The May 1968 protest refers to a particular period in French history. It was historically significant for being the first wildcat general strike ever, and for being the largest general strike ever, bringing the economy of an advanced industrial country to a virtual standstill.
Some philosophers and historians have argued that the rebellion was the single most important revolutionary event of the 20th century because it wasn't participated in by a lone demographic, such as workers or racial minorities, but was rather a purely popular uprising, superseding ethnic, cultural, age and class boundaries.
The principal idea of May was the union of intellectual contestation with workers' struggle. Another way of saying this is that the political subjectivity that emerged in May was a relational one, built around a polemics of equality: a day-to-day experience of identifications, aspirations, encounters and missed encounters, meetings, deceptions, and disappointments.
In mid-Mary 1968, one work stoppage after another across the nation succeeded the violent demonstrations unleashed by students in the early days of the month. France, for some five to six weeks, was brought to a complete paralysis. Only in France, and to a certain extent in Italy, did a synchronicity between intellectual refusal of the reigning ideology and worker insurrection occur.
French students, despite their growing numbers, were far from happy. The universities were vastly overcrowded and their administration was autocratic. The first student protests began at the University of Nanterre, Paris during March 1968. The most influential of these was called le Mouvement du 22 Mars (the March 22nd Movement) led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit.
It looked for a moment like France was about to undergo another revolution... but the unlikely alliance of students and workers was an illusion. 'The workers and the students were never together,' Cohn-Bendit admitted years later. 'The workers wanted a radical reform of the factories. Students wanted a radical change in life.'
That youthful idealism, unplanned and ill-defined, carried for a while by a momentum that took everyone by surprise, ran aground almost as quickly as it had flared up. For all the revolutionary ferment of May '68, the year ended with De Gaulle still in power, Nixon elected to the White House, and the Vietnam war escalating beyond all predictions as the Americans rained bombs on Laos.
Student revolutionaries who began the movement initially called for educational reform, the release of arrested students and the reopening of the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris. However, as the campaign progressed they began to call for revolutionary social change, including the fall of the de Gaulle administration and the formation of a more socialist state.
May 13, 1968, was a turning point. Slogans turned more political as millions of workers put down tools in solidarity with the students and marched in the streets of Paris, singing the communist anthem. It became the biggest general strike in French history and, to de Gaulle's horror, brought the country to a halt.
France had witnessed considerable change during the 1960s. The Algerian War which had ended in 1962 helped radicalize large sections of the French population. During the ten years prior to 1968 the university population had exploded from 175,000 to 530,000. This expansion was funded by an economic boom which saw real rages grow by 3.6% between 1963 and 1969.
On May 30, President de Gaulle went on the radio and announced that he was dissolving the National Assembly and calling national elections. Student protests continued until June 12, when they were banned. Two days later, the students were evicted from the Sorbonne. In the two rounds of voting on June 23 and 30, the Gaullists won a commanding majority in the National Assembly.