By Jean-Claude Guillebaud, the author of Re-Founding the World and a columnist for the French weeklies Le Nouvel Observateur and La Vie. This essay was translated by The Times from the French (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 24/05/08):
Forty years after the French student and worker uprisings of May 1968, we are experiencing a flood: dozens of books, hundreds of articles, special editions of magazines are devoted to the riots and strikes of that month. A day doesn’t pass without the radio and television stations offering a retrospective, a debate or a portrait of the main characters of the era. Since mid-April, all we seemed to have talked about in France is 1968. We’ve never had such an outpouring of reminiscences, not even in 1989, when the bicentennial of the French Revolution was celebrated.
Why such a frenzy of nostalgia? I lived through May ’68. I was a 24-year-old graduate student and a journalist who covered the revolt, during which students armed with cobblestones battled the police, and 10 million workers went on strike. Forty years ago today, the agitation reached its peak, with the Paris stock exchange set on fire and fearful government ministries destroying their papers. And I’m astonished that this anniversary is being accorded such importance.
There are four explanations for this, I think. The first involves the event itself. Even after four decades, it retains an ambiguous character, enough to satisfy the French taste for polemic and debate. The word “ambiguous” is apt: the “revolution” of mores that we ascribe to May ’68 had, in truth, already been accomplished. The great judicial reforms concerning the rights of women and family law (divorce, contraception, sexual relationships outside marriage, etc.) had been made between 1965 and 1967. That two-year period has even been baptized by legal scholars the “legislative spring.” Marching in the streets in May ’68, we were merely marking a change that had already occurred.
Ambiguity applies also to the contrast between the revolutionary language of the students, which was impregnated with Marxist rhetoric and nostalgia for the Paris Commune and the Bolshevik revolution, and the content of the movement. You could say that in 1968 we “spoke Marxist,” just as you say someone lisps or speaks through his nose, because at the university it was the dominant language. But it was to say things that weren’t Marxist at all.
Perhaps more than an ambiguity, it was an irony of history. The real legacy of May ’68, as we see in France today, is individualism, the rejection of civic sense and ideology, the rehabilitation of the idea that personal and financial success is a worthy pursuit — in short, a revival of capitalism. To borrow an expression of Lenin’s, we were useful idiots. Indeed, the uprising was more a counterrevolution than a revolution.
The second explanation lies in the subsequent success of the leading figures of May 1968, notably in the press, advertising, film and politics. This generation of baby boomers largely controls the news media and cultural life. The majority of broadcast chiefs and newspaper, magazine and book publishers and senior editors “did” May ’68. They are simply indulging their own nostalgia. The media flood is less political than it appears. In ordering up a special issue, a film or TV program, the boomers are first and foremost celebrating their own youth — whether younger generations find it interesting or not.
Third reason: after 40 years, the French have ended up convincing themselves that May ’68 was a sort of Parisian exception, even though it was part of a worldwide effervescence. Comparable uprisings took place in Japan, Latin America, Germany and Britain. Today, we mention those foreign examples only in passing, without making them part of our collective memory. For us, May ’68 remains a French phenomenon.
In truth, the only distinguishing aspect of the French events was that the student demonstrations ran alongside a powerful social movement involving a general strike, the occupation of factories and the participation of unions and leftist parties. It was the strike, not the student revolt, that truly paralyzed the country for three long weeks. The paradox is that these two movements never encountered each other. The students marching toward the factories to “meet the workers” found the doors closed. The unions didn’t want them: the workers found the students disorganized and irresponsible.
The last factor is the current situation in France. With a society that is less forgiving and still more precarious than that of 1968, with a fading left and bleak prospects, the French want to turn toward a time when we had hope that the future would be brighter. The commemoration and the wallowing in mythical memories is an alarming symptom of a search for consolation in a country that no longer dares to think about what is to come.