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.
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.