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May '68: Rebels without a Cause?

Key questions

  • What do the French mean when they refer to mai 68 or to l'esprit soixante-huitard?
  • What actually happened in May '68?
  • What did it mean? Was it a failed revolution or mere play-acting?
  • How can we write the history of these events?
  • Why did Nicolas Sarkozy argue that the legacy of May '68 should be 'liquidated'?


The lecture will provide a sense of the national and international context for the (Parisian) events of May '68: the Vietnam War, changes in the French university system, and so on. Then it will give an overview of the events themselves, both the student riots and also the massive general strike, and discuss the Gaullist reponse. Finally it will explore some of the interpretations of May '68 that have been offered by sociologists, historians, political scientists — and, of course, by the participants themselves.

Read the lecture handout; download the lecture PPT presentation


In this week's seminar we will re-enact a recent interview with the most notorious soixante-huitard, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and discuss how May '68 is portrayed and why it remains so controversial. In preparation, you should study the transcript of the interview in the sourcebook, and be ready to discuss the questions provided. In addition, you should read at least one account of May '68 in the general textbooks (e.g. in Gildea, France since 1945 or Sowerwine, France since 1870). You should also look at the following online article (an extended review of an influential book on 68, and a useful overview of the ongoing controversy surrounding its significance):

  • Julian Bourg, ‘Hello to all that: rescuing May 1968’, French Cultural Studies 14.1 (Feb 2003), 117–126.

Which different interpretations of May '68 are referred to in this article? How far do they help you to understand 1968 and its legacy?

We will begin the seminar with the 'interview', and then discuss the portrayal of the events and significance of May '68 by Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the two interviewers, in the light of your wider reading on the topic. Lastly we will work in small groups on a past paper question on May '68.

Further reading

The literature on May '68 is substantial and quite complex. One recent trend that you might find interesting to pursue is the idea of '68 as a moment of 'active citizenship' that continues to hold important symbolic value. Have a look, for example, at these two reflections on May 68 and its significance for today's politics:

  • Christine Fauré, Mai 68 et la révolte du citoyen disparu (Paris, 2008)
  • Kristin Ross, May 68 and its afterlives (Chicago and London, 2002).