Tony Cliff
and Ian Birchall

France – the struggle goes on

The student revolt

The storm breaks out

On 20 November 1967 Nanterre witnessed the largest student strike in France to date. Ten thousand students took part. On 13 December university students all over France held a one-day strike and six secondary schools joined in.

On 21 February 1968 a mass demonstration of university and secondary school students took place in Paris. One of its acts was to rename the Latin Quarter “The Heroic Vietnam Quarter”. On 22 March a mass demonstration took place in Nanterre protesting against the arrest of a number of militants in the previous demonstration. On this occasion the March 22 movement was formed. The students occupied the university.

On 29 March the students of Nanterre decided to hold a day of political discussion at the university. The rector closed the university for two days, during which large-scale clashes took place between members of March 22 movement and the fascists of the Occident group.

May 2 and 3 were to be days of demonstration against imperialism. On 2 May the rector again closed the university. Disciplinary procedures were initiated against Daniel Cohn-Bendit and six other members of the March 22 movement. On 3 May a meeting of 500 students took place in the Sorbonne. Several revolutionary organisations participated: JCR, FER, the March 22 movement and others. The rector of the University, Roche, called the police in at 4 p.m. The Sorbonne was invaded by the police and all the students arrested. Immediately after, spontaneous demonstrations began in the Latin Quarter and they fought the police until 11 p.m. The Sorbonne was then closed and no one allowed in. A general strike of the university was called to protest against the arrests and the presence of the police in the Sorbonne.

On 6 May the students of Paris organised a new, even more massive demonstration. On 7 May another demonstration of students started off from Denfert-Rochereau. The trade unions refused to participate. When it started at 6.30 p.m. there were several thousands in the streets. As they had no definite destination they made a sort of “long march” through Paris. People listening to the radio in the evening when they came home from work learnt from it where the demonstration was, and many joined it in the evening. In the end there were 50,000 in the Champs-Elysées with red banners and singing the Internationale.

On 8 May 20,000 took part in a peaceful demonstration around the Latin Quarter.

On 9 May, notwithstanding the promise of the Minister of Education, Peyrefitte, that the Sorbonne would be opened, it remained closed. A number of spontaneous meetings were held all over the Latin Quarter.

On 10 May more than 50,000 students of the University and secondary schools joined many young workers gathered at Place Denfert-Rochereau. The demonstration tried to go toward boulevard Saint-Michel where it was met by a massive police force. Sixty barricades were built. The Battle of the Barricades, starting at 17 minutes past 2 at night, went on until 7 o’clock in the morning. The local population actively sympathised with the students and young workers on the barricades. They gave them oranges, cakes and other food, took care of the injured and took them into their homes, where they gave what medicines they could. They threw water on the pavement, as the demonstrators had asked, to neutralise the effects of gas.

On 11 May representatives of UNEF (Union Nationale des Etudiants de France – National Union of French Students), CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail – General Confederation of Labour) and CFDT (Confédération Française et Démocratique du Travail – French Democratic Confederation of Labour) met and decided to declare Monday 13 May a day of general strike and demonstrations against police brutality towards the students.

On 13 May 10,000,000 workers went on strike, and the whole country was brought to a standstill. A million took part in a demonstration, mainly made up of workers, but including tens of thousands of students. On the evening of the same day the students reopened the Sorbonne and occupied it.

On 13 May the main centre of gravity of the struggle moved to the working class.

Role of the CP in these fateful days

On 3 May Georges Marchais wrote an article in L’Humanité entitled Unmask The Pseudo-Revolutionaries!

The activities of the 22 March group at Nanterre run counter to the interests of the majority of students and can only lead to provocations by the fascists ... [These grouplets] are also trying to give lessons to the working class. More and more they are to be found at factory gates or in areas inhabited by immigrant workers distributing leaflets and other propaganda ...

In spite of their contradictions these grouplets – a few hundred students – have united into what they call the “Mouvement du 22 Mars Nanterre”, led by the German anarchist Cohn-Bendit ... These false revolutionaries must be energetically unmasked; for, objectively, they serve the interests of the Gaullist government and the big capitalist monopolies ...

The views and activity of these “revolutionists” are laughable; in as much as they are generally the children of big bourgeois, contemptuous of students from working-class origins, who will soon dampen their “revolutionary flame” to go and run papa’s business and exploit the workers in the best traditions of capitalism.

