Around thirty students gathered in the Henry F. Hall building of Concordia University on Thursday, November 25, to participate in Socialist Fightback at McGill and Concordia’s event “France May 1968: When Students Sparked a Revolution.”
“May ‘68” refers to a series of student demonstration and mass general strikes that took place across France between May and June 1968. Socialist Fightback called the uprisings “the greatest revolutionary general strike in history” in their Facebook event.
The event began with a half-hour presentation by Samantha Ilacqua, a member of Socialist Fightback and a Concordia student, on the historical details of May 1968. A question and answer period followed the presentation and the organizers then invited everyone to join them at an off-campus bar for further discussion.
Origins of May ‘68
The presentation began with an overview of the economic climate in France at the time.
“The living standards of workers were rising and we saw the emergence of a middle class,” Ilacqua said. “There was social stability for a certain section of the working class.”
However, for many people “the working conditions were actually quite poor […] In many places, bosses ran a very strict dictatorial style of management.”
Ilacqua stressed a feeling of disconnect between May ‘68 protestors, and the political and union leadership of the time, who “wrote off the working class as having no revolutionary potential at all.”
She also highlighted the role of youth, saying that “historically many movements begin with the youth, and this was also the case for May 1968.”
“The working conditions were actually quite poor […] In many places, bosses ran a very strict dictatorial style of management.”
She added that “in the early 1960s, students were involved in big movements against the Algerian War and […] were protesting against the restrictive education system,” as well as high unemployment and dropout rates.
Linking student protests and worker strikes
Socialist Fightback’s event largely focused on how a student protest can lead to a massive worker’s strike at the national level.
Ilacqua explained the key events in May, starting with the closure of the Paris-Sorbonne University because of protests, police intervention and brutality, and ending with how the French working class came to join and transform the uprising.
“Ten million people were on strike out of 15 million. That’s two thirds of the work force and only 3.5 million were actually unionized,” pointed out Ilacqua, illustrating the scope of the month’s protests and reiterating the lack of union and political leadership in coordinating these movements.
“Historically many movements begin with the youth, and this was also the case for May 1968.”
Ilacqua emphasized that the agency behind the strikes needs to be attributed to the workers, saying “more and more workers began to join the movement and they began to feel their collective power.”
Members of Socialist Fightback discussed the potential harmful effects such strikes can have on a capitalist system.
“I think what’s amazing about May ‘68 is that it shows that we […] can organize amongst ourselves and continue to provide for these people while hurting the bosses,” said one participant, who did not identify themselves. “I think that’s an essential part of how we can organize in solidarity with workers and students […] it’s something we should put forward when we talk to people, that there is a solution that won’t hurt them but will hurt the system [instead].”
Ultimately, protestors’ morale weakened and de Gaulle was re-elected, partially caused by an exclusionary voting system and the discreditation of socialist parties, putting an end to May ‘68.
May ‘68 and the 2012 Quebec student protests
In terms of the relevance of May 1968 to McGill and Concordia students, many attendees at the event had the 2012 Quebec student protests on their minds.
“I think what’s amazing about May ‘68 is that it shows that we […] can organize amongst ourselves and continue to provide for these people while hurting the bosses. I think that’s an essential part of how we can organize in solidarity with workers and students […] it’s something we should put forward when we talk to people, that there is a solution that won’t hurt them but will hurt the system [instead].”
Kian Kenyon-Dean, a McGill student and member of Socialist Fightback, explained in an email to The Daily that the event didn’t explicitly address the local protests because they were very different from May 68.
“2012 unfortunately largely remained a student movement, while 1968 brought ten million workers out on general strike for a few weeks,” he wrote. “[In 2012] the trade union leaders did not want this, and the student leaders, while many of them had good intentions, did not organize to make this a reality.”
Ilacqua, in an email to The Daily, explained the main objective behind organizing an event like Thursday night’s.
“What we need to do is to study past revolutions, so that we do not repeat the same mistakes as the past,” she wrote. “The workers and students of France rose up to transform society, but were blocked by the lack of direction or even bad direction of the movement that had their heads in the past. We need to build good leadership today to be prepared for movements like this that will happen in the future.”
“2012 unfortunately largely remained a student movement, while 1968 brought ten million workers out on general strike for a few weeks. [In 2012] the trade union leaders did not want this, and the student leaders, while many of them had good intentions, did not organize to make this a reality.”
Joel Bergman, a Fightback organizer present at the event, spoke about the failures and opportunities of socialist solidarity in modern times, especially in regards to movements like Standing Rock.
“I think [Standing Rock] is a good example of […] a failure of the leadership,” explained Bergman. “The IFL-CIO [Iowa Federation of Labor] is opposed to the protests that are happening because they want the pipeline, they’re in favour of supporting the very few number of jobs […] created when that pipeline is constructed.”
“The movement [could] actually win in Dakota […] if the trade union movement came out hard behind the protestors and actually mobilized their members and organized strikes,” concluded Bergman.