Before coming to power in 2007, perhaps the most controversial – or in any case most discussed – aspect of the future President’s election campaign was his now infamous call for a liquidation of the spirit of mai 68. Despite unquestionably being inspired by electioneering in order to secure the hard-right vote, there are other more fundamental reasons and objectives behind Nicolas Sarkozy’s attack.
In fact, his motivations can be said to fit an ongoing trend that has seen the events of May-June 1968 go from being seen as the most significant social protest movement in post-war France to being presented as little more than a student-led tantrum that has caused more trouble than it was actually worth. This process has facilitated the emergence of an official history of 1968 that hides the true magnitude of what actually took place, who was involved, why and what the impact has been.
The current situation in France provides a beneficial juncture through which to assess whether or not Sarkozy has been successful in his quest to exorcise the ghost of 1968. When one considers just how prominent references to the ’68 events have been over the last few months one would have to argue that the President has failed in his crusade. This is not the first time (and it surely will not be the last) we have heard the inevitable allons nous vivre un autre mai 68? In fact, every time there has been a major protest movement in the last 40 years, the very same question has arisen.
The reality is that any comparison with what happened during the spring of 1968 is impossible. Late 1960s France was faced with a set of circumstances that are in no way comparable to those of today. In fact they are incomparable to any other time in recent French history. The exceptionalism of the times explains the exceptionalism of the events and makes any repeat of them impossible. Nevertheless, that does not mean that they are without influence.
The significance of 1968 for understanding what is going on in France today lies in that French reflex to tap into historical traditions as a source of inspiration for today. When trying to understand what separates British apathy from French militancy one must take into consideration the differences in how both nationalities relate to the past. The French can look back on past events and feel that they can make a difference. Why? Because moments like 1968 showed that the la rue remains a powerful weapon through which the population can have an influence. What do the Brits look back to? Thatcher breaking the back of the Unions and Tony Blair’s government completely ignoring the huge wave of protest in opposition to the Iraq conflict. Experiences and lessons from the recent past are different; as a result so too are mentalities.
When references to 1968 abound, one must not understand this as a desire for another mai 68. Instead, they can be explained by a desire to maintain the capacity of the general population to make a difference through protest. Sarkozy’s attack on 1968 must then be understood not simply as a criticism of the events but also (and perhaps with one eye on what he knew would be in store in the event of his victory) an attempt to undermine the inherent French reflex to be prepared to block reform when in disagreement. So, has Sarkozy managed to ‘liquidate’ the spirit of 1968? Given how things have played out in recent weeks, dans ses rêves peut-être…