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From ‘68 to ‘18… Who are the revolutionaries now?

Protesters walk behind a banner during a protest march by railway workers and other labor union members in Paris, France, on Tuesday April 3, 2018. (Photo by Julien Mattia/NurPhoto/Sipa USA) - Credit: SIPA USA/PA Images

As France nears the 50th anniversary of the May 1968 protests amid unmistakable echoes of those events, JASON WALSH asks which direction the country will go in this time around

Spring 1968: Paris is a febrile city, with workers out on strike and students occupying universities in defiance of a government that seems to be losing control of events.

Spring 2018: Paris is a febrile city, with workers out on strike and students occupying universities, in defiance of a government that seems to be losing control of events.

Plus ça change…

As France moves towards the 50th anniversary of these totemic événements of May 1968, some rather familiar themes are being felt across the country. If things are not quite heading towards the same dramatic denouement of 50 years ago – when the country teetered on the brink of civil war, the national government ceased to function and president Charles de Gaulle fled abroad – they have at least made the current national mood of reflection and remembrance of those fiery events seem particularly pertinent and pressing. And this is especially the case for one man – president Emmanuel Macron.

Macron had long been expected to mark the momentous month of May. But recent events mean that enthusiasm for an official commemoration has cooled somewhat in his camp. Commemorating a union of striking workers and revolting students who defied a government presents an awkward problem to a president facing his own rising tide of strikes and student protests.

In 1968 violent anti-government riots followed strikes involving 11 million workers, who had taken their lead from student radicals who were already protesting against reform of the university system. Today, the numbers are lower. Indeed, they are lower even than the last round of social strife in 1995. But the unions have promised months of action, and the anniversary of May 1968 is likely to give them added impetus. The symbolism is unmistakable. As one piece of Paris graffiti says: ‘May ’68. They’re commemorating, we’re starting again’.

Among the issues at stake, the strikers say, are much of what their forebears in 1968 were able to extract from the government: including the right to four full weeks of holidays, a policy of consultation between employers and unions, a reduced work week, the provision of paid training for workers under 18 and, of course, wage increases.

Leading the strikes are the so-called cheminots, workers at state-run railway SNCF – a group known for their militancy, and one which played a key role in pushing the 1968 revolt from being a noisy student demonstration into a full-blown crisis.

Transport has been heavily disrupted, with a third of rail workers on strike, and air traffic control and Air France staff also taking part in the actions. Civil servants have also walked out, as have, notably, supermarket workers. The strikes will run two days out of five for at least 36 days.

The government’s plans include an end to jobs-for-life and the ability to retire as young as 52, currently special perks for the cheminots dating back to the early days of rail, reflecting the fact that the job was difficult and dangerous.

The cheminots enjoy a special status in the public imagination, having inspired other workers to make greater demands from employers and government. Today, though, some say the special contracts make them a kind of ‘labour aristocracy’.

Macron remains defiant, telling French television – perhaps notably the privatised TF1 network – that he will not be stopped by street protests.

‘That some people are not happy doesn’t stop me,’ he said, adding that it was necessary to prepare France for the future.

‘Public opinion is not an objective in itself, sorry to be so blunt,’ he said.

Last year Macron pushed labour reforms through parliament, and the agenda for 2018 includes, alongside transport reform, higher taxes for retirees, cuts to income tax, redundancies in the health service and a new university admissions system.

All the while, SNCF’s massive debt of over 46 billion euros – which grows by two billion euros a year – lurks in the background, and is a key factor in France’s ongoing difficulties in meeting EU budgetary rules relating to state spending. For their part, rail workers say the debt-ridden company is being prepared for privatisation – hinting at what may well be the strikers’ real agenda. Perhaps their greatest fear is that the anniversary which may become the most apt is not 1968, but 1985: the year Margaret Thatcher defeated the National Union of Mineworkers, ushering-in an era of sweeping change in British society.

Indeed, France has agreed to liberalise its railways by 2020, an EU obligation that the strikers say represents a chipping away at the French way of life. Macron has form in the area: as economy minister in 2015, he introduced the ‘Macron law’, which, among other things, opened the long distance bus network to competition.

The strikes are being described as Macron’s ‘Thatcher moment’ and among those to spot such a potential parallel is French cultural critic Jérôme Leroy. Writing recently in Causeur (The Conversationalist) magazine that, ‘Thatcherite power structurally needs a showdown’, and that the showdown must be gruelling in order to totally break down the unions and their political supporters, leaving them with no choice but to reform as did Britain’s New Labour. Leroy went on to say that the strikers, in Britain in 1984-5 and France today, represented values of ‘common decency and fraternity’. Naturally, the government takes a different view.

Gabriel Attal, an MP from Macron’s La République en Marche party complained of France’s ‘strike culture’, and noted that industrial action was ‘announced even before the government’s plan was presented’.

Students, meanwhile, are on the offensive, objecting to Macron’s plans to introduce university entrance examinations, which they see as an assault on the country’s open access education system. At present any student who completes high school is entitled to go to the university of their choice, which has had the effect of driving high-achieving – and wealthier – students into the more prestigious grandes écoles sector instead of universities.

