For the actors of the time — the student agitators, trade union representatives and thinkers -– May 1968 has two distinct interpretations. In the heat of the moment, they saw it as a revolutionary event. Fantasies of past revolutions in 1789, 1848 and 1917 filled their heads as they dreamt euphorically of a new beginning for French society. Today many of them -– Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Alain Geismar or Henri Weber — see it more modestly, not as an attempt to create social upheaval, but as a kind of democratic purge. In the late 60s France enjoyed unprecedented economic prosperity, but in their view it was straitjacketed by an antiquated university structure, authoritarian politics and rigid morality. They now see May ‘68 as a cultural milestone, a fundamentally positive moment with echoes detectable in present day morals, customs and attitudes.
That there are important traces of 1968 in the France of 2008 is undeniable, but the influence of that event has not fulfilled the expectations of its instigators and, in one serious respect, it has has seriously backfired. Normally when you get the reverse of what you expected, you go into double-loop questions: Were we right to seek what we sought? Was our project viable? Despite three ten-year commemorations of the event the veterans still show little sign that they really understood what they were doing.
"The tears of philistines are
the nectar of the gods"
It began as a student movement. More as a kind of "play-time" than as a serious political project. From March 22 at the University of Nanterre, students headed by "Danny the Red" (he has since become "Danny the Green" as a deputy in the European Parliament) fielded ideas in a carnival of words and an atmosphere of spring fraternity.
But under the influence of Maoist and Trotskyite agitators, and with the arrival of the trade unions, the sense of recreational protest hardened into a violent crisis that took everybody by surprise. For two or three weeks — the early stages of the movement — half the population saw it with sympathetic eyes. But as buses were set on fire, barricades erected and public buildings defaced, the population’s view became jaundiced. Basic necessities, such as food and petrol fell seriously short. It was only due to the forbearance of the police that no deaths were counted among the agitators and student rebels. One police commissioner was killed by a truck aimed at him by demonstrators.
After three weeks of turmoil, De Gaulle dissolved the National Assembly and held general elections. He won a landslide victory.
The specifically French touch to the ‘68 movement which affected many countries throughout the world lay in the conjunction of a student revolt and a general strike which paralysed the country for several weeks. This led many to suppose that May ‘68 was primarily a trade union movement. This is not true: the unions jumped onto a train the students had set in motion. In factories and offices the atmosphere was euphoric, too, rather like a collective regression to childhood. Yes, strikes were voted but sentinel workers mounted guard on the plants and equipment; they did not want rioters and demonstrators breaking in and smashing their means of livelihood.
"Revolution ceases the
moment it calls for self-sacrifice"
Who were these students? Mainly sons and daughters of the French bourgeoisie and who had known neither war not poverty and were as much dependent on the consumer society as they tried to be its iconoclasts. Their elders, the post-war generation, could point to their decisive, founding moments — the 1939-45 war, the Resistance, the collective reconstruction of France, via the Gaullist Fifth Republic or the Communist Party, the turmoil of decolonisation.
But these youngsters had no founding event through which to affirm their identity. They were spoilt kids enjoying the double protection of the welfare state and the decades of economic boom without which their carefree rebellion against authority would have been unthinkable. One can understand the surprise of their elders at being called "fascists" by adolescents who had never known hardship.
One remarkable graffiti of ‘68, alluding to the bed of sand that workmen laid under the cobblestones, invited students to "rediscover the beach under the cobble-stones". These were then dug up and hurled against the police whom they called "Nazis" and "SS"! With inflated rhetoric the agitators would stir up gullible adolescents to violent demonstrations before going home for a good night’s sleep.
"I declare a permanent state
The inspiration for these ideas can be found in Rousseau’s figure of the "noble savage". Man is basically innocent, but is perverted by a repressive society and authoritarianism in politics, education and institutions. Alexander Neill’s progressive school, Summerhill, gave the cue for the ‘68 rioters : the curse that weighs on humanity is exterior constraint, whether it come from Pope, state or teacher. It’s fascism.
As these baby boomers were knocking at the doors of overcrowded universities they felt more like battery hens than future professionals. The Sorbonne in ‘68 was a university of the Third Republic, light years away from its Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Coming myself from King’s College London with just 30 students per year and with individual tutorials, it was a shock in 1966 and 1967 to attend lectures at the Sorbonne in amphitheatres alongside thousands of students who never met their professors, even at examination time. There was no conviviality, no selection; the buildings which recalled a glorious past had gone to seed. It was understandable that students should protest against the general squalor of the premises and a humiliating Kafka-esque enrolment process.
