CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Although the confessional roots of anti-imperialism have certainly been studied, [1] and even though anti-imperialism has been analyzed as one of the seed beds for May ’68 activism, [2] no research has been conducted in a longitudinal manner analyzing the transformation and restructuring of activist dispositions from individuals’ first involvement in religious associations up to their political participation in May ’68. The politicization of Christian militants within the religious sphere has been well-documented in the field of religious sociology, specifically in work on “Christians in 1968”, [3] “left-wing Catholics”, [4] or on revolutionary Christians who campaigned against the wars in Algeria or Vietnam. [5] On the other hand, political science research tracing the trajectories of Christian militants who quit their religious organizations to join political organizations is rare. [6] The study of such trajectories encounters a methodological obstacle common to all research conducted on disengagement: [7] how to systematically track down individuals who were members of an organization which they then quit? But the compartmentalization of disciplines is perhaps the major obstacle that has delayed the study of these careers of multiple engagements: are these militants – successively engaged in the religious sphere and then politics – a subject of study in the field of religious sociology or of political science? As caricatural as this question may seem, it raises a real problem that the sociology of activism has long (and always partially) been faced with. [8] Guy Michelat and Michel Simon [9] have certainly articulated a dominant paradigm concerning the relationships between beliefs, religious practices, opinions and conservative behaviors; however, as Jean-Marie Donégani highlighted as early as 1979, “It remains to be explained by what mechanisms certain individuals pass from a socialization orienting the entire politico-religious complex in a conservative sense to a subsequent political comportment that breaks with the principal elements of this socialization.” [10]

2Yet, in my doctoral research, which is focused on the biographical impact of activism during the political events of May 1968 in France, [11] the genealogical approach I adopted provides a methodological means of accessing these trajectories of multiple commitments. In practice, taking a group of “soixante-huitards” and tracing the various origins of the activist dispositions which led to their engagement in May ’68 enables one to avoid the dual pitfalls of a search for a single origin to the crisis, or its inverse – an ahistorical explanation of the crisis [12] (notably as a youth uprising or a series of circumstantial events that snowballed without any objective causes). Before continuing, the materials and methodology I deployed deserve a brief explanation.

3My doctoral thesis was based on an empirical survey of quantitative data and ethnographic data gathered from a sample of 170 families in which at least one of the parents had participated [13] in the events of May ’68. Since no biographical dictionary of “soixante-huitards” exists, and not wishing to privilege a selection based on membership of organizations (which would rule out of the survey all “soixante-huitards” who abstained from joining any organization), families were selected based on the registration lists of former pupils who attended two experimental public primary schools (the Vitruve School in Paris and the Ange-Guépin School in Nantes). Many “soixante-huitards” enrolled their children in these schools, which in the 1970s and 1980s [14] offered a curriculum inspired by the pedagogical methods of Freinet, Montessori, and Decroly. Two questionnaires were developed and sent to the former pupils and their parents (the ex- “soixante-huitards”). This quantitative research (354 questionnaires were returned) was complemented by a parallel ethnographic survey consisting of interviews (89 were conducted) with some of these families.

4The survey’s empirical nature and the way I constructed the sample (via the second generation to their parents) allowed for a genealogical approach and a new, sustained perspective on the question of what factors determined participation in May ’68. The schema that has prevailed among scholars for quite some time is that a loss of social status and the lack of opportunities for college students caused their activism; this schema has been set out by a wide range of sociologists, including Pierre Bourdieu, Raymond Boudon, Raymond Aron or Edgar Morin, by historians, such as Antoine Prost, or political scientists, such as Bernard Lacroix. [15] According to Pierre Bourdieu, [16] the structural downgrading of academic diplomas was at the root of the “collective disposition for revolt”, which would tend to manifest itself among the student population as the most likely group to feel the threat of “downclassing”. Students from the upper social classes who were enrolled in the most “uncertain” disciplines, in terms of what their diplomas actually qualified them for (such as sociology, psychology, education, and literature), were therefore the most likely to be affected.

