Fifty years ago in Paris, the weather was beautiful: everyone who participated in what has since been called “the events” has this memory, at least, in common. Evenings were particularly mild and seemingly endless at the terrace cafes. I was then completing my studies, which could not have been more dull, at the ENA (National School of Administration, one of the “Grandes Écoles”), in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood. This part of the city, which has since become a kind of tourists’ shopping mall for clothes and junk food, was then the heart of student life, with inexpensive bistros and nearby smoky cinemas. The ennui was oppressive. The spirit of the times had been grasped with prophetic insight by an editorialist from Le Monde, which was then our Bible. The title was: “France is bored.”
What was the cause of this boredom? We felt that real life, the life of tomorrows, was happening far from France. From two distant ends of the earth, the United States and China, we heard echoes of what were to be called cultural revolutions. In America, young people in blue jeans and unisex t-shirts had rejected social norms in clothing, and in many other areas. Seen from afar, these young Americans bore a strong resemblance to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. In Paris, we still kept our hair short and wore neckties to class. What is more, these young Americans were fighting for good causes beyond their selfish interests: peace in Vietnam and civil rights for African-Americans. As I myself witnessed the abominable segregation that still ruled in the American South, during my first trip there in 1962, I could not help sympathizing with the civil rights cause. And as for Vietnam, we French had good feelings toward the country; we were not very well informed on the nature of the conflict, but if the French army had left in 1954, what in the world were American GIs doing there?
Other images, no less colorful, uplifting, and unlabeled, reached us from China: for us, the Chinese Cultural Revolution was a show of sound and light. We knew nothing of the abuses perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party, the execution of intellectuals, the mass starvation, or the destruction of historical treasures. Meantime, back home, nothing was happening. According to Le Monde, our country had been anesthetized by the interminable regime of General de Gaulle, who seemed to us extremely old at the age of 78. He had established a sense of comfort based on economic prosperity, peaceful borders, and a conformist sensibility. Television and radio were public property, and subject to government control; the press was mostly monotone. Order reigned in the streets, in the mind, at school, and in churches and businesses. There was no one to contest the principle of authority that was the framework of French society. The opposition followed the same pattern: it consisted essentially of the Communist Party, which was as hierarchical as the Catholic Church, and subject to Moscow, and tight with de Gaulle as long as he remained anti-American.
Suddenly, the too-tightly covered pot exploded on an unexpected issue: sexual freedom. It all started with a conflict between a young Jewish student, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and the Minister of Youth, François Missoffe, who was visiting Nanterre University to inaugurate a new swimming pool. Cohn-Bendit demanded that the government permit access by boys to the girls’ dormitories; the minister invited the activist to cool off in the new pool. The students chose instead to go on strike, which in less than a week had spread to all Paris universities. The provinces joined in the movement, too, but slowly and with less enthusiasm; the events were mainly Parisian.
Three weeks of tumult followed, with vigorous confrontations between students and police. But the violence was not excessive, and there were no deaths. I came through it, for my part, with a kick in the butt administered by a helmeted member of the State Security police whose face I could not see. The student movement went nowhere; it was festive but had no purpose other than to enjoy life and a beautiful springtime. Lacking imagination, the student leaders, including myself, passed the baton to the Communist Party and the unions, which had organized troops at their disposal. Wildcat strikes spread until 11 million workers had walked off their jobs. Eventually, the institutional Left made a deal with de Gaulle—a return to order in exchange for a 7 percent wage increase. On May 30, bolstered by support from the Left and the army, de Gaulle whistled an end to the fun. The Revolution was also up against the long Pentecost weekend, when Parisians’ priority was to take off for the sea and the countryside. The capital emptied out in a massive exodus. With nothing to do, I took the first train for the Riviera. So ended les événements de mai 68.
Had something happened, or nothing? Sociologists still disagree after 50 years. By all appearances, there was indeed nothing, but at a deeper level, there had been an upheaval. In politics, the historical decline of the French Communist Party began with these events, since it became obvious that the Party always took the side of the powerful, whether in Paris, Prague, or Moscow; as for the Maoists, they were crushed by ridicule when it was finally discovered that the Cultural Revolution was a slaughter. But the real upheaval was social: the principle of authority did not survive. The activists who had found their voice never gave it up, putting in question the authority of the head of state (de Gaulle abdicated in 1969), of the boss in the workplace, of the bishop in his Church, and of men over women. May 1968 was, finally, a movement of inward liberation, a moral metamorphosis such as France had not known since the Romantic era. May 1968 confirmed Alexis de Tocqueville’s saying that his countrymen were poor at reform but excellent at revolution.
For those unfamiliar with these times, I would invite them to visit Saint-Germain-des-Prés. They should note two significant changes that could not have appeared before May 1968: first, men no longer wear ties, while women now wear pants, and second, the cobblestones of Boulevard Saint-Germain have been covered by asphalt, which should forever prevent Parisians from erecting barricades. We still go on strike, though, remaining faithful to our national tradition of permanent protest.
Translated from French by Alexis Cornel
Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images