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23 June 2008

On this day in history: France goes to the polls, 1968

In response to the growing crisis in France caused by the strike and occupy movement inspired by students and taken up by workers, on 30th May 1968, President De Gaulle announced the dissolution of the National Assembly with elections to take place within forty days. A gamble that he hoped would provide him with the mandate he needed to take any actions he deemed necessary to defend the Fifth Republic.

The Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, masterminded the campaign for De Gaulle's party, Union pour la défense de la République (UDR - 'Union for the Defence of the Republic'). Pompidou called upon the "silent majority" to be heard to prevent the violent seizure of power by the Communist Party and its allies. These tactics were designed to alarm the French middle-classes in spite of the fact that the student radicals and striking workers demonstrated as much disgust for the Parti communiste français (PCF - 'French Communist Party') as they had for the Gaullists. Nevertheless Pompidou's rhetoric enabled his conservative coalition to squeeze the moderate vote by portraying the election as a straight contest between Gaullism and communism.

In contrast, the left wing opposition was divided: the Communist Party were annoyed that the leader of the Fédération de la gauche démocrate et socialiste (FGDS - 'Federation of the Democratic and Socialist Left'), François Mitterrand, had not consulted them before announcing his candidacy for the next presidential elections at the height of the crisis in May. Furthermore, the far-left denounced the socialist parties for their inaction and opposition to the strike and occupy movement.

The French people went to the polls for the first round of voting on 23rd June 1968. The small swing to the right gave the Gaullists 58.1% of the popular vote. Any seat where no candidate received a majority of the votes was contested again between the two leading candidates in a second round of voting a week later. When all the ballots had been counted it emerged that De Gaulle's gamble had paid off, not only had his conservative coalition won, but his own party, the UDR, now occupied the majority of seats in the National Assembly - the first time that this had ever happened.

With this ringing endorsement for the President, the 1968 French revolution was over. Nevertheless, the students and workers had forced the government to institute reforms in education and achieved wage rises and improved working conditions. Furthermore, the Gaullists did not emerge from the crisis untarnished. The events of May had created ill feeling between De Gaulle and Pompidou leading the latter to resign only one month after his election victory, and in April 1969 the President also resigned after losing a referendum on reform of the Senate.