May 17, 2008
By Catherine Field
At the crossroads of the Boulevard St-Germain-des-Pres and the
Boulevard Saint-Michel, no cobblestones are flying, just occasional
wrappers caught by the spring breeze.
The scent of teargas and patchouli dispersed long ago, to be replaced
by the waft of traffic exhausts and perfume from passing tourists.
The Latin Cluny self-service restaurant - once a backdrop to the
events that shook the world - has been replaced by a McDonald's.
Forty years have passed since the upheaval of student demonstrations
and striking workers, known as May '68, gripped France.
For a month-and-a-half, the rest of Europe looked on, bemused or
terrified, as France was wrenched by revolutionary convulsions tinged
by the free-wheeling, liberated mood of a hippie happening. The
events shook President Charles de Gaulle and the conservative
establishment, challenged capitalist doctrines, opened up an era of
sexual liberation, gave a voice to the young - and unleashed a debate
that rumbles to this day.
"It was a student revolt, it was a revolutionary movement by small,
disunited groups, it was a social crisis and an unprecedented strike,
it was a political crisis, all rolled into one, and it was a cultural
revolution on top of that," says historian Michel Winock.
It began on May 3 when students occupied the Sorbonne in the Latin
Quarter, on the city's Left Bank. Violent clashes erupted with riot
police, leading to hundreds of injuries and arrests. Barricades were
thrown up around the Sorbonne, leaving the district in the hands of
Within the university, lecture theatres, residence halls and study
rooms were transformed into a free-for-all where Maoists,
Trotskyists, anarchists, communists and socialists debated, staged
workshops on the ills of capitalism, the rights of the individual and
the Vietnam War.
By May 13, the movement had extended to universities across France -
and then to thousands of factories as well, where unions hoisted the
red flag, downing tools and staging sit-ins to demand higher pay and
The country became paralysed by this unprecedented movement where
workers marched in lock-step with the scions of the middle classes.
At one point, nearly 11 million people were either on strike or unable to work.
Fumbling through all this was France's 77-year-old war hero, Charles
de Gaulle, angry and baffled at the "chienlit" - "havoc" - that had
swept his country. After weeks of hesitation, sensing that public
sympathy for the students had been replaced by resentment, he used
his sweeping powers to dissolve the National Assembly, or lower house
of Parliament, and call new elections.
His supporters organised a counter-demonstration that drew hundreds
of thousands of people to the Champs-Elysees. By mid-June, the
mini-revolution had fizzled out, amid acrimony between rival
left-wing groups. By month's end, De Gaulle's conservatives scored an
emphatic victory in the elections. But nothing would be quite the same again.
Today, the legacy of May '68 unleashes a polarised debate, reflected
in nearly 100 books published on the occasion of the 40th
anniversary, the innumerable newspaper and magazine articles and
dozens of TV documentaries, films and exhibitions.
Left-wingers, though, defend May '68 passionately. Where
conservatives see sterile, doctrinal or violent confrontation, they
see contact, dialogue, a breaking with the tongue-tied past.
"May '68 was a moment of grace, even for the opposite side," says
singer Georges Moustaki. "All of a sudden there was an awareness that
... we couldn't remain in the slumber that prevailed before."
In the occupied factories and faculties, there was music, theatre and
poetry, and intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre would give
lectures to packed rooms. The grassroots debates, while usually
unfocused or chaotic, were lively and the emphasis was always on
freedom. "Il est interdit d'interdire" - it is forbidden to forbid -
is the best-remembered slogan of the time.
Feminists, for the first time, were a visible political and social
force, and sexual liberation, helped by the legalisation of the
contraceptive pill a year before, dawned.
"What impressed me most was the gathering of people who were very
diverse, who never spoke to each other before," Jean-Baptiste Ruffet,
a 28-year-old trainee metro driver at the time, told Le Parisien.
"There were university and high school students, striking workers,
union officials, architects, engineers, teachers, worried bosses of
small companies. I learned a lifelong lesson from this, which is to
accept the differences of other people."
Among today's youngsters, one senses a mixture of thoughts about May 68.
There is boredom at how their parents or grandparents - now
respectable bourgeois - drone on about their glory days. Yet there is
also respect bordering on envy for the event itself, for such a
revolt against authority is almost unimaginable today.
In 1968, the country was run by a starchy, conservative, Catholic
paternal figure. Teachers were lofty figures who taught by rote with
iron discipline. In the workplace, bosses ruled the roost and workers
kept their heads down. In sexual behaviour and women's rights, the
edicts were knee-length skirts, no intercourse before marriage, no
divorce by mutual consent.
So the situation was ripe for revolt, driven by the demographic bulge
of the baby boomers, their confidence and prosperity founded on
France's post-World War II boom.
Today's youngsters look at a dour future. The jobless rate is more
than four times that of 1968.
A student who graduates in 2008 is likely to spend four or five years
unemployed, doing ill-paid "training" programmes or living
precariously on fixed-term contracts before finding a secure job.
Surviving on tiny incomes and worried about their future, French
students are not in a revolutionary mood.
"Three-quarters of the people here don't know what happened here in
March 1968," says Martin Ammari, a history student at the grim,
concrete campus of Nanterre University, west of Paris, where a
protest on March 22, 1968, led to the bust-up at the Sorbonne.
Marie-Claude, a 52-year-old Renault worker who preferred not to give
her last name, says she finds her children's generation "sadder and
indifferent" compared with her own. "In our day, we were more focused
on our freedom. We could quit a job on a whim, to be with our
boyfriend for instance, and there would be no fear of long-term
unemployment," she said.
"Kids today maybe would like to do the same, but they have less
certainty about finding another job."
The leaders of May '68 became some of the prominent men and women of
their generation, especially in politics, the media, the cinema and arts.
Leading lights include the philosopher Andre Glucksmann, Serge July,
who went on to edit the left-wing daily Liberation, Dany "le Rouge"
Cohn-Bendit, a German left-winger who is now a Euro MP for the
Greens, and the cartoonist Georges Wolinski.
While most people today make comparisons between May '68 and May '08,
historian Michel Winock takes a longer view. He says May '68's real
touchstone was 1789, and the contact was a blessing and a curse at
the same time. As in the French Revolution, individuals chaotically
asserted their liberty. But it came at the cost of entrenching
confrontation, which explains why reforms in France in politics and
the workplace are rarely achieved smoothly, he argues.
"In France, the spirit of confrontation, of protest, is like
something embedded in the genes," says Winock.
REMEMBERING THE REVOLUTION
"All of a sudden there was an awareness that we had to wake up."
Singer Georges Moustaki
"We were more focused on our freedom, our independence." Renault
"I learned a life-long lesson to accept the differences of other
people." Jean-Baptiste Ruffet