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The French May Protest; Subculture

Kristin Ross, a witness in the May 68 event was instrumental in providing most of the information included in this paper. The term “subculture” gained a major significance from the 1940s. Unlike the larger society or culture, it is used to mean a minority of groups that are united around a common belief. These groups can sometimes feel marginalized and left out. Due to this, the groups may then resort to violence. To illustrate the effects of subcultures, this paper looks at the event of the popular May 1968 violent revolution by students and other social groups in France. It was one of the ugliest protests France has ever witnessed. The effects were felt for a long time. What started as a peaceful protest eventually culminated in a major revolt. In order to understand the cause of the violent protests, this paper seeks to discuss subcultures.

Understanding Subcultures

Subcultures can be widely viewed as social groups that have a common motivation. For instance, if one considers a group of revelers in social joints, then the group of merry-makers in the bars, restaurants-basically everywhere-then the group can be considered as a subculture. They can easily influence each other. They are what behavioral scientists call mob psychology. They are peers in the sense that they consider themselves closer to one another. It is always this closeness that makes them unite towards a common goal. Truth be told, some of the groups always conjure to take part in “peaceful” movements that could become violent over time.

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This was the case in the May ’68 event in France. It can be argued that subcultures are mainly associated but not are limited to students and the younger generations. If one considers a group of adolescents who have recently been recruited into the job market, the picture could also come out clearly. If they all work at the same place, they will tend to form a subculture within the organizations where they have been posted. The entire organization is then considered as the larger society whereas it has always been assumed that society and communities are different, this is further from the truth. A community is made up of people who share common characteristics. They could share a common language, tribe, race or ethnicity. It can also be argued that a community can refer to organizations or groups of people with a common goal. A society represents any social setting; it is larger than a community.

Gelder (2008) argues that subcultures tend to be built around public opinions, relationships and propagated by the mass media. Subcultures represent sets of people who have some common beliefs. They have distinct behaviors and are driven by common motivations. They could adopt a common way of dressing. They believe that this makes them unique and distinct from other members of society. They associate with members who also dress the same way they do. To understand subcultures, one only needs to look at different dates in history and particular events that they are ascribed to. They may be able to also have common interests and tastes that make them distinct from other members of the larger society. They have a minority style that makes them different from others. The paper will randomly connect subcultures to the events of the French May Great violent Protests or May 1968 Movement in France.

Kristin Ross was a witness and gives an important chronology of events that did occur.

The administration at Paris University and the students at the institution have been having conflicts among them for a long time. The University students in this scenario can be considered as the subculture. What they share in common is that they belong to the same institution, and are driven by a common goal. On the material day of the protest – 2nd May 1968 – the students at the University met in a united protest. They were protesting against the threats of the University authorities that they would expel several students. The administration had also threatened to close the Sorbonne. The student union then (UNEF) organized for the protests in a bid to express their displeasure at the decisions of the University. The UNEF is still the largest student Union in France to date. Another strike involved the University teachers. The Union of teachers also called for a protest to air their grievances about the invasion of the University by the Police. About 20,000 teachers, students, and supporters marched along the streets, towards Sorbonne. The Sorbonne area was cordoned off by the police at the moment.

The police marched towards the protesters with batons and other weapons. Some members of the crowd dispersed. Some of them remained unmoved. A clique of people within the marching crowd began throwing stones at the police. Barricades were erected on the roads. In response, the police threw tear gas cans at the protesters. Many students were arrested on that day. There were wall slogans on the classroom walls. “Vive De Gaulle” was among the graffiti used on the building of the Law School. The excessive use of force on the protesters by the police was widely opposed. High school student unions also joined in the protests. They supported the strike by the students of Paris University. On the next day of the strike, they joined the protests as well. By doing this, the number of young workers in the united protests was increased. They gathered at the Arc de Triomphe. Some of their demands included:

  • Charges against the students arrested to be dropped unconditionally
  • The police to move away from the University
  • That the university administration reopen Sorbonne and Nanterre University

The negotiations did not yield any viable solutions. The University gave a false report to the media that the government had agreed to re-open the Nanterre University and the Sorbonne.

