The events of May 1968 in France – when young Left-wingers brought the country to a standstill and nearly toppled General de Gaulle – are now regarded as a legendary aspect of modern history. Coincidentally or not, they had echoes of political change in Prague, Northern Ireland and the United States, as well as social disturbance and anti-war protests in Britain.

Fifty years on, we’re still analysing why 1968 was such a significant year and what it meant (and why individuals felt drawn to the demonstrations, wittily described in the Catholic Herald recently by Peter Hitchens).

But there is a French viewpoint that the events of 1968 arose from a spiritual crisis, and that the young Marxist and Maoist activists chucking cobblestones at the police were animated by a sense of “alienation” of the spirit. That’s the analysis put forward by the French Catholic writer Gérard Leclerc, in his 1968 retrospective Sous les pavés, l’Esprit (“Underneath the Cobblestones, the Spirit”).

Leclerc is much influenced by the late philosopher Maurice Clavel, who thought that 1968 “was a reaction against man’s profound sense of ‘nothingness’ ”. It was the experience of a society in search of meaning, aspiring to “being” rather than “having”: a society seeking to discover God. The year 1968 was “the end of an age”, for Clavel: the age of a humanism which had lost its sap. May 1968 “reveals a fracture, signifying an ontological exhaustion of the values of the modern world”.

You could, indeed, see the significance of May 1968 that way: that there was a disturbance in the zeitgeist of the world. And, as Leclerc points out, the Catholic Church itself was undergoing profound changes at this time – the publication of Humanae Vitae prompting so much discussion, and dissent, within the Church.

And so many of the ontological and existential questions which were part of the 1968 scene remain relevant to today’s ideas: equality, liberation, imagination, alienation, demonstrations and the rise of celebrity and “the showbiz society” (la societé du spectacle).

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