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The French-Algerian War as a Root of French Social Unrest During the 1960s

Updated on January 6, 2017
J Schatzel profile image

J. Schatzel works in healthcare administration in rural upstate New York and has a master's degree in history.


The social problems experienced in during the late 1960s were partly rooted in France’s history of occupation in Algeria. The French-Algerian War, also known as the Algerian War of Independence, lasted nearly eight years, cost over a million lives, and turned Frenchmen against Frenchmen while returning Charles De Gaulle to power in France.[1] The French colonial experience in Algeria, marked by warfare, nuclear testing, terrorism, and torture, “is a wound that never quite seems to close.”[2] While it was not the sole source of 1960s social unrest in France, post French-Algerian War sentiments in France contributed to the national sense of social revolution, political turbulence, and economic strife which led to such events as the May 1968 riots.[3]

For one hundred and fifty years, Algeria was considered a vital organ of the French political and economic body, known as “Overseas France.”[4] From the early days of French colonialism in Africa to DeGaulle’s Fifth Republic, Algeria served as a key instrument of French diplomacy.[5] Algerian conquest was a means through which France hoped to compensate for territory lost during the Franco-Prussian war, and “regain its rank in the European concert.”[6] The Algerian War, spanning eight years from 1954 to 1962, concluded with the Evian Accords Peace Treaty on March 18th of 1962.[7] Upon the Evian Accords’ declaration of Algerian freedom from French occupation, Algeria became independent of French imperial colonization for the first time since 1830.[8] Until 1962, French “Pieds Noirs” inhabited colonial Algerian territory and participated in Algeria’s manufacturing, mining, and agricultural economy through what historian James Heartfield contends was a French rejection of Universal Humanism.[9] Many Algerians, having fought under the French flag during World War II, resented their lack of representation in French parliament, and increasingly yearned for independence from French control. Whereas Charles De Gaulle proclaimed “Vive l’Algerie Francaise” in June of 1958, Algerian self-determination allowed for the defeat of a French attempt at a military coup in April of 1961, and enabled an eventual Algerian independence in 1962.[10] With a population of nearly eleven million people in the early 1960s, Algerian nationalism grew as assimilationists, Muslim Algerian nationalists, and proletarian radical National Liberation Front activists emphasized Algeria’s hunger for independence from French imperialism.[11]

French colonialism degraded the idea of a “universal humanity” by delegating the subservient status of the “other” to the natives of the colonized Algeria. Through France’s rejection of Algerian aspirations of independence and equality, France was in effect rejecting Universal Humanism, leading to such instances of protest and activism as student movements seizing French government offices in Algeria in May of 1958.[12] While oil reserves discovered by Geologists in 1956 made Algeria an economically appealing colony to France for potential future resources, Charles De Gaulle decided that the costs of maintaining control over an agitated Algeria were not worth the potential economic gains from Algeria’s oil reserves.[13]

According to a 1955 Time Magazine article,

“[t]hree times the size of Texas, Algeria takes in a swatch of the Sahara, two broad seams of the Atlas Mountains, and a 100-mile-wide ribbon of fertile Mediterranean littoral where most of its largely Moslem population lives. Pacified, colonized, civilized through 125 years, Northern Algeria is officially a part of metropolitan France, and sends its Deputies to the Paris Parliament.“[14]

Five years after its characterization of Algeria as an economic gem of the French colonial empire, Time Magazine reflected the changing state of French colonialism in North Africa through the assertion that “barely twenty months after it destroyed one French republic, the unrelenting Algerian revolt last week threatened the life of another. Across the wide boulevards of Algiers crackled the sound all France had so long feared to hear- the sound of Frenchmen shooting at Frenchmen.”[15] French failure to secure Algeria as a permanent part of the French empire was in large part due to the failure of French state-building capacity on such a grand scale, especially without the support of the Algerian people in French attempts to legitimize and stabilize central state rule within colonized French territory.[16] Using large settlement populations in place of a large military presence to secure French control of Algeria, France sought to incorporate Algeria into the economic, geographic, social, and political realm of the French empire.[17]

[1] Mark Tessler, “Political Generations in Developing Countries: Evidence and Insights from Algeria.” The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol.68, No.2, (Summer 2004). Pp.184-216.

