May 1968: When France threw off the shackles

May 1968: When France threw off the shackles
AFP

Paris (AFP) – Fifty years ago, as France exploded in mass protests, words scrawled on the walls of the Sorbonne university summed up the revolutionary zeal of the time: “Run free, comrade, we’ve left the old world behind!” 

Half a century on, the May 1968 demonstrations that brought millions of idealistic students and striking workers to the streets remain a watershed moment in France’s cultural history.

Sexual liberation, artistic creativity and anti-capitalism were the order of the day. For those who were there, it was an unforgettable time.

“Sixty-eight was a big step forward for democracy and liberalism, in the political and cultural sense,” said Henri Weber, whose memoirs of that tumultuous year are due out next month.

“We declared war on all forms of discrimination in the name of egalitarianism,” said the former communist leader, who later became a senator and a Socialist member of the European Parliament.

– Au revoir, rules –

The protests swept through a France that was still ruled by the strict conservatism of General Charles de Gaulle, who banned the concerts of rocker Johnny Hallyday for causing scenes of mass hysteria.

“In ’68 young people threw off the shackles,” said Weber.

“We took on all forms of authoritarian exercise of power. It was also a big step forward for hedonism, against puritanism and strict moral rules.”

Some researchers prefer to think of the protests as part of a longer period of cultural change throughout the decade as France loosened up.

Others set it against the backdrop of liberalising worldwide trends which started with the US protests against the Vietnam war, and included a wave of activism in Eastern Europe.

In 1968 Czechoslovakia witnessed its own “Prague Spring”, when liberal government reforms — and a subsequent Soviet crackdown — inspired an outpouring of protest and creativity.

But that year was one of particular tumult in France, where between seven and 10 million workers went on strike and students clashed with police at barricaded universities.

The aftershocks would be felt for years to come.

For those on the left, one of the main legacies was the rise of more specialist forms of activism such as feminism, the fight for gay rights and environmentalism, according to historian Pascal Ory.

“In that sense, its victories were undeniable,” he told L’Express magazine.

– Feminist boom –

For women, 1968 was a “moment of clarity”,  asserting their right to decide what kind of relationships they wanted and speaking out against the patriarchy, said sociologist Julie Pagis.

“A boom in feminism from 1970 was a fairly direct consequence of these events,” added Pagis, who did a study of more than 200 of the protesters who became known as “soixante-huitards” (sixty-eighters).

Women had only gained the right to have their own bank accounts or work without their spouse’s permission in 1965.

Contraception had been legalised in 1967, but the law was not fully enforced until the early 1970s.

Abortion remained illegal, and Pagis sees a 1975 law decriminalising it as a key feminist victory of the protests.

“In 1968 we were finally free to speak,” recalled Joelle Brunerie-Kauffman, a gynaecologist and feminist activist.

“We said, ‘We girls have the right to make love’.”

More widely it was a time when groups across society won greater rights, said Pagis.

In the workplace, the protests resulted in the Grenelle accords which secured a 35-percent rise in the minimum wage and strengthened trade unions.

And it opened up debates on social mobility and the education system.

“Thanks to ’68 there was an evolution in the university and educational system,” said Pagis.

“Before, college meant classes in an amphitheatre where only the teacher got to talk. ’68 brought the introduction of more participation for students in the learning process.”

But 50 years later, not everyone is convinced of the benefits of that heady time.

Former right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy said May ’68 had robbed schools of “merit and respect”.

And philosopher Luc Ferry has suggested that far from being an anti-capitalist revolt, the protest movement had in fact helped give rise to a more consumerist society. 

Pagis accuses such critics of seeking to “scapegoat” ’68, to “attribute all social ills” that followed to the momentous events.

Weber similarly described such thinking as “stupidity”.

“Just because something happened afterwards, it doesn’t mean it happened because of it,” he said.

Yet he too has his regrets about how times have changed since then, namely that people don’t dream anymore.

“There’s no more utopia,” he said.

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