An Introduction to May ’68 in Five Books

From an exhibition in Paris at the Bibliothèque nationale, 17 February–31 March, 1982
From an exhibition in Paris at the Bibliothèque nationale, 17 February–31 March, 1982 | © Racconish / WikiCommons
To mark the 50th anniversary of May ’68, we take a look at five books that tell the story of France’s historic month where protests, strikes and civil unrest swept the nation.

May ’68 was one of the most tumultuous months in French history. It was described by Kristin Ross, author and professor at New York University, as ‘the largest mass movement in French history, the biggest strike in the history of the French workers’ movement’. Originating among the student body at Paris Nanterre University, the movement soon spread to the workforce, with over 11 million workers striking in cities across the country. The economy virtually ground to a halt and French President Charles de Gaulle momentarily fled the country, in fear of a full-blown revolution.

Fifty years on, May ’68 continues to play a divisive role in the cultural and political consciousness of France. Emmanuel Macron, the country’s current president, stressed the importance of both commemorating the events, but also refraining from weighing too heavily for or against the movement. To mark the 50th anniversary, we take a look at five books – from fiction to eye-witness accounts to visual arts – that provide a brief snapshot of the movement’s key events and much debated cultural and political legacy.

‘On the Poverty of Student Life’ by Members of the Internationale Situationniste and Students of Strasbourg

Where better to begin than with the pamphlet that was central in inspiring French students to revolt. Published in 1966, the pamphlet called students to evaluate and question their subservience to state ideology. Slammed by a local newspaper as ‘the first concrete manifestation of a revolt aiming quite openly at the destruction of society’, the pamphlet stoked the fires of an increasingly dissatisfied student and worker population. On the Poverty of Student Life is key reading for those wishing to better understand the movement, from the very people who called for change in the streets of Paris, Toulouse, and other major cities around the country.

'On the Poverty of Student Life' © Active Distribution

‘Beauty Is in the Street: A Visual Record of the May ’68 Paris Uprising’ by Johan Kugelberg

‘Sous les pavés, la plage.’ ‘Il est interdit d’interdire.’ Of equal importance to the ideas, was the art of May ’68. With the numerous graphics, posters, cartoons and slogans, the visuals that surrounded the movement were crucial in creating social cohesion and unity, as with any large-scale protest. Johan Kugelberg’s book documents over 200 of these posters, and features photography and translations of first-hand accounts of the events of May ’68.

'Beauty Is in the Street' © Four Corners

‘Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968’ by Daniel Singer

Working as a journalist for The Economist, Daniel Singer experienced the events of May ’68 first hand. In his book, he brings the streets of Paris alive through vivid imagery and sound: ‘Thump, thump . . . “Arise ye damned of the earth” . . . bang, bang . . . “De Gaulle murderer” . . . whamm, whamm . . .’ A socialist writer and thinker, Singer’s account is charged with the optimism of a biased idealist, though is nonetheless a key part of the movement’s literary legacy.

'Prelude to Revolution' © Haymarket Books

‘The Holy Innocents’ by Gilbert Adair

Best known for being adapted into the movie The Dreamers (2003) starring Louis Garrel, Eva Green and Michael Pitt, Adair’s novel The Holy Innocents recounts the complicated relationships between three young cinephiles living in Paris. Caught up in their own sexual and intellectual world, they experience the events of May ’68 indirectly, through the closing of the Cinémathèque for example, when its director is fired. Only once they break out of their isolated bubble, do they begin to comprehend the significance of the events taking place around them.

'The Holy Innocents' © Minerva

‘May ’68 and Its Afterlives’ by Kristin Ross

Kristin Ross’s book looks at the way in which the narratives of May ’68 were retrospectively adapted and reappropriated to serve various political agendas. Ross outlines that although the original movement was ‘concerned above all with the question of equality’, it was given ‘a new and counterfeit history, one that erased police violence and the deaths of participants, removed workers from the picture, and eliminated all traces of anti-Americanism, anti-imperialism, and the influences of Algeria and Vietnam’. May ’68 and Its Afterlives is an important text for anyone looking to understand the aftermath of May ’68, and indeed, the ways in which its memory has been distorted.

'May '68 and Its Afterlives' © University of Chicago Press