaid population, only 14% of workers across France are unionized, many feeling highly exploited, without a voice, and wanting change.

The March 22nd Movement is formed as an alliance of anti-authoritarian socialist students at Nanterre University.  In response to the deteriorating situation at the school, students continue to stage protests at the university, refuse to participate in lectures, and boycott exams.

A call for rejection of capitalist universities

April 22                       The March 22nd Movement calls a meeting of students which is attended by approximately 1,500 people, out of the meeting a manifesto is created which calls for the "Outright rejection of the Capitalist Technocratic University."

Nanterre University is closed

Thursday May 2         After a week of escalating conflicts, Nanterre University is closed down for an indefinite period and seven (or eight depending on sources) students are summoned to appear in front of a university board. One of these students is Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

Sorbonne is closed

Friday May 3              A meeting is called by students at Paris' Sorbonne University to protest against the closure of Nanterre University and to decide upon a course of action; on the agenda is the possibility of launching a university strike on Monday May 6th.

                                    Fearing that right wing activists are going to disrupt the scheduled meeting, university administration considerately call in the police to protect the meeting students.  The police encircle the Sorbonne, and after negotiating with the students, agree to let the students leave in a process where 25 students at a time are allowed to exit the building, women first, then separately, and secondly, men.  All the women exit the building and begin to leave the area, but when the first group of men emerge the police proceed to arrest and force them into waiting vans.  Other students and gathered people see this, a crowd develops, and in response to the betrayal they begin pushing against the police line of control.

                                    Infuriated by the deception, increasing numbers of protesters show their anger. By evening a battle between protesters and police takes over Boulevard St. Michel.  At the end of the night 72 policemen and an undocumented number of civilians are injured, and 600 protesters are arrested.

                                    The Sorbonne is closed.

Police attack students

Monday May 6           As planned at the meeting the previous Friday, and heightened from the events of the evening, over 20,000 people come together at the Place Denfert-Rocherau. Vocalizing their displeasure and demanding the release of those arrested on the 3rd, the protesters march towards the still closed Sorbonne. As the marchers turn into Rue St. Jacques, they are met with a huge police cordon.  Blocking the route police force protesters to turn back -into oncoming protesters.  Having nowhere to go students are trapped, and police wade in, attacking with their truncheons.

Students and workers march together

Tuesday May 7          The more the state represses, the greater the response against the repression.  On Tuesday 40,000 - 50,000 demonstrators -students, workers, teachers and lecturers march together. In order to prevent further clashes with the police, the organizers take the march across the river Seine and up the Champs-Elysees, where protesters gathered together sing the Internationale under the Arc de Triomphe. There is no reported violence.


Wednesday May 8    Rumors spread that the authorities are going to 'compromise' and reopen both Nanterre and the Sorbonne.

Students attempt to return to class

Thursday May 9         On Thursday morning the formal announcement is made that the schools will be reopened.  Students head back to the universities to recommence their studies, but when they show up for their lectures at the Sorbonne, they find the police and CRS are still on campus. Students demand that the police leave and that they are allowed to resume their formal education.  Rather than leaving the campus, police demand that the students vacate the premises. The Minister of Education cancels the reopening, claiming 'irresponsible elements' are about to occupy the Sorbonne.

Building barricades

Friday May 9              Upset with the events at the Sorbonne, another huge crowd congregates on the Left Bank, close to where the Sorbonne is located. In an attempt to keep the march peaceful, protesters try crossing the river as they did on Tuesday. This time, however, all bridges are blocked by police and the crowd finds themselves routed into the Latin Quarter.  Angry towards the police, and fearful for their safety, demonstrators build barricades up and down Blvd. St. Michel to protect themselves and keep police away.  People living in the predominantly middle class neighborhood bring food down to the protesters while across the impromptu barricades, police send in reinforcements.

