One of the most thoughtful TV programs (now out on DVD), one of the few to put the street protests in France into their international context, is Patrick Rotman's "68." Francophone readers can listen to an RTL radio interview with Rotman here. Rotman, as a 19 year old student at the Sorbonne, was a participant and witness. It was definitely a turbulent year, worldwide.
Anniversaries, especially those ending in round numbers like 40, are fair game for reflection. Especially when many "soixante-huitards" (in the States, we would say baby boomers) are themselves in their sixties. In France, there is a particularly contemporary - political - slant to these recollections: President Nicolas Sarkozy is an anti-68, conservative politician, in a country where the dominant intellectual strain grew up in the shadow of the May '68 protests. Shadows of the US, where "what did you do during the Vietnam War?" continues to fuel political debate, and where the Republican Party would like to program the national DVD player to skip the tracks between Eisenhower and Reagan.
But just like America's boomer hippies have morphed into Wall Street lawyers and Washington politicians, so too have many soixante-huitards joined the establishment. Probably the best example of a student leader keeping his youthful ideals while succeeding in the political world is "Danny The Red" Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now a member of the European Parliament for Germany's Green Party, though he has as much of a profile in France (born there while his parents fled Nazi persecution, he's perfectly bilingual and bi cultural). Cohn-Bendit was recently shown chatting with the long-retired chief of the Paris police, who he credits with saving lives (and perhaps French democracy) by holding his fire during the student/labor protests.
"'68" is perhaps most resonant now because of the current existential crisis in the world economic system, with financial, food supply, environmental, and societal (immigration, aging, unemployment) pressures causing many to question the way the Western world organizes itself. It's another nostalgia "industry," for sure. But without necessarily offering answers, this season's European retrospectives serve a purpose in forcing introspection of the most useful type. For the US too, this will be most evident once the Democratic Party finally sorts out its candidate to face John McCain. Will it be '60s vs. '70s? (age, not decades). Or will it be McCain national-security-means-guns vs. Obama's more inclusive definition of security through diplomacy, economic strength, and inclusiveness? The Culture Wars in the United States are not over yet.