Would Social Media Have Aided France's '68 Protests?

Danna Harman goes head to head in an interview with Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, known to many as "Danny the Red" because of both his red hair and his "red" politics, was probably the most famous of the student leaders in the 1968 protests in France against Charles de Gaulle's government. Those left-wing protests - against authoritarianism, western capitalism, the education system and unemployment - soon turned into the largest ever general strike, involving some 11 million workers, and brought France to a virtual standstill.

The situation forced de Gaulle to relocate to a French army base in Germany, where he created a military-operations headquarters to deal with the unrest. The National Assembly was dissolved, and new parliamentary elections were called. Later in life, Cohn-Bendit who is Jewish and part German, returned to Germany, where he joined the Greens (henceforth being known to some as "Danny the Green" ) and was elected to the European Parliament. Last year he turned his attention to Middle Eastern politics as one of the founders of JCall, a European-Jewish advocacy group committed to Israel and its security but critical of its government's current polices.

cohn-bendit - Miki Kratsman - August 8 2011
Miki Kratsman

Is it possible to divorce Israel's economic problems from its political ones?

No. That is exactly the point. It is definitely not possible. Your economic problems are linked to the capacity of your state to deal or not deal with them. The occupation is costing you.

But why can't we - like young people in Europe - cry out against our housing problems, our education problems etc., without getting into the Palestinian problem?

Look at the United States: When they had to have a new budget, the first thing they did was to reduce their military expenses by a third. That is a problem everywhere. The Israeli economy is blocked by war. This is the same thing that happened with France during its occupation of Algeria. And the same thing that happened with Russia when it was in Afghanistan.

Do you think these protests, in Israel as elsewhere in the world, are too vague? Or do they need to be vague in order to get so many people involved?

I think the protests you see in different countries are articulating a feeling, and not a vague one at all. One of the best answers to this question of what they are all about was given to a journalist in Madrid by a protester. The journalist asked: "So, you are against the system?" And the protester responded: "No, the system is against me." That is the feeling. This is not vague. This is a very concrete common feeling now shared by many that this society is not for us.

What do you see as the connection between the protest in Israel and the Arab Spring or protests in Europe? Is there a real connection?

They are, of course, all very different. There is something specific to what is happening in Egypt, and something specific to Greece, and Spain etc. But, at the same time, it seems what is being articulated by them all is that there is something wrong with the whole system.

Why is this happening now? Many of these problems are not new, are they?

One cannot always explain why exactly "now." That is something of a mystery. But the system has produced a lot of money to save banks, and yet it seems that when it comes to the people, the system refuses them what it has given to the big financial and capital institutions. You have a growing feeling now, all over the world, that we live in an unjust world.

Why is the youth always at the forefront of these movements?

Well, young people have nothing to lose. They are fighting for a future. In Israel, they are telling [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, just as the Greeks are telling their leadership, and the Spanish are telling theirs: We want a future. How do you turn this momentum into actual change? That is the right question. And well, you have to get the political parties in parliament to take you seriously. You have to have both a social movement and a political one. You can and must push from both the outside and the inside at the same time.

What are your thoughts about our particular struggle in Israel? Do you have any advice?

I don't know the Israeli context well enough to comment. I am fascinated by what is happening, and was astonished by the sudden uprising. It's like, after the Arab Spring, you have the Israeli Summer. I like it. Let's see what will happen. There is a real chance to force a majority in the Knesset to change the government's orientation. In order to do this, as I said, you have to change your orientation towards the Palestinians. The government has to withdraw from the settlements and find a solution to the Palestinian question - and refocus and invest in Israelis.

What about social media? Is it really changing the way things are done? In what way would it have helped you in '68?

The social-networking aspect is very important. We were the first media generation, but of course we were using radio, and the story has changed beyond recognition since then. Now, you don't even need the official media to get your story out. The Internet is playing a fascinating role, and I like it.

And finally, a question from my brother, who is camping out with the protesters in Jerusalem: Was 1968 as much of a pick-up scene as the Israeli protest?

Ah, but of course. If you have a social movement, it has also got to be a life movement. This youth - they want to live, they want a future, they are doing this for their life. This is normal. This is the beautiful dimension of the thing. This is a way to reappropriate our lives.