Long endowed with a potent resonance for French people, the year 1968 has, at this point, 40 years on, morphed into a brand. In spite of the tumultuous occurrences elsewhere in the world that year, it has become synonymous with France, and more particularly Paris. Only for the Czechs and Slovaks does it have anything like the same significance. A whole generation of French people, the soixante-huitards, is associated by name with 1968 regardless of whether they had direct connection or not with Les événements. When people talk of ’68 they mean the student uprising and the general strike of May of that year, but also of the lasting and considerable effect that The Events had on French society.

Browsing through the L’Arbre à lettres bookshop on rue du Faubourg St-Antoine the other day, I found the inevitable display table of publications devoted to the events of that year, among them works of fiction, comic books, coffee-table volumes of photojournalism, bluffer’s guides to ’68, memoirs (Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s name, in particular, is ubiquitous) and even books that have only a tenuous connection with the May events, such as Raymond Depardon’s collection of photos from that year, 1968 – une année autour du monde. It would be a trite observation indeed to remark on the exploitation of a socialist-anarchist revolution for monetary gain, but super-model and notable tax exile Laetitia Casta, currently starring in the film Nés en 68, is on hand to trump that when she tells MK2’s in-house magazine that “in making this film, I feel I’ve experienced my own May 68”.

The ’68 generation has dominated public discourse-without always determining it-for much of the past 40 years, especially since the events of May 1981, when François Mitterand was elected France’s first Socialist president. While Cohn-Bendit-“Dany the Red” as he was then known-is the only one of the student leaders to have forged a successful political career, as a German Green MEP, the influence of the generation has been considerable in both French public administration and the media. Current foreign minister and founder of Médecins sans frontières, Bernard Kouchner, for example, was a strike committee leader during the events.

There are however also notable enemies of ’68: President Nicolas Sarkozy at one of his pre-election rallies last year declared that he wanted to “liquidate the legacy of 1968” in particular, the “moral and intellectual relativism” generated by it. Arch-nihilist and lapsed communist writer Michel Houellebecq has meanwhile documented a disenchantment with the doctrines of free love espoused by the ’68 generation. The charge of ’68 having engendered moral relativism is a familiar one thrown by the right at the liberal left elsewhere in the world over the past 30 years, but the so-called political correctness of the soixante-huitards cannot be said to have got an absolute grasp in the French consciousness, what with the success of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National and, at its recent electoral slump, the assimilation of many of its policies by the Sarkozy government. It must be remembered too that de Gaulle’s government, though it was brought low by the events of May 1968, emerged even stronger than ever at the elections two months later and the General’s political career ended the following year by defeat in a referendum on the very non-revolutionary matter of Senatorial reform. No less than in the US the same year with Nixon’s election, there was a silent majority that was not quite prepared to abandon the Gaullist party that continued to preside over years of unprecedented plenty.

There have been defectors from the ’68 camp, most notably the nouveaux philosophes André Glucksman and Alain Finkielkraut, both of whom have moved towards the right. Finkielkraut’s friend and erstwhile collaborator Pascal Bruckner, an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq war, has even gone so far as to say that Sarkozy’s free market reforms make him a truer heir to 1968 than his hidebound Socialist Party rivals. But such apostasy is not typical; the majority of the ’68 generation have remained on the left, restricting their changes of heart to a rejection of the Maoism that was a strong force on the French left at the time-though it was marginal in the events of May 1968 itself.

Though the more spectacular events on the Left Bank did not flare up until early May, the movement had been gaining momentum since the 22nd of March, when a number of students at the largely left-wing University of Nanterre, to the west of Paris, occupied faculty buildings. Unlike the Sorbonne, Jussieu, Tolbiac and other city-centre campuses of the University of Paris, Nanterre was situated in an impoverished working-class area, just beyond where the administrative and business district of La Défense now stands. At the time, there were tent cities and shantytowns circling the old village of Nanterre, housing Arab and African immigrants working on the countless building projects being undertaken around them. The ’68 uprising was borne partially of solidarity with the working class – however unrequited it might have been for the most part-and also of resentment at the stifling conservatism of the France of les trentes glorieuses. France is often conceived of in the Anglophone mind as a centre of freethinking and revolutionary fervour, the reality of society at the time (and arguably today too) was a timid, straitened conformism where the young knew their place.

