Everyone in France Wants to Claim the Legacy of 1968

tags: Emmanuel Macron

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston's Honors College. His most recent book is Boswell's Enlightenment.

Since late March, French railway workers have been on strike, university students have been occupying buildings, and the public has been increasingly wary of the monarchical pretensions of its president. Suddenly, a nation that spent 50 years trying to digest the “events of May 1968” now seems to have decided there is no better way to celebrate the anniversary than to reenact them.

There is, of course, a good distance to travel between reenactment and revolution. No one has yet pulled up cobblestones to seek the beach underneath, much less to hurl them at the police. But politicians and intellectuals have pulled out all the stops to make sense of this anniversary, and whether it has any bearing on current events in France.

The problem for those who, a half-century later, come to praise 1968, and for those who come to bury it, is that no one can identify the honored guest (or horrid corpse). What, in fact, was 1968? If historians refer to these events as “events,” it is because they cannot agree on what to call them. May 1968 violates all the usual categories of social and political contestation. If it was a revolution, it was, as the conservative commentator Raymond Aron insisted, “la révolution introuvable,” or the “elusive revolution.” In a similar register, the progressive philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky called it “la révolution sans révolution,” or, yes, “a revolution-less revolution.” For yet others, it was the “révolution manquée,” or “failed revolution.”

Yet these phrases beg a vital question: Did the students and workers who took to the streets in 1968 in fact seek a revolution? For historians like Kristin Ross, the answer is no. The “seizure of power” was the goal of no more than an isolated minority of mostly Trotskyist agitators. In fact, the widespread fear of an insurrectionary coup was largely a fiction imposed on events by the Gaullist state and media. What workers instead sought was better pay and work conditions, while students sought better campuses and living conditions to absorb the great wave of baby boomers seeking degrees.

More broadly and elusively, most of the participants, according to Daniel Lindenberg, acted on “a vast aspiration toward equality.” The era’s slogans and posters are so many EKGs of this desire beating at the heart of this popular uprising. The students, in particular, scorned the growing materialism that accompanied economic growth — “Are you consumers or participants?” and “I don’t want to lose my life in order to gain a living” — and they despised the leaden hand of a paternalist state: “The general will against the will of the General!” and “Run, comrades: the old world is behind you!” Of course, the workers, without whom there would not have been a May ’68, were eager to run toward the same material prosperity spurned by the students. But, at the same time, they too sought a workplace where they could claim greater control over their lives. ...

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