Everyone in France Wants to Claim the Legacy of 1968

Leftists want to celebrate revolutionary idealism; conservatives, the triumph of traditional authority. And Emmanuel Macron is trying to split the difference.

Emmanuel Macron with students during the inauguration of an apprentice training centre in Tours on March 14, 2018.  (BENOIT TESSIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Emmanuel Macron with students during the inauguration of an apprentice training centre in Tours on March 14, 2018. (BENOIT TESSIER/AFP/Getty Images)

Since late March, French railway workers have been on strike, university students have been occupying buildings, and the public has been increasingly wary of the monarchical pretensions of its president. Suddenly, a nation that spent 50 years trying to digest the “events of May 1968” now seems to have decided there is no better way to celebrate the anniversary than to reenact them.

There is, of course, a good distance to travel between reenactment and revolution. No one has yet pulled up cobblestones to seek the beach underneath, much less to hurl them at the police. But politicians and intellectuals have pulled out all the stops to make sense of this anniversary, and whether it has any bearing on current events in France.

The problem for those who, a half-century later, come to praise 1968, and for those who come to bury it, is that no one can identify the honored guest (or horrid corpse). What, in fact, was 1968? If historians refer to these events as “events,” it is because they cannot agree on what to call them. May 1968 violates all the usual categories of social and political contestation. If it was a revolution, it was, as the conservative commentator Raymond Aron insisted, “la révolution introuvable,” or the “elusive revolution.” In a similar register, the progressive philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky called it “la révolution sans révolution,” or, yes, “a revolution-less revolution.” For yet others, it was the “révolution manquée,” or “failed revolution.”

Yet these phrases beg a vital question: Did the students and workers who took to the streets in 1968 in fact seek a revolution? For historians like Kristin Ross, the answer is no. The “seizure of power” was the goal of no more than an isolated minority of mostly Trotskyist agitators. In fact, the widespread fear of an insurrectionary coup was largely a fiction imposed on events by the Gaullist state and media. What workers instead sought was better pay and work conditions, while students sought better campuses and living conditions to absorb the great wave of baby boomers seeking degrees.

More broadly and elusively, most of the participants, according to Daniel Lindenberg, acted on “a vast aspiration toward equality.” The era’s slogans and posters are so many EKGs of this desire beating at the heart of this popular uprising. The students, in particular, scorned the growing materialism that accompanied economic growth — “Are you consumers or participants?” and “I don’t want to lose my life in order to gain a living” — and they despised the leaden hand of a paternalist state: “The general will against the will of the General!” and “Run, comrades: the old world is behind you!” Of course, the workers, without whom there would not have been a May ’68, were eager to run toward the same material prosperity spurned by the students. But, at the same time, they too sought a workplace where they could claim greater control over their lives.

In the end, little if anything of this came to pass. As one wry participant concluded, “We had stormed the word, but not the Bastille.” But this does not diminish the magnitude of this series of unprecedented events that began, improbably, with a small group of students at a Paris university campus protesting sex-segregated dorms and climaxed with about 10 million French walking off their jobs. The general strike, the largest France has ever known, paralyzed the nation’s rails, roads, and ports; for several days in May, one could not make a transaction at buy sugar or staples, find newspapers or news magazines, or make a transaction at a bank or boulangerie. (Bookstores, on the other hand, did swimmingly.)

Also paralyzed was President Charles de Gaulle. Overwhelmed by the strike, he went AWOL at the end of May. As the world later learned, the disoriented de Gaulle flew to Baden, where the commander of the French military forces in West Germany, Gen. Jacques Massu, reassured him of the army’s support. Returning to France, a sobered de Gaulle delivered an imperious speech that galvanized an increasingly anxious nation. Following a massive Gaullist demonstration in Paris, the government wrung a favorable agreement with the unions and, shortly after, swept the snap elections de Gaulle had called. Shaking off the effects of a monthlong sociopolitical bender, hungover workers returned to the factories and students to the classrooms.

These events have since become a fraught lieu de mémoire, or site of memory, for politicians who continue to dispute its consequences and meaning. Tellingly, this remains the case in a year that, frankly, does not lack anniversaries. 2018 happens to mark the centenary of the end of World War I, the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the 60th anniversary of the birth of the Fifth Republic — red-letter dates enough to fill the calendars at the various ministries and museums.