Later in the early 70s, as a teacher of literature and linguistics at the same Sorbonne, I was amazed at the poor quality of the English teaching staff: their bad accents, their detached, self-protective intellectualism, their second-hand ideas.
‘68 did not begin at the Sorbonne, but in a Parisian suburb, Nanterre, where a modern university had been set up to ease the pressure on the Sorbonne. It boasted avant garde facilities and a world-class faculty (philosopher Paul Ricoeur, sociologist Alain Touraine, linguist Pierre Grappin) aware of the reforms that needed to be introduced.
Unfortunately, if their protest was understandable, the solutions that veterans of ‘68 advanced have been disastrous. Ever more democratic, with lower standards and selection by failure! The university in France has steadily gone downhill for the last 30 years. A former Minister of Education, Luc Ferry, has spoken of an educational disaster since ‘68.
Successive reforms attempted to develop French children’s spontaneity. They had to be allowed to develop their own laws and not follow what previous generations had handed down. This philosophy implemented on a large scale has wrought havoc. About 15 percent of 12-year-olds are illiterate and of the remaining 85 percent, 20 percent are not comfortable with reading aloud. Teachers are no longer encouraged to ask pupils to read aloud for fear of embarrassing them.
In the wake of ‘68, it was assumed that to get children to work you had to motivate them; work had to be appealing. But normally work precedes the interest you feel for it. Educational reformers put the cart before the horse.
"Zelda, I love you! Down with
‘68 also gave rise to a cult of youth for its own sake. Ageing was seen as shameful. Mothers, fathers and teachers were encouraged to be pals, not parents and educators. But as education is precisely the path that separates childhood from adulthood, children became disoriented. Normally the world of adults is more intense than the world of Peter Pan, but the theories born of ‘68 forgot that.
Another area in which more freedom was demanded was sexuality. In ‘68 young men and women were discovering contraception; riskless sex outside marriage became an immediate possibility. The rhetoric of liberation was used to promote the idea that sexuality had to be liberated from the taboos of traditional morality. Graffiti appeared: "Put no limits to your desire", "live orgasmically", "it’s forbidden to forbid". Sex was presented not only as a path to innocence but as a form of protest against a repressive society. After 20 years of AIDS such graffiti today only provokes an understanding smile.
"Insolence is the new
Although for modern French youth 1968 is dead as a dodo, one last trace persists: a widespread contemporary attitude that can be called imprecation.
To compensate the lack of real ideas and constructive debate, contemporary French culture has given birth to the figure of the imprecator. If authority and tradition are suspect, then denunciation, accusation and imprecation must be the new intellectual tools. The imprecator is the good guy, the natural representative of the underdog. He can unmask the exploiter, subvert his claims to expertise, lay bare his unacknowledged bad faith and desire for domination. The imprecator is an armchair Nietszche and is frequently encountered among "caviar socialists" with their tendency to occupy the high ground and wield their weapon of systematic suspicion.
The attitude of the imprecator is nowhere better seen than among journalists and interviewers in the media. If you are a footballer or a pop star you are welcomed. If you are a politician, an expert, a company director, or the head of an institution, you are suspected of colluding with power against the underdog.
"We don’t want a world
where the guarantee of not dying
of starvation brings the risk of dying of boredom"
Politically ’68 is dead. The Fifth Republic is still with us and the leaders on the barricades have all nestled into comfortable careers. But contemporary French society is in many ways the daughter of ‘68. The big impact has been in education, as noted, in the family and morals, and also within the Catholic Church. The traditional family has imploded, with some positive, but mainly negative consequences. The "me generation" has swollen along with a growth in social indifference, and a tendency to abandon old people. Values such as work, respect, merit have become discredited. Today’s youth are surrounded by images of hyper-individualism, the cult of personal success, and a climate of relentless competition.
Did the rebels of ‘68 realise that their revolt was one more relay of individualism, strengthening the consumer society they wanted to end? The big winner of ‘68 has paradoxically been the market which can adapt to all forms of moral dissolution, satisfy an unlimited desire for freedom and promise eternal youth. This is a surprising heritage for a movement that sought to abolish the very notion of heritage.