It happened just 50 years back from now……. a group of students in France organised themselves against the patriarchal leadership and got into a massive confrontation with the Police. This ‘revolt’ was joined by the wider mass and most specifically the factory workers that eventually brought the government at a point of collapse. France marks the 50th anniversary of the ‘Students’ Revolt’ this year, with a recognition to it as a “social revolution rather than a political revolution”.
As our learning from history suggests, any anti-establishment movement in any part of the world never restricts itself within the boundary of any geographical territory. Perhaps, replication or influence of any event – directly or indirectly – stands for the indicator of its success. That is exactly what happened with the May 1968 revolution in France. India, Japan, China, the US and a few other Western European countries experienced the same in the late 1970s, pointing towards the global trend towards anti-establishment movements, largely led by the students.
May 1968 Revolution
The ‘anti-establishment’ young forces were determined to dethrone the patriarchal leadership in different parts of the world at that time. Perhaps, the Free Speech Movement (FSM) – the massive and long-lasting student protest that took place during the 1964-65 academic year on the campus of the University of California in Berkeley – influenced the French students in 1968.
Since early 1950s, France was going through a turbulent period, as it was getting increasingly difficult for the government to reconstruct the nation after WWII. The Algerian war and end of colonial rules in different African countries, too, badly affected the French economy. However, the Western European nation managed to tackle the situation. The economic prosperity and modernisation brought ‘the era of abundance’, and allowed a section of people to purchase whatever they wanted. Georges Perec made a successful attempt to portray the contemporary French society in his novel ‘Les Choses‘ (The Things). The author’s use of the conditional tense plunges the reader into the dreams of the characters in the novel, most of which focus mainly on their material desires, such as residences, furniture and fashionable clothing. The novel is basically a sociological document of hope, desire and frustration.
As depicted in the novel, the French youths got trapped into a ‘state of confusion’ because of the existing contradictions in the society. They were getting mesmerised with materialistic enjoyment of life because of various advertisements and campaigns. At the same time, the traditional social values were trying to prevent them from accessing those desired comforts! Also, the power of ‘consumerism’ was creating an illusion regarding a society without any division between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ through intentional glorification of similar food, culture and access to materialistic comfort for all in the society. After the publication of his novel in 1965, Perec was asked what else could his characters do apart from enjoying the materialistic world? The author replied that they might have triggered a revolution, perhaps the best way of consolidation of all rational thinking towards a discernible change!
Earlier in 1936, a Leftist movement and the anti-Nazi Liberation War took place in France. Those events encouraged the French youths to dream about a class-less society. However, Charles de Gaulle – popularly known as the child of this political tradition – became a face of arrogant patriarchal French society. As put forward by political analysts, the younger generation of France failed to decide whether to accept de Gaulle’s ‘authoritarian’ leadership or actress Brigitte Bardot’s sex appeal…. France’s first rock-star Johnny Hallyday created a song – ‘La Génération Perdue’ (The lost generation) – in 1966 in which he described the youths’ pain. The ‘French Elvis’ wrote: “With outstretched hands/ You claim your freedom/ To your father who can not/ And does not want to understand/ He would like to see you behind his workbench/ A hammer in your hand all your life………Your too tight heart wants to explode/ In the face of a resigned world/ Your eyes blinded by childhood deceived/ Will open on the truth.”
Thanks to the boom of first generation electronic media in France that enabled the French people to watch ‘Comrade Mao’ taking a dip in the Yangtze River in 1966 to show the world that he was still in robust health. The college-going ‘Latin Quarters’ immediately turned ‘red’. Also, there was an increase in the sale of ‘Red Book’ in France. In the meantime, the US attacked Vietnam and the audio-visual media telecast the event. During this period, the French people came to know about Che Guevara’s activities in Latin America. Perec’s characters joined the chorus with Bob Dylan……. “The Times They Are a-Changin”. The new ‘ultra-left’ French youths – who were highly influenced by Mao, Che, Ho Chi Minh and Trotsky – started considering the veteran pro-Soviet Leftists as ‘agents‘ of the Communist institutions (establishments).
