Watching May Unfurl in Québec

23 July 2018

Editor’s note: this post is based on a paper given at the American University of Paris’s conference on the fiftieth anniversary of Mai ’68 this past June. To see all of Tocqueville 21’s writing on Mai ’68, follow this link.


Fifty years ago, hundreds of students in a half dozen countries around the world left their classrooms, abandoned their books, and walked out onto the streets to protest insufficient educational standards and call for drastic social change. The “events of May ‘68” in France, as historians call them, are the best known of these student protests, but in Québec, 1968 is often overlooked as only one year of a turbulent period that saw the rise of radical leftist movements, the foundation of the Front for the Liberation of Québec (FLQ), and the establishment of the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ). Yet students in Québec created their own “event” in the fall of 1968. In October, students in the province’s CEGEP schools—pre-university transitional and trade schools—staged occupations of their buildings and marched through Montreal, demanding the creation of new French-language universities and a greater state-investment in education. Though certainly not the sole cause of student protests in October, France’s events informed many activists who take part in the movements that fall.


The francophone movements of Québec felt a special connection to French politics and culture, despite formal British control of Canada. As they observed what students and workers were doing in France, activists in the working-class suburbs of Montreal saw more than just another international event, they saw inspiration, information, and the potential for change in their own home. Both radicals and moderates believed there to be a lesson in the successes and failures of France’s events. For radicals, French protests seemed to legitimize student activism, making skeptical Marxists willing to believe that young people could be the spark for broader social change. For moderates, the sort of political posturing they had once associated only with radical Marxists began to look more appealing—what had once seemed too radical to embrace now appeared to be a meaningful path to education reform and social change for liberal democrats. As they observed the French events of 1968, radicals and moderates in Québec established common ground in their support of student-led protest.


By 1968, a significant group of radical leftists had carved out room for themselves in Québec’s political scene, advocating for the independence of the province from the rest of Canada as part of what they saw as the global fight for socialist decolonization. Many were politically active, starting new separatist magazines like Parti Pris and political parties like the Rassemblement pour l’Independance National (RIN). In these contexts, they debated how to establish their credibility as radicals, how to feasibly put in place various political programs, and how to achieve independence for the province. Fissures nonetheless existed between these radicals, particularly over the potential of traditional democratic politics and the role violence should play in their work. A smaller group of leftists originally associated with Parti Pris formed the FLQ and supported fast-paced change achieved through violent resistance. More of Québec’s New Left radicals, however, were convinced by a centrist argument for democratic unity, protest, and broad-based alliances between left-leaning political groups. The ways in which leftists spoke of France’s 1968 highlights the growing fissures between these two groups.


The authors of Parti Pris, perhaps the most radical of monthly publications in Québec in the 1960s, had long derided the efforts of Québec’s student groups. However, the last issue of Parti Pris, published in June 1968, was dedicated to new student movements. Inside the cover, an image of student occupiers prefaced the main editorial entitled “Student contestation.” In this edition, the authors argued that “student agitation on university campuses is also a force of global contestation of a … system that has barely been modified in several centuries.” They saw student protests in “Warsaw, Madrid, Berkeley, Paris, Montreal, Rome, and Belgrade,” as part of a global movement that was coherent with their own political desires. Philippe Bernard, the author of this editorial, argued that students in Québec “will attain contestation once they realize that the university structures reflect the socio-economic structures of a bourgeois and capitalist society. Universities in Québec … remain creations of the bourgeois class.” According to this analysis, universities in Europe and North America were products of the bourgeois and capitalist society against which radicals had been fighting for nearly a decade and students in their home would necessarily engage in political action once they noted the similarities. Leftists thus strategically fit France’s protests into the vision of the world they already held. Paris’s student revolts were not a new movement so much as a continuation of the struggles in which they had already been engaged, therefore legitimizing such protest.


