Daniel Cohn-Bendit (born 1946) only occupied center stage in French politics for a few weeks in 1968. Still, more than anyone else, Cohn-Bendit came to personify the new left that swept Western Europe and North America in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In early 1968, Daniel Cohn-Bendit was a little known leader of a tiny student movement at the brand new Nanterre campus of the University of Paris. He was only 22, having been born in France of German Jewish parents in 1946. Because he held dual citizenship he had chosen to pursue his studies in sociology at the newly opened campus in one of the grimier industrial suburbs of Paris.
That campus represented everything that was troubling the overcrowded French university system. It had been built without planning for the social lives of the students. The educational system suffered from the same problems as the rest of the huge university centered at the Sorbonne.
Gradually the students' discontent with the university merged with more general opposition to the Gaullist regime, which seemed to run everything in a heavy-handed manner. In March 1968 those resentments began to surface. On March 22 a ceremony was held to open officially the Nanterre campus's swimming pool, which Cohn-Bendit and a small group of his fellow students disrupted. They were summoned to a disciplinary hearing which, given the centralization of the university, was to be held at the Sorbonne on May 3.
That hearing marked the beginning of the "events" of May and June 1968, the largest protest movement in the history of the new left. While the accused students were inside, a small group of supporters held a sympathy demonstration in the courtyard. To everyone's surprise, for the first time in centuries the police entered the courtyard to break up a demonstration. That fact, plus the brutality of the police action, rippled throughout Paris.
Students, whose anger had been building and repressed for months, reacted quickly. Throughout the next week demonstrations occurred in the streets of the Latin Quarter. As the police grew more violent, sympathy for the students and their seemingly modest demands grew. Finally, on the night of May 10-11, things truly got out of hand. The police became more violent, and the students and other demonstrators responded by erecting barricades. The police moved in with armored personnel carriers, tear gas, and billy clubs. Echoes of past revolutions could be heard throughout Paris.
In the meantime, Daniel Cohn-Bendit had emerged as the informal leader of the protests. No organization had called or could control what was happening. And, even though Danny the Red—as Cohn-Bendit was called—was by no means in charge, his role at Nanterre thrust him onto the front line.
After the "night of the barricades" support for the students spread, especially into the trade unions who had their own grievances with the government, the same enemy the students were attacking. They called for a sympathy protest the following Monday. The students marched behind the workers, and afterward Cohn-Bendit led them down a few blocks to begin occupying the Sorbonne.
Within hours the occupations spread as workers began taking over factories, newspapers, even the radio and television system. Within days the country was at a virtual standstill.
At first, Danny the Red seemed even more important, especially after a senior government official referred to him as "that German Jew," prompting thousands of people to march through Paris chanting "we are all German Jews." Then Cohn-Bendit was forced into the background. On May 24 he was expelled from France. De Gaulle seized that opportunity to deny him permission to reenter France, even though he did have joint French-German citizenship. He was not able to legally reenter the country for more than a decade.
Within another week President de Gaulle had re-assumed control and dissolved the National Assembly. The Gaullists, not the left, won an overwhelming victory in the parliamentary elections held in June.
For many years, Danny the Red receded from the public eye. After his exile, he settled in Frankfurt, Germany, where he held a variety of jobs while remaining active in politics. In the 1970s he founded RK, a German group which encouraged common action between students and workers, and took part in various housing-related protests and reforms. For employment, he taught at an "anti-authoritarian kindergarten," and worked as a salesperson in the Karl-Marx Bookstore near the city's main university. In the 1980s, Cohn-Bendit founded a radical city magazine, Pflasterstand, whose name referred to a slogan of the 1968 revolts: "Underneath the surface structures of cement [das Pflaster] and steel lies the beach [der Strand]." He also worked as publicist for a number of books and publications, and wrote extensively on radical issues.
In 1984, Cohn-Bendit became a member of the Green Party, which changed its name to the Alliance Green Party in 1989. The Greens made common cause with the German Socialist Party (SPD) in the so-called "Red-Green Coalition," which elected Cohn-Bendit to the honorary position of Commissioner for Multicultural Affairs in July 1989.
In 1994, Cohn-Bendit reemerged onto the world, or at least the Continental, stage with his election to the European Parliament as a member of the Alliance Green Party. Sitting on the Committees for External Affairs, Security, and Defense, he opposed nationalism and promoted a globalist agenda. (Because of his Franco-German background, Cohn-Bendit has often humorously referred to himself as a "bastard," someone who is not tied to a specific national identity.) He also served on the Committee for Basic Freedoms and Internal Affairs, and on the "Delegation Maghreb," which is concerned with issues relating to the nations of the Maghreb region of north Africa: Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. He has also been an active figure behind the European Forum for Active Conflict Avoidance (FEPAC.)
When he was only 22, Daniel Cohn-Bendit left an indelible mark on the history of the 1960s. The movement he helped spawn led to many improvements in the lives of students and workers in the short run; even more importantly, the events set the agenda for French politics for many years, culminating in the 1981 election of President Francois Mitterrand's socialist government. But Cohn-Bendit himself remained modest about his achievements. In his brief autobiography on the World Wide Web in the 1990s, he made scant reference to his role in the 1968 events, and concentrated more on his current activities in the European Parliament. Summing up his interests, he said, "In any event I remain: a wanderer through the worlds, cultures, languages, occupations, generations, and classes, and last but not least: still an active soccer-nut, as player and fan."
On Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the "events of May," see his Obsolete Communism: The Left Wing Alternative (1968) or Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville, Red Flag/Black Flag (1968). Other books with which Cohn-Bendit has been involved, either as writer, cowriter, or contributor, include The Grand Bazaar (1976), We Loved Her So Much, the Revolution (1987), 1968: The Last Revolution That Was Unaware of the Hole in the Ozone Layer (with Reinhard Mohr, 1988), and At Home In Babylon: The Risk of a Multicultural Democracy (1992, with Thomas Schmid.) His English-language Web site is at http://www.oekonet.de/eurospeed/dcbeng.htm. □