May 1968 and all that

We are nearing the 40th anniversary of the famous student uprising in France. In the heart of Paris’ student quarter, on Rue Saint Jacques, the city is displaying a collection of excellent photographs of the May 1968 events — students constructing barricades from burned-out cars, pulling up cubes of pavement with which to do battle against the police, and so forth. The photos are accompanied by short captions which generally express sympathy and affection for the students.

But why were they fighting in the streets? Unlike the U.S., France was not bogged down in a controversial war. Moreover, the government of Charles de Gaulle had brought stability and prosperity to France after three decades of misfortune and worse.

Part of the answer lies in French tradition: the students were acting as their ancestors had done — repeatedly. Moreover, there was a sense that the de Gaulle government was past its sell-by date. As David Frum shows in How We Got Here: The 70s, the World War II generation of leaders quickly exited the stage in most key countries during the early 1960s, usually to be replaced by substantially younger leaders (think of Eisenhower and Kennedy). But de Gaulle had removed himself from the political scene shortly after the war, waiting for the nation to turn to him in desperation. Since this didn’t happen until 1958, he re-entered the scene around the time that his contemporaries elsewhere were departing. By 1968, he must have seemed like a dinosaur to student activiists.

The students also had legitimate grievances. De Gaulle had reformed much, but not the university system. Nanterre where the trouble began was, in the words of Alistair Horne author of the excellent Seven Ages of Paris, “a new particularly drab suburban campus of graffiti-covered concrete surrounded by mud.” Designed to deal with the overflow at the Sorbonne, it had 12,000 students, many more than it could adequately accommodate, and only 240 professors. Students often waited more than an hour to be served food, leaving “plenty of time for revolutionary chat.”

The Sorbonne wasn’t much better. By 1968, it had 130,000 students and suffered from “overcrowding in lecture halls, mandarinisme on the part of the teachers, a total lack of communication between them and their pupils, over-centralization, excessive bureaucracy, the fossilization of the syllabus and the tyranny of endless examinations.”

So the students had a case for protesting in favor of university reform; what they lacked was a case for attempting to bring about the violent overthrow of the French government.

Yet it was natural that over-excited French 20 year olds would infer the second case from the first, especially after the French police overreacted to initial provocation. What seems inexcusable is the way their elders — professors and intellectuals — egged them on. Horne notes, for example, that chemistry professors showed students how to make Molotov cocktails. And then there was Jean-Paul Sartre, taking the wrong line as usual, playing the role of “professor of revolution.” How fitting that an essentially frivolous philosopher would be so closely associated with an essentially frivolous revolution, remembered for its Sartresque slogan “I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires.”

Fortunately, the French working class showed better judgment than French intellectuals. Striking workers occupied the huge Renault plant, but refused to join forces with the students. And the giant CGT ordered that there be no interuption of electricity service. These develoments bought an unusually hesitant de Gaulle the time he needed to get back finally in the saddle. As Raymond Aron put it, “one speech from an old man of 78 and the people of France rediscovered the sense of reality, petrol pumps and holidays.”

What is the legacy of May 1968? Perhaps it’s that the French have not lost that sense of reality. Nothing like these events has happened since. 40 years is a long time for the French to go without a revolt or a war.

Recently, of course, France has experienced rioting, so a new revolt may be brewing. However, this would be a revolt of a religious/ethnic minority — outsiders, in effect. May 1968 may have marked the final installment in an almost 200 year-old French tradition of Gallic street fighting. That’s something to celebrate.

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