Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

In 1968 Daniel Cohn-Bendit helped send Charles de Gaulle into retirement. Now the former student revolutionary is having a good laugh about the latest French president, François Hollande. Recently Hollande unveiled his vision for France in 2025. “Well, I bet you, mate,” says Cohn-Bendit, addressing the absent Hollande with the familiar French “tu” form, as is his custom, “you aren’t going to get there. How can you if, after a week’s intervention in Libya, you have to cry for Mummy across the Atlantic because you’ve run out of munitions? France could do Mali, true. That was five planes, that’s OK.” The European Cohn-Bendit considers nation-states impotent and passé.

“Danny the Red” of 1968 is 68 years old himself now. The red has faded from his hair, but the impish little student rebel lives on: the freckles, the laughing blue eyes, the wit. We are sitting in his characterless office deep inside the European parliament in Strasbourg. A Green Euro MP here since 1994, he retires next year. All he ever ran was a student revolution and an “anti-authoritarian kindergarten” in Frankfurt. Yet he’s a political giant – 1968 was only the beginning. In his ceaseless search for the future – including one almighty wrong turn – he has ended up possibly the most articulate voice for Europe.

The son of Jewish refugees from Hitler, he never had much time for nation-states. “I’m a bastard,” he tells me. “My parents fled Germany in 1933, I was born in France. I am a European bastard, but from a good year.”

Does he mean 1945, his year of birth?

“Or 1968.”

That made him a media star. After teenage years in Germany, he’d returned to France to study sociology in Paris. In May 1968, he became spokesman not only for his leftist student group but also for the baby-boomer generation. In Gilles Caron’s famous ’68 photograph, Cohn-Bendit is grinning upwards at a helmeted policeman: youth mocking oppression. De Gaulle called him “France’s most dangerous scoundrel”. The far-right newspaper Minute wrote: “This Cohn-Bendit, because he is a Jew and a German, takes himself for a new Karl Marx.” Whereupon protesters paraded through Paris, chanting joyously, “We are all German Jews!” (The black leftist French MP Aimé Césaire whispered, “I am quite willing to shout it, only nobody will believe me.”)

“1968 was my PhD,” Cohn-Bendit says now. “I did my PhD on the street, and afterwards nobody ever asked what my PhD was. They knew me.” Was it the highlight of his life? “No, that would be sad. It would be as if your first love was your greatest love.” But 1968 – which helped oust the eternal De Gaulle – taught Cohn-Bendit something. “It gave me the feeling,” he says, “that you can turn the screw of history.”

Most politicians think in electoral cycles. Cohn-Bendit takes a longer view. He kept trying to turn the screw of history, to reinvent everything. His attempts to reinvent love went wrong. In the 1970s, he wrote about erotic encounters with children in kindergarten. Later he said these were fictions that he shouldn’t have written, and denied ever touching a child. Kindergarten parents backed him.

Next he and his young Frankfurt pal Joschka Fischer helped turn Germany’s Greens into the world’s most powerful environmental party. The duo were dubbed “Realos”, realists, determined to make the Greens electable – because Cohn-Bendit is a dreamer who aims to make things happen. Later he invigorated France’s Greens. Possibly uniquely, he has had political careers in two European countries.

Now, his last issue is Europe. He reckons nation-states are finished. “People say, ‘France must do this’, ‘England must do this’. They can’t.” No European country can regulate banks or tackle climate change alone, he says. To this would-be history-maker, national parliaments are the fringe theatres; Strasbourg is the future.

So he and the Parisian public relations mogul Felix Marquardt published an appeal, in newspapers around Europe, for Europeans to start a new European movement. Europe already exists, he explains, and its capital is Berlin, where young Europeans congregate.

“Surely London?” I ask.

“No, Berlin. We’ve had 65 years without war, mazel tov! And today there’s a shared space. There is a European way of life. In the 1960s we said, ‘Beneath the paving-stones the beach,’ and I say, ‘Beneath the paving-stones, Europe.’” He wants European countries to exchange know-how: why does Finland have the best schools, or France the best healthcare?

What did he achieve in his career? “I don’t look back,” he replies. “I did what I wanted and could do. It was a very exciting story.” But then he adds: “I carried forward the idea of Europe.” Will the idea win? “I don’t know. There’s no determinism in history.” He’s leaving it to young people now. “From a certain age, your life is behind you.”

How will he spend retirement, after next May’s European elections? “First I’ll be old, OK? Sixty-nine. Then – I don’t know. I’m making a film in Brazil, about Brazil during the World Cup.” Football is his passion; this ultimate European always supports France.


simon.kuper@ft.com; Twitter @KuperSimon

Get alerts on Europe when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article