Demographically, the post-war France experienced an ‘explosion of reproduction’. The Paris-Sorbonne University was unable to absorb the pressure of post-war generation. The concerned authorities planned to build a complex in the Atlantic coastal city of Saint-Nazaire. There was a slum near the complex where hundreds of migrant workers used to live. Sociology students loved to visit the slum as they got an opportunity to meet poor workers from the Third World. Later, it became the birthplace of ‘anti-establishment’ movement.
On March 22, 1968, students staged a protest, demanding more sexual freedom, under the leadership of Daniel Cohn-Bendit. The male students wanted to participate in the occupation of the girls’ premises. They interrupted the speech of a minister who was inaugurating a swimming pool in order to demand free access to the girls’ dormitory. The event is popularly known as the ‘22 March Movement‘, which was triggered by a group characterised by a mixture of Marxist, sexual and anarchist ideology. On March 22, students occupied the administrative offices, prompting the authorities to close the university on May 2 (after a clash broke out between students and the police).
Participation from the factory workers inflamed the students’ movement, as 300,000 students and workers marched through Paris on May 13 under the slogan: ‘Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!’ (Equality! Freedom! Sexuality!) They condemned the police brutality and demanded that: All criminal charges against arrested students be dropped; the police leave the university and the authorities reopen Nanterre and Sorbonne. France was struck by a general strike, with many of the country’s mainstream singers and poets joining the movement. Then French Prime Minister Georges Pompidou personally announced the release of the prisoners and the reopening of the Sorbonne. But, the surge of strikes did not recede. In fact, the protesters became even more active.
At critical retrospection, the fuelling factors for the May 1968 revolution in France are getting more prominent. The rate of unemployment was low and the productivity was high in France at that time. Factory owners, workers and the middle class people were not the equal shareholders of economic development. The unemployment was low, but growing…. The number of unemployed touched 300,000 in 1968, while it was just 75,000 in 1964. The industrialists decided to reduce the work force in order to lower the cost of production. All these factors actually widened the gap between the ‘perceived’ and ‘realised’ worlds by the youth and they revolted.
Paris, May 1968
However, the main question is: why the entire young generation staged anti-government protest? The youths actually tried to balance the goals of individual liberty with social equality. They wanted relief from the patriarchal system, the rule of law and also from the ‘authoritarian’ state. The youths were not ready to accept either de Gaulle’s authoritarian rule or a ‘trade mark’ Communist system. They wanted to establish an individualist liberal system.
Later, France witnessed many anti-establishment (feminist or environmentalist) movements. These movements put an end to patriarchal dictatorship in the family, educational institutions and workplaces. The Leftists came to power in France in 1981. Interestingly, the Lefts encouraged free trade through economic reform programmes.
On May 24, 1968, President de Gaulle made a televised speech, calling for a referendum on university reform and promising to step down if it failed. He admitted that France needed to reform its economy. The ‘ruler’ further admitted that although France made a steady economic progress after the WWII (despite many obstacles), a lot had to be done. The speech was really interesting…… establishment was speaking about anti-establishment!
President de Gaulle
We know that the ‘Theory of Reconstruction’ was a product of this period. This post-modern theory didn’t negate the previous philosophical notions, but brought the possibility of discussing those notions from a different point of view. The May ’68 movement played the same role in France. It taught the capitalist system how to break the shackles of traditional social values and to accept the ‘world of commodities’. The event reminds us of the proverb: “Change things so everything stays the same.”
May ’68 had a significant impact on the French society, politics and culture. Perhaps, Emmanuel Macron – the first French President born after May ’68 – is not aware of the importance of the event. So, he has decided to recreate the event. President Macron recently proposed a controversial higher education reform, sparking major protests.
It seems that France is yet to achieve Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité and there is need for another movement to reassert the spirit of it!
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