Protest as social dissent

March 12, 2023

A protest demonstration is a public expression of objection, disapproval or dissent

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rotest or agitation reflects the socio-political vibrancy among the people inhabiting a social space. Besides, it helps ascertain the measure of political tenacity and the dexterity to resolve conflict because the protest is usually symptomatic of social fissures, borne out of a conflict.

If a conflict is handled by employing peaceful and civil means (through negotiation) it becomes a source of social evolution. If heavy-handed means are used for conflict resolution, then anarchy, uncertainty and cynicism permeate to the society.

If discrepant opinion is muzzled by deploying brutal means at the disposal of the state – baton charge, tear-gas, imprisonment or criminal prosecution – the people at the helm are left with little justification for remaining in power.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela made protest the central postulate of their politics. Today, I intend to shed some light on a significant protest movement in France (in May 1968) that had far-reaching ramifications not just in the realm of politics but also in educational institutions.

The protest of May 1968 seemed to have drawn inspiration from a few intellectuals including Jean Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault. Before proceeding further, I theorise protest as an instrument of social dissent.

A protest, variously described as a demonstration, remonstration or remonstrance, is a public expression of objection, disapproval or dissent towards an idea or action, typically a political one. Protests can be thought of as acts of cooperation in which numerous people cooperate by attending and share the potential costs and risks of doing so.

Protests can take many different forms, from individual statements to mass demonstrations. The willingness to participate is influenced by an individual’s ties within social networks. Social connections can affect both the spread of information about a protest and social pressures on the participants. The willingness to participate will also vary depending on the type of protest. The likelihood that someone will respond to a protest is also affected by group identification and by the types of tactics involved.

At the height of activity that has since become known as May ’68, the economy of France came to a halt. Not unlike like the abortive revolution of 1848, the revolution is regarded as a dismal failure. Like its Nineteenth-Century predecessor, to which it bears resemblance in many ways, its positive effects are difficult to assess.

In May 1968 a student revolt began in a Paris suburb. It was soon joined by a general strike, eventually involving some 10 million workers. During much of May 1968, Paris was engulfed in the worst rioting since the Popular Front era of the 1930s, and the rest of France was at a standstill. In the decade preceding May 1968, the French student population had nearly trebled, from about 175,000 to more than 500,000. It was an era of international youth culture, yet in the eyes of the French youth the French society remained autocratic, hierarchical, and tradition-bound.

The demands of the movement may be summarised as being against the authoritarian regime in France and for the politicisation of the university. It aimed at establishing a visible and effective link between what was taught in the classroom and that which was going on outside the classroom; to bridge the gap between a medieval, outdated mode of teaching and curriculum, and to meet the reality outside the classroom.

Complete freedom of speech and expression was one of the fundamental demands. It further asserted that showing tolerance to the protagonists of American policy and the defenders of the war in Vietnam amounted to an abuse of the freedom of speech. The right to freedom of speech was not to be interpreted as tolerating those who were working on bringing down the last remnants of liberty in France and turning the world into a neocolonial domain. Another demand was the creation of jobs.

When the May revolt erupted, President de Gaulle was on the verge of celebrating his 10th year in office. He had acceded to power in 1958 via extra-constitutional means, because of the Fourth Republic’s disintegration at the height of the Algerian War (1954–62). The French youth generally assumed that they were living under a quasi-benign dictatorship.

The two main opposition parties: the Radicals and the Socialists, had essentially collapsed, which meant that progressive political change via conventional parliamentary channels was unlikely. It was, moreover, an era of impassioned Third World-ism. For that generation of students, neither the French Communist Party, nor orthodox Marxism held much attraction.

Instead, the youth revered and idealised Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong. Images of carpet bombing, napalm attacks and massacre of civilians by American forces in Vietnam dominated the news. Nanterre campus of the University of Paris and Sorbonne were powder kegs.

Heavy police repression of the protesters led France’s trade union confederations to call for sympathy strikes. These spread far more quickly than expected to involve 11 million workers, more than 22 percent of the population of France at the time. The May 1968 crisis escalated as a general strike spread not only to factories and industries across the country, but also shut down newspaper distribution, air transport and two major railroads.

By the end of the month, millions of workers were on strike and France seemed to be on the brink of a radical Leftist revolution. The movement was characterised by spontaneous and decentralised wildcat disposition. This created a contrast and at times even conflict internally amongst the trade unions and the political parties of the Left. It was the largest general strike ever attempted in France and the first nationwide wildcat general strike.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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