While most writings in Parti Pris’s five-year history were dedicated to highlighting the Québécois literary scene and promoting working class radicalism, the authors’ spent almost all of the summer 1968 edition discussing global “youth movements.” Patrick Straram, a French Situationist who moved to Canada to avoid service in the Algerian War, wrote that “in a capitalist society, the revolution will be made with the youth or it will not be made.” These changes evident in Parti Pris demonstrate the shift taking place amongst radical leftists, who were becoming more and more sympathetic to student-led protest. The magazine’s reporting on Paris’s student movements suggests a change of perspective. Formerly an active militant sympathetic to Maoism, Jean-Marc Piotte wrote for Parti Pris’s summer 1968 edition: “Politics are not a question of purity, but of efficacy, and we have too often had the tendency to form a party of pure revolutionaries, that is to say, to find ourselves alone amongst ourselves.” Piotte’s critique of purist political organizing is as notable precisely because it is out of character. The far left’s increasing acceptance of student activism evident in the pages of Parti Pris demonstrate the growing appeal of a politics of democratic unity among leftists.


Yet just as many far-leftists were becoming more sympathetic to this sort of traditional agitation, others derided such activism. Militant radicals like those in the FLQ took a stronger stance against French politics writ large. In a manifesto against political imprisonment released in June 1968, far-left FLQ militants described conditions on the ground in Québec in a striking way. They wrote that “the Québécois people are a people triply colonized and dominated by the French, the English, and the Americans.” The FLQ’s turn away from French alliances in June, going so far as to identify France as a source of oppression, is important. While Parti Pris and even the Parti Québécois for a time had embraced the narrative of Québec’s colonization through the 1960s, few would have included France in the list of colonial oppressors. If anything, leftists tended to embrace French activists and politicians as allies against the Canadian government—most notably in the support they received from Charles de Gaulle in 1967. Given the visibility of French student and worker protests that spring, the FLQ’s clear frustration with French politics and influence shows the role of debates about May ’68 as a source of friction between militant and non-militant leftists.


The centrist drift of far-left radicals is therefore only part of the story of 1968’s impact on Québec. While historians tend to argue that the French events made little difference to political activists in the francophone province, even the centrist media tells a different story. Newspapers clearly had some sense that these movements were of interest to their readership. Both Le Devoir and La Presse—Québec’s largest French-language newspapers—reported on France’s events almost every day throughout May and June of 1968. La Presse ran no fewer than 45 stories about May ’68 over the course of the month. Le Devoir, a significantly shorter paper, printed 35 stories, op-eds, and analyses of the events. La Presse and Le Devoir’s reporting on the protests provided surprisingly accurate factual depictions of May’s events. As early as May 4th, La Presse reported that students of the “March 22 movement” had “denounced the sclerosis of the University … as well as class society and the bourgeois press.” Their interpretation of the students’ impetus for protest appears to have been fairly on point. Further demonstrating moderate liberals’ interest in these events, La Presse maintained a reporter on the scene in Paris for the duration of these events. La Presse’s reports from France, despite noting periodic destruction of property and radical discussions, were hardly critical of these movements. One article from May 14th, for example, stated that “it is in this euphoric atmosphere that ends this day of general strike that Paris will not forget.” The moderate, working-class readership of La Presse would therefore have been well-informed about France’s May ’68 and, given the tone of the newspaper’s reporting, had little reason to be skeptical of the students’ efficacy.


Over the course of the month, Le Devoir editorialized about the future impact of France’s student revolts, often explicitly linking them to the political situation in Québec. Claude Ryan, he editor of Le Devoir in the 1960s was far from a radical leftist, later becoming a Liberal party minister (he is perhaps most famous for leading the successful “No” campaign against Québec’s independence in 1980). Still, Ryan wrote in an editorial that faced with the student protesters, “it would be senseless to wish to push back against [their desires] … in an absolute manner.” Ryan was not sympathetic to students’ more radical demands, but argued that politicians and intellectuals in Québec “can draw from these recent events observations which do not lack in interest for our own country.” Even a traditional liberal, then, saw in May ’68 an important opportunity for political change and a reason to support student activism.