5There was a relative absence from my research sample of survey respondents who would fit the above profile of individuals suffering from a loss of social status. The aim of this article, however, is not to produce a new critical theory of this interpretation. [17] Instead, my research leads to an empirical rejection of this interpretation and evidence for alternative profiles. Combining the survey’s quantitative and qualitative results allows us to distinguish between four principal schemas to explain the socio-genesis of dispositions toward activism in May ’68. [18] That constituted by “first-generation intellectuals”, embodied by actors from the working classes and experiencing high upward social mobility during the 1950s and 1960s, is thus a diametrically opposed profile which contradicts the theory of loss of social status described above.

6After presenting the statistical evidence for these four principal patterns of participation in May ’68, this article will primarily develop the schema of the politicization of religious commitments taking as our starting point a qualitative analysis of life trajectories, the only means of comprehending the processes at work in the genesis of dispositions toward activism. By transcending the limits of simplistic analogy between political and religious activism – which risks only contributing to our sociological understanding that there is a correspondence between being committed to a political cause and commitment to religious faith, between religious devotion and devotion to a cause, between messianic hopes and revolutionary utopianism, etc., – this article aims to investigate the nature of the dispositions acquired [19] during religious socialization that could be (re)converted into the political domain. [20]

Statistical representation of the various determinants of participation in May ’68

7To account for the socio-genesis of an interest in politics among this study’s subjects, it is necessary to turn to the different contexts of political socialization that they experienced prior to the “events of May ’68”. I submitted the statistical results to multiple cross-readings and analyzed them against the personal interviews in order to highlight the plurality of these socializing contexts as well as the heterogeneity of the forms of politicization [21] that the respondents experienced. Rather than going into the details of the survey, this article concentrates on the statistical analysis of answers to the following openended question, which enables a synthesis of the results: “Who are the people (cite three of them) who were very or fairly important in the development of your political choices (whether they be family members, friends, peers, other adults or teachers, politicians, etc.)?”

8The statistical analysis of textual data [22] allows me to match vocabulary to the categories of actors who use it. The diversity of the agents of political socialization involved in the sociogenesis of a “leftist political sensibility” among the respondents can thus be related to their social characteristics. For example, men cited politicians more frequently as influences, whereas women were more likely to cite their parents or family members. The respondents whose parents were on the left also referred more commonly to their parents and grandparents to explain the development of their political choices than those whose parents were on the right and for whom teachers, college friends or partners were just as important in shaping the development of their political socialization. The respondents from the working classes more frequently referred to primary school teachers than did respondents from the upper classes, who preferred to cite politicians. These results are not without interest, but they do not allow us to relate the vocabulary used to a set of sociological characteristics in order to distinguish relatively homogenous groups of respondents who experienced similar “paths of politicization”. To do this, a factorial analysis of multiple correlations was used. [23] This allowed a generalized representation of the survey population by relating the position in factorial space (a two-dimensional grid), [24] and the principal agents of political socialization that our respondents identified.

9The words used by the respondents to characterize the people whom they mentioned as being important to the development of their political inclination are displayed on the grid produced by this analysis. (See Figure 1.) But to grasp the meaning of the positions that different agents of politicization occupy within the grid, it is necessary first of all to understand how the two axes that structure the grid were created.

10The horizontal axis distinguishes the respondents according to variables related to their familial socialization. Thus, it separates future “soixante-huitards” whose families were marked by a leftist political heritage, whose parents participated in the Resistance (left quadrant of the grid), from future “soixante-huitards” who claimed their parents were “neither on the left nor the right”, those who did not know the political heritage of their family, and those whose parents were, moreover, active in religious terms (to the right of the grid).

11The vertical axis is organized according to variables related to “activist capital”. [25] Thus, one finds in the top quadrants the respondents who had already been activists prior to 1968, and the most active individuals in May ’68, whereas the bottom quadrant includes those who did not engage in any activist activity before 1968 and those who declared playing a less active part in the events.

