Like me, many still struggle to understand the impact of the cultural revolution that started in May 1968 when a group of young students at the Nanterre University west of Paris wore long hair and purple trousers as a demand for the rights of boy and girl students in their late teens and 20s to sleep together.
What was unique in the Paris revolution was that the student rebellion led to a workers’ revolt. A multitude of blue-collar workers had had enough of the paternalistic trade unions as much as the political leadership of the French conservative government. The two revolts were contemporary but remained largely separate. The students’ demands were more philosophical than political and often tinged with frustration. ‘Unbutton your brain as much as your trousers’ was a slogan that encapsulated what the students wanted.
The workers were more determined. It was a wildcat strike by workers that worried most the conservative French politicians who did not have a clue what was going on. Jacques Chirac was then a young government minister. He was secretly dispatched to prepare the way for pay rises and reduced working hours. This seemed to do the trick as it calmed down workers who ended the strike.
The workers’ revolt left the most indelible marks on French society. The students’ revolt only lasted for four or five weeks. The angry students who burned and overturned cars in the Latin Quarter in 1968 went on in many cases to build careers in journalism and as writers, philosophers, and politicians.
One fiery student leader in 1968 was Daniel Cohn-Bendit who is now a Green German Euro MP. Today he is pro-market, pro-European, libertarian liberal and ecologist. But his fiery approach has long gone. He says: “I say forget May 1968. It is finished. Society today bears no relationship with that of the 1960s. When we called ourselves anti-authoritarian we were fighting against a very different society.”
Britain had its own cultural and political revolution that probably started even before 1968. In 1960 there was the Chatterley trial and the Beatles’ first LP. This is when social and sexual taboos started to crumble. The Profumo sex scandal shocked the conservative British society and the world was fascinated by the way the rich and powerful of British society behaved in private. This eventually led to the rise of Margaret Thatcher in the UK.
The most discouraging aspect of today’s youth is the high rate of unemployment in many EU countries
In the US most Americans were fed up with the Vietnam War that seemed to be never ending.
With television beaming scenes of body bags coming back with the corpses of young Americans who fought and were killed in Vietnam with no apparent advantage to US society, anti-war protests became ever more effective. The Flower Power movement was born in the 1960s and it turned violent anti-Vietnam War protests into peaceful affirmative spectacles.
Germany and France had their own student revolutions as urban terrorism shocked both countries.
The German establishment fought the Baader Meihof revolutionaries while Italy had to deal with the Brigate Rosse.
Malta of the 1960s was still a largely clerical country. The political religious question tore Maltese society apart and scars of this socio-cultural revolution are still evident in today’s society.
Centuries of dominance by the Catholic Church in Malta slowly started to vanish as tourism, political activism of the Labour Party, and improved educational standards helped to make Maltese society more tolerant, more liberal and more similar to other European societies. The students’ revolution in Paris were just one element of the cultural changes that swept through the western world half a century ago. One question that many ask is whether students today are as keen to change society as their fathers were in the sixties.
I see glimmers of hope in the US where students are now marching to convince their politicians to change the gun laws that are causing so many victims in American schools. Other young people are still fighting to have a country that they can call their own. I am of course referring to the Palestinian uprisings in the Gaza strip.
The most discouraging aspect of today’s youth is the high rate of unemployment in many EU countries. The political class has failed millions of young European who despite good educational achievement still struggle to find decent jobs that will enable them to raise a family.
May we experience a new European youth revolution where we see young people fighting for their right to work.
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