The uprising on America’s streets is straight out of 1968; France 1968. The similarities between America 2020 and France 1968 are startling.
Those similarities include widespread discontent with the social, political, and economic order, an unpopular president, and frustration with a conservative and increasingly authoritarian culture. In France in 1968 the repression and frustration led to an populist uprising that toppled the political system.
At the center of the storm was France’s President Charles de Gaulle. In 1968 France, De Gaulle was a controversial figure. Part of the populace viewed de Gaulle as the hero who had led the resistance against the Nazis and the savior of France.
However, many French viewed de Gaulle as a reactionary tyrant without a popular mandate. Hence in 1968, de Gaulle was a controversial figure similar to President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) in 2020 America.
The French revolt of Mai 1968 (May 1968) began as a simple protest against the Vietnam War and restrictive policies at the University of Paris at Nanterre. During the protest students occupied administration buildings.
France May 1968
In retaliation, French authorities arrested students and closed the university. On May 3, 1968, those arrests inspired protests at the Sorbonne University in Paris. That protest led to rioting and police repression.
Tens of thousands took to the streets and fought the police. In traditional French fashion, the protesters built barricades in the streets.
Then on May 13, 1968, the workers joined in shutting down the factories, the railroads, and even the postal system. The French economy ground to a halt. Angry workers demanded higher pay and some of them occupied factories.
The End of Charles De Gaulle
Caught in the middle was France’s President Charles de Gaulle, the self-proclaimed of Free French forces in World War II. At first, de Gaulle ignored the protests.
On May 24, de Gaulle addressed the nation on television. On 29 May 1968 de Gaulle fled the country to a French military base in Germany. The President returned the next day and gave a radio speech. On 31 May 1968, a million de Gaulle supporters marched through Paris in support of their hero.
De Gualle survived the chaos by dissolving parliament and calling for new elections. In June, deGaulle’s party won a majority in the new parliament.
However, in April 1969, de Gaulle kept a promise to resign if voters rejected a referendum affirming his role as national leader. Voters called de Gaulle’s bluff and rejected the referendum so the president resigned.
May 1968 ended De Gaulle’s political career but his conservative political movement; the Union for the New Republic, emerged as the most powerful force in French politics.
The Compromise of 1968
In France, May 1968 started as a revolution and ended in compromise. To explain, French leaders averted civil war by trying to give everybody something.
The Grenelle Agreements of 1968 raised France’s minimum wage by 35% and raised all wages by 10%. Additionally, workers won a 40 hour week. Six months after the revolt, French authorities broke the gigantic Sorbonne into 13 smaller universities.
May 1968 marked the beginning of France’s modern welfare state. Before 1968, France lagged behind countries such as Britain and Germany in worker rights and government benefits. Today, many observers regard France’s welfare state as the world’s most advanced.
France 1968 vs America 2020
There are some intriguing similarities between France 1968 and America 2020.
First, nobody saw the May 1968 revolt in France or the June 2020 uprising coming. In March 1968, the Le Monde newspaper quipped that the French were too bored to revolt.
Le Monde made the claims because France was peaceful and prosperity. However, many French were not sharing in that peace and prosperity.
Few people in America expected an uprising. Indeed, America’s left resigned itself to the lackluster moderate leadership of Joe Biden (D-Delaware) three months before the revolt.
Second, both revolts began as routine protests. May 1968 began as a standard student demonstration about dorm rules and Vietnam. June 2020 began as protests against the police killing of an African American, a tragic but hardly new occurrence in America.
Popular Uprising to Cultural Upheaval
In both cases, routine protest became a catalyst for a popular uprising. Notably, the George Floyd protests have morphed from calls for police reform to demands to dismantle a racist power structure.
Third, there is a cultural element to the revolt. The French regard May 1968 as the beginning of feminism and the sexual revolution in their country. Many Americans are treating June 2020 as an opportunity to change racial and cultural norms.
Fourth, in May 1968 was a revolt against all authority, moral, philosophical and government. America’s June 2020 revolt is assuming a similar tone. For example, the bizarre slogans “Abolish the Police,” and “Defund the Police.” Notably, big corporations are responding to the June 2020 revolt by deleting content some people see as racist.
Fifth, there is a generational element. In France students led the revolt. In America, young people, blacks in particular, are leading the revolt.
Will Workers Join the Revolt?
There are significant differences between the revolts. In particular, American workers have not joined the uprising yet.
However, one reason why workers have not joined the protests or struck is that coronavirus has shut down many workplaces. Yet there is a rising wave of labor unrest in the United States.
For instance, 2019 saw the highest level of strikes since 2018, Vox claims. Public school teachers, in particular, struck in several states including West Virginia. Teachers also struck in major cities including Denver, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
Notably, even hotel cleaners struck at Marriott (NASDAQ: MAR). In April 2019, “essential workers” at Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), Instacart, Walmart (NYSE: WMT), Target (NYSE: TGT), and FedEx (NYSE: FDX) struck, The Intercept reports.
America will become France 1968 if workers join the revolt. Given the horrendous conditions at many work places I think workers joining the protests is inevitable.
Trump vs. De Gaulle
What happens if workers strike and shut down Amazon at the same time the crowds are in the streets?
Will it force President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida); who claims to champion workers while attacking protesters, out of office? I think Trump’s supporters will stand by him if he sends troops against blacks. However, those supporters could change their minds if Trump deploys troops against white workers.
Interestingly, one major Republican; and prominent Trump critic, U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) is making common cause with protesters. Notably, Trump’s efforts to appeal to a silent majority have not triggered a counter revolution as de Gaulle’s radio address did.
How will June 2020 End?
One important difference is that America’s Constitution schedules a Presidential election for November 2020.
Conversely, it is clear many Americans no longer trust the electoral system to represent their interests. Instead, those people are turning to direct action.
On the other hand, Trump is a controversial and larger than life leader with authoritarian tendencies like de Gaulle. Trump, however, lacks de Gaulle’s moral authority as a general and resistance leader.
One possible outcome of June 2020 could be the withdrawal of groups such as Christians from political life. Another is a deeper and more destructive level of political polarization. Notably, there are calls to strip some conservatives; including Trump, of their Constitutional rights.
If June 2020 is America’s Mai 1968, the United States could be a vastly different place in the near future. May 1968 was the beginning of a New France. Hence, June 2020 could be the beginning of a New America.