2. Origins of the Agitation in France
Of course, utopians can also correctly see the situation which they must leave. If they remain mere utopians, it is because they are in a position to see the situation only as a fact, or, at best, as a problem to be resolved, without ever realizing that both the solution and the path leading to the solution are to be found precisely in the problem itself.
Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness
THE REFUSAL ALREADY BEING AFFIRMED by wide sections of youth in other countries had been taken up in France by only a tiny fringe of advanced groups. No tendency towards economic or even political "crisis" could be observed. The agitation launched at Nanterre by four or five revolutionaries, who would later constitute the Enragés, was to lead in less than five months to the near liquidation of the state. This is certainly food for thought. The profound crisis latent in France exists in all other modern bourgeois societies. What was lacking was consciousness of a real revolutionary perspective and its practical organization. Never did an agitation by so few individuals lead in so short a time to such consequence.
The Gaullist regime in itself had no particular importance in the origin of this crisis. Gaullism is nothing but a bourgeois regime working at the modernization of capitalism, in much the same fashion as Wilson's Labour Party is. Its principle characteristic and success lies in the fact that the opposition in France is even more handicapped than elsewhere in attracting support for a program with precisely the same ends. We must nonetheless note two specific features: the Gaullist accession to power by plots and a military putsch, which marks the regime with a certain contempt for legality, and de Gaulle's personal cultivation of archaic prestige. It's ironic that this kind of prestige, so completely lacking in France for one hundred years, began to reappear only with the recent movement, and precisely by shattering the plaster prestige of Gaullism.
The modernization of the French economy and its adaptation to the Common Market, though undramatic, didn't take place without a certain recession and drop in real salaries through the expediency of Government decrees on social security, with a growth in unemployment, especially for young workers. This was the pretext for the exemplary working class riot in Caen in January, where the workers overstepped trade union demands and looted several stores. In March steel workers of the Garnier factory in Redon were able to bring every factory in the town into their victorious strike, creating their own links independently of the trade unions, and organizing their own self-defense, forcing a CRS (riot police) withdrawal.
The direct repercussions of the Strasbourg affair were first felt at the university dormitories of Jussieu, near Lyon, where, for several weeks during the spring of 1967 the residents ignored every regulation, thus going beyond the academic debate on the reform of anti-sexual statutes. From the beginning of December 1967 the "students" of Nantes went further still. After taking over the local branch of the UNEF, they decided to close the Bureau d'Aide Psychologique Universitaire. They then organized several invasions of the university residence halls: men in the women's dormitories, followed by women in the men's. Finally, in February, they seized the Nantes rectory and fought the police ferociously. As Rivarol wrote on May 3rd, "it has largely been forgotten that, as early as February, the riots at Nantes showed the real face of these 'situationists,' fifteen hundred students under red and black flags, the Hall of Justice occupied..."
The Enragés group was formed during a struggle against police presence in Nanterre. Some plainclothes policemen had been photographed and on January 26th enlarged reproductions were displayed on posters inside the faculty. This action brought on, at the request of Dean Grappin, the intervention of sixty uniformed men, who were driven off after a brief confrontation. Several hundred leftist militants had joined the original instigators. These included the Enragés as such, along with a dozen or so anarchists. The Enragés were among the least assimilated elements of the university system at that time. Moreover these "campus bums" had found their way to a theoretical agreement with the platform of the Situationist International. They began a systematic assault on the unbearable order of things, beginning with the university.
The environment was particularly revolting. Nanterre was modern in its faculty appointments, exactly as it was modern in its architecture. It was here that the cretins of submissive thought pontificated the knaves of recuperation, the modernist nullities of social integration, the Lefebvres and Tourraines.1 The scene was perfect: the urbanism of isolation had grafted a university center onto the high-rise flats and their complementary slums. It was a microcosm of the general conditions of oppression, the spirit of a world without spirit. Thus the program preventing the specialists of illusion from speaking ex-cathedra and the use of the walls for critical vandalism were to have great effect. This opened the exit from the sterile protest regurgitated for years against the pettiness of the dormitory monitors or the Fouchet reform, made to order for the UNEF and for all those who coveted leadership.
