May ’68: What Legacy?

Fifty years later, the time has come to take a measured look at the student-led protests that shook Paris in May 1968 and have occupied the French political imagination ever since. 

Student riots in Paris, May 1968.

Of the hundreds of books and essays published about the events of May 1968 in Paris, one of my favorite remains the philosopher Raymond Aron’s La révolution introuvable, written as the events unraveled in July 1968. In this book, whose title translates to The Nowhere-to-Be-Found Revolution, the events are described as a tragicomedy in which “a verbal delirium with no casualties” placed bourgeois students with a “utopian negation of reality” and workers with authentic and legitimate demands on France’s center stage. Raymond Aron was critical of the student protest; however, he was also critical of the centralized Gaullist government, which had failed to anticipate the aspirations of a whole society. A fellow graduate of Jean-Paul Sartre at Ecole normale supérieure in the late twenties, Raymond Aron joined General de Gaulle in London as early as June 1940 and enrolled in the Free French forces. Aron and Sartre were often caught on opposite sides of arguments. Sartre was the committed, politically engaged intellectual of the Left, while Aron was the philosopher of the Right who preferred to observe events at a distance. Though Aron had more accurately predicted the course of Eastern Europe in the fifties through the eighties, it was nonetheless fashionable among French intellectuals to say, “Better be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron.” Sartre was more exciting company. He was a magnet for generations of thinkers, he had the sparkle of the perpetually angry man, while Aron had the calm of a pessimistic humanist.

Today, however, it is clear that Raymond Aron’s quiet yet acute dissection of les evénements of May ’68 offers the best entry point into a critique of ’68’s legacy. Many argue, like Aron, that May ’68 and its heritage are still nowhere to be found, impossible to define even fifty years later.

The philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, who was teaching philosophy at the University of Strasbourg in 1968 and who therefore embraced the ’68 ideals (he lived with his family in a commune for a few years) argues that the reason there is no possible legacy of ’68 is because ’68 never ended. In an interview he gave in 2009, Jean-Luc Nancy declared, “We intimated that the society was changing, that the order had been broken … The course of history, of progress, of human emancipation, rational and in control of its own destiny, had been somehow diverted.” According to Nancy, we are still trying to find that new direction. For Jean-Luc Nancy, there was also something profoundly abstract at play: “The ’68 events were even more metaphysical and spiritual than they were social, political and cultural. The heart of the matter, those days’ incandescence, lies in the mutation that was taking place in western civilization.” Some call it postmodernism.

How do the generations who came after judge May ’68? Let’s take, for instance, the generation of French sociologists born in the seventies, the children of the young soixante-huitards. They have tried to look at May ’68 through a new lens, albeit perhaps still a biased one. Irène Pereira, a sociologist and a member of the radical libertarian trade union SUD, tends to see May ’68 as the mother of a form of protest and contestation that since the nineties has resurfaced and flourished in France and throughout the world. Known in France as altermondialistes, or anti-globalization movements, these range from the 1995 student and strike protest in France to the international Occupy movements, and they embrace direct (and at times violent) action as a way of influencing politics. For Christophe Prémat, another sociologist born in the seventies and a socialist French MP, it is worth going back to the Paris streets of 1968 to better understand what was at stake. Stuck between a rigid Gaullist power on one hand and the equally rigid and powerful Communist Party, the radical Left sought and succeeded in challenging the status quo. The students and workers’ insurrection aimed to break free of the twin stifling authorities of Gaullism and the Communist Party. May ’68 erupted therefore as an antiauthoritarian and spontaneous élan whose aim was to assert the individual’s autonomy and emancipation.

“At a superior level, the events of May denounced a double despotism, Sovietism, and the bureaucratic rationality of the industrial society,” Raymond Aron writes. However, he continues, “May ’68 failed to demonstrate that the self-governance of companies, universities, society, the end of hierarchies, and the abolition of separation between the masses and the decision makers, offered a radically original third way, something between a liberal Sovietism and a social-inclined capitalism.”

