Tuesday, July 08, 2008
Children of '68 (1)
This essay of mine, on the longer term impact of the Paris riots of 1968, appears in the anti-war, anti-globalist magazine The American Conservative. The essay is nearly 2,000 words long, so instead of publishing it all in one go, I'll be serialising it, for easier digestion.
In one corner, a 77-year old general from an old aristocratic family, a war hero and the ruler of his country for the past nine years. In the other, a red-headed young anarchist, preaching the language of liberation and revolution.
Charles de Gaulle was portrayed by the 1968 rioters in Paris as a right-wing reactionary—an old fuddy-duddy hopelessly out of touch with the spirit of the times. Daniel “Dany le Rouge” Cohn-Bendit, unofficial leader of the student rioters, was billed the radical “progressive.” But 40 years on, it’s clear that the real hero of 1968—and the man whom history has totally vindicated—was de Gaulle. Conservatives probably won’t need much convincing of that—but for leftists, too, it’s the general and not Red Dany who should be hailed from the rooftops.
De Gaulle was no right-wing dictator a la General Franco. Distrustful of politicians—he once famously declared “politics are too serious a matter to be left to the politicians”—de Gaulle saw the referendum as the best way a leader could divine the wishes of his people. Always distrustful of the power of money and market fundamentalism, he introduced a mixed economy, a welfare state, and presided over the biggest rise in living standards for ordinary people in French history. “He was a man who did not care for those who owned wealth; he despised the bourgeois and hated capitalism” was the verdict of de Gaulle’s biographer Jean Lacouture. De Gaulle not only did not care for those who owned wealth, he didn’t care much for wealth itself. Despite occupying the highest office in state for ten years, he died in penury—instead of accepting the pension he was entitled to as a retired president and general he only took the pension of a colonel. The contrast between de Gaulle and the money-obsessed career politicians of today could not be greater.
De Gaulle’s foreign policy stressed national sovereignty and pursuing the French—and not the American or anyone else’s—national interest. Having done more than any other Frenchman alive to help liberate his country from Nazi occupation, he was not going to let his country be dominated by any other after the war. De Gaulle felt strongly that French forces should always be under French command. For this reason he took France out of the military command of NATO in 1966. An instinctive “live and let live” anti-imperialist, he pulled French forces out of Algeria and was the strongest Western critic of the war in Vietnam and Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.
Cohn-Bendit of the “Anarchiste Group of Nanterre” was the antithesis of everything de Gaulle stood for. De Gaulle, the archetypal proud Frenchman, had been born into a deeply patriotic family. Cohn-Bendit, born in France to German parents in April 1945, was officially stateless at birth. De Gaulle loved France; Cohn Bendit hated almost everything about it in 1968.
While de Gaulle, the devoted husband and family man, preached social conservatism, Cohn-Bendit advocated extreme libertinism. He first came to national prominence when he interrupted a speech of a minister who was inaugurating a swimming pool at the University of Nanterre to demand free access to the girls’ dormitory. The disturbances of 1968 were kicked off when Cohn-Bendit, together with seven other students, occupied offices and lecture halls of the University of Nanterre and declared the birth of the “22nd March movement.” The student protests quickly spread to the Sorbonne, and soon France was a nation in crisis. Although economic grievances were added to the students’ demands in attempt to bring industrial workers into the dispute, the main motivation behind the protests was social, not economic. “It was a revolt, not a revolution—we wanted to change this old fashioned society,” admits Cohn-Bendit.
The old left were unimpressed. French Communist Party leader George Marchais famously denounced Cohn-Bendit and his fellow student protestors as “sons of the upper bourgeoisie who will quickly forget their revolutionary flame in order to manage daddy’s firm and exploit workers there.” The working class remained skeptical of the demonstrations. They had good reason to be. The French working class had done well out of Gaullism. Under de Gaulle’s dirigiste economic policies: the French economy recorded growth rates unrivalled since the 19th century. In 1964, for the first time in 200 years, France’s GDP overtook that of the United Kingdom. The protestors called for increased industrial democracy, yet this was also a policy long favored by de Gaulle, who announced in a national address on May 24 a referendum that would give the government authority to “amend the economy in favor of the less fortunate” and also to reform universities.