by Pierre Manent, First Things:
For the Frenchmen who lived through World War II, the defining event of their lives was quintessentially political. It was the great refusal, embodied by General Charles de Gaulle, to accept the defeat of June 1940. With that refusal came a determined commitment to reestablish national sovereignty. This was more than a matter of overthrowing German occupation. As de Gaulle recognized, it required Frenchmen to recover the spiritual independence of France, to recommit themselves to the project of building a unique and identifiable nation.
For the next generation, the events of May 1968 were their decisive experience. Both its partisans and critics agree that after May ’68 we became a society that undoes its bonds. France was no longer seen as a distinctive nation that strives for unity and independence. Collective rules, both political and social, were delegitimized. The citizen of action was succeeded by the individual of enjoyment. This movement appeared to be very political, even revolutionary, with its various groups competing to be the most radical ideologically. In reality, political differences were leveled in a flood of slogans, and the scene was prepared for the great withdrawal of loyalty from the community, a withdrawal that would take place over the years to follow.
One might be tempted to see in these years a mere inflection of France’s political regime, and a softening of its traits without a change in its essential features—just the Fifth Republic reaching its cruising speed. After the stress that accompanied the assertive leadership of General de Gaulle, some relaxation was deserved, and was moreover very pleasant. This interpretation is plausible and reassuring, but wrong.
After ’68, relaxation became the law of the land. Every constraint appeared to be useless and arbitrary, whether in civic or in private life. Now, as each letting go justifies and calls forth the next, successive governments tout themselves, no longer because of the guidance and the energy they give to common life, but because of the “new rights” they grant to individuals and groups. Underlying the ostentatious solicitude for the wishes of society and the desires of individuals, there is a growing incapacity to propose goals for common action. Here is the cause of the growing distance between the French and their political class. Faced with a number of threats, people sense the need to gather themselves for common action. They want to recover something of the Gaullist strain toward national solidarity. But the political class remains locked in the May ’68 mentality and is incapable of putting forward a vision of France as a nation. Instead, they present themselves: their expertise, their earnestness, their celebrity.
Read also: Europe and its Discontents by Pope Benedict XVI, January 2006