[2] Steven Erlanger, “Films Open French Wounds From Algeria” The New York Times, (January 3, 2011) P.A4. <>

[3] Richard Brody, Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean Luc Godard, New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2008) Chapter 4.

[4] Uri Ben-Elizer, “Is a Military Coup Possible in Israel? Israel and French Algeria in Comparative Historical-Sociological Perspective.” Theory and Society, Vol.27, No.3, (June 1998). Pp.312.

[5] Pierre Lellouche, “French Policy in Africa: A Lonely Battle Against De-Stabilization” International Security, Vol.3, No.4 (Spring 1979) p.110.

[6] Lellouche, 110.

[7] Philip Naylor, “France and Algeria: A History of Decolonization and Transformation,” The Journal of Modern History. Vol.75, No.1, (March 2003) Pp. 182-183.

[8] James Heartfield. “Algeria and the Defeat of French Humanism,” (Chapter 6) The Death of the Subject, Explained. (Sheffield Hallam University Press: London, 2002)

[9] Alistair Horne. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. (Viking Adult: London, 1978). p.27.

[10] Heartfield, p.27.

[11] Heartfield, 27

[12] Heartfield, 12.

[13] William Blum, “1960-1966 Algeria: The General’s Plot Against De Gaulle” Press for Conversion, Issue 51, (May 2003). P.22.

[14] “France’s Troubled North Africa.” Time Magazine, (Monday, Sep. 05, 1955) < magazine/article/0,9171,893047-2,00.html>

[15] “France: The Test for De Gaulle” Time Magazine, (Monday, Feb. 01, 1960) < magazine/article/0,9171,826041,00.html>

[16] Ian Lustick, State Building Failure in British Ireland and French Algeria, (Institute of International Studies: California, 1949) p.2.

[17] Lustick, 5-7.

Algerian Rebellion from French Colonialism

To France, Algeria was intended to serve as a “prolongation of France across the Mediterranean,” where myriads of French settlers would fill the African nation with small farms and European styled villages.[1] The resulting increase in violence, political instability, and rhetoric of freedom, justice, and revolt were written about extensively in abstract terms by such social icons as Albert Camus; novelist and philosopher of the 1950s.[2] French colonization of Algeria operated under the assumption that large settler populations strategically placed throughout marginal regions of the desired territory would interrupt the natural process of elite cooptation and resulting expansion of political influence of the growing native Algerian elite.[3] Although the Algerian attainment of independence meant political autonomy for the Algerian nation, Algerian citizens were met with the challenge of living among the many of the very French settlers whose presence was meant to co-opt their Algerian freedom.[4]

The end of the French-Algerian War resulted in the withdrawal of three hundred thousand French troops from Algeria, as the Fifth Republic began a “progressive disengagement from Africa” in which French economic, military, and diplomatic interests increasingly turned from Algeria towards Europe.[5] Upon Algerian independence, forty percent of French farmers in Algeria left their farms and repatriated to France.[6] While this led to an agrarian revolution in Algeria, nine hundred thousand French citizens moved from Algeria to France following the 1962 Evian Accords, adding 1.6 percent to the national labor supply, and resultantly lowering annual salaries by 1.3 percent by 1967. Unemployment rates rose in France by 3 percent as French repatriates settled disproportionately in southern France. While internal French migrants were discouraged from moving to areas already densely populated by the newly arrived repatriates, repatriates found such closeness to other repatriates attractive, thus over eighty percent of repatriates settled in the provinces of Languedoc and Provence-Cote d’Azur.[7]

According to anthropologist Kjell Halvorsen, the French colonization of Algeria both “began and ended with long periods of direct violence and incredible brutality.”[8] However, the string of violent mass-action spread from the Algerian former French territory to the French homeland. The revolutionary effort was crystallized by the establishment of an official party with official leadership under the Front de Liberation Nationale in 1954, and extended through the next decade beyond Algerian independence. Algerian rebellion from French colonialism was the result of a mass Algerian aversion to oppression under French rule. A shared conviction through a sense of communal solidarity among Algerians led to the growth of grassroots movements throughout Algeria, spreading into France.[9] Such movements of mass action were embraced in France by students and workers, who formed their own rebellions from French power in the late 1960s. By 1956, France was painfully aware of its declining status as a world power, and feared the humiliation of being driven from its African empire. Amidst the climate of increasing political instability, Frenchmen became progressively more nationalistic. As the subject of much of the 1962 French cultural icon The Golden Notebook,[10] the Algerian War brought France’s “pent up frustrations to the boiling point… thus Algeria could serve as a rallying point for practically any group having a grievance against the republic.”[11] French policy toward Algeria between 1963 and 1974 was a slow process of gradual disengagement, in which nuclear testing, the occupation of four military bases, and occasional French involvement in north African conflicts persisted despite Algerian independence; serving as a constant reminder of anti-Algerian War sentiments of the preceding decade.[12]

[1] Lustick, 7.

