Fifty years ago is a long time: it sits in that twilight zone between living memory and history. Old people can conjure it up — if they have to — but young people can only see it on YouTube. And every year, the shadows those images cast get a little greyer, a little thinner and a little harder to recognize.
Fifty years ago (March 22, 1968) Daniel Cohn-Bendit and seven of his friends walked into the administration offices at the University of Nanterre in Paris and refused to leave. Six weeks later, all hell broke loose!
May 1st, 1968 was the high-water mark of the 60s. Television and the Tet Offensive had turned the world against the Vietnam War. In America, that popular opinion was chasing Lyndon Johnson out of the White House, and when Bobby Kennedy announced he wanted to live there, it looked like the second coming of Camelot. In Europe, Alexander Dubcek’s communist reforms in Czechoslovakia were cleverly outmaneuvering the Soviet Union in a warm and glorious Prague Spring. Che had become the infallible martyr of the revolution, and Mao’s Red Guards hadn’t gone crazy yet. The world was young and arrogant and optimistic and excited and on the verge of … nobody knew what … but it was Dany le Rouge and his buddies who lit the fuse.
The events of May 68 in Paris are well-documented. Here’s the quick and dirty version.
On May 2nd, after a series of running battles between students and police, the French authorities closed the University of Nanterre. On May 3rd, the students at The Sorbonne organized a sympathetic protest. Somebody called the cops (les flics) who showed up and took charge. On May 6th, 20,000 students (or more) marched on the Sorbonne to take back their university. The police were waiting for them. Shouts and threats, a push, an arrest, a bottle thrown and suddenly it was “Aux barricades!” and the war was on!
The narrow avenues of the Quartier Latin are ideal for urban conflict (In 1944, General Leclerc’s tanks carefully avoided the area) and the students took full advantage. They blocked the streets with burning mattresses, furniture, trashcans and overturned cars. They taunted the feared CRS riot police into chasing them and pelted them with rocks, bottles, flaming bags of dog merde and Molotov cocktails. The cops responded with water cannons, teargas and bone-cracking batons to the head and groin. Who controlled the streets? The students or the police? Night after night, the two sides battled it out in the alleys of the Rive Gauche.
On May 14th, workers at Renault in Rouen went out on strike in solidarity with the students. Within a week, 100 factories were closed or occupied, and 10 million workers were on strike. The government offered huge wage increases (35%) but the workers pushed their own leaders aside and refused to go back to work. Many of them joined the students in the streets. Shops closed, banks closed, even the ubiquitous Parisian cafes locked their doors. Transportation ground to a halt, and government services ceased to exist. France was on the verge of collapse. On May 29th, worried that the mob might storm the Elysee Palace (shades of The Bastille in 1789) De Gaulle flew to a French military base in Germany to negotiate the loyalty of the army. On the morning of May 30th, half a million people marched in the streets of Paris, chanting “Adieu, De Gaulle!” That afternoon, De Gaulle addressed the nation. Defiant as ever, his only concession to the seething chaos was to call an election — but he refused to resign, threatened to declare a State of Emergency, and hinted that the army was ready to march on Paris. That night, a million people (or more) poured down the Champs-Elysees in support of the government. They chanted “Vive La France!” and sang La Marseillaise. The city, the country and French society were all divided neatly in two. The next stop was civil war.
Luckily, it was the Communist Party leaders who blinked. Painfully aware of the bloodbath that erupted the last time French troops entered the capital (Paris Commune 1871) and eager to take a chance on gaining real power in the coming election, they pulled their people off the streets. A couple of days later, the student unions followed suit. The cops backed off. The crisis was over.
May 68 has entered the mythology of history. Most historians will tell you that May 68 tossed the old order (which we’ve lately been calling ‘the greatest generation’) under the bus and brought about a seismic change to European society that eventually spread around the world. I agree. However, change is not, by definition, always beneficial. Look around you! In the 21st century, university students are content to click their dissatisfaction on Facebook, throw Twitter tantrums over cartoon characters and call each other “brave” and “awesome” for demanding “trigger warnings” on disagreeable discussions. They’ve become just another demographic in the consumer society their grandparents desperately wanted to dismantle, and their only power is purchasing power.
And what ever happened to Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Dany le Rouge?) He’s a pro-market, pro-European Euro MP, living large in Brussels — a minor company man of the political establishment.
But one other thing happened in France in 1968. A politician was born and, these days, she’s having a bigger influence on the world than any of the soixante-huitards are. Her name is Marine Le Pen . . . .