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8 May 2008updated 27 Sep 2015 5:20am

The French revolution

In May '68, Paul Johnson, the then editor of the New Statesman, extolled Parisian student power in a

By Paul Johnson

A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of student power. As in 1848, each outbreak in each 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. Anyone who is fascinated by political processes and public philosophies should make every effort to go to Paris now. For what is happening there is of great importance not only to France but to the world. To be there is a political education, to watch the birth-pangs 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.

The French movement is seen to be far more sophisticated than its equivalent elsewhere; more deeply grounded in philosophical principles and more adult in its grasp of the strategy and tactics of political action. In the overflowing lecture halls and corridors of the Faculty of Letters, every conceivable topic is examined: forms of revolutionary action, birth control, the nature of the state, Vietnam, the role of parents, the nature of the university. Workers come there 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 Odéon Theatre. De Gaulle 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. The university is the matrix of society, the institution which produces its elites, assumptions and objectives; 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.

A wild theory?

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. 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 in the street. A wild theory? Yes: but it works! The students fought all night on the barricades on 10 May; the next day the government, the arrogant and authoritarian Gaullist state, capitulated.

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At this point 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, long cherished through years of futile negotiations. 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 respect and popularity. The Gaullist government has contrived to make every mistake in the book. And in its distress, the regime is looking for succour to what, in political terms, is its natural enemy: the Communist Party bureaucracy.

In terms of the new realities, however, the CP and the Gaullists are natural allies. Both have a good deal to lose by radical change. Both look to Moscow, in their different ways: to maintain the continuity of Gaullist foreign policy is almost as important to Moscow as to de Gaulle himself. 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 [General Confederation of Labour] over the past fortnight. First they dismissed the students as unimportant. Then when bodies of young workers joined them 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 hands with the students in taking over factories. But they could not halt the takeovers themselves.

At every stage their orders and appeals have been for calmness, discipline, etc. As such they have been praised for their moderation and sense of responsibility by the Figaro, organ of the French bourgeoisie, and given eager publicity by the Gaullist TV/radio network. What a fate for any CP which hopes for a long-term future! And, worst of all, they are confirming, in theory and in practice, everything that the students have always said about them. The Fifth Republic will never be the same again; nor, I think, will Moscow communism. It now has powerful enemies on the left, in the heart of Europe. Once again, the French have given birth to a revolutionary new 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.

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