[2] Emily Apter, “Out of Character: Camus’s French Algerian Subjects” Modern Language Notes, Vol.112, No.4, (Sept.1997) Pp.499-516.

[3] Lustick, 8.

[4] Lustick, 8.

[5] Lellouche, 116.

[6] Nico Kielstra, “The Agrarian Revolution and Algerian Socialism” M.E.R.I.P Reports, No.67, (May 1978). Pp.5-11+26.

[7] Jennifer Hunt, “The Impact of the 1962 Repatriates from Algeria on the French Labor Market.” Industrial And Labor Relations Review, Vol.45, No.3, (April 1992) Pp.556-572.

[8] Kjell Halvorsen, “Colonial Transformation of Agrarian Society in Algeria” Journal of Peace Research, Vol.15, No.4, (1978) Pp.323-343.

[9] Paul A. Beckett, “Algeria Vs. Fenon: The Theory of Revolutionary Decolonization, and the Algerian Experience.” The Western Political Quarterly, Vol.26, No.1, (March 1973), P.17.

[10] Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1962). Pp.569+572-574+610.

[11] Alexander Smith, “Algeria and the French Moderes: The Politics of Immoderation.” Western Political Quarterly, Vol.18, No.1, (March 1965) p.117.

[12] Lellouche, 118.

May 1968 Riots

Charles DeGaulle had two goals in his return to power through the Fifth Republic. The first was to reorganize France at home, and the second was to reorganize the “world of nations to reestablish the French place.”[1] The French Communist Party opposed DeGaulle, referring to Gaullism as an expression of favoritism to monopoly capitalism.[2] The “Fifth French Republic,”[3] or “Gaullist France,”[4] spanning the years from 1959 through 1974, witnessed much opportunism, adventurism, revisionism, reformism, as evidenced through the May 1968 revolt in which the working class mobilized for political action in a spirit of collective anarchism and “revolutionary fervor.”[5] Student revolutionaries and radicals, amidst the growing popular commitment to social change, “inherited a complicated heritage of rivalry” from the French-Algerian war, a heritage in which competing forces of Communists, radicals, Catholics, and Socialists struggled for power in France.[6] In fear of the “decline of France as a cultural icon,”[7] historians and anthropologists “generally characterize the 1960s as a decade of social turmoil and upheaval” amidst a public “journey of self discovery.”[8] From the rising price of paper products and stamps after the war due to the cessation of French exploitation of Algerian forests,[9] to the rising unemployment and lowering national wages, the French Algerian war impacted French life in a way which contributed to the growing sense of national economic, political, and social instability at the heart of the May ‘68 riots.

The causes of the May 1968 student revolts and industrial worker strikes were varied, however through a “simultaneity and commonality of purpose,” the students and strikers caused a tumult in France which came as an avalanche of socio-political upheaval.[10] Postwar workers in manufacturing became “excessively politicized,” and joined ranks with the dissenting students to further their own cause.[11] Although the students were revolting due to such catalysts as their growing discontent with the rigid centralism of the French school system, growing unemployment of graduating students, and insufficient educational facilities for the rapidly growing student population, industrial strikers banded together with the students in a movement of solidarity to further their own cause through expanded manpower.[12] Discontent among students as well as apprehension among those already in the working world combined to “leave their mark” on the May crisis.[13] Just as historian Edward Shorter asserts that “aggregation of individual unhappiness produces mass unhappiness, and therewith protest and revolt,”[14] the anti-Gaullist students banded together with workers discontented with post-Algerian War unemployment rates and decreasing wages, in a movement of socio-political mass action.

