Paul Johnson's MAY 1968: When student riots rocked France, the British journalist Paul Johnson was there. This is the report he wrote for the New Statesman 25 years ago

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A SPECTRE is haunting Europe - the spectre of student power. As in 1848, each outbreak in a European capital contains the seeds of another elsewhere, as students gain courage from the success and audacity of their foreign brethren and learn from their mistakes. With each outbreak, the students raise their objectives and widen their horizons. There is no need to speak of a Students' International, for this implies a common organisation, a discipline and a programme which do not exist.

The student revolt is both less and more than an international conspiracy: it is spontaneous and systematic at the same time. Spontaneous, because these young men and women do not need to be persuaded, organised or regimented by anyone into doing what they are doing; systematic because they are inspired by common attitudes, grievances, disgusts and doctrines, which leap across the frontiers.

Anyone who is fascinated by political processes and public philosophies, be they students, dons, writers or politicians, should make every effort to go to Paris now. For what is happening there is of great importance not only to France but perhaps to the world. To be there is a political education in itself, to watch the birth-pangs (perhaps, soon, the murder or even suicide) of a new approach to the organisation of human societies. This is such a rare event in history that we are fortunate to be alive to witness it.

For too long those of us who care about politics have been imprisoned in the sterile triangle formed by Communism, fascism and bourgeois democracy. Appalled by the choice between the two authoritarianisms, most of us have struggled wearily to humanise the third, cobbling together every ramshackle variety of 'democratic socialism' in the vain attempt to combine material progress, on a mass basis, with a raised quality of life. Often enough we have got neither.

Here in Britain, for instance, we have a stagnant economy, in which university students are told we must develop horror weapons in the cause of the export trade, and workers are stampeded by ignorance and demagogy into howling abuse at an even more exploited section of the population, the blacks. No wonder young people look for a fourth choice: and in Paris, it seems to me, they are beginning to find one.

We might have expected that the French, who have given more to political thought than any other nation, would have a unique contribution to make. When the students moved in Prague, Warsaw, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, the United States, even in Britain, how could Paris lag behind? Had the French, buried for a decade in paternalism and apathy, lost their taste for debating the way in which society should be organised, and their capacity to suggest fresh solutions? I had myself asked this question some weeks ago; I need not have worried. When the moment came in France, it was all the more explosive for having been delayed.

The French movement, now that it has broken the surface, is seen to be far more sophisticated than its equivalents elsewhere; more deeply grounded in philosophical principles, more adult in its grasp of the strategy and tactics of political action; more violent - much more violent - coming from a race which respects intransigence and pronounces lovingly the words of Danton, De l'audace, toujours de l'audace] Above all, the French movement has style, a certain elegant flourish to all that it does which catches the heart and makes one appreciate that politics is not just a utilitarian science, but also an art whose satisfactions are aesthetic as well as moral.

In the courtyard of the Faculty of Letters, the heart and brain of the movement, a thousand flowers not only bloom but load the spring air with intellectual incense. Young socialists, Marxist Christians, Maoists, anti-CP Marxist-Leninists, Guevarists, Fidelistos, Breton nationalists, Young Workers, Portuguese democrats, Basques and Spaniards, young people from Germany and France and Britain, shout their wares and debate their principles. On the walls, posters - some of great beauty, hand-painted in the Ecole des Beaux Arts - proclaim a score of different creeds. In the overflowing lecture halls and corridors, every conceivable topic is examined: forms of revolutionary action, birth control, the nature of the state, how to right the police, workers' control, free love, the role of parents, the uses of exams, Vietnam, marriage and divorce, the nature of the university.

Workers come here to argue and listen, and so do old men and housewives, and foreigners and Deputies and writers and journalists. The debating groups spill out into nearby streets and crowd the vast Odeon Theatre. De Gaulle, falling back, in his rage, on the vernacular of a young subaltern, has called it a 'dog's breakfast'. Perhaps it is, in a sense; France has brought up its Gaullist vomit and now feels better.

But the disparate debate is underpinned by a powerful thread of logic which has transformed the French movement from a student revolt into a political event. Most of us, all along, have missed the real significance of the students' demands. Yes, we say, we agree you have a right to reforms in your universities, to greater control in their direction and more say in their curricula; but what has this to do with more general political action?