Violence explodes

Saturday May 10       At midnight, delegates are sent to the Sorbonne with demands to open the school and to release all people arrested during the protests. At 2.15 am the police move in, first firing grenades filled with tear gas into the trapped crowd. They then attack protesters with truncheons. The fighting continues until 5:30 in the morning.  This level of violence had not been seen in France since the second world war. There are hundreds of casualties on both sides.

Realizing an increasing number of workers are supporting the students, trade unions call for a one day general strike in alliance with the one planned by students for the following Monday.

The Prime Minister announces the release of those imprisoned and the reopening of the Sorbonne.  Immediately some students occupy one of the university annexes as a place to discuss, debate, and plan how to respond to the escalating situation.

Clashes continue, plans are made

Sunday May 12         There are more, much smaller, clashes with police.  Students, workers and unions meet to plan events for Monday.

 The original Million Person March

Monday May 13         Over a million people from a cross section of the population march through Paris. Police do not intervene. Many other areas of the Sorbonne are occupied by students.      

Workers begin to occupy factories

Tuesday May 14        Sud-Aviation workers of Nantes occupy the factory they work in.     

The students who have occupied the Sorbonne elect an Occupation Committee of 15 members; it is agreed by all present that the committee will be re-voted every day.  Lecture halls, class rooms, corridors, and even the courtyard become alive with debates from all corners of society. Students, workers, and the bougeoise all discuss, argue, plan, and create together.  Posters are made each day and put up throughout the school; a daily paper is created to inform people what is happening with the struggle; graffiti beautifies many surfaces.  

Two of the most popular slogans that covered the walls of Paris and were rapidly adopted by student groups and youth movements all over the world were "L'imagination au pouvoir" (Power to imagination) and "Be realistic: Demand the impossible."

To read some of the (translated) graffiti go to:

For images of original posters:

The Sorbonne University administration says they will allow students to join the Organization of the University, one of the original demands of the students.

Strikes begin, factories close

Thursday May 16       The movement continues to spread beyond the students and into the general population: on Thursday 60,000 Renault workers strike and 6 main Renault factories are occupied. Citroen workers walk of the job. Le Harvre and Marseille, two main French ports, are closed by the workers.  In total, fifty factories are occupied across the country.

At 3 pm,. the Occupation Committee at the Sorbonne calls for “the occupation of all the factories in France and the formation of workers councils.”   The occupiers’ then unanimously decide to march on Renault-Billancourt in support of the workers occupying the plant.

Strikes increase

Friday May 17            200,000 workers across the country are on strike.

Unions belatedly join in

Saturday May 18       Fearing they will be left behind by the citizens' momentum, trade unions try again to link up with (control?) the growing movement through a call for pay increases and better working conditions.

By evening there are two million French citizens on strike.

Railroad shut down

Sunday May 19         Approximately 100 factories have been occupied, the railroad is no longer working, and the country is rapidly moving towards a general strike.

Worker committees start to run the businesses

Tuesday May 21        Over the course of ten days workers have occupied hundreds of factories, and worker created committees have taken over many state-owned buildings. Much of the struggle is now about the workers and their conditions in the country.  The organized labour unions and left-based political organizations appoint themselves as the voice of all workers in the strike, even though only a small percentage of workers are union members and the strikes are doing fine without them.  The betrayal of the workers by these self-interested parties becomes obvious within a few short days.

Up to ten million

Wednesday May 23  By now, ten million workers are out on strike across the country. France has been brought to a standstill.

Citizens take over means of control

Thursday May 24       Around the country, road blocks are set up by farmers in a sign of solidarity with the students and workers. People take control of goods distribution, and all petrol tankers need permission from worker committees to enter the city.  Workers and farmers together, by eliminating the middle man, are able to drastically reduce food costs.  Teachers strike while child care is provided for all who need it.  Women become active in food and other vital supply distribution processes.

President de Gaulle addresses the nation on television. He speaks of  "a more extensive participation of everyone in the conduct and the result of the activities which directly concern them."  He then suggests to organize a referendum as a "mandate for renewal and adoption."  The address is considered a failure by many, including de Gaulle, according to his own admission. 