The May 1968 Riots were comprised of two distinct groups of participants. The Demonstrators, well-educated anti-Gaullist leftists, were dissatisfied with their jobs and remarkably sensitive to the perceived inadequacies in both educational opportunities for young people, especially government efforts to overcome them.[15] The demonstrations in France thus revolved around two principal elements of the French political atmosphere in the late 1960s; the left-right axis and attitudes toward Charles DeGaulle.[16] The strikers’ bond of solidarity with the student demonstrators who incited the demonstration in the first place lies in the “extent to which they perceived social injustice in educational terms.”[17] While the workers were not as resolutely anti-Gaullist as were the students, they were dissatisfied with their share of the national income following DeGaulle’s perceived abandonment of Algeria and the resulting displacement of the French workforce. In Algeria’s transition from colonialism to independence, France struggled to become a modern nation; turning its colonial project “back in on itself as a means of reaffirming a nationally distinctive and modern way of life in a way which, assimilated changing patterns of consumption” echoed the displacement of the French empire.[18] The French political system was becoming unstable, non-federal, and elitist; frequently lapsing into intervals of anti-democratic paternalist political trends.[19] In May of 1968, French schools and factories were forced to close, the French economy screeched to a halt, and the government of the fifth republic nearly fell as demonstrating students and striking workers banded together for economic and political change.[20] The May 1968 unrest was an extension of several earlier protest movements, including protests against the Algerian War by the Algerian Nationalist movement.[21] “French laborers, acting in concert with students in an act of solidarity, took over their own factories and held massive wildcat strikes all over France. Eventually, the combined efforts of bourgeois students and proletarian workers brought the Gaullist government to its knees.”[22]

[1] John Zyman, “The French State in the International Economy” International Organization, Vol.31, No.4, (Autumn 1977). Pp.839-877..

[2] Kenneth Libbey, “The French Communist Party in the 1960s: An Ideological Profile.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol.11, No.1 (January 1976). Pp.145-165.

[3] Frank Wilson, “Party Cohesion in the French National Assembly: 1958-1973” Legislative Studies Quarterly, Vol.1, No.4, (November 1976) pp.467-490.

[4] William G. Andrews, “The Constitutional Prescription of Parliamentary Procedures in Gaullist France.” Legislative Studies Quarterly, Vol.3, No.3, (August 1978). P. 465.

[5] Libbey, 153.

[6] Libbey, 155-156+162-163.

[7] Bertram Gordon, “The Decline of a Cultural Icon: France In American Perspective,” French Historical Studies, Vol.22, No.4, (Autumn 1999), Pp.651

[8] George H. Shoemaker, “Mai ’68 and the Traditionalization of French Shadow Theater” The Journal Of American Folklore, Vol.107, No.425, (Summer 1994) p.366.

[9] S.E. Zaimeche, “Change, the State and Deforestation: The Algerian Example” The Geographical Journal. Vol.60, No.1, (March 1994). P.50.

[10] Edward Shorter, Strikes in France: 1830-1968. (Cambridge University Press: New York, 1974). P.353.

[11] Shorter, 184.

[12] Daniel Singer, Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968. (Hill and Wang: Massachusetts, 1970). P. 54.

[13] Singer, 74.

[14] Shorter, 288.

[15] Roy Pierce, “Attitudinal Sources of Protest Behavior in France: Differences Between Before and After Measurement.” The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol.54, No.3, (Autumn 1990) pp.297-298.

[16] Pierce, 298.

[17] Pierce, 298.

[18] Mark Ingrahm, “A Nationalist Turn in French Cultural Policy” The French Review, Vol.71, No.5, (April 1998) P.801.

[19] Ian Weinberg, “Student Politics and Political Systems: Toward a Typology.” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol.75, No.1 (July 1969). P.85.

[20] Shoemaker, 366.

[21] Shoemaker, 367.

[22] Shoemaker, 368.

The 1968 Demonstrations

Algeria won its independence in 1962 after a war that shook France, spurred the downfall of the Fourth Republic, and caused nearly a million Pieds Noirs, amidst at least one hundred thousand Algerian supporters of French rule, known as Harkis, to emigrate en-bloc to France. “It is a wound,” according to Benjamin Stora, a French historian of Algeria and French colonialism. “Algeria is France, it is part of the history of French nationalism. Algeria continues to obsess people and still torments French society.” Algeria is not France’s Vietnam, Stora asserts, but is instead something more ingrained. “It is much more complicated to exorcise it here, and then on top of that we have the Pieds Noirs and the Harkis,”[1] As shown through a 1961 Time Magazine article, Algeria was woven through the economic, political, and social fabric of France by the 1960s.

