Forget 68

Revolt Remembered

April 29, 2008By Paris UpdateBooks

The 40th anniversary of the May 1968 riots in Paris has unleashed the inevitable stream of exhibitions and publications evoking that most extraordinary time. You can, for instance, see a free exhibition of photographs in the Place de la Sorbonne, one of the hotspots of student unrest.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, born in France to German-Jewish parents, was to a large extent the public face of the student protests against Charles de Gaulle’s government. He started as a student leader at the University of Nanterre (in the western suburbs of Paris) demanding greater sexual equality and freedom, and then went on to front many of the protests that shifted to the center of Paris and the area around the Sorbonne in particular.

When Cohn-Bendit was expelled from France, ostensibly because he was not French, protesters marched through the streets of Paris chanting, “We are all German Jews,” in a show of solidarity.

The iconic photograph of Cohn-Bendit smiling at a member of the riot police has been reproduced on the cover of this new book, Forget 68 (Éditions de l’Aube), in which radio presenter Stéphane Paoli and sociologist Jean Viard interview Cohn-Bendit about his memories of the time. The book offers many intriguing insights, and Cohn-Bendit himself is disarmingly modest about his role in the protests and the overall significance of May 1968. He insists at several points that the protests were a “revolt” rather than a “revolution.”

The book contains a number of anecdotes, the most amusing of which is about how Cohn-Bendit managed to get through a cordon of riot police unrecognized by dying his famous red hair black and disguising himself as a Spanish student so he could speak at a protest meeting in the Sorbonne.

Those interested in current French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ascent to power will find much of value in the book, since it is as much about the current state of France and how today’s politicians have shaped themselves in relation to 1968 as it is about the events themselves.

One of Cohn-Bendit’s refrains in the book is that May ’68 helped to achieve equality for women in French society and political life, which makes it more than a little unfortunate that he and his two interviewers, while trumpeting the prominent role played by women like Ségolène Royal, Cécilia Sarkozy and Bernadette Chirac, should insist on calling all women only by their first names while identifying men by their surnames. Certain inequalities continue to persist in France even today!

To fully appreciate the many fascinating tidbits in this short book, readers will need a passing knowledge of French and the French political system.


James Gascoigne


Reader Anthony writes: “Is there a reason for addressing Cohn-Bendit as born in France to ‘German-Jewish parents’ whilst not saying that De Gaulle was born in Lille, France, to ‘devout Catholic French parents’? Judaism is a religion, not a race, Jewishness is a trait and not a religion.” May 1, 2008

Editor’s response: You are absolutely right. Our apologies. A sentence that explains the relevance of the description had been inadvertently cut out of the article and has now been added back in.

Reader David Platzer writes: “I enjoyed James Gascoigne’s review of Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s book. But it is a bit much to take him to task for calling Ségolène Royal, Cécilia Sarkozy, etc. by their first names when every message I have from correspondents in the US about the primaries there talks about ‘Hillary’ while referring to her two male rivals as ‘Obama’ and ‘McCain.’ I agree there is a discrepency, though. The best approach, old-fashioned though it is, is Le Monde’s, that of talking about Mme Royal or M Sarkozy, Mme Clinton or M Obama.

“It strikes me too that it is condescending to refer to women by their first names and men by their last but the habit remains general. Even among men, using the last name seems to indicate a greater respect. For example, people talk about Dylan, Sinatra or Brassens on the one hand, Johnny on the other. I’ve never heard anyone call him Halliday.” May 1, 2008

Writer James Gascoigne responds: “I think that Hillary Clinton is the exception. Nobody referred to Geraldine Ferraro as Geraldine!”


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