As in May 1968, the Sorbonne university, on the left bank in Paris, has been the crucible of unrest. There have been the familiar images of students barricading themselves into lecture rooms and being dragged out again by the fearsome, head-cracking riot police, the CRS. Just as the so-called soixante-huitards tormented the aloof President Charles de Gaulle and helped bring about his downfall, so their revolutionary descendants have been ridiculing Dominique de Villepin, the Gaullist prime minister, and could yet wreck his chances in next year's presidential elections.
There is, however, one big difference between the events of 1968 and those of today, as several commentators have observed. Whereas the revolutionaries of '68 wanted to change the world, those of today want to keep it much the same. Whereas the '68 generation wanted to challenge their parents' complacency, those of today want to enjoy the same privileges: secure jobs, short working weeks, early retirement and an enviably high standard of living.
Yet, in a strange kind of way, this week's events really are about '68 or more particularly the attitudes and policies it helped inspire. Just as Bill Clinton argued that the big dividing line in US politics remained one's attitude towards the 1960s (Democrats being largely positive, Republicans mostly negative), so the big ideological faultline in French politics remains what one makes of '68.
To the left, '68 is still something to be celebrated. The events of that year helped transform France's archaic, sclerotic society. They led to a feminist revolution and the introduction of abortion rights. They also fed a big increase in trade union power, a strengthening of worker protection and an expansion of the welfare state. This socially liberal agenda has profoundly changed France; over the following 30 years the infant mortality rate was divided by four, the length of the working week was cut from 44 to 35 hours and the number of students completing the baccalauréat, the national educational qualification, at the age of 18 has trebled. "The golden age is surely ours," the author Jacques Marseille concluded last year.
To the right, however, '68 entrenched an anti-capitalist mentality among much of the French elite, helping to turn the 30 years of heady post-war economic expansion (les trente glorieuses) into 30 years of economic underperformance (les trente piteuses). In their view, the soixante-huitards must rank among the most selfish generations in history, inheriting a vibrant, full-employment economy from their parents and bequeathing an uncompetitive, debt-ridden, high-unemployment economy to their children. Life has indeed been golden for those included in the French social model but it has left millions of outsiders on the scrapheap.
The paradox is that it is the rightwing Mr de Villepin who is now trying to present himself as the revolutionary by championing the disaffected jobless in the banlieues, or poor housing estates. Mr de Villepin argues that the introduction of a more flexible labour contract (the CPE) for those under 26 years of age -- the cause of the present student unrest -- is the only pragmatic solution to cut the frighteningly high rate of youth unemployment that fanned last year's urban riots. It is de Gaulle's political son who is challenging the sclerotic society created by the '68 generation.
The trouble is that Mr de Villepin is an unconvincing revolutionary, winning no credit on the left for his latest initiative and widespread suspicion on the right. The Sorbonne students, as well as the jobless in the banlieues, argue that the CPE is unfairly discriminatory. Why should a 27-year-old be securely protected in a job while a 25-year-old is more vulnerable? The media, once so enamoured of Mr de Villepin, are turning rapidly against him. "He has so much baroque pride that he is deaf to the advice of others and blind to his own errors. He regards his rivals as dwarfs, his adversaries as imposters, and his only boss -- Jacques Chirac -- as his inferior," wrote Alain Dohamel in Libération. "He is a leader who creates anxiety, an ambiguous and troubling reformer. He is a Chiraquien dream, he is not the man for the situation."
Unless he can sway opinion over the weekend, Mr de Villepin is in danger of joining the long list of rightwing prime ministers to have buckled under pressure. One of the most lasting legacies of 1968 is that governments have remained petrified about the power of the street.
Instead, he should argue that the students are on the wrong side of the barricades. Rather than condemning his half-hearted reform, they should support him in being far more radical -- and egalitarian -- and extending flexible labour contracts to everyone in the workforce. That really would shake the students' parents out of their complacency -- and be for more in the spirit of '68.
Note to Jen and Tavi: You probably shouldn't be eating or drinking anything when you read this; you might choke when you get to Alain Dohamel's description of Villepin.