“Since 1947, when Algerians were allowed to enter France freely as full citizens, they have flooded into the country in what French sociologists call the Immigration of Hunger. Now three hundred and fifty thousand strong, they are a vital segment of the labor force, and do most of France's back-breaking labor from road building to stevedoring. They live in slums but earn union-scale wages—dazzling by Arab standards. As a result, they not only support one-fifth of all Algerian families, but bankroll the National Liberation Front itself.”[2]

Algeria, Africa's second largest country, was colonized by the French beginning in the nineteenth century. However, unlike the neighboring French protectorates of Tunisia or Morocco, Algeria was considered French territory; legally a mere extension of mainland France itself, and by the middle of the twentieth century was home to over one million French settlers. The French Algerian War thus left deep psychological scars in both countries. For many of the one and half million French veterans, the conflict is known as "la Guerre sans Nom" and still evokes complex emotions more than 40 years later with some feeling shame and regret, others bitterness and anger.[3] Relations between France and Algeria have never been simple; shaped by memories of the brutal war which led to Algeria's independence from France in 1962, and the subsequent exodus of French settlers.[4] The ensuing rise in unemployment, lowering of national wages, and influx of people with politically polarized perspectives added to the French sense of insecurity as the 1960s progressed. The socio-economic causes of the May 1968 riots were heavily interwoven with the political atmosphere of post-Algerian-War France.[5] The aftermath of the French-Algerian War was not the sole catalyst of the May 1968 riots and strikes; however the lingering social unrest following the war contributed to the social, economic, and political circumstances which initiated the riots.[6]

Beginning in February of 1960, France began testing nuclear weapons in Africa amidst the global arms race, the Cold War, and the growing development of nuclear technology.[7] In Reggan, a remote area of the Sahara Desert in south-western Algeria in December of 1960, France successfully tested three atomic bombs with half of the strength of that dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. Seventeen nuclear tests were conducted in Algeria by France between 1960 and 1965; even after the liberation of Algeria, in locations still stationed by French military personnel. [8] Between 1961 and 1963, thirty five plutonium bombs were also tested by France in Algeria, along with 15 underground radioactive waste experiments.[9] Whereas post-war Algerians sought French documentation of exact locations of buried radioactive material for their own safety, French citizens were more concerned with their own realm of the post-war home front, in which employment, education, and earnings seemed to be at stake. With growing numbers of Algerian Pieds Noir and Harkis immigrating to France after 1962, the nuclear testing conducted by France in Algeria remained a little emphasized cause amidst the mass movements for anti-Gaullist student demonstrations and industrial workers’ strikes. Although the nuclear testing did not serve as a cornerstone for the May 1968 riots, the political atmosphere the tests contributed to in France was the very realm of paranoia, French self-interest, colonialism, Gaullism, and large-scale capitalism against which the strikers and workers were positioned.

The “French precedent” of military commanders in Algeria having staged a coup in 1958, is described by historian Daniel Singer as having been one of the many lessons provided by the Algerian war to the May 1968 strikers and demonstrators.[10] Without the “military subversion” presented by General DeGaulle in Algeria, the students harnessed the 1958 coup’s revolutionary undertones in their own 1968 social movement.[11] Caught up in the “mood of the moment,” May 1968 demonstrators and strikers partook in a “strange upheaval” which reflected the victory General DeGaulle had triumphed in Algeria ten years prior.[12] The political consciousness of the student movement was fuelled by the “conventional Left politics” magnified in France by resistance to the Algerian War.[13]

