“Bourgeoisie you have understood nothing.” A poster made during the May 1968 student riots in Paris.
Before WWII, higher education had been only for Europe’s wealthier classes, but in the postwar era there was greater equality in higher education, and a whole host of middle-class kids—baby boomers— were now able to get a university education. Reducing and eliminating tuition, government subsidies, and scholarships also helped bring about higher enrollments.And enrollments did grow dramatically as a result of these new policies; in France, for example, 4.5% of youth attended university in 1950, but this number jumped to 14.5% in 1965.
The May 1968 student riots began with middle-class youth (they were later joined by the working class, who went on strike, almost crippling the French economy). The generation that revolted in the ‘68 riots were relatively affluent and had been the targets of mass advertising and consumerism. Popular culture was primarily consumed by the middle classes and reflected middle-class interests. The products of postwar popular culture—music, television, films, Coca-Cola— were advertised as lifestyle choices; buying and consuming such products not only communicated to the outside world the socio-economic privileges that you enjoyed, but also were indicative of who you were as a person.
The ‘68 riots was, in effect, a bourgeois response to bourgeois consumerism. Students demanded a greater voice in administration of their universities in May ‘68; they took over buildings, invited industrial workers to support them, and were keen on starting a revolution. As these protests spread all over Europe and abroad to America (most notably at Columbia University), it became clear that the students were protesting against the authoritarian nature of university administrations and harbored anti-war, anti-imperialist attitudes. Most striking, however, was that these movements were really about the narcotic of mass consumerism— the fundamental rejection of bourgeois values that had become increasingly identified with the ownership of products that were massively produced, advertised, and consumed in the postwar era.