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Will May 2013 go down as France’s May 1968, part deux?

In the south of France, Vincent Autin and Bruno Boileau prepared for the biggest day of their lives – their wedding – today in Montpellier under the most unusual circumstances: Up to 100 police officers stood guard outside the town hall where they wed in France’s very first gay marriage ceremony.

It is the culmination of a months-long – and at times ugly – battle between anti- and pro-gay-marriage protesters. And taking no chances, Montpellier was under tight security. Even though just a handful of anti gay marriage militants attempted to thwart the wedding and were swiftly taken into police custody, opponents of gay marriage are determined to continue protesting – even if “marriage for all” is now enshrined in French law.

The most recent demonstration against the law came on Sunday, days after it was approved by France’s highest constitutional powers. It was one of more than a half dozen to be organized in the past year. One of them was the biggest around a social issue in 30 years. They’ve attracted not only conservatives condemning the law, but also some on the far right and those simply opposed to French President François Hollande. At the fringes they have been marked byviolence, clashes with riot police, and scores of arrests.

Against a backdrop of plummeting popularity for President Hollande, as economic problems persist, including stubborn unemployment and now a recession, some had warned that this movement could mark a turning point in the national mood, converging into major civil unrest. When daily newspaper Le Figaro asked readers if May 2013 could turn into another May 1968 – when student protests turned into massive general strikes that nearly toppled the government of Charles de Gaulle – a slight majority, 51.5 percent, said yes.

Defending family values?

Hollande faces record unpopularity and many challenges ahead. This month saw the annual Labor day marches, protests against Hollande’s first year in government by the extreme left, an annual far right demonstration on May 12, and Sunday’s anti-gay-marriage march. Police estimated Sunday’s march to be 150,000 people; Organizers put that figure at a million.

Although Hollande’s administration had warned the protest could degenerate into violence and urged protesters not to bring their children, the march was generally not confrontational. Little boys and girls in dresses and tights filled the esplanade, as did babies being pushed in strollers in what was also France’s Mother’s Day.

The attendants, many of them older, well-dressed couples and young families, seemed singularly focused on the issue of gay marriage. They carried signs reading “Who is my father?” or pictures of babies asking, “My mother is named Robert?”

Sabine Lacroix, a retired secretary sitting on the grassy field with her friends and neighbors, says her motive is simple: “This is a direct attack against the family,” she says.

Nonetheless, the rallies themselves have become increasingly political.

A dozen activists climbed to the roof of the headquarters of the Socialist party Sunday, hanging a sign that called for Hollande’s resignation.

The marchers have been joined by opposition leaders and conservative figures, such as far-right politician Marine Le Pen, who have used rallies as a platform to contest Hollande’s administration. The government accused them over the weekend of stoking divisions and radicalization.

Just days before Sunday’s march, a far-right historian committed suicide at the altar of Notre Dame Cathedral, after posting a blog entry railing against the “vile” law, he wrote.

Louis Guillaumebarry, a high school student at the Sunday protest with his friends, says that they attended the rally to defend family values. If youths in 1968 were seeking change, they are seeing preservation of society.  “In 1968 youths made France better,” he says, “now it’s our turn.”

Not May 1968

But May 2013 is unlikely to be recorded in history as pivotal.

“May 1968 was an unpredictable, spontaneous event,” says Jacques Sauvageon, a retired art history professor and key actor during the May 1968 student protests. Protesters in May 1968 had no precise objective, he says, but found a common enemy in the government.

Today, he says, there are several issues, from gay marriage to unemployment, that people are protesting, but their objectives are more disparate and the mood is not one of immediate change, he says. For example, a poll last Friday by the polling group BVA showed that 62 percent of the French think the protests against gay marriage should stop since it’s already been adopted.

Mr. Sauvageon says the mood is incomparable to the late 1960s, when there was a thirst for discussion against a backdrop of the Vietnam war, the end of the Algerian war, and women’s and civil rights movements in the US. On a basic level, the students in 1968 were leftists; today they are mostly conservatives.

And globalization has also confounded the nature of protest. “We can protest against those in power, but these powers are linked to those at a European level or global level. We don’t really know who is in charge,” says Sauvageon.

Warning signs

Still, there are warning signs ahead for Hollande, say observers. Christian Malard, a political journalist at TV channel France 3, says that 1968 is still in the minds of the French. “All the signals for Hollande are black,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised that if things don’t improve quickly enough, the French will get desperate and get into the streets.”

Jean-Paul Pianta, who works as a human resources adviser for international and private firms, says that students are less prone to mass protest today than before, and they are more concerned with finding jobs. But he sees France at a boiling point.

“There is a fire underneath and the match could be the students, because if they are tired of knocking on doors to get jobs, or they get lousy jobs, they will take to the streets,” he says.

On Sunday, retired Col. Michel Berger says that he finds the marches today deeper and more important than those in 1968. “Then youths were fighting a system,” he says. “This is more profound, this is about preserving our civilization.”

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