In the years since, Cohn-Bendit, a dual Franco-German citizen, has remained in politics. Based in Frankfurt, he was among a group of leftists that went on to lead the German Green Party in the 1970s and 1980s. He then served as a member of the European Parliament for more than two decades, representing both Germany and France at various times. He remains active in the public sphere as a prominent backer of French President Emmanuel Macron, and among the strongest advocates of greater integration in Europe at time when political opinion leans the other way. Fifty years after the May 1968 events, and just a few days after Macron’s visit to Washington, DC, we spoke at the French Embassy in Prague.
BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: What did you think of Macron’s performance in Washington?
DANIEL COHN-BENDIT: It was a great performance. On the one side, he had to take Trump as he is. Trump is psychologically a child. You have to secure him, say, “Yes, you are good,” if you want to try and reach him politically. It’s not easy. Macron started in France last July, on Bastille Day, to try and psychologically secure Trump just to have the possibility to argue with him on climate change, Iran, on trade. And then, all the capacity of Macron, you saw it in his speech in Congress where I think Americans, and not only Democrats, were impressed. He also had a town hall meeting with university students. All in all, it was a surprise for people in the States. I don’t say that he changed the position of Trump, but I think that Trump — then meeting Angela Merkel right after — will have to at least think about whether he wants to have Europe against him.
As I understand it you are a Macron fan, yes?
What was great was that one of the key pillars of his campaign in France was Europe. It was the first time that a candidate started with Europe. It’s not the only thing he is for, of course he is promoting all kinds of reform in France, but this focus on Europe is what brought us together. I had a debate with him in June 2016, and there we understood we had a common view on Europe. On other things less, but he is one who tries to give a future vision of Europe and this gives him a dynamic to push others forward. We can’t stand where we are. We have to have a new idea of European sovereignty, how we organize it, what are the common responsibilities, European defense, and so on. That is why I am enthusiastic, not only because it is a French president, but because it’s a leader in Europe who takes Europe as a key issue for our future.
There is a big railway strike underway in France, and the media likes to compare it to 1968. About half the population supports the strike, which opposes Macron’s proposed reforms to liberalize the sector some, while just 36 percent approve of the job Macron is doing. What do the French think of Macron now?
The railway strike has nothing to do with ’68, you have to forget about that. It’s 50 years ago, it’s another world. In ’68, people didn’t talk about the war of 1918, but it was exactly 50 years before.
France is a strange country, with a two-round presidential election. In the first round, Macron had 25 percent, so from the beginning there were 75 percent who were against him. But he is doing now what he said he would do in the campaign. Everybody is in favor of reforms, on one condition — as long as the reforms don’t touch them.
France needs reform. Macron is pushing more labor flexibility, while promising new forms of benefits and security. A lot of people don’t see the security. This is what he has to prove. He is moving quickly, so it will disturb a lot of people, it is disturbing at the beginning. We will see if his new arrangement includes enough security.
Does France need more flexibility?
Yes, but new security too. His bet is that he can do both.
I take your point that 1968 was a long time ago, but one thing we always read about is that elite students and workers formed a sort of common front. This seems totally far-fetched today. Does that say something about our current time or was it a myth that students and workers were allies then?
In ’68, the revolt was against a certain kind of authoritarianism in society, both in the universities and industry. At the beginning, you had the revolt in the universities. You had mass protests by young people and then young workers started demonstrations in the factories. The trade union leaders did not call a general strike. However, in every factory there were young workers who took everyone with them.
Then, later the unions saw everybody was on strike and stepped in. The workers tried to get, and got, a big jump in wages, more social protections. This was something else. The problem today is that trade unions and leftist groups from the beginning try to organize everything together. It doesn’t work that way.
So today protest is organized from the top down?
I will give you an example of what I mean. You have leftist groups, even elected officials, that go to universities to tell students they need to occupy the campus. If they would have done that to us, we would have told them it was none of their business. The Trotskyists used to say 1968 was the general uprising that would lead to revolution. What 1905 was to 1917 in Russia. And now for 50 years they say we need the real revolution, it is ridiculous.
France today has a lot of problems. I don’t say that Macron is doing everything right. I don’t agree on immigration, but a majority in France and Europe want to take this hard line. The drama of France is that you have a competition between trade unions, more reformist and radical trade unions. Macron’s program is not intelligent enough to take the reformist trade unions on board. Still if he gets into the next election with 36 percent or 40 percent support, it means he passes the first round and wins in the second.
In the United States, there are all these metaphorical dates for when the spirit of the 1960s died, when the Manson murders happened, when the Hells Angels killed someone at a Rolling Stones concert. Is there something similar in Europe?
