The newspaper Le Monde of 15 March 1968 published an article by the journalist Pierre Viansson-Ponté asserting that “what defines our public life at the present time is boredom”. The revolt of the youth, erupting spontaneously, came to break that boredom, pulling the working class into the general strike. How to explain this explosion, when it was fashionable to talk of the “embourgeoisement” of the working class?
When tens of thousands of young people suddenly expose the reality of the regime by courageously confronting its state machine, and when millions of workers jump into a strike without any directive from above, the movement takes the character of a spontaneous social explosion. But that explosion was the culmination of the evolution of consciousness which had occurred in the previous period.
That evolution was not limited to France, but the product of transformations on the international scale, both political and economic. The French bourgeoisie had come out of the war in the camp of the victors, but it was no longer any more than a second-rank bourgeoisie, obliged to appeal to American capital to reconstruct its economy and soon confronted with colonial revolts.
In France, the politicised student union UNEF mobilised youth against the war in Algeria. Then, with the confrontation between the greatest imperialist power and a courageous people rallied for its independence, in Vietnam, there was the politicisation of a larger and larger fraction of the youth of all countries who chose the camp of the oppressed peoples. That revolt did not leave the working class indifferent, even if it was mostly on the economic front that it became aware of the necessity to enter into struggle to demand its own right to existence.
On the eve of the general strike of May 1968, the working class lived in difficult conditions. For 30 years after the end of the war, there was a real economic expansion, a development of production, and, in some rich countries, an increase of consumption. Expanding industry absorbed a constantly increasing workforce. New workers from the countryside came to swell the ranks of the factory labourers. Women joined the labour market in greater and greater numbers. The bourgeoisie brought in new contingents of immigrant workers. The working class grew in numbers, and its weight grew in the economy.
To flood the market with low-priced products, the capitalists introduced assembly-line and shift work. The working week was 48 hours for 53% of manual workers in 1966, 50 hours in construction and 55 hours in steel. Although the increase in consumption was real, the gap between the classes never ceased to widen. Housing difficulties were great, and there were still shanty towns around the big cities.
Becoming aware of the growing inequalities, the workers began to demand their share of the growth, through substantial wage rises. From December 1966 there were several strikes, at Dassault in Bordeaux, and then, in February and March 1967, at Rhodiaceta and Berliet, near Lyon; in engineering at Nantes, in the shipyards at Saint-Nazaire, and in the Lorraine iron mines. In January 1968, there was violent confrontation between strikers at Saviem, in Caen, and the police.
It was the coming-together of the revolt of the youth, politicised by contact with the generations who had fought against the war in Algeria, and who could find no place in a reactionary and corrupt society epitomised by the rule of De Gaulle, with the exasperation of the working class, which gave birth to the events of May 1968. The accumulated discontent, which until then had been kept under a lid, suddenly liberated itself, exploded, and began to become aware of itself and to organise itself.