Letter From Paris

May 1968: Something Happened (But What?)

By From the November 2008 issue

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IT WAS a balmy spring evening in Paris and, as a young correspondent in the Time bureau, I was sent over to the Latin Quarter to cover another student demonstration. These things were such a standard part of Left Bank folklore that “Sorbonne in State of Siege” had long been a familiar headline in Paris newspapers. I stuck around until midnight, watched the usual suspects staging the usual French student protest, and went home. Early next morning, a Saturday, I was routed from the sleep of the just by a call from my bureau chief, a man of few words. “Harriss,” he barked, “get the hell back over to the Latin Quarter. Those kids have turned it into a riot zone.”

Feeling like the legendary cub reporter assigned to cover an air show who missed the news (“No story, boss, the new plane crashed”), I scrambled back across the Seine. The riot was mostly over by then, but evidence of the violent night was all around. As I walked the neighborhood of the Sorbonne, I pieced together what had happened. After several hours of calm, the students, their numbers then grown to nearly 30,000, had begun tearing up streets and piling the cobblestones into barricades. To these they added billboards, traffic lights, and felled sycamore trees from Boulevard Saint Michel. At that point the police moved in, firing volleys of tear gas grenades and red flares and swinging their heavy rubber truncheons at every civilian in sight; the students retaliated with a hail of cobblestones and by setting parked cars on fire. By 6 a.m. the city’s worst violence since American troops had liberated Paris in 1944 had produced 367 injured, including 102 students, 14 non-student civilians, and 251 police, gendarmes, and special riot troops. It was sheer luck that no one had been killed.

The tumultuous year 1968 is remembered in the U.S. for things like the Tet offensive in Vietnam, Soviet repression of the ill-fated Prague Spring, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. In France, it was the year that something as trivial as springtime student agitation nearly fissured from top to bottom the monolithic façade of one of the Western world’s most integral, self- confident, and apparently rock-solid societies. At the time, les événements, or “the incidents” as the French delicately call them, were so chaotic and random as to be incomprehensible to most, including Presi dent Charles de Gaulle. Today, 40 years later, they still are.

That has not kept France from an orgy of fond nostalgia this year. Not even in 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution, was there such an outpouring of commemoration. Dozens of books, more than 100 exhibitions, 30-odd symposia, and countless TV and radio programs and newspaper stories have titillated paunchy, largely retired former student activists and the larger public with visions of barricades, tear gas, street posters, and naughty slogans. Television has interviewed every main actor of those days it could find; Le Monde ran all its front pages from May 1968 in chronological order. A fashionable Paris jeweler proposes a silver cobblestone pendant for $275; if that’s too stiff, you can get one made of chocolate on Boulevard Saint Germain for $70.

NONE OF WHICH has really helped to explain how and why it all happened. It began with the equivalent of a panty raid at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris, west of the city, where the main study was sociology. Sociology, of course, based on Marxist analysis of the ills of capitalist society. Unfortunately for the Marxists, French society in the late 1960s enjoyed full employment with lifelong job security, sustained economic growth, and generous welfare benefits. So what’s not to like if you’re getting all this and a virtually free university education to boot? Student activists, hormones raging, visions of California hippies and swinging London dancing in their heads, finally found their issue: they insisted on—nay, unconditionally demanded—the inalienable right for men to enter women’s dorms.

In a scene of pure boulevard comedy, the government minister for youth responded by offering to build a swimming pool on campus. “But,” the tumid students complained, “the problem of today’s youth is sexuality.” “Well, fine,” said the minister. “If you’ve got problems with that, you can jump into the pool and cool off.” The students’ righteous indignation at such an obscene display of outdated authority quickly spread to the Sorbonne, where they demonstrated against ossified university rules and in favor of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.

Factory workers, seeing a chance for a raise, jumped on the bandwagon and pretended, up to a point, to support the students. (There was never any real meeting of minds; workers and labor unions considered the students irresponsible rich kids with utopian anarchist dreams.) A march through Paris on May 13, coordinated with a general strike, attracted well over a million demonstrators. It started at the huge Place de la République, where students climbed all over the gigantic allegorical statue of the draped lady representing the Republic; when they marched off, she was holding a red flag in one hand. Bold bolshie banners proclaimed things like “Solidarity of students, teachers and workers” and “Long live the May 10 Commune.”

But I was intrigued by two things that didn’t fit the scenario of a revolution in the making. First, the marchers were smiling and having a good time, not frowning ferociously and waving clenched fists, much less guns or sharp implements. Second, they were being cheered on by “bourgeois” spectators leaning from apartment windows and crowds lining the sidewalks, the very people who should have had most to fear. This only added to my growing perplexity as I covered the month’s confused events. But I took some comfort in the fact that Charles de Gaulle couldn’t understand them either, calling the situation insaisissable, “incomprehensible.” Only later did many, including myself, realize that we had witnessed a once great nation, swaggering for centuries on the world scene, suddenly teetering on the brink of self-destruction.

