STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Just like American politicians, some French politicians look at what they see wrong with their countries and they blame the '60s, the 1960s, which were a time of upheaval in France, too. Forty years ago today, in 1968, millions of French workers joined protesting students in a general strike. They briefly paralyzed the country, and they nearly brought down the government of President Charles de Gaulle. These days, the French president is Nicholas Sarkozy, and while campaigning, he brought up the legacy of that 1968 strike. He said it led to moral relativism and hedonistic individualism. As part of our occasional series, Echoes of 1968, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli visited Paris.
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SYLVIA POGGIOLI: French TV was on strike for most of May, so the story was told in pictures and radio reports.
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Unidentified Woman: (French spoken)
POGGIOLI: Serge Hambourg, then a young photo reporter, covered the protests from the start, early May, when students occupied Paris's hallowed Sorbonne University on the Left Bank. His camera captured a fast-forward transformation. In the early shots, students clashing with police wear jackets and ties and have sort haircuts. In the later ones, students have beards and wear sandals. He points to a picture of young men building barricades and ripping up cobblestones, assisted by local residents.
Mr. SERGE HAMBOURG (Photo Reporter): It was so exciting, and everybody has some complaint against the government, so everybody has a reason to complain and to fight - a worker, a student, an old guy, a new guy, you can see.
POGGIOLI: In May 1968, Charles de Gaulle was France's paternalistic president. He ruled over a newly prosperous but rigidly conservative society. Woman couldn't wear pants to work, and married ones needed a husband's permission to open a bank account. Homosexuality was a crime. Factory workers could be fired at will, and the overcrowded educational system was authoritarian. Postwar patriarchal France was unprepared for the onslaught of the baby boom generation. Kids challenged an uptight society to become modern and democratic. Society responded with collective self-examination.
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POGGIOLI: In those weeks of May 40 years ago, the Left Bank became one large debating society. It was a moveable feast of talk. The center was here, the Grand Odeon theater, whose director, the legendary actor Jean-Louis Barrault, threw open the doors for open-ended discussions. And everyone took the stage: agitating students, sympathetic local residents and celebrated intellectuals, curious tourists, striking workers and idled managers of occupied factories. For a brief moment, utopian dreams and political action merged seamlessly into the joyful pleasure of living life to the fullest.
Mr. HENRI WEBER (Socialist MP, European Parliament): (Through translator) Our generation enjoyed an unprecedented optimism. We were Promethean.
POGGIOLI: Henri Weber is a socialist MP in the European Parliament. Four decades ago, he was on the barricades. He says no one knew what unemployment was. His generation believed in the anti-colonial movement and the technological revolution.
Mr. WEBER: (Through translator) We experienced utopia, a moment where everyone could live a full and intense life. The watchword was live without pause, enjoy pleasure without restraint.
POGGIOLI: The streets that saw running battles between police and students are now dotted with Starbucks and McDonald's. Many small radical bookshops have been replaced by trendy designer boutiques. In homage to May '68, many Left Bank shop windows are displaying the graffiti and creative poetry of protests that made this the wittiest and most surreal revolt: Marxism, Groucho Version, Be Realistic: Ask for the Impossible, Under the Cobblestones, the Beach. In all the photos, in all the radio reports, men took center stage. Anne Zelinksy, then a student at the Sorbonne, was annoyed women's issues were ignored. With a friend, she organized a debate on women and revolution.
Ms. ANNE ZELINKSY: (Through translator) We were sure no one would come and were so nervous we held hands under the desk to give ourselves courage. But the huge hall filled up, people stood in the aisles, and everyone talked and talked for hours about everything, all the sexual taboos. There was an extraordinary need to speak. It was my encounter with history.
POGGIOLI: Ten years later, Zelinsky was a founder of the French women's liberation movement. The most important achievement of May '68, she says, was that a decade later, it led to equal rights between men and women and legalization of abortion, giving women control over their bodies.
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POGGIOLI: May 13th was a turning point. Slogans turned more political as millions of workers downed tools in solidarity with the students and marched in the streets of Paris, singing the communist anthem. It became the biggest general strike in French history and, to de Gaulle's horror, brought the country to a halt. While rumors of a coup d'etat circulated, authorities secretly negotiated with unions, granting unprecedented wage hikes and benefits. On May 30th, a massive pro-de Gaulle counter-rally was staged on the Champs-Elysees, on the Right Bank, far away from the scruffy tumult of the Latin Quarter. By mid-June, life returned to normal. And yet, what's been called the French psychodrama has entered the realm of myth.
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POGGIOLI: Paris' 18th district is commemorating the events with an unusual exhibit. Visitors wander through a mock-up of a typical '60s working class apartment, complete with Formica-topped table and then newly available appliances like vacuum cleaners and transistor radios. Those nostalgic for the music of the times can pick up headphones and listen to the protesters' favorite, "Paris S'eveille," Paris wakes up.
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Mr. AN PIERLE (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing in French)
POGGIOLI: Marie Claude Audigier is the exhibit curator.
Ms. MARIE CLAUDE AUDIGIER (Exhibit Curator): I wanted to show it in music, that the values of '68, of just wanting to change the world, of freedom are still here today.
POGGIOLI: This is what Sociologist Jean-Pierre le Goff dismisses as the impossible legacy.
Mr. JEAN-PIERRE LE GOFF (Sociologist): (Through translator) The legacy of '68 is narcissism and cynicism. We have lost a sense of collective responsibility.
POGGIOLI: Jean-Luc Hees, author of a book about '68, says many French right-wingers are fed up with the Paris May.
Mr. JEAN LUC HEES (Author): They say, well, listen, thank you so much for May '68. I mean, we have to clean up after you. I mean, you had no worries. We have lots of worries. You had no AIDS. We have unemployment. Well, it's a bankruptcy here. You had your time. You had your pleasure, and we have the leftovers, and this is not so great.
POGGIOLI: And yet, even conservatives acknowledge that in just four weeks, France underwent a radical political and cultural revolution, and not one person was killed.
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POGGIOLI: An archaic society was swept aside. All institutions were transformed: the workplace, the university, the family and the couple.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.
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INSKEEP: You can get a look at photos of the 1968 protests and hear more of the music that Parisians marched to by going to npr.org.