Misremembering May ’68


Misremembering May ’68

There is more to les évènements than students, sex and Paris.

Chris Reynolds

Topics Long-reads Politics

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‘It’s been impossible to keep up with’, says Chris Reynolds of the coverage and analysis accompanying the 50th anniversary of May 1968. And he should know. As an associate professor in contemporary French studies at Nottingham Trent University, and the author of the meticulous, illuminating Memories of May ’68: France’s Convenient Consensus, he has long been interested in the ongoing interpretation and indeed reinterpretation of those momentous but, in terms of historical significance, ambiguous events.

So what has he made of this year’s reckoning with les évènements? How does the characterisation of May 1968 as a Paris-based student revolt measure up to the historical reality? And did it really take people by surprise all those years ago? To answer these questions and more, Reynolds kindly agreed to speak to the spiked review.

spiked review: What have you made of the 50th anniversary?

Chris Reynolds: In my work, I’ve principally looked at the anniversaries as a way of plotting the construction of the memory of 1968. In France especially, the anniversaries have become almost like festivals. I was in Paris a couple of weeks ago, talking at a conference at the Sorbonne, which was at the heart of the university system where the Paris events actually took place. And just wandering around Paris, I could see that 1968 was everywhere. A French journalist characterised the way French engage with 1968 every 10 years as ‘une gigantesque Mai pride‘. So, as the playful allusion to gay pride suggests, it’s become a celebration, even to the extent that Emmanuel Macron, the French president, mooted some sort of state-sponsored commemoration for May 1968, which is incredible given that the protests were arguably trying to bring down the government.

The volume of publishing dedicated to 1968, and the plethora of events focusing on it, is enormous now. It’s a much bigger cultural phenomenon than it was even in 2008. And the quality of the reflection and analysis is much better, too. And that will hopefully flesh out the magnitude, diversity and potency of the les évènements.

review: You mention a festival-like atmosphere, that it has become a celebration, but what exactly is being celebrated?

Reynolds: 1968 in France is seen as a very positive thing. Not by everybody, of course. There are people who would disagree. Nicolas Sarkozy, back in 2007, declared that ‘we must liquidate the spirit of 1968’ from French society. But the reaction to Sarkozy’s declaration was large-scale disagreement.

What are they celebrating? Well, I always say you shouldn’t look at May 1968 in isolation. It should be seen, rather, as the latest episode in how the culture of protest in France, the importance of the street, from the French Revolution onwards, has manifested itself. May 1968 was a reaffirmation of the power of the street, and of the power of the people in France. I think that is what people are celebrating. There is something quintessentially French about May 1968 of which that people are proud.

I think some would quite like another one. There is quite a significant protest movement in France at the moment, and it constantly references 1968 – because it showed what people could do. It showed the power of the street. The reality, of course, is that another 1968 won’t happen, because the contexts are just so very different.

In 1968, France was enjoying les Trentes Gloriueses, the economy was flying, de Gaulle had been in power for a decade (which is a stability France hadn’t known since the Third Republic). Decolonisation had been ‘solved’, and the Algerian crisis overcome. Things were very different then. Think about unemployment today in France, especially among young people – the levels are astronomical. Back in the 1960s, unemployment was virtually non-existent. And then you have to factor in the international context. Think of what was happening: the civil-rights movement in the US; revolution in Latin America and China; and so on. These struggles provided an inspiration for young people itching for something else. They turn on their TVs – and remember this was the first television generation – and they see the Vietnam war, Castro and Guevara, Martin Luther King, Mao – and they plug into it.

We therefore won’t see another 1968, but we might see another manifestation of this long culture of protest. When I was in Paris recently, I saw a brilliant slogan painted on a wall, which said ‘on ne veut pas ’68; on veut 1789‘ (We don’t want 1968, we want 1789). There won’t be another 1968, but that doesn’t mean to say we won’t see the next episode of the culture of protest in France.

review: The power of the street is one thing, but I was wondering if there is a more concrete sense of the significance and legacy of 1968. So in the UK, we tend to see the positive legacy of the 1960s in terms of liberalisation, (while critics might bemoan it as permissiveness) and so on. Was there something like that legacy associated with 1968 in France?

Reynolds: On the one hand, because of the way in which the story of May has been constructed over the past 50 years, there is a narrow understanding of its meaning, where it is pitched as a positive moment – that is, 1968 as the moment when France cast off its archaic shackles, and took a stride forward into a much more forward-thinking, progressive society.

The narrow interpretation involves three elements: Paris, May and students. So the dominant narrative focuses on what happened in Paris. Which is very important, of course. But it neglects that it was a nationwide revolt. I’ve carried out a couple of case studies looking at what happened in Brittany or Alsace, and down to the Basque Country and Marseille. They had their 1968s, too. It was very different to the Paris version. It wasn’t students throwing cobblestones at police, and talking about sex, peace and love. There were other serious issues at play.