The closing of Nanterre did not merit much comment by the CP.

L’Humanité of 3 May relegated these developments to the bottom of three columns on the sixth page, quoting very long excerpts from an article by the dean, Grappin, accompanied by the following commentary:

Thus the activities of pseudo-revolutionary groups – which we have ceaselessly condemned – have led to a measure which, on the eve of examinations, badly harms the bulk of the students. The great majority of the students in Nanterre want to work in the best conditions. And, a few weeks before exams, their preoccupations have nothing in common with those of the trouble-makers. They proved it yesterday when a hundred “leftists,” ensconced in a lecture hall, tried again to stop the class for the 450 other students who were waiting.

L’Humanité of 4 May carried out its policy of isolating the mini-groups by appealing to the self-interest of students awaiting exams (this was the day after the closing of the Sorbonne):

Three weeks from the exams thousands of students are being prevented from normal preparation which for some, the poorest, means the end of their studies. The authorities, whose openly proclaimed objective is to place the maximum limitation on entry into the university, have every reason to rejoice at the deterioration in the situation.

There was no doubt about who was responsible for this deterioration. After the police invasion of the Sorbonne on 5 May, where a peaceful meeting had been called to protest against the closure of the faculté de lettres at Nanterre and against the summoning of seven student leaders, including Cohn-Bendit, to appear before a university disciplinary committee, the Union des Etudiants Communistes (UEC) issued a statement saying:

The leftist leaders are taking advantage of government neglect and speculating on the discontent of the students in an attempt to prevent the running of the faculties, and stop the mass of students studying and passing their exams. Thus these pseudo-revolutionaries objectively act as allies of the Gaullist regime and its policies which harm the majority of students, especially those from the humblest backgrounds.

L’Humanité-Dimanche of 5 May described in detail an oral question which Louis Baillot, a Communist deputy from Paris, put to Peyrefitte (the minister of education). Its audacity shows the extent to which the Communist leaders had grasped the stakes in the battle. He asked the minister what measures he intended to take to:

(1) enable the students to study normally and prepare for their examinations under good conditions;

(2) offer real answers to the legitimate demands of the students (housing, cafeterias, scholarships);

(3) put into operation an emergency plan for building universities and IUTs (instituts universitaires de technologie – technical universities) in the Paris region.

None of the measures proposed by Baillot were to capture the students’ attention in subsequent days. It was not that they were opposed to them but they were not fighting to patch up the existing system: they wanted to destroy the old university system to create a new one.

On 8 May, after more riots, L’Humanité at last came round and announced, The Government Bears The Responsibility.

Changing role of students

For more than a century the student community had identified itself with bourgeois society. The students were the more extreme exponents of middle-class values. During the rise of the bourgeoisie, when it headed the democratic forces, it was the students who waved the banner of liberty and progress most enthusiastically – as happened in Vienna in 1848. However, when the same bourgeoisie turned its guns on the revolution, as happened in Paris in June of the same year, the students were on the same side of the barricades as the bourgeoisie, facing the workers on the other side. With the ageing of the bourgeoisie, the students became conservative and reactionary. In Britain student attitudes led them to strikebreak practically as a body.

It was natural in those days for Marxists to consider the bourgeois intelligentsia as collectively hostile to socialism, although individuals could be won to the socialist movement. To quote a typical statement of Trotsky in 1910:

It is not only Europe’s intelligentsia as a whole but its offspring, too, the students, who decidedly don’t show any attraction towards socialism ... the intensification of the struggle between labour and capital hinders the intelligentsia from crossing over to the party of labour. The bridges between the classes are broken down, and to cross over, one would have to leap across an abyss which gets deeper with every passing day ... this finally means that it is harder to win the intelligentsia today than it was yesterday, and that it will be harder tomorrow than it is today. [1]

During the last decade or so the student scene has changed radically, from the Zengakuren in Japan – who in June 1960 led millions in massive demonstrations, successfully overthrowing the Kishi government and preventing Eisenhower from visiting the country – to students in Birmingham, Alabama, and Berkeley, California, to the London School of Economics, to the SDS in Germany ... to the Sorbonne and Nanterre!


First of all, there is the university explosion.

