France re­lives May ’68 with a new dis­sat­is­fac­tion with its gov­ern­ment

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By El­iz­a­beth Bryant

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.”

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