12If the words used by respondents are difficult to interpret individually (by their coordinates alone), they take on meaning in relation to one another, through the distance that separates them on the grid and by the proximity that they have with the different modalities of the active variables. [26] Moreover, if we are to infer a schema of the socio-genesis of dispositions toward militant activity in May ’68 from the question about the political socialization of the respondents, it is only possible to do so when the hypotheses extrapolated from the statistical analyses have been confirmed and substantiated by the qualitative evidence. There is not space here to explain how my hypotheses were informed by the cross-analysis of these results; instead, what follows will be a synthesis of the four sub-groups that emerged from the survey sample (distinguished by varying shades of gray on the grid) corresponding to the principle patterns of participation in May ’68 as demonstrated by the survey.

Figure 1

Diverse agents in the politicization of future “soixante-huitards”

Figure 1

Diverse agents in the politicization of future “soixante-huitards”

Factor 1/ Factor 2
Northwest quadrant: (top to bottom, left to right) on the left, sister, active in 1968, revolutionary, activists, Communist Party colleague, non-practicing parents, left-leaning, Jewish father, grandparents, teacher, father, classmates.
Southwest quadrant: parents in the Resistance, familial political heritage, family friend, mother, upper class, student in 1968, parents, friend, women, no activism prior to 1968.
Northeast quadrant: workers, activist-friend, activist before 1968, fascists, men, working class, student milieu, working in 1968, March 22 – worker self-management, parish priest, teacher, scouting, neither right nor left, no political traditions, JAC militant.
Southweast quadrant: CFDT colleague, middle class, wife, friends, practicing parents, environment, barely active in 1968, right-leaning, husband, not revolutionary, trade unionist, mayor.

13The first group is situated on the left of the grid, slightly above the horizontal axis; it includes respondents whose political sensibility was shaped in the familial sphere according to the schema “familial transmission of left-wing political engagement”. The respondents in this group had parents whom they identified as being on the left of the political spectrum, were non-practicing in religious terms, and in some cases had participated in the Resistance. These respondents inherited a family political heritage that was transmitted to them by parents or grandparents, the figures who were most frequently cited by this group [27] (note the position of the terms “father”, “grandparents”, and “mother”).

14On the other side of the grid, on the right, are the respondents who did not inherit a political tendency from their family, who identified their parents as “somewhere on the right”, or “neither left, nor right”, but who were socialized religiously. Unlike the previous group, these individuals do not refer to their parents, but instead to the “parish priest”, to their “environment”, to their partner (note the terms “wife” or “husband”), or to politicians (note “M. Rocard”). For this group, religious organizations (see “activist-JAC” – Jeunesse Agricole Catholique – to the far right of the grid) and trade unions (notably the CFDT – Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail) undertook the politicizing role that the family occupied for the previous group. This latter model of the politicization of religious commitments will be analyzed further in this article.

15A third sub-group located on the top of the grid is the model that includes actors who engaged in activism prior to 1968, most of them members of working-class families, who made reference to engaged intellectuals (for example, Sartre and Althusser), activist leaders (Krivine and Linhart), or to (historic) figureheads (Engels and Marx) in the development of their political choices. These actors were frequently the first members of their family to obtain the baccalaureate, which made them first-generation intellectuals, whose politicization was intrinsically linked to upward social mobility. Through their improbable upward school career, these “class defectors” joined a social category that was not the one in which they were socialized, and thus they found themselves doubly displaced (in relation to the social class into which they were born, and with respect to the class that they recently entered). Their position as outsiders predisposed them to questioning the established norms of the milieu that they had entered, and their social displacement exposed them, moreover, to multiple stigmatizing and humiliating experiences inflicted by students from the upper social classes, which generated a specific sensitivity to injustice. These class defectors, who, through their trajectories, “shook the foundation of the social order by destabilizing the boundaries between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’” [28] were thus particularly predisposed to take a public stance committed to unmasking a forbidden truth: that the social order is not immutable (their trajectory served as proof of this, and as a symbolic weapon). Activism on the far left thus proved to be a means of reconciling the contradictory impulses to which they had been subjected (between the need to maintain fidelity to one’s original class and the imperative to acculturate to one’s new milieu). Thus, activist networks (through their role in training members, in transmitting knowledge, and in implicitly constituting a social network) enabled these young students to engage politically in the service of their original class while simultaneously ensuring their integration into the student milieu. Activism on the far left thus offered these “displaced” individuals [29] a “place” and a justification for this place through activist rhetoric. [30]

