Review: Mitchell Abidor, May Made Me: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France (2018)

The following is something between a notice and a short review, primarily intended to inform people about a very good new book on the May 1968 uprising and mass strike in France. In this year of anniversaries (of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the 1918 German Revolution, and the fiftieth anniversary of “1968”) this book should stand out both for English-language readers politically aware at that time, and for the younger generations discovering revolutionary theory and history today.

Abidor’s book consists of interviews he conducted recently in France with people who “came of age” politically and socially in “1968.” Not only does he find people all across the left-wing political spectrum, from Stalinists to anarchists by way of Trotskyists, but he finds them all over France, in cities such as Rouen, Lyon and St. Nazaire. And they are not exclusively “gauchistes” (roughly, far-leftists) radicalized in the ongoing, often festive events and meetings in the Paris Latin Quarter and around the country, but also blue-collar workers who repeatedly underscore their distance from that part of the movement. Not only was the Stalinist Georges Séguy, then general secretary of the cgt (Conféderation Génerale du Travail, the largest and mainly Communist Party–controlled union federation) roundly booed down by the workers at the big Renault auto plant at Billancourt, the (now mothballed) “worker fortress” just outside Paris, but the “Grenelle Accords,” the mediocre agreement with the employers which Séguy went there to sell, was voted down three times. Yet a number of workers interviewed by Abidor expressed their ongoing agreement with the French cp’s role in limiting the strike, and one or two people had actually joined the party after May, having tired of the libertarian milieu in which they started out. On the other hand, most agree that May signaled the beginning of the end of the pcf, once one of the largest cps outside the Soviet bloc (not to mention China), which by the 1990s had declined to 5 percent of the vote, from its earlier postwar average of 20 percent.

Another merit of Abidor’s book is that he generally avoids “stars,” with the exception of the Trotskyist Alain Krivine. In the libertarian-inflected milieu from which I emerged, Krivine was routinely denounced as a bureaucratic “recuperator” from one of the small “groupuscules” (small vanguard groups, Trotskyist in Krivine’s case, Maoist in others). He and his Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire (the libertarians pointed out that the name was ideology run amok, since they were neither young, nor communist, nor revolutionary), like most other groups attempting to bridge the gap between the largely middle-class “soixante-huitards” (68ers) and blue-collar workers, were mainly rebuffed (on occasion violently) or simply ignored when they tried to connect with workers on strike. On one occasion (not in the book) Krivine was greeted at a factory gate with worker chants of “Krivine a l’usine!” (“Krivine, go get a factory job!”) By the time Abidor interviewed him 1–2 years ago, Krivine and his (several times renamed) group had been seriously deflated by decades of social ebb, and were active in the multi-tendency Nouveau Parti Anti-capitaliste (New Anti-capitalist Party, the npa). Most of Abidor’s interviewees had “stayed in the trenches” of social activism in one way or another, again across a wide political spectrum in this once highly politicized country that even today still occasionally emerges as an international beacon, in keeping with the old canard that “when France sneezes, Europe catches cold.”

In addition to avoiding stars, Abidor also, as mentioned, goes to the provinces to find people and their stories. When, after weeks of street battles and strikes, the Gaullist state had somewhat regained its balance, the snap parliamentary elections called in June 1968 returned a right-wing majority even stronger than the previous one, confirming, for some, another street chant of May, “Elections, piege a cons!” (elections/a trap for idiots). The festive atmosphere of the Latin Quarter revolt had spread to similarly inclined youth throughout France, along with militant strikes, some of the latter building on tough, militant strikes from 1967 (I once heard a story of a small factory in the Paris suburbs that had struck in April, 1968, whereafter the workers were of course stunned to find 10 million strikers joining them a few weeks later). From abroad, the ebb of May ’68 into the right-wing electoral victory of June seemed to confirm the historic antinomy of Paris and the rest of the country, one which had been manipulated as far back as Louis Napoléon in the 1850s. But Abidor’s interviews in the provinces show people there as well whose lives were turned inside out by May (hence his title, from one interviewee, who said “I didn’t make May ’68, May made me”).

In the “sixties” in the United States, “1968” was preceded by a growing crescendo of the radicalizing black movement, mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War, the spread of student activism in the wake of Berkeley’s 1964 Free Speech Movement, and the emergence of the hippie counterculture. France had in fact been highly polarized in the last years of the losing war in Algeria (which ended in French defeat in 1962). But there was little or anything, before May, of the rapidly rising mass ferment in the United States after 1964. Abidor’s book does a good job in capturing the explosion, seemingly from nowhere (despite small, little-noticed tremors) that turned hundreds of thousands of peoples’ lives inside out in 1968, after which, as was often said, “nothing could ever be the same again.”

Note: Further interviews which Abidor, for lack of space, had to leave out will be available as of February 20 under “More Made Me” at

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