The French Look Back At May '68

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a member of the European parliament, was addressing a student symposium here earlier this week when somebody threw a pie in his face.

For "Danny the Red" - as Mr. Cohn-Bendit was known 30 years ago - a cream pie is a relatively benign missile. He is better known for the cobblestones he hurled at French police during the student-worker uprising he led in May 1968.

But times have changed. As you walk today through the Latin Quarter of Paris - full of upscale restaurants and chic interior design stores - it is hard to imagine these same streets ablaze with student idealism and torched cars as rioters fought off truncheon-wielding police with Molotov cocktails amid clouds of tear gas.

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The left-wing revolutionary political ideals that inspired the rebellion have long since fallen into disrepute. At the same time though, a new society was forged in the crucible of the myth-ridden May '68, and the French still seem to be wondering just what kind of society it is.

"We stepped out of one historical period and entered another one without knowing where it would take us," says Jean-Pierre Le Goff, author of a new book on the events of 30 years ago. "French society has still not really reconciled itself to this new era."

The evidence, he suggests, lies in the difficulty French politicians have in offering any convincing vision of the future that the voters like - a problem that lies behind the country's difficulties in modernizing its economy and political life. Instead, France is wallowing in nostalgia as newspapers, magazines, radio, and television commemorate the month-long May 1968 uprising.

Nostalgia for old ideals

The scale of the media coverage has surprised everyone, even if the events being recalled were undoubtedly important: France was paralyzed for two weeks as 10 million workers downed tools in the biggest ever general strike, five people died in violent clashes, and President Charles de Gaulle considered stepping down.

But the coverage is also suffused with nostalgia for the mood sweeping Paris that spring, that anything might happen - a mood captured in the slogans scrawled on faculty walls such as "Be realistic, demand the impossible!" or "Imagination rules."

And there is a strong sense, often expressed by people who took part in the riots, that neither they nor society at large has really digested the meaning of the events being commemorated.

"When our identity gets fuzzy, we dig, we stir up the past," wrote Serge July, editor of the left-wing daily Liberation, in a five-page reflection on May '68. "The more uncertain and precarious our present, the more we turn to the past; the French don't know where they live any more, so they go begging at memory's door."

Today's students know little and care less about the details of what happened in May 1968 - perhaps bored by their parents' endless reminiscences about how they manned the barricades and nearly made a revolution.

But if today's French twentysomethings have little in common with their parents' politics, they share the social values that blossomed 30 years ago, according to a poll carried out by the weekly L'Express magazine.

New student values

Revolution, the class struggle, rejecting religion, and opposition to the consumer society are "old-fashioned values" to half or more of today's students, the survey found.

But defending minorities, sexual freedom, gender equality, and a readiness to challenge authority are seen as modern values.

This cultural revolution bore fruit in the women's movement, including the battle for abortion rights in socially conservative France, in the gay-liberation movement, and in the environmental movement. For instance, the environmentally oriented Green Party holds ministerial posts in Premier Lionel Jospin's Cabinet.

"[The 1968 uprising] unleashed new demands, new hopes, new actors," says Mr. Le Goff, a former Maoist who was a philosophy student 30 years ago. "And if revolutionary political leftism was defeated, cultural leftism triumphed."

At the same time, the anti-authoritarian euphoria that fueled the riots and the new sense of individualism has had lasting, and sometimes ambiguous, effects.

It blew a gale of fresh air through the stifling atmosphere of 1960s France, where the authoritarianism of President de Gaulle was matched only by the authoritarianism of the main opposition party, the pro-Stalin Communist Party.

But it also undermined institutions and the authorities in general, which have seemed less sure of themselves and less sure of their legitimacy to impose rules over the past three decades.

"We are still in search of a new way of being individuals while recognizing the central role of our institutions," suggests le Goff.

"People need to be vigilant with regard to the authorities, but they also need a minimum of respect for them. We are still working through this, trying to find a balance," he says.

Changing meanings

Meanwhile, some of the utopian slogans coined during May '68 have found expression in ways their revolutionary graffiti artists could never have dreamed of. "It is forbidden to forbid," for example, has become not the byword for a free society, but for a free market. And "I am God" has segued easily into a selfish consumerism.

A consumer-oriented free market may have triumphed in the end, but the spirit of '68 still burns in some youthful breasts.

Cohn-Bendit's pie-wielding assailants this week were anarchists who slammed him as "the perfect symbol of something we will never celebrate: compromise, collusion with a system that has adopted him."

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