Ideas

The Paris Riots of 1968, Part 2: 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.
A view of the solidarity rally to President de Gaulle hold on the Paris Champs Élysées during the May 1968 anti-government student movement and general strike. (AFP/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 in May 1968. Part 2 of a 3-part series. Part 3 airs October 17, 2018.

**This episode originally aired May 17, 2018.

"I did not know where we were going, but I knew it was not a revolution" says Alain Krivine. He was a revolutionary in 1968, founder of the Jeunes Communistes Revolutionnaire, and he's a revolutionary still, in his late 70's. One might think that to a Communist any opportunity for revolution would be a good one, but not so, apparently. And why not? Why was Paris 1968 not a revolution?

For Alain Krivine, it comes down to leadership, and to ideology. Paris in May 1968 certainly experienced violence and upheaval — hundreds of thousands marched, streets were torn up, cars burned, heads broken, hundreds jailed, and the government almost fell — but perhaps this wasn't a real revolution, even if it looked like it at the time, and if it did fail in the end.

Behind the mass demonstrations and the riots, behind the strikes and the occupation of factories, there was no organizing ideology, no single against-the-state issue that was capable of undermining the status quo. People wanted change within the status quo, and when everyone was tired, after a month or so, the whole protest by students and workers alike fizzled out, and the old status quo came roaring back.

But another way of looking at Paris, May 1968, is to take the long view. In the end, everything changed, and the world today is much more like the kind of place that both students and workers alike were demanding — less rigid, with better rights all round. Sometimes evolution works better than revolution. Sometimes.  – Philip Coulter

Timeline of events

Guests in this episode:

  • 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.
  • Patrick Zylberman, Professor Emeritus at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sante Publique, student at Nanterre University in 1968.
  • Brice Lalonde, President of the Sorbonne Union of Students in 1968, later politician, founder of the Green Party, presidential candidate.

Further Reading: 


**This episode was produced by Philip Coulter.

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