It’s not May in December. The ten days that shook the Chirac government are not a repetition of the great rising of students and workers that precipitated the fall of Gen. Charles de Gaulle. The difference can be put simply. In 1968 students wanted to smash the university in order to change society; they were looking to the workers as allies and were openly political. This time the students wanted to get on with their studies, and they insisted, particularly at the beginning, on the nonpolitical nature of their movement.
It all depends on your definition of the political. The movement of French youth for the preservation of an egalitarian school system breaks with what everyone assumed to be the new pattern of French political life. After the Socialist government had proved itself to be ideologically bankrupt, the model was expected to be American, with Reagan, Rambo and all. "The era of Jean-Paul Sartre is over," the left weekly Nouvel Observateur declared recently, "that of Bernard Tapie has begun"–Tapie, a self-made tycoon, being a sort of French Lee Iacocca. The students were thus seen to be self-centered go-getters, keen on careers and incapable of collective action. They surprised Paris and the world by suddenly rising en masse to refuse an American future.
The proposed legislative reform was only the thin edge of the wedge. The idea behind it was to break the French system of universities equal in principle and to start moving toward the American system. The new law would have allowed universities to become more selective in their admissions process, to raise fees, and to issue their own diplomas rather than national certificates, making some diplomas more prestigious than others. The students vetoed those three main proposals. Each high-school graduate, they insisted, must be able to enter any university. Tuition fees and diplomas must be the same in universities all over France.
The moral nature of this spontaneous democratic movement goes a long way to explain the clumsy blunders of clever politicians. After the students announced that they would hold a demonstration, René Monory, the Minister of Higher Education, stated that the fate of the law would depend largely on their performance. They thereupon staged, on Thursday, December 4, the biggest youth demonstration France had ever seen. They were about half a million just in the streets of Paris–joyful, exuberant, triumphantly convinced that the bill was now ground forever under their numbers. But that night the response of the government was a Non, echoed by tear gas grenades. The next day, sensing that the sympathy of the population was with the students, Monory promised to remove the three most contested provisions from the bill. That might have been enough to convince party politicians to bargain, but at this stage the students dismissed the very idea of compromise as if it were an indecent proposal. That night the ruthlessness of motorized police cowboys–who beat Malik Oussékine, a 22-year-old student, to death–put an end to any hesitation the students might still have had.
Strangely enough, it was Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and his closest associates who were remembering 1968: Reviving the old Gaullist methods for turning public opinion against the students, they encouraged the police to allow hooligans to loot stores and burn cars at the end of peaceful student demonstrations. The collusion between the police and the troublemakers was flagrant; French television, for instance, showed helmeted fascist thugs crossing a police cordon with the inspector’s approval. Faced with such tactics student leaders were driven to follow the example of their predecessors and to ask labor unions to join them in the fight.
Thus, on Sunday everything seemed set for a confrontation. By Monday afternoon it was all over. Squeezed between the unyielding students and President FranÇois Mitterrand, capable of intervening at any moment in the name of national unity, and with his own side badly split, Chirac decided to withdraw the legislation. Had he done so four days earlier he would have spared one life and scores of wounded. But confronted with a genuine movement, politicians always hit hard first and surrender after.
All this does not enhance the presidential prospects of Jacques Chirac and is bound to increase the strains and stresses on his coalition. Yet such political calculations are historically unimportant when set against the awakening of France’s youth–of this new generation which began its apprenticeship in the antiracist struggle of the past few years and wore the badge "Hands off my pal." Admittedly, the youngsters still have some illusions. There can be no equal universities in an unequal society. France has its own elite colleges, the Grandes Écoles, and a strong educational bias in favor of the upper classes. The students still have a lot to learn. But the government has just given them an accelerated, if bitter, course in political education. With the weather on the side of the students, perhaps it was spring in December after all.