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The truth though was that the Police were still occupying the premises. This angered the students further. They became revolutionary. On 10th May 1968, a huge crowd of students gathered at the Rive Gauche. The Companies Republicaines de Securite, the French Police, blocked the students from crossing the river. Again, the protesting crowd threw barricades at the charging police. There were negotiations, but they too did not yield any fruits. As a result, there was a confrontation between the protesters and the police. The police arrested hundreds of protesters; several others were injured in the protests. The confrontation was the fiercest and it lasted until the next morning. The events were broadcasted on radio and other mass media the following day. The police were accused of participation in the strikes. There were allegations that they had contributed to burning cars and throwing Molotov cocktails at the rioters. The government was seen to have exercised excessive force on the protesters. This led to the general public sympathizing with the students, teachers, workers and high school students who had participated in the strikes. Poets, singers, activists and various groups joined in condemning the government and the high-handedness of the police.

The brutality of the police came to the fore. Artists voiced their displeasure at the police as well. The communists supported the students, albeit reluctantly. The communists referred to the students as anarchists and adventurers. This was not all. Left Union federations, popularly known as the CGT, and Force Ouvriere, known as CGT-FO, called for a general strike that was slated to last one day. The general demonstration took place on 13, May 1968. This was the climactic demonstration that saw close to a million people march along major streets of Paris. The Police must have been embarrassed by the public backlash at them; on this day they stayed out of the way and out of sight. The then Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, announced that the prisoners had been released and that the Sorbonne had been reopened. This did not convince the protesters. They still carried on with the strike. They became more violent. The students declared the Sorbonne autonomous and “people’s University”. At first, the public supported the students and their leaders. However, when the leaders were invited to national television, they did not behave to the expectation of the public. According to them, they behaved irresponsibly. They accused them of wanting to destroy the “consumer society”. These notwithstanding, some 401 action committees were set up to investigate the grievances levied against the government as well as the French Society. The committees set up included the Sorbonne Occupation Committee. The main references in the committees were two students: Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Alain Krivine.

Workers Joining the Students

Workers also joined the students in the subsequent days of the strike. They occupied most of the factories. At first, they participated in peaceful protests. However, the protests soon became violent. They conducted the first strike at Sud Aviation plant near Nantes. The date was 14th, May 1968. The second strike was at Renault plant, next to the Rouen. By 16th May, workers had occupied about 50 factories. By 17th, May, about 200, 000 workers were involved in the strike. The number rose exponentially over the next few days such that it hit ten million. This represented about two-thirds of the workforce in France. The strikes were not led through union movements; the CGT tried to contain the outbreak of the militancy. The demands of the workers were economic demands and higher wages. But, psychologists have argued that the workers put forward a more political, broader and radical agenda that underscored their genuine demands.

Now, they wanted the then president, De Gaulle, to be ousted. They wanted to run factories as well. This was unacceptable. The union proposed a 35% increase in the minimum wage and a 7% rise for other workers. This was selfish. Major employers’ associations were also involved. The workers refused to return to work. Instead, they jeered at their union leaders. The fact is that there were a lot of anti-unionist euphorias. The euphoria was directed at the CGT, FO and the CFDT unions. These were the groups that were willing to compromise with the demands. On the 26th, May saw the Grenelle agreements conducted between the workers and the Ministry of Social Affairs. The agreement saw the Ministry of Social Affairs propose a 25% minimum wage increase and a 10% rise in average salaries. The workers rejected the offers and the protests carried on. Intellectuals and the working class joined in the revolution. It was major solidarity that sought to see to it that there was a major change in the rights of the workers. In the subsequent days that followed, the UNEF, the largest student union in France, gathered about 50,000 people at the Stade Sebastien Charlety. The meetings were mostly militant; the speakers demanded that the government be overthrown, an election held and a new government is brought into the office.