When the Enragés began to interrupt the courses of the sociologists and several others, the UNEF and its leftist infiltrators reacted with indignation. On several occasions they themselves attempted to protect the professors. The anarchists, despite intentions of their own regarding the local UNEF committee, stayed neutral. Among them Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who had already carved out for himself something of a reputation by excusing himself for having insulted a Minister, was threatened with no less than expulsion from the UNEF on a motion by the Trotskyites (known at the time as the CLER but who later became the Federation of Revolutionary Students). Only because Cohn-Bendit, a German national, had been called to appear before the committee on expulsions at the Prefecture (national police headquarters) did the CLER decide to withdraw their motion. The scandals of the Enragés were already finding an echo in a certain political agitation. Their song about Grappin, the infamous "Grappignole," and their first comic-strip poster appeared on the occasion of the "National Day" of university residence occupations, February 14. On every side the tone got higher.
On February 14 the Nouvel Observateur wept over Nanterre: The left has dissolved leaving nothing but the Enragés who include no one but three or four representatives of the Situationist International."
The same day the Enragés issued a tract making clear that they
had never belonged to the Situationist International and therefore could not claim to represent it in any way. Repression would be child's play if every demonstration that showed the slightest radicalism were the result of a Situationist plot!... [W]e nevertheless reaffirm our sympathy for the situationist critique. Our accord with radical theory can be judged by our acts.
On March 22nd the leftist groups invaded the administration building and held a meeting in the university council room. In the name of the Enragés, René Riesel immediately demanded the expulsion of two observers from the administration and of several Stalinists who were present. After spokesmen for the anarchists, a regular collaborator of Cohn-Bendit's, had asserted that "the Stalinists who are here this evening are no longer Stalinists," the Enragés immediately left the meeting in protest against this cowardly illusion. They had, moreover, been accused of wanting to wreck the union offices. They set about writing their slogans on the walls: TAKE YOUR DESIRES FOR REALITY, BOREDOM IS COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY, TRADE UNIONS ARE BROTHELS, NEVER WORK, etc. This ushered in a form of agitation that was to enjoy a far-reaching success and become one of the original characteristics of the period of occupations. Thus the gathering of various leftist elements which would be called in the following weeks "The Movement of the 142" and then the "March 22nd Movement" began to constitute itself that evening, without and against the Enragés.
From the beginning, the March 22nd Movement was an eclectic conglomerate of individuals who joined it under purely personal auspices. They all agreed on the fact that it was impossible for them to agree on any theoretical point and counted on "common action" to overcome this gap. There was nevertheless a consensus on two subjects; one a ridiculous banality, the other a new demand. The banality was the anti-imperialist "struggle," heritage of the contemplative period of the leftist groups which was about to end: Nanterre, that suburban Vietnam, lending its resolute support to insurgent Bolivia. The novelty was direct democracy in the organization. It is true that this intention was only partially realized in the March 22nd Movement because of the double allegiance of most of its members, which problem was discretely ignored or never considered. There were Maoists, JCRs, anarchists of all kinds, from the ruins of the "Anarchist Federation" to the activists of the "Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth," and up to and including the comical, or questionable, adherents of the "groups of institutional research" (FGERI).2
Cohn-Bendit himself belonged to the independent and semi-theoretical anarchist group around the magazine Noir et Rouge. Because of this and his personal qualities, Cohn-Bendit found himself in the most radical tendency of the March 22nd Movement and more truly revolutionary than the whole of the movement whose spokesman he was to become, and which he therefore had to tolerate.3 Cohn-Bendit, insufficiently intelligent, confusedly informed by various individuals on the theoretical problems of the period, skillful enough to entertain a student audience, frank enough to do the job in the arena of leftist maneuvres, supple enough to work with their spokesmen, was an honest but only a mediocre revolutionary. He knew much less than he should have known and did not make the best of what he knew. Besides, by uncritically accepting the "star" role, exhibiting himself for the mob of reporters from the spectacular media, Cohn-Bendit naturally had to watch his remarks, which always combined lucidity with nonsense, the latter being aggravated by the distortion inherent in that kind of communication. In April he was still declaring to anyone that he was a moderate and in no way an Enrage. That was the time when the press, following a Minister, began to call all the Nanterre rebels "Enragés."
