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Sartre in 1968, handing out copies of “La Cause du Peuple”, the newspaper of the Gauche Prolétarienne. Simone de Beauvoir is on the right (© ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)



President Emanuel Macron has been planning how best to commemorate les évènements of May 1968. One hears that, without being explicitly pro (like François Hollande) or anti (like Nicolas Sarkozy), he will reflect upon the loss of utopian ideals in politics. Will he give us some examples, en bonne foi? Will he praise the “utopian ideals” of the angry students, workers and writers of soixante-huit?

Seizing the moment in that year, once more, was the man who had held a dominant position in public intellectual life for 30 years — Jean-Paul Sartre, then 63. Although the structuralists were then eclipsing him in Paris, and he was deeply immersed in his vast (and, in its scholarly eccentricity, vastly bourgeois) biography of Flaubert, he was quick to announce his support for the militant students who, according to their leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, “had all read Sartre” whereas only “some had read Marx”.

Another leader, Alain Geismar, said that his relationship with Sartre had always been passionate: he and a friend had a two-hour meeting with Sartre and his partner Simone de Beauvoir. Sartre and others such as Lacan and Henri Lefebre then published a statement in Le Monde on May 10, the night before the barricades went up: “The solidarity we are here pledging to all the student movements in the world . . . is, above all, our answer to all the lies with which all the institutions and political organisations (with hardly any exceptions) and all the organs of the press and the rest of the media . . . have been trying to alter said movements and to pervert them.”

Sartre then appeared on Radio Luxembourg supporting the students and accusing his own generation of “cowardice, sluggishness and servility . . . Violence is the only thing remaining to the students who have not yet entered into their fathers’ system and who do not want to enter into it.” A few days later he met Cohn-Bendit and his encouraging words were reported in Le Nouvel Observateur; then he attacked his old friend Raymond Aron for his moderation and called for radical change in the university system. On May 20 thousands invaded the occupied Sorbonne to hear him address a huge student meeting.

At this stage of his life Sartre was a kind of verbally exploding star: he didn’t see a contradiction between his literary and political projects, since his never-finished work on Flaubert, consisting of 3,000 pages of Freudian-Marxist deconstruction, aimed to explain how and why its subject was hopelessly bourgeois and disengaged, and why his fine style was poor compensation for the weakness of being a passive slave of the “imaginaire”. Maoist groups sought his protection and within three years Sartre had become editor-in-chief of three of their newspapers, La Cause du Peuple, Tout, and Liberation. The first of these carried the names of Sartre and de Beauvoir at the foot of every page.
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