On the morning of May 11, 1968, a student reached to take a hot cup of coffee and a square of chocolate from a resident leaning out of his window on the Rue Gay Lussac. The girl was not alone; stepping back over trodden baguettes, she was drawn into close crowds of university and school students who had barricaded their position in the Latin Quarter in response to Paris’ paramilitary police encircling their peaceful demonstration.
Amidst the taut wires and red flags, cobblestones and overturned cars, young workers rushed to join them. Yet the protesters couldn’t enjoy their coffee for long, for at two o’clock the riot police began a vicious series of attacks, each marked by the crack of percussion grenades and the heavy scent of tear-gas.
It wasn’t until after six that the demonstrators were dispersed. Yet this moment would not be end of the struggle; by late morning, trade union leaders, who had listened intently to reports of the fighting in all-night meetings, called for a general strike that would show solidarity with the students against the state violence but also radicalise the grievances of the French working class. What followed was historic: an estimated ten million workers struck indefinitely or even occupied their workplaces. The students took control of the Sorbonne and produced a flourishing of radical creativity, not just in images and propaganda but in ideas – ideas for a society without chains.
Now, for all their significance, the near-500,000 teachers, lecturers and civil servants who left their workplaces yesterday and took to the streets have not pronounced another 1968. Nor has the presence of an enthusiastic student delegation at the Oxford rally opened a path to campus ‘red bases’ or ateliers populaires. But we’re getting there. Slowly. Because you don’t need a copy of Trotsky under your arm to realise that cutting the real wages of our public workers in the face of soaring food-prices is ruinous to human welfare and the services upon which so many rely. Even in Oxford the fallacy of student isolation is falling away. The port-swillers at the Union may relish their separation from the rest of society, but universities don’t exist in a vacuum: our past, present and future labours connect us to the millions. The bonds that unite us to the rest of society are inalienable and it is through common struggle that we become capable of realising our collective aspirations. If we join together, in the lecture-hall and on the picket-line, we will realise them.
If last term’s Oxford Radical Forum brought hundreds of us together in discussion, our goal for next year is clear: hundreds more must join the movement – and fight.