Sarkozy and the Specter of May 68


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


Weekend Edition
October 9-11, 2015
David Price – Roberto J. González
The Use and Abuse of Culture (and Children): The Human Terrain System’s Rationalization of Pedophilia in Afghanistan
Mike Whitney
Putin’s “Endgame” in Syria
Jason Hribal
The Tilikum Effect and the Downfall of SeaWorld
Paul Street
Hope in Abandonment: Cuba, Detroit, and Earth-Scientific Socialism
Gary Leupp
The Six Most Disastrous Interventions of the 21st Century
Andrew Levine
In Syria, Obama is Playing a Losing Game
Louis Proyect
The End of Academic Freedom in America: the Case of Steven Salaita
Rob Urie
Democrats, Neoliberalism and the TPP
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
The Bully Recalibrates: U.S. Signals Policy Shift in Syria
Brian Cloughley
Hospital Slaughter and the US/NATO Propaganda Machine
John Walsh
For Vietnam: Artemisinin From China, Agent Orange From America
John Wight
No Moral High Ground for the West on Syria
Robert Fantina
Canadian Universities vs. Israeli Apartheid
Conn Hallinan
Portugal: Europe’s Left Batting 1000
John Feffer
Mouths Wide Shut: Obama’s War on Whistleblowers
Paul Craig Roberts
The Impulsiveness of US Power
Ron Jacobs
The Murderer as American Hero
Alex Nunns
“A Movement Looking for a Home”: the Meaning of Jeremy Corbyn
Philippe Marlière
Class Struggle at Air France
Binoy Kampmark
Waiting in Vain for Moderation: Syria, Russia and Washington’s Problem
Paul Edwards
Empire of Disaster
Xanthe Hall
Nuclear Madness: NATO’s WMD ‘Sharing’ Must End
Margaret Knapke
These Salvadoran Women Went to Prison for Suffering Miscarriages
Uri Avnery
Abbas: the Leader Without Glory
Halima Hatimy
#BlackLivesMatter: Black Liberation or Black Liberal Distraction?
Michael Brenner
Kissinger Revisited
Cesar Chelala
The Perverse Rise of Killer Robots
Halyna Mokrushyna
On Ukraine’s ‘Incorrect’ Past
Jason Cone
Even Wars Have Rules: a Fact Sheet on the Bombing of Kunduz Hospital
Walter Brasch
Mass Murders are Good for Business
William Hadfield
Sophistry Rising: the Refugee Debate in Germany
Christopher Brauchli
Why the NRA Profits From Mass Shootings
Hadi Kobaysi
How The US Uses (Takfiri) Extremists
Pete Dolack
There is Still Time to Defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Marc Norton
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Andre Vltchek
Stop Millions of Western Immigrants!
David Rosen
If Donald Dump Was President
Dave Lindorff
America’s Latest War Crime
Ann Garrison
Sankarist Spirit Resurges in Burkina Faso
Franklin Lamb
Official Investigation Needed After Afghan Hospital Bombing
Linn Washington Jr.
Wrongs In Wine-Land
Ronald Bleier
Am I Drinking Enough Water? Sneezing’s A Clue
Charles R. Larson
Prelude to the Spanish Civil War: Eduard Mendoza’s “An Englishman in Madrid”
David Yearsley
Papal Pop and Circumstance
October 08, 2015
Michael Horton
Why is the US Aiding and Enabling Saudi Arabia’s Genocidal War in Yemen?