The EconomistAugust 31, 1968
Ayes to the left, noes to the right
Politics in the university? After May, what Frenchman should waste his time disputing the idea, even if he disliked it? Yet in fact France's university world this month has been in uproar about it.
At the centre of this storm is M. Edgar Faure, the new minister of education. His speech to the national assembly last month, outlining his philosophy, was much praised, but especially by those who take seriously, as he seemed to, the notions of "dialogue" and "participation."
The trouble is that M. Faure has since shown signs of meaning what he says. Some of his ministerial colleagues clearly regard participation as an elysean fantasy; so do their extremist opponents, who in turn are accused by their critics of understanding by "dialogue" nothing more than the sound of their own voice.
Near the extreme is SNE-Sup, one of several unions of university teachers--it organises about one-fifth of them--which in May made common cause with the students. SNE-Sup's left-wing leaders had previously refused to talk to the regime but changed their minds after studying M. Faure's placatory approach (unlike the militant students, who refused to talk unless their imprisoned colleagues were released; as they were on August 23rd).
SNE-Sup emerged from M. Faure's office on August 7th declaring defiantly that the government had two faces, repression and seduction; but evidently half-way seduced. They recorded with satisfaction that the minister seemed to share their views on certain points, in particular that "it is normal that students and teachers should take part in politics on university premises."
And there the balloon went up. The autonomous (i.e. not politically affiliated) union of teachers in the faculty of letters denounced "this policy of capitulation which hands over the university to subversion." A committee for "neutrality and reform" in university teaching demanded an immediate ministerial denial and issued fearful warnings of "indoctrination" and "permanent civil war" in the universities. The moderate students' union feared that free expression would become the prerogative of "a minority of agitators."
M. Faure hastily explained in a letter to the national federation of autonomous unions of university teachers that all he meant was that it was natural for students to be interested in politics, and they should have places in the university to meet and discuss in. The chairman of the federation cautiously welcomed this revolutionary thought--"the experiment can and should be made"--thereby sending his constituents in the faculty of letters into a froth of internecine rage from which they have not yet emerged.
Simultaneously SNE-Sup's general secretary, M. Herszberg, was delightedly stirring the coals with a declaration that their most right-wing opponents were "a band of fascists disguised as dons" with whom they would "settle accounts" when the new term begins. Counter-attack from the centre and the right, gloom from M. Raymond Aron, who accused the minister of giving the impression that his moral authority was being exercised in favor of the enragés.
Meanwhile the minister of the interior was delivering a ferocious speech affirming that the government's readiness for firm action against "subversive groups," and the castroist student faction was busily funneling its followers, via Belgium, to a student camp in Cuba (where, according to an American report, Frenchmen form a majority of the 300-odd embryo revolutionaries in residence).
At last M. Faure was driven to a third explanation which made some people wonder what the whole row had been about. After a meeting with a group of "moderates" a joint communiqué revealed that by "politics" the minister had not meant "propaganda and permanent demonstrations" but "strictly regulated authorisation of discussions on political themes, on the model of the debating societies in Anglo-Saxon countries." Neither repression nor permanent revolution, in short, but the Cambridge Union.