FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Sarkozy and the Specter of May 68

by PHILIPPE MARLIÈRE

Forty years on, the specter of May 68 continues to haunt France. A week before his election to the French presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy launched an astonishing attack on the “moral and intellectual permissiveness” of May 68. According to the rightwing candidate, the heirs of May 68 would be responsible for all French ills: the demise of traditions, the undermining of authority and the making of an “unethical capitalism” (the one of golden parachutes and rogue bosses). Ségolène Royal, his socialist opponent, led a campaign based on law and order issues, exalting the tricolor and the Marseillaise. To hammer home the fact that she was also spurning all things soixante-huitardes, Royal went as far as promising the creation of re-education camps for juvenile delinquents under the supervision of the army.

In his latest book, André Glucksmann (a philosopher who has made the long journey from Maoism to neoconservatism) argues that Sarkozy is in truth the archetypal heir of May 68. Had he been a student in the late 60s, Sarkozy would no doubt had fought on the side of the Gaullist power against the students’ chienlit (a term famously coined by Charles de Gaulle and synonymous with disorder or mess). Since then, however, the French president has – like a large majority of the public – embraced most of the anti-authoritarian and hedonistic attitudes of the students’ movement. The president’s tumultuous private life and his casual demeanor in public bear testimony to these profound social changes.

Furthermore, the son of an immigrant never would have dreamt of making it to the top of French politics in the 60s. Born with the mass media and pop culture, at ease with new technologies, Sarkozy is culturally in sync with the 1968 generation, unlike Mitterrand or Chirac, albeit two political actors of May 68.

To try to import the American debate on the “moral decay of the West” into France is a sham which only few will swallow. Sarkozy’s rebuttal of May 68 is nothing else than a political ploy which has a twofold objective: firstly, to embarrass the left; secondly to erase from collective memory the political radicalism at the heart of the May 68 uprising.

In his 2007 speech, Nicolas Sarkozy pointed to the “hypocrisy” of the left which, in reality, “does not like equality”, a left that has abandoned workers to Le Pen, that caters for the more affluent and that no longer regards the fight against socio-economic inequalities as its priority. Hence Sarkozy’s promotion of “work” and “purchasing power” during the presidential campaign to appeal to disenfranchised working class voters.

For to emphasize the so-called “permissiveness of May 68” was a cunning way to underline how the left had deserted the struggle for social justice to embrace a pro-“Bobos” agenda (the “Bourgeois-Bohemians”): gender equality, promotion of ethnic and sexual minorities, of human rights, defense of the environment; all issues which were allegedly brought to the fore by the “individualistic” and “bourgeois-minded” student rebellion. This was undoubtedly a demagogic charge as all these “post-materialist” issues should indeed be part of the agenda of the left. And yet, Sarkozy is right on one count: the French left let the working class down when, in 1983, Mitterrand made an economic u-turn to reluctantly but surely embrace the Washington Consensus.

Régis Debray said that May 68 was a superb “ruse of capital”. The student movement challenged and undermined the three political pillars of post-War France: de Gaulle, the Communist party and the Catholic Church. Then a generation of tiring gauchistes, imbued with cultural liberalism, became in the 70s the involuntary agents of the modernization of capitalism (some of them successfully recycling their agitprop skills in the media, advertising or business). In a way, it could be argued that a part of May 68 helped establish neoliberalism and the American way of life in France. [Anyone reading the special double  issue of Cahiers du Cinema on American films, published in the mid-60s, could see it all coming. AC.]

Yet Sarkozy’s attack on May 68’s “nihilistic revolution” (as Raymond Aron put it) is essentially a smokescreen. For his real target is the workers’ political radicalism: 10 million workers were on strike (three times as many people as during the 1936 Popular Front). The first barricades were not erected by students in the Quartier Latin, but by workers in Caen in January 1968. Following the Grenelle Agreements, the minimum wage was raised by 35 per cent. Workers’ working conditions were significantly improved and so were their labor rights.

The whole of the French workforce was involved: blue collar workers, but also dentists, nurses, surgeons, teachers, film directors, actors, jail keepers and even footballers! May 68 was the greatest strike in the history of France as well as the only general insurrection ever experienced in a Western country since the end of the Second World War.

