Nearly four years have elapsed since that merry month of May when France and the whole world were taken aback by a sudden and momentous upheaval. Was it a historical aberration, an echo of the past, or was it a prelude, a portent of the future? After the storm, the landscape often looks unchanged. With asphalt covering the cobblestones of the Latin Quarter, with Pompidou presiding over a bourgeois society that has recovered its hierarchical order, the answer seems obvious. The timid, the skeptical, the spokesmen of the Establishment can once again preach with apparent confidence. Yet, there is a note of apprehension in their renewed arrogance.
The American public can now join in the argument over the meaning of the French May crisis with circumstantial evidence at its disposal. By far the best collection of documents–the labor of love of two historians, Alain Schnapp and Pierre Vidal-Naquet–is now available in an excellent English translation by Maria Jolas. The American version differs slightly from the French original. Some texts have been dropped. Professor Vidal-Naquet, on the other hand, has expanded his stimulating introduction, which not only explains specific French features (the anachronistic educational structure, the administrative centralism, the heritage of the struggle against the Algerian war) but also tries to link the French student revolt with similar movements from Berkeley or Columbia to Berlin, Rome and Warsaw.
Having studied thousands of pamphlets and programs, of Utopian manifestoes and pragmatic proposals for reform, the authors finally picked 232 texts as most significant or symptomatic. Each document is put in its context by an introduction and supplemented, when appropriate, by footnotes. The reader can thus concentrate on individual aspects without losing sight of the whole.
The authors take us back to Nanterre, where it all began–the campus in suburban Paris facing a shantytown–and to the now famous cycle of exemplary action-repression-solidarity. Texts such as "Why Sociologists?" show clearly that the inspirers of the Nanterre movement were consciously rejecting their prescribed role in society. Yet even they could not imagine what process they were setting in motion. The story gathers momentum on May 3, when the Sorbonne was taken over by the police, and students, instead of signing petitions, spontaneously struck back. There followed ten days that shook more than the French academic world. Each demonstration was bigger than the last, each clash with the police more dramatic. The opposition parties were as bewildered as the Gaullist government, which first used the club and then surrendered. The night of the barricades was the climax of this period, and the huge mass demonstration on May 13 was thought to be its epilogue.
Things worked out otherwise. The mass march proved instead to be a link in the chain, a link between the student rising and the biggest strike in French history. No wonder that many suddenly thought that "everything was possible." It wasn’t. The political parties, though, taken by surprise once again, reacted this time. The Communists in particular, while spreading the strike, did everything in their power to keep the struggle within the bounds of the existing social order. On May 27, when with the government’s blessing the trade union leaders and employers reached their compromise, they had apparently reached their goal. But the workers of Renault and then throughout France rejected the deal. Yet this was the last twist. General de Gaulle, up to then at a loss, finally realized that the Communists, alone strong enough to carry the movement further, would not budge. He now could launch his counteroffensive, knowing that they would choose electoral defeat rather than the risks of revolution. June saw the agony of the movement.