While the drama currently unfolds in the streets of Paris and other cities and towns all across France, many are making comparisons to the actions of the “Gilets Jaunes” or “Yellow Vests” to the protests of 1968, ironically a major protest which swept France fifty years ago.
Although the issues are vastly different in 2018 than they were in 1968, the violence, repercussions and the overwhelming feelings towards a government the average French citizen feels has abandoned them, are pretty much the same.
A little background on Paris 1968:
The volatile period of civil unrest in France during May 1968 was punctuated by demonstrations and massive general strikes as well as the occupation of universities and factories across France. At the height of its fervor, it brought the entire economy of France to a virtual halt. The protests reached such a point that political leaders feared civil war or revolution; the national government itself momentarily ceased to function after President Charles de Gaulle secretly fled France for a few hours. The protests spurred an artistic movement, with songs, imaginative graffiti, posters, and slogans.
“May 68” affected French society for decades afterward. It is considered to this day as a cultural, social and moral turning point in the history of the country. As Alain Geismar—one of the leaders of the time—later pointed out, the movement succeeded “as a social revolution, not as a political one”.
The unrest began with a series of student occupation protests against capitalism, consumerism, American imperialism and traditional institutions, values and order. It then spread to factories with strikes involving 11 million workers, more than 22% of the total population of France at the time, for two continuous weeks. The movement was characterized by its spontaneous and de-centralized wildcat disposition; this created contrast and sometimes even conflict between itself and the establishment, trade unions and workers’ parties. It was the largest general strike ever attempted in France, and the first nationwide wildcat general strike.
The student occupations and wildcat general strikes initiated across France were met with forceful confrontation by university administrators and police. The de Gaulle administration’s attempts to quell those strikes by police action only inflamed the situation further, leading to street battles with the police in the Latin Quarter, Paris, followed by the spread of general strikes and occupations throughout France. De Gaulle fled to a French military base in Germany, and after returning dissolved the National Assembly, and called for new parliamentary elections for 23 June 1968. Violence evaporated almost as quickly as it arose. Workers went back to their jobs, and when the elections were finally held in June, the Gaullist party emerged even stronger than before.
From The New Yorker – Adam Gopnik December 6, 2018:
The Gilets Jaunes, or Yellow Vests, in France, have been the subject of anxiety, controversy, and, at times, shameless political opportunism on all sides. They are a popular movement of no clear political view or ideology; they take their name from the yellow vests that drivers in France are required to keep in their cars, to be worn in the case of a breakdown. (They can be seen in the dark that way.) Their ostensible ignition point was a rise in fuel taxes, engineered by the government of President Emmanuel Macron, for, as it happens, impeccably green reasons: the plan was to wean France off fossil fuels by making them more expensive, and to encourage the use of renewable sources.
This tax hike seemed to the group, which gathered followers mostly through social media, the last insult of metropolitan Paris to rural France, and they began protesting and blockading highways across the country. Last week, the protests reached Paris, where the gilets jaunes—or, by most reports, members of the largely rural group aided by extreme leftists and even more extreme rightists, both prepped for street battle—rioted on the Champs Élysées, vandalized the Arc de Triomphe, and broke into stores, creating a crisis of a kind that has brought down or impeded the progress of French governments continuously throughout the postwar era.
To give you some idea of what was going on Fifty years ago, here is sound portrait of the events in May of 1968, compiled by the Institut des Archives Sonores in Paris – and run without translation, but you get the general gist that there was a lot going on in Paris at the time, as there is much going on Paris today and for the past few weeks.
History – it does repeat, in case you forgot.