Fifty years ago, the protests of May ’68 ush­ered in a new way of life in France. Today, the Sor­bonne univer­sity – seedbed of that move­ment – has lost its rev­o­lu­tion­ary fer­vour

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Lara Mar­lowe in Paris

It is late morn­ing on the Place de la Sor­bonne. CRS riot po­lice and a guard fil­ter peo­ple out­side France’s old­est univer­sity. Only staff and stu­dents hold­ing no­tices to at­tend ex­ams are al­lowed to en­ter.

The pres­i­dent of the Sor­bonne has closed the fac­ulty for the day as a pre­cau­tion. Stu­dents have oc­cu­pied about a dozen of France’s 400 univer­sity cam­puses spo­rad­i­cally since March, in­clud­ing the Sor­bonne. Two weeks of hol­i­days ended all but the most hard­line oc­cu­pa­tions.

Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron said last year that he was con­sid­er­ing how to com­mem­o­rate the 50th an­niver­sary of the May 1968 “revo­lu­tion”. But low-level protests against his re­forms con­tinue to bub­ble away, and the French leader de­cided it was best to ig­nore the date al­to­gether. To pre­vent his­tory re­peat­ing it­self, the au­thor­i­ties have erred on the side of cau­tion.

“It’s laugh­able,” says Elise Dobler, a 20-year-old stu­dent of his­tory and ge­og­ra­phy. “There’s no block­ade planned for the Sor­bonne, but the univer­sity called the CRS to block the block­ers.”

Those re­fused en­try linger on benches or stand on the square, try­ing to de­cide what to do, where to go to study. They chat and eat fast food from nearby out­lets. Po­lice main­tain a dis­creet pres­ence. There is no ten­sion.

Turn the clock back 50 years, to the first week of May 1968. Anar­chists, Maoists and Trot­sky­ist stu­dent groups or­gan­ised an “anti- im­pe­ri­al­ist day” to protest against the Viet­nam war. The cam­pus of the Univer­sity of Paris at Nan­terre, where a re­bel­lion had been sim­mer­ing since Jan­uary, was shut down.

Mil­i­tant stu­dents, in­clud­ing Daniel Cohn-Ben­dit, the charis­matic leader of the re­volt who would later be­come a Green MEP, moved their oc­cu­pa­tion to the Sor­bonne.

“Ev­ery am­phithe­atre is in­vaded by hun­dreds of youths, who spill out into the cor­ri­dors,” the Agence France-Presse (AFP) re­ported on May 14th, 1968. “They de­bate all the prob­lems of the univer­sity and so­ci­ety for hours, fever­ishly, without rest.”

The AFP re­porter saw a stu­dent paint over a fresco in the court­yard with the words, “Com­rades, mankind will not be happy un­til the last cap­i­tal­ist is hung by the guts of the last bu­reau­crat.” A de­bate en­sued, and the graf­fiti was re­moved with paint thin­ner.

In the street out­side some­one threw a paving stone at a po­lice­man, and a sixweek bat­tle be­tween stu­dents and riot po­lice be­gan.

On May 6th, 900 were in­jured in clashes in the Latin Quar­ter. Dur­ing the night of May 10th-11th, CRS stormed 60 bar­ri­cades and 367 peo­ple were se­ri­ously in­jured, in­clud­ing 251 po­lice­men.

The re­bel­lion spread to fac­to­ries and uni­ver­si­ties across the coun­try. By May 24th, 10 mil­lion peo­ple had stopped work­ing, in the big­gest so­cial move­ment of 20th- cen­tury France. Five peo­ple lost their lives. The Fifth Repub­lic was shaken to its foun­da­tions.

Valentin Fau­vel’s pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther Jean-Claude was among the strik­ing work­ers. “He was a me­chanic on air­craft en­gines for Air France at Le Bour­get and Roissy,” says Fau­vel, a 20-year-old stu­dent of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions.

“He was also a trade union­ist with the [neo-Com­mu­nist] CGT. He still talks about it. He has great mem­o­ries of May 1968. For him it was a joy­ous revo­lu­tion.”

