Polychronicon 162: Reinterpreting the May 1968 events in France

Teaching History feature

By Daniel A. Gordon, published 18th April 2016

As Kristin Ross has persuasively argued, by the 1980s interpretations of the French events of May 1968 had shrunk to a narrow set of received ideas around student protest, labelled by Chris Reynolds a ‘doxa’. Media discourse is dominated by a narrow range of former participants labelled ‘memory barons’ – motivated by a wish either to uphold the ideals of the 1960s, or engage in moralistic denunciation of them. Yet there is now a tendency towards serious empirical research, transcending simplistic debates about whether or not 1968 was a good thing.

The clichéd received wisdom is the generational saga of a certain in-crowd in Paris’s Latin Quarter, portrayed as hippies kicking back against their parents for free love and revolution. Supposedly there was no serious violence: it was all good fun – a quintessentially French affair, unlike the terrorism that followed in Germany and Italy. The revolt is depicted as a fundamentally unserious one, by revolutionary poseurs with no grasp of reality. Students tried to get Renault workers to join them, but the Communist-voting workers, who just wanted a pay rise, told these privileged students to go away. The party lasted a few weeks, a lot of Situationist slogans...

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