Paris at a standstill. Radical students marching the streets. Molotov cocktails whirling through the air. For some, it recalls the spirit of May '68. But where are the optimism and the youthful ideals now?
paris 6.30pm on Thursday: a group of demonstrators wending their way home from the student protest via the university suddenly break into a run. A single voice yells from behind an upturned car and a Molotov cocktail whirls through the air, exploding into the window of a nearby bar. On the corner a band of CRS policemen, armed with machine guns, stands impassive beneath riot helmets. Then, spotting a second youth preparing to launch a follow-up Molotov, they advance, heads lowered against a shower of gravel hurled from the rooftops, but they succeed only in driving the protesters back into the safe haven of the university grounds.

Revolutionary students manning the barricades in the Latin Quarter in May '68? Take a closer look, Trotskyist beards and Che Guevara T-shirts have been replaced by Chevignon jackets and baseball caps. The scene is Jussieu University in December 1995.

Yet, despite the distinctive change in revolutionary garb, the latest national students' strike in France (sparked off on 9 October by the science faculty at Rouen boycotting their lessons and calling for 12 million Francs to be poured into their university coffers) has invited inevitable comparisons with the student riots of 1968. A deep nostalgia for 'les evenements', as Mai soixante-huit is still referred to in hallowed tones, swells the collective heart of the French population and many people have been quick, not to say downright eager, to declare that today's students are rekindling the revolutionary spark ignited by their predecessors.

Janine Crochet, a local shopkeeper, who was 43 when the student barricades went up in St Michel, likes nothing better than to regale her customers with tales of the good old days when the 'enrages' (the angry young men) would hurl abuse and paving stones at the police and rain insults down on 'les sales bourgeois'. "Those were heady days, full of excitement," she says, with a chuckle, then she pauses before drawing her weighty sociological conclusion. "ca va peter," she declares solemnly, "the situation's about to blow just like it did in '68."

But for old soixante-huitards such as Jean Michel Helvig, editor-in-chief of the left-wing paper Liberation, this is just wishful thinking. "In '68 there was a general strike," Helvig says. "Today the transport system might be paralysed but the movement's not that widespread. And there's no co-ordination between the students and the rail workers. They exist as two completely separate movements."

Indeed the situation today is a far cry from 1968 when the students were the motivating force behind the May uprising. It was their spirit of rebellion which gradually spread to the younger workers, whom they invited to attend debates in the university amphitheatres. A group of radicals from the Sorbonne even marched out to the Renault car factory at Boulogne-Billancourt, where they urged employees to down tools and join them in their bid to bring down de Gaulle and overthrow capitalist society.

"The '68 movement was characterised by optimism," Helvig says. "We marched for freedom, we wanted to break down the rigid authoritarian rules of our society and create a brand new world. What are the kids marching for today? They don't really believe in anything. They live in a world where their degrees are no guarantee of a job, they're worried about their future and they're frustrated because they can't see any way forward but they don't have any new vision of a society which could replace the existing one."

Klara Murner, a radio journalist, who was an 18-year-old student at the Beaux-Arts in May '68, agrees that the death of old ideologies has created a void between the old sixty-eighters and the new generation. "Sometimes I look at my 25-year-old son and wonder just how we're supposed to communicate. There he is worried about job security and pension schemes. In my day thinking about the future was strictly for the bourgeoisie. In '68 everyone was politicised. If you weren't a Maoist or a Trotskyist, you were an anarchist. I was an anarchist.

"What did we do? Well, basically we stomped around dressed in black trying to defy anything which smacked of authority. I remember a friend of mine in an art exam refusing to sketch the set sculpture. He drew the pipes on the wall behind it instead and submitted his drawing with a note explaining that he didn't agree with a system which sought to impose its own vision on the artist. In retrospect it all seems a bit ridiculous but even so there was a real belief in those days that we could change things. That belief has long gone."

