‘We heard there might be a civil war‘: May 68 seen from abroad

‘We heard there might be a civil war‘: May 68 seen from abroad © France 24

In France, May 1968 has become a symbol of young people and workers in revolt. But how were the events viewed outside the country? FRANCE 24 looks back at the international impact of this historic protest movement, and the sometimes surprising hopes and fears it engendered for the world’s youth and its leaders.

France is marking the fiftieth anniversary of with numerous books, exhibitions and documentaries. But how were the events viewed and experienced overseas?

In May 1968, France’s student protests resembled those of neighbouring countries. But once a general strike paralysed the country, things changed dramatically. In Paris, foreigners were caught off guard by the events. We spoke to three of them: Tewfik Allal, who was an Algerian cinema student; Vasco Martins, a Portuguese conscientious objector at the time; and George Ross, an American teacher and researcher who lived near the occupied Odeon theatre. We also met Maurice Vaïsse, a historian who has combed through the diplomatic archives from the time.

Diplomats worried

Telegrams and dispatches from 1968 reveal that no one was interested in student demonstrations, which bore similarities to those in Italy, the United States and West Germany. But when the country was brought to a standstill by eight million striking workers, the Quai d'Orsay suddenly received panicked messages from its embassies abroad.

And France’s diplomatic partners were not the only ones who were concerned: the 12,000 immigrant workers at Renault’s Billancourt car factory outside Paris were also taken by surprise and even reluctant to strike.

Revolutionary movement spreads to Africa

In May 1968, revolutionary ideas were contagious. In Senegal, a protest movement began at the University of Dakar and soon spread across the country. Maurice Vaïsse, who taught in Senegal at the time, even calls it a "mirror effect" between Paris and Dakar.

In other French-speaking African countries, it was full-blown panic. This mood was encapsulated in a letter from General Bokassa, President of the Central African Republic, to French President Charles de Gaulle, in whom he saw "the only remedy" to the unrest. Bokassa wrote: "The entire Central African people, under my leadership, beg your Excellency to remain in power until the end of their mandate".

FRANCE 24 looks back at a crisis that changed France's image around the world.

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