Feature: Taking to the streets

Date posted: 26 Apr 2013Author: STC

A social and cultural bonfire took hold of Paris in 1968, flaring up in May and disappearing almost without trace by the end of June. The match that first lit the flame was police pressure put on a group of mostly students who gathered together in a hall at Paris University at Nanterre in March for a peaceful demonstration supporting the union of the communist and socialist parties in opposition to the government of President Charles de Gaulle.

Months of protest lead to the university being shut down by police in early May in an attempt to quash the rebellion, followed soon after by the Sorbonne. On 6 May over 20,000 protesters took to the streets of Paris in a mass protest and were met with a brutal response from the police, who responded with tear gas and batons.

The treatment of the protesters inspired sympathy in the wider community that lead to a strike on 13 May during which more than one million people marched through Paris. Spurred on by the support, the core protesters became increasingly active, reclaiming the Sorbonne when it was reopened and making declarations that were increasingly ill-received.

The work force soon joined the protest, and across France a series of strikes took place that peaked at more than 10 million workers. While strikers pushed a largely political agenda, calling for the resignation of de Gaulle, the unions tried to use the action to negotiate better pay and working conditions.

On 29 May de Gaulle secretly fled Paris to avoid further attacks on himself and his government. He went to the French military base in Germany where he was persuaded to return to Paris with the support of his army. On 30 May 500,000 people marched through Paris calling for de Gaulle's resignation, but later that day he countered with a refusal to step down and a government supported rally of 800,000 Gaullists congregated in the Champs Elysees, effectively stamping out the possibility of a revolution.

The spirit that drove the original protests soon faded and in the following months de Gaulle's government gained strength and support. Although there were continued clashes with police, including a bloody protest on Bastille Day in which numerous students and protesters were injured, the influence of the people dissipated.

Alex Lalak

This is an extract from the program for Fury, available at Box Office and The Bar for $10.

Fury, Wharf 1 Theatre, 15 April - 8 June, 2013.