France: ’68 Riots This May?

In May 1968, there were demonstrations in Paris, first among students, but as the month wore on, workers went on strike; gas was no longer delivered to gas stations, few people could drive and the whole country came to a standstill. Shortly afterwards, Charles de Gaulle, President of the French Republic since 1958, hero of the Second World War and leader of France for a short time during the reconstruction of governmental structures after 1945, resigned.  It was the end of an era, and the riots have become part of French folklore and a symbol of a change of lifestyle.  People are now asking “Could May 2013 be a replay of 1968?”

I had been in Paris in March 1968 for a conference of French academics working on development issues in Africa and Asia.  The first students’ demands had just started in the Paris-area universities and focused on the right of students to stay overnight in what were then single-sex dormitories.  All the professors with whom I talked thought that the demands were only for the possibility of increased sexual relations and that once students could sleep together, the students would go back to their studies, and everything would calm down.

By May, the students were demanding more possibilities for sex but also fundamental changes in the university system and ultimately radical changes in society. The traditional political parties, the Gaulists in power but also the Catholic Center and the Socialists and Communist Left were unable to understand the protests or take the leadership of the protest movement, largely led by young people who were members of no political party. While, ultimately, the traditional political structures and the traditional elite won out, there were a certain number of permanent reforms.  Structures in the universities and in society whose usefulness had come to an end but which lasted by habit were broken.  One can still speak of a pre-May’68 and a post-May’68 society.

Again, May ‘13 has its start in a discussion of sexual issues that serious political people hope will go away quickly so that real matters can be considered. However, sex has a way of driving passions in a manner that debates on the length of unemployment compensation does not.

During the election campaign that brought Francois Holland to power nearly a year ago, one campaign promises was that legislation to introduce same-sex marriage would be put to Parliament. It was one of a long list of campaign promises. The campaign, which was carried out within an economy in recession, a high level of unemployment and foreign policy difficulties in Asia and Africa, did not focus on same-sex marriage.

There already existed a PAC — Civil Solidarity Pact — for both same-sex and heterosexual couples.  In practice, nearly 90 per cent of the PACS are heterosexual couples who want some sort of legal framework for their couple without the cultural hang-ups which are related to marriage.  However, the PAC had been originally created for same-sex unions.

There were enough people in gender-orientation groups who pushed for same-sex weddings that the issue was taken up in the election campaign. Same-sex marriage legislation was easier to get across in the Socialist-majority Parliament than to reverse the unemployment trend.

Opponents of the government saw an opportunity to gain advantage by defending marriage as only between a man and a woman (the current terminology in the laws concerning marriage).  There are, no doubt, some people who are ideologically convinced that same-sex relations are not moral or are “against nature”.  There is opposition to same-sex marriage from religious Catholics, Jews and Muslims, although the representative religious organizations have tried to stay out of the debate or to keep a “low profile”. Nevertheless, conservative Catholic groups have taken a visible lead with demonstrations in which banners with the Sacred Heart of Jesus are widely flown.

Street demonstrations against same-sex marriage brought up to one million people to the streets of Paris with large demonstrations in other cities as well. As in 1968, the demonstrations were led by people who were not known as political leaders. In 1968, the leaders had been students and young assistant professors, sometimes members of nearly invisible Trotskyite currents. Today, the demonstration leaders are people from outside electoral politics with some far-Right groups which come out from the woodwork whenever there are large demonstrations, usually looking for a fight with the police, fights which then becomes the television news.

On April 23, the same-sex marriage law was passed by the Parliament, 331 votes for 235 in opposition despite unauthorized demonstrations around the Parliament buildings. The next stage, which will probably be in May, is a decision on the law by the Constitutional Council.  The Council is not a French version of the US Supreme Court. It does not deal with court cases but only with legislation: is the law in conformity with the Constitution or not?  The Council’s decision will no doubt bring people out into the streets again in the hope of what some have called a “French Spring”.

As in 1968, the French society is not able to deal creatively with a number of basic issues, especially the French industrial and economic structures in a globalized world society.  Although Holland has been in office for only one year, unlike the 10-year span of De Gaulle, he has been on the political scene so long as Secretary General of the Socialist Party that many people want someone new. While history does not “repeat itself”, it will be useful to watch the riots of May in France.

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.