It has taken the French to get the argument across, and I doubt if even they could have done it without the leadership of Cohn-Bendit. This jovial young Robespierre, with his flaming red hair and piercing blue eyes, has the true revolutionary's gift of combining a philosophy which can be reasoned, slogans which can be shouted and a mad-dog taste for taking positions by frontal assault. When he speaks, men listen; where he leads, they follow. He makes the impossible become possible simply by doing it.

Well, say the students, why don't we stick to reforming the universities? Because to do so would be futile. There are now 600,000 students in France; there will be more every year. Society has laid it down that those of sufficient intelligence, who work hard enough at high school, may automatically enter university. Needless to say, no provision is made for them when they get there. There are not enough teachers, lecture rooms, halls of residence, libraries, laboratories.

The courses are, for the most part, idiotic, the teaching old-fashioned, the exam system at best 19th century. But all these problems are secondary; even if they can be reformed by student agitation they leave the wider problem untouched. What is the point of improving the structure of higher education if the rest of society remains the same?

Can you reform the medical school without questioning the functions of medicine in society? How to 'improve' science courses without asking what science is supposed to do for mankind? Can you replan the Political Science Faculty without replanning the political system? After all, the university is the matrix of society, the institution which produces its elites, assumptions and objectives. Will a real reform of the matrix be permitted, entailing as it must the eventual transformation of society outside?

Not on your life. Therefore student reforms are organically linked to the transformation of the adult world. Student agitation is meaningless unless it can join forces with the workers, the fall- guys in any consumer society, whether on the capitalist or the Communist model.

The students cannot produce all the answers, but they are asking questions which have never been posed before in the context of a political offensive, and with a stridency which makes it impossible for their elders to brush them aside. For here comes the second contribution of the Paris movement. It is not enough, they say, to debate the questions and formulate the answers, then allow them slowly to percolate: debate and formulation are inseparable from action - and action in the street. The methods of the idealist intellectuals must be la democratie de la rue. The power of the bourgeois-Communist or bourgeois- capitalist state will not surrender unless directly challenged. A wild theory? Yes: but it works] The students fought all night on the barricades on 10 May; the next day the government capitulated.

It was at this point that the student movement passed into the mainstream of politics, indeed history. Beneath the thin veneer of Gaullist 'stability and prosperity' practically every large group in France has a grievance. Real wages have not risen, have actually fallen in some cases over the past two years. There is growing unemployment and underemployment. The peasants fear for their prices when the last EEC barriers fall. Railwaymen, civil servants, busmen, miners and a score of other categories are underpaid. The Bretons are angry, and so are men in Auvergne, Provence, in the Pas de Calais. Even the police have their claims.

All those with a grievance have begun to follow the students' precepts, and if the police are bolshy, who is to stop them? Any state must make enemies; the art is to avoid a conflict with all of them simultaneously. Any state must sometimes use force and sometimes appeasement. The art is to avoid doing both together, and thus losing both respect and popularity. One of the reasons why France today must fascinate any student of politics is that the Gaullist government has contrived to make every mistake in the book. Another reason is that, in its distress, the regime is looking for succour to its natural enemy: the Communist Party.

Yes: in terms of the new realities expressed by Cohn-Bendit and his friends, the CP and the Gaullists are natural allies. Both have forgotten nothing and learnt nothing. Both are rooted in 19th-century concepts. Both have a stake in society - in the status quo - and a good deal to lose by radical change. Both are entombed mummies, which a breath of ideological fresh air could reduce to powder.

Thus we have the extraordinary antics of the CP and the CGT (the Communist trade union) over the last fortnight. First they dismissed Cohn-Bendit and his group as unimportant. Then they were terrified to hear that young workers were joining the students on the barricades. They jumped on the bandwagon in order to put on the brakes, but found themselves careering down the slope. Their men stopped the workers from joining with the students in taking over factories. But they could not halt the takeovers themselves, and were obliged to cover such action with their authority. At every stage their orders and appeals have been for calmness, discipline, etc.

By taking this line, they are confirming everything that Cohn-Bendit and his friends have always said about them. I wrote last week that the Fifth Republic would never be the same again; nor, I think, will Moscow Communism either. It now has powerful enemies on the left, in the heart of Europe.

Once again, the French have given birth to a new revolutionary spirit, which will ultimately enrich the lives of all of us. I would

like to think, without much hope, that Britain had a contribution

to make.

Paul Johnson's report, which appears here in edited form, was first published in the 'New Statesman' of 24 May 1968

(Photographs omitted)