In Paris and Nantes, a student revolt simmered for months, then boiled over in May of 1968. Students and activists of that generation became known as the “soixante-huitard’s,” or sixty-eighters. Think of them as French hippies with a hard, revolutionary edge.
On May 2, The French government closed Nantes University. On May 3, the activist student unions in Paris called meetings. Their professors called the police. Riots resulted, and instead of dispersing under attack from police using truncheons and tear gas, the students dug in. They constructed barricades of burning cars, ripped up the cobblestones, and fought back.
Other students, communists, and labor unionists pitched in across the country in support of the Paris and Nantes students. The· government nearly fell. At one point, the French president, Charles de Gaulle (named after a busy, rundown airport), was hiding at an air force base in Germany, preparing to admit defeat.
The goals of the protesters were a mixed bag of communism and anarch~ and quite revolutionary. Their slogans included:
Nous ne voulons pas d’un monde OU la certitude de ne pas mourir de faim s’echange contre Ie risque de mourir d’ennui.
We want nothing of a world where the certainty of not dying from hunger comes in exchange for the risk of dying from boredom.
Depuis 1936 j’ai lutte pour les augmentations de salaire. Mon pere avant moi a lutte pour les augmentations de salaire. Maintenant j’ai une tele, un frigo, une vw: Et cependant j’ai vecu toujours la vie d’un con. Ne negociez pas avec les patrons. Abolissez-les.
Since 1936 I have fought for wage increases. My father before me fought for wage increases. Now I have a TV, a fridge, a Volkswagen. Yet my whole life I’ve been a chump. Don’t negotiate with the bosses. Abolish them.
Now, in 2006, the students and unions and communists are protesting again. What set them off? Legislation designed to make it easier for French companies to hire and fire young people in a country where jobs are theoretically secure but unemployment is high.
The protesters think they are the nouveaux soixantehuitards, but they are not; they are faux nouveaux soixanthuitards. The soixante-huitard’s wanted radical reform, but today’s wannabe revolutionaries cry for the status quo.
In fact, they feel that their “world where the certainty of not dying from hunger comes in exchange for the risk of dying from boredom” is slipping away or being swept away by the forces of international capitalism. They very much want a return to the life of a chump with “a T~ a fridge, and a Volkswagen.” And they want to keep the bosses, as long as the bosses must hire but can’t fire.
In one thing, however, these protesters and the great majority of French people resemble the soixante-huitard’s – they believe that all goods and ills come from the government and the institutions that it controls directly or indirectly. Therefore, they love to petition the government. /Ill faut se manifester,” they say. One must show oneself and protest. Middle-aged housewives repeat this as a reliable platitude. “Tu vas ala manif?” or “Are you going to the protest?” is heard in Paris as often as “Shall we have a cup of tea?” is heard in London. The French march on Paris by the hundreds of thousands in support of or against the pettiest of reforms.
And of course ii’s nice to he the hand that gives and takes. According to a poll cited in The Economist, three-quarters of young French people want to become civil servants. Such ambition!
Here in America, “civil servant,” “bureaucrat,” and “government man” are slurs. I love that about this country.
Unfortunately, we look to our government more and more for help. Think Katrina. Maybe someday when you ask your little ones what they want to be when they grow up, they will say, UA civil servant!” When that sad day comes, you can always blame the French concept of the state; it inspired Napoleon, Marx, and Stalin. It has infected the world for centuries.