May ‘68: France's politics of memory

Patrice de Beer
28 April 2008

France is approaching a potent anniversary in a strange mood. The student riots of May 1968 radically shook an arch-conservative society and came near to toppling then-president Charles de Gaulle - as well as inspiring students in Europe, the United States and Japan to emulate Paris's "example". It is natural, then, that the fortieth anniversary is being vigorously commemorated; more than 100 books have already been published in France to coincide with the sparking date of les événements (22 March 1968), and dozens of TV and radio programmes are on the way around the moment (3 May) when the student uprising effectively began.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde

Among Patrice de Beer's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"Sarkozy's rightwing revolution"
(8 May 2007)

"Le Monde's democratic coup"
(30 May 2007)

"A not so quiet American"
(13 July 2007)

"Nicholas Sarkozy, rupture and ouverture"
(31 July 2007)

"The French temptation"
(31 August 2007)

"Nicolas Sarkozy's world"
(10 October 2007)

"Nicolas Sarkozy's striking test"
(29 November 2007)

"Calle Santa Fé: between Chile and freedom"
(16 January 2008)

"Sarkozy and God"
(6 February 2008) At the same time, this festival of memory (which will coincide with another, significantly less noisy one - the fiftieth anniversary of the referendum endorsing the fifth republic) is confined mostly to the media and intellectual class. The normally voluble President Nicolas Sarkozy (who said during the election campaign in 2007 that "May 68's heritage must be liquidated once and for all") has since kept quiet. More important, the French "people" themselves - in whose name so many of the 1968 protests were launched and speeches were delivered - appear uninterested.

True, the actual anniversary has yet to arrive and there will no doubt be a moment when the 1968 commemoration becomes "real" to more than the familiar commentators on the French political scene. But at present, insofar as the French seek release from their economic and social worries, it is in a new film rather than old events. Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis (Welcome to the Ch'tis) has broken box-office records in a matter of weeks, with over 17 million viewers. The title may need some translation (Ch'tis is a nickname for people living in France's far north), but the imaginative transformation it achieves will be familiar to those who have seen The Full Monty - as the stereotype of a cold, depressed, post-industrial wilderness inhabited by people with bad teeth and broken lives is stripped away to reveal a spirit of solidarity, human warmth, resilience and friendship.

But this smash-hit film's comic pleasures are closer to the heart of the '68 phenomenon than might be thought. The deeper chord struck by Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis is in a celebration of human bonds amid today's ruthless capitalism, just as May ‘68 was also a protest by the young against the alienating boredom of an authoritarian and "blocked" society. Julie Coudry, the (possibly departing) president of the Confédération Etudiante, has made the point that in 1968, students (and striking workers) opposed to the ordre établi sought new forms of participation and communication; while in 2008, people are fearful of all-powerful globalisation yet also anxious to play their part in the reform of an (again) blocked society where a new generation of young people (again) has little say.

The May explosion

It is useful to recall what actually happened in those distant "May days" - not least to clear things up with myself, as I was in Asia for he whole of 1968-69, and it took me years to reconnect with friends who had been on the barricades around Paris's Sorbonne.

Les événements began on 22 March with a small protest in the suburban campus of Nanterre University, led by lecturer Alain Geismar and students Jacques Sauvageot and Daniel Cohn-Bendit (a French-German intellectual firebrand, whom the media soon anointed "Danny the Red"). The flame quickly spread to campuses already aroused by groups campaigning against the Vietnam war and eager to mobilise against a conservative, hierarchical, immobile - and old - society. The wave then spread to the factories, where workers staged the biggest (9 million were involved) and longest (almost a month) general strike in French history.

Charles de Gaulle recovered from the establishment's initial alarm to appeal to those afraid by the disorder and "mess" by calling elections - which he won handsomely. So the student-worker "insurgency" ended in short-term political defeat. But France - a country so afraid of change that reforms are usually resisted until things get so bad that a big shake-up becomes unavoidable - was culturally blown off its feet, and de Gaulle's premature resignation in 1969 was only one sign of the mouvement''s deeper impact.

The debate about the meaning and significance of the May events is dominated by those who were "there" physically or culturally - among them Daniel Cohn-Bendit, notwithstanding the argument encapsulated in the title of his new book, Forget 68 (Editions de l'Aube). If his wish is being ignored, it is not because the student "heroes" of the Paris streets still relish their faded glory; few do, and in any case, the 20- or 30-something children of les soixante-huitards often see their parents as bobos (bourgeois bohemians) whose legacy is more an economic mess, a pile of debts and a bankrupt political system than a cultural triumph.

