May 1968 and the death of a French revolution
Sorbonne protests 50 years ago ushered in a new era. Today’s students are ‘too busy’ to protest
Students arm in arm during civil unrest in Paris on May 30th, 1968. Photograph: Getty Images
It is late morning on the Place de la Sorbonne. CRS riot police and a guard filter people outside France’s oldest university. Only staff and students holding notices to attend exams are allowed to enter.
The president of the Sorbonne has closed the faculty for the day as a precaution. Students have occupied about a dozen of France’s 400 university campuses sporadically since March, including the Sorbonne. Two weeks of spring holidays ended all but the most hardline occupations.
President Emmanuel Macron said last year that he was considering how to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the May 1968 “revolution”. But low-level protests against his reforms continue to bubble away, and the French leader decided it was best to ignore the date altogether.To prevent history repeating itself, the authorities have erred on the side of caution.
“It’s laughable,” says Elise Dobler, a 20-year-old student of history and geography. “There’s no blockade planned for the Sorbonne, but the university called the CRS to block the blockers.”
Those refused entry linger on benches or stand on the square, trying to decide what to do, where to go to study. They chat and eat fast food from nearby outlets. Police maintain a discreet presence. There is no tension.
Turn the clock back 50 years, to the first week of May 1968. Anarchists, Maoists and Trotskyist student groups organised an “anti-imperialist day” to protest against the Vietnam war. The campus of the University of Paris at Nanterre, where a rebellion had been simmering since January, was shut down.
Militant students, including Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the charismatic leader of the revolt who would later become a Green MEP, moved their occupation to the Sorbonne.
“Every amphitheatre is invaded by hundreds of youths, who spill out into the corridors,” the Agence France Presse (AFP) reported on May 14th, 1968. “They debate all the problems of the university and society for hours, feverishly, without rest.”
The AFP reporter saw a student paint over a fresco in the courtyard with the words, “Comrades, mankind will not be happy until the last capitalist is hung by the guts of the last bureaucrat.” A debate ensued, and the graffiti was removed with paint thinner.
In the street outside someone threw a paving stone at a policeman, and a six-week battle between students and riot police began.
On May 6th, 900 were injured in clashes in the Latin Quarter. During the night of May 10th-11th, CRS stormed 60 barricades and 367 people were seriously injured, including 251 policemen.
The rebellion spread to factories and universities across the country. By May 24th, 10 million people had stopped working, in the biggest social movement of 20th century France. Five people lost their lives. The Fifth Republic was shaken to its foundations.
Valentin Fauvel’s paternal grandfather Jean-Claude was among the striking workers. “He was a mechanic on aircraft engines for Air France at Le Bourget and Roissy,” says Fauvel, a 20-year-old student of international relations.
“He was also a trade unionist with the [neo-Communist] CGT. He still talks about it. He has great memories of May 1968. For him it was a joyous revolution.”
An opinion poll published by Libération newspaper this week shows that 70 per cent of French people believe May 1968 had a positive impact on French society.
“It brought about all the social changes of the 1970s, the liberation of sexual mores and women’s rights, including abortion,” says Fauvel.
Gen Charles de Gaulle won politically by reuniting the right and gaining an absolute majority in the National Assembly. Yet socially the revolt had long-term results. The Grenelle accords which ended the revolution raised the minimum wage by 35 per cent, gave significant pay rises to to civil servants and lowered the retirement age.
“Thanks to the pay increases, workers obtained a much higher standard of living,” says historian Philipe Artières. “May 1968 ushered in a new way of life. The rights of whole categories of people who had been ignored were eventually recognised. Immigrant labourers, homosexuals, women.”
Legacy of 1968
The fact that a mechanic’s grandson like Fauvel is earning a degree in international relations, and the presence of students from ethnic minorities and the immigrant banlieues on the Place de la Sorbonne is part of the legacy of 1968.
That may help to explain why France has lost much of its revolutionary fervour. The baby-boomers of a half century ago were protesting against US and Soviet domination of the world. They demanded sexual freedom and personal fulfilment. Today the main grievance of French youth is a new law that establishes criteria for admission to university.
Fauvel has not joined protests against the “Vidal Law” because he is too busy studying.
“It’s hard for me to have a firm position on the reform,” he says. “I’m not ashamed of not being interested, and not joining in the demonstrations. I don’t share the political views of the blockers, or those who oppose them.”
Black-hooded anarchists sacked a restaurant and a car dealership on the sidelines of a May Day march in Paris, but the resulting images of violence are misleading.
“Fewer people are interested in protest today,” says Fauvel. “They’re afraid of losing their salaries. If you’re a minimum-wage earner and you go on strike you lose a lot of money.”
Fauvel will attend the University of Berlin next year on an erasmus scholarship. He wants “a France that is open to the world, to the European project”. He approves of Macron’s initiatives.
Fauvel was alone in speaking positively of Macron, but his ambivalence about joining student protests was widespread.
“Our whole society has stopped being militant. We are much more cautious and much more critical,” says Nathalie Darmon (37), a mature student of English.
Though Darmon opposes the university reform, she resents the inconvenience created by protesters. “Why block higher education? Why block people who want access to knowledge so they can change things?”
She suggests government ministries would be a more appropriate target.
Darmon’s friend and fellow student of English, Imen (20), does not want to give her family name. May 1968 was “a moment when people listened to the young, and saw what they were capable of. That’s not happening today,” she says.
Though Imen is not prepared to protest, she criticises the university reform. “We’re all from the banlieue,” she notes. “I know people who had poor results in lycée but who blossomed at university. That’s going to be lost with the selection process. It will create discrimination.”
The government argues that unlimited free admission to state universities is extremely wasteful, and leads to high failure rates. Imen sees the law as part of a wider trend. “The government wants a country based on competition, whereas France is supposed to be about égalité and fraternité. Their model is ‘survival of the fittest’.”
“The government wants profitability,” a female student chimes in.
With his beard, ear-ring, woolly scarf and jeans, Samuel Webb blends in perfectly with other students. When I comment on his English-sounding surname, the 30-year-old doctoral student in philosophy tells me he is an American from New York.
Webb has been enrolled at the Sorbonne, where he also teaches, for the past five years. He is writing his thesis on the relation between self-image and political engagement in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre.
In 1968, the existentialist philosopher addressed students in the occupied Sorbonne. Webb was the only one of a dozen interviewees who wished he had been there for the May revolution.
“Before the spring vacation the Sorbonne was briefly occupied,” Webb recalls. “I was here. Students tried to organise a general assembly. They were all arrayed in the courtyard of the Sorbonne and hanging out the windows, with the police outside. You could see that everyone had 1968 in the back of their minds. You got the feeling they were trying to recapture something.”
Webb sees Macron’s reforms as an attempt “to make France more competitive and simplify things, to bring it more in line with American society. That’s not universally bad, but a lot of what makes France a distinctive society, its social protections, is being diluted.”
To an American, Webb says, it’s obvious that universities need to limit admissions. “But it’s antithetical to the way public universities are conceived in France, which is almost impossible for an American to understand.”
Recurring financial and political crises have shown the flaws of the capitalist system, Webb continues. But unlike 1968, there is no vision for the future.
“There’s pretty widely a sense that the status quo is unacceptable. That’s why you have Macron and Trump and Brexit. People feel what we’re doing now doesn’t work. But there’s not a sense that we have an ideological system that may be able to fix it… Political movements today are looking for references.
“May 1968 was about casting off a lot of things that had defined the French social structure. The step forward is going to be when we move on to something new.”