By STEVEN ERLANGER
Published: April 29, 2008
NANTERRE, France Forty years ago, French students in neckties and
bobby socks threw cobblestones at the police and demanded that the
sclerotic post-war 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 de Gaulle took fright.
But for others, like the current French president, Nicolas Sarkozy,
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 United States to the Rolling Stones in swinging
London and finally the Baader-Meinhof gang in 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
a revulsion against stifling social rules of class, education and
For André 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."
Mr. Glucksmann, 71 and still with a mop of Beatles-like hair, wrote a
book with his filmmaker son, Raphaël, 28, called "May 68 Explained to
Nicolas Sarkozy." I
Mr. Sarkozy, in a stinging campaign speech a year ago as he ran
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," Mr. 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 Raphaël, 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," Raphaël 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 the
leader-jester, Mr. Cohn-Bendit, now a member of the European
Parliament: "Under the cobblestones is the beach."
Mr. Cohn-Bendit, known then as "Danny the Red" for the color of both
his politics and his hair, he is also thought responsible for other
famous slogans of the time: "It is forbidden to forbid" and "Live
without limits and enjoy without restraint!" with the word for
enjoy, "jouir," having the double meaning of sexual climax. The
injunction was especially potent in a straight-laced country where
the birth-control pill had been authorized for sale only the year
before, noted Alain Geismar, another leader of the time.
Mr. Geismar, a physicist who spent 18 months in jail but later
served as a counselor to government ministers wrote his own book,
"My May 1968."
Now 69, Mr. Geisner, a former Maoist, uses an iPhone. He happily
displays his music catalog, which is mostly Mozart.
The movement succeeded "as a social revolution, not as a political
one," he said. While the de Gaulle government responded with the
police and mobilized troops in case the students marched on the
presidential palace, the idea never occurred to student leaders, who
talked of revolution but never intended to carry one out.
Most significantly, Mr. Geismar noted, the movement was "the
beginning of the end of the Communist Party in France," which deeply
opposed the revolt of these young leftists it could not control, and
who managed in important ways to break the party's authority over the
big industrial unions.
The society of May 1968 "was completely blocked," Mr. Geismar said
a conservative recreation of pre-World War II society, shaken by the
Algerian war and the baby boom, its schools badly overcrowded.
"As a divorced man, Sarkozy couldn't have been invited to dinner at
the Élysée Palace, let alone be elected president of France," Mr.
Geismar said. Both the vivid personal life and political success of
Mr. Sarkozy, with foreign and Jewish roots, "are unimaginable without
1968," he said. "The neo-conservatives are unimaginable without '68."
André Glucksmann, who still supports Mr. Sarkozy as the best chance
to modernize "the gilded museum of France" and reduce the power of
"the sacralized state," is amused by Mr. Sarkozy's fierce campaign
attack on May 1968.
"Sarkozy is the first post-'68 president," Mr. Glucksmann said. "To
liquidate '68 is to liquidate himself."
But there is also a fashionable absurdity to the commemoration.
Designers Sonia Rykiel and Agnès b. discuss their views of May 1968
in every magazine, there are documentaries and discussions on every
channel and a Parisian jeweler, Jean Dinh Van, Vietnamese-born, has
reissued a silver cobblestone pendant he made at the time "to
celebrate 40 years of liberty" and, in his case, success. (The
smallest, with chain, $275.)