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Why was May 1968 a social success but a political failure?

"Lessons that are worth considering"

Translated Friday 22 October 2010, by David Lundy and reviewed by Henry Crapo

Why was May 1968 a social success but a political failure?

"Lessons that are worth considering"

By Georges Seguy, former Secretary General of the CGT (General Confederation of Labour)

We are not in a situation that is strictly comparable to that of May 68. It is, however, undeniable that, forty-two years later, that memorable spring holds lessons that are worth considering today. The explosion of May 68 came from a deep academic and social dissatisfaction. Not only were all possibilities for dialogue and negotiation blocked by the intransigence of government and employers, but the government had just launched a series of attacks on social security.

Early in 1966, a common industrial action agreement between the CGT and CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labour) had encouraged worker mobilization. Several nationwide industrial action initiatives and a significant rise in social tension had marked 1967. While the university movement and particularly the student movement deepened, several trade union events revealed sharp social tensions, heralding a particularly combative spring. Thus the spirit of solidarity and struggle between students and workers emerged soon after.

In this context, police violence against students on the night of May 11th in the Latin Quarter prompted the CGT to launch a call for workers to react which lead to a day of national strike on May 13th. Mighty demonstrations in Paris and across France took place under the common slogan: "Workers and students united". The day’s success quickly spread throughout the public and private sector, raising the idea of extending the struggle to a total stoppage. Thus the non-unionised employees of thousands of small, medium and large companies got together, got informed and independently and democratically decided to stop working, to occupy their workplaces and to manage their struggle together.

Within the national leadership of the CGT, the question of whether the time was ripe to call for a general strike was posed. I remembered my answer to this question: "Best to leave the management of strikes to the workers themselves, than to direct it centrally from national headquarters, whatever form they may take".

Although some difficulties have characterised the political links of solidarity between workers and students, a joint appeal for social and cultural emancipation came out of their ardent desire for solidarity. It was summed up in a few words, which, forty-two years later, have not aged a day: "Work and live differently". It is this aspiration that Sarkozy has vainly tried to banish to oblivion with the formula: "Work more, earn more".

We hear a lot of commentary today about the political failure of May 68 from "former 68ers" that have shifted to the right. With this is mind, there is food for thought on why May 1968 was a social success, with very positive "Grenelle agreements", yet a political failure in the parliamentary elections that followed. This discussion mainly concerns the political left who thought it could take over government without taking stock of a profound social movement and the emancipatory willingness of youth. It was not the time for partisan temptations to "fend for yourself", but for a spirit of unity "all for one" to provide common progressive goals. This is clearly the most relevant lesson of May 68.


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