The expression “Mai 68” covers two distinct phenomena. The one that remains in our memories the most is of course the student revolt, but too often we forget the second: the great general strike, which, from the 13th to the 27th of May, spontaneously mobilized between 7 and 9 million strikers, preventing the papers from being published and the mail from circulating. This strike was both the first general strike to occur in a country that had reached the stage of mass consumption, and the last that France has ever seen unfold. So we would be wrong to underestimate the importance of this second event.
The personal memory that I retain from it is that of a suspended moment. Time had ceased to elapse in its habitual manner. I spent, like many people, my days in the Quartier latin, where the spectacle was permanent: occupied buildings, unfurled banners, street auctions, marches. It was turmoil, but a sort of gentle turmoil. Public authorities were absent, the police had decided let things be. Visibly, from the highest levels they waited for the movement to extinguish itself, which didn't fail to happen after three weeks, with practically no dead to lament.
The question of knowing if something really happened in Mai 68 still arises today. Would the social mutations that we generally ascribe to the demonstrations of the month of May have even happened if we hadn't erected barricades in Paris? For my part, I have the impression that Mai 68 was the consequence, not the cause, of a vast transformation of society that was happening far before. When the journalist Pierre Viansson-Ponté, a few months before Mai 68, wrote in a still famous article that “France is bored,” the modernization of France was already essentially accomplished. The true cut-off point situates itself at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s, with the development of television, the revolution of homemaking, the appearance of the long playing record, etc. It resulted in a deep gap between daily life and the institutions. Mai 68 was a consequence of this gap, and a way to erase it at the same time.
Furthermore, there were three currents, three very different tendencies or even postures in the movement of the month of May. Firstly the “revolutionary” posture, symbolized by the watchword: “Power comes from the end of a rifle!” It often took on anachronistic or surrealist aspects. In the Théâtre de l’Odéon, they reenacted the fall of the Commune of 1871, they impersonated Lenin, they masqueraded as Red Guards. It was puerile and rather amusing.
Then there was a much more interesting posture. Influenced by Situationism and the writings of Guy Debord, Henri Lefebvre or Jean Baudrillard, it gathered those who wanted to “change life,” put “imagination in power” and “poetry in the street,” even “hang the last communist with the entrails of the last capitalist,” it called for a systematic critique of “the society of the spectacle and consumption.” It also developed a rigorous critique of the capitalist system and mercantile values, demanding that the economy submit to politics, contrasting the system of giving and counter-giving to exchange value, pleading for a renewal of social relations of an organic type, emphasizing ecological problems, etc.
Unfortunately it was not this tendency that won, but the third, the purely hedonistic posture that pretty much epitomizes the slogans of the era like: “unhindered enjoyment” or “under the paving stones, the beach.” This posture didn't critique capitalism so much as it did authority in all its forms. It desired permissiveness where the other advocated struggle. So it's quite logical that its representatives quickly saw that this very bourgeois society, whose most outdated forms they only ever denounced, offered them the best guarantee of “enjoyment” as they understood it, in the individualism of consumption. The sociologist Jacques Julliard made a very deep observation on this subject by underlining that the militants of Mai 68, when they denounced traditional values, “did not know that these values (honor, solidarity, heroism) were, by definition, the same as those of socialism, and that by terminating them, they opened the way to the triumph of bourgeois values: individualism, rational calculation, efficiency.”
The Giscard years essentially realized of the transformations towards which the new moral condition tended. In this sense, the “sixty-eighter heritage” was not leftism (when 400,000 militants thronged the funeral of the Maoist Pierre Overney on March 4th 1972, they were actually witnessing their own burial), but the worst of what we saw appear in Mai 68: the rise of individualism and the ideology of well-being, the destruction of social bonds, the left's rallying to the logic of the market, the theory of gender and the “fight against all discrimination,” the generalization of individual desires, the omnipotence of the ideology of human rights, etc.
Thus the left was definitively cut off from the people, the communist party (or what remained of it) became social-democratic and the socialists became left liberals. Critical thought collapsed. As for “sexual liberation”, it has proved to be, as one could expect, a vast hoax. Today, a new moral order is being established every day, on the basis of “singular thought” [Note: The original French term «pensée unique »is difficult to translate exactly, under the rule of « pensée unique »everyone must think the same. « Pensée unique » can be compared to « monnaie unique », « marché unique », « Dieu unique », etc.] and “political correctness.” And many former sixty-eighters have only retained an indestructible, intolerant, and hateful “anti-fascist” posture from their past commitment, which is only a smokescreen allowing them to forget their disavowals.
The Figure of our times is that of the Penitent. Hence the immense nausea aroused by so many betrayals. Could those who chanted “it's only a start, continue the fight!” still look at themselves in the mirror today? What about those who marched, singing “Let's march, comrades! March boldly to the fire! Beyond the fusillades, liberty awaits us!”? I think about Serge July, former “military” leader of Gauche Prolétarienne, who became the director of a daily paper for liberal fifty year olds that saw its sales double on the occasion of Lady Di's funeral. About Bernard Kouchner, who went from Médecins du monde to ministerial cabinets. About the ex-Trotskyite Henri Weber, a socialist senator today. About André Glucksmann, author of the very Maoist Discours de la guerre, re-converted into rabid anti-Putinism. Those ones and many others, shamelessly went from the Mao collar to the Rotary Club, as Guy Hocquenghem wrote, those who pretended “to serve the people” and who made a career at the price of their disavowals, do they still dream of the “pretty month of May” at night?
Every ten years, we ritually commemorate the events of Mai 68. Today is the fiftieth anniversary, and I'm not sure that this type of celebration still inspires the crowds, especially among the youngest. Today the first militants of the Mouvement de libération des femmes (MLF) are past the age of abortion and those who barricaded the Quartier latin are concerned with their prostate above all. It would be time to turn the page.