France unmoved by memories of a revolutionary summer: Julian Nundy looks back on the May 1968 riots, when students in Paris brought power to the people

Click to follow
THE weather was beautiful. Procul Harum's 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' and Georgie Fame with 'The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde' were in the Top 20. And one of the world's oldest democracies had juddered to a halt.

Twenty-five years ago, May was not just any May, it was May 1968. France all but closed down. Some believed it was a second French revolution. May 1968 became synonymous with chaos and revolutionary zeal as the post-war baby-boomers, initially angered by university reform, challenged the consumer society, erecting barricades round the Sorbonne, invading the Odeon theatre and setting fire to the Bourse.

As the population joined in, there were reports of drivers helping student rioters to push their own cars into the road to be set alight. It was, said President Charles de Gaulle, inmaitrisable - uncontrollable - and nothing could be done until the movement, which never had any real direction or aim, became exhausted.

The protests moved to the provinces and workers joined in, but the centre was Paris and the main actors were the students. Student unrest, provoked by reform that made university courses less classical and more job-oriented, had simmered since the autumn. The turning point was a demonstration on the Nanterre campus near Paris on 22 March.

The photographs of that time invariably showed the helmeted CRS riot police, batons swinging, charging groups of middle-class youngsters, or Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the main celebrity of the time, cheekily staring down a policeman, a symbol of 'people power'. Ironically, nowadays, with the baby-boomers in middle age, it is the police, and particularly the police chiefs, they single out for praise. Maurice Grimaud, the Paris prefect of police, is remembered for a memorandum he wrote to his men, telling them that to hit a man on the ground 'is to hit yourself'.

On 'the night of the barricades', on 10 May, when the protesters built huge barricades, many now recall the patience of men who, under constant insult and provocation, waited hours until they were given the order to charge. Mr Grimaud has said he was relying on 'the last metro', hoping that at bed-time most would disperse. 'Too bad,' says Marc Kravetz, a student leader and now a journalist at Liberation, 'There was a heat-wave and nobody wanted to go home.'

Over the next two weeks, the students' occupation of the city became absolute, with the police protecting just the Elysee Palace and the Interior Ministry. It was then that the absence of any plan became evident. The students could have taken over parliament but never did, proving a lack of intent to take real power.

On 24 May, De Gaulle offered a referendum on workers' say in their companies. On 29 May, he disappeared, going to West Germany to prepare French troops there to put down the insurrection at home. He returned the next day, announced that he would not step down, reneged on the referendum, dissolved parliament and called new elections. On 31 May, huge demonstrations brought out the silent majority. A month later, elections brought the right back into government with a massive majority.

Ironically, it was the decision of the classical trade unions, the Communist-led CGT and the pro-Socialist CFDT, to join May 1968 on 13 May that led in part to the end. The 'Grenelle' talks between the government and the unions led to accords that helped stop workers' occupations of their factories.

Francois Mitterrand is said to believe that May 1968 sullied the left and delayed his chances of election to the presidency by 10 years. The participants point to the social reforms that followed under President Valery Giscard d'Estaing in the 1970s, such as the legalisation of abortion, as the movement's real achievement.

A striking feature of the 25th anniversary is the lack of interest it has provoked in France. Magazine and newspaper articles have appeared, but nothing of any size. 'I only get calls from foreign journalists,' said one student leader of 1968.

One surprise now, given the political enthusiasm at the time, is how few went into politics proper. Bernard Kouchner, the former humanitarian action minister, and Brice Lalonde, the former environment minister and ecologist leader, are the most notable exceptions. So is the German-born Mr Cohn-Bendit, who is a deputy mayor of Frankfurt.

The media, however, is peppered with people from those days. The best known is Serge July, a Maoist then, who founded Liberation 20 years ago and remains its editor. Rene Frydman, another Maoist, is head of the maternity service of a Paris hospital while Benny Levy, Maoist and former secretary to Jean-Paul Sartre, teaches at the Strasbourg Yeshiva.

(Photograph omitted)