Mai 68, global crisis and the 2012 Presidential elections

Chris Reynolds

Francois Hollande’s successful nomination as the Socialist Party’s candidate for the 2012 election was confirmed at a convention d’investiture on 22 October 2011. In a speech marking the beginning of his campaign, Hollande set out to differentiate his party and his ideas from those of Nicolas Sarkozy in a number of domains. One interesting line of attack concerned the events of mai 68. Hollande responded to Sarkozy’s now infamous 2007 speech when, between the two rounds of the Presidential election, the future president outlined – in a virulent attack – his desire to see the spirit of mai 68 “liquidated” from French society once and for all. In a clear attempt to present an opposing point of view, Hollande’s nomination speech criticised this stance:

Les piétons de mai 68 qui marchaient la tête dans les étoiles avaient compris qu’il fallait changer. Leur utopie, c’était d’une société fraternelle qui puisse respecter l’homme et la nature, et refuse de faire de la prospérité matérielle la mesure de toute chose.
Et dire que Nicolas Sarkozy voulait en finir avec mai 68. […] Quelle faute de vouloir occulter les aspirations de la jeunesse !
Déjà en ce temps-là, elle croyait qu’un autre monde était possible. A toute époque, il convient d’entendre les indignés. Ils n’ont pas d’âge cher Stéphane Hessel. Ils sont simplement des hommes, des femmes qui considèrent qu’à un moment quand trop de désordre, quand trop d’injustice, quand trop de conservatisme de toute sorte menacent il faut se lever. Celui ou celle qui néglige les indignés, les rejette, est un conservateur.

That Hollande is critical of Sarkozy’s anti-68 rhetoric is not a surprise and is nothing new; he had previously described Sarkozy’s ideas as regressive and reactionary. However, what is interesting is that, at such an early stage, the Socialist candidate felt it necessary to stake a strong claim on the legacy of 1968. This move once again reflects the ongoing debate and relevance of the 1968 events in France but also demonstrates how the current financial crisis has shifted perspectives and is likely to be one of (if not the most) important areas over which the forthcoming campaign will be fought.

In order to make sense of the shift in perspectives one must remember that Sarkozy’s “liquidate 68” speech was made prior to the financial crisis that turned the global economy on its head as well as the “rupture” programme that the UMP candidate promised to deliver. His intention (as discussed elsewhere on this site) in singling out 1968 for such attention was aimed at undermining the propensity in French society towards resistance to change via mass mobilisation. Criticising one of the most symbolic examples of the capacity of the street to make a change was a clear ploy on behalf of Sarkozy to prepare the population for the raft of changes that he was determined to drive through in his bid to modernise France. Given the size of his victory one would have to assume that there was some sympathy amongst the electorate for this anti-68 stance.

However, the 2010 protest movement in opposition to the reform of the retirement system in France – despite ultimately failing to prevent the reform’s successful implementation – was a relatively early indication that a large section of French society still perceived mobilisation, the street and protest as valid means through which they could resist unwelcome reforms. The magnitude of this protest movement suggested that Sarkozy’s crusade to eradicate the spirit of 68 had failed. Just how far off the mark Sarkozy was has become increasingly evident as the ongoing and worsening global financial crisis has continued to bite.

Stephane Hessel’s acclaimed pamphlet Indignez-vous in which he calls on the population to stand up and resist the inequalities and systemic failings which have brought the global economy to its knees has inspired a raft of protest movements around the world. As increasing numbers of indignés have become involved activities reflecting the growing resentment towards the current system and where there is a clear desire to resist the staus quo through words and actions that cannot but stir memories of May/June 1968, it becomes increasingly evident that Sarkozy’s approach has alienated him from (a growing and influential) sector of the electorate. These are the circumstances that allow us to make sense of Hollande’s rush to appropriate the legacy of 68.

The implications of the current crisis are yet to be fully understood. With every passing day it appears as though world leaders are as much at a loss to understand as the average person having to suffer the ever-encroaching consequences of the financial meltdown. Amongst so much uncertainty one thing is for sure; an ever-increasing sector of society is growing frustrated with the political class and its inability to deal with the crisis. Such a desire to turn away from parliamentary politics is evidenced in the sprawling ‘Occupy’ movements taking place all over the world. Hollande and the Socialist party have understood that the crisis is to be a key element in the forthcoming election campaign. Tying the legacy of 1968 to the current crisis (soixantehuitards = indignés) and reminding voters of what Sarkozy thinks of 68 is a clear attempt on behalf of the Socialist leader to hold up his party as that which can help those that the current regime has so badly let down. To what extent they can provide the viable alternative that can harness current frustrations remains to be seen.

This entry was posted in Protest and mobilisation, The crisis beyond the Hexagon, The crisis in history, The politics of crisis. Bookmark the permalink.

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