May 1968 – I Love Paris In The Springtime


It may not have escaped your notice that this month marks the 50th anniversary of the riots that took Paris by the scruff of the neck. The widespread violence, of May 1968, resulted in… well not much, apart from transforming Parisian little brats, dependent on their parents’ money into… liberated Parisian little brats, dependent on their parents’ money.

Much has been said about the root causes and consequences of “Mai 68”. I was just 10 at the time, finishing my primary school at the French Lycée in London. My school was still called “Lycée Français de Londres”, and not yet “Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle”. The school represented the very best (or very worse) of Jules Ferry’s idea of universal education. The French education system’s favourite judgement of its innocent and powerless pupils was, “peut mieux faire” (“can do better”). And you wouldn’t believe how many times I got that remark on the end-of-term piece of paper. Of course, it goes without saying that dear old uncle Charlie represented the ideals that the little Parisian brats were trying to get rid of – Fifth Republic good old fashion “repression”.

May 1968 was more than about politics. In fact, I’m quite convinced that politics, at any rate, didn’t even cross the students’ minds, whilst they were courageously defying authority. No, like it or not, May 1968 was all about sex. Nowadays, the French are generally thought of as unbeatable when it comes to affairs of the heart and body. In 1968, however, it seems that they were just as stuck up as the rest of us.

Sigmund Freud would have had a field day, analysing these French revolutionaries. He must be admired for the fact that, decades after his death, the mere mention of his name can stir up passion and hate in the same room. You either love him or hate him, but either way, he’s going to analyse you and bring all your crossed-wires down to one thing – sex.

Even today, 50 years after the Parisian nights, it’s not for nothing that France – le pays de l’amour (the country of love)- that boasts 400 cheeses and 3 Trotskyist candidates at every presidential election, has more than 13,000 registered psychiatrists. Could it be that those problems are still lingering on?

The French like to boast that they invented “mai 68”, but the truth is that the idea of “Peace and Love”, began a year earlier, in 1967, at the Golden Gate Park, in San Francisco. Sex, drugs, and rock’n roll, were the key attributes of a “beat generation”, that was to shock the puritan American society of the 60’s. This was all about dancing, sniffing, and sleeping around.

May 68 had nothing to do with the existential fight to rid the world of working class oppression, because France was booming at the time, and the first “baby-boom” generation was reaching adulthood, going to University, but not sleeping around. 

The French can be proud of carrying out in a couple of weeks, what the rest of the world took much longer to do.

It’s funny how an overabundance of testosterone can be the root cause of a social upheaval that changed the French and world landscapes, for decades to come. If the French police had allowed the little boys to sleep with the little girls, in the little university of Nanterre, situated on the outskirts of Paris, and, had Daniel Cohn-Bendit, icon of this revolution, not been told by a government minister to “jump in the pool”, then May 68 might not have taken place at all. During the opening ceremony of the Nanterre university swimming pool, Cohn-Bendit had politely asked the Youth and Sports Minister, if the boys at Nanterre could pop over to the girls’ dormitory, for a goodnight kiss and a cup of “chocolat chaud”. 

Minister, I’ve read your white paper on youth. Six hundred pages of ineptitude. There’s not a single word on the sexual problems of the young – Daniel Cohn-Bendit, 8th January, 1968

To which the minister replied,

With your looks, you surely have problems in that area. I cannot advise you strongly enough to dive in the pool – François Missoffe, Minister for Youth and Sports, 8th January, 1968

And the rest, ladies and gentlemen, is history. Needless to say that Cohn-Bendit never did jump in the pool. Instead, he serenely mustered up his troops, and marched on Paris.

In all fairness, Minister Missoffe had tried to ask the young people of France what their aspirations were, by means of a national consultation. He ended up by producing a 600-page white paper that did not say very much. Although the minister probably genuinely cared about young people, the national consultation could also be viewed as a clever attempt to lure young people into voting for Charles de Gaulle in upcoming parliamentary elections. The government eventually lost the trust of French voters and, in 1969 President de Gaulle resigned, following a defeat in a referendum on constitutional change.

But May 1968 didn’t stop in May 1968. If the couple of weeks in the middle of spring were essentially a question of overflowing testosterone, women still had to have their share of the spoils. On 26th August 1970, a group of women laid a reef at the foot of the “Arc de Triomphe” to honour the Unknown Soldier’s wife. Chanting the slogan “one man out of two, is a woman”, these brave women marked the birth of the French feminist movement. The time had finally come for women to take charge of having children and orgasms, the one not being a necessary prerequisite for the other. Although use of the contraceptive pill became legal in 1967, prior to 1972, women under the age of 21 had to obtain parental consent for its use, and find a doctor willing to write out the prescription.

Although the fight for sexual liberation for women had been going on for a long time, starting with Simone de Beauvoir, in 1947, this was a new radical approach, based on provocative confrontation, with a zest of Marxism, and a profound deconstruction of the mechanisms of power. This was an attack on the perceived morality of the institutions, as well as institutionalised morality. The body was to become the focal point in the criticism of the moral establishment. 

It all seems a far cry from today’s world of over-inflated egos, widespread individualism, and virtual sex on the internet. Not forgetting, of course, all the different kinds of marriages and genders you can fit into. This being said, let us not forget that the continuing mental and physical discrimination, that women have to fight against, testifies to the fact that the Paris spring of 1968 may have been short and sweet, but is certainly not over, as far as women are concerned, yet alone the “less accepted” genders. The present student unrest, is no longer about sex, but about discrimination applied to university entrance. It’s ironic that one of the focal points of the unrest, is Nanterre, suggesting that ideals may change but places do not.

Paris remains, as it was in 1968, a city that threatens to stagnate in its past whilst outrunning its future. President Macron must be careful that the whole of France, that he wants to reform, does not trip and fall back into its past. The quays of the Seine are so romantic, when bathed in warm spring sunshine, but the river water levels can rise, at any time.