The French student movement of 1968 had a high level of political awareness, due in large part to the 1954-1962 protests French citizens exhibited towards the French Algerian War.[14] Historian Daniel Singer cites the “struggle against the Algerian War” in France as being a precedent to the Later May 1968 “revolutionary youth” spirit which encapsulated the student demonstrators.[15] Likewise, historian Martin Evans contends that the revolutionary sentiments of the Algerian War were “revisited” in the May 1968 demonstrations through student and striker protests.[16] The May 1968 student demonstrators embraced a “strong sense of generational conflict,” indicted by the resistance to the Algerian War nearly a decade before; an expression of their discontent with institutional France on a “much larger scale” in May 1968 than their anti-colonialism movement predecessors.[17] In doing so, demonstrators were following in the French tradition of resistance by youth in a revolutionary movement for the creation of a “distinctive bricolage” of politicized contemporary culture.[18] The “resistance legacy” of the Algerian War was embraced by May 1968 participants, both students and workers alike; whose “autonomy in spirit and character” enabled the successful collaboration between both parties in the May 1968 riots.[19] The “new generation” of students engaged in the May ’68 riots inherited the values of revolution and resistance “pioneered” by earlier resistance to the French-Algerian War.[20] The war in Algeria spurred resistance in France which “opened the way for the 1968 generation.”[21] Many scholars, including Singer, Evans, and historian Todd Shepard contend that the French experience of the “Algerian Revolution” served as the starting point for the “avalanche of events” surrounding the May 1968 riots.[22]

The “deviant student subcultures” of the May 1968 demonstrations were an exhibition of “non-institutionalized politics” in response to the perceived institutional inadequacies of the French education system.[23] Juxtaposition of the May 1968 demonstrations and the Algerian War protests exhibits a gradual elevation of dissatisfaction, followed by a sudden exponential escalation to extremism.[24] In the 1960s, only five percent of university students came from working class families.[25] While the demonstrating students and striking workers did not have common socio-economic backgrounds, they recognized their collective strength in negotiating for their own self interests. As student demonstrations grew in scope in the spring of 1968, dissatisfied workers took advantage of the “momentary weakness of state power” in the middle of May to initiate the largest strike wave in French history.[26]

[1] Erlanger, A4.

[2] “To the Jugular.” Time Magazine. (October 27, 1961). < 0,21428,c_algerian_war,00.shtml>

[3] Benjamin Stora, “Veterans: The French in Algeria” Al Jazeera, (December 20, 2010). <>

[4] Heba Saleh, “Algeria and France: A Tense Relationship” BBC Radio News [Transcript], (February 13, 2001). <>

[5] Tom Narin, The Beginning of the End: France, May 1968. (Verso Publishing: London, 1968). P.90.

[6] Kristin Ross, May ’68 and Its Afterlives. (University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 2002) P.39.

[7] “1960: France Explodes Third Atomic Bomb” BBC On This Day (December 27, 1960). < http://news.>

[8] Tariq Rauf, “Viewpoint: French Nuclear Testing, A Fool’s Errand” The Nonproliferation Review. (Fall 1995) Pp.49-57.

[9] Bruno Barrillot, “The Aftermath of French Nuclear Testing in Algeria,” Damocles, Vol.121, (November 2007). P.3.

[10] Singer, xx.

[11] Singer, 214.

[12] Singer, 217.

[13] Narim, 92.

[14] Narim, 92.

[15] Singer, 278.

[16] Martin Evans, The Memory of Resistance: French Opposition to the Algerian War (1954-1962) (Berg Publishers: New York, 1997). P.147.

[17] Evans, 200.

[18] Evans, 200-201.

[19] Evans, 187-188.

[20] Evans, 57.

[21] Evans, 202.

[22] Todd Shepard, The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France. (Cornell University Press: New York, 2006). P.4.

[23] Weinberg, 78-79.

[24] Weinberg,84.

[25] Weinberg, 86.

[26] Michael Siedman, “Workers in a Repressive Society of Seductiveness: Parisian Metalurgists in May 1968” French Historical Studies, Vol.18, No.1 (Spring 1993). P. 255.

Anti-War Sentiment

Between 1954-1963, thirty-five books were published in France denouncing the Algerian War. These books were seized by the French government, whose media cooptation through censorship and book seizures proceeded under the guise of restoring “public order” from presumed anarchistic literature and broadcasts. The publications which were allowed to be published without seizure during the late 1950s and early 1960s reflected the “overwhelmingly pro-governmental” attitudes of those censoring the media.[1] The “union of intellectual contestation and workers’ struggle” of the May 1968 demonstrations reflected the rhetoric of emancipatory French counter-culture prominent within seized literature of the Algerian War period.[2] Tradition is a phenomenon defined by historian George Schoemaker as a “social process” in which an abstract system of rules generates the actions of those participating in the continuance of the original social condition. Through the cultural upheaval prompted by May 1968, the student demonstrators and strikers were participating in the French tradition of rebellion against perceived institutionalized oppression; following the example set by the Algerian War.[3] France has had a long history of “constitutional instability,” and it is not unusual for opposition forces to reject both the government in power and the institutional arrangements “under which it operates.” Mass action was used in France to force DeGaulle to accept negotiations with the National Liberation Front in Algeria in 1962, just as it served to heighten the student demonstrations’ power through collaboration with striking workers in May of 1968.[4]

