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 firstname.lastname@example.org