The March of Time, Washington and Paris

"Everywhere I hear the sound of marchin', charging feet, cause summer's here and the time is right for fighting in the street."  The words were written in 1968 by Mick Jagger, who said he wrote them after an antiwar rally at the U.S. Embassy in London.  He was inspired by the student rioters in Paris in May 1968.  At that time, protests in various countries of Europe, in the U.S., in Mexico City, and in Brazil were directed against the Vietnam War.  The most spectacular event, the May Days in Paris, was a student-led protest movement that began on March 22, 1968 as an antiwar rally at Nanterre University.  It became a revolt against the political and academic establishment.

It is tempting to compare those events on their fiftieth anniversary with the organized demonstrations, the March for Our Lives, on March 24, 2018, protesting gun violence in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere in the U.S., resulting from the murder of students on February 14, 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 were killed by a teenage gunman.  The D.C. march attracted an estimated crowd of 800,000 and was financed by celebrities such as George and Amal Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Spielberg, and the Gucci group, along with pop artists and performers.

In his address on March 25, 2018 at the Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis, without specifically alluding to the Washington demonstration, urged young people not to let themselves be manipulated.  "Young people," he directed, "you have it in you to shout.  It's up to you not to keep quiet."  Certainly, young people in 2018 have done this, as they did in May 1968.

Since the writings of Polybius, the Greek historian of the Hellenistic period, the question has been discussed of history as repeating a cycle of events, of regular patterns, of people animated by the same desires and passions.  Youths in 2018 and 1968 have expressed those qualities, displaying energy and a spirit of resistance and defiance, even quasi-revolt.  Yet, even admitting that history can be seen as a sequence of causes and effects, the two events show we are not doomed to repeat the past.

Both events, 1968 and 2018, began with a particular incident: one, the university administrative actions against student activists at Nanterre University, the new campus in the suburb of Paris; the other the Parkland massacre.  Both called for change of some kind, university or more broadly social.  Both can be regarded as nationwide movements.

But there are important differences.  May 1968 was concerned at first with a specific issue: rigidity in the hierarchy of the French University, with students wanting more political freedom, since political meetings were normally forbidden.  However, it became transmuted into a wider, more disjointed affair, including calls for the overthrow of institutions.  Twenty-eighteen, at least so far, is pinpointed on a concrete, single purpose.

The 1968 events started as the result of a specific action: the detention of students in the antiwar rally.  With provocative slogans, it spread to the main Sorbonne and other Paris educational units, transforming itself into a revolt against established institutions and advancing social changes, including protests against capitalism and U.S. imperialism.

May '68 exhibited ideological confusion, indicating different left-wing political orientations, as well as bizarre slogans like "imagination in the leadership" and "demand the impossible."  In contrast, 2018 is not partisan or ideologically expressed in any real way.  Students in France in May '68 were joined by support from factory workers who organized a general strike, the largest in France, and 11 million workers who occupied factories went on strike.  No similar action has been contemplated in support of 2018.  In May '68, word spread in the streets, while in 2018, social media spread the word in an instant, and the whole world is aware of the issue.  Above all, May '68 quickly became violent; March 2018 has been noisy but nonviolent.

In May '68, universities and factories were occupied throughout France.  Paris was the scene of cobblestones being torn up from the pavements, barricades, street fighting with the police, cars overturned, and stores looted.  At one point, the turmoil and threats seemed so serious that President Charles de Gaulle on May 29 fled the country, for a day, to go to a French military base near Baden-Baden in Germany.

The protest of May '68 was violent but became mixed and even incoherent with the infighting among the student groups, including Trotskyists, Maoists, anarchists, surrealists, and moderate socialists.  It was not a unified or cohesive group, but a number of individual personalities among the various improvised leftists fighting among themselves, even if some vague concept of anti-imperialism emerged.  They had no coherent program or structure, but claimed to act in "uncontrollable spontaneity" that gave them an impetus without it being canalized.  Jean-Paul Sartre was impressed with this – with the attempt, as he said, to implement imagination into reality.  

Others were critical.  Raymond Aron saw the student participants as actors imitating the French revolutionary past, a kind of "psychodrama," and merely acting in a rehearsal held almost two centuries after the play had been staged.  Indeed, some student protagonists labeled themselves Les Enragés – not a unified party, but the radical extremists who opposed the Jacobins in June 1793 and who spoke on behalf of the poor.

In May '68, some leaders emerged, the most well-known being Daniel Cohn-Bendit, nicknamed "Danny the Red" because of the color of his hair.  Born in France of German parents, a philosophy student at Nanterre, an anarchist if he can be classified, he inspired the movement with his captivating oratory, courage, and humor.  So far, no single similar figure has emerged in 2018 as similarly inspiring, though some 17-year-olds have been eloquent and expressed rhetoric that has gone beyond the single issue of controlling guns.  One speaker went beyond the manifest purpose of the march, not only by demanding more general social change and getting rid of politicians, but also by enthusiastically giving the black power salute at the end of his peroration.

May '68 did lead to some social and political changes, including raising minimum wages.  It also led to President de Gaulle calling a referendum on April 27, 1969 on government decentralization and for changes in the French Senate.  The referendum was rejected by 52% of the voters, and de Gaulle resigned the presidency the next day.  It remains to be seen if there will be similar political consequences of the March for Our Lives.