Antoine Jaulmes
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05 September, 2008

Earlier this year in France, a lot of attention was devoted to the legacy of May 1968, with the media building up expectations of celebration. But there were hardly any celebrations. Why the letdown? Satirists suggested that the young people of the time have now become what they fought against: set in their ways, rich, possibly corrupt, more worried by their retirement plan than by issues of justice and freedom in the world. Satirists may have a point but it would be fairer to ask oneself how May ’68 affected society and how it possibly still affects us today.

The 1968 Paris student protests were not the most violent that year (think of Mexico - 300 fatalities in one day - or of Czechoslovakia’s famous Prague’s spring uprising). But it was in Paris that the shockwave was the strongest. There were two months of daily street violence which caught absolutely everyone unawares, a general strike, a shortage of fuel and other supplies. The Head of State, General De Gaulle, even disappeared for 24 hours! He eventually reappeared calling for counter-demonstrations, which were massive. He went on to re-establish the authority of the institutions, playing heavily on fear of anarchy in the electorate. But he eventually lost an important election one year later, leading to his Government’s resignation.

The establishment and the institutions had been shaken to their very foundations. A proof of this enduring trauma was a polemical outburst of future president Nicolas Sarkozy during last year’s French presidential elections; he accused the “heirs of May 68” of seeing “no difference anymore between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, truth and falsehood, the pupil being the same worth as the teacher” and to “systematically side with the thugs, the vandals and the crooks against the police.” Stating that he wanted to turn the page of May 68 once and for all, he even added: “See how the worship of money, of short-term profit, of speculation, how the drift towards financial capitalism were carried by the values of May 68.” Yet, it was pointed out, he himself, an avowed individualist, self-realisation oriented politician, known collector of luxury watches and a divorcee, is a product of May 68.

May 68 opened up French society, which was up to then patriarchal and conservative. Male and female students still occupied segregated quarters in university residences – and this was one trigger for the revolt. In 2008, young people still demonstrate, but to defend their teachers against job cuts. They dream of starting a family, of more purchasing power and of social recognition through work. Left wing French philosopher Michel Onfray explains that paternalistic capitalism died in May 68, only to be replaced by a worse plague: liberal capitalism, which brings with it a form of moral relativism: that which earns money tends to be described as true, just, good and beautiful. It seems, then, that, like many revolutions, May 68 just accelerated changes that were going to happen anyway. What an irony to think that waving pictures of Che Guevara or hurling cobblestones at the police just lifted the lid of traditionalism and opened France to globalisation!

But what characterises the May 68 generation is their knack of thinking outside the box. In the course or the last forty years, they have created companies, launched newspapers, tried weird teaching methods… Among their many initiatives: Medecin sans Frontières, numerous overseas volunteer associations, the “fourth world aid” (targeting people in France who are so destitute that they are marginalised even from social services). The emergence of new political forces has been slow, due to the exceptional longevity of the previous generation, but it is now done. What better symbol of that meeting than the visit to Nicolas Sarkozy by Daniel Cohn-Bendit last April 16th? After the meeting, the green politician, formerly nicknamed “Dany the Red”, said that they had talked about Europe: Cohn-Bendit had "sold an idea” – that the French presidency should urge Europe to tackle the social and ecological regulation of globalization. They even talked about defence policy (not bad for a former anarchist), Cohn-Bendit advocating the idea that having a defence policy isn’t good enough and that a conflict prevention policy is needed. An idea which the French president had found interesting, and that he hopefully will also make his own.

So May 68 eventually brought “imagination to power”. The question is: what are we using our liberties for? If it is for luxury watches, personal gain and self-satisfaction only, the revolt will have been vain. It if is to find new ways to change the world, making it cleaner, safer and more united, the revolt will have been worthwhile. 

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole

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