Ideas

The Paris Riots of 1968, Part 1: A failed revolution that changed the world

Students taking to the streets to protest — it looked like a simple thing, fifty years ago in May 1968. But it proved to be the spark that started a conflagration. Thousands of demonstrators turned into hundreds of thousands, barricades were built, cars were burned. It was a political crisis like no other — and then it evaporated. It's been said that the "revolution" of 1968 failed. But it was a failure that changed the world. Part 1 of a 3-part series.
Protesters gather at the Place de la République during the demonstration of May 13, 1968 in Paris. (Jacques Marie/AFP Photo/Getty Images)

Students taking to the streets to protest — it looked like a simple thing, fifty years ago in May 1968. But it proved to be the spark that started a conflagration. Thousands of demonstrators turned into hundreds of thousands, barricades were built, cars were burned. Then the workers joined in, and by the middle of May 1968, most of France was on strike. It was a political crisis like no other — and then it evaporated. It's been said that the "revolution" of 1968 failed, but it was a failure that changed the world. Philip Coulter went to Paris to talk to some of the people who were there on May 10 1968, the day of the first big demonstration. Part 1 of a 3-part series. Part 2 airs October 10, 2018.

**This episode originally aired May 10, 2018.


Why did all of France grind to a halt in May 1968? What exactly was going on, for a minor-league student complaint to morph into something that almost brought down the government?

What seems most important in all of this is that the workers of France found common cause with the students, and it's that solidarity that changed everything.

At heart, the student complaint was about a repressive social environment, a rigid, unbending adult world; the workers complaint had more to do with economics — the demand for better working conditions, a shorter work week, higher wages, the chance to share in the relative wealth of the nation. What both groups had in common was the sense that a very rigid and complacent society needed a shakeup.

And in the end, that's what they got: working conditions improved, and a more socially liberal society began to take shape, a process that continues to this day. Arguably, what happened in the days of May 1968 in Paris and in France caused a shakeup across the entire western world. In 1968, France finally came out of the long shadow of the Second World, and so did we all.

Timeline of events

Guests in the program:

  • Alain Krivine, student leader in 1968, founder of the Jeune Communistes Revolutionnaire.
  • Catherine Bernard, art historian, former philosophy student at the Sorbonne in 1968.
  • Jean Marcel Bouguereau, student leader in 1968, later journalist and editor-in-chief, Le Nouvel Observateur.
  • Brice Lalonde, President of the Sorbonne Union of Students in 1968, later politician, founder of the Green Party, presidential candidate.

Further Reading: 

  • 1968 The Year That Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky, published by Random House,1998.
  • Prelude to Revolution, France in 1968 by Daniel Singer, published by South End Press, 2002.

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