French mood far from revolutionary despite lingering May '68 spirit

PARIS (Reuters) - There’s a whiff of revolution again at the Sorbonne in Paris, 50 years on from the May 1968 student protests that mushroomed into a nationwide movement and brought France to its knees.

FILE PHOTO: Students protest against Macron's university reform in front of the Sorbonne university in Paris, France, April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/File Photo

In scenes reminiscent of the 1968 revolt, students blocked entrances to the university’s Latin Quarter campus, shouted slogans over megaphones and stockpiled petrol bombs.

The new generation of protesters want to halt President Emmanuel Macron’s wide-ranging economic reforms and some hope there will be a convergence of struggles similar to the 1968 movement that almost toppled Charles de Gaulle’s government.

“We think about May ‘68 a lot inside,” said Marianne Kli, 19, an art history student protesting at the Sorbonne’s campus in eastern Paris. “History has shown that governments can cave in - even those as powerful as Macron’s.”

It may not be so easy this time around. The 1968 protests were part of an international movement, but today many people are sufficiently worried about long-term employment prospects to think twice about taking to the streets.

What started in 1968 as a revolt by male students defying rules banning them from sleeping with female counterparts in dormitories was a backlash against a conservative and paternalistic social order no longer in tune with the times.

The student revolts then spread to factories across France, with strikes by 7 million workers looking for higher pay paralyzing a highly industrialized economy that was booming.

Now, France has an unemployment rate of almost 9 percent that has remained stubbornly high a decade after the global financial crisis, providing a less favorable backdrop for strikes by those who don’t have iron-clad public sector jobs.

“The demands of 1968 were made in a context where you didn’t have this fear of the future you can see today, this pessimism about jobs,” said Henri Rey, a political analyst at the Sciences Po university who took part in the May 1968 events.

“It was part of a worldwide movement, with this idea that the world was going towards more social justice, on a backdrop of great optimism,” he said.


In his first 10 months in office, Macron has watered down France’s strict labor laws, defying unions who failed to stop what they saw as the biggest attack yet on a cherished social model protective of workers’ rights.

The 40-year-old is now dealing with rolling strikes by rail workers over a shake-up of state-run SNCF, student protests over higher education reform, a pay dispute at Air France and anger among pensioners over higher social security levies.

Yet after two weeks of railway strikes that unions want to carry on for three months, public opinion has turned in favor of Macron’s transport plan, which includes ending job-for-life guarantees and other perks.

According to a poll by Elabe published on April 11, 58 percent of those surveyed backed Macron’s reform.

Workers in the private sector, where union membership has fallen dramatically since 1968, have largely ignored the calls for strikes.

High school students are also not following the lead of their university counterparts, even though the planned reforms may affect their further education choices.

Many are more focused on crucial end-of-year exams they see as indispensable to avoid joining the ranks of the unemployed.

A defiant Macron struck a firm tone on Thursday, saying he would not back down: “The professionals of disorder must understand that there is law and order in this country.”

Having swept to power last May with his own upstart movement, Macron has also not refrained from using revolutionary rhetoric himself, promising in his book entitled “Revolution” to transform France into a leading 21st century power.

In 1968, impatience with de Gaulle, an ageing president who had ruled France with an iron fist for almost a decade, was one reason for the riots. Now, some seem willing to give their newly elected young leader more time to prove himself.

“One of the rallying cries of May 68 was ‘10 years is enough’. Today, we’ve only had 10 months of Macron,” Rey said.

Reporting by Michel Rose; editing by David Clarke