Students against the general

Throughout the events of May 1968, Gen Charles de Gaulle embodied the students' hatred of authority and paternalism

Throughout the events of May 1968, Gen Charles de Gaulle embodied the students' hatred of authority and paternalism. At the age of 75, de Gaulle had been president of France for 10 years. With his trumpet nose, elephant ears and general's kepi, he made the perfect caricature, and his image adorned many of the student posters. "Adieu", said one image of the general shedding crocodile tears. Another mocked De Gaulle's famous "Reform? Yes. La chienlit, [havoc] No." with the caption, "La chienlit c'est lui!"

Walled up in the Elysee Palace, de Gaulle was alone and embittered. A newly released book, The General In May, by his close adviser Jacques Foccart, tells of de Gaulle's scorn for his own ineffectual government - which he reproached for its reluctance to shed blood - and for the French people whom he felt had betrayed him. "The Frenchman comes to me only when he thinks I can help him," de Gaulle complained to Foccart on May 21st. "That was the case in 1940, that was the case in 1958 . . . Now they are growing frightened again."

A week later, as the riots continued and his advisers pleaded with him to act, de Gaulle accused his compatriots of lacking will and determination. Speaking figuratively, he said "the French people are dying and are letting themselves die. . . I can do nothing. How do you propose fighting for a country that is dissolving itself, that is abandoning itself? You can't hold a country together against its will - it's not possible . . . I cannot fight against apathy, against the desire of a whole people to let itself break apart."

On May 29th, de Gaulle left the Elysee with his wife Yvonne in a helicopter. As they flew across France, Madame de Gaulle deepened her husband's despair by pointing out the red and black flags waving over factories that were occupied by workers.


De Gaulle was fleeing to Baden Baden to see the faithful Gen Jacques Massu, the head of French forces in Germany. He had considered everything, he later confessed, including resigning and waging a resistance war from abroad, as he had done during the second World War.

Climbing out of his helicopter in Baden Baden, de Gaulle told Massu: "You know, Massu, I have had it up to here. I can't stand it any more and I am leaving." Massu, who had stood by de Gaulle during the Algiers putsch six years earlier, replied: "I am ready to advance on Paris, and I assure you that when they hear Massu's division is at the gates of the capital, these revolutionaries will snap to attention. You have no right to give up."

On his return to Paris, de Gaulle seized control of himself and the situation, but he would resign 11 months later over a referendum on regional reform. In the interim, he told his son-in-law, "If I had been 15 years younger, I would not have reacted thus, I would have taken affairs directly in hand. But I had this moment of weakness: it's because I am too old, and I must go."

The 23-year-old anarchist student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit was the antithesis of de Gaulle. The son of German Jewish immigrants who had fled Nazi Germany, Cohn-Bendit was born in France but returned to secondary school in Germany before enrolling as a sociology student at Nanterre University, where he quickly gained a reputation as a troublemaker.

Cohn-Bendit founded an amorphous group called the March 22 Movement, named for the day in early 1968 when he and 150 students overran the campus's administrative building. French authorities briefly arrested him on April 27th, but students reacted by distributing tracts explaining how to make Molotov cocktails. The Paris police chief called prime minister Georges Pompidou, who ordered Cohn-Bendit freed. News photographers were waiting outside the Palais de Justice for him. "Dany the Red" was becoming famous. The two other leaders of France's phony revolution, Alain Geismar and Jacques Sauvageot, never attained his popularity.

On May 2nd, courses were suspended at Nanterre. The following day, police moved against students staging a sit-in at the Sorbonne and the riots started. Cohn-Bendit slipped into the group that went to negotiate with the rector of the Sorbonne. The telephone rang in the rector's office - it was the minister of the interior. "Is there a red-headed boy with a round face in front of you?" he asked, enraged. Later that same night, French riot police marched through the Latin Quarter launching tear-gas grenades and dismantling the students' makeshift barricades.

Cohn-Bendit was there again, live on French radio, exclaiming, "Putain! Putain!" (literally "whore" but used here as an exclamation of surprise.)

During a brief trip to Germany on May 22nd, Cohn-Bendit was banned from France as an "undesirable". He returned to receive a hero's welcome from the students occupying the Sorbonne.

Today, "Dany the Red" has become "Dany the Green". A member of the European Parliament for the German Green party, he campaigns for the legalisation of marijuana and a federal Europe. He is pleased that the May 1968 slogan, "We are all German Jews" - invented by the students to support him - has become a model for demonstrators defending illegal immigrants. Only now, the marchers shout "We are all immigrants."

Cohn-Bendit (53), admits that he was "living out the storybook image of a professional revolutionary" in 1968. His generation, he recalls, felt the future belonged to them, that they were better than the previous generation.

Cohn-Bendit struck up a friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher 40 years his senior. Late one night, Sartre visited the students in the Sorbonne amphitheatre, telling them that they were creating "a new concept of a society based on full democracy, a bond between socialism and freedom."

The same week, the Nouvel Observateur published a three-page interview with Cohn-Bendit by Sartre, in which the 23-year-old anarchist was surprisingly lucid. When their movement finished, Sartre asked, what would it have achieved? A few more benefits for workers and broad reform of France's university system, Cohn-Bendit accurately predicted, long before the events ended.

"In any case, I do not believe revolution is possible," Cohn-Bendit continued. "Not like that, from one day to the next. I think we can obtain adjustments, but only through revolutionary actions. By using the traditional methods of the workers' movements - strikes, occupying the streets and workplaces - we have destroyed the first obstacle: the myth that you cannot affect this regime. We proved it wasn't true."

Sartre was enchanted, and ended his interview with a paean to Cohn-Bendit. "Something comes from you that startles, that upsets, that denies all that has made our society what it is today," he said. "I would call it the broadening of the field of things possible. Don't give it up!"

One of the most enduring images of May 1968 shows neither de Gaulle nor the ideologues who opposed him. Caroline de Bendern was basically an innocent bystander, and the events of May cost her - literally - a fortune.

Like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the 28-year-old English aristocrat was not even French. She was a fashion model living in the Latin Quarter, and on the morning of May 13th she decided on a whim to join the march towards the Place de la Bastille. Her feet hurt, so one of the student leaders carried her on his shoulders, asking her to hold a flag for him. She rejected the Communists' red banner and the black of the anarchists.

"The flag of Vietnam suited me," she recalled recently. "In protest against the Vietnam war." Suddenly, the attractive blonde was surrounded by photographers. "The instinct of the fashion model I was awoke in me. I started to play a role. Lots of ideas went through my head. I even thought of the French revolution - me the daughter of a good English family! My body stiffened, I held my arm up and my expression became serious. That's when the photo was taken. I had been trapped by the role I was playing."

The photo was widely compared to Delacroix's painting of Liberty Leading The People.

In his Biarritz mansion, de Bendern's grandfather, Count Maurice Arnold de Bendern, choked on his breakfast when he saw his granddaughter's picture on the front page of the newspapers the following morning. He promptly disinherited her.

Instead of the cosseted life she might have known, Caroline de Bendern was destined to a wandering, Bohemian existence in France and Africa. She is writing her memoirs in a Normandy cottage, and despite her loss she recalls the events that changed her life with fondness. "We were bubbling with dreams," she says. "The world was opening up to us. Young people felt strong, inspired, impatient."