Fifty years ago in France, they did just that. Student protests in Nanterre and at the Sorbonne quickly grew into mass demonstrations. Police attempts to repress the movement only garnered additional public support. Popular artists and singers mobilized on behalf of the students—as did the workers’ unions. On May 13, 1968, more than a million people marched through the streets of Paris. Revolutionary student groups occupied universities. Waves of strikes and factory occupations ground the country to a halt. President Charles de Gaulle briefly fled the country.
All of which is to say that a few savvy students with a solid message can, in fact, change the world. They can bring us to a standstill, make us question a lot of what we’ve been taking for granted, and start us on a road to new policies, new laws, and—above all—new ways of relating to each other.
The events of May-June 1968 in Paris have another lesson for us—one that is harder, but no less powerful. In the immediate aftermath, Gaullist supporters got an electoral bump in the June legislative elections. They campaigned on the need to restore order, defend the Republic, and guard against communist threats. Revolutionary fervor among the demonstrators was fizzling fast.
But in April 1969, de Gaulle called a national referendum on a set of proposed constitutional amendments. This populist ploy (also a Napoleonic favorite) failed. By the following day, de Gaulle himself had resigned.
We need to be ready for the setbacks. For the desperate votes against change. For all the attempts to discredit the brave students speaking out. And in the face of these short-term losses, we need to keep looking at the way that society is changing faster than the politicians. However you feel about neoliberal capitalism, it matters that major corporations are severing ties with the NRA. It matters that more people feel emboldened to advocate loudly for gun control, to plan marches, to walk out of their schools—and eventually their workplaces. It matters what we learn about each other when we meet on the streets and on social media.
Because the backlash runs out of power.
Because, fifty years ago, a group of students took to the streets and, a year later, their President stepped down.