The views of a ’68 rev­o­lu­tion­ary

Daniel Cohn-Ben­dit helped shape the events that shook Paris 50 years ago. He tells Kim Will­sher of the par­al­lels - and con­trasts - with to­day

The Observer - - News -

The last time Paris burned, his was the face of in­sur­rec­tion. Dany le Rouge (Danny the Red – a nick­name that partly re­flected his pol­i­tics and partly his hair) was the hero of a gen­er­a­tion. Even when Daniel Cohn-Ben­dit, leader of the May 1968 stu­dent upris­ing, changed his colours to Danny the Green and went main­stream – rep­re­sent­ing ecol­ogy par­ties in France, Ger­many and Brus­sels – he never quite shook off his old rep­u­ta­tion as a rebel and political trou­ble-maker.

Half a cen­tury on, Paris is burn­ing and bar­ri­caded again, but CohnBen­dit sees lit­tle com­par­i­son with the clashes of 50 years ago. He views the gilets jaunes not as rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies but as a move­ment veer­ing dan­ger­ously into au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. In an in­ter­view with the Ob­server, Cohn-Ben­dit, now a friend and ad­viser to Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron, said: “This move­ment is very dif­fer­ent to May ’68. Back then, we wanted to get rid of a gen­eral (Charles de Gaulle); to­day these peo­ple want to put a gen­eral in power,” he said, re­fer­ring to calls by cer­tain gilets jaunes for the for­mer chief of de­fence staff Gen­eral Pierre de Vil­liers, who re­signed af­ter fall­ing out with Macron in July 2017, to be made prime minister.

“And no­body in ’68 made death threats against those who want to talk. All those on the left think­ing this is a leftwing rev­o­lu­tion are wrong: it’s veer­ing to the right. To hear that gilets jaunes who want to ne­go­ti­ate are re­ceiv­ing death threats is ev­i­dence of this au­thor­i­tar­ian right.

“I hear peo­ple from la France In­soumise (hard left), talk­ing about this be­ing a great peo­ple’s re­volt, but these are the same or­di­nary peo­ple who pushed Trump into power.

“We saw in Ger­many in 1933 what ‘or­di­nary’ peo­ple did. Not all or­di­nary peo­ple are good… it’s not an ac­ci­dent that this move­ment has pro­posed Gen­eral de Vil­liers as an al­ter­na­tive leader.”

Cohn-Ben­dit speaks from fam­ily ex­pe­ri­ence. He was born in France to Ger­man-Jewish par­ents who fled Nazi Ger­many in 1933. Now 73, he holds dual na­tion­al­ity and splits his time be­tween the two coun­tries.

More im­por­tantly, he has Macron’s ear; the pres­i­dent re­port­edly of­fered Cohn-Ben­dit the en­vi­ron­ment minister’s job, which he turned down.

That does not stop him crit­i­cis­ing Macron and his gov­ern­ment, whom he ac­cuses of fail­ing to de­liver on elec­tion prom­ises and ad­dress the “in­jus­tice, in­equal­ity and so­cial di­vi­sion” that have sparked the gilets jaunes, a prob­lem, he says, that pre­dates the cur­rent French lead­er­ship.

“Since 1995, when Jacques Chirac spoke about the “so­cial frac­ture”, no political power has come up with a re­sponse to it and the deep-seated in­equal­ity at the bot­tom of what we are see­ing. The prob­lem is Macron promised to be dif­fer­ent.”

“Peo­ple say, ‘you’ve given gifts to the rich and gifts to busi­nesses but what hap­pens to those liv­ing on pen­sions of €1,200 a month? You’ve given things to those who al­ready have money and noth­ing to us.’ The gov­ern­ment has not suc­ceeded in coun­ter­ing this. Now it’s ur­gent.”

Al­though he ad­mit­ted that torch­ing cars and street vi­o­lence were “very France”, he said there was some­thing “dan­ger­ous… and fright- en­ing” about the cur­rent waves of vi­o­lence. “There have been many great re­volts by the work­ing class. And there’s the mythol­ogy of the French Rev­o­lu­tion. It’s part of the ge­netic cul­ture. But we are wit­ness­ing the kind of ex­treme vi­o­lence never seen be­fore,” he said.

“For [stu­dents] to be burn­ing their high schools, for pro­test­ers to set fire to build­ings with peo­ple in­side them… this is ter­ri­ble. We see that there are some in the gilets jaunes move­ment who can be very vi­o­lent, some like foot­ball hooli­gans, and some who are dis­af­fected youths from the ban­lieues [suburbs]. It’s an ex­plo­sive mix.”

He added: “It would be a pity if this vi­o­lence de­stroyed what the move­ment has achieved, which is to high­light the sit­u­a­tion of peo­ple at the bot­tom. The French gov­ern­ment’s re­spon­si­bil­ity is to cap­i­talise on this great show of sol­i­dar­ity and pro­pose ne­go­ti­a­tions, par­tic­u­larly with the unions. If it’s in­tel­li­gent, that’s what it will do.”

Cohn-Ben­dit said the French gov­ern­ment needed a “com­plete re­set” in­clud­ing a “tax rev­o­lu­tion” to make con­tri­bu­tions fairer. “To the gilets jaunes I say, if the move­ment be­comes more vi­o­lent, all that will hap­pen is more cap­i­tal­ism, not less. There comes a mo­ment when vi­o­lence be­comes counter-pro­duc­tive. I re­alise it’s not all the gilets jaunes, but when we see Macron’s car be­ing banged on and spat at, when we see writ­ten on the Arc de Tri­om­phe ‘fuck your old woman, not us’ in this age of #MeToo, we need to stop and think: is this what we want? Just be­cause it’s a so­cial move­ment doesn’t mean any­thing is al­lowed.”

On the other hand, he adds, the pres­i­dent needs to “ex­plain that he un­der­stands the er­ror of his gov­ern­ment’s ways and what he now pro­poses”. When Paris burned in May 1968, it was a rev­o­lu­tion. To­day, Cohn-Ben­dit wor­ries the in­sur­rec­tion risks be­com­ing an “au­thor­i­tar­ian dan­ger”.

“I don’t know where this is go­ing and I don’t have a crys­tal ball,” he said. “But it’s ex­tremely sym­bolic that those who want to ne­go­ti­ate are re­ceiv­ing death threats, and that oth­ers want to put a gen­eral in power. That didn’t hap­pen in May ’68; it’s not rev­o­lu­tion­ary, it’s fright­en­ing.”

Getty Key­stone/Getty

LEFT Stu­dents in Paris con­front po­lice in May 1968.

ABOVEA gilets jaunes demon­stra­tor throws a tear­gas can­is­ter in Paris yes­ter­day.

Daniel CohnBen­dit to­day.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.