WASHINGTON--In recent weeks, France has been swamped with events commemorating the student uprising of May 1968--which actually started in March and finished in June. Less attention has been paid to the 40th anniversary of the student revolts in other countries, including the United States.
Was the May 1968 French uprising an anarchist attack on all forms of authority, as some libertarians believed? Was it an assault on conservatism, as its most visible leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, predicted?
Was it an attempt to rescue the left from Soviet-style communism, which would explain why the communist unions opposed the students? Was it an act of hypocrisy by young protesters who embraced Che Guevara and Mao Zedong at the same time that they targeted Charles de Gaulle's authoritarianism and Stalin's European heirs? Was it just a tantrum by the rich kids who ripped up the cobblestones in the Latin Quarter out of boredom? Or was it, as the protest slogans invited us to think, one noisy pretext for poetry ("all power to the imagination," "it is forbidden to forbid")?
It was all of the above--a massive contradiction. Which is why, 40 years on, the legacy is also contradictory. Despite the fact that the uprising lasted only a few months and de Gaulle later won a landslide in the legislative elections that he was forced to call, the individualist spirit of that uprising did a lot to unleash European customs from the corset in which they were confined. In doing so, it may have paradoxically helped to accelerate France's globalization. Perhaps no one puts it better than the French academic Serge Audier: "The '68 generation played a key role in the development of capitalism at the end of the 1970s, by lifting the last barrier to unfettered commercialism: traditional values."
And yet the spirit of 1968, with its silly denunciation of private enterprise and its glorification of socialist terrorists, also brought about a conformism in French society that is greatly responsible for the economic decline of recent decades. With French students, civil servants and union members today protesting against timid attempts by President Nicolas Sarkozy to streamline the bureaucracy, and intellectuals providing them with academic respectability, the heirs of May 1968 are now the guardians of privilege. In 1968, students claimed they wanted liberty from the state. Today, they want security--paid by the state. What in 1968 was a revolt against authority turned into the sacralization of government power.
In other countries, we have seen a similar effect. In the United
States, those who protested on college campuses against authority and inequality were doing so at a time when the Lyndon Johnson administration was achieving the biggest increase in government programs since Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Furthermore, the protest movement later provoked a conservative reaction against the excesses of the "counterculture" that caused an unhealthy blurring of politics and religion spearheaded by an evangelical movement that, under the cloak of traditional values, sought to impose its moral agenda on the rest of society.
In France, the contradiction is visible in Sarkozy himself. He defied every social convention after assuming power by divorcing his second wife and then marrying Italian model Carla Bruni, turning his first year in office into a tabloid spectacle. Andre Gluckman, a former soixante-huitard, as the May 1968 rebels are called in France, said that the French president "doesn't know how much he owes to the mental or moral revolution of 1968. Without '68, a divorced man, a man of his background, would never have gotten to the presidential palace." He was referring to Sarkozy's Jewish and immigrant background. On the other hand, Sarkozy has reneged on his pledges to end the 35-hour workweek and engage in other reforms, exhibiting a conformism not unlike his predecessors.
In March 1968, the French minister for youth and sports was confronted at Nanterre University by a red-haired student who complained about the fact that men and women could not share the same dormitories. "If you have a sexual problem, go and take a cold shower," the minister famously replied to Cohn-Bendit, who was known as Danny the Red. A few weeks later, the student revolt was in full swing, and it soon caught the world's imagination. Forty years later, it looks like the French student movement and its heirs actually decided to take that shower--and dampen their appetite for real change.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is the editor of Lessons from the Poor and the director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute.
By Alvaro Vargas Llosa