16Finally, the grid’s bottom-left quadrant is where a younger, more female sub-group is found. It is composed of respondents not reporting any activist experiences before 1968. Among these respondents, peers (note the words “friend” and “friends”) and contact with the student milieu ( “Vincennes”) played a central role in the development of their political consciousness. The model of status confusion [31] characterized the respondents who lived in situations that were out of sync with their status (as students or women) and the manner in which they continued to be considered, or ignored. The key example is that of women who felt an increasingly untenable discrepancy between the objective evolution in their circumstances (access to higher education, greater economic independence via the labor market, and sexual independence) and the inertia of representations of women’s roles. [32] The phenomenon of hysteresis [33] is responsible for multiple personal experiences of injustice in social relations between the sexes or generations, which were a source of vague feelings of revolt first experienced at the personal and psychological level. The provisional uncertainty of possibilities [34] and the process of de-objectification – the break in the “natural”, taken-for-granted quality – of social relationships [35] during a political crisis (in this case, May ’68) permitted the translation of these individual experiences of being out of sync and their politicization, in the sense that Pierre Bourdieu uses the term. [36]

17If the factorial approach does not provide a more precise understanding of the processes that interest us, then it nonetheless offers a statistical and visual account of the socio-political heterogeneity of participants in the events of May ’68. It calls into question any reductionist explanation of the determinants of participation in May ’68 and by means of an empirical survey reconstitutes a more complex sociological reality than various previous interpretations [37] of the events have suggested. Moreover, this approach allows us to deconstruct the category of the “soixante-huitard” to reveal individuals with starkly different sociological characteristics who came together in “May ’68” for divergent reasons.

18Nevertheless, one can seek to account for the principal schemas established above by developing an overarching paradigm, a “master frame” [38] which is capable of connecting them. In this I subscribe to the idea of a progressive erosion of consent by certain actors to everyday power relationships, under the heading of “sectoral crises of consent” [39] which affected the major institutions that participated in social reproduction in the 1950s and 1960s (Family, School, Church…). The structural transformations in French society during the 1960s (concerning the access of the working classes and lower-middle classes to higher education, the evolution of young people’s status, access to women’s sexual [40] and economic [41] independence, the economic apogee of the 30 years of economic growth following the Second World War, the Church’s recruitment crisis and its aggiornamento, etc.), and the sectoral crises of consent that ensued, eroded the legitimacy of the principal institutions of social reproduction at different levels and thereby undermined the regime’s stability. [42] Yet, to grasp these processes of delegitimization, it is necessary to shift the level of analysis in order to pay more attention to the collective trajectories of those who, due to structural changes in society, would be propelled into social roles for which they would not be entirely suited.

Politicization of religious commitments throughout the careers of activists

19Many respondents reported experiencing a primary religious socialization: 40% of them were raised by practicing parents and close to 20% declared having participated regularly in scouting activities [43] (this figure rises to 40% if one adds the individuals responding, “Yes, every year”, to those responding “Yes, sometimes”). Beyond this religious socialization during childhood, many respondents began their career as activists by joining a religious youth association. This over-representation of socialized actors in religious communities led me to ask questions about “religious interests” [44] and about religious commitments that could have motivated subsequent activist engagement.