An opin­ion poll pub­lished by Libéra­tion news­pa­per this week shows that 70 per cent of French peo­ple be­lieve May 1968 had a pos­i­tive im­pact on French so­ci­ety.

“It brought about all the so­cial changes of the 1970s, the lib­er­a­tion of sex­ual mores and women’s rights, in­clud­ing abor­tion,” says Fau­vel.

Gen Charles de Gaulle won po­lit­i­cally by re­unit­ing the right and gain­ing an ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity in the Na­tional As­sem­bly. Yet so­cially the re­volt had long- term re­sults. The Grenelle ac­cords which ended the revo­lu­tion raised the min­i­mum wage by 35 per cent, gave sig­nif­i­cant pay rises to to civil ser­vants and low­ered the re­tire­ment age.

“Thanks to the pay in­creases, work­ers ob­tained a much higher stan­dard of liv­ing,” says his­to­rian Philipe Ar­tières. “May 1968 ush­ered in a new way of life. The rights of whole cat­e­gories of peo­ple who had been ig­nored were even­tu­ally recog­nised. Im­mi­grant labour­ers, ho­mo­sex­u­als, women.”

Legacy of 1968

The fact that a me­chanic’s grand­son such as Fau­vel is earn­ing a de­gree in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, and the pres­ence of stu­dents from eth­nic mi­nori­ties and the im­mi­grant ban­lieues on the Place de la Sor­bonne is part of the legacy of 1968.

That may help to ex­plain why France has lost much of its rev­o­lu­tion­ary fer­vour. The baby- boomers of a half cen­tury ago were protest­ing against US and Soviet dom­i­na­tion of the world. They de­manded sex­ual free­dom and per­sonal ful­fil­ment. Today the main grievance of French youth is a new law that es­tab­lishes cri­te­ria for ad­mis­sion to univer­sity.

Fau­vel has not joined protests against the “Vi­dal Law” be­cause he is too busy study­ing.

“It’s hard for me to have a firm po­si­tion on the re­form,” he says. “I’m not ashamed of not be­ing in­ter­ested, and not join­ing in the demon­stra­tions. I don’t share the politi- cal views of the block­ers, or those who op­pose them.”

Black- hooded anar­chists sacked a res­tau­rant and a car deal­er­ship on the side­lines of a May Day march in Paris, but the re­sult­ing images of vi­o­lence are mis­lead­ing.

“Fewer peo­ple are in­ter­ested in protest today,” says Fau­vel. “They’re afraid of losi ng t heir salaries. I f you’re a min­i­mum- wage earner and you go on strike you lose a lot of money.”

Fau­vel will at­tend the Univer­sity of Ber­lin next year on an Eras­mus schol­ar­ship. He wants “a France that is open to the world, to the Euro­pean project”. He ap­proves of Macron’s ini­tia­tives.

Fau­vel was alone in speak­ing pos­i­tively of Macron, but his am­biva­lence about join­ing stu­dent protests was wide­spread.

“Our whole so­ci­ety has stopped be­ing mil­i­tant. We are much more cau­tious and much more crit­i­cal,” says Nathalie Dar­mon (37), a ma­ture stu­dent of English.

Though Dar­mon op­poses the univer­sity re­form, she re­sents the in­con­ve­nience cre­ated by pro­test­ers. “Why block higher ed­u­ca­tion? Why block peo­ple who want ac­cess to knowl­edge so they can change things?”

She sug­gests govern­ment min­istries would be a more ap­pro­pri­ate tar­get.

Dar­mon’s friend and fel­low stu­dent of English, Imen ( 20), does not want to give her fam­ily name. May 1968 was “a mo­ment when peo­ple lis­tened to the young, and saw what they were ca­pa­ble of. That’s not hap­pen­ing today,” she says.

Though Imen is not pre­pared to protest, she crit­i­cises the univer­sity re­form. “We’re all from the ban­lieue,” she notes. “I know peo­ple who had poor re­sults in ly­cée but who blos­somed at univer­sity. That’s go­ing to be lost with the se­lec­tion process. It will cre­ate dis­crim­i­na­tion.”

