Those of us born and brought up in the Paris suburbs long after May 1968 have never been able to ignore its legacy. The so-called événementsremain a subject of endless discussion, especially now that a full 50 years have passed since France’s most famous pseudo-revolution.
As usual, the nostalgic focus is on thousands of fresh-faced demonstrators battling riot police around the beauty of the Sorbonne. The medieval university was occupied and turned into a symbol of anti-establishment protest. That is why the legions of misty-eyed chroniclers reminisce about a period of exuberant volatility that could have changed French society for the better.
In fact, it did nothing of the sort. There was no brave new world and it is those of us whose futures were effectively ignored by its instigators and the ineffectual reformers who came after them who have most to complain about. Millions of ethnic minority French citizens are as alienated from society as they were half a century ago and that is a cause for national shame.
Let’s start with the real birthplace of May ’68. It was not ancient Paris at all, but the capital’s troubled outer districts where France was struggling to accommodate its former colonial subjects. More specifically, an American-style extension to the Sorbonne was being built in the town of Nanterre. Its campus model was meant to represent inclusion – a chance to open up further education.
Poignantly, the glittering new buildings were taking shape next to the then largest immigrant shantytown in France. It contained 10,000 Algerians without a permanent home, but who were desperate to find low-paid manual work. A 1964 law had officially banned the bidonvilles, but their population was growing.
Revisionists have claimed that the 22 March student movement that occupied Nanterre’s main administrative centre in 1968 was concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised, but there is scant evidence to support this. Instead, the reasons for the action ranged from anger at the rough handling of anti-Vietnam war agitators to a demand for men and women to be able to sleep together in halls of residence.
Examine the photographs and films of those who took to the streets, and you will see that they were overwhelmingly white. The leaders were predominantly middle class too, as were those who produced the music, poetry and other literature that sealed the 1968 myth.
Yes, workers from minority communities participated in the strikes that accompanied the rioting, but lack of identity papers often excluded them from the trade unions that joined the students. As today, many from immigrant backgrounds stayed away from officialdom because of the constant menace of deportation.
They were particularly fearful of the police. Contrary to the misinformation, the brutal reputation of the armed and baton-wielding CRS was not earned in 1968, but during the Algerian war. After one peaceful pro-independence demonstration in Paris on 17 October 1961, up to 300 Algerians were murdered by the CRS. Many were thrown into the Seine and drowned, close to the Sorbonne. Thousands more were rounded up, beaten, even tortured. British historians Jim House and Neil MacMaster described this massacre as “the bloodiest act of state repression of street protest in western Europe in modern history”.
In comparison, ’68 was far less bloody. There were no fatalities and those arrested were generally well treated. Despite dramatic images of burning cars and smashed pavements, the riots were more of an early media spectacular than a genuine display of grievance.
The French economy was doing very well at the time, as the Trente Glorieuses – 30 boom years starting in 1945 – kept the traditional bourgeoisie replete with disposable cash and consumer goods. None had any real stomach for a fight. Some claim Charles de Gaulle’s administration was threatened at one point, but a simple call for new parliamentary elections in June 1968 was enough to end all the trouble
Paris is a city of illusion and those who watched the événements fizzle out as quickly as they started soon began to fantasise, awarding them a significance that was not warranted. Now bidonvilles like the one in Nanterre have turned into “ZUS” – state jargon for areas of decrepit housing, high unemployment and rampant discrimination.
Unlike in Britain, where integration and social mobility have been given a far higher priority, France’s “apartheid” system persists, according to former minister Jean-Louis Borloo whose new report castigates a “national amnesia” and calls for a radical solution.
Pledges are made to pour millions of euros into improving estates, but this really misses the point. What is required is for banlieues residents to be permitted to move into mainstream society and to be guaranteed equal opportunities there.
In other words, they need to be treated like the soixante-huitards, most of whom are now enjoying comfortable retirements as their children and grandchildren prosper in their France – a country of exceptionally high living standards for those from the right backgrounds.
• Nabila Ramdani is a Paris-born journalist and academic of Algerian descent