Just before the Second World War the percentage of the student age group in Britain that attended university, or a similar institution of higher education, was 2.7; today it is above 11. Similarly throughout Europe the number of students per 1,000 of population rose from two in 1950 to six in 1965, tripling in only 15 years. There are at present 6 million university students in the United States, 3 million in Western Europe, 1.5 million in Russia and over 1 million in Japan. As a result of changes in capitalism and in the employment of intellectuals, the majority of students are not being trained any more as future members of the ruling class, or even as agents of the bosses with supervisory functions, but as white-collar employees of state and industry, and thus are destined to be part and parcel of the proletariat.

A central aspect of the “third industrial revolution” is the integration of manual with mental labour, of intellectual with productive work: the intellectual element becomes crucial to the development of the economy and society. But this productive force comes into sharpening conflict with the irrational nature of capitalism. The conflict expresses itself in university life as a contradiction between the demand for the streaming of education dictated by the immediate needs of industry and the need to allow a certain amount of intellectual freedom. This applies especially to the social scientists, who have to “solve” capitalism’s social problems – according to the theory of the ruling class – and at the same time have to understand, at least to a certain extent, what generates the revolt against capitalism.

The central contradiction of capitalism is that between the production of what Marx called use-values, and the production of value. The first are natural. The second are specific to the capitalist order of society. In the university this is reflected as a contradiction between the ideal of unlimited intellectual development, free from social, political and ideological restraint, and the tight intellectual reins imposed by capitalism. The liberal mystique of education clashes with its social content. [2]

Because students, or, even more, graduates who have left the university, are progressively more pivotal to the development and salvation of all advanced industrial countries, it is more and more essential for these countries to ensure that students and technologists fulfil their assigned role. And this means that any attempt by these groups to put forward demands on their own behalf which conflict with the needs of capitalism will inevitably be resisted by ruling interests. With increasing international competition and the narrowing of profit margins on the one hand, and the need to produce more graduates on the other, the pressure is fierce to cut expenses per student, which involves greater streamlining of courses, regimentation of standards and increasing resistance to students’ claims. [3]

Another factor fanning the revolt among students is the feeling of insecurity as to what the morrow of graduation will bring in their personal lives. The student of a previous generation knew in advance the slot into which he would fit – in the higher brackets of society. Not so the student of today. At the university he has not found the kind of education he was looking for, and when he graduates he finds it more and more difficult to get the kind of job he was led to expect. The feeling of instability, of uncertainty, creates unease, which easily combines with other factors to create a revolutionary combustion.

Another important element encouraging student rebellion is that students are more and more concentrated in the same areas. This was particularly the case in Nanterre, where 12,000 students were gathered in the same buildings, many living on the university campus all the year round.

The special medium in which the student is trained – theorising and generalising – facilitates the synthesis of the different elements of unease and rebellion. Students at present rebel more readily than workers because they are less shackled mentally by the traditional, ie bureaucratic, organisations, like the Socialist parties and the Communist parties. The rootlessness of the student acts as oil to the wheels of revolt.

In speaking of student rebellion one should avoid the extremes.

The first is that put forward by the Stalinist bureaucrats both east and west and followed by a number of so-called “orthodox” Marxists who deny the progressive revolutionary capacity of students. The other is that of C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse, who deny the revolutionary potentiality of the working class and hence describe students and intellectuals as the main vehicle for revolutionary action now and in the future.

Actually the rebelling students have at one and the same time great strength and great weakness.

They are a small minority of the population. They are outside production. They are not the big battalions that can overthrow the social order.

Being outside production is a source of weakness, but it is also a cause for quick advance, as it is so much easier for the students to move into action. If a small minority of the university community wants to act on an issue, it can go ahead and do so. Thus at the beginning only a tiny minority of London School of Economics students identified themselves as left-wing militants: they demonstrated on one issue after another. Every demonstration was an act of propaganda, of educating themselves and others. The situation of a militant minority in the factory is radically different. It cannot act – by strike action or occupation of the factory – unless the overwhelming majority of all the workers employed are carried along. In the factory the level of consciousness and the morale of the majority may act as a dead weight on the militant minority. This situation may prevent individuals in this minority from identifying one another, hence individual militants find it difficult to make explicit even to themselves their own potentialities. Only as a mass collective can factory workers act, and thus assert themselves.