WITHIN DAYS, hundreds of thousands of workers were on strike; soon the figure would be 10 million, halting public transport and shutting down factories across the country. Newspapers were no longer distributed, state television was off the air, the Cannes film festival had to close when the jury descended into shouting, open-ended debate over who was bourgeois and who Marxist. As the Paris Métro and bus systems ground to a halt, the boulevards swarmed with footsore office workers hoofing it to their jobs. Service stations began to run out of gas.

Students took over the Sorbonne, declaring it an autonomous people’s university, its gray slate dome festooned with red flags. Inside it was an academic nightmare and a student’s dream: one interminable, mad, multifarious bull session with no annoying courses to interrupt it. Hundreds of students milled in the courtyard, listening to an improvised jazz band here, a pianist there, snatching sandwiches and beer from a buffet. At stands they leafed through the works of Lenin and Mao, along with illustrated propaganda magazines straight from Beijing. On a wall was pasted a copy of the New China News Agency dispatch with its version of the events: “The clique of French revisionists, contemptible accomplices of the establishment, went so far as to act in close cooperation with the fascist police in their bloody suppression of the students.” One student yelped gleefully to a classmate, “What a crowd! You never see this many when there’s class.”

And still the French middle class, guilt-ridden from years of Communist Party accusations, did nothing, succumbing in masochistic acquiescence to the attacks against everything it stood for. Dropping by the Sorbonne after work to check the latest posters and slogans—“Strictly forbidden to forbid,” “Everything, immediately, always,” “Dreams are reality,” “Unbutton your mind as often as your fly”— became the fun scene for even the squarest bourgeois. Shop girls headed there in the evening, many proudly reporting the next morning that they had had a whiff of tear gas. At one nightly barricade battle I saw a well-dressed, middle-aged man with briefcase egging on the rioters, shouting, “Attaboy, give it to those cops. Hit ’em again, kids.”

It was a tectonic shift in values and attitudes in a society now riddled with self-doubt, no longer sure of what it believed in. Prime Minister Georges Pompidou, a former professor of literature and a genuinely thoughtful man, made a speech to the National Assembly in which he took a profound look at the underlying causes of the crisis. All the values and beliefs that had supported humanity for centuries had been shaken by things like disappearing discipline, disintegrating families, and the mindless pandering to sensation of the media, he said. “The only precedent I see in our history was that period of despair in the 15th century, when the structures of the Middle Ages collapsed,” he concluded, without offering hope for a new Renaissance.

THEN THE WHOLE THING was over, as suddenly and inexplicably as it had begun. The government bought off the workers with a 14 percent pay raise across the board, an increased minimum wage, and a shorter work week, all of which would cost the French economy dearly in years to come. De Gaulle, bewildered by the senselessness of it all, finally pulled himself together. He got the vocal support of the army, let loose rumors that tanks might be approaching Paris, and called a snap election that produced a conservative landslide by fearful voters. The clincher came when the government released gasoline supplies it had been holding back, threatening the sacred summer vacation exodus. While the French headed for the beaches and forgot about revolution, the government quickly set about pouring a thick layer of asphalt over the cobblestones of Paris. There would be no more barricades.

May ’68 was full of irony. The big change in mores ascribed to it—judicial reforms on the rights of women, contraception, divorce, and so on—had actually already been accomplished by a series of laws from 1965 to 1967. Rather than riding a revolution to power, the French Communist Party, unable to assert its authority over the students and labor unions, began its long decline to today’s virtual oblivion. One time student leaders sadly note the unintended consequence that the legacy of May ’68 was not Marxist utopia but rejection of ideology in favor of the pursuit of individual wealth and success—in a word, capitalism. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, known as Danny the Red when he was Nanterre’s chief rabble-rouser, now a respectable, pot-bellied member of the European Parliament, has written a book whose title says it all: Forget ’68. Today he says wearily, “It’s time to move on. Talking endlessly about May ’68 is just a way of avoiding today’s problems.”

He also notes, rightly, that it was probably les événements that later allowed a divorced man of immigrant background and a foreign name like Sarkozy to be elected president. The final irony, of course, is that Nicolas Sarkozy, to his considerable credit, has pledged to eradicate once and for all “the moral and intellectual relativism, the idea that everything has the same value and that there is no difference between right and wrong”  that was the disastrous heritage of May ’68.

Joseph A. Harriss is an American writer in Paris whose latest book is About France (iUniverse).

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.