There was also a Marcusean disillusion with consumerism – so brilliantly captured by Georges Perec in his novels Les Choses – une histoire des années 60 (The Things – A Story of the Sixties) and Un homme qui dort (A Man Asleep) – from whence sprang many of the memorable slogans of the May 68 movement, such as “Métro, Boulot, Dodo” (“Metro, Work, Sleep”), “Ne laissez pas les hauts parleurs parler pour vous” (“Don’t let the loudspeakers speak for you”), “On achète ton bonheur. Vole-le” (“You pay for your happiness. Steal it”) and “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (“Beneath the pavement, the beach!”) That many of these sound like contemporary advertising slogans is not surprising; like many of the excellent posters produced by the activists, the slogans were co-opted by mainstream media, often by soixante-huitards themselves who had moved into advertising and television.

The student uprising was allied to a general strike, though crucially it was not supported by the Parti Communiste Français, then the largest force on the left, largely because it was at odds with the PCF’s own Stalinist conservatism and suspiciously anarcho-Trotskyist in character. Though de Gaulle remained in exile for some weeks and faced down the protestors only when he was sure he could count on a majority of loyal army units, the rising petered out at the end of the month, largely neutralised by the retreating government. Though it was an immediate failure, it did spur the government to significant reforms, such as a 33% rise in the minimum wage, but the real effects of May ’68 were more social and more enduring. It is nowadays hard to believe how strong a sway Catholic conservatism still held at the time in France – a country that had enjoyed a separation of church and state for over 60 years – contraception had only been legalised the year before and was as yet unknown and effectively unavailable to many young people. The legalisation of abortion and homosexuality were to follow in the ten years that followed and though the notion of free love remained something restricted to a very narrow subculture, sexual relations for young people were no longer subject to the indulgent eye of the concierge or getting married young.

The cultural effects of ’68 were also considerable, although in the cinema world at least they had been in train for some time. Just as the students in Nanterre were beginning to occupy administrative buildings, there was a storm kicking up at the Cinémathèque Française, where founder Henri Langlois had been sacked as director by de Gaulle’s culture secretary, André Malraux, sparking off a ferocious protest involving all the directors of the New Wave as well as those of an older generation, such as Robert Bresson and Henri-Georges Clouzot. The incident, which was dramatised in Bernardo Bertolucci’s cack-handed film The Dreamers, is remembered mainly with Langlois as the doughty cinéphile sidelined in an ideological dispute by the turncoat Gaullist lackey Malraux. The reality was something more mundane however: The two had previously had a good relationship but it was Langlois’ refusal to allow a government-appointed restorer to assist with the Cinémathèque’s work in return for government subsidies that triggered his removal. Langlois was eventually reinstated, and the incident has since become inextricably linked with the events of May, more so when many of the same principals, Truffaut and Godard among them, disrupted the Cannes film festival and caused it to be abandoned out of solidarity with the protests in Paris. Even sport was touched by May ’68. In a long-forgotten incident, a hundred or so footballers occupied the headquarters of the French Football Federation on avenue Iéna to demand reforms to contractual conditions that had previously meant, in effect, indentured players being unable to choose their club at the end of their contract. The standoff lasted five days and resulted in the concessions being met, standard contracts being introduced into French football the following year.

The effect of 1968 on French society and the hold it continues to exercise is far from negligible, but is it really the determining factor of French society today? Can it provide explanations for the bloated welfare state, for stagnant economic growth, for the rise in anomie among the young in urban areas? Sarkozy and his cohorts would argue its pernicious influence, though one might more reasonably point to an economic conservatism among many French people (on both left and right) predating May ’68, which lasted all the way through the trentes glorieuses and still exists today. I would argue that this economic conservatism, which results in both consumer spending and personal debt being lower than in English-speaking countries, is the result of a historical experience that continues to have a much stronger grip on the French conscience than the events of 40 years ago: the Occupation. It is also something that no English-speaking country (with the exception of the Channel Islands) had to endure. One could of course reply by arguing that the Great Depression would have had a similar effect on the psyche of British and American people and yet they eventually cast off an economic cautiousness, but the crucial difference is that the Depression did not entail occupation by a foreign power (never mind one so odious and ruthless as Nazi Germany), nor did it generate a culture of collaboration and consequent resentment that continues to maintain a cleavage between the classes in France, one that has, since the post-war period, been artificially bridged in political discourse. In this context, 1968 is a small wheel operating within a larger one, or a socio-political detour, a significant one, but one that will also probably fade from memory as its generation dies off. The history of the Nazi occupation, however, and of its equally grotesque sibling, Vichy France, is unlikely to surrender its grip any time soon.

