On the morning of June 10, 1968—a couple of weeks after French labor unions signed an agreement with Prime Minister Georges Pompidou to put an end to a crippling general strike—workers at the Wonder battery factory in the northern Parisian suburb of St. Ouen voted to return to the job.
Later that afternoon, as union representatives conferred outside the factory gates with the rank and file, an amateur camera crew captured the scene. The group’s 10-minute film, Wonder, May ’68, focuses on a young woman who has drawn a crowd around her.
“No!” she barks at her union rep, fighting back tears and shaking her head as he tries to console her by listing management’s modest concessions. “I’m not going back inside. I’m not putting my feet back in that prison.”
The woman has the unmistakable glow of raised expectations, that special energy that comes from successful collective action. When you convince yourself you’re capable of changing the world by banding together with your co-workers, the feeling of power that results doesn’t fade easily. In France, during the months of May and June 1968, millions of other workers caught the bug: Between 7 and 9 million went on strike. Hundreds of thousands of them did so while occupying their factories, as at Wonder in St. Ouen.
The fact is all too often neglected, if not outright forgotten, today. The unprecedented wave of protests and strikes that swept across France for a few weeks in 1968—known today simply as “May ’68”—was, at its core, a workers’ movement. This was the largest wildcat general strike in the history of capitalism: a mass revolt against low pay, poor working conditions, and the hierarchical, dehumanizing organization of the capitalist workplace itself.
Events in the Left Bank of Paris simply provided the spark. Ironically, they’ve since become better known than the actual strike movement. On May 3, hundreds of college students gathered for a general assembly in the courtyard of the Sorbonne University. Administrators responded by calling the riot police—the infamous CRS—who subsequently marched onto campus and arrested hundreds of protesters, including student leaders. This, in turn, enraged the burgeoning student movement, culminating in nighttime skirmishes with the CRS known as the “Night of the Barricades.” On the morning of May 11, French people woke up to images of smoldering barricades in the heart of Paris, of overturned cobblestones, of riot cops beating students.
Then, the most important phase of the revolt kicked off.
On May 13, France’s two largest unions—the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT)—joined students in solidarity marches across the country, decrying police repression. While unions themselves didn’t call for further action, workers took initiative on their own, launching strikes and occupying factories across France. First, the Sud-Aviation factory outside of Nantes; eventually, plants belonging to Renault, Citroën, and the state-run energy company; soon, the postal service, the public rail company, and the entirety of the country ground to a halt.