Protest as social reform

What lessons can we, the Pakistanis, learn from the May revolt in France?

Protest as social reform


he historians in France and elsewhere debated the long-term political significance of May 1968. Some thought the May events were merely a blip on the political radar; purportedly, “nothing happened.” Others held a different viewpoint. They argued that the events of May 1968 were, despite their radical veneer, a way station on France’s route to a more efficient post-Fordist stage of capitalist modernisation.

Both those accounts, however, are much too cynical, reflecting the disillusionment of Marxist scholars for whom any result short of total revolution is politically unacceptable. Even in Pakistan, a virtual backyard of the civilised world, 1968 events had some impact.

In the 1960s, despite the state repression, the Left movement was alive and active. The forces representing marginality in a highly centralised state apparatus had started finding a voice. The National Awami Party (NAP) epitomised that trend.

So far as the French society was concerned it undoubtedly underwent a sea change in the aftermath of the May revolt, although the changes that occurred were more measured and incremental than the student militants would have liked.

The May revolt initiated a transformation of “everyday life”—a phrase that is crucial to understanding the cultural-political implications of 1968, both in France and other polities. Conceived as an approach to social criticism by the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre during the 1940s and 50s, the critique of everyday life encouraged activists to focus their attention on a variety of qualitative issues and concerns that transcended the narrow economic orientation of orthodox Marxism or the politics of the elites.

Communists in France continued to assume that the workplace remained a unique locus of class domination. The “sixty-eighters”, however, sought to unmask new forms of ideological coercion and social control. They realised that with the advent of consumer society the scope for commodification had transcended the workplace and had begun to encompass almost every aspect of social life.

The political impact of May 1968 was far more decisive. President Charles de Gaulle, despite his aura and authority, was beginning to look despondent. Eventually, he announced on television that he would resign if it was in the interest of France and mandated new elections to the National Assembly. He even fled the country for a few days at the end of May.

Though he did not divulge it to his prime minister, and the matter was kept under wraps, it turned out later that de Gaulle had secretly visited a French military base in Germany to make sure he had the support of the army if the crisis deepened.

A renowned commentator has stated, “to us today, it sounds really bizarre that he would feel that the crisis was so bad that he would have to use military force”. He frames de Gaulle’s alarm in the context of France’s recent history of political turmoil. He says: “We have to remember that not only his government, but the entire Fifth French Republic had been born in 1958 out of another crisis, during the Algerian war, where things collapsed.”

According to Julian Bourg, a professor of European intellectual history at Boston College, de Gaulle’s absence created a brief power vacuum when the protestors believed that they may have succeeded in overthrowing the government. But upon returning to France on May 30, de Gaulle doubled down against the protests, displaying new found strength in a restore-order radio address to the public.

To the dismayed surprise of the protestors, de Gaulle’s speech was well-received. By the time the protests subsided later in June, the new elections had ushered in a strong Gaullist majority. De Gaulle would keep his job, not needing a military intervention.

A close study of France reveals that in 1968 it had been, in many ways, a slow-to-modernise society; it was culturally conservative, it was still a very Catholic country with not a lot of diversity. Education was very hierarchical and impersonal and students were asking the question: “Is there more to life than just getting a technical degree and getting a job for the rest of our lives?” Eric Hobsbawm’s work on European history shines useful light on France as well as other polities during the Cold War era; it may provide good insight on that movement and its overall impact.

Conservatives remember the movement as a dangerous threat to society undeserving of tribute. For the Left, the anniversary remains salient, as the students, employees and environmentalists of today strive to create a modern protest movement of their own. But both Bourg and Reynolds argue that the movement today is dwarfed in scale and influence by its 1968 predecessor, due in part to their vastly different political contexts.

In the 1960s, France was poised for an especially dramatic protest movement given the domestic and international unrest that the nation faced at the time. A diverse wave of Marxism, socialism and anarchism festered throughout Europe and the Americas, and the nascent Fifth Republic, which sprung from the Algerian decolonisation crisis just 10 years prior, feared it might not maintain its new found power.

“What began as a student protest became a labour dispute that actually became a political crisis. And so by the end of the month it was possible that de Gaulle’s government — and maybe even the Fifth Republic — could fall,” says Bourg. “This is why this event is so big in French memory.”

Despite early projections of failure, the events of May 1968 inspired a series of social reforms and modernisation in education, welfare, labour and criminal justice. The legacy of the movement extended beyond these eventual reforms, demonstrating to the global activist community a dramatic extreme of what was possible.

It was a moment of great global inspiration. We think about globalisation all the time now but it was so new at that moment that people felt really connected in a visceral, emotional way to what was happening in other parts of the world, says Bourg. “Because of the scale, magnitude and intensity of the French events, it was immediately cited everywhere as the furthest reach of possibility. If we are working to change the society in the world, this is an example of how far things can go.”

What lessons can we, the Pakistanis, learn from that movement? If the state wants to resolve conflicts it must be through negotiation instead of resorting to violence.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Protest as social reform