May 1968 saw the peak of a wave of protest that swept the universities of western europe.
May 1968 saw the peak of a wave of protest that swept the universities of western europe. Its avowed aim was the overthrow of existing society, and it came nearest to achieving it in France.
SYNOPSIS: Day after day, in the streets of the Left Bank in Paris, students clashed with police. The students fought with paving stones, broken traffic signs and home-made grenades. The police replied with tear gas and baton charges. Charges of police brutality in one clash led to the next. For much of the month, on and off, the boulevards became a battle-field.
The authorities closed the University of Paris -- the Sorbonne -- and the students took possession of it. Their ideology was Marxist; but they had little more use for organised Communism then for their immediate target -- bourgeois society and the government of President de Gaulle.
They were well organised, and set up what virtually amounted to an autonomous republic. Decisions of their co-ordinating committee were debated every night at student meetings. They had their own hospital and student police force, and held out for more than a month.
Support from industrial workers made the student revolt more formidable in France then elsewhere. Employees at the Renault motor workers were among the first to occupy their factories. By the third week of May, about eight million workers were on strike, and public services were at a standstill.
The Fifth Republic weathered the upheaval, after making some concessions. President de Gaulle's time was running out. He resigned a year later, but his Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, succeeded him without difficulty.
The student leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, has disappeared into relative obscurity in Frankfurt. He is a German citizen, and still banned from entering France.
West Germany and West Berlin had their own share of student disorders in 1968. This one was a protest against the shooting of another Marxist student leader, Rudi Dutschke. In many of the demonstrations, particularly in Frankfurt and Munich, the principal target was the powerful Springer newspaper group, which the students accused of being hostile to their demands.
In London, too, there were militant demonstrations. There, as in the United States, the Vietnam war was the main cause. Students took an active part, but the unrest in Britain was less centred on the universities than it was in continental Europe. Being new to this kind of experience, most British public opinion was shocked by the violent attacks on the police.
Ten years later, the picture is very different. Students at the Sorbonne talk, argue, advocate their favourite causes; ecology is particularly popular. The rioters of 1968 are now rising engineers, doctors and managers. Their successors, even at Nanterre, where the French outbreak started, have little heart fro violence. In today's economic climate, with high unemployment, they are too busy with the need to qualify themselves for a good job.