Nanterre, May 68
This will be my final post on May 68. It is not of any great importance, but I wanted to do it before May 2008 vanished forever. (As I post it is 11:57 on the East Coast). For a long time I kept an old copy of Paris-Match; then I clipped out this letter to the editor and threw the magazine away, failing to note the date of the publication. Very late 60's or early 70's most likely.
Pierre Grappin was a professor of German who fought in the French Resistance during WWII, where his language skills were valuable. Later, he was one of the promoters of the new University in Nanterre, outside of Paris. He became dean of the Faculté des Lettres of Nanterre (similar to our liberal arts college) in 1964 and held the post until 1994. But for a while in the middle of the student uproar he resigned rather than yield to the demands of the rioters. On May 3 he closed his Faculté, forcing the rioters to move their operations to the Sorbonne in the center of Paris. For this the former resistance fighter was labeled "Nazi" and "SS". Decades later Dany Cohn-Bendit was asked to apologize to Grappin, but refused.
In this letter he explains his commitment to Nanterre, and why he chose to resign rather than capitulate to demagogues:
For me, when the Liberal Arts College of Nanterre was founded in 1964, it was not a question of creating an "anti-Oxfordian university in the middle of a working-class neighborhood". More simply, on the site that had been granted to us and despite its defects, we wanted a new school, the first of a series of schools for students of the Parisian region. My ambition was, in the liberal tradition of French universities, but without fear of pedagogical innovations, to offer to all students, be they recipients of grants or children of wealthy families, the culture and the qualifications that higher education worthy of the name can bestow. I believe I have succeeded.
At the same time, French universities have constituted for 80 years the training grounds for the intellectual elite and for social advancement through culture; particularly in the liberal arts colleges. But it is no longer a question of social advancement when, as is the trend today, diplomas which tomorrow will have no value are handed out no matter what the cost. To do this would be deceitful. It would only benefit the mediocre and those who seek to level by the lowest common denominator: that is the opposite of the universities' mission.
If, in September 1968, I abandoned my functions as dean, it was in order not to lend myself to this type of demagoguery and to the compromises that the situation of the previous summer made inevitable. After three years that had been for all of us a great success, I decided, freely, to withdraw. Without being forced into it by failure, as you seem to imply, I refused to continue to head an institution where pressure groups and commandoes of henchmen threatened - and still threaten - the freedom to teach. The methods they use are, I'm sorry to say, exactly those I saw employed in Germany by Hitler's youth in the years preceding his rise to power in 1933. Again just last week, a professor, who is also a member of the parity council, was attacked while giving class, mocked, mistreated, insulted, threatened, called an undesirable, and forbidden to speak. To teach in such conditions, in devastated and filthy rooms, is implicitly to accept a moral degradation that leads the way to mental servitude and totalitarianism.
Pierre Grappin, former dean
Faculté of Nanterre
Note: Since his biography states he was dean from 1964 to 1994, we can only assume that his resignation was temporary. A Google search on him turned up very little, but there are books by him (mainly on German language and culture) available at Amazon.
The "parity council" mentioned above isn't clarified, but could refer to a council where both students and teachers have representation.
Notice how important the liberal arts were forty years ago. Literature and language formed the basis of the education of most people who were not specifically going to become doctors or scientists, but even doctors had to know Latin (sometimes German), as did scientists. Today literature has been downgraded to include popular and easy works, often of a political nature, and the popularity of liberal arts has been supplanted by the social sciences, psychology and economics, marketing, and management courses.
There is a photo of Grappin here.
The University of Nanterre, inaugurated in 1964, to relieve the overpopulation of the Sorbonne, has grown to become a huge campus for 2000 faculty members and more than 33,000 students. Nanterre was the center of the March and May 68 riots and has always been a hotbed of extreme left-wing activity. Highly unionized and politicized, the University counts many current ministers and Sarkozy appointees among the alumni, including Sarkozy himself who attended the law school in 1978, Christine Lagarde, Minister of Finance, and Brice Hortefeux, Minister of Immigration. Interestingly, included among the alumni are also several important founders of the Front National: Jean-Pierre Stirbois, one of the earliest FN leaders who was killed in an automobile accident, thus opening the way for Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marie-France Stirbois, his wife, and Bruno Gollnisch, a friend of Le Pen and potential rival of Marine Le Pen for leadership of the party.
Note: I am not trying to make a connection between the University itself and the people who attend or who have attended. A University can offer quality courses in certain fields, law for example, and still be a focal point for insurrection. Our UC Berkeley is similar example.
The photo above, from Gerard-Aimé, shows the occupation by students of the Faculté of Nanterre on March 22, 1968. This event is considered the start of the general insurrection. If I understand correctly, Grappin suspended classes during this March rebellion, then reopened them, but he had to confront the same students in May.
Update: June 18, 2010 - The above link to the photos by Gerard-Aimé no longer works.