The day the dream of 1968 died

Thirty years ago students and workers united on the streets of France. John Lichfield assesses their legacy
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The Independent Online
THIRTY years ago today, France stood on the brink of revolution: or so it seemed.

A student rebellion had been raging for 10 days, without disturbing the peace of the greater part of France. On 13 May 1968, the workers - the word was still current three decades ago - came on to the streets.

The two largest trade union federations called a one-day general strike; there was an impressively large students-and-workers march in Paris. A stream of strikes and sit-ins followed, starting in the great Renault factory on an island in the Seine at Boulogne Billancourt (now an abandoned shell), followed by stoppages by railwaymen, miners, steel-workers ... It appeared to some commentators, even to the CIA, that true revolution had come.

The participation of "real workers" is one of the factors which distinguishes the Paris spring of 1968 from the other youth-led disturbances of the late 1960s. Revolutionaries in Britain and elsewhere were green with envy. The idea that Ford workers in Dagenham might strike in sympathy with British student protesters was ludicrous.

Three decades later, such a prospect is equally unthinkable in France. The May revolution seemed, briefly, like the apotheosis of the great Left Bank dream of intellectual-and-worker solidarity. In truth, the day the workers joined in was the beginning of the end. The unions had a series of specific demands which could be settled and were (a 10 per cent pay increase; extended union rights). After that, the whole movement rapidly deflated. The French intellectuals and the mass of French workers rarely fought on the same side again (though both voted for Francois Mitterrand in 1981).

The French working class, pocketing the gains they won in May 1968, moved into the bourgeois, consumerist society which the student rebellion had, theoretically, wanted to dismantle. The "moral" and intellectual Left lost patience with a working class which failed to live up to its allotted, revolutionary role.

The social unrest which accompanied the collapse of French heavy industry in the 1970s and 1980s left the intellectuals cold. Instead, the moral Left found surrogate proletariats elsewhere: in the Third World and, most recently, in illegal immigrants. The sanctification of the "sans papiers" - illegal migrants - in the last 18 months is the most obvious symbol of the present gulf of understanding between ordinary people and the French artistic and intellectual elite (many of them former soixante-huitards; children of 68).

There were large demonstrations in Paris and other cities last year, led by cinema directors, writers and actors against relatively modest moves to control illegal immigrants. Such a policy, continued with only minor adjustments by the present Socialist-led government, is hugely popular with the working classes and lower middle classes - and with legal immigrants.

In truth, the students and workers had similarly differing ambitions 30 years ago. The May '68 rebellion was two rebellions which rarely met. Both were powered by intense irritation with the paternalistic, hierarchical - but successful - France which had recovered from the Second World War.

However, the student rebellion was always more cultural and spiritual, than truly political or economic. It began with the frustration, literally, of male French students, locked out of women's halls of residence at Nanterre University.

The best-remembered student slogans of the day were hedonistic, anarchistic, sexually horny, utopian. "Be realistic, demand the impossible"; "Your desires are the true reality"; "Live, without boredom"; "It is forbidden to forbid"; "The more I make revolution, the more I want to make love".

There were also idealists and revolutionaries among the workers, especially at the Renault factory, which refused at first to obey its leaders' recommendation to return to work. But, on union orders, most factories refused to let the students in.

The union bosses saw in May '68 an opportunity to win some of the fruits of an economic boom already two decades old - the most prolonged period of rising prosperity in French history. The settlement of the industrial component of the revolt was negotiated amongst others by an ambitious young politician called Jacques Chirac (then employment minister). It extended some of the post-war prosperity to blue-collar workers, producing steep inflation but also a spending boom which powered the economy through the first half of the 1970s.

Union leaders' hopes of winning a permanently strong place in French society have proved as simplistic as student leaders' hopes of cultural revolution. In 1968, one in four employed people in France was unionised: 30 years later, the figure is one in 10.

Other statistics suggest the Left did triumph, in a sense. The real winner in the next 30 years was a form of bureaucratic, welfare socialism. Over- taxed France and the over-mannedstate which even the present Socialist-led government is sworn to change, owes its origins in part to 1968. In the 12 years after the revolt, welfare spending rose by 10 per cent of GNP; the annual hiring of state employees increased by one- third. By the end of the 1970s, unemployment was also rising to its present steep level (3,000,000, compared to 200,000 in 1968). But the pain of high joblessness - felt mostly by the working class until recently - has left the former '68 students, and their intellectual successors, relatively unmoved.

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