How was the 1970s in France?


Ingo Kolboom

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Ingo Kolboom, born in 1947, last taught French and francophone social and cultural studies at the TU Dresden from 1994 until his retirement in 2012. From 1993 to 2009 he was a member of the Franco-German Cultural Council. Today he is an Associate Researcher at the Political Department of the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM), President of the Saxon-Breton Society and a freelance journalist.

In memory of Lothar Baier (1942-2005)

According to American journalist Mark Kurlansky, 1968 was "the year that changed the world". But although youth and student revolts broke out almost worldwide in the years 1967-1968, the Paris revolt alone, under the name "Mai 68", has become the icon of those protest movements. What is that due to? What are the differences to what was then West Germany? And what remains of "May 68" in France today?

May 1968: In Paris there were almost civil war-like conditions. Correspondingly, there is still heated argument in France today about '68. (& copy ddp / AP)

Like no other revolt of that year, the French "May 68" produced a multitude of memorable images, symbols and slogans: Soyez realists demandez l'impossible - "Be a realist demands the impossible", Il est inderdit d'interdire - "It is forbidden to forbid", Dire NON c'est penser - "Saying NO is thinking"! The language that the Parisian "Mai" put into circulation across borders stood out from slogans such as "All power to the councils" or "What we want - workers' controls", for example used by groups of the West German extra-parliamentary opposition (APO ) resorted to.

In the French "May" something became reality, if only for a short time, which in other countries did not go beyond the stage of empty words and slogans: the meeting of student protests with the national revolt of French workers. A connection that led to violent social unrest all over the country. The economy was paralyzed for weeks, mass demonstrations and barricades in the Latin Quarter in Paris evoked memories of the revolutionary history of France and the CRS riot police, acting against demonstrators, were compared with the SS by chants and graffiti.

From student protest to general strike

At the beginning of 1968 there was nothing in France to suggest that within a few months the state would be driven to the brink of emergency. There were only a few factories on strike at the beginning of the year because of the slight rise in unemployment. A conflict between students and university management over the right to freedom of expression that broke out at the new university in the Paris suburb of Nanterre at the end of March caused a stir. But when the literary faculty in Nanterre was closed after sustained protests, the spark jumped to Paris. Students occupied the Sorbonne. On May 3, the university was violently evacuated by the police, breaking a taboo. Before long, general outrage over the brutality of the operations grew to such an extent that the unions called for a one-day general strike on May 13th.

The strike movement, once started, spread across the whole country and affected almost all areas of life (on May 24th, nine to ten million people went on strike). The republic's political establishment was paralyzed. President Charles de Gaulle's hasty announcement of new elections and a referendum on reforms brought no peace to the country either. At the same time, however, the paths of the partially insurgent protest groups and those of the trade unions began to part. For the latter, strikes and factory occupations remained classic means of pressure to enforce wage increases and other demands in the factories. Negotiations took place at the initiative of Prime Minister Georges Pompidou and on May 27 employers, unions and the government signed the Accords de Grenelle (Grenelle Agreement) on an increase in the minimum wage (35%), wage increases, reduction in working hours, participation and other improvements in labor law.

With the Accords de Grenelle the turning point came, accelerated by the dissolution of the National Assembly on May 30th, by the announcement of new elections for June 23rd and by Gaullist counter-demonstrations across the country that put the revolt on the defensive for the first time. In June the unions brought an end to the strike movement, often with some difficulty. The elections, which went down in the annals as "fear elections", confirmed the conservative ruling parties in power. Only in a few universities and factories did the fermentation continue for some time.

Attempts at interpretation

Was "May" just a ghost that quickly disappeared? The writer Bernard Pingaud, eyewitness to the events, noted in his diary published in 2000: "May: nothing happened." In fact, that was the impression one got two months later. The "great revolution" that had been written on so many red and black flags had not taken place. But "May" has not remained without consequences. Only when it comes to assessing the consequences and the causes are those involved and observers still at odds.

The "functionalist" interpretation sees May as an overdue process of catching up on social reforms in a blocked society. Compared to comparable, highly industrialized Western European countries such as the Federal Republic of Germany, France, which was modernized at an accelerated pace under de Gaulle in the 1960s, fell behind. The strikes of May 1968 were therefore in the interests of the entire economic system, which had to be forced from outside to agree to social reforms and an increase in purchasing power. The cheerful celebration of "wishes" therefore helped a young consumer society to break through, which had previously been prevented by the traditional image of society of conservative Gaullism.

