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The legacy of ’68

Latest update : 2008-05-11

The revolution of May ’68 began with university students but spread far beyond, changing the fundamentals of French society and culture. Ahead of the 40th anniversary of the revolts, some ask whether their legacy continues. (Report: S. Silke)

He is a living incarnation of the student demonstrations that took France by storm in May '68 - Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now president of the European Green Party. In January 1968, at the opening of a swimming pool at the University of Nanterre, in the slums of the Parisian suburbs, he got into a heated exchange with the minister invited to preside over the ceremony.


The minister objected to the idea of a pool open to both sexes. “If you’re having sexual needs, go take a cold shower,” he told Cohn-Bendit. 


The anecdote illustrates the social climate that motivated thousands of students to take to the streets. The commonly accepted date for the beginning of the revolt is March 22, when a group of students took over the Nanterre campus. This “March 22nd movement” evolved into the May ‘68 protests.


“At Nanterre, we demanded the liberation of a student arrested for participating in an anti-Vietnam protest,” filmmaker Romain Goupil, who was in high school at the time of the revolts, told FRANCE 24. Goupil's most vivid memory of the time was “the unbelievable battle of the famous night of the barricades. It was like the revolutions of 1848. We were spiritual descendants of a revolutionary history.”


May ’68, as controversial as ever


After the March 22 movement, classes were suspended in Nanterre until April 1 to avoid further trouble. Students retreated to a large amphitheatre in the Sorbonne. On May 3, the Sorbonne was forcibly evacuated. The violent incidents that followed that night resulted in 600 arrests.


This year marks the 40th anniversary of those events.


According to François Dubet, professor of sociology at the University of Bordeaux 2 and director of research at the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales), “Aside from the workers’ strike, ’68 is a revolution about freedom of morals, culture, speech, sexuality and criticizing authority.”


Changes in society and values


France in the early 1960s was recovering economically from World War II, but many of its young people felt stifled by its rigid and conservative society. Right up until 1965, married women could not open a bank account or work without their husband’s permission. Movements in favour of abortion rights (which were granted in 1975), and reform of divorce and parental custody, played an active part in fomenting the May ’68 revolt.


But rather than the social developments, critics of ’68 tend to focus on what they see as a decline in traditional values. "On both the right and the left you often hear a similar paradoxical theory - that  the ’68 generation played a key role in the development of capitalism at the end of the 1970s, by lifting the last barrier to unfettered commercialism: traditional values," wrote Serge Audier in  "Anti-’68 Thought"  ("La pensée anti-68," Editions de La Découverte).


Critics of the legacy of ’68 often focus on public education, saying its problems today date back to the changes of four decades ago. Nicolas Sarkozy during his presidential campaign denounced the “’68 legacy” that “would have us believe that teachers shouldn’t give grades lest it upset the poor students, and that students should not be classified by aptitude.”


According to Dubet, “In pedagogical terms, the 68ers lost the battle for school.”


“We no longer dream of changing the world”


“Forty years after ’68, the situation is almost reversed," observes Dubet. "The battles we fought are now taken for granted. Today’s youth aren’t as demanding as in May ’68; they don’t want liberty, they want security.”


“We don’t have a vision of utopia; we are more realistic," explains Floréale Mangin, former president of the National Union of High Schools (l’Union national lycéenne). "We are more interested in finding our place in society than in changing the world.”


According to Goupil, the spirit of ’68 has migrated to the Paris suburbs. “The next revolt could begin there. If the government doesn’t consider the magnitude of what’s bubbling under the surface, there will be a rupture.” And if this revolution does take place, it may be a far cry from May ’68, which Goupil recalls as “joyous and unfettered.”


Date created : 2008-03-22