French Student Protest: Losing the Romanticism Amidst the Chaos

PROTEST to the French student has always been a tradition tinged with romanticism and infused with folklore. Barricading the narrow streets of the Latin Quarter, arching cobblestones on the heads of the "flies," clinging to your comrade and meeting the police charge, even getting blackjacked and later displaying your "wounds" were in part a celebration, reminiscent of Le Grand Soirdance, song, love, and combat.

Protest was even expected and within certain limits approved by the French people, themselves carriers of a taint of anarchism. It has been said that if at 20 you are not behind the barricades you are a coward and lack idealism, but that at 35 if you are not in the ministry you are a fool and lack realism. During the events of May 1968, Maurice Grimand, chief of the Parisian police, appealed to the students as one of the gang, that he too had been a student and had gotten blackjacked by the police.

Up until the late fifties the youth groups of parent political organizations-whether fascist, republican, moderate, or communist-directed much of student activism. Students toed the party line. There was only one real student organization, IUNEF, IUnion Nationale des Students de France, created in 1907. Only after the First World War when the siblings of the middle and lower bourgeoisie began entering the university did IUNEF lose its elitist outlook and provide "services materiales" (rooms, student restaurants, student reductions) for its members.

Following World War II the majority, the majos, wanted IUNEF to remain apolitical but a growing minority, the minos, demanded the creation of a student syndicat. Generally the majos stayed in power, often with contributions from the government at election time, under the direction of law and medical students who reasoned more like future doctors and lawyers than students.

1956 saw the creation of the other big student group, IUEC, Union des Etudiants Communistes, from a restructuralization of the Mouvement de la Jeunesse Communist. Prior to 1956 communist students were nurtured within the cadre of the party, but after the brutal suppression of Hungarian revolution, dissension reared and the party elders decided to segregate them in a separate student organization to better control them.


THE ALGERIAN WAR jarred the students out of their slumber and acquiescence to adult organizations. Outraged with colonial atrocities students roared out into the streets daily. New groups proliferated with the most militant and politically conscious such as Jeune Resistance, Mouvement Anti-Colonialiste Francais, and Groupe Nizan secretly helping the NLF. Students became a power of their own.

Consequently, l'UEC and l'UNEF were also at the height of their power. During the early years of the sixties l'UEC was without rival in the Latin Quarter, capable of mobilizing thousands in the streets in a few hours. When the OAS began its pro-war terrorist actions in both France and Algeria, and student groups, particularly Jeune Nation, rallied in support of the war, miltants of l'UEC organized the Front Universitaire AntiFasciste, FUA, to physically eliminate these fascists from the Latin Quarter.

The bloody clashes that resulted between the FUA and Jeune Nation were nothing new to the world of student polities. French student groups probably spend more time and energy infighting than they do organizing political action. Each group has a specially chosen "service d'ordre" to protect themselves and to attack others.

Violence was thus an early fact of student life. No morals inhibited French radicals as they did American activists. Violence was taken for granted and French students were stoical about the results. An anarchist friend of mine after being severely beaten in a fight dragged himself into a small alleyway and lay silently bleeding until the police went away and his friends came back to take him to the hospital.

The ending of the Algerian War brought crisis to the new student movement. Partially, the problem was that most of the students were tired. Colonial atrocities easily stung the moral conscience, but with the winning of Algerian independence the heterogeneous student population wanted to go back to its cates, its cinema clubs, its studies, and its love affairs.

But more crucial was the problem that no one could agree what to do next. The minos at l'UNEF, who had become the majos during the war, adopted a "ligne universitaire," their long-awaited dream of making l'UNEF into a student syndicat which would defend student interests through strikes, demonstrations, and occupations of classrooms. Despite consistent attempts at sabotage by the former majos the ligne universitaire initially caught the imagination of the students. But after its aborted attempt to prevent the Sorbonne visit of Prime Minister Segni of Italy, l'UNEF steadily dechned in influence. With 100,000 memoers out of a student population of 250,000 in 1961, l'UNEF shrank to barely 50,000 out of a student population of 600,000 shortly before the student revolt in May, 1968.

WHY DID l'UNEF fail? One reason is that French students just didn't have any common interests worth defending besides meal tickets, free lecture notes, and housing bureaus. Also there was the lack of communication between French students which never fails to shock Americans. One French girl confided to me, "all the students I knew in the Faculte are the friends I made in lycee and in most cases grammar school."

Another, more important, reason is that it is nearly impossible to change French universities from within. Private universities don't exist in France. The government strictly controls education. The students could and did make a lot of noise, but the Minister of Education turned the traditional deal ear.

L'UEC was convulsed by an even bigger crisis. From its powerful position in the early 60's, l'UEC in the last few years has become the standing joke of the Latin Quarter. After the Algerian War l'UEC tricated into the "Italians" (Supporters of the line of the Italian Communist Party), the orthodox members (staunch loyalists of the French Communist Party), and the "Gauchistes" (further divided into a Trotskyist tendency and a Maoist tendency). This bitterly divided house held together until 1965 when the French Communist Party, scizing an opportunity to gain in the national parliament, supported the non-communist candidate for President, Francois Mitterand. The Trotskyists stomped out of the party Congress, denouncing the FCP as supporters of the status quo, and, holding their own Congress, declared the birth of the Jeunesse Communiste Revolutionaire (JCR). Six months later the Maoists also quit and hoisted their banner, the l'Union des Jeunesses Communistes marxistes-leninistes (l'UJCm-l).

The JCR and the UJCm-l were only two of France's renowned "groupescules." By 1968 there were probably over 20 or more. Except at a very few places like the Faculte of Lettres at the Sorbonne they had little influence over the rest of the students. Forever dreaming in their ideological heavens (Godard's La Chinoise gives a fair idea of the ideological obsession of these students), the groups alienated their peers. I lighly centralized and burcaucratized they were controlled by cliques who regarded prospective members with suspicion, and admitted them only after a rigorous "competition."