Forty years ago, French students in neckties and bobby socks threw cobblestones at the police and demanded that the sclerotic postwar system must change. Today, French students, worried about finding jobs and losing state benefits, are marching through the streets demanding that nothing change at all.
May 1968 was a watershed in French life, a holy moment of liberation for many, when youth coalesced, the workers listened and the semi-royal French government of Charles de Gaulle took fright.
But for others, like French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was only 13 years old at the time, May 1968 represents anarchy and moral relativism, a destruction of social and patriotic values that, he has said in harsh terms, “must be liquidated.”
The fierce debate about what happened 40 years ago is very French. There is even a fight about labels — the Right calls it “the events,” while the Left calls it “the movement.”
While a youth revolt became general in the West — from anti-Vietnam protests in the US to the Rolling Stones in swinging London and finally the Baader-Meinhof gang in West Germany — France was where the protests of the baby-boom generation came closest to a real political revolution, with 10 million workers on strike, and not just revulsion at stifling social rules of class, education and sexual behavior.
For Andre Glucksmann, a prime actor then and still a famous “public intellectual,” May 1968 is “a monument, either sublime or detested, that we want to commemorate or bury.
“It is a ‘cadaver,’” he said, “from which everyone wants to rob a piece.”
Glucksmann, 71 and still with a mop of Beatles-like hair, wrote a book with his filmmaker son, Raphael, 28, called May ’68 Explained to Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy, in a stinging campaign speech a year ago while running against the Socialist candidate, attacked May 1968 and “its leftist heirs,” whom he blamed for a crisis of “morality, authority, work and national identity.” He attacked “the cynicism of the gauche caviars,” the high-livers on the Left.
In 1968, “the hope was to change the world, like the Bolshevik Revolution, but it was inevitably incomplete, and the institutions of the state are untouched,” Glucksmann said. “We commemorate, but the Right is in power!”
As for the French Left, he said: “It’s in a state of mental coma.”
For Raphael Glucksmann, who led his first strike at high school in 1995, his generation has nostalgia for their rebel fathers, but no stomach for a fight in hard economic times.
“The young people are marching now to refuse all reforms, to defend the rights of their professors,” he said. “We see no alternatives. We’re a generation without bearings.”
The events (or movement) of 40 years ago began in March at Nanterre University, just outside Paris, where a young French-born German named Daniel Cohn-Bendit led demonstrations against parietal rules — when young men and women could be together in dormitory rooms — that got out of hand.
When the university was closed in early May, the anger soon spread to central Paris, to the Latin Quarter and the Sorbonne, where the student elite demonstrated against antiquated university rules, and then outward, to workers in the big factories.
Scenes of the barricades, the police charges and the tear gas are dear to the French, recaptured in every magazine and scores of books, including one by photographer Marc Riboud, now 84, called: Under the Cobblestones, a reference to a famous slogan of the time from leader-jester Cohn-Bendit, now a member of the European Parliament: “Under the cobblestones, the beach.”