Public Comment

40 Years After Paris, Can Mass Protests Still Make a Difference?

By Randy Shaw
Thursday May 15, 2008 - 09:54:00 AM

On May 13, 1968, students, workers, and activists marched through the streets of Paris to challenge the nation’s social, economic, and political structures. The marches were a prelude to what became a two-week general strike, the impact of which remains hotly debated to this day. The events of May 1968 were not the world’s first mass protests, but their role in the subsequent alteration of French society was widely hailed as proving the power of political action outside the electoral process. The United States also saw mass protests in 1968, but their failure to end the Vietnam War and the election of Richard Nixon that November left many activists frustrated. The successful WTO protests in Seattle reasserted the power of mass protest, but this appears to have dissipated as the Bush Administration invaded Iraq despite millions taking to the streets and the federal government failed to legalize undocumented immigrants despite the mass protests of the spring of 2006. Can mass protest still make a difference in the United States, or is the electoral process—embodied in the mass involvement of those in the Obama campaign—now seen as the leading if not exclusive route to progressive change?  

For 40 years, the phrase “May 1968” has connoted a unique mass outpouring in Paris that many saw as the germination of a new social order. The Paris events were distinguished from mass protests in the United States by the mass involvement of workers, who occupied factories and engaged in a two-week general strike in one of the world’s most advanced industrial nations. 

There are enough books about May 1968 to fill entire libraries, and the UC Berkeley Art Museum currently has an exhibit of stirring photos taken by Serge Hambourg. Seeing the hope and excitement on the faces of protesters, it is clear that participants believed that taking to the streets was a profoundly meaningful act—something that cannot often be said about today’s mass events. 

Critics of the impact of May 1968 have focused on the transitory aspect of the French protests, the lack of a concrete agenda, and the fact that a major target of the protests—French leader Charles De Gaulle—was easily re-elected in June. But less frequently noted is De Gaulle’s leaving office after losing a vote of confidence a year later, and that Parisian, if not French, society was visibly changed. 

For many, May 1968 showed the continued power of mass protest, and of the primacy of political engagement outside the electoral process. Even as the protests are commodified—a candy store is selling $75 chocolate bars in the shape of the pavers that protesters dislodged from cobblestone streets—their power continues to resonate. 


U.S. protests in 1968 

In the United States in 1968, student and anti-war protesters saw the year end with Richard Nixon winning the presidency, and the Vietnam War’s escalation. Less obvious at the time was the increasing backlash against the civil rights movement that has moved American politics largely rightward for nearly 40 years. 

Many young activists responded to Nixon’s victory by moving from protests to voter registration and the electoral process. This effort culminated in anti-war progressive George McGovern winning the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, but his landslide defeat resurrected activist doubts about the potential of national elections to bring progressive change.  

During the 1970s and 1980s, the successful mass protests against nuclear power, as well as against U.S. funding of military assistance to anti-democratic forces in Nicaragua and El Salvador, led to renewed respect for non-electoral strategies. Until at least 1992, progressive activists prioritized local and state elections over national political campaigns.  


The battle in Seattle 

It looked for a time that the 1999 mass protests against the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) would be the U.S. equivalent of May 1968. The marches resembled their Paris predecessor by incorporating a broad cultural critique of contemporary capitalism, and achieved virtually complete success by shutting down the WTO meeting. 

But anti-globalization forces never expanded their base, or developed a domestic agenda that facilitated its mass expansion. Future trade organization meetings became armed police encampments preventing even peaceful protest, while activists had less need to protest after getting most of the Democratic Party to back fair trade, rather than free trade. 9/11 also changed the terms of the globalization debate, as combating “terror” replaced fighting sweatshops as the chief focus. 

But in the big picture, mass protests outside the political process irrevocably altered the landscape for trade deals in the United States. Those marching in Seattle no doubt smiled to hear Hillary Clinton become a born-again free trader during the Ohio primary, as it represented a near total capitulation of the Democratic Party’s free-trade, pro-NAFTA base to the forces of fair trade.  


Mass protests against Iraq War 

The successful impact of mass anti-globalization protests may have helped fuel the massive turnouts in the United States against the proposed invasion of Iraq. But after President Bush signaled that he was impervious to protests (and would rather accept a 27 percent approval rating than defer to the popular will), many who marched in the 2002 and 2003 Iraq protests figured that future involvement was pointless. 

Seeing Bush as the chief obstacle to peace, even activists skeptical of electoral politics volunteered for the Kerry campaign in the fall of 2004. Although the massive outpouring of volunteers into swing states came too late to defeat Bush, the Republican’s victory in 2004 did not alter the progressive community’s primary focus on winning elections.  


Obama and mass election activism 

When Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy in 2007, he recognized America’s fervent desire for change. But Obama also realized that Kerry had tapped into a mass activist yearning to be part of a larger cause, and that this cause could become his campaign. 

This desire to be part of a large, broad-based social movement fueled the May 1968 Paris protests, but has seldom found expression in the United States. The Seattle WTO protests included workers but relatively few activists of color, while the spring 2006 immigration marches were more representative but included relatively few African-Americans. 

Despite the ongoing insanity of the Iraq war, activists remained focused on electoral solutions. Obama’s ability to harness this mass desire for participation in a social movement focused on winning the 2008 presidential election is the central story of his success, and reflects activists’ continued shift from protest to electoral politics. 

Obama realizes that elections are simply a means to an end, and that the real test is whether, after taking office, his progressive campaign agenda is implemented. This will likely require the type of mass gatherings in the streets that proved so galvanizing in Paris in 1968, and that could represent the ideal fusion of mass protest and electoral politics that activists in the U.S. have sought in vain for decades. 


Randy Shaw is the editor of