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The Ghosts of May | The Nation

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The Ghosts of May

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Today the cobblestones of Paris's Latin Quarter are covered with asphalt. Twenty-five years on, the memory of the French uprising--the only one in the spectacular 1968 series stretching from New York to Tokyo to have moved beyond the campus, paralyzing the country and threatening the political system--is so distant that it requires a refresher for the new generation. What happened in that jolly month of May? For once, faced with the police, the students did not sign a petition. They fought back. There followed a week of confrontation, often bloody, cobblestones versus truncheons and tear gas grenades. The resistance of the students inspired the workers, who staged the biggest general strike in French history. As the factories stood idle, minds did not. People began to talk to one another. Surrealist scribblings flourished on the walls. For a brief spell everything seemed possible and a slogan even suggested that imagination might seize power.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

But it didn't and things, at least on their asphalted surface, went back to normal. Nostalgia no longer being what it used to be, it is not my purpose to bore the reader with the sentimental reminiscences of yet another lost generation. There are two connected reasons, however, to look back at the French May movement today. One is that the questions it raised (though never answered)--about the nature and purpose of growth, the deadly weight of a hierarchical society and of an unwithering state, about the inanity of frontiers--are more topical than ever in a depressed Europe with its millions of unemployed. The second reason is that the humiliating defeat of the French Socialist Party marks the close of a cycle, the end of an attempt to prove that the aspirations of 1968, admittedly watered down and integrated, could be realized by other, purely parliamentary, means.

In this strange period of transition, not just the French Socialists but the left in general throughout Western Europe must answer a question that has historical significance: Is it still able to tackle such problems, to offer the vision of an alternative society and thus serve as an example to the world, or has it become so Americanized that it must sever all organic links with the labor movement and drop altogether its socialist pretenses? Finally, a glance at the past twenty-five years of French history leads to another message for both sides of the Atlantic: Progressive social change will not materialize magically as a gift from heaven for dutiful voters. Without permanent popular pressure, a reformist president is bound to succumb to the forces of social inertia, whatever his original intentions.

Seeds of surrender. May '68, in a sense, produced nothing. It raised problems without solving them, and the movement was defeated. It was just a breath of fresh air, an awakening. But because it challenged all the established institutions and denied that change must be marginal, it put the idea of a different society and, hence, of some form of revolution back on the agenda. Admittedly it did so in a country with a revolutionary tradition, yet one in which both Communists and Socialists--then nicknamed the gauche respectueuse, the respectful left--had chosen the purely parliamentary road to office. The events of May had upset their advance on that road. It was now vital to put the revolutionary steam back into the institutional kettle.

The imperative was particularly categorical for the Communists, who claimed a revolutionary vocation as their birthright. It did not really matter whether the upheaval in the streets had been potentially revolutionary or not. What was clear was that the C.P., instead of pushing the movement as far as it would go, acted as a brake. Now the Communists had to prove that they had an electoral solution. For this they needed an ally, the Socialists (and considering the weakness of today's C.P., it is ironic that it then helped the Socialists to recover from the disarray into which they had fallen), but also a project, the Common Program, which the two parties signed in 1972. That program contained all the elements of future drama in a nutshell. It did not propose to abolish capitalism in France, but it was radical enough to hurt the interests of big business at home and abroad. As such, it stood a chance of being applied only if parliamentary action were backed by a mass movement, by a real mobilization of the people, and that prospect both parties ruled out, fearing another May.

When the Socialists were resurrected, at Epinay in 1971, they were at once taken over by a newcomer, François Mitterrand, who simultaneously discovered that he was a socialist. He was a quick learner, however, and was soon preaching against the "corrupting power of money" and promising "a break with capitalism." Above all, he was a clever politician who postulated that the left could not win in France without the Communists and that its victory would be accepted only if the latter were the junior partner in the coalition. Add to this the assumption that in an alliance with a moderate program, the more moderate member tends to gain, and you get the secret of Mitterrand's 1981 presidential victory--granted that it took him twenty-three years to achieve it.

To see the seeds of defeat in that victory one must also take into account an ideological factor, best described as Operation New Philosophers. Nineteen sixty-eight revealed the depth of discontent pent up below the glittering surface at a time when the European economy was still growing at an unprecedented pace. By the mid-seventies, with a structural economic crisis coming on top of it all, the threat to the system looked real. Hence it was crucial for the establishment to convince the young rebels that any attempt at collective action to alter society radically was bound to lead to catastrophe, to the gulag. The task was entrusted to the children, or rather bastards, of May, to Maoist turncoats who fulfilled it with zeal. At the intellectual level, their dish was tasteless: a rehash of The God That Failed, a good helping of Solzhenitsyn, a drop of von Hayek and a zest of Popper, the French providing no more than the salad dressing. But as an exercise in propaganda, backed by the full power of the media, it was quite effective.

And so to May 1981 and the election of a Socialist president at a time when pressure from below was at its lowest, contained as it had been by the very victors, and when the ideological ascendancy had shifted to the other side. The inevitable happened. The left in office began by keeping its pledges. It did so without mobilizing the people and so when capital, domestic and foreign, launched its counteroffensive, the left simply surrendered. From 1983 onward the Socialists followed in the footsteps of their capitalist predecessors. As to Mitterrand, he just changed parts. Originally he saw himself as a socialist reformer taking France beyond the Swedish model. Now he was to win his laurels as the man who kept France safe for capitalism, as the normalizer, the destroyer of dreams, of the belief that life can be changed by political action--in short, as the gravedigger of May. It is this chapter that is now coming to a contemptible close.

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