1968 Student Uprising in France

I just watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s film “The Dreamers” and am curious about the events of 1968 depicted in the movie. According to Roger Ebert’s review:

So can anyone explain how such a large uprising came from such a small event as the firing of this one man? I know that the protests in the US in the 60’s were related to the civil rights and anti-war movements, but what were the problems in France?

The problems were mainly social issues. The younger generations couldn’t stand anymore the moral values enforced on them, the convervatism, De Gaulle policies…Add to this the leftist activism, like the maoists, for instance.
The first protest might have been about Henri Langlois, but I think the importance of this event is exagerated in this case, probably because the person reporting it, being a film maker, is particularily interested in the issue.
Generally, what is reported as the first sparkle of the revolt is a Paris university refusing to allow students of one sex to access the housings reserved to the other sex. Student strike ensued, gained the other Paris universities, where students began to spurt out all the issues they had with the universitary system, and to occupy the universities. The head of the Sorbonne eventually decided to call the police in, resulting in fights and arrests.
The students then began to build barricades in Paris streets, to permanently occupy the universities and some other public buildings. They also thought that they shouldn’t limit themselves to these issues, that the whole social system had to be rebuild, so it ended up in a rather anarchical situation, with fights against the police in the streets, permanent meetings in the universities, etc… The students asked the workers unions to join them in their fight, and since there was quite a lot of dissatisfaction, the unions did so, resulting in a largely followed general strike that paralyzed the country. The unionist didn’t take part in the fights, though.

At some point, since the situation was more and more out of control, De Gaulle left for Germany, to meet the military leaders and prepare the implementation of martial law.

However, the situation calmed down for two reasons :

-The unions had much more concrete demands than the students. They weren’t willing to engage in a revolution. In particular, the powerful communist union didn’t want to have anything to do with maoists, anarchists and beatniks. The government gave in the union’s demands, and they withdrew from the movement.

-A lot of people were affraid by what was happening. They tended, on the overall, to be rather sympathetic and supportive of the students at the beginning, but when the situation began to seriously deteriorate (no gas, no transportation, permanent street fights…), they changed their mind. Eventually, a surprisingly massive protest was organized in Paris in support of De Gaulle, and the “events” came to an end.
The May 1968 revolt nevertheless changed a lot of things. The french conservatism had been very seriously shaken, a lot of issues began to be accepted as legitimate, the education was reformed, etc… De Gaulle also resigned the next year, following a “no” vote to a referendum about a rather unimportant issue.
May 68 is mythical, in France. It’s one of these events which are considered as pivotal. There’s a “before 68” and an “after 68”. The generation of the 68’ers (soixante-huitards, in french), now in their 50s - 60s have since always been particularily scrutated while they were growing older, gaining position of power, etc…

So, the firing of one man wasn’t the cause of the May 1968 revolt. It was just, at most, the original pretext. The french society had come to a rupture point on all sort of social, moral, political, etc… issues, and something had to give in. In a brutal way, May 68 allowed the needed changes to begin to take place.

When i was an undergrad, i wrote an essay on the '68 Paris uprising.

Some of the books i used, and which might interest you, are listed below:

Obviously, some of these are first-hand accounts written at the time, and others are historical works with more perspective. And i’m sure there have been more books written since i wrote that paper.

I think it was a fascinating period.

Just for the sake of it, one of the numerous and famous “may 68 slogans” (“It’s forbidden to forbid”, “Under the cobblestones : the beach”…) :

Let’s be realist. Let’s demand the impossible.

What is this supposed to mean? I’m not getting any of the context of this statement, and it seems a bit odd.

Thank you for the explanation and the suggested reading.

It simply means that if you get rid of the cold, hard, organized elements of modern life, you’ll find back nature, freedom, happiness. Remove the cobblestones, and you’ll find soil. Remove the constraining traditions, and you’ll find freedom.

It also refers to the cobblestones the students (like other revolutionnaries in the past. They perceived themseves as revolutionnaries, and at least part of them fully intended to overthrow the existing system) removed from the latin quarter streets to build barricades or to throw at the riot police. The cobblestones aren’t there anymore, by the way, and in part precisely to avoid them being used in riots.