In a few days the March 22nd Movement had in fact achieved its chief success, with a bearing on the larger movement as a whole, and which had no relationship at all with the chatter about the "critical university" pirated from the German and Italian examples which had already revealed its inanity.4 Whereas all the efforts of the committee on "culture and creativity" had never gone beyond a revolutionary aestheticism which even some meager traces of "situationism" could not make interesting, the simple-minded "anti-imperialist" project of holding a meeting at Nanterre on March 29 pushed Dean Grappin to the first and most consequential of a series of administrative blunders which rapidly extended the agitation. Grappin closed his campus for two days. The menacing specter of a "handful of Enragés" was beginning to haunt the national consciousness.
Among the most concerned, L'Humanité, on 29 March denounced
the commando actions undertaken by a group of anarchists and 'situationists,' one of whose slogans in giant letters "DON'T WORK!" decorated the entrance to the campus. For those forty or so students, activity has consisted for several weeks in 'intervening' in the lecture halls and discussion sections... occupying the buildings and finally covering the walls with gigantic slogans. How has a handful of irresponsible elements been able to provoke such serious decisions, affecting twelve thousand students in the arts and four thousand in law?
The repressions that began at that moment came too late. Of course, one of the Enragés, Gérard Bigorgue, was effectively expelled for five years from all institutions of higher learning in France without a word from the March 22nd Movement, its journalists, or any other leftist groups (he was reproached for his open contempt for university rules, and his attitude in front of the University Council was in fact scandalous). But renewed threats of expulsion against Cohn-Bendit (already fairly famous and certainly more defensible for many people); the announcement that Riesel, Cohn-Bendit and six other agitators from Nanterre were to be brought before the Committee of the Institution of the University of Paris on May 6th; and, finally, the closing until further notice of Nanterre on May 2nd, provoked an expansion of the agitation among Parisian students. The March 22nd Movement and the UNEF called for a meeting in the courtyard of the Sorbonne on Friday, May 3rd. By trying to break up the meeting, the authorities unleashed the accumulated strength of the movement and provoked it to cross the decisive threshold. How impossible such a development appeared to specialized "observers" is perfectly demonstrated by the brilliant prophesy of the ridiculous Escarpit, who wrote in Le Monde on May 4th: "Nothing is less revolutionary, nothing more conformist than the pseudo-anger of a window-breaker, even if he dresses his anti-mandarinism in Marxist or situationist language."
1. Towards the end of the 1950s Touraine discovered that the proletariat had disappeared. He persisted in July 1968: "I'll say it again: the working class, as a whole, is no longer a fully revolutionary class in France." (Quoted from Labro, Ce n'est qu'un début.)
2. At no time was there a single situationist in this grab-bag, contrary to the lie of Émile Copfermann in his introduction to the collection of ineptitudes published by the March 22nd Movement under the title Ce n'est qu'un debut, continuons le combat (Éditions Maspero).
3. Cohn-Bendit, in a number of interviews, multiplied his concessions to Maoism. For example, in Le Magazine Littéraire of May 68: "I don't know that much about what Maoism is. I've read things in Mao that are very true. His thesis of reliance upon the peasantry has always been an anarchist thesis."
4. All the sociological-journalistic eulogies on the "originality" of the March 22nd Movement masked the simple fact that its leftist amalgam, while new in France, was a direct copy of the American SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), itself equally eclectic, "democratic" and frequently infiltrated by various old leftist sects. Georges Steiner in The Sunday Times
of July 21st, enumerating with perfect incomprehension the theses of the SI, which he considered to be "probably the most advanced of the radical factions," nonetheless saw that Cohn-Bendit was a "weather-beaten conservative" compared with such "absolutists."