Editorial from the May 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the May 1968 events in France. It all began on 22 March 1968 when, following the arrest of anti-Vietnam War protesters, students at Nanterre University staged a sit-in. Further conflict led the University authorities to close the University on 2 May. Students then occupied the Sorbonne University. The students were unhappy with recent educational reforms that geared French education towards the needs of industrial capitalism and the centralised nature of the Universities' governance and were opposed to the Vietnam War. Police repression and heavy handed action by the University authorities swelled the number of protesters. The French workers joined the students and called a general strike, which resulted in factory occupations. For the more radical workers, their grievances went beyond the issues of better wages and working conditions, and included demands for more workers' control in their workplaces. The unions, the government and the employers negotiated wage increases and more trade union rights in a bid to end the conflict. In the National Assembly elections of June 1968, an increased number of Gaullist MPs were returned. Soon thereafter, the protests and strikes died down.
However, this is just not to revisit these events, for France is witnessing another revolt by students and workers. On 22 March this year, timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary, the unions called a nationwide strike to oppose Emmanuel Macron's labour and welfare reforms. At the forefront of these struggles are the railway workers, who are resisting government attempts to scrap job security, automatic job promotions and early retirement at 52 for new workers, and have responded by arranging two-day strikes for each week for three months. Airline pilots are also striking over pay and public sector workers are taking industrial action in opposition to Government plans to cut 120,000 public sector jobs over five years. Care workers and pensioners are also in revolt. Students are protesting about the proposed introduction of selective University entry requirements, which they say will discriminate against students from poorer backgrounds. The left hope that they can achieve the same unity between the workers' and students' struggles as in May 1968.
Macron is trying to shift the balance of power from the working class to the capitalist class, so as to make French capitalism more competitive. In this respect, he is no different from other French political leaders. Both Jacques Chirac and Nicholas Sarkozy tried to introduce similar reforms, but were defeated by concerted strike action. François Hollande also faced resistance when he attempted to introduce legislation to make it easier for employers to make workers redundant.
Although the circumstances in May 1968 may be different from those at present, the underlying dynamic is the same. This is the struggle between the capitalist class and the working class over the material resources of society.
We have solidarity with the workers and students with their struggles, but we would urge them to take the next step to organise with workers in other countries to take political power so that they can convert private and state property into the common heritage of all human beings.