What a singulier month it has been in France: strikes in education and public transport; pupils at school gates branding teachers who work “scabs”; anti-government demonstrations in Paris over public sector job cuts and pension plan reform. The impression is of a nation derailing at the prospect of economic reform, kicking against the sudden pricks of change.
It is no wonder there has been such nostalgia for 40 years ago. This year’s upheavals have taken place against a backdrop of no little soul-searching with regard to the legacy of les evenements of May 1968, when student protests at Nanterre over claims for greater sexual freedom brought about general strikes and sparked a cultural revolution. Symposiums, television specials and some 120 exhibitions have contributed to a blossoming industry already served by more than 100 books on the subject.
Inevitably, parallels have been drawn between ’68 and 2008. President Nicolas Sarkozy is more unpopular now than General de Gaulle ever was then, perhaps for the simple reason that he was not elected by either of the old loyal blocs – Gaullist right, Socialist left – but rather swayed voters from across the spectrum with a political philosophy somewhat akin to Tony Blair’s ‘third way.’
Danny Cohn-Bendit, the anarchist figurehead of ’68 and now co-president of the European Green-European Free Alliance in the European Parliament, has his own views on the differences between then and now, however. “In 1968 we had a feeling to make history,” says the man born in France to German-Jewish parents then expelled from the country as a “seditious alien” for his agitational efforts. “We smelt freedom and we won cultural change. The legacy is the autonomy of the individual, and the idea that collective emancipation must be linked to individual autonomy. There was a revolution in society – at that time a married woman had to have written permission from her husband to open a bank account, education was authoritarian. After this, people became freer.
“The political climate in France today is a strange one, because people who voted for Sarkozy are now upset about him, but it’s not that they are looking towards the alternative. It is a country in between – in between the left and the right, between reform, but nothing will change for the individual.”
His analysis is accurate insofar as those who have taken to the streets of Paris this month are seeking not revolution but stability and the maintenance of the status quo. The kind of revolution they should be fomenting is anyone’s guess. Society – not only in France but throughout the western world – has changed unrecognisably since the 60s. There exists greater equality between men and women, people are allowed paid holidays, gay-bashing is no longer tolerated. But whether such developments are traceable to a generation of baby boomers thumbing their noses at the post-war world in which they had been raised is highly dubious. The enmities of the Cold War have long since vanished. So too the endlessly-splintering radical political groupings of the European left.
And yet, many of those 60s Marxists – including many in the British Labour government over the past decade – are now running things. The Frankfurt School, certainly, is revered in our universities, while in most spheres save from the economic – from immigration and welfare to abortion – the ideas of the left are prevalent. It is tempting to suggest that the aims of the soixante-huitards have all but been achieved. In France, Mr Sarkozy came to power pledging to “liquidate the legacy” of May 1968, a legacy he believes is responsible for soaring divorce rates and more crime, “intellectual and moral relativism” and a breakdown in social cohesion brought on by hedonistic individualism.
Cohn-Bendit, now 64 but still with flecks of red in a full head of hair which once earned him the moniker Danny le Rouge, is having none of it. “It’s madness,” he says. “1968 made people free, there was a revolution in society. Now we have new problems, other problems, but if schools don’t function today it’s not because there was a revolt 40 years ago, it’s because socio-economic reality has made those problems and politics has not been able to find an answer.”
Perhaps Sarkozy has found for his purposes a soft target in the political radicalism of the past, but equally, it is characteristic of the left, in its teleological way, to suppose it can only be the cause of betterment and progress. Perhaps, too, it is an unkindness to bring up the matter which has long been Cohn-Bendit’s greatest gift to his political opponents, yet it seems so inescapably relevant. That gift is a passage in a book he wrote in the 1970s describing the “erotic” nature of his contact with children at an “alternative” kindergarten in Frankfurt. “Certain children opened the flies of my trousers and started to tickle me,” he wrote. “I reacted differently each time, according to the circumstances, but when they insisted on it, I then caressed them.”
When accusations of possible sex abuse were brought against him in 2001 prosecutors decided there was “quite clearly” no case to answer. Most certainly he is not a paedophile, yet given that many intellectual leftists in the 70s were advocating the decriminalisation of sexual relations with children, his phlegmatic insistence that “you have to put it in the time” would suggest Sarkozy’s point about “intellectual and moral relativism” holds true.
Cohn-Bendit is also known to have sheltered the German terrorist Han Joachim Klein, who was involved in the 1975 attack on the Opec meeting in Vienna, in which three people were killed. Gradually, though, he veered towards political respectability: in the 80s he was elected as a Green MEP and became a market-friendly pro-European. Now there are new enemies, new tyrannies to confront. “A lot of things which must be changed in the world we can only do it through Europe,” he states matter-of-factly. “The main problem we have today in the world is to tackle climate change, and we must tackle the socio-ecological effects of globalisation. We have to create a multi-lateral world government to do this, which is one of the main tasks of the European Union.”
Meanwhile, in France, grumbles mount over inflation, rising property prices, static wages and gridlocked job markets. Faced with economic downturn, people want more government intervention; the government says its coffers are empty. A generation of 20-40 somethings are realising they can expect lower standards of living than their parents have enjoyed.
Nostalgia rides high for the month when the babyboomers enjoyed sticking it to authority and having lots of sex. They, it seems, were the lucky ones.