20This article will provide an account of the different “paths of politicization” found in the survey based on the contextualized analysis of six life trajectories from respondents who experienced a progressive erosion in their primary (religious) belief system that was accompanied by a realignment of their commitments during the course of the 1960s. The status of these particular cases is related to the ideal-type as defined by Max Weber: they provide an understanding of how the intersection of diverse sectoral histories, [45] which run through individual biographies, can produce advantageous conditions for the development of specific political interests.

21Some may be surprised by the over-representation, among the Christian activists presented here, of political commitments on the far left, but this is explained by the genealogical approach which set the agenda for this sample’s composition. In no way does the survey sample claim to provide a representative sample of Christians in May ’68 or even of the political fate of activists from religious youth associations at the beginning of the 1960s. Instead it aims to provide an account of one of the four principal schemas of participation in May ’68 displayed statistically here. The respondents were not selected for the study sample on account of their religious convictions, but instead on the basis of their participation in May ’68, the date when the majority of them turned away from their earlier religious beliefs.

22To provide an account of the processes of politicization of religious commitments, I privileged an approach that paid attention to the nature of activist dispositions and to the manner in which the relationship to religion was structured by cross-referencing the respondents’ social origins with their forms of religious socialization. Thus, we will first analyze the activist careers of four young Christians from rural working-class backgrounds: Christiane, Mathieu, Michèle, and Denise, who were socialized within a “mass religiosity”. [46] Then come the cases of Colette and Jacques, two urban young people from the upper bourgeoisie (the first a Catholic, the second a Protestant), more socialized within a “religiosity of the virtuous”. After discussing their familial, religious, and activist socialization, we will identify and compare the biographical, organizational, and contextual factors that contributed to the process of changing their worldview.

The conversion of religious commitments into political activism in working-class milieus

23While Christiane and Mathieu, who were born in the first half of the 1940s, experienced upward social mobility through the school system, Michèle and Denise, older and therefore not benefiting from the democratization of the school system, instead experienced social mobility via religious activism. These generational and social differences are at the root of profiles with distinct patterns of politicization, which justify their separate analysis.

Christiane and Mathieu: The politicization of “class defectors” socialized in Catholic institutions

24Christiane was born in 1941 and was the youngest child of a working-class Catholic family from Normandy. Her father was a railroad worker at the SNCF (French National Railroad) and a trade unionist with the CFTC (French Confederation of Christian Workers). Her mother was a housewife, raising six children. Christiane recounted:


“I am from a very Catholic family that was greatly inspired by social Catholicism. My father belonged to the ACO [Action Catholique Ouvrière], but my mother considered it too political… I would say that they were on the social center-right of the political spectrum…” [47]

26Mathieu was born in 1944 in the Vendée to a family of small farmers, who were right-wing and who were practicing Catholics. He was the seventh of twelve children. He related:


“My parents are from the south of the Vendée. It was a milieu that was extremely marked by Catholicism. You undoubtedly know the history of the revolt in the Vendée; well that’s the milieu that I was raised in.” [48]

28They both received a religious education and experienced the “inculcating power”, [49] of daily religious practice in the family. Religious socialization was transmitted to Mathieu by his education in private Catholic schools up to the age of eleven, then in the minor seminary, which he entered in 1955 to continue his studies until obtaining his baccalaureate. He recalls having been singled out and encouraged to pursue studies to the priesthood as was traditional among countless Catholic peasant families in the west of France. He recalled:


“It was during my preparation to receive First Holy Communion: there were retreats over several days, with extremely emotional moments… And it is true that a certain amount of pressure was placed on me. People asked me, ‘And you, what are you going to be?’ This happened to me, and I had a brother who also entered the seminary afterwards.”

