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Paris 68: Revolution or charade?

By Henri Astier
BBC News

School students and teachers demonstrate in Paris against education reform, 10 Apr 08
French demonstrators today's cherish the spirit of 1968
The unrest that shook France in 1968 was both spectacular and short-lived.

For a few heady weeks cobblestones flew, a workers' strike paralysed the country, General de Gaulle's government tottered - until its authority was restored by a snap election on 30 June.

The voters had clearly had enough agitation. The conservative majority was increased, the revolution was postponed, and everyone headed for the sun.

But although the radical flame rapidly burnt itself out - its memory is very much alive.

The 40th anniversary came complete with dozens of books, hundreds of articles, special editions of magazines, daily debates on TV and radio, comic strips - and a growing chorus of sceptics who feel the whole thing was overdone.

'Groucho' Marxists

The prevailing view of May-June 1968 is that although the protesters lost the political battle, they won the cultural war.

1968 IN FRANCE
Street riot in Paris, 3 May 1967
22 March: Left-wing students take over Nanterre University building
2 May: Police close Nanterre, students regroup at Sorbonne in Paris
Early May: Street riots spread
Mid-May: 10m workers join general strike
25-26 May: Unions and employers reach deal on higher pay and rights
30 May: de Gaulle dissolved assembly and calls general election
23 and 30 June: legislative election increases conservative majority

They brought about a less rigid society, where authority can be challenged and personal freedom cherished.

"It was very much against 'Tante' (Aunt) Yvonne - the very respectable wife of General de Gaulle," veteran television journalist Christine Ockrent told the BBC.

"You had a generational upsurge against the way these people had been brought up and they just didn't want to be like their parents."

Olivier Todd, a prominent journalist and writer, notes that the libertarian zest of the 1968 slogans resonates to this day: "Under the cobblestones is the beach", "It is forbidden to forbid", "I am a Marxist, Groucho-style".

The students' rhetoric was often radical, but they sought to shake up rather than overthrow the old order - real revolutionaries would not just have gone home after setting fire to the Paris Bourse.

"This was not a communist-led revolution. It was a good-humoured, youthful outburst," Mr Todd says.

According to Alain Geismar, one of the main student leaders at the time, one sure sign the message remains relevant is that conservatives like President Nicolas Sarkozy still speak out against it.

Before last year's election, he blamed the movement for everything that had gone wrong in France over the past four decades and called on the country to "liquidate" its legacy of "political and moral relativism".

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, 14 May 2008
Daniel Cohn-Bendit says the 68ers have won and should now move on

Mr Geismar wryly observes: "If the movement was dead now I wonder why Mr Sarkozy used his last speech before becoming president to say that he has got to kill it."

Others say it was a bit rich of Mr Sarkozy, who went on to become the first French divorcee to reach the presidency and to divorce again within months, to criticise 1968.

Raphael Glucksmann - who co-wrote a book entitled May 1968 Explained to Nicolas Sarkozy - says the president is actually a child of the movement, a "secret son".

The popular view of 1968 was perhaps best expressed by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the former icon of the student movement and now a Green Euro MP, in a TV debate: "Politically we lost - thank god! - but socially, we won."

Winners

But this version of events is being contested, and not just by conservatives.

What we've had are reminiscences from ageing participants who glorify the high point of their lives
Jean-Pierre Le Goff

Jean-Claude Guillebaud of the centre-left weekly Le Nouvel Observateur says riotous middle-class students did not change France as much as they like to think.

"The 'revolution' of mores attributed to May 68 had, in truth, already been accomplished," he wrote, adding that key reforms, such as the legalisation of contraception, were carried out in the mid-1960s.

Mr Guillebaud and others point out that freer attitudes evolved over time, and that many Western countries went through similar changes without indulging in obsolete rhetoric and re-enactments of past revolutions.

The sociologist Jean-Pierre Le Goff contends that 1968 was a transition moment that had both backward and forward-looking aspects.

But these complications, he argues, were ignored during a 40th anniversary that was long on self-celebration and short on detached analysis.

"What we've had are reminiscences from ageing participants who glorify the high point of their lives," he told the BBC News website.

Security blanket

History, of course, is written by winners. By definition, people who write articles and books about 1968 are those who - through talent, luck, and often their role in the student movement - have achieved prominence.

It is natural that they should have a positive view of events that shaped their successful lives.

President Nicolas Sarkozy jogging
President Sarkozy's informal style may be a legacy of 1968
But some quirks of French society also contribute to the nostalgia.

One is remarkably stability in political and media elites. When Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, who had read the evening news since the 1970s, was recently replaced, the French were shocked to see the back of a TV star who was barely in his sixties.

The staying power of ageing baby-boomers has helped entrench the mystique of 1968 in France, says sociologist Louis Chauvel.

"In politics, in academia, in the media, you have a well-oiled mechanism that promotes people who share the 1960s ethos," he told the BBC News website.

Another peculiarity feeding the nostalgia is that France feels much better about its past than its future.

For the past 15 years, it has experienced lower growth and higher unemployment than comparable economies.

In the 1960s, by contrast, France's distinctive, state-driven model was at its height, fuelling unprecedented prosperity and national pride.


Through the celebrations, France is reliving its Golden Age, while in the UK, you have good reasons to look forward to the future

Louis Chauvel

The memory of a carefree era when everything was possible serves as a security blanket for a self-doubting nation, Mr Le Goff contends.

The 1968 movement sought to break from the past, he says, "but the 40th anniversary has become a moment of nostalgia for a France that no longer has a future".

The contrast with Britain is telling. The UK experienced an economic revival in the 1980s, just as France began to stall.

According to Mr Chauvel, this explains why the British are less fixated on the 1960s than the French.

"Through the celebrations, France is reliving its Golden Age, while in the UK, you have good reasons to look forward to the future," he says.

The revisionist view of 1968 is still in the minority, but it is prominent enough to have triggered robust responses.

A recent book-length rebuttal, entitled Anti-68 Thought, defended the legacy of the movement accused naysayers of trying to turn back the clock.

France is still mired in the 1960s culture wars.

The anniversary has in fact seen a strange replay of 1968 - complete with metaphorical barricades, a two-month talkfest, culminating in everyone switching off and heading for the sun.

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