Demonstrating French students sought a degree of influence in the French political arena at the national level, which they hoped would allow them the political and social leverage to negotiate the reorganization of the French education system.[5] The student demonstrations of 1968 sparked grassroots movements of “solidarity and resistance” which used the poster as a powerful vehicle for mass communication.[6] Students used posters as a means for galvanizing working class strikers and upper class students into a movement against French infrastructure. Learning from the censorship issues experienced by protesters of the French-Algerian War, students and workers used posters on walls of city buildings, instead of attempting to rely on publications which may be prevented from distribution by French authorities. Whereas a poster can be made by an individual citizen or by a group of organized workers or students, inexpensively manufactured, and easily placed in a public space for many to see before authorities might notice and remove it, published works required more intricate levels of organization and were threatened by the French government precedent of seizure of dissident literature.[7] The posters contained the rhetoric of liberation and anti-centralized government control, similar to the lassiez-faire and revolutionary sentiments which had reverberated through France at increasingly frequent rates since the French-Algerian War.[8] The language of liberation and revolution were unleashed from their class-based origins by the Algerian War, and were embraced by students and strikers from varied socio-economic backgrounds in May of 1968.[9] “Mass opinion crystallizes around the most visible and vocal groups that are fulcrums of political action.”[10] The strikers’ class-action movement collaborated with the anti-Gaullist student demonstrations, to form a leftist movement for improvement of economic, social, and political conditions within the French academic and manufacturing spheres of French industry.[11] In their quest or social justice, strikers and demonstrators echoed the liberation and anti-infrastructure rhetoric of the Algerian War, a decade earlier.[12]

The Algerian War came to an end within the context of the growth of French nuclear testing,[13] growing student unrest, increasing workers’ discontent, a growing sense of collectivism and contestation among French citizens becoming increasingly aware of their political environment,[14] and the political polarization of the Fifth Republic. The students of the May 1968 riots banded together with striking industrial workers in a mass action pursuit of political, economic, and social emancipation[15] from circumstances of population growth and concentration, unemployment, wage decreases, and political schisms created in large part by the French-Algerian War. Using collective organization, close political collaboration, social coordination, and public cooperation, striking workers and demonstrating students of the May 1968 riots utilized a realization of the “revenge motif” produced by the Algerian War in France.[16] In a manifestation of the fissure between French civilians and infrastructure, the social role of students and workers transformed into a political role;[17] encouraged in part by the revolutionary energy set in motion by the Algerian War.[18] The ideologically driven May 1968 riots fell contradictory to the centralizing aims of the French Fifth Republic, more closely aligned with the “wake of social change” springing forth from the ripple effects of the French-Algerian War.[19]

[1]Martin Harrison, “Government and Press in France during the Algerian war” The American Political Science Review, Vol.58, No.2, (June 1964) Pp.273-276.

[2] Ross, 658.

[3] Schoemaker, 366.

[4] Libbey, 152.

[5] Weinberg, 82-83.

[6] Francois Lionet, “Immigration, Poster Art, and Transgressive Citizenship: France 1968-1988.” Substance, Vol.24, No.1, Issue 76. (1995) Pp.93-94.

[7] Lionet, 93.

[8] Lionet, 95.

[9] Lionet, 98.

[10] Pierce, 315.

[11] Pierce, 298.

[12] Pierce, 310-311.

[13] Nicolas Vaux Montagny, “Soldiers Deliberately Exposed to Nuclear Tests in France in 1960s, Report Says” The Huffington Post, (February 16, 2010).

[14] Jill Carrick, “The Assasination of Marcel Duchamp: Collectivism and Contestation in 1960s France.” Oxford Art Journal, Vol.31, No.1, (2008)P.1

[15] Narin, vii.

[16] Ben-Elizer, 324.

[17] Ben-Elizer, 316-318, 328.

[18] Ben-Elizer, 334.

[19] Ingram, 801,807.

Special Thanks

Special Thanks to my husband, for encouraging my research!
Special Thanks to my husband, for encouraging my research!


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