30We see here one of the methods of inculcating a priestly vocation as analyzed by Charles Suaud: “The three principal means of promoting [vocations] are ‘Vocations Days’, the publishing of a quarterly journal, and the organization of retreats for children.” [50]

31Christiane attended state schools, “because my parents were not wealthy enough”, she confides. At school she was a very good student and was identified by her teacher as gifted, and so was encouraged to continue her studies to baccalaureate level. She simultaneously joined the JEC (Jeunesse Étudiante Chrétienne) where she met other young leftist Catholics.

The experience of displacement and the quest for “salvation” [51] through religious commitment

32These working-class young people from the countryside, singled out for their “academic prowess” would experience a dual displacement: both geographically and socially. Pursuing their studies at that time meant boarding away from home at a middle school, then at a religious high school in the neighboring town and being thus exposed to a rather radical change in social milieu. Surrounded by a majority of teenagers from the upper classes, Christiane was confronted with the experience of social injustice during her studies and she felt the stigma of being a child of workers. She recalled:


“I was always marked by my origins; even in high school, I always felt a bit… that I was from a poor background, always in fact: that made me uncomfortable; at times I was ashamed of my parents, that they weren’t better dressed, and things like that.”

34Christiane actively participated in the JEC after a disappointing experience in the scouting movement and explained in the interview the essential role of chaplains who gave her the skills and the necessary knowledge to understand the social world so she could put into words the uncomfortable feelings that she experienced in high school. She explained:


“I couldn’t stand the hierarchy, the obedience to the girl above you, and the whole hierarchy, which I did not like in the least, but it was the same way at home in my family, when I was very young I challenged my parents. So people told me that the JEC, which was more activist, would be a better fit for me […] and therefore, since I was very Catholic, well, I joined the JEC, which was more engaged, and then came my encounters with the chaplains. I’m not at all anti-clerical because they gave a lot to me intellectually, because those men were very educated.”

36For Christiane, as for her future husband, Jean (the son of Catholic peasants who were members of the JAC), Catholic Action associations offered a framework at the time for understanding social shame as a measure of injustice [52] and for an engaged definition of faith. These associations, which had already distanced themselves somewhat at that time from the Church and its hierarchy, [53] offered new benefits of salvation that reconciled political activism and religious practice, [54] and responded to the aspirations of rural youth disconnected from a conservative familial vision of faith because of their upward social mobility.

37If religious engagement accompanied the upward social mobility of Christiane and her husband by making it conceivable, one can say that it made this mobility possible in Mathieu’s case. In fact, he perceived the seminary experience as a means of pursuing his studies, a place for “social salvation”. He recalled:


“I experienced the seminary as a protected environment of sorts that permitted me to bury myself in my studies, and to continue them up to the baccalaureate, which I never could have done otherwise, given my family’s economic circumstances.”

39Mathieu quit the seminary after obtaining the baccalaureate, [55] abandoning his priestly vocation, and joined the MRJC (Mouvement Rural de Jeunesse Chrétienne). But to understand this biographical rupture, one must pause to consider the political context during the Algerian War.

Third-worldism: a “gateway cause” leading from the religious sphere to the political sphere

40The Algerian War played a crucial role in transforming the worldview of respondents who were socialized for activism within religious youth associations. [56] Christiane, like Mathieu, described the war as a turning point in her politicization. Christiane explained:


“The Algerian War really politicized me. It’s not what made me break away from the Church, because there were Catholics in this movement, too […] I was nineteen years old: I’d just got to university in Caen; and there I participated in all the protests for Algerian independence and slowly with time, there was a cumulative effect that led me to join Socialisme ou Barbarie, even though I did not deserve to be a part of it, because I did not really understand what it was.” [57]

42Mathieu was still in the seminary at the time of the Algerian War, and if his political consciousness was not yet defined, he recalls that he was revolted by this war. [58] Mathieu told me:


“For us [at the seminary] it was war, even if the term was not frequently used at the time; therefore, it was unacceptable as such and that’s why political consciousness was already present, because this entailed a political choice. So, our political education began then in fact, even if it wasn’t called political.”