Others, above all many alumni of the May revolt, insist on the impetus that began in May 1968 for a new political, social and cultural revolutionary development towards more democracy in all areas of society. Although the Communist Party (PCF) and its allied Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) had succeeded in thwarting fraternization between uncontrollable student groups and the factory workforce, the May revolt marked the decline of the considerable communist influence in post-war France . But "green" and pacifist alternative movements also withered - in contrast to the West German development.

It is undisputed that the French May '68 directly integrated into a restructuring of the party landscape, the political culture and the value structure of the Fifth Republic. It accelerated the decline of traditional Gaullism - de Gaulle resigned in 1969 after a failed referendum - and forced the conservative elite to modernize. The decline of the Communist Party took place in favor of the Socialists, whose renewal under François Mitterrand led to his electoral triumph in 1981. At the same time, the traditionally centralized left opened up to regional concerns and identities, which can be seen as an example in Brittany from 1972 onwards and which was reflected in the decentralization laws of 1982. And last but not least, women gained unprecedented rights in the mid-1970s under the influence of feminist movements and the Minister of Health Simone Veil (UDF).

What remains of the 'beautiful May'?

Today, the joli mai ("beautiful May") of 1968 is history, as is the great folk festival that celebrated the election of the socialist Mitterrand as president in May 1981. But what already took up the memory of the French Revolution and other revolutionary and social revolts in France also applies to "May 68": the memory of the suddenly erupting ability of many people, buried in the ordinary course of things, in the to find a common no to the existing and to make a party out of the mere idea of ​​better conditions. The history and culture of our neighboring country show that this ability is particularly evident in France. Even if the anti-nuclear and ecological protest movements of the early 1970s did not survive their first prime, they were proud that "May '68" did not immediately result in left-wing terrorism as in West Germany.

Another Franco-German aspect of the Paris May '68 should be noted: Hardly any other French event in the 20th century had such a fascinating effect on younger Germans. If the conservative and older generations of the then Federal Republic were more fascinated by the charisma of Charles de Gaulle, the Paris May, which a Franco-German student named Daniel Cohn-Bendit gave a youthful face, had a lasting effect on the West German student youth of the time . May '68 shaped a new, "left" image of France for a whole generation, which not least included the first "years" of the Franco-German youth organization: a France of political and cultural revolt, of sympathetic disobedience, of creative rebellion. All too quickly later West German (now established) protest movements forgot that their anti-nuclear and ecological apprenticeship once lay in France.

As in Germany, the 68 generation has now retired from the active political stage in France. Her legacy is viewed more critically today than it was 20 years ago, when she herself still had the authority to interpret. This was shown not least by the presidential election campaign in 2007, in which the later election winner Nicolas Sarkozy (* 1955) tried to settle accounts with the "heirs of May 68": this inheritance should be buried once and for all. Former socialist culture minister Jack Lang (* 1939) protested vigorously. The 40th anniversary of "May 68" continued this polarization a year later with new nuances.

On the one hand there are those for whom he visibly remained a symbol of a "better time" (in their youth). On the other hand, there are those who still equate it with anarchy and moral decay. In between those who asked thoughtfully: "What have we made of our dreams?" Then those who, like today's President François Hollande (* 1954), founded their careers with this legacy - mocked by the old-left André Glucksmann, who wrote in resigned satire: "Oh, you good children of 68, rests in peace. The The grateful left considers its extraterrestrial past in you. It has won the inheritance, lives on the interest of memories and invests it in various anti-globalization, ecological or electoral programs. Here we stand between Lenin's mummy and the devotional kitsch of Lourdes. We're fine. "[1]. And finally those, it's the boys who don't want to know anything about it or who blaspheme with Lilicub: "Papa, papa / Papa made May 68 / My goldfish is called 2008 / [...] / And my plush bear is called Kohn-Bendit. "

This mental situation will continue until "May '68", like the "Festival" of the Popular Front in 1936, will only be a matter for historians. Nevertheless, we can state that "May '68" remains a generation-defining event in French history in the 20th century. All ruling and culturally determining elites since the early 1980s have been shaped by it. But even in the more recent history of Franco-German understanding it has a place whose critical appraisal has not yet been completed. One, however, rose from the memory of "May '68" like a phoenix from the ashes: The political "superfather" Charles de Gaulle, who was overthrown in 1969, has been number 1 in the list of the 100 "greatest French" in surveys for years.

This text is a shortened, revised and updated version by I. Kolboom of an article about the French May 68 published in 2008 by Lothar Baier (†) and I. Kolboom in the "Handbuch Französisch" (2nd edition, Erich Schmidt Verlag Berlin) .