Whenever we talk about May 1968, we tend to talk about it as a single event, rather than a longer ”revolutionary” process or movement. That is at least how Alain Geismar likes to look at it, he told us during a talk last night. It really was a ten year process, started by the end of the Algerian war 1963, the former leader argued, with the independence of Algeria, the new constitution (in 62), the direct elections of the Prime Minister. The world was divided between east and west, but Charles de Gaulle choose to stay in the middle; refused to take sides.
Meanwhile domestically in France, tensions were buildning up as all parts of society seemed to grow and develop, except for the social situation. And these tensions just suddenly exploded, due to the worst wages in Europe and an old fashioned society, among other things. The universities, for example, were terribly out of date, where university students studying phisics didn’t learn about Einstein, relativity or quantum until their 4th year of university and preparing for their dphil.
This was the babyboom-generation from the Second World War. Schools and universities were not prepared for them. Everywhere, institutions had been overcrowded. So also when they reached universities. New universities were built, among them Nanterre outside Paris. Students who used to study in Paris, were moved out there, into this (at this time) shanty town. Tensions were buildning everywhere. In factories, the increased use of machienery and farmers moving into the cities to earn some money, created massive problems. The foremen didn’t know what they were doing; couldn’t help out.
The Vietnam war was still up in the air. In May 68, the Americans and Vietnamese were to meet in Paris for peace talks. Students wanted to discuss the current situation in the world and teachers didn’t know how to react. They protested against the old fashioned teaching and interrupted lectures. Eventually, they started closing down the universities. The students from Nanterre then came back to Paris to the court yard outside Sorbonne to discuss the situation. Someone in the university panicked. Called the police, who for the first time since the middle ages entered Sorbonne.
What made this demonstration different from all the others we’d seen during hte Algerian war was that when the police came out, the students didn’t back off as they had done before.
Alain Geismar during the talk; leader of the student revolts in -68
Alain Geismar told us that he tried to contact the minister of education, but they wouldn’t let him through. He called and called. Eventually they gave up trying. Meanwhile, the strikes broke out among teachers and later workers. During these days, they all prepared for a new way of living; a ”after May 68”. What was to happen now? The military was called for in secret to surround Paris. It’s hard to imagine what it must have felt like. These movements spread over the world, but it was unique in France in teh sense that evey part of society was involved.
What is intersting to consider is whether this is an outdated method for social change or could this happen today? We all live, in many ways, a much better life today than the students did in 1968. Today, we have seen that revolutions are not necessarily a very succesfull way of transforming a society. It is not a coincidence that almost all regimes that call themselves revolutionary have been removed from power. It is not sustainable. Students have become more rational. Today we have the advantage of being part of the decision process, a luxury the students of 68 did not enjoy. In 68 all the factors or preconditions were there; only the spark was needed. Not only that, even if the conditions were there again, very few would argue that a violent ”revolution” is the way to improve society today.