1968: The Year That Changed Everything

In May 1968, students ripped up the cobblestones along the rue Gay-Lussac in Paris to build barricades and, in the process, exposed the sand foundation that lay under them. It was one episode in an orgy of confrontation with stolid authority that started out partly as protesting, partly as partying, and grew into a chaotic nationwide strike that shut down France. They were heady times. Fractious left-wing ideologues filled the air with strident declamations—Marxist, Trotskyite, Maoist, anarchist, situationist and more. But the reigning sentiment was simple enough: strip away the edifices of established order. Get to a better—and above all, a fairer—future. Of the slogans shouted by the barricade builders on Left Bank streets that May, those best remembered almost 40 years on are "It is forbidden to forbid" and the weirdly frivolous but expressive, "Beneath the cobblestones, the beach!"

What happened in France that spring was inspired by, and inspired, a global season of rude awakenings that resounds still, even if it comes back to us now summed up in the singular date "1968." America's Vietnam War rumbled as a raging undercurrent, prompting the first protests of the French uprising. But in Czechoslovakia, the "Prague Spring" that began in March 1968 pushed aside the Iron Curtain—until Moscow sent troops to crush the opposition. Ghettos burned and assassinations changed the political landscape of the United States. But at the end of the year, a triumph of American technology unexpectedly created environmental awareness: images of Earth taken from Apollo 8 showed just how vulnerable the Blue Planet looked in what astronaut Jim Lovell called the "vast loneliness" of space.

People who did not come of age then (which is to say the vast majority of the world's population today) may tire of hearing how epochal it all was. French conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, only 13 when the barricades went up in the Latin Quarter, ran his victorious presidential campaign this year against those "sixty-eighters" who still had an odor of irrational left-wing romanticism clinging to them. Yet Paul Berman, a New York University historian, and author of "Power and the Idealists," argues that in Europe today, and especially in Sarkozy's administration, the '68 generation is perhaps more influential than ever. He says there are two very different legacies: the clich?d sloganeering associated with what he calls "antique" 19th-century ideologies, which mostly died of their own irrelevance, and the core sentiment that ruled the streets in Paris, a visceral hostility to ruthless authority, continued, says Berman, as a legacy of "anti-totalitarianism and human rights."

In this, the European and American experiences were very different. Overt colonialism and violent, overwhelming fascism were living memories in Europe, and not, as in the United States, mere words in overheated left-wing rhetoric. The European protests and the government responses, moreover, while violent, were rarely deadly. Thousands of people were arrested and injured, but not a single person was killed in France's May uprising. In the United States the leaders of the civil-rights movement, if they survived, endured, matured and became influential inside and outside of government. In Europe, a handful of well-known student leaders would do the same, holding on to the idealism that marked 1968, but adapting to the demands of realpolitik, including "the use of Western power against extreme repression."

One of the leading '68ers is Joschka Fischer, foreign minister of Germany from 1998 to 2005, representing the Green Party, but a street-fighting leftist radical in the early 1970s. When pictures of him hitting a cop during a 1973 protest appeared in 2001, they provoked outrage. The photographs came from the daughter of Germany's most notorious woman terrorist, whom Fischer had admired. Not only was he pilloried, but, by extension, 1968 was put on trial. Yet Berman portrays Fischer as the man who "ushered the Germans into the actual modernized world by making them active participants in NATO, first in the Kosovo war, and now in Afghanistan." In France, Bernard Kouchner epitomizes the flamboyant style and the moral imperatives of 1968, as well as the rejection of its antique ideologies. Once a communist, he cofounded the humanitarian organization M?decins sans Fronti?res in 1971 to defy Third World dictators and help people in need. His experiences trying to rescue "boat people" fleeing Vietnam after the fall of Saigon dispelled whatever illusions he might have had about Hanoi's tyranny. He went on to work with Afghans fighting the Soviets, and with Kurds fighting Saddam Hussein. In 2003, Kouchner was one of the few prominent French politicians to support the idea of liberating Iraq, but, from the start, had serious reservations about the way the Americans planned to do it.

Last June, Sarkozy picked Kouchner as his foreign minister, and they've built warm ties to the United States, which they talk about, sincerely, as a land of liberty. And they've been tougher on Iran than any other European government. These policies are the natural outgrowth of the spirit of '68. If some of their old slogans seemed playful to the point of nonsense, others still make sense when applied to governments, like Iran's, which maintain power by stifling freedom. "It is forbidden to forbid," they used to say on rue Gay-Lussac. One day crowds may say the same thing in Tehran. They might even discover the beach beneath the stones.