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October 27, 2009

France Commemorates May '68 Protests

by Lisa Bryant

France is commemorating this month the tumultuous events of May 1968, when a wave of student and worker protests swept the country - profoundly changing it, many say, forever. From Paris, Lisa Bryant has more on the 40th anniversary and the legacy of May 1968.

May 1968 was a watershed month for France. University students in Paris occupied the area of Sorbonne and Nanterre universities and clashed violently with police. Workers occupied factories and walked off their jobs. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest heavy handed police treatment, with students in particular calling for the government of then president Charles de Gaulle to resign.

The protesters came from different backgrounds but shared similar goals: A desire to shake up traditional French society and - for some - to express their opposition to the Vietnam war.

France is now marking May 1968 with exhibitions, seminars, movies and articles.

And with demonstrations. In recent weeks French high school students have been protesting plans by the center-right government to cut more than 11,000 teaching posts.

Jean-Baptiste Prevost, the head of the French student union UNEF, says young people today view the events of May '68 very positively. But they don't want to copy what took place. They want to write their own history.

The debate is on here about the legacy of the riotous 1968 month. Researcher Jacques Capdevielle, who recently co-authored a book on May 1968, said there is no doubt it profoundly changed the country.

"Especially in the cultural dimension," he said. "But... in the labor system as well. In May '68, France jumped from the 19th to the 21st century and things are very different today. ...Before May, the unions had no legal existance...that was different from England or Germany or the States, of course. That was one great change. And the school system changed as well. And the relationship between men and women, sexual behavior and cultural dimensions."

But journalist and author Jean-Paul Cruse believes the impact of May '68 was more limited. Cruse took part in the demonstrations, as a 20-year-old high school student.

Cruse believes the main change that May 1968 brought was a political one: it helped usher the fall of President de Gaulle - who retired a year later - and of communism which was popular in post-war France. But he says other issues often associated with May '68, like sexual freedom and gender equality, were unrelated.

Not everyone looks back on May '68 with nostalgia. That includes France's current president, Nicolas Sakozy.

During his election campaign last year, Mr. Sarkozy vowed to 'liquidate the heritage of May '68,' which he suggested robbed France of its morals and values.

Some believe the reason May '68 resonates so strongly here right now is because France is troubled. President Sarkozy's popularity ratings have plummeted in the year since he took office, and French workers and students have demonstrated against unpopular government reforms. Researcher Capdevielle believes young people are particularly discontented.

"Young people are quite angry," he said. "It's difficult for them to get a job. Unemployment among young people is quite high in France - higher than in Germany and in England."

At a student demonstration in Paris earlier this week, 17-year-old Wafa Salem sharply criticized the government plans to cut teaching positions.

Wafa, who goes to high school in the Paris suburb of Bondy, said having 20 students per class was already difficult. If more teachers were cut, she believes, class size would grow to 30.

The high school protests are only the latest in a series of actions by French youths against the conservative establishment. In 2005, the deaths of two young Africans in the Paris suburbs sparked nationwide riots. A year later, young people protested against a new labor contract that was subsequently scrapped. Last year, they took to the streets again, against government plans to partially privatize French universities.

The bread-and-butter concerns of 2008 - high unemployment, job insecurity and overcrowded schools - may be very different from the more idealistic causes of May 1968. But, activists like Prevost of the UNEF student union say, young people today are as eager for change as 40 years ago.

Prevost says French youths are anxious. They are worried about their future. They think President Sarkozy has not offered the answers to their problems.