STUDENT PROTESTERS DEMONSTRATE at the University of Paris, also known as La Sorbonne, on 3 May 1968. Students at the Nanterre campus of the university had been protesting since the year before, against restrictions on dormitory visits imposed by the increasingly repressive government of Charles de Gaulle. Many students were arrested, both for these protests and for an attack on the American Express office in Paris, in March 1968, which led to further protests for their release. In early May, amid fears that the student unrest would escalate, the Nanterre campus was shut down, which sparked protests and confrontations with the police at the Sorbonne campus, which was also soon closed.
The protests did escalate. On the night of 10 May, nearly forty thousand students placed barricades in Paris’s Latin Quarter. Following violent clashes with the police, many protesters were arrested. However, this prompted millions of workers to join the movement, expressing solidarity with the students as well as raising their own demands. Several factories were occupied in what became the largest wildcat strike in French history.
On 25 and 26 May, the government and leaders of the major trade unions arrived at the Grenelle Accords, providing wage increases and improved working conditions. However, the workers rejected the agreement, and continued their strike. This incited the Gaullists to stage counter-protests. De Gaulle dissolved the national assembly and called a general election for 23 June. With the election imminent and the counter-protests gathering momentum, the agitation died down. De Gaulle’s party won the election in a landslide.
However, the May 1968 uprising prompted gradual reforms in the fields of education, labour and the welfare state. The spontaneous insurgency resonated with the various contemporary protests throughout the world, challenging the old world order. The protests mainstreamed gender and gay-rights activism in France and, many believe, delivered the final push in bringing the country into the modern world.