Hence the temperature bringing students into combustion is incomparably lower than the one necessary to inflame the workers. But unfortunately the lifespan of their fire is also shorter. They lack the stamina that workers as a collective have. Because separate social forces do not come to the arena of open combat with capitalism at one and the same time, it is in the interests of the ruling class and its hangers-on to separate the students from the workers, to engage the students, if need be, in a fight to the finish, before the great battalions arrive. It is at the same time in the interests of the rebellious students to call on the heavy battalions of the working class for supporting action – action, of course, on their own account. The synchronisation of student rebellion and working-class revolution is one of the most important things confronting the revolutionary movement in the advanced industrial societies.

The student cannot act as the vanguard, as the leadership, of the working class. A number of features in the student make-up impede him from carrying out meaningful propaganda and agitation among workers. Workers’ thinking is basically concrete. It grows from bread and butter issues that are with him all his life, from trade union consciousness. Socialist consciousness transcends trade union consciousness. The student thinks in abstracts; trade union consciousness hardly plays any role in his life. The knowledge that being a student is a transitory situation for him of a few years’ duration, and that at the university the most irksome exploitation is not the openly economic, but the intellectual, explains this. Behind the complaint about the tangible reality of low grants, bad food, strict rules and overcrowded amenities, the student feels the intangible manipulation of his mind. Because of the different nature of student exploitation, his response does not fit the traditional trade union pattern. That is why practically all student revolts were started by political elements. Conversely, the overwhelming majority of workers’ strikes since the beginning of capitalism were initiated and led by workers who did not have revolutionary political convictions.

Only by being in a revolutionary organisation that includes workers, by rubbing shoulder to shoulder with workers, can the socialist student learn the “language” necessary to communicate with workers in normal times, ie not revolutionary periods.

To lead the workers in a factory one must be in daily touch with them. During “normal” periods the role of revolutionaries is necessarily limited to propaganda and agitational activities for the dissemination of their ideas, connecting these with the concrete struggle of the workers. A small revolutionary organisation or, even better, a revolutionary party, can do it, as it is composed of workers and intellectuals together. Students alone cannot.

The student as a detonator

If students as such cannot organise and lead the working class, they can, and in May and June did, act as the detonator of the revolution.

In 1936 it was the electoral victory of the Popular Front that acted as a detonator for the general strike and occupation of the factories. In 1944-45 it was the military victory over Nazism. This time it was the students’ struggle, culminating in the Night of the Barricades.

The feeling, perhaps confused, but nevertheless very real, of being exploited, of injustice being meted out to him daily, is in the mind of every worker. However, the mere knowledge does not lead to rebellion; it may indeed lead to resignation. In order to rebel, the worker must entertain the hope of change – change for the better. It is this hope, or the lack of it, that has made the history of the labour movement, with its ups and downs. And it was the new hope, the dream of a better world, that the students gave first to young workers, and then to the working class as a whole.



1. L. Trotsky, The Intelligentsia and Socialism (London, 1966), p.12. (By the way, it is very odd to see the above statement published today without a note to show how inapplicable it is to the student scene today.)

2. How far the PCF was from coming to terms with the rebellion of students against the content of bourgeois education can be gleaned from the article in L’Humanité of 15 June, the day after the Gaullist police drove the students out of the Odéon. The article, entitled Concerning “Student Power”, says: “... the very notion of ‘student power’ ... seems particularly pernicious to us from all points of view ...”

We are for the new university institutions, those that existed before May 1968. We think that students and teachers must contribute to building these institutions which will assure collaboration between them in the future.

Without paternalism vis-à-vis the students, and without demagogy, we are acting in a responsible way in strongly criticising the very principle of ‘student power’ no matter what its form.

A student in the first or second cycle [secondary school and first years of university] cannot judge the scientific value of a professor. He can and ought, naturally, possibly to criticise his technique in transmitting knowledge but his criticism must stop there.

By the third cycle things are no doubt different but even there the idea of challenging basics cannot be accepted without extreme caution.”

3. At the start of the present academic year there were 514,000 university students in France, 156,000 of them in Paris. There are only 500 seats in the university library in Paris. Practical work in science laboratories is often done in batches of 40 or more, and it is not unknown for a small lecture room to be crammed with 500 students trying to take notes from one lecturer. It is estimated that 12 per cent of French students fail to graduate. In Britain it is some 13 percent (Guardian, 8 August 1968). In 50 years the number of students has increased five times, but the number who have got degrees has only doubled (Ambassade de France, The Problems of Higher Education in France (London, 1967), p.9).


Last updated on 21.4.2003