The students sitting around this week in Finnegan's Wake, an Irish bar near Jussieu University, seem to confirm Klara's fears. Change is a word to be carefully mulled over in the lunch-hour, and most certainly not one to be translated into any direct action. As for anarchy, that has been replaced by Kookai jumpers and Bourjois lipstick, and while some of the boys may wear their hair long, it's squeaky clean and neatly bobbed. The recent havoc at Jussieu is discussed without anybody getting hot under the collar, and most of those here decide that it was students egged on by "outside forces - anarchists, you know".

As we talk, an earnest girl strides from table to table asking students if they are thinking of joining the strike tomorrow. Ah, a revolutionary rabble-rouser at last! But no, Aurelie Tournay, a 19-year-old history student at Jussieu, is advocating calm. "I don't know whether we should be taking time off from our studies to support the railway workers. Our demands are separate from theirs," she says. Her friend Cyril Fleury agrees. "Last time I went on a demo it was the railway workers who were at the head of it. Everybody got carried away and began burning effigies of the prime minister. I think that's going a bit too far."

Niamh, the Irish barmaid, tries to instil a little revolutionary fervour, telling one boy that during the May uprising the students did not waste their time with cardboard cut-outs, they set fire to the Stock Exchange. "But that was in '68," remarks a glum-looking boy in a striped bobble hat. "Yeah, and the only similarity between now and '68 is that the bloody Rolling Stones are back in the charts," shouts a Guinness-addled joker as he surveys the proceedings from his barstool.

Attitudes to '68 vary. Some youngsters such as maths student Franck Gaubin, feel it heavy as an albatross around their necks. "When we try to do something now," Franck explains, "there's always some old soixante-huitard who dismisses it saying 'we were much more radical than you'. Then they criticise us for having no ideals, but when you look at the number of Sixties hippies who turned into Eighties yuppies, are you surprised that our generation feels a bit disillusioned?"

The overriding feeling among the students at Finnegan's seems to be that, given the general lack of utopian ideals, it is better to concentrate on practical issues (such as removing asbestos from the classroom walls) rather than call for a complete overhaul of the university system. The students are unanimous in their desire to increase government spending on education and to employ more teachers and administrative staff. But bringing down the government is not on the cards. As Aurelie reminds everyone, "Destabilising the government will just mess the economy up in the long run."

Yet perhaps it is not fair to argue that student idealism is completely dead in France. Kasra Vafaderi, a lecturer who is himself on strike at Nanterre, believes that while the university is no longer the hotbed of radicalism it once was, there is a growing political awareness among his pupils. "Many of the students realise that profound pedagogical changes are needed, not just money," he says. "There might not be the same excitement in the air as there was in '68, but there is the same snowball effect of awareness gradually spreading from one group to the next. Things are slowly waking up."

Kasra's colleague Patricia McCulloch, who has taught both in England and France, is impressed by the fact that French students strike at all. "When I was teaching in England," she says with a wry smile, "the students would just sit around the union bar moaning but very few of them actually took to the streets. Maybe it's the English character, they prefer to suffer in silence, while their French counterparts need to let off steam."

I sound out Ms McCulloch's opinion with a group of girls hanging around near the bikesheds. "Yeah, she's got a point," says 19-year-old Malika. "French students do have something of a world-wide reputation for being rebels. I guess there's some element of truth in that too. There are certain people I know who would go on a demo for anything. If the university authorities changed the colour of the toilet paper they'd be out there protesting. But that's no bad thing. I bet students in England would love to get up to the things we do."

I put it to the bikeshed girls that students in England might consider marching through the streets shouting slogans aimed at the education minister such as "Bayrou t'es foutu" (Bayrou, you're stuffed), a bit, well, naff. "Oh, and what did you shout at student demos?" Latifa demands. I can only hang my head in shame remembering the none too imaginative chant of "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out out out!"

"Let me put it this way," says Latifa gently, "I'd rather march through the streets shouting naff slogans than sit at home and be 'cool' while Maggie Thatcher destroyed the grant system and introduced student loans."

Touche, Latifa, touche.