The govern­ment ar­gues that un­lim­ited free ad­mis­sion to state uni­ver­si­ties is ex- tremely waste­ful, and leads to high fail­ure rates. Imen sees the law as part of a wider trend. “The govern­ment wants a coun­try based on com­pe­ti­tion, whereas France is sup­posed to be about égal­ité and fra­ter­nité. Their model is ‘sur­vival of the fittest’.”

“The govern­ment wants prof­itabil­ity,” a fe­male stu­dent chimes in.

With his beard, ear- ring, woolly scarf and jeans, Sa­muel Webb blends in per­fectly with other stu­dents. When I com­ment on his English- sound­ing sur­name, the 30- year- old doc­toral stu­dent in phi­los­o­phy tells me he is an Amer­i­can from New York.

Webb has been en­rolled at the Sor­bonne, where he also teaches, for the past five years. He is writ­ing his the­sis on the re­la­tion be­tween self-im­age and po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre.

In 1968, the ex­is­ten­tial­ist philoso­pher ad­dressed stu­dents in the oc­cu­pied Sor­bonne. Webb was the only one of a dozen in­ter­vie­wees who wished he had been there for the May revo­lu­tion.

“Be­fore the spring va­ca­tion the Sor­bonne was briefly oc­cu­pied,” Webb re­calls. “I was here. Stu­dents tried to or­gan­ise a gen­eral as­sem­bly. They were all ar­rayed in the court­yard of the Sor­bonne and hang­ing out the win­dows, with the po­lice out­side. You could see that every­one had 1968 in the back of their minds. You got the feel­ing they were try­ing to re­cap­ture some­thing.”

Cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem

Webb sees Macron’s re­forms as an at­tempt “to make France more com­pet­i­tive and sim­plify things, to bring it more in line with Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. That’s not uni­ver­sally bad, but a lot of what makes France a dis­tinc­tive so­ci­ety, its so­cial pro­tec­tions, is be­ing di­luted.”

To an Amer­i­can, Webb says, it’s ob­vi­ous that uni­ver­si­ties need to limit ad­mis­sions. “But it’s an­ti­thet­i­cal to the way pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties are con­ceived in France, which is al­most im­pos­si­ble for an Amer­i­can to un­der­stand.”

Re­cur­ring fi­nan­cial and po­lit­i­cal crises have shown the flaws of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, Webb con­tin­ues. But un­like 1968, there is no vi­sion for the fu­ture.

“There’s pretty widely a sense that the sta­tus quo is un­ac­cept­able. That’s why you have Macron and Trump and Brexit. Peo­ple feel what we’re do­ing now doesn’t work. But there’s not a sense that we have an ide­o­log­i­cal sys­tem that may be able to fix it . . . Po­lit­i­cal move­ments today are look­ing for ref­er­ences.

“May 1968 was about cast­ing off a lot of things that had de­fined the French so­cial struc­ture. The step for­ward is go­ing to be when we move on to some­thing new.”

Fewer peo­ple are in­ter­ested in protest today. They’re afraid of los­ing their salaries

See also: Ticket

Clock­wise from top left: stu­dents protest in Paris in May 1968; ac­tivists oc­cupy the Sor­bonne; stu­dent leader Daniel Cohn-Ben­dit speaks at an as­sem­bly hall in the Univer­sity of Paris; stu­dents in the grounds of the Sor­bonne; a demon­stra­tion against the re­form of the bac­calau­re­ate last month; and (be­low) se­cu­rity guards at the Tol­biac cam­pus after po­lice broke up a protest camp there, also last month. PHO­TO­GRAPHS: REG LAN­CASTER/DAILY EX­PRESS/HUL­TON AR­CHIVE, KEY­STONE/ HUL­TON AR­CHIVE, WOLFGANG KUNZ/ ULLSTEIN BILD/GETTY, JAN SCHMIDTWHITLEY/NURPHOTO/ GETTY, CHRISTOPHE SI­MON/AFP

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