And yet, it’s the dark matter of May ’68 that continues to draw France’s political and cultural classes. Last fall, the newspaper L’Opinion revealed that President Emmanuel Macron, born nearly 10 years after those events, was keen on marking the date. Eager to break with the usual “grim rhetoric” around such events, he was leaning toward an official commemoration of the date, one that focused on its “international dimensions.” It seems fairly certain that Macron, seen by many — including Macron himself — as the last great hope for a liberal and united continent, viewed the commemoration as an event to further reinforce his European ambitions and perhaps also control its framing in France. But Macron’s diffidence became clear when his spokesman, Christophe Castaner, immediately sought to walk back the report, telling Libération — an offspring of ’68 and first edited by Jean-Paul Sartre — that this was just one among many projects the Elysée was planning.

But the cat was out of the bag, and politicians across the ideological spectrum were running after it, trying either to claim or to clobber it. Among the latter was Laurent Wauquiez, the divisive leader of the right-wing Les Républicains. To his mind, May ’68 could be summed up by one of its notorious slogans: “It is forbidden to forbid.” This misbegotten ideal, Wauquiez declared, was the beginning of the end to everything France had once stood for. “All things considered, it marks the start of our deconstruction,” he said, suggesting that France would be better off celebrating military victories like those at Valmy and Austerlitz, or de Gaulle’s wartime June 18th appeal from London.

Wauquiez’s reaction was unsurprising, especially since his political mentor, former president (and current criminal suspect) Nicolas Sarkozy, had himself expressed the wish to “liquidate once and for all the heritage of May ’68.” And unsurprisingly, the founder of the extreme right-wing National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, shares this sentiment. Like Wauquiez, Le Pen lamented the train of miseries that, he insisted, followed from May 1968. It would be an “aberration” to commemorate events that have led “to the progressive loss of our society’s essential values.” All of this could have been avoided, Le Pen concluded with a straight face, if he had formed his party prior to 1968. It was the resulting “political desert that sped the revolt of May ’68.”

While Marine Le Pen, the party’s current leader and the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, is estranged from her father, she nevertheless echoes him on the subject of May ’68. Not only has it “sapped the sovereignty of the nation and its people,” but it has allowed individualism to run riot ever since. This, in turn, has not only led to the growth of “communitarianism” at the expense of the nation but — and here the other shoe predictably drops — the claim “that one has the right to wear the burqa.”

As for the left wing, the May ’68 anniversary has become yet one more occasion to pronounce the death of the left — or, at least, large swathes of it. Last month, after Olivier Faure was elected leader of the dispirited and disjointed Socialists, a young and prominent member, Roxane Lundy, announced she was quitting the party. President of the Movement of Young Socialists, Lundy explained her decision by citing 1968: “Fifty years after May 1968, the Socialist Party has become a nursing home.” “We no longer speak the same language,” she said. Lundy also announced that she was throwing her support behind someone who does speak her language, Bênoit Hamon, who after having failed spectacularly as the Socialist candidate in the 2017 presidential election, formed a new party, Génération.s.

Revealingly, Lundy did not join forces with the left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon. As a 17-year-old provincial lycée student in 1968, Mélenchon became a skilled agitator, forming student action committees that challenged the school administration. These skills served him well in a career that has since seen him careen from the Trotskyists to the Socialists, and finally to the leadership of the left-wing movement La France Insoumise (Unbowed France). Though Mélenchon recently declared that a new May ’68 “would be good for the nation,” certain critics, like his fellow 68er, the filmmaker Romain Goupil, suggest that Mélenchon actually means that it will be good for him.

For now, it remains unclear what role, if any, Macron will take in the coming weeks. After the leak in L’Opinion, his worried entourage suggested that Macron might remain on the sidelines. At the same time, Daniel Cohn-Bendit — aka “Dany le Rouge,” the most iconic and iconoclastic figure of May 1968, who has long served as a leader of the European Green Party — is said to have Macron’s ear and to have suggested that the Elysée make the commemoration official.

Cohn-Bendit would do well, however, to recall a 2008 interview in which he insisted he would just like to “forget about May ’68.” The official hoopla, he claimed, allowed political leaders “to avoid discussing our current problems.” All too often, commemoration amounts to mummification. Take the example, Cohn-Bendit suggested, of the Socialist President François Mitterrand. Nothing could have been more opposed to the spirit of ’68, he said, than Mitterrand’s “monarchic version of socialism.” This observation is no doubt applicable to his current friend in the Elysée, who is increasingly seen as yet another incarnation of a republican monarch and confronts the same demands from cheminots and students that nearly brought de Gaulle to his knees.

Perhaps Dany would be better off paraphrasing one of his slogans from five decades ago, urging the French: Run, comrades, the old world is still in front of you.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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