44The cause of the Third World was an essential gateway facilitating the contextual redefinition and transfer of hitherto “religious” activities into “political” activities. The sensitivity to otherness, the imperative “to place oneself in the place of the other, far away”, [59] to take up the defense of the “poorest”, the importance of engagement as a Christian necessity for coming to an understanding of the self, [60] are all dispositions that the respondents acquired in religious youth organizations, which predisposed them to take part in the anti-colonial movement. Christiane thus described how at a very young age she had already internalized this propensity to take up the cause of the weakest:


“I was thirteen years old during the first events and I remember saying, ‘If I were Algerian, I would join the FLN.’ I used to put myself in the place of others, same thing with Dien Bien Phû…”

46And Mathieu explained how his religious sensitivity to injustice took on a political charge at this time:


“It’s true that it was very marked at the time with everything that went to aid the poorest, the most disadvantaged members of society. Justice for oneself, but also for others, so it’s shared: today, this is what I consider part of the social domain, therefore political, and therefore not only religious, as it was during the time of our childhood.”

48Christiane and Mathieu did not stop being believers at that time, but the contradictions that they felt between their anti-colonial positions and the conflicting positions taken by their parents and/or of the Catholic Church contributed to the erosion of their earlier belief system. [61] The inevitable political dimension of their position against the war in Algeria led them to “call into question the Church’s assertion of political neutrality”, [62] just as the activists of the MPF (Mouvement Populaire des Familles) had done; who, through their contact with the working-class milieu, experienced the contradictions between their religious affiliation and their class identity.

49These dissonances – crippling on the individual level – had ripple effects on the organizational level: Catholic Action associations became politicized during the Algerian War and took up positions that broke with the religious hierarchy, which had been further weakened by its difficulties in recruiting new clergy since the 1950s. [63] It is necessary to place these organizations in the context of the prelude to the Church’s aggiornamento. If “beginning with Vatican II (1962), Rome resolutely took up the cause of the Third World in international debates”, [64] Catholic Action associations had been campaigning in the pre-conciliar period in favor of the Third World’s cause and for a Catholicism that was more engaged in the world.

Ripple effects in causing the political radicalization of Christiane versus politicization within the religious sphere for Mathieu

50For Christiane and her husband, the first members of their respective families to obtain the baccalaureate, several factors of politicization reinforced one another: their upward mobility led them to enter the University of Caen while the campus was in the midst of an anti-Algerian War movement. In this context, their anti-colonial activism and their sensitivity to social injustice (heightened by their upward social mobility) would be connected and recalibrated within an internationalist and Marxist framework of interpretation. Jean stated this in his testimony:


“When I arrived in Caen in the student milieu, there was a movement against the Algerian War to which I was already sympathetic and I think that I was already class-conscious at this point and the two things connected up […] Then after the Algerian War, there was the war in Vietnam, Latin America, May ’68… there was also Che Guevara at the time… that had a lot of resonance, too: Latin America was central! These are the events that were linked and that made people take sides: anti-colonialist, anti-imperial, and anti-capitalist positions.”

52Thus, it was through contact (physical and intellectual) with young political activists from very different social and political milieus that these young first-generation intellectuals were progressively radicalized. The humanist critique of capitalism in which they were raised via Emmanuel Mounier’s personalist philosophy [65] then gave way to a Marxist critique of capitalism.

53The political translation of indignation, conceived at first in a religious key, [66] led Christiane and her husband to a veritable conversion that was associated with a total break with their earlier belief system. Through a knock-on effect and their involvement in networks where they would encounter far-left activists, they ended up totally detaching themselves from the religious sphere [67] and became Trotskyist militants. But this was not the case for Mathieu: his indignation over the Algerian War structured a leftist political consciousness for the rest of his life, but because he was not an activist at that time, nor did he frequent the highly politicized student milieu, [68] his critique of the war continued to be conceived in humanist terms within the Mouvement Rural de la Jeunesse Chrétienne (MRJC). In the course of the 1970s, with his wife (whom he met in the MRJC) he participated in different Catholic organizations [69] that called into question the traditional Church and were open to feminist, ecological, and communitarian influences. Supporters of the Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU), they joined the movement called Vie Nouvelle in the 1980s, while continuing their trade union activity in the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT) [the heir of the CFTC, when it was secularized in 1964].