May 68 had a concrete albeit delayed effect: François Mitterrand’s victory in 1981. The election of a Socialist President was the consequence of the radicalization of the struggles which took place in France throughout the 70s. These social and political struggles forced an alliance between Socialists, Communists and “radicaux de gauche” (the 1972 Common Programme of the left). Mitterrand’s manifesto in 1981 was definitely influenced by some of the radical values of May 68.

Contrary to mainstream discourses, this combative mindset is not dead today. The Juppé plan was successfully defeated by long strikes in the winter 1995. Workers’ mobilization later led to the victory of the left in the 1997 general election. Then students and workers successfully opposed the “First Employment Contract” (Contrat Première Embauche – CPE) in 2006. This employment contract, available solely to employees under 26, would have made it easier for the employer to fire employees by removing the need to provide reasons for an initial “trial period” of two years.

Here is the reason for Sarkozy’s outburst and this explains his ambition “to liquidate” the workers’ May 68. For he knows that a new May 68 could break out should he insist on implementing the whole of his neoliberal agenda.

PHILIPPE MARLIÈRE teaches French and EU politics at University College London (UK) since 1994. He is also an activist on the left-wing of the French Socialist Party. He can be reached at p.marliere@ucl.ac.uk

 

 

 

 

Philippe Marlière is a Professor of French and European Politics at University College London (UK). Twitter: @PhMarliere

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

December 05, 2016
Bill Martin
Stalingrad at Standing Rock?
Mark A. Lause
Recounting a Presidential Election: the Backstory
Mel Goodman
Mad Dog Mattis and Trump’s “Seven Days in May”
Matthew Hannah
Standing Rock and the Ideology of Oppressors: Conversations with a Morton County Commissioner
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
#NoDAPL Scores Major Victory: No Final Permit For Pipeline
Fran Shor
The End of the Indispensable Nation
Michael Yates
Vietnam: the War That Won’t Go Away
Robert Hunziker
Huge Antarctica Glacier in Serious Trouble
John Steppling
Screen Life
David Macaray
Trump vs. America’s Labor Unions
Yoav Litvin
Break Free and Lead, or Resign: a Letter to Bernie Sanders
Norman Pollack
Taiwan: A Pustule on International Politics
Nick Pemberton
Make America Late Again
Kevin Martin
Nuclear Weapons Modernization: a New Nuclear Arms Race? Who Voted for it? Who Will Benefit from It?
David Mattson
3% is not Enough: Towards Restoring Grizzly Bears
Howard Lisnoff
The Person Who Deciphered the Order to Shoot at Kent State
Michael Uhl
Notes on a Trip to Cuba
Weekend Edition
December 02, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
The Coming War on China
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro
Paul Street
The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Timberg’s Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites
Andrew Levine
Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not
Joshua Frank
CounterPunch as Russian Propagandists: the Washington Post’s Shallow Smear
David Rosen
The Return of HUAC?
Rob Urie
Race and Class in Trump’s America
Patrick Cockburn
Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could be Wrong
Caroline Hurley
Anatomy of a Nationalist
Ayesha Khan
A Muslim Woman’s Reflections on Trump’s Misogyny
Michael Hudson – Steve Keen
Rebel Economists on the Historical Path to a Global Recovery
Russell Mokhiber
Sanders Single Payer and Death by Democrat
Roger Harris
The Triumph of Trump and the Specter of Fascism
Steve Horn
Donald Trump’s Swamp: Meet Ten Potential Energy and Climate Cabinet Picks and the Pickers
Ralph Nader
Trump and His Betraying Makeover
Louis Proyect
Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers
Stephen Kimber
The Media’s Abysmal Coverage of Castro’s Death
Dan Bacher
WSPA: The West’s Most Powerful Corporate Lobbying Group
Nile Bowie
Will Trump backpedal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Ron Ridenour
Fidel’s Death Brings Forth Great and Sad Memories
Missy Comley Beattie
By Invitation Only
Fred Gardner
Sword of Damocles: Pot Partisans Fear Trump’s DOJ
Renee Parsons
Obama and Propornot
Dean Baker
Cash and Carrier: Trump and Pence Put on a Show
Jack Rasmus
Taming Trump: From Faux Left to Faux Right Populism
Ron Jacobs
Selling Racism—A Lesson From Pretoria
Julian Vigo
The Hijos of Buenos Aires:  When Identity is Political
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail