rachel greene on Tue, 5 May 1998 00:55:27 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> "When France is bored... "

[Slightly edited.-T]

Today's students bored by May '68

By Jon Henley

Monday May 4, 1998

The posters these days are more prosaic. Instead of "Be realistic,
demand the impossible", there is an appeal for solidarity with the
unemployed; instead of "Run, comrade, the old world is behind you",
there are demands for cleaner air; instead of "Beneath the paving
stones, the beach", there is a notice of student council elections.

The University of Paris-X at Nanterre - a sprawl of concrete blocks
squeezed between railway lines, a motorway and council estates - feels a
long way from the Latin Quarter where, 30 years ago this morning,
Parisians surveyed the wreckage of the first serious student riot of May

Inundated with commemorations, today's Nanterre students know it was
their predecessors who provided the first spark for the would-be
revolution that became the defining event of postwar France.


"It was about paving stones and parties and degrees for everyone,"
hazarded Vanessa, a psychology student. "Free love, all that."


On March 14 1968, Le Monde ran a now-famous article, "When France is
bored... " The author complained that French youth was apathetic.

"Students are demonstrating, moving, fighting, in Spain, Italy, Belgium,
Algeria, Japan, America, Egypt, Germany, even Poland," he wrote. "They
feel they have conquests to undertake, a protest to make heard.
Meanwhile, French students are concerned about whether the girls of
Nanterre can have free access to the boys' rooms... "


Soon afterwards a protest against the arrest of a Nanterre student for
smashing the windows of the American Express office led to a sit-in and
the founding of the Movement of March 22, headed by the same Danny the

On May 3, when the university was closed, the enrages of Nanterre were
among the thousands of students who occupied the Sorbonne. And by May 20
- after a month of riots, barricades and tear gas, and thousands of
arrests and injuries - about 10 million workers were on strike.


Nanterre, a largely unsuccessful attempt to create an American-style
campus on the western outskirts of Paris for the Sorbonne's overflow,
was completed in 1963, housing 20,000 students. Its student union
leader, Sarah Benichou, insists that the 35,000 now enrolled have plenty
to fight for.

"The education system remains hierarchical and elitist. This place is
overpopulated, under-resourced, badly in need of renovation and
chaotically organised. Its very lay-out encourages militancy."

But Jean-Francois Godchau, a Nanterre economics lecturer and, 30 years
ago, Ms Benichou's predecessor as union president, sees little in her
militancy to compare with his.

"Back then I passed out tracts saying 'Never work'," he said. "Now I
have students forming investment clubs and enrolling for a fifth year in
the hope they'll stand a better chance of employment.

"Yes, the economic and social situation is completely different. But we
had a real revolutionary ideal; we genuinely thought we could bring
about a humane revolution in France: a Cuba or a China. And, despite
myself, I still think that's a little bit more worthwhile than an
investment club."

Today most Nanterre students commute from the wealthy districts of
Paris. Only about 1,500 live in the halls of residence, where boyfriends
and girlfriends are free to stay for up to seven nights a month.

"Maybe that's what it was about," said Stefan, a history student.
"Politically, May 1968 sank. But socially... There were those slogans,
'The more I join in the revolution, the more I want to make love', 'I
love you - say it with cobblestones'.

"At least now we can have sex when we want with whom we want."

Copyright Guardian Media Group plc 1998
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