France relives May ’68 with a new dissatisfaction with its government
PARIS — Rock music blares on a hot afternoon as students demonstrating against cuts in education reluctantly disperse in midtown under the watch of riot police in a scene reminiscent of a watershed May 40 years ago, when protests forced the Gaullist government to hold new elections and profoundly changed France’s political landscape.
Today, an uneasy France revisits May 1968 with exhibitions, seminars, movies, articles and demonstrations amid widespread dissatisfaction with President Nicolas Sarkozy and his centerright government.
“Young people look very favorably at what happened in May ‘68,” Jean-Baptiste Prevost, president of the National Union of Students of France, said about protests by high school students, including one two weeks ago against government plans to cut more than 11,000 teaching posts.
“At the same time, young people don’t want to copy what took place. They want to write their own history,” Mr. Prevost said.
The demonstrations, clashes and riots that rocked the country on May 6, 1968, and for the subsequent several weeks began with student takeovers of the Paris-area Sorbonne and Nanterre universities and quickly blossomed into a coun- trywide revolt that was rapidly joined by artists and disgruntled workers.
Workers staged strikes. Students held sit-ins calling for the government of war hero turned president Charles de Gaulle to resign. If the protesters hailed from different backgrounds, they shared a similar desire to shake up traditional French society and, for some, to express their opposition to the Vietnam War.
But the unrest dissolved almost as rapidly as it began. It was over by the time of the June legislative elections, which merely strengthened the Gaullist politicians’ hand. Still, Mr. de Gaulle retired a year later.
Today, the debate is in the newspapers, on television and in forums organized across France about the legacy of that riotous month in 1968.
“In May ‘68, France jumped from the 19th to the 21st century,” said Jacques Capdevielle, who coauthored a recent “dictionary” on the subject. “Before May, the unions had no legal existence. That was one great change. And the school system changed as well. So did sexual behavior.”
But French journalist and writer Jean-Paul Cruse, who took part in the demonstrations as a 20-year-old high school student, thinks the movement had a more limited effect. Changes in matters such as sexual freedom and sex equality, frequently linked to the protest movement, actually took place before and after it, he said.
“The main change was a political one,” Mr. Cruse said. “It brought the end of Gaullism and the beginning of the fall of communism — two key pillars of postwar France.”
Not everyone looks back on ‘68 with nostalgia. During his election campaign last year, Mr. Sarkozy vowed to “liquidate the heritage of May 1968,” which he suggested had robbed the country of its values.
Publisher Jean Picollec also is no fan of 1968. “They occupied the Sorbonne and [urinated] everywhere and destroyed things,” Mr. Picollec, 70, recalls of the student protests that took place near his Paris apartment. “And this idea people could talk about anything — you’d hear the stupidest, most insignificant discourse.”
Today’s bread-and-butter concerns about high unemployment, job insecurity and overcrowded schools have replaced the more idealistic causes embraced 40 years ago, commentators note.
The current student movement “is an expression of malaise,” Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the leaders of the 1968 movement, told Le Monde newspaper recently. “Young people face a far more stressful life than 40 years ago [with] unemployment, insecurity, AIDS, climate change.”