Le Devoir also lent editorial space to Québécois students to speak their mind about May ’68—an opportunity not usually afforded them in such a prestigious newspaper. A May 23rd editorial by two students at the University of Montreal noted that the cause of student protest in France was “the non-democratic character of the University,” a problem they saw as “analogous to the situation in Québec.” These two students’ interest in penning such an editorial is telling. They argued to the readers of Le Devoir that contesting the non-democratic nature of the university was an essential part of social progress, working to convince readers of the importance of student protest. “To contest university structures,” they wrote, “is to contest social, economic, and political structures as they exist in Québec.” Yet these individuals were not using the language of radical or violent change. Their editorial borrows the language of the moderate left, arguing for democratization and access to universities for working-class French Canadians. The students from the University of Montreal pressed readers to understand the universalist value of student contestation for reform: “If we do not believe in progress, what will become of liberty, and what will become of man?” They were not asking for a general contestation like the authors of Parti Pris, but rather demonstrating to the audience the ways in which student unrest could advance democratic, liberal aims. These students’ interest in French student protests is, perhaps, understandable. Yet, given the fact that there prior to 1968 there were only two French-language universities in the province, students like those who penned the previous article were not likely to be working-class radicals. Student engagement with protest of this sort, then, is notable as a shift towards a more active contestation of Québécois society by liberals.


Perhaps more significant in demonstrating the leftward shift of moderate political elements, however, is the narrative of May ’68 presented by the Catholic press (In the postwar period, the Church had lost significant power in the province, but still maintained influence in the educational system and in the press). The June 1968 edition of Relations, a Catholic magazine, contained an article discussing the changing union landscape of the province—insisting on differences between Canadian syndicalism and the type of organizing required in Québec.  Undoubtedly thinking about recent French strikes, the article criticized “the violence that accompanies all syndical conflicts or all strikes.” Despite Relations’s moderate-bent, the article went on to argue that despite the problematic nature of labor violence, “one must distinguish between violence that is born spontaneously of an explosive situation and that which is calculated, premeditated…the first is comprehensible,” the author Gérard Hebert wrote. Certainly not advocating revolution, the article was still surprisingly sympathetic to these accidental incidents of violence—marking a significant change from the position taken by the Church in Québec in the first half of the twentieth century.


Progressive reforms that took place in France as a result of the events of May were appealing to moderate leftists: the reforming of university bureaucracy, increased state investment in education, and higher wages for laborers. Meanwhile, the radical discourse of student protestors combined with the potential to strike a broad-based alliance between physical and intellectual workers was appealing to more radical leftists, who were willing to put aside revolutionary fervor in favor of more immediate results. May 1968 in France by no means caused this change, but as both moderates and radicals saw potential in the broad-based alliances forged in France, it allowed these activists to think in new ways about how change could be brought about in the province.


The influence of May ’68 in France is by no means limited to Québec—though the particular dynamic between original colony and metropole is certainly distinct. By analyzing the ways in which radical and moderate leftists in Québec wrote about and read these events, historians can better understand broader changes in the global francophone New Left. Francophone New Leftists more generally through the 1960s worked to encourage global alliances among revolutionaries, reading and writing about individuals in other locales who were in many ways dissimilar to themselves. In particular, the New Left of the First World looked to the Third World for inspiration and action, ignoring any sense of incommensurability between the two groups. However, when May ’68 exploded onto the French scene, this sense of needing to look elsewhere for action collapsed. As in Québec, the sense of commensurability between centrists and leftists elsewhere expanded, encouraging more locally based activism aimed at immediate change rather than globally focused revolutionary sentiment that had to be cajoled, fostered, and stretched to meet immediate needs. Global reactions to May ’68 in France allows us to see how, while certainly not its most pressing cause, these events pushed radicals away from global solidarity in favor of more local concerns and led to the rise of practical, student- and labor-based political action.


Photo Credit: Unknown Author, Roma, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


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