1968 - The new spectre haunting Europe

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. There is no need to speak of a Students' International, for this implies a common organisation and a programme which do not exist. Pavlovian mutterings, by Lords Butler and Alport, about international communist plotters, simply betray the gentlemen's age and ignorance: they are fighting a bogey laid to rest a decade or more ago. Of course there are contacts between students in different countries, but the student revolt is both less and more than an international conspiracy: it is spontaneous and systematic at the same time. Spontaneous, because these young men and women do not need to be persuaded or regimented into doing what they are doing; systematic because they are inspired by common attitudes, grievances and doctrines, which leap across frontiers.

Anyone fascinated by political processes and public philosophies, be they students, dons, writers or politicians, should 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 in itself, to watch the birth-pangs (perhaps, soon, the murder or even suicide) 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. For too long, those of us who care about politics have been imprisoned in the sterile triangle formed by communism, fascism and bourgeois democracy. Appalled by the choice between the two authoritarian-isms, most of us have struggled wearily to humanise the third, cobbling together every ramshackle variety of "democratic socialism" in the vain attempt to combine material progress, on a mass basis, with a raised quality of life. Often enough we have got neither. Here in Britain, for instance, we have a stagnant economy, in which university students are told we must develop horror weapons in the cause of the export trade, and workers are stampeded by ignorance and demagogy into howling abuse at an even more exploited section of the population, the blacks. No wonder young people look for a fourth choice: and in Paris, it seems to me, they are beginning to find one.

We might have expected that the French, who have given more to political thought than any other nation, would have a unique contribution to make. When the students moved in Prague, Warsaw, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, the United States, even in Britain, how could France - above all Paris - lag behind? Had the French, buried for a decade in paternalism and apathy, lost their taste for debating the way in which society should be organised, and their capacity to suggest fresh solutions? I had myself asked this question some weeks ago, but I need not have worried. When the moment came in France, it was all the more explosive for having been delayed. The French movement, now that it has broken the surface, is seen to be far more sophisticated than its equivalents elsewhere; more deeply grounded in philosophical principles, more adult in its grasp of strategy and tactics; more violent - much more violent - coming from a race which respects intransigence and pronounces lovingly the words of Danton: de l'audace, toujours de l'audace! Above all, the French movement has style, a certain elegant flourish to all it does, which catches the heart and makes one appreciate that politics is not just a utilitarian science, but also an art. In the courtyard of the Faculty of Letters, the heart and brain of the movement, a thousand flowers not only bloom but load the spring air with intellectual incense. Young socialists, Marxists, Christians, Maoists, anti-CP Marxist-Leninists, Guevarists, Fidelistos, Breton nationalists, Basques and Spaniards, young people from Germany and France and Britain, shout their wares and debate their principles. On the walls, posters hand-painted in the Ecole des Beaux Arts proclaim a score of different creeds. In the overflowing lecture halls and corridors every conceivable topic is examined: forms of revolutionary action, birth control, the nature of the state, how to fight the police, workers' control, free love, the uses of exams, Vietnam, marriage and divorce, the nature of the university. Workers come 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 Odeon 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. Most of us, all along, have missed the real significance of the students' demands. Yes, we say, we agree you have a right to reforms in your universities, to greater control in their direction and more say in their curricula; but what has this to do with more general political action? It has taken the French to get the argument across, and I doubt if even they could have done it without Cohn-Bendit. This jovial young Robespierre, with his flaming red hair and piercing blue eyes, has the true revolutionary's gift of combining a philosophy which can be reasoned, slogans which can be shouted and a mad-dog taste for taking positions by frontal assault. When he speaks, men listen; where he leads, they follow. He makes the impossible become possible, simply by doing it.

Well, say the students, why don't we stick to reforming the universities? Because to do so would be futile. There are now 600,000 students in France; there will be more every year. Society has laid it down that those of sufficient intelligence, who work hard enough at high school, may automatically enter university. Needless to say, no provision is made for them when they get there. There are not enough teachers, lecture rooms, halls of residence, libraries, laboratories. The courses laid down for them are, for the most part, idiotic, the teaching old-fashioned, the exam system medieval or at best 19th century. But all these problems are secondary; even if they can be reformed by student agitation they leave the wider problem untouched. What is the point of improving the structure of higher education by reformism, if the rest of society remains the same? Paris University, for instance, can now churn out 5,000 sociologists a year. They are, of course, taught in a silly way. But supposing you revolutionise their teaching, you are still left with the problem of what they are to do in the world outside. The cleverer ones become teachers, and churn out more sociologists; the others become public-relations advisers in factories, and suchlike, or scrabble around to get a toehold in another profession: at worst flunkeys, at best privileged acolytes serving the altars of capitalism, helping to buttress a rotten society which pursues consumption for its own sake.

Can you reform the medical school without at the same time questioning the assumptions on which the medical profession is organised and the functions of medicine in society? How to "improve" science courses without asking what science is supposed to do for mankind? Can you re-plan the Political Science Faculty without re-planning the political system? After all, the university is the matrix of society, the institution which produces its elites, assumptions and objectives. Will a real reform be permitted, entailing as it must the eventual transformation of society outside? Not on your life. 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.

I hasten to add that the students cannot produce all the answers, but they are asking questions which have never been posed in the context of a political offensive, and with a stridency which makes it impossible for their elders to brush them aside. For here comes the second contribution of the Paris movement. 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 - and action in the street. The methods of the idealist intellectuals must be la democratie de la rue. The power of the bourgeois-capitalist state will not surrender unless directly challenged. A wild theory? Yes: but it works! The students fought all night on the barricades on 10 May; the next day the government capitulated. And not just a Fourth Republic government hanging on to a trembling majority, but the arrogant and authoritarian Gaullist state, armed to the teeth with statutory powers and the physical apparatus of repression.

It was at this point that the student movement passed into the mainstream of politics, indeed history. Beneath the veneer of Gaullist stability practically every large group in France has a grievance cherished through years of futile negotiations. Real wages have not risen in two years. There is growing unemployment. The peasants fear for their prices when the last EEC barriers fall. Railwaymen, civil servants, busmen, miners and a score of other categories are underpaid. The Bretons are angry and so are men in Auvergne, Provence, the Pas de Calais. Even the police have their claims. All those with a grievance have begun to follow the students' precepts, and if the police are bolshy, who is to stop them?

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser