Two of the biggest crises in post-war French history: May 1958 and May 1968

Over the last two weekends, I’ve spent a day at the City Literary Institute in central London on a course looking at a period of crisis in post-war French history which occurred 60 years ago and 50 years ago this month respectively. In each case, the lecturer was the French Sebastien Ardouin.  He was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic, providing handouts of 31 pages and 43 pages respectively.

The crisis of May 1958 was the result of turbulent events in Algeria which was then a French colony where a a war of independence had been running for four years. Following the bombing of a village across the Algerian border in Tunisia, the French government collapsed and the Fourth Republic was abandoned. Charles de Gaulle emerged from 12 years outside of politics to take on a much strengthened presidency at the head of a new Fifth Republic with diminished power for the National Assembly and the Senate. Four years later, de Gaulle felt compelled to agree to Algerian independence.

The Fifth Republic remains the political framework for France and you can read my guide to the French political system here.

The crisis of May 1968 began with student protests at Nanterre outside Paris over the ban on male students visiting female students but rapidly expanded to embrace a whole range of demands for educational and poltical reform. When the workers joined the protests some 10 million went on strike for higher wages and improved working conditions. For a time, de Gaulle – still president after 10 years – went missing and the government seemed on the point of collapse. But de Gaulle called a general election which the Gaullists won with an overall majority and de Gaulle hung on to power for another year.

I am old enough to remember the May 1968 demonstrations which were part of a worldwide revolt against authority, racism and the Vietnam War. In many areas – such as racial and sexual emancipation – we still have a great deal to do. The struggle continues …


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