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Spirit of '68

05/28/08 7:55AM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) Commentator Mike Martin teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School and writes about issues of culture and education. Today he reflects on events that took place in France during the month of May in 1968 - and how they influence attitudes today.  

(MARTIN) In France, they don’t say "Baby Boomer" to describe people born right after World War II. They call them "'68ers," and it’s all because of what happened 40 years ago this month in May 1968. There were a lot of crazy things going on that year: riots and assassinations in the U.S., student revolts in Germany and Mexico, and the burst of hope in Czechoslovakia called the Prague Spring. But for the French May '68 was even more. It was that generation’s Woodstock, Kent State, and Summer of Love all wrapped into one. May '68 gave that generation in France a name, but it also changed France forever; there is clearly a France before 1968, and an entirely different one after.

It all started at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris, where students were protesting conditions in their dorms and classes. But after the Dean closed the campus, the students moved their action downtown to the Sorbonne, where they fought to keep their university open with shovel handles, chair legs, and makeshift helmets. There were negotiations, but the list of student demands grew over time to include a wholesale reinvention of French society. For example, one of their slogans was "Under the cobblestones, the beach." In other words, only by ripping everything up and building something totally new would we be able to get back to nature and happiness.

Of course, the cobblestones were also used to make barricades in the great tradition of Parisian popular revolts, and for many nights running the students also threw them at the CRS, the dreaded French anti-riot troops. Eventually factory workers, dockworkers and truckers joined the young intellectuals, and France was paralyzed by a general strike. The authorities finally made concessions, and France was forever changed.

There have been strikes again this month in France, but this time it’s to keep things they way they are, not to change them. When he came to power, President Nicolas Sarkozy said that the French tradition of social change through protest needs to be more practical in the post-ideological, market-driven world we live in. And Sarkozy has been pushing reforms to roll back many of the social gains that started in May ‘68.

A lot of French are resisting, and even high school students have organized and led street protests. They are opposing government plans to cut teachers. That’s right, French teenagers have gone on strike to get more teachers in their schools, so they can learn in smaller classes.

When I asked my students if they planned on going on strike any time soon, they were honest and said no. And yet, there sure is a lot to protest these days: college costs too much, the dollar buys too little, we’re stuck in two wars we can’t seem to win, and the Baby Boomer Generation is also leaving it to younger generations to figure out how to fix our energy policy, Social Security, and America’s image problem around the world. Come to think of it, a little May '68 spirit - 40 years later - might be just what we need today.
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