“What defines our public life today is boredom”. That was a Le Monde front-page headline in March 1968. Two months later, a revolution would erupt that would shake the foundations of the Fifth Republic, divide France, and alter its history forever.
It began with sit-ins and protests of small, far-Left groups at Nanterre University on the outskirts of Paris. Their actions only interested a small minority of students. Everything changed on 3 May, when these groups met in the courtyard of the Sorbonne. Hearing a rumour that an extreme Right-wing militia was coming to attack them, they prepared to fight. The dean called the police, resulting in the arrest of several activists, including Daniel Cohn-Bendit. The brutality of the clashes took everyone by surprise. Simultaneously, a series of strikes occurred in factories. As the situation escalated, the government started to panic.
At the end of May, it tried to reach an agreement with the striking workers, but to no avail. President de Gaulle disappeared from the country for 24 hours. The government hung in the balance, but the General returned and dissolved parliament, calling elections for the end of June. Gaullists won in landslide, strikes and student protests lost popular support. They died out.
In June, Michel Foucault watching France from a perch in Tunisia, wrote to one of his correspondents: “From here it looks like a great mystery.” More than half a century later, there is no consensus either on the causes or on the meaning of those events. Were the students motivated by economic anxieties? Or was this a cultural revolution? The question boils down to whether the underlying cause of the youth revolt was precarity or abundance.
The baby boom meant that there had never been as many students in French universities as there were in 1968: 508,000 in the academic year 1967-68 — the equivalent number in 1950-51 was only 135,000. The worries of students in the humanities, who made up the majority of the protesters, was supposedly linked to the scarcity of teaching jobs available to them.
Louis Gruel, a Maoist who took part in the May riots, rubbished this explanation in his La Rébellion de 68: Une relecture sociologique. Not a single demand or pamphlet published in 1968, Gruel notes, raised the issue of the future of students on the labour market. The devaluation of diplomas came much later. When Gruel conducted a survey among former activists, none recalled that concern for the future propelled them to protest.
France was not exactly on its knees economically in the late-Sixties. It was the second half of Les trentes glorieuses, a three-decade stretch of uninterrupted GDP growth, expanding by an average of 5% a year throughout the period. Full employment prevailed; the working class had seen its purchasing power increase; younger generations had every reason to believe that they would be better off than their parents.
In reality, only a small fraction of the young demanded a revolutionary abolition of consumer society and “putting power in the hands of the imagination”, as one May slogan went. In September 1968, the IFOP asked students what was most important to them: the revolutionary transformation of society, reform of the university or passing the exams. Only 12% of students prioritised the downfall of capitalism.
The pretence of a spiritual revolution against capitalism, however, deceived many Catholics. The intellectual wing of French Catholicism, from Maurice Clavel to Jacques Maritain, fell hard for the revolution. Students, claimed Maritain, were fighting on the streets because they were “systematically deprived of reasons to live”.
Revolutionary zeal erupted with even greater force among priests than among Catholic intellectuals. Around 1,500 priests abandoned their vocation in 1968. Monastery councils re-organised themselves; decisions would now be taken collectively. In one of them an old Dominican, a translator of Aristotle, asked permission to purchase the philosopher’s works. The council concluded: “authorisation denied, Aristotle is out of date”.
The philosopher Raymond Aron measured his own bewilderment in May ‘68, by wondering what would emerge from the chaos. He recognised the student’s criticisms of French society, but was alarmed by their failure to articulate a counter-ideal. Like the protests following the death of George Floyd, chaos became a goal in itself. As Martin Gurri described America’s violent summer of 2020, the protests of French students in 1968 were “an exercise in pure negation, in the repudiation of the status quo without an alternative in sight. At this point, the question of nihilism becomes impossible to avoid.”
Hollow philosophy followed hollow political action. There was an extraordinary outpouring of major philosophical works in France at this time. Foucault’s Words and Things (1966) and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969); Jacques Derrida’s Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology (1967). There was Jacques Lacan’s Écrits in 1966; Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (1968), and Logic of Sense (1969).
In La Pensée 68, Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut take a critical look at the thought that accompanied the May revolt. What strikes them is that “philosophies of difference”, as they were called, ossify after the rebellion into a new conventionality. They break with the style of French thought, rejecting its clarity and replacing it with a cult of paradoxes, while constantly striving for unreasonable “complexity”. The ideas of Derrida, Foucault or Deleuze by no means represent the fruit of French intellectual life. They borrow heavily from Freud, Nietzsche, Marx and Heidegger. French philosophy becomes nothing but a radicalised outgrowth of German thought.
The Leftist movements that arose in May 1968 did not disappear. But instead of carrying out a revolution, they squabbled among themselves. Above all, feminism, which flourished as never before, came into conflict with Maoism. Feminists from the Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes (MLF) rejected the dogmas of revolutionary struggle as understood by Maoists. They founded their cause not on theories but on experience, supposedly more truthful than the concepts championed by men.
“The activists spend their time fighting for others, for workers or for immigrants,” says one feminist quoted by the sociologist Jean-Pierre Le Goff. “Let us talk about ourselves, and let the workers talk about themselves.” MLF-style feminism represented the culmination of the spirit of May ’68. It carried the demand to abolish the barrier separating what is private from what is public, to its ultimate conclusion. While revolutionaries assumed that the personal was irrelevant to the cause of the liberation of the proletariat, for French feminists politics begins with feelings. For many it ended there.
Decades later, we can begin to see the events of May as a larger turning point within Left-wing politics. The nature of revolution changed. It ceased to be a collective project based on economic considerations, pursued to change society. Revolution became privatised, reduced to the domain of inner lives. For the Left, this utter futility was compensated, in the words of the philosopher Régis Debray, by the “intensity of imaginary struggles”.
The ‘68 generation moved from Maoism to marketing. Guy Hocquenghem, 22 at the time of the revolts and a participant in them, observed that his former comrades swapped joints for cocaine, and scooters for sports cars. They created a “mafia” occupying the most important positions in French society.
“The eternally young,” he wrote, “‘the class of 68′, blocks with great determination the path for everything born after them”. They have turned contestation into a consensus that is neither Left nor Right, but gathers the worst elements of both. It is no surprise that in France, baby boomers and soixante-huitards have become Emmanuel Macron’s most reliable supporters.
Contrast Macron with Charles de Gaulle. The old general never defined Gaullism, but in his memoirs he described it as “an instrument of struggle and renewal”. The riots of ‘68 convinced him that France needed to reinvent itself. As Arnaud Teyssier has argued, de Gaulle’s response to the botched revolution on the streets was a revolution of his own.
He ordered a referendum in 1969 which proposed major changes to France’s institutions. De Gaulle wanted to give the new, broad middle-classes the chance to participate more fully in the Fifth Republic. More authority to the regions; a new second chamber to replace the elitist Senate.
When the French rejected his project, the General resigned. He believed France had chosen stagnation. He sensed that without completing his proposed revolution, France would once again be ruled by an oligarchy of unrepresentative political parties. Only in the last five years has that oligarchy dissolved in the acid bath of its own contradictions.
By the end of the Sixties, the French, having flirted with revolution, abandoned the idea altogether. They did not want a revolution from the Left, nor did they want de Gaulle’s revolution from above. The young were as reluctant to change the world as to rebuild France’s institutions. They were focused on the present, and indifferent to both the past, and what lay ahead of them. France chose stagnation. The curve of decline, as Marguerite Yourcenar wrote, is complicated.