Nonetheless, students, who have occupied campuses in at least a dozen universities (including Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne which, although not the starting point of the 1968 revolt, was its focus) see the plans as an attack on France’s social model. Their earnest campaign could not be more different from the bizarre origins of the initial 1968 campus protests, from which everything else then flowed. Those demonstrations erupted in the recently-founded University of Nanterre, just outside Paris. The demand? The right for male and female students to have sex with one another. It really was a different world.

What was radical about it, however – and what still resonates among today’s protesters – was the direct challenge to authority and the commitment to direct action to fundamentally change the course of the country. Ever since its revolution, France has gone through such periods of introspection and strife, constantly re-inventing itself while always trying to reflect those founding republican ideals. That is certainly what they felt in 1968 and those currently striking and protesting feel it now.

Post-war France was a time of economic boom – les trentes glorieuses; the 30 ‘glorious’ years of economic growth from 1946 to 1975 – but it was also home to a stifling and paternalistic culture, personified by the seemingly unassailable president de Gaulle. He had governed according to his ‘certain idea of France’ for almost a decade, founding the Fifth Republic, which gave the president immense powers. In fact, the only crack in his leadership came with far-right dissension following the country’s defeat in Algeria. But even attempts to assassinate de Gaulle did nothing to bring down his rule.

However, the student rebels of 1968, soon aided by striking workers, were able to do what France’s revanchist right could not: change the country. Officially the radicals lost: De Gaulle, first having fled the country, returned, dissolved parliament and called new elections that saw his party emerge stronger than before. The reality was rather more complicated, and while violence subsided and de Gaulle triumphed at the polls, nothing would ever be the same again. French workers won a great many concessions, and students came to be treated as adults. More than that, though, politics changed – and not necessarily in a straightforward manner.

Viewed from a certain angle, 1968 was the beginning of the end for the old left. The alliance of workers and student radicals couldn’t hold together, and prefigured the move away from traditional class politics based on advancing the material interests of the working class toward a coalition of niche interests that included everyone except the working class, who soon came to be seen as a brake on progress.

This did not go entirely unnoticed at the time. A confidential CIA report, declassified in 2012, noted that the alliance was ‘paradoxical’ and that ‘workers have traditionally viewed the students as representatives of a bourgeois class with vested interests in the governmental and social establishment against which French labour strongly rebelled’.

The workers were not wrong. Many key students of the ’68 generation rapidly ceased to espouse radical views and soon found themselves among Europe’s new ruling class. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, better known at the time as ‘Danny the Red’, abandoned his heady mixture of anarchism and Marxism to become a leading figure in German Green party and began to espouse centrist politics. Philosopher and journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy would later come to advise French conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy and advocate his bombing of Libya. Bernard Kouchner would go on to found the NGO Médecins Sans Frontiers before falling out with the board and quitting to create Médecins du Monde, a similar medical NGO but one that takes a more activist approach to its work. He later became a minister in Sarkozy’s government.

It was Sarkozy himself who promised to ‘liquidate the heritage of May ’68’. However, as Macron – the first French president born after the momentous year – is finding today, that heritage is rather difficult to get to grips with.

One problem is that it remains so contested, and if the coalitions of 1968 were confusing then today’s battle lines are even less clear. Fifty years since the revolt, just who constitutes the working class is not entirely clear. Is it the worst off in society, is it workers who are not organised or cannot organise, or is it, as the left in Britain have come to say, ‘the most vulnerable’?

As things stand, it is certainly not train drivers or air traffic controllers – and yet workers in these sectors are the ones who have been on strike, fearing their hard-won benefits being stripped away by a president they see as hell-bent on turning France into an Anglo-American-style liberal economy.

The slight incoherence of French left-wing politics is neatly encapsulated by a Communist party poster currently plastered around parts of Paris. Complaining of pollution, the poster says that there are too many vans and trucks in the city, and more freight should travel by rail. And yet, the van drivers, many of whom today are self-employed, have working conditions significantly worse than the train drivers whose pay and conditions are in Macron’s sights.

More significant than France’s much-diminished rump far-left, however, is that opposition to Macron has nowhere to go but onto the streets. Having romped-home in the election, Macron not only devastated Marine Le Pen’s National Front, but also dealt what may well be a death blow to the socialist party. The conservative Republican party, meanwhile, is also in disarray. Besides, what can it possibly find to complain about in Macron’s programme of liberal economics?

As he pushes ever more economic reform through by executive order, and with no opposition to speak of, strikes and public demonstrations are the natural home of dissent. But just who are the radicals and who are the conservatives is unclear.

The British philosopher Roger Scruton, who was as a student witness to pitched battles on the streets of Paris, once remarked that May ’68 represented the death of the France he knew and loved – and, in fact, was why he became a conservative. ‘I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down,’ he wrote.

Today’s strikers, though hardly political conservatives, are themselves trying to hold on to something – and this is the paradox at the very heart of the 50th anniversary of May ’68: Macron, who as an agent of change is the inheritor to 1968, cannot truly celebrate it, as he himself must face down striking workers and revolting students, while those who take up the mantle of revolt are doing so in order not to revolutionise society, but to preserve the present.

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