Paris experiences another night of barricades as students and young workers protest de Gaulle’s speech. During the demonstration the crowd ransacks and then sets fire to the Bourse (the Paris Stock Exchange).

The first death of the May protests happens when a 26 year old man is killed by shrapnel from a grenade. 

There is a lack of coordination that is starting to be seen. Unions are concerned with saving their own power, many left wing groups start to back down from their original demands, people are becoming scared and no clear plan of action is being presented. Instead, many different groups are proposing many different suggestions.  A classic situation of infiltration and division takes place: the people resist, the resistance is co-opted by organized unions, left-wing political parties and others with vested interests in the status quo.  When the movement comes to the crucial point where real change can happen, the new ‘leaders’ back down and fracture the unity built thus destabilizing and debilitating the movement.

Speaking of the decision to not occupy government ministries and the lack of coordination that is taking place, student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit is quoted as saying: "As for us, [March 22nd Movement], we failed to realize how easy it would have been to sweep all these nobodies away....It is now clear that if, on 25 May, Paris had woken to find the most important Ministries occupied, Gaullism would have caved in at once....". 

The ministries were not occupied.

Union leaders sell out workers

May 27                       The Government guarantees an increase of 35% in the industrial minimum wage and an all round wage increase of 7-10%; the increases are organized with the unions.  This is seen as a massive betrayal by the working class, and when union leaders come to speak with workers at Renault, they are heckled and booed off the stage.  Once the citizenry had brought France to a standstill and had then taken over the running of the country, wages were no longer the primary issue. Now it was about controlling the means of production, about having real power in the running of the country, and about self-determination for all people. The agreement signed was seen as weakness and selfishly motivated by the unions.

On the cusp of…

Tuesday May 29        Another huge demonstration is staged through Paris, but the betrayals and opportunism have sapped the momentum.  Government officials later admit they believed they could have lasted no more than a few hours from a unified attack. With appropriate people leading the demonstration the people could have taken over the Elysee Palace -the official residence of the president- and brought down the government.  There were no such people.

de Gaulle reappears on television

May 30                        De Gaulle once again appears on French television claiming that "the country is threatened with communist dictatorship". Then, he absolves the assembly, threatens that if work does not start again as ‘normal’ a state of emergency will be called and ‘appropriately tough action taken”; he reneges on his call for a referendum and instead promises elections within forty days.  Tanks are seen on the ring road surrounding Paris.  With these new threats the self-appointed ‘leaders’ start to retreat, trade unions become inactive, the French Communist Party does little.  Fear becomes more and more prevalent, peoples' energies start to dwindle and the “revolutionary moment begins to wane”.

The movement subsides

June 5                         The mass protests are over, strikes are violently crushed with army vehicles and guns, workers reluctantly go back to regular jobs with only half pay for the time they were striking (organized by the unions) and small salary increases.

More deaths

June 7th                      In the ensuing protests the government shows their tyranny. A student is drowned in the Seine in a battle to end the Renault occupation at Flins, and two workers are shot dead at the Peugeot factory in Sochaux.

Government repression returns with a vengeance

June 12                      The government bans several student organizations and 'left' groups. The national union of students calls off all street activity to avoid further violence. The movement is losing its impetus almost as fast as it had grown.

Sorbonne is lost. The end of May 68

June 16                      The Sorbonne is retaken by police. There are a few clashes in the Latin Quarter, but no barricades.  “May ‘68” is over.  

Here are some suggested links:

For a personal story:

For a more academic left leaning history:

For the always fun Situationist International take:

For a ‘workers’ perspective:

For a Marxist writing:

You my also do a quick search on Daniel Cohn-Bendit to see where he is today.

Prepared by Wolfgang Vachon (OISE/UT)

Vachon, Wolfgang (2001). 1968: Student arrests in Paris bring country to standstill: French May begins. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century. [online]. Available: (date accessed).

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Last updated on May 26, 2002.


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