From Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt (Penguin, 2005), pp. 411-413:
France was prosperous and secure and some conservative commentators concluded that the wave of protest was thus driven not by discontent but by simple boredom. But there was genuine frustration, not only in factories like those of Renault where working conditions had long been unsatisfactory, but everywhere. The Fifth Republic had accentuated the longstanding French habit of concentrating power in one place and a handful of institutions. France was run, and was seen to be run, by a tiny Parisian elite: socially exclusive, culturally privileged, haughty, hierarchical and unapproachable. Even some of its own members (and especially their children) found it stifling.The ageing De Gaulle himself failed, for the first time since 1958, to understand the drift of events. His initial response had been to make an ineffective televised speech and then to disappear from sight. When he did try to turn what he took to be the anti-authoritarian national mood to his advantage in a referendum the following year, and proposed a series of measures designed to decentralize government and decision-making in France, he was decisively and humiliatingly defeated; whereupon he resigned, retired and retreated to his country home, to die there a few months later.
Pompidou, meanwhile, had proven right to wait out the student demonstrations. At the height of the student sit-ins and the accelerating strike movement some student leaders and a handful of senior politicians who should have known better (including former premier Pierre Mendès-France and future president François Mitterrand) declared that the authorities were helpless: power was now there for the taking. This was dangerous talk, and foolish: as Raymond Aron noted at the time, ‘to expel a President elected by universal suffrage is not the same thing as expelling a king.’ De Gaulle and Pompidou were quick to take advantage of the Left’s mistakes…. At the end of May De Gaulle announced a snap election, calling upon the French to choose between legitimate government and revolutionary anarchy.
To kick off its election campaign the Right staged a huge counter-demonstration. Far larger even than the student manifestations of two weeks before, the massed crowds marching down the Champs Elysees on May 30th gave the lie to the Left’s assertion that the authorities had lost control. The police were given instructions to re-occupy university buildings, factories and offices. In the ensuing parliamentary elections, the ruling Gaullist parties won a crushing victory, increasing their vote by more than a fifth and securing an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. The workers returned to work. The students went on vacation.
The May Events in France had a psychological impact out of all proportion to their true significance. Here was a revolution apparently unfolding in real time and before an international television audience. Its leaders were marvelously telegenic; attractive and articulate young men leading the youth of France through the historical boulevards of Left Bank Paris.* (*There were no women among the student leaders…. The youth revolt of 1968 talked a lot about sex, but was quite unconcerned with inequalities of gender.) Their demands—whether for a more democratic academic environment, an end to moral censorship, or simply a nicer world—were accessible and, despite the clenched fists and revolutionary rhetoric, quite unthreatening. The national strike movement, while mysterious and unsettling, merely added to the aura of the students’ own actions: having quite by accident detonated the explosion of social resentment, they were retrospectively credited with anticipating and even articulating it.
Above all, the May Events in France were curiously peaceful by the standards of revolutionary turbulence elsewhere, or in France’s own past. There was quite a lot of violence to property, and a number of students and policemen had to be hospitalized following the ‘Night of the Barricades’ on May 24th. But both sides held back. No students were killed in May 1968; the political representatives of the Republic were not assaulted; and its institutions were never seriously questioned (except the French university system, where it all began, which suffered sustained internal disruption and discredit without undergoing any significant reforms).
The radicals of 1968 mimicked to the point of caricature the style and the props of past revolutions—they were, after all, performing on the same stage. But they foreswore to repeat their violence. As a consequence, the French ‘psychodrama’ (Aron) of 1968 entered popular mythology almost immediately as an object of nostalgia, a stylized struggle in which the forces of Life and Energy and Freedom were ranged against the numbing, gray dullness of the men of the past. Some of the prominent crowd pleasers of May went on to conventional political careers: Alain Krivine, the charismatic graduate leader of the Trotskyist students is today, forty years on, the sexagenarian leader of France’s oldest Trotskyist party. Dany Cohn-Bendit, expelled from France in May, went on to become a respected municipal councilor in Frankfurt and thence a Green Party representative in the European Parliament.
But it is symptomatic of the fundamentally apolitical mood of May 1968 that the best-selling French books on the subject a generation later are not serious works of historical analysis, much less the earnest doctrinal tracts of the time, but collections of contemporary graffiti and slogans. Culled from the walls, noticeboards and streets of the city, these witty one-liners encourage young people to make love, have fun, mock those in authority, generally do what feels good-and change the world almost as a by-product. Sous le pavé, as the slogan went, la plage. (‘Under the paving stones—the beach’). What the slogan writers of May 1968 never do is invite their readers to do anyone serious harm. Even the attacks on De Gaulle treat him as a superannuated impediment rather than as a political foe. They bespeak irritation and frustration, but remarkably little anger. This was to be a victimless revolution, which in the end meant that it was no sort of revolution at all.