It is nearly three years since the May, 1968, upheavals nearly brought down the French government and the Fifth Republic as well. With many of the same tensions still at play, the government has launched a series of political trials designed to suppress certain elements of the far left. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and many others in the French intellectual community have spoken out in alarm. But in spite of their claims that freedom of expression and the very essence of free political life are seriously menaced, government measures against “extremists” and the “extremist press” have continued to multiply.
The principal target to date has been the Proletarian Left. Describing itself as “Maoist” in philosophy, the Proletarian Left was a product of the soul searching by radicals after May, 1968. Its analysis of the lessons to be drawn from that defeat soon made the Proletarian Left one of the largest of the revolutionary groups; its leadership was assumed by Alain Geismar, one of the three principal figures of May, 1968, and the only one to remain active in French radicalism. (Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a German citizen, is barred from French territory, and Jacques Sauvageot is said by his friends to be “looking for work.”) For Geismar, May, 1968, proved the futility of cooperation with the French Communist Party. Geismar was a young physics instructor at the Paris Faculté des Sciences who worked closely with the Communists from time to time during his rise to leadership in the teachers’ union. He saw the Communist Party and its powerful union, the C.G.T., capitulate in 1968 (in return for large wage increases and similar concessions) just when installation of a socialist government seemed within reach.
Along with many others on the far left, Geismar concluded that the time had come to cut all ties with the essentially conservative Communists, to create a new and genuinely revolutionary organization capable of winning the allegiance of the millions of workers whose political power had been neutralized by their blind faith in the Communist Party. Development of personal rapport between intellectuals and workers was stressed; a considerable number of students took jobs in factories and shipyards. The Proletarian Left was active in publicizing workers’ grievances, calling attention to safety hazards in mines and factories, and providing assistance to some of the many thousands of foreign workers living in “shanty towns” on the outskirts of Paris.
The pursuit of these activities, however, did not always show respect for legal niceties. Publicity was often achieved by a well-placed Molotov cocktail. In one instance food supplies were obtained for foreign workers by a spectacular raid on one of Paris’s luxury grocery stores. The use of such tactics to develop revolutionary consciousness among workers was one of the principal tenets of the Proletarian Left.
Many of the leftists have been prosecuted for engaging in violent protests or illegal demonstrations. The circumstances of their arrest and trial, while controversial in France, reveal little that has not been seen time …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.