700 words on… understanding a country’s past

Want to understand more about what accounted for the emergence of the May movement in France in 1968? History and politics modules may suit you...

The caption: sois jeune et tais toi can be translated as "be young and be quiet" or "be young and shut up".

I studied the module ‘May ‘68 from 1968 to the Present (2008-09)’ and it covered everything from the student movement and protests of May 1968, the social movement of the 1970s right up to the present-day situation following the 40th Anniversary and Sarkozy’s presidential speech when he mentioned the need to ‘liquider mai ’68.’

In May 1968 France experienced protests like never before. Even though the French are well-known and renowned for their tendency to be ‘en grève’ (on strike) and for their attitude to protest, May 1968 was revolutionary as France went through a period of student strikes, factory occupations and general unrest. The underlying causes of May 1968 were a combination of the social and economic conditions, the political situation and the international events France was experiencing at that time.

Over the course of the 1960s French society had a total makeover. The baby boom of previous years had led to a significant population increase (from 47 million in 1962 to 50 million in 1969). 1 During this period of unrest in France, the baby boomers were becoming adolescents and highlighted a growing generation gap. Additionally, there was an influx of immigrants which led to a huge demand for housing, therefore new homes were built. But, as the need for them was in towns and cities there was a huge growth in urbanisation and a significant decline in the rural population. Gervais et al. (1965) even invited commentators at the time to consider a “France sans paysans” 2 (a France without farmers).

The baby boomers didn’t just impact on the need for housing, they also had an effect on the universities. As French custom states no student can be denied a place at university, there was no option but to accept all applicants and cause the inevitable oversubscription and overcrowding at the institutions. These conditions contributed to the May movement as the students had grounds to protest handed to them on a plate. The new adolescents also pushed social boundaries with their new youth culture. There were several protests to abolish segregation in male/female dormitories and coupled with the emergence of new artists conveying political messages through their lyrics, a train of thought was started among citizens that they had a voice to be heard too. All in all, from being exposed to new culture and ideology, French citizens were gaining confidence in expressing themselves.

The economic conditions revealed that the increase wasn’t only in population, but also in industrial production. Women were introduced onto the production line for domestic products and immigrants were employed to help meet the demands of the growing car industry. This had two effects on the May movement: it provoked disagreement and protest over the salary difference between men and women and introduced citizens of striking countries into France thus forming a link to the rest of the world.

Once Politics enter the equation, the reasons for the May movement become more evident. The emergence of the New Left in France during the mid-60s introduced a considerably more spontaneous political party than the Old Left. The attitude and governance of the New Left had strong similarities with the student movement as they both made on the spot decisions, were spontaneous, had no plans or organisation and relied in getting results through experience.

As previously mentioned, it wasn’t just France experiencing student protest and revolt in the 1960s. The international situation also had an impact in several ways. France was already influenced by other nations due to immigration but it also became further involved with the international scene when the Algerian War broke out as Algeria was a French Colony and close in proximity to France. The Cold War and the Vietnam War ignited strong anti-American feelings across France and provoked the beginning of ideologies which started to rethink issues of organisation and conformity. Closer to home, in 1968 there were student strikes in Poland following the closure of a traditional school play as it contained too many anti-Russian messages. There were also student protests in March following the closure of Madrid’s university in Spain.

Although these factors were not solely responsible for culminating in the May movement of 1968, they all had a part to play. The social situation provoked grounds for protest because the oversubscribed and crowded universities resulted in unacceptable conditions for students. The economic situation sparked the inequality between male and female salaries and gave further reasons to protest. Combined with the influx of immigrants and the international situation, France was finding itself linked internationally with striking countries and the political New Left seemed to support the method of student protest and employ it in politics by being spontaneous and unorganised.

French society and its citizens were exercising a new found freedom to assert themselves and question authority. With all the protests going on in Europe and around the world it seemed revolt was in the air.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, you may enjoy studying a history based content module. They are a great way of understanding the culture of a country and enable you to put current affairs into context with the country’s past.


1 S. Berstein, La France de l’expansion, (Paris: Éditions du Seuil: 1989) p179

2 M. Gervais, C. Servolin, J. Weil, Une France sans Paysans (Paris: Éditions du Seuil: 1965) p103