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Herman Van Rompuy: “In May ’68, we knew everything was about to change”

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Translation by:

Anna W.


More than 50 years have passed since May 1968, celebrated as a symbol of student rebellion. That year, students in Belgium rose up against KU Leuven, the Catholic University of Louvain, for linguistic emancipation. Herman Van Rompuy, former president of the European Council who was a student at the time of the events, recalls his experience.

Between January and March 1968, the Leuven Vlaams (“Flemish Louvain”) movement raged among Flemish students at KU Leuven (Catholic University of Flemish Louvain), which, since its very beginning, had been divided into a Dutch-speaking and a French-speaking section. Throughout the early 1960s, the worry of a French takeover of this Flemish region loomed large. In 1968, tensions finally exploded. Flemish students rallied together to expel French-speaking Walloons from the biggest university in Belgium. Whilst student protests in France against the stringency of the old system were gathering momentum, Belgium was being split apart over the issue of linguistic emancipation. Herman Van Rompuy, the former Belgian prime minister, and first president of the European Council to be a member of the CVP party (democratic Christian party, the biggest in Belgium up to 1968), was studying at KU Leuven. He gave the following interview to Cafébabel.

Cafébabel: What were you studying at KU Leuven in May ’68?

H.V.R: I remember it all very clearly, I started studying law at KU Leuven in 1965. After two years, I realized that law wasn’t really my cup of tea, and I switched to economics. This required a transitional year to catch up with courses. Since it wasn't too busy, I was able to study philosophy too. Because of this, the year of 1968-69 was relaxed enough that I could follow the events in Louvain, and elsewhere.

“I think that today, the post-68 generation has quietened down and become much more calm.”

Cafébabel: What was your experience of the events at the beginning of 1968?

H.V.R: Something unusual was happening in Louvain. In 1965, Flemish students has already staged a sort of revolt against the restrictive message of the bishops who were founders of the university, since they were opposed to the division of Louvain University. The students reacted violently. By January 1968, there was a new revolt. This revolt was more unusual, in the sense that it was a mixture of groups: the student movement was being lead by Marxists with a revolutionary agenda, supporting the total overturning of society. However, most students only cared about for the Leuven Vlaams movement. They made up the majority of the movement, but were lead by Leftist leaders, who were highly intelligent and highly manipulative. I saw all this first hand, but without getting involved, I just followed the events from a distance.

Cafébabel: What was the main aim of the revolts?

H.V.R: The short term aim was clear - to overthrow the government (under Paul Vanden Boeynants). And it worked. Many say this was the grand victory of the Leuven Vlaams movement. Of course, the government wasn’t overthrown solely by the protests. Political parties like my own (CVP — Ed.) were arguing for the resignation of the government even though they were part of it. Parliament formulated the threat of toppling the government, and that was enough to make the Prime Minister resign. I’m not belittling the impact of Flemish student movement at Louvain, but it did have political support in Parliament. The Vanden Boeynants government came to an end in the spring. And very soon after this, in May, the movement in Paris began.

Cafébabel: Would you say that these events can be attributed to a particularly politically aware youth in the sixties? Perhaps more politically aware than today?

H.V.R: To be honest, I’m not sure. In Flanders, there was certainly a very politically active movement at that time, particularly among young people. But after the fall of the government, this student movement fell completely flat: they had got what they wanted. After that, nothing much changed. The leftist movement, which had been exploited and manipulated, promptly disappeared. Nationalist themes then began to dominate public debate, and everything else became fairly marginal. So in comparison with everything that happened in Paris, the scales didn’t really topple.

Cafébabel: You say that you remained an observer at the time. Have these events influenced your political career subsequently?

H.V.R: Absolutely! I had a different political process, but I have always been true to my origins, regardless of circumstances. After 1968, I was active within socio-Christian Flemish youth movements. And that, too, had consequences: for example, there were lots of new ideas to re-build the party on a different base. I was against it, so I fought against all these ideas, and in the end, I was in the right. But that doesn’t mean that we weren’t taking into account everything going on around us. And it also doesn’t mean that we didn’t share the feeling that the world was changing: we were totally aware of that. I wasn’t one of those who said: “it’s not real” or “the revolution is over” or “there are no political consequences”. That wasn’t the problem. We couldn’t ignore the fact that all the old authority structures were collapsing. My college teachers, with whom I had always stayed in contact, told me: “You belong to the older generation” - meaning the generation who had profited from or suffered from a 16th century education. And after 1968, everything changed.

Cafébabel: How did things change?

H.V.R: During the Leuven Vlaams movement, even college students went to protest against the government and in favor of the division of the university in Louvain. In the streets, they were side-by-side with their teachers. Once on an equal footing, the power of authority suffered greatly. I had already been inducted into a spirit of hierarchy given that our teacher was, incidentally, a Jesuit priest. As he was our teacher, we had a lot of respect for him. But the day you find yourself in the street shouting “Leuven Vlaams” with your geography teacher on one side of you and history teacher on the other, things start to change. After May ’68, the culture and mentality of our schools was profoundly changed. I think that today, the post-68 generation has quietened down, and become much more calm. But the desire to go against authority remains, and this is the fundamental heritage of May ’68. After that, individuality took on more importance and that's still the case - we all decide our own outlook on life, we all listen to our parents and friends, but at the end of the day, we make all our own decisions, even when we’re young. That’s a result of May '68.

“At the time, it was certainly violent - not in a physical sense, but violent on an emotional level.”

Cafébabel: How does that attitude translate into politics?

H.V.R: In my opinion, it had some serious, and often under-estimated, consequences. The May ’68 movement and the individualization phenomenon in society undermined the founding principles of the Church. We used to accept certain things as pillars of our society, such as being born into a Catholic family, being baptized, going to Catholic school, a Catholic union, a Catholic youth movement, and when you’re older, a Catholic veteran movement, etc. The same applies to socialists, and the a lesser extent to liberals, but it’s still the same. That kind of world was shaken up by May ’68. Little by little, it was worn down, and, in a way, it has almost disappeared due to the increased secularization of society. For a party like mine, our support base is made up of those who identify as Christians or Catholics. But today, this base is tending to disappear. In 1968, my party drew 48% of the vote in Flanders - easily! Nowadays we’re only between 15-18%.

Cafébabel: What were the consequences at a national level?

H.V.R: It all worked out quite well. A new university with a very good reputation was constructed at Louvain-la-Neuve, in the Walloon region, and the legacy of KU Leuven was preserved in the Flemish region. This distance of just 20km would have had little significance in another country, but here, it is symbolizes a linguistic border. For Belgium, that means the beginning of federalization, as this was demanded by both communities, not just the Flemish. After that, the country changed. We had to undergo a difficult period, but when it was resolved, we were able to see the past from a different perspective. At the time, it was certainly violent - not in a physical sense, but violent on an emotional level.

Translated from Herman Van Rompuy : « Mai 68, on savait que tout allait changer »