IN ONE CORNER, a 77-year-old general from an old aristocratic family, a war hero, and the ruler of his country for the past ten years. In the other, a red-headed young anarchist, preaching the language of liberation and revolution.
Charles de Gaulle was portrayed by the 1968 rioters in Paris as a right-wing reactionary--an old fuddy-duddy hopelessly out of touch with the spirit of the times. Daniel "Dany le Rouge" Cohn-Bendit, unofficial leader of the student rioters, was billed as the radical "progressive." But 40 years on, it's clear that the real hero of 1968--and the man whom history has totally vindicated--was de Gaulle.
The French president was no rightwing dictator a la General Franco. Distrustful of politicians--he once famously declared "politics are too serious a matter to be left to the politicians"--de Gaulle saw referenda as the best way for a leader to divine the wishes of his people. Always distrustful of the power of money and market fundamentalism, he introduced a mixed economy, a welfare state, and presided over the biggest rise in living standards for ordinary people in French history. "He was a man who did not care for those who owned wealth; he despised the bourgeois and hated capitalism" was the verdict of de Gaulle's biographer Jean Lacouture.
Neither did De Gaulle care much for wealth itself. Despite occupying the highest office in the country for a decade, he died in relative poverty. Instead of accepting the pension he was entitled to as a retired president and general, he only took the pension of a colonel. The contrast between de Gaulle and the money-obsessed career politicians of today could not be greater.
De Gaulle's foreign policy stressed national sovereignty and pursuing the French--not the American or anyone else's--national interest. Having done more than any other Frenchman alive to help liberate his country from Nazi occupation, he was not going to let it be dominated by any other power after the war. De Gaulle also felt strongly that French forces should always be under French control. For this reason he took France out of the military command of NATO in 1966. An instinctive "live and let live" anti-imperialist, he pulled French forces out of Algeria and was the strongest Western critic of the war in Vietnam and Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.
Cohn-Bendit, of the Federation Anarchiste de Nanterre, was the antithesis of everything de Gaulle stood for. De Gaulle, the archetypal proud Frenchman, had been born into a deeply patriotic family. Cohn-Bendit, born in France to German parents in April 1945, was officially stateless at birth. De Gaulle loved France; Cohn Bendit hated almost everything about it in 1968.
While de Gaulle, the devoted husband and family man, preached social conservatism, Cohn-Bendit advocated extreme libertinism. He first came to national prominence when he interrupted a speech by a minister who was inaugurating a swimming pool at the University of Nanterre to demand free access to the girls' dormitory. The disturbances of 1968 were kicked off when Cohn-Bendit, together with seven other students, occupied offices and lecture halls of the University of Nanterre and declared the "22nd March movement." The student protests quickly spread to the Sorbonne, and soon France was in crisis. Although economic grievances were added to the students' demands in an attempt to bring industrial workers into the dispute, the main motivation behind the protests was social, not economic. "It was a revolt, not a revolution--we wanted to change this old fashioned society," recalls Cohn-Bendit.
The old Left was unimpressed. French Communist Party leader George Marchais famously denounced Cohn-Bendit and his fellow student protestors as "sons of the upper bourgeoisie who will quickly forget their revolutionary flame in order to manage daddy's firm and exploit workers there." The working class remained skeptical of the demonstrations. …