Sunday, Aug. 10, 2003

Paris, France: 1968

May 1968 was a grand movement of liberation in the American sense, but also a movement of simple respiration. The French state then [under President Charles de Gaulle] was a symbol of oppression. It seemed to have a lid on everything, with state-run television and radio putting out permanent propaganda.

Suddenly, it became apparent that the state wasn't all-powerful after all, and for many of us everything seemed to even smell different. What we didn’t sense was the real worry the revolt provoked in traditional France. It was a good thing the left didn’t win [national elections] until later.

The communists feared a movement they couldn't control, and the democratic left was in rebellion against bourgeois institutions — so we weren't ready to run those institutions. Everyone was into the 'cult of spontaneity,' which was, of course, a very bourgeois thing anyway.

But even if there was no immediate political result of May 1968, the fruits came later. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing [elected President in 1974] was a conservative, but the spirit of 1968 was there when he legalized abortion and lowered the voting age to 18.

Eventually, the Socialist Party became the home for a whole faction of soixante-huitards (1968 rebels) like me. That had to happen so François Mitterrand could reform his party and, 13 years later, bring it to victory.

Jack Lang is the former Minister of Culture and Education and now a Socialist deputy in the National Assembly