Rather, the figure who has kept the debate alive beyond the closed circle of intellectuals has been Nicolas Sarkozy himself, who before his more recent reserve on the topic had artfully used May ‘68 to arouse the resentments of elderly and far-right voters. On 29 April 2007 he said that "the heirs of May '68 had imposed their views - that everything carried the same value, that there was no more any difference between good and evil, true and false, the beautiful and the ugly. They tried to make us believe there was no difference between pupils and teachers (...) that victims were less worthy than criminals (...) that there were no more values or hierarchies (...) See how the religion of money, of short-term profit, speculation, the failings of financial capitalism have been carried by the values of May '68" (see "Sarkozy attacks 'immoral' heritage of 1968", Daily Telegraph, 1 May 2007)

The wily identification of May ‘68 with excessive individualism, failed morals, and - most brazen of all - financial intoxication and deceit is part of a pattern where the right that emerged in its wake portray soixante-huitards as young careerists who climbed "from the barricades to the limousine". Making such a charge is harder than identifying these elusive creatures; one of them, however, is Patrick Devedjian, now secretary-general of Sarkozy's ruling UMP.

The moralist's revenge

But Nicolas Sarkozy's moralising accusation deserves scrutiny, for it has the merit of focusing on the longer-term impact of May '68. Indeed, many analysts (friend and foe) have said that the president himself - like his socialist rival in the 2007 election, the unmarried mother of four Ségolène Royal - is emblematic of the "children of 1968". The leftist philosopher (and Sarkozy supporter) André Glucksmann says: "He was then only 13 and he does not know how much he owes to the mental and moral revolution of 1968. Without ‘68, a divorced man, a "mixed blood" [Sarkozy's mother is Jewish] would never have entered the Elysée palace".

"Danny the Red" - now an outspoken Green member of the European parliament - echoes the point in a flavoursome contribution which plays on the sexual connotation of the verb jouir (enjoy): "May '68 is over. One can enjoy what happened then if one wants to. But don't let yourselves be fooled by a frustrated ‘68er named Sarkozy! He chose a ‘68 slogan, jouir sans entraves (enjoy without bonds), and he wants to impose on us his daily enjoyments." But Cohn-Bendit - who presented Sarkozy with a copy of his book during a visit to the Elysee palace on 16 April - goes on to say that French society today "has nothing to do with the 1960s", when women needed their husband's permission to open a bank account, were all but forbidden to wear trousers, where birth control was outlawed and homosexuality a crime.

It is true that May ‘68 made the French more tolerant of their elites' private lives. In 2001, Paris elected its first gay mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, without any fuss; Sarkozy himself is the first divorced French leader since Napoleon (and is now married for the third time); none of today's politicians would be expect to resign because of an extra-marital affair.

Also in openDemocracy on legacies of 1968:

Donald Nicholson-Smith, "Black glove/white glove: revisiting Mexico's 1968"
(25 August 2004)

Neal Ascherson,
"The Polish March: students, workers, and 1968"
(1 February 2008)

Todd Gitlin, "Rethinking the kinetics of 1968"
(11 April 2008) The conservative philosopher and former education minister Luc Ferry even says that, in a society long ruled by old men, it was only the emancipation of young people and of women that made it possible for figures such as Sarkozy or Royal to be candidates for president. "[Sarkozy] is 100% a child of ‘68 in his way of talking, living, but also in his lack of complexes when talking about his private life", Ferry concludes.

The end of nostalgia

The argument, then, is that after 1968 the cunning of history was at work. The Paris barricades nurtured a wave of individualism that freed minds, aspirations and libidos. This made it possible to contest the inheritance of 19th-century ideas - including the very communism to which so many of that generation's activists subscribed.

An aspect of this unanticipated process was that the the newly celebrated and confident "self" usurped the old style of collective behaviour. In social and economic life, what Luc Ferry calls the "consumer revolution" came to dominate; in politics, May '68 opened (in Cohn-Bendit's words) a "breach through which swept in all those who wanted to set themselves free from the prevalent self-imposed authoritarianism". It was as if the Maoist slogan "let a hundred flowers bloom" was rewritten by everyone from the bourgeois left to the liberal right to read, "let my own flower bloom"!

In other areas, however, history's cunning is not cunning enough. Sarkozy's repressive policy towards youngsters (especially those of immigrant origin), illegal immigrants, and criminals is far in spirit from another of May '68's key slogans, Il est interdit d'interdire (It is forbidden to forbid). But in this, the illegitimate child of France's most significant social upheaval of the 20th century is in good (or bad) company across much of the "democratic" world.

May 1968 is now history. There is as much reason to commemorate the reigns of French monarchs, the third republic, or the great war of 1914-18. Perhaps by 2018, when the generation that took part is in its 70s, the unending and often sterile intellectual disputes will have given way to a search for historical facts (except, of course, among unreformed leftists forever dedicated to the fantasy of a general strike which would topple capitalism). Between the forgetting and the totem-worship, however, there may be time to remember May 1968 as the last great moment of collective political idealism: when opposition to war, belief in solidarity, celebration of freedom, and the search for new forms of communication and creativity, made it appear that everything was possible. Amid a driven-mad-by-money global society, even a flawed utopia is worth a Mass. After that, it's time to move on.

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