June 23 marks the anniversary of the greatest electoral triumph in French history, with supporters of President DeGaulle winning over two thirds of the National Assembly, effectively squashing the aspiring French revolution of 1968. The collapse of DeGaulle and the Fifth Republic in favor of the communists and anarchists who dominated May’s massive Paris protests would have been disastrous for Western democracy. These events 48 years ago warn of civilization’s too frequent fragility.
The largely unplanned revolution had started with campus protests in March 1968, initially set off by objections to restrictions on men and women in dormitories together. Sexual freedom and liberation from traditional mores were themes almost more powerful than economic demands that Spring in Paris, leaving even the French Communist Party, which had signed an alliance with Francois Mitterrand’s Socialists earlier in the year, somewhat flummoxed and unprepared.
Slogans of that season, which illustrated the revolution’s utopian aspirations, included: “It is forbidden to forbid” and “Live without limits and enjoy without restraint!” DeGaulle’s Catholicism and social conservatism (birth control, which he worried meant “sex would invade everything,” was legalized only the year before) were anathema to this new spirit.
Student protests and campus occupations enlarged to nationwide strikes and factory occupations involving millions of workers, effectively paralyzingly the French economy. Laborers rejected offers of even massive salary increases, distrusting their unions and hoping for a wider social transformation. For weeks hundreds of thousands marched in Paris, seizing territory and often resorting to violence, throwing cobblestones at police. Some questioned whether the police themselves would reliably support the state, amid similar questions about even the army. Some government officials reputedly burned documents and plotted their escape as fuel purchases and bank withdrawals became difficult.
DeGaulle himself ordered his personal papers removed from the Elysee Palace and then planned his own departure, privately explaining that mobs don’t attack empty palaces. His normally impertable wife, who had years earlier uncomplainingly survived an assassination attempt with him, had been jostled in the streets while shopping, about which she endlessly prattled over dinner, forcing him to irritably quit the table.
The French president and his family disappeared for much of one day, leaving the government and nation mystified and further alarmed. Napping in his underwear, the commander of French forces in Germany was awakened by the DeGaulles’ helicopter landing in his yard. During the Algerian crisis, the commander had refused to join in a potential assassination plot against DeGaulle, who now sought his assurance that the French army would stand with him, which he secured.
Leaving his son and daughter-in-law in Germany with the family jewels just in case, DeGaulle returned to Paris for a national address, primarily relying on radio listeners as the national television network with much of the nation was on strike. He had twice before rallied the nation by broadcast, in 1940 in exile after the Nazi conquest, and in 1961 after the failed generals’ putsch against him over Algeria. On May 30, 1968 he warned France, in a brief and terse address, of chaos and totalitarianism. Widely expected to resign, he instead identified himself as the “holder of the legitimacy of the nation” and called for a general election in accordance with the constitution. The republic would not “abdicate” and “freedom” would prevail.
DeGaulle’s speech was followed by an enormous demonstration in Paris by hundreds of thousands marching in support of him. The hostile protests, violence and nationwide strikes largely ended. During the election campaign, DeGaulle reminded the nation of his decades of service to them through many crises, receiving a stunning vindication even he likely didn’t expect. A year later he resigned, then died one year afterwards, having deftly established the republic’s stability. His supporters remained in power until 1981, until his Socialist nemesis Mitterrand finally won the presidency.
Mitterrand initially invited his Communist allies into government until their power faded, a decline that began with the events of 1968 and DeGaulle’s final triumph. Yet the chaos and near collapse of order that Spring, even amid prosperity and seeming social solidity, caution against casual assumptions about democracy’s permanence.
Here’s DeGaulle’s May 30, 1968 broadcast that subdued a revolution and preserved ordered democracy:
Men and women of France.
As the holder of the legitimacy of the nation and of the Republic, I have over the past 24 hours considered every eventuality, without exception, which would permit me to maintain that legitimacy. I have made my resolutions.
In the present circumstances, I will not step down. I have a mandate from the people, and I will fulfill it.
I will not change the Prime Minister, whose value, soundness and capacity merit the tribute of all. He will put before me any changes he may see fit to make in the composition of the government.
I am today dissolving the National Assembly.
I have offered the country a referendum which would give citizens the opportunity to vote for a far-reaching reform of our economy and of our university system and, at the same time, to pronounce on whether or not they retained their confidence in me, by the sole acceptable channel, that of democracy. I perceive that the present situation is a material obstacle to that process going ahead. For this reason, I am postponing the date of the referendum. As for the general elections, these will be held within the period provided for under the Constitution, unless there is an intention to gag the entire French people to prevent them from expressing their views as they are being prevented from carrying on their lives, by the same methods being used to prevent students from studying, teachers from teaching, workers from working. These means consist of intimidation, the intoxication and the tyranny exerted by groups long organized for this purpose and by a party that is a totalitarian undertaking, even if it already has rivals in this respect.
Should this situation of force be maintained, therefore, I will be obliged in order to maintain the Republic to adopt different methods, in accordance with the Constitution, other than an immediate vote by the country. In any event, civic action must now be organized, everywhere and at once. This must be done to aid the government first and foremost, and then locally to support the prefects, constituted or reconstituted as commissioners of the Republic, in their task of ensuring as far as possible the continued existence of the population and preventing subversion at any time and in any place.
France is threatened with dictatorship. There are those who would constrain her to abandon herself to a power that would establish itself in national despair, a power that would then obviously and essentially be the power of totalitarian communism. Naturally, its true colors would be concealed at first, making use of the ambition and hatred of sidelined politicians. After which, such figures would lose all but their own inherent influence, insignificant as that is.
No, I say! The Republic will not abdicate. The people will come to its senses. Progress, independence and peace will carry the day, along with freedom.
Vive la République ! Vive la France !