The familiar cliché bandied about by armchair commentators at the time of the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s was that it was the wily realpolitik of Tito that had managed to keep the lid on the simmering tensions among the various ethnicities. It’s a viewpoint that is as questionable as it is debatable but not for me to explore right now other than to remark on how similar it is to the choice made by the Fourth Republic (and the Fifth, which followed in 1961) to elide the historical pains of the Occupation, ostensibly in the name of national unity, although many would say that the real motif was to protect the interests of those who had profited from collaboration. It was in the name of national unity that de Gaulle decided not to prosecute the Alsatian SS soldiers responsible for the massacre of 642 men, women and children in Ourador sur Glane in 1944 (just two days after D-Day)[1]. Marcel Ophuls’s astounding Oscar-winning documentary Le chagrin et la pitié was similarly kept off French television screens for 13 years until 1981, because its account of collaboration and resistance in the city of Clermont-Ferrand was deemed too close to the bone for the collective French memory. While the film pulls no punches in its portrayal of the Occupation and its grotesque progeny, the Vichy government, it is scrupulously fair, hearing both sides, and it refrains from finger pointing. As former British secret agent Denis Rake, who worked with Communist Resistance fighters during the war, says in an interview, “it was only really the working classes that resisted; the middle classes had more to lose and they made their peace with the Nazis.”

But the class resentment this caused was very real, and at the Liberation it was vented in some horrific reprisals, some of which are documented by Andrew Hussey in his history of working-class Paris Paris-The Secret History. The PCF got the biggest share of the vote at the elections of 1946, but not surprisingly the Gaullist forces mobilised to keep them out of government. The Communists continued to be the biggest force on the left for the next 30 years, despite their flagrant kowtowing to Moscow, stronger probably than any Eastern bloc regime. For the most part it was class resentment that underpinned this support, however ineffectual it ultimately turned out to be.

Another effect of the Occupation has been the softening of political discourse, in the mainstream at least. After the war, there was little appetite among French people of either left or right for inflammatory rhetoric; the PCF, for all its showboating and parliamentary intransigence, valued pragmatism above anything else, while the Gaullists morphed into a centre-right advocate of paternalist capitalism. Even today, many French businessmen and right-wing politicians can be easily mistaken for liberals by their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. There is no opening for a Bill O’Reilly or a Rush Limbaugh on the mainstream right in France, nor is there are any popular right-wing media as vicious as The Sun or a tradition of maverick Gaullist politicians making outrageous remarks as has been the case with the Tories.

Of course there is Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front, which gleaned 18% of the vote at the 2002 presidential elections, which obviously means that there is a significant minority of the French population that is responsive to his poisonous, xenophobic views. But Le Pen was a novelty sideshow until the mid-1980s, only then building up electoral traction (and not before he had inveigled himself rather dubiously into an inherited fortune). His popularity was built up largely among pieds noirs returned from Algeria following independence and from working class Communist voters disillusioned with the left during the industrial decline of the 1980s. Le Pen, represented, like the rise of far-right parties in Germany and Austria, the return of the repressed in French political discourse. Like those two countries, France has laws on Holocaust denial, and Le Pen has been convicted twice of breaking them. Though the National Front resemble more the ramshackle thuggishness of the mainstream conservative parties that littered Europe in the first half of the last century than it does an organised machine like the Nazis or the Italian Fascists, Le Pen has never missed an opportunity to declare his complaisant views regarding the Nazis or the Occupation. The gas chambers were notoriously, for him, “a detail of history,” and he was convicted last year of declaring that the Occupation was not “particularly inhumane”. Le Pen’s political career is almost over now, having seen his vote drop to 11% at the last election – his thunder stolen by Sarkozy, who co-opted many of his policies on immigration and law and order – and the FN has also seen the need to adopt a softer approach come election time, even going so far as to use smiling Arab and African faces for its campaign literature.

The year 1968 appears as a mere echo against all this. When Sarkozy ran for election last year, polarising the population almost right down the middle, the opposition to him was fuelled by a combination of the left-wing spirit of 1968 and the older class resentment that dates from long before the Second World War and was fortified by four years of living with exploitation and collaboration at the hands of the Nazis. When Sarkozy declares himself to be un homme décomplexé, that is, unashamed of flaunting the trappings of wealth (he is already known in the media as Président Bling), he is setting himself up against a culture that is suspicious not so much of wealth itself but of the means by which some people have amassed it. Sarkozy’s election slogan “Travailler plus pour gagner plus” (“work more to earn more”) itself seems like a grotesque Bob Roberts-style parody of the slogans of May 68. The times they are a changing back?

Originally published by Irish Left Review.

[1] Citizens of Alsace and Lorraine, which was annexed by the Nazis, having previously been part of Germany from 1871 to 1919, were the only French people to be conscripted into the Wehrmacht or the SS.

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