Then there’s the focus on May, which suggests that anything interesting happened in May. That’s just not true. Just look at what happened in June, when the state is still fighting workers and students, and legislative elections were held, and, the focus on May seems misplaced. In France they talk about ‘les années 1968‘, which roughly translates as the 1968 years. And what we’re seeing now is this broader temporal framework, which focuses not just on May 1968, but on the period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.

The third element is students. The dominant narrative posits this as a student revolt, and while they were important certainly in triggering 1968, the protests played on widespread disillusionment right across French society. Remember, 1968 was also the occasion for the largest strike in French history. And it didn’t just involve the working classes. It also involved doctors, the Cannes Film Festival, even footballers. The striking footballers had a famous slogan, ‘football to the footballers’.

So as the temporal and regional understanding of 1968 broadens, as our grasp of a widening range participants becomes clear, we are developing a genuine sense of what 1968 was all about. So it’s no longer just this middle-class, Paris-based student revolt in which Daniel Cohn-Bendit and others decided to spit their dummy out, and then de Gaulle blew the whistle when play time was over. We’re getting closer to a sense of its importance. And that ties in with the way in which the French are approaching it.

It becomes a very potent example of what can happen when the people step outside constitutional politics, and take to the street and demand change, which is exactly what they did in 1968. And change they did. People like to suggest that de Gaulle returned to power, and nothing changed. Yes, de Gaulle did come back to power, but that was the end of him. He was gone within a year. And although he appointed his heir to the throne, Georges Pompidou, as the next president, 1968 started a political process that would culminate in 1981, and the arrival of Francois Mitterrand and the Socialist Party. And, socially, you can’t look at any aspect of French society and not see a before and after 1968, whether it’s in education, the place of women, social mores, the justice system, religion, regionalism… Everything had an avant and an après 1968.

review: You mention this narrow understanding of 68 – Paris, May, and students – but how did this view become the consensus view of 1968? Why have we come to see 1968 almost entirely in terms of students, sex and violence?

Reynolds: I wanted to understand precisely this: how it was that we had acquired this understanding of 1968, when it was far more potent and diverse than that. And my thesis is that it is a product of an unlikely tango between the state, which was very happy to see the narrative constructed around 1968 depoliticised and presented as some sort of bon enfant revolt, and the dominant participants themselves, namely Daniel Cohn-Bendit and his band of merry men. I’ve called this group the memory barons. They wheel themselves out, usually around anniversary time, to regale people with their nostalgic whimsy about the heady days of their youth. They have acquired an iconic status, and have done well out of being associated with 1968. And they have helped perpetuate this narrow perspective.

You also have to look at the role of the media. It is much sexier to focus on good-looking, young students in the Latin Quarter than it is a group of middle-aged factory workers in Brittany, on strike because they feel their region isn’t getting the same investment from central government.

So the combination of this unlikely tango between state and students, with the rise of the media age, has meant a particular 1968 narrative has percolated into public consciousness. This hasn’t just shaped the way in which the French view 1968; it has also shaped the transnational perspective. So if you mention 1968 to someone, the first thing they will think of will be Paris, and Paris doesn’t even tell the story of 1968 in France. And the dominance of this narrative has marginalised other 1968s, especially Northern Ireland’s (the focus of my current work), which is incredibly important.

review: You mention the role of the French state and the iconic soixante-huitards like Cohn-Bendit. But another key player was the French Communist Party (PCF), which also played a role in constructing the May 1968 narrative. So 1968 did signal the end of Gaullism, but it also signalled the end of the PCF, didn’t it?

Reynolds: Absolutely. It is the beginning of the end of the PCF. If you look at what happened afterwards, it is a downward spiral for the Communists. Back in the late 1960s, the PCF was incredibly powerful, controlling the biggest trade union, the Confédération Générale du Travail. But – and it’s one of the great paradoxes of 1968 – the Communist Party acted as a brake on the revolutionary potential of 1968. I’m not suggesting that it was a revolutionary situation – that’s up for debate. But if it was, one of the reasons why it didn’t fulfil that potential was due to the PCF not allowing it to.

One explanation is that the PCF had made a decision in 1965 to take power only through democratic means, not force. So 1968 was not in its strategy. Another is that the Communists were completely bypassed on their left by l’enragé of Nanterre and so on, so they did not want to be part of a movement they didn’t start. And, a third, intriguing explanation is that de Gaulle was playing a very clever game in the Cold War context. He was openly critical of the US government and was flirting with the Soviet Union in an attempt to stop France being a mere pawn in the Cold War. He wanted France to regain its ‘grandeur‘, as he called it. It is now rumoured that the Soviet Union quite liked de Gaulle, and, so the story goes, it is said the PCF were told by the Comintern not to back the 1968 protests because, if it did, de Gaulle could well be ousted and his replacement might not be as much of a thorn in the side of the Americans.

