I do not know why the events that are currently taking place in Iran – and which are on the verge of toppling the regime that came to power as a result of the old revolution – remind me of the May 1968 uprising in France. This famous revolutionary uprising of workers and students almost resulted in the Fifth Republic of France being overthrown; one of the famous leaders of this uprising was a student named Daniel Cohn-Bendit. The famous slogan that embodied this uprising, and particularly the students, was a well-known quote from Rimbaud that reads “we must change life, this life of monotony and convention no longer suits us.” This same quote applies to the new generation of Iranians who took to the streets in protest of the results of the recent presidential elections. In fact, there are other similarities between the May 1968 uprising and what is taking place in Iran today. For example, [Mir Hossein] Mousavi, [Mehdi] Karroubi, and let us not forget [Mohammad] Khatami and other Iranian reformists, represent Iran’s youth, even though they themselves are not members of the youth. In this same way, Cohn-Bendit – who was a German – represented France’s workers and students during the May uprising.
Iran and France are similar in many regards, and today we will examine the shared vitality of the French and the Iranian public with regards to the revolutionary uprisings that are seen from time to time in both these countries.
If we look at the contemporary history of Iran, for example, we will discover that in just the last century, there have been several “revolutionary moments” that the Iranian public have been the core force behind. I am not talking about military coups, which are the revolutionary norm for the Arab world and Latin America [but uprisings that take place at a grass-roots level]. These “revolutionary moments” in Iran include the 1906 Iranian Constitutional Revolution, the popular uprising led by [Mohammed] Mossaddeq that took place in the 1950’s, as well as the Islamic Revolution in 1979. This is not to mention the current uprising that has moved beyond being a mere protest after it became evident that the Iranian regime is unable to deal with demonstrations taking place internally.
As for France, since the French Revolution of 1789, the country has experienced one revolutionary moment after another, whether we are talking about the 1848 uprising [February Revolution], the 1871 Paris Commune, the uprisings following both World War I and World War II, or the May 1968 uprising.
Both France and Iran have a revolutionary atmosphere that is not found in any other countries, even countries that have experienced famous revolutions like Russia, Germany, and China. What distinguishes France and Iran is that their “revolutionary moments” have been shaped by a public that has experience in formenting revolution, whereas the revolutions that take place in other countries are cases of the elite taking advantage of a particular set of circumstances, as in the case of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution. However in the case of both France and Iran, these revolutions were incited by the public, and this has remained etched into the psychology of both the French and Iranian public. This theory was explained at length in Gustave Le Bon’s famous book “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind” [La psychologie des foules] long before contemporary Iran witnessed any revolution.
In May 1968, a coalition of workers, students, and farmers, paralyzed politics in France, and almost toppled De Gaulle’s Fifth French Republic. Tensions reached tipping point on 25 May when more than ten millions workers were participating in the wildcat strikes. Indeed even famous philosophers such as Foucault, Deleuze, and Sartre were participating in this revolutionary moment, and there were calls for Jean-Paul Sartre to be arrested, however President Charles De Gaulle resisted this saying only “You cannot imprison Voltaire.” The uprising ended on 31 June after security forces stormed the University of Sorbonne, yet despite this the revolutionary movement had achieved its objectives. French President Charles De Gaulle dissolved parliament and called for new elections, whilst all groups that had participated in the uprising were pardoned, except for the French Communist Party.
Despite the scale of the uprising, the Gaullists swept to power in these elections, despite this, De Gaulle himself withdraw from French politics, leaving his followers to resolve the problems of the new French state. This is the conduct of a historic leader. An individual is unimportant when the state is in trouble, even if that individual is De Gaulle himself, the man who liberated France from the Nazis. I do not think that Ahmadinejad is capable of such leadership, for the Iranian President – to use a French metaphor – believes himself to be comparable to Louis XIV, who famously said “I am the State.”
Iran is facing a dangerous situation today as there are reformists who want to implement change from within the system, but the system itself rejects this. Rafsanjani alluded to this danger in the Friday prayers sermon he gave last week, and this danger is something that may ultimately lead to the collapse of the Iranian regime as a whole. In 1978 when the trouble that eventually led to the Iranian Revolution was just beginning, some of the Shah’s advisers counseled him to give way and institute some reforms, but he refused. However when it later became clear that the regime was close to collapse the Shah made many concessions [in an attempt to hold on to power] however by then it was too little too late.
The 1968 May Uprising was able to take place because of the government of the French Fifth republic, even though this uprising was attempting to tear down this government. This was because the French Fifth Republic was a true democracy that was presided over by a historic leader who put the state before the [political] regime. The French State has changed with the times, and although De Gaulle did not die in power, he has been immortalized in the annals of history.
Has Iranian democracy learned from this?
Just as the Shah attempted to fool the world into believing there was genuine democracy in Iran, the mullahs and the Wilayat Al Faqih are repeating the same lie. According to the philosophies of Plato, it is not possible for true democracy – the rule of the people – to exist alongside a Wilayat Al Faqih, a benevolent autocrat, or even a philosopher King. Democracy is rule of the people, the right to make mistakes, but not the right to purposefully do wrong. Mistakes are a part of life, and indeed have always been. God ordered Adam not to eat of the forbidden fruit, but he did, and thus civilization was born.
I feel no hostility towards the Islamic Republic of Iran, except when I witness open hostility towards my country [Saudi Arabia]. However despite this I believe that this [hostility] will help us achieve an advanced position in the global hierarchy, and help us in providing a good human rights model. However I can only feel despair when I see the “Islamic” Iran’s chauvinistic and nationalistic motivation to achieve a political dominance that is not in the interests of the region as a whole. I feel despair when I witness the lack of human rights [in Iran], especially since this regime came to power under a platform of human rights. I feel despair when I see a President that only cares about antagonizing the world. An incomplete democracy is no better than an open dictatorship. I feel despair at our inability as Muslims to achieve a genuine democracy. I feel despair at our lack of human rights. I feel despair at those who consider the public to have no say in government.