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 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.”
LEFT Students in Paris confront police in May 1968.
ABOVEA gilets jaunes demonstrator throws a teargas canister in Paris yesterday.
Daniel CohnBendit today.