May ’68’s legacy can seem like one of disappointment—sometimes a bitter disappointment. For all the talk of a new society, May ’68 proved to be more of a jubilant vacuum, devoid of any tangible project, as sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky explains in 1983’s L’ère du vide (The Void Era). Worse, its cult of the individual might have accelerated the coming consumerist frenzy. Destroying the values of the old social order without replacing them with new ones left future generations terribly confused. If it is indeed “forbidden to forbid” as one famous May ’68 slogan had it, then where does that leave citizens today? For many critics, May ’68 created a social childishness whose favorite toy is rebellion or l’esprit de rébellion.

Raymond Aron puts this idea into historical and social context. “The French, since 1789, have always retroactively magnified their revolutions. Those moments of immense celebrations during which they allow themselves to experience what they refrained from doing in normal times give them an elating feeling of self-fulfilment, even if they know it is but a daydream. Such revolutions necessarily appear destructive, and are accompanied by the most extravagant projects, in a utopian negation of reality.” In his eyes, May ’68 was both anarchic and archaic. It set itself alongside a long tradition of national unwinding. Borrowing from Tocqueville and his views on the events of 1848, Raymond Aron points to the profound conservatism of French society, which needs momentary release, an imaginary antithesis to an otherwise consuming reality. In fact, President de Gaulle was himself an old resistant, and he likely had more in common with the activists than with the one million people who marched in his name on May 30, 1968, bringing the events of May to a close. May ’68 proved a successful social protest, but the rebellion lacked in political content. That is why, in Raymond Aron’s eyes, it is now nowhere to be found.

How do the generations born after 1968 overcome the individualistic and irresponsible aspects of the movement in order to find democratic passion and collective ideals? First of all, I would say, they can accept that May ’68 created a monster that we are still struggling with and eventually need to tame. In today’s public discourse, outrage very often replaces argument; self-proclaimed radicals oppose themselves to norms, morals, and institutions without offering alternatives. In a puerile and vain exercise, they place themselves comfortably outside the system instead of grappling with the issues from within the system. If anything, the epic failure of May ’68 has taught us that rebellions need a project, an aim that is detailed and practical. It is the only way they can succeed. Seen from Europe, the American students’ movement in favor of gun control has every chance to succeed: It is rational, legitimate, and coherent. Its aim is both tangible and achievable through legislation.

It is also time for feminists to question how liberating May ’68 truly was for women. It is widely assumed that sexual freedom as advocated by soixante-huitards led to the legalization of contraception and abortion and, more widely, measures that gave more rights to women in the workplace and at home, such as shared parental authority over children and the possibility of opening a bank account without a husband’s approval. This is undeniably true. However, sexual freedom, or the libertine ideology, was more often than not used by heterosexual men as a right to collect female lovers. The critic Philip Hensher, in a review of Richard Vinen’s book The Long ’68, which looks at events in France but also in Britain and the U.S., puts it this way:

’68 is, if anything, a shift from principle to personal inclination. The significance of personal inclination often seemed to depend on whose personal inclination it was. Radical students at Lanchester Polytechnic thought nothing of shouting ‘Fascist pig! Get her knickers off!’ at a visiting Mrs Thatcher in 1971. Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers proposed that rape could be an insurrectionary act. Although feminists were a more significant part of the radical movement than they were of mainstream politics, they could not be guaranteed a warm welcome. The same was true of gay liberation movements, just beginning, and probably hardly recognised by the majority of heterosexual radicals.

May ’68 was an instant in time, a suspended poetic moment, an outcry of dreams dreamed out loud, a mutation from an older to a younger country. It is only by looking at May ’68 at the distance of fifty years, examining it openly, and admitting to its epic failures that the children of May ’68 can move forward, on to battles that are perhaps less poetic but hopefully more meaningful.

Agnès Poirier is the author, most recently, of Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940–1950.

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