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Sciences Po Palestine protests fail to capture spirit of 1968

Students with red paint on their hands protest outside Sciences Po on Friday. Credit: Getty

April 28, 2024 - 4:00pm


With the anniversary of the fabled May 1968 riots just a few days away, Leftist French students had a perfect opportunity to relive those glory days this week. Just as the so-called soixante-huitards blockaded campuses over Western-backed injustices including the war in Vietnam, so their successors could mobilise over Palestine.

Activists at Sciences Po — the Paris Institute of Political Studies — led the way, mimicking their counterparts in the USA by occupying buildings and camping in quads, while calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and divestment from Israel. Within a couple of hours, vanloads of police were massing outside college gates, as the sound of sirens accompanied chants about liberation from colonial oppression.

Such stand-offs would once have guaranteed intense violence. The Left Bank of the Seine became a battleground 56 years ago, as militant trade unionists joined the undergraduate radicals in combat. President Charles de Gaulle himself, the war hero known as Le Général, briefly fled France as many feared a full-blown revolution.

There were similar scenes as recently as 2006, when a youth movement opposed new short-term employment contracts making it easier to hire-and-fire. Multiple universities were occupied during three months of rioting that led to 4,500 arrests. Overwhelmed by the civil unrest, President Jacques Chirac withdrew his plans to deregulate the economy.

In comparison, the latest Sciences Po action was a dismal failure. A six-piece brass band caused more annoyance than the protesters, who appeared more interested in checking their social media feeds than harassing those in power.

When a highly aggressive pro-Israel mob turned up on Friday afternoon, many of them masked, the only perceived opponents they got to push and shove were Arab TV crews. It was at this point that the Republican Security Companies — paramilitaries who made the CRS initials world-famous in 1968 — intervened to protect the pro-Palestinians.

Not much later, less than 24 hours since the start of the Sciences Po blockade, all those responsible had given up, after institute managers said they would drop any disciplinary action against them in return for surrender. Banners were duly rolled up, as the students headed off to enjoy the weekend. There would be no more mimicking of the disorder that continues across American campuses and in European cities such as Berlin.

It was a farcical climbdown in France, and one that contrasts sharply with last year’s mass disturbances across the country — first against the raising of the retirement age from 62 to 64, and then over the fatal shooting of an ethnic-minority youth by a traffic policeman in greater Paris. Aggrieved suburban youths and even angry old-age pensioners appear to have a greater appetite for dissent than French students nowadays.

Having spent two days with the Sciences Po protesters, I would suggest that overriding concerns about mental health and the fear of confrontation were the main reasons for their ineffectiveness. Most were charming, but so imbued with modern progressive mores that tackling real-world problems was clearly beyond them.

Most agreed that vengeful elders dedicated to a forever war were ultimately responsible for the ongoing mass slaughter of civilians in Gaza, and of course Hamas’s 7 October attack, but their outrage did not extend to a long-term protest grounded in youthful idealism. There was no sign of antisemitism or any other kind of prejudice at Sciences Po, but a hint of controlled rage might have been appropriate.

Despite the protest fizzling out so quickly, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal laughably referred to it as a “heartbreaking, shocking spectacle”. Even more pathetically, he ignored decades of blockades in France to talk about “the action of an active and dangerous minority” which seeks to impose “an ideology from across the Atlantic”.

Needless to say, 35-year-old Attal is a Sciences Po alumnus, and there is not a single lively anecdote about his time there. In short, he personifies the lacklustre nature of an increasingly apathetic bourgeois student populace that has lost the spirit of ‘68 completely.

Peter Allen is a journalist and author based in Paris.


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Paul T
Paul T
25 days ago

It seems that the main outcome of this climbdown was to disappoint journalists that depend on so-called activism to generate stories for them to write about.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
25 days ago

Maybe it’s all just performance art?

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
25 days ago

This article reminds me of a uni lecturer who was trying to convince our class to protest against academic staff’s low pay. When asked if this meant the fees we paid for tuition would go up to pay for the expense her response was simply “Yes”. Naturally she got laughed out of the hall.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
24 days ago

Salafists and Maoists together is an old story for France which has sadly come to the United States now where multiculturalism was formerly a great success. It’s a significant question to ask what has gone so badly wrong with American universities.