The socialists took advantage of the situation to see President de Gaulle ousted. They expected to compromise between the communists and the president. The Federation of the Democratic and Socialist Left, through its leader, Francois Mitterrand, declared a state of emergency and the readiness to form a new government. These were propaganda that he used to help win favor with the socialists. His plan seemed to have worked because he continued to garner support from the public. President Gaulle was left with no option but to bulge to their demands. He fled the country in a calculated move to avoid bloodshed among his supporters and the supporters of the revolution. This time around the police avoided the use of force. What started as a protest by university students had turned into the greatest revolution France has ever witnessed. It showed what a united uprising can achieve.

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The Relevance of Subculture

The subculture in this scenario is represented by the students, teachers, workers and the top intellectuals in the society. They were able to work together towards a common cause. They wanted better working conditions – better salaries. They represented the new social movements within society. They won favor with the public. They sympathized with them and supported them throughout the course. Of course, there were casualties; loss of lives. Subcultures, in this case, helped the workers occupy the factories. But, it can also be argued that subcultures can sometimes be misused. In the case of the “May, 68”, the leaders of the federations and unions used the protests to their advantage. They used it as a platform to get to power. This was after they plotted to oust President Gaulle. The impact of subcultures is fast being felt in various parts of the world. Its members are able to respond to situations and see to it that they are corrected.

The subculture helped the students at the Paris University to come as one and protest against the threats of the university to close the University and expel some of the students. It also saw the reopening of the Sorbonne. The Police had to stay away after their high-handedness was exposed by the media, namely the radio and the television networks showed their captured “brutality”. Again, this brings an important question: What is the role of the media in subcultures? Psychologists argue that members of a subculture are able to gang up within the shortest time when they have a common motivation. This seemed to have been the May, 68. Through the exposure, the students were able to come together. Their plights were resonated across other major social groups as well. Soon the workers, teachers and high school students joined. The number kept rising. It hit the ten million mark in a matter of weeks. This was quite phenomenal and points towards the effects of subcultures and their ability to achieve quick results. Could it be that these groups have a common Psychology? This question has baffled many a scientist, with a bias for behavioral scientists.

Subcultures are associated with resistance and opposition, just like it was witnessed in the case investigated. Subcultures have a profound effect in any society. One outstanding element of subcultures is the fact that they are composed of people who are intellectually oriented and are able to unite towards a common goal. Subcultures can lead to coups and ousting of governments. The social groups are able to articulate their grievances within the shortest time possible. The French case was a typical example of this. The numbers joining the streets skyrocketed within a short time. In a matter of weeks, the number stood at two-thirds of the French workforce. The trends of subcultures are worrying. Sometimes they are based on fallacies of mob psychology; members of the subculture tend to just play along. Subcultures can lead to anarchies if not well controlled. The groups often feel marginalized and not well represented. It is always a fight between the “greater society” and the subcultures.


May 1968 will forever remain engrossed in the memories of the French people. It represented a significant era of subculture. It brought to the fore the influence of subcultures in society. After May 1968, the topic has been widely covered. Today, subcultures are taken seriously. The date of the great protest is important in history and appears in so many historical books and archives. Subcultures exist in every society today; they will continue to exist. May 1968 will forever be an important reference in French politics. It represented the possibility of liberations associated with subcultures. The students averted the possibility of closure of the Sorbonne. They also saw to it that all the students who had been arrested were released. The workers were able to negotiate for better pay packages. But, they also misused the opportunity. They became greedy. They became political and planned to oust the government. Was this a manipulation on their part? This question then leads me to another side of subculture: subcultures can be a recipe to anarchies.

It saw the demise of the collective action that had been employed traditionally. It saw the start of a new era, an era that would be dominated by the “new social movements”. These new social movements constitute subcultures. Gelder (2008) argues that subcultures should not only be seen as confrontational or associated with the opposition. Rather, they should be viewed as catalysts of change. American society is experiencing a phenomenon where adolescents are increasingly becoming rebellious and living “outside” their parents’ social status. If it is not a rebellion, it is a change.