The BBC has given us a poor history lesson with the documentary Vive la Revolution! A recollection by Joan Bakewell of the violent political disturbances in Paris in May 1968, it seemed to tell us as much about the values and muddied thinking of the BBC as about the events it was describing.
1968 was a tumultuous year, not just in France, but across much of the world, and the hour-long documentary attempted only a snapshot focusing on Paris. The city’s student population originally took to the streets against some of the petty restrictions of university life. But their demonstrations became increasingly clamorous and violent, turning into full-scale riots before the protests ran their course.
Bakewell sets Paris against a backdrop of the Prague Spring, when the Czechoslovak people bravely defied Soviet imperialism, and the struggles of the American Civil Rights movement against hideous racial injustice, not considering it at all crass to compare these two noble and dignified struggles to the tantrums of privileged students.
At best, the students were politically confused and naïve, their extended adolescence postponing the acquisition of sense or reason; hardly a rare problem with young people. But their petulance and bad behaviour went beyond ordinary immaturity. Throwing cobbles at the heads of policemen, or petrol bombs at anybody, is past the limit even if you have been provoked or face police heavy-handedness. When you come from the educational and economic elite of your society, when you are articulate and have all the channels of a democratic country for airing grievances, such behaviour is inexcusable.
But Bakewell euphemises violence, arson and anarchic destruction. Against footage of burning buildings, crowds stoning police and mobs tearing their city apart, she tells us that ‘as May rolled on, more and more students answered the call, defying authority, demanding change, their political ambitions growing’. These ambitions seemed to include wrecking both the economy which gave them their privileges and the democratic parliamentary rule that protected them.
The students, Bakewell says, held capitalism in contempt yet they also rejected the ideology of the Eastern bloc. They expressed support for the Czechs struggling against the Soviets, yet ‘their imaginations were seized’ by Che Guevara and Mao. Bakewell doesn’t stop to consider the contradiction of protesting against one example of Communist evil while supporting a murderous Communist thug such as Guevara, or Mao, whose contribution to human misery and death is almost beyond description.
It’s hard to work out what the students really wanted. The great modern Leftist intellectual hero, Jean-Paul Sartre, made his own stupid and nasty contribution: that the ‘only relationship the students should have with the university is to destroy it’. He was joined in his support by, in Bakewell’s words, ‘the great feminist writer’ Simone de Beauvoir who, like Sartre, had already disgraced herself intellectually by defending Maoism. Apart from their general nihilistic mischief-making, Sartre and de Beauvoir called for the chaos to be linked to the struggles of ‘the working classes’. As the protests intensified in Paris, they spread from the university lecture halls to factories and workshops. Massive strikes caused huge disruption with millions of workers taking part. But although the number of students protesting was tiny in comparison, the documentary considered their brattish eruption far more significant than the grievances of the bulk of the French industrial working class.
Although the programme stopped short of actually endorsing the student actions, it still managed to romanticise them. It saw passion and youthful idealism, where others might see hooliganism powered by an outrageous sense of entitlement and intellectual arrogance.
Thankfully, most French people weren’t as indulgent as the BBC. The biggest demonstration in Paris in May ’68 was by ordinary citizens who flooded on to the streets in support of President De Gaulle and the preservation of constitutional order. This was followed in June by the Gaullists winning what Bakewell had to concede was the ‘greatest electoral victory in French Parliamentary history’.
Bakewell concluded that although France had been ‘shaken up’, the ‘Utopian dream’ had not been realised. We were not told, though, what that dream was. Or whether burning half of your own city, attacking your own economy, violence against the police and marching with Mao placards was the best way to get to Utopia. Perhaps those questions were just too difficult for the BBC to answer in an hour-long documentary.