As a French student witnessing the current revolts taking place in Paris, I can’t avoid establishing a parallel with the global revolution of May 1968. Although at that time, even my parents weren’t born…
In France, spring often rhymes with revolt. It’s warm; classes are almost over, so why not go on a march after all?
Especially if it is to defend a socially popular cause, rise for progressive values, or simply wave a red flag to remind that it’s the 50th anniversary of May 1968. The last action of collective protest took place on Saturday May, 26th – gathering 30 000 individuals in what was called the “Popular Tide”. Be it the immigration law, the project to privatise public transport or even the introduction of a selection at university: any reason is viable to transform the Parisian streets into a privileged space for public expression… and for confrontations with the police. But wait, wasn’t May 1968 about exactly the same thing? Revolting against the establishment, embodied by police forces.
“Each generation has its own May 68”. At least, that’s what those who believe that social resistance isn’t the sole prerogative of baby-boomers are tempted to say. But on the other side, some are disturbed by this comparison, saying May 68 is unique and only happens once – what come next are only pathetic attempts to re-create this atmosphere.
Most of my leftist friends even feel frustrated by the idea that today’s social revolt might not be happening spontaneously: it is kind of “expected” that they go on demonstrations and commemorate our common revolutionary legacy.
They refuse to take the 50th anniversary of 1968 as a leverage giving their movement more legitimacy and potential success. They prefer focusing on to the future instead, with slightly different purposes for struggle, and with new tools such as social media that
enable them to have a more significant impact.
Conferences, workshops and exhibitions about May 68, meant to encourage a collective reflection on its impact, tend to even romanticize this period. Even French President Macron has promised to give it a political celebration. Beyond a mere militant adventure, May 2018 MUST be remembered as historical period as well, and the protest movement mustn’t wane.
But could we say that the whole movement has gone too far? Over the past weeks, General Assemblies, blockades and strikes have been organized in numerous French universities. Thousands of students attended those protests, nonchalantly humming the melody of “Bella Ciao” – that used to be a symbolic anthem of resistance. In each place where there is a shade of dissatisfaction, the same modus operandi is used: illegal occupation, considered as the best and most efficient method of civil disobedience.
For these student activists, celebrating the 50th anniversary serves for preserving the legitimacy of those who fought for emancipation and civil rights. But their abuses are deliberately dismissed for the greater good. Who will remember, 30 years later, that the French flag has been removed from Sciences Po’s building and replaced by the Palestinian one, and its walls were tagged with anarchist slogans?
However, surprisingly, youngsters don’t fully identify with these historical events. “In 1968, young people wanted to take politics into their hands. Today, what we see is more of a rejection of politics as a whole: the way reforms are imposed, the way inequalities persist and alternative opinions are being stigmatized.” says Lea, student at Sciences Po. Protesting students don’t want to take action only because of what happened in the past, or because it’s the 50th anniversary of something they have a vague conception of.
Moreover, apart from a radical minority, students mostly remain passive, and even sceptical towards this revolutionary passion. Unlike 50 years ago, if you oppose the movement, you aren’t systematically categorized as “reactionary”. Indeed, a lot of them think it has all gone too far. Liam, student of philosophy in Tolbiac University, has had all his exams cancelled because of the blockades. “I believe those students block the exams not because of the law introducing selection in public universities, but for their own interest”, he confesses. “We’re mistranslating their motivations: they are people who are afraid not to validate their year if they actually let the exams happen. This mess has nothing to do with May 68 – it is just a way to empower the movement”.
Philippe, student in La Sorbonne has suffered the same situation. He has got no information concerning his cancelled exams. And the administration of the university seems even powerless, trying to solve the problem by letting it die. According to him, the most efficient way to mobilise against these blockades is being apolitical and appeal to common sense.
By writing petitions, sharing their concern on social media and contacting the administration, a wide group of students openly demonstrated their disapproval, wishing to study for exams rather than discussing about abstract social issues in occupied amphitheatres. This disruption among students prevents an efficient and united fight, which represents a huge disadvantage for the rebels.
Finally, there is a major difference in terms of the perspectives of the revolt. While in 1968, a rejection of the social order was accompanied by the advocacy for the communistic society, today, there is no real or viable alternative.
Let’s remember that the backbone of the 68 rebellions was the thirst of individual and sexual emancipation, combined with challenging conservative values and authority. The whole movement originated from Nanterre University, as boys wanted to be able to access girls’ dormitories. That’s what triggered the spark of protest.
Ironically enough, if the cause was the same today – in our Weinsteinian era – it would be certainly considered as sexual intimidation…
– Tatiana Serova (email@example.com)