The class of '94 demonstrates a generation gap: In 1968 they wanted revolution; in 1994 they want to be part of the consumer society, writes Julian Nundy in Paris

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The Independent Online
THE BOYS have short hair and are clean-shaven; both sexes tend to be neat and careful about their appearance. Words like Mao, Marx and Trotsky never come up in conversation.

The young French students who have pushed the government of Edouard Balladur into retreat over the past month bear little resemblance to their parents who shook the state with the May 1968 riots that paralysed France.

Where the young of 1968 were the highly educated children born in the baby boom that followed the Second World War, were Parisian and were following traditional three-year degree courses in the humanities, the 1994 protesters are mainly from the provinces and on two-year courses in technical or commercial subjects.

Their movement against the lowering of the minimum wage for under-26-year-olds owes hardly anything to student movements of the past, which were left-wing and organised from the centre. And there has so far been no one like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the German-born hero of 1968, who has stolen centre stage.

The 1994 movement, arising from a general fear of the future - perhaps best summarised in a sticker on Paris walls saying: 'Aids, Unemployment, Homelessness, Incomprehension' - has been strongest in cities like Lyons and Nantes, where a spontaneous but dispersed explosion of anger greeted the news that the government was serious about lowering the minimum wage for the young.

The movement left the main students' union, Unef-ID, and its leader, Philippe Campinchi, an uncharismatic 30-year-old, in the cold. It gave way, as with many modern French protest phenomena, to 'co-ordinations', loose organisations that eschew political allegiance and claim only to express the social grievances of one or other group. Such 'co-ordinations' have represented nurses and farmers in recent years, by-passing the established unions.

In 1968, when lecture-halls at the Sorbonne were occupied for days on end for interminable discussions about revolutionary theory, the students of those days - even for those who thought them misguided - seemed articulate and thoughtful. This time, television studios have replaced elegant amphitheatres and discussions peppered with such Gallic phrases as 'super cool' substitute for dialectics.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the Budget Minister and government spokesman, summed up the difference between the two generations: 1968 rejected the consumer society and its children; 1994 was afraid the consumer society would leave it by the roadside.