So, the first party to back de Gaulle’s call for a General Election was the PCF. And it was instrumental, through the CGT, in encouraging workers to go back to work.

review: Another aspect of the convenient consensus on 1968 is that it was a bolt from the blue. But that’s not the case. You mention disillusionment, but what was it that was bubbling away beneath the surface of French society?

Reynolds: In order to bolster the idea that this was just a blip, it is often said that it came out of nowhere. It’s argued that France was doing well politically, that it was still in the midst of the postwar boom, and that socially things were calm. And what I tried to demonstrate in Memories of ’68, is that that’s just not true. If you look closely, there were mounting student protests throughout the 1960s, and a rise in industrial action in the preceding years. Now, the French were told at the time that things were great, that they were living in an era of stability and wealth. The problem was that working-class people started to ask the question: where is this wealth going, because we’re not getting it? We’re working 60, 70 hours a week, but we’re not getting any wealthier. So big questions were being asked about the extent to which the riches being generated by the postwar boom were being shared out among the working classes. People are working in very difficult circumstances at this point. Factory life is intense; it’s almost military like. So the idea that everyone is benefitting from les trentes glorieuses is being refuted.

And politically, yes, de Gaulle’s been in power for a decade, so France has a welcome stability following the disaster of the First World War, the troubles of the Popular Front era, the nightmare of the Second World War, Occupation and Nazism, and then the traumatic period of decolonisation culminating in the Algerian crisis of 1958. So de Gaulle’s decade appears successful, but there is a real sense that, by the end of the 1960s, he’s done his job. And that’s fired by this new emergent generation of young people. Their parents and their grandparents, for understandable reasons, are defined by their experience of the wars. So they’re content with de Gaulle’s rather authoritarian regime, they’re happy with the boons of consumerism, from new fridges to TVs. But the new generation of young people were born into this period of relative stability, full employment and growing material comfort. It is not exceptional to them. So by the late 1960s, they’re looking for something else. And they see de Gaulle as the personification of everything that is holding them back. They turn on their TVs and they see other things that are happening elsewhere, and they draw inspiration.

That’s why the university is really important. It is the microcosm of this perfect storm. Universities are made up of young people, and this particular cohort is part of a new demographic of first-in-the-family students. So they’re asking questions that their parents wouldn’t have asked. I don’t like to use this example because it plays into the rather facile interpretation of 1968 as little more than a desire for young people to get their leg over. But if you were at university, aged 20, and you were in a relationship, you had to get a letter from your parents to be able to visit him or her in the halls of residence. The French university system in the late 1960s had not experienced any serious reform since the Napoleonic age. If you consider the changes in the French economy and society in that time, the university had simply not kept pace. It was a perfect example of France’s need to break away from the shackles of the past.

It’s therefore no surprise that the university contained the spark for 1968, because it represented everything that young people detested in French society – stultifying, archaic and militaristic. Remember de Gaulle always went on TV wearing his military uniform. A lot of young people didn’t give a toss about the Second World War. And, importantly, many were starting to ask tough questions about what their parents did during the Second World War, during the period of collaboration and resistance.

review: Finally – returning to the memory barons – do you think the leading soixante-huitards are unrepresentative of 1968?

Reynolds: The likes of Cohn-Bendit did play an essential role. Without them, it probably would never have happened. But what I think is a pity is that the media need to have a face to put to the protests, despite one of the defining characteristics of the revolt being its leaderlessness. So the idea that Cohn-Bendit was some sort of leader was nonsensical. He just spoke very well, and said some controversial things.

The problem is that he and others have become the faces of 1968. These gauchistes, as they were called – these extremely intelligent, articulate students – made up a very small minority of the population of people involved in 1968. Lots of people didn’t agree with them. Lots thought they were a bit out there, a bit too extreme. And there were other things that people were interested in. Even in the student movement, there were other concerns. They wanted to change the university system. In fact, there was a really strong reformist movement within the student movement, and their ideas, which were formulated in the sit-ins and discussion groups, arguably had a greater tangible impact than anything said by Cohn-Bendit et al. There was a huge university reform introduced in December 1968 by education minister Edgar Faure and he drew largely on what the reformist students were demanding in their occupations of their faculties.

And if we extend it out beyond the students to the striking workers and so on, I’m sure there are many who would say Cohn-Bendit does not represent their 1968. I’ve interviewed people out in the regions who reject entirely the consensus view of 1968. And one of the sad things about that is some of them even say that they’ve lost the will to challenge it anymore, such is the dominance of that story.

It is not the soixante-huitards fault, or at least not entirely – they’ve been chosen to represent 1968 (and they’ve done very well out of doing so). The problem is that it really doesn’t tell the whole story. They’re just a part of a much larger story of a society-wide revolt in France.

Chris Reynolds is associate professor contemporary of French and European Studies in the school of arts and humanities at Nottingham Trent University. He is the author of Memories of May ’68: France’s Convenient Consensus, published by University of Wales Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Getty Images.

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Topics Long-reads Politics


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