Student uprising of 1968 still dividing France as Macron mulls celebrations

David Chazan
Students and workers demonstrate between Republique and Denfert Rochereau squares on May 13, 1968 - AFP

It was an anti-establishment uprising that transformed France, but 50 years on the country is divided over whether to commemorate the anniversary of the May 1968 student protests.

Battles with police in the streets of Paris, strikes and occupations of factories and public buildings brought the country to a virtual standstill.

Fearing that revolution or civil war was about to break out, President Charles de Gaulle fled secretly to a military airbase in Germany and then called snap elections.

A year later he resigned after losing a referendum on reforming the Senate and local government.

Right-wingers see the protests as a period of dangerous unrest that polarised society and threatened the established order.

For leftists, they marked a turning-point when old taboos were shattered.

The French protests coincided with demonstrations in the United States against the Vietnam War and the rise of leftist movements in many other Western countries.

Demonstrators at a student protest near La Sorbonne University in Paris Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Protests against Communist regimes also erupted behind the Iron Curtain, in Czechslovakia, Yugoslavia and Poland.

President Emmanuel Macron wants to mark the anniversary, saying he proposes to speak about how utopian thought has been lost in modern politics.

But Laurent Wauquiez, the new leader of the conservative opposition party, The Republicans, described the protests as “the beginning of deconstruction”, when it became “forbidden to forbid”.

He said he would rather commemorate Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1805 victory in the Battle of Austerlitz. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former conservative president, said he wanted to “liquidate the heritage of 1968”.

Many Right-wingers are concerned that commemorations could trigger new civil unrest as rail workers prepare to strike in protest at Mr Macron’s plans to end “jobs-for-life” and allow private competition.

1968 graffiti at Nanterre University, near Paris, reads "Long live the strike, Long live student-worker unity, Long live Marxism" Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a student leader during the protests who later became an MEP, said most French people have “a positive perception” of May 1968 because it encapsulated “the idea of a fairer society”.

Jean-Pierre Le Goff, an academic and writer, questioned whether the protests actually achieved anything.

In his book, Mai ’68, l’héritage impossible (“The Impossible Legacy”), he wrote: “Today’s France is still looking for itself. May ’68? It’s a mistake of youth that we haven’t outgrown yet.”

Mr Macron was initially enthusiastic about holding an official ceremony, but following objections by conservatives, his aides have been circumspect about exactly what form it will take.

Students at Paris's Nanterre University, where the protests began, plan an exhibition on the period.