I don’t care about Manson. Let’s talk about the rebirth of the ’60s in the States. You know what is the rebirth of the ’60s? The Parkland kids. It’s incredible. The family of Martin Luther King was there. It is a symbol. These kids don’t want socialism. They say we don’t want any weapons. This is very genuine. And there is also the Me Too. These are the types of movements that have, I don’t say similarity, but a similar mood.
I am sympathetic to both those causes, but there is a difference, isn’t there? In the ’60s the demographics were that young people outnumbered old people and now old people outnumber young people.
It is true. We do have a demographic problem. But this is a problem with pensions. In the ’60s, people died at 62, you died at 70. Now if you are 60, you live 25 or 30 years. It completely changed the world. It’s incredible what new problems we have.
I guess my point is that the Parkland kids confront a society where they are vastly outnumbered by old people. You did not. That seems like it could be even more rigid than France in 1968, doesn’t it?
It’s true. The Trump system is a rigid system. But this mood of revolt is dangerous for him. If you lose the kids, you lose their parents. If you saw the mall in Washington with the Parkland kids, it was similar to the march with Martin Luther King. With the Parkland kids you had actors from Hollywood too. It’s not all of America that is revolting, but in the ’60s it was not all of America either.
In the 1970s in Europe a lot of the leftist ideas from the 1960s morphed into violence: you had the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy. Do you feel any responsibility for that?
Yes. The ’60s movement was very chaotic. You had the Maoists, the Trotskyists. You wanted more democracy and some people insanely interpreted that as leading to a Chinese-style Cultural Revolution. Some groups wanted a Bolshevik revolution. One of the dimensions of the ’60s and that anti-imperialist mood was this idea of “bring the war home.” Some people saw this as demonstrations, but some other people took this seriously and you had the Red Brigades and the Red Army Faction, and you had this idea that we have to make the revolution. Of course we have a responsibility — I say we collectively. If you are a Leninist and you want to lead the revolution, you have a responsibility for the people who interpret this in a different way. The democrats who voted for Hitler have a responsibility, even if they weren’t Hitler. We didn’t deconstruct the radicalization of a certain type of revolt early enough.
It must have been shocking to see some of your old friends turning to extremist violence. How did it influence you politically?
You had street violence. You had terrorist groups. All this brought part of the movement to change, and go with the creation of the Green Party and move toward a more traditional way of doing politics, going into parliament and so forth.
The Green Party has had a fair amount of success, especially in Germany. One of your old friends, Joschka Fischer, was actually foreign minister in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Under his watch, Germany was among those intervening in Kosovo, sent troops to Afghanistan, but notably stayed out of the Iraq invasion. Where do you stand on so-called “liberal interventionism,” that there are times where it is a moral duty to use military force?
Take Syria. We did nothing, 350,000 dead. You can say we need to find a diplomatic solution. How do you find a diplomatic solution with Assad and the Russians? I mean, demonstrate it. At the beginning, Syria was not an armed revolt, but then the shooting starts and we — I mean the world — says after Iraq, after Kosovo, after Libya — that we are taking a hands-off approach. This is a problem. I was for the intervention in Bosnia. It stopped the violence. If we hadn’t done it, the Serbs would continue. I remember a discussion in Washington, before Iraq, when people were telling me Baghdad was going to be like in Paris in 1944. I said, "You are crazy."
This is one of the most difficult decisions to make. Sometimes intervention is needed, sometimes I am against it. This is the difficulty of politics and judgment. That’s why Macron is right to say that to do these things we need a multilateral politics. The problem is we live in a world where Putin, Trump, and the Chinese don’t want multilateralism. We can strengthen Europe to be this multilateral force. We will see what happens in Iran, if Trump gives up the treaty, perhaps the Europeans can save it, leaving Trump out.
As your generation got older and held real power, say by the 1980s, there was a turn toward hypercapitalism. A skeptic about the legacy of the 1960s would say that it changed social things — marijuana and same-sex marriage are okay — but that the individualism of the period morphed into this libertarian worldview associated with a place like Silicon Valley. Do you feel any responsibility for this as you do for the violence of the 1970s?
This criticism is not true. The whole environmental movement grew from the 1960s, for example, this means all the debate about climate change. Yes, this libertarian individualism was a part of it, I don’t want to say it doesn’t exist, but you can’t reduce it to this. The difficulty is that we don’t want a state economy, a state economy doesn’t work. So what is the form of regulating a market economy? That is a real debate. Flexibility versus security.