1968: Power to the Imagination

Claus Leggewie: On March 15, 1968, Pierre Viansson-Ponté, the editor-in-chief of Le Monde, concluded that France was bored—as a diagnosis this may have been true, but as a prediction it was totally amiss.

Gilles Caron/Fondation Gilles Caron (Contact)
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the leaders of the French student protests, in front of the Sorbonne, Paris, May 1968

Daniel Cohn-Bendit: Viansson-Ponté was baffled by the fact that revolts were occurring everywhere—in Germany, in the United States—but not so much in France. There were some demonstrations against the Vietnam War here, too, but somehow everyone thought this would come to nothing. In fact, though, an enormous strike had already taken place at Paris Nanterre University just a few months earlier, with students demanding administrative reforms. I was a sociology major at Nanterre at the time, and in November 1967 my gut had told me that this could very well turn into something huge. (I have always tended to listen to my gut feeling.) On March 22, only seven days after Le Monde’s erroneous prognosis, the time had come: we occupied the university’s administration building. Thus the ball was set rolling—much faster than anyone anticipated, and much faster than I could dream of.

Leggewie: All power to the imagination…

Cohn-Bendit: The feeling we had in those days, which has shaped my entire life, really, was: we’re making history. An exalted feeling—suddenly we had become agents in world history. Not an easy thing to process when you’re only twenty-three years old.

Leggewie: The most famous image of May 1968 contains all the ingredients of the myth of revolt. It shows you, the twenty-three-year-old sociology student, face-to-face with a nameless member of the CRS [the reserve of the national police], in front of the Sorbonne…

Cohn-Bendit: Disciplinary action had been announced for that day—May 6, 1968—to counter our occupation of the university. We were defended by our professors, by Alain Touraine and others. When the reporter took this picture, we were just about to enter the university, with demonstrations already in full swing outside.

Leggewie: Everything that’s relevant about May 1968 is present in this image: above vs. below, ancien régime vs. youth, system vs. movement, hero vs. villain, power against counterpower, order against anarchy.

Cohn-Bendit: In a way this image is my doctoral thesis—after all, I never went back to university as a student afterward. It made me an icon of revolt. I call it the “sun of ’68” because so many people associate positive things with it: not violence, not the cobblestones that were thrown, but our tongue-in-cheek way of provoking the powers that be. Recently Raphaël Glucksmann did a survey for his Nouveau Magazine Littéraire, and he was astonished at his findings: more than 60 percent of the French associate positive things with ’68—not, as conservatives claim, that our generation has destroyed schools, the ancient institutions of marriage, the…

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