54Only a multi-level analysis of the way in which macro-sociological factors (the context of the Algerian War and anti-colonialism), meso-sociological factors (the position taken by Catholic Action associations in the early 1960s in favor of Third World movements, and high politicization of the student milieu), and micro-sociological factors (social and geographic mobility) together contributed to the displacement of their search for the benefits of salvation from the religious sphere to the political sphere, allows us to comprehend the activist careers of Christiane and Mathieu. Hence we discover a process of politicization which emerged from “attempts to transcend the boundaries imposed by certain spheres onto certain types of activities”; [70] complete with swings and ratchet effects [71] that a macro or mesosociological approach would not permit us to grasp.

Michèle and Denise: the politicization of national leaders of religious organizations from modest backgrounds

55Michèle was born in Rouen in 1927. She never knew her father and was raised by her mother, who was a typist. Rather resistant to school, she studied at the girls’ high school in Rouen where she was expelled in the middle of the ninth grade. She was enrolled in a private Catholic school to repeat her ninth grade, but Michèle quit in the middle of the year and suggested to her mother that she leave for the countryside to do an internship on a farm. Given her academic troubles, the dramatic bombing of Rouen, and the wartime food shortages, Michèle and her mother found employment in September 1943 on a large farm in the Caux countryside. Her mother died less than a year later, and Michèle, who was 16 at the time, became a domestic servant on the farm. A couple of years later, she joined the JAC with the encouragement of her employers who saw it as a place to structure her free time and enable her to meet people. Michèle writes:


“I paid no attention to the speeches about ‘Remaking our brethren Christian!’ [72] But, on the other hand the conviviality of these meetings of young people, their desire to lead better lives, their ability to reflect on the situation, all these things captivated me.” [73]

57After having participated in several local activities, Michèle rapidly assumed responsibilities on a departmental, then regional, level, and ultimately became a member of the national committee in 1952.

58Denise was born in 1928 in the 20th arrondissement of Paris in a working-class Protestant background. Her father was a mechanic and her mother was a seamstress. She received a Protestant upbringing and joined the scouting movement at a young age. She recalled:


“It was a formation that focused on pooling ideas, on taking responsibility for oneself, assuming leadership of the group, asserting autonomy, self-direction, self-management, all of these things we learned at an early age, at nine years old.” [74]

60Denise would have liked to have continued her studies and become a musician, but her parents could not afford to pay the tuition, and at the end of her middle school studies (cours complémentaire), [75] her results did not qualify her to study for the baccalaureate. Denise recalled:


“There were only two lycées in Paris for girls. For my school there were only two places, therefore, it was impossible for me to get in. Thus, when I came in 44th in all of Montreuil, well, I had to pursue commercial studies, which suited me about as well as an apron on a cow.”

62Relegated to a course of study that did not interest her, Denise did not make much of an effort in her academic work, and instead spent most of her time with the girl scouts. She began to work at the age of fifteen and a half as a clerical office worker, and then became an accountant, which she did not like.

63Through her contact with young girl scouts from upper-class milieus, Denise gained an awareness of numerous social injustices that hurt her feelings and contributed to her growing awareness of her own class affiliation. Denise remembered:


“When we had meetings with the girl scouts in Vincennes, well, I only came into contact with girls who went to the lycée, whereas in Montreuil there was only one girl who went to the lycée. And there was friction that I felt… unconsciously, I felt it much later, but unconsciously that there was a class struggle there. And when we went camping with the Vincennes scouts, the camp leaders were always the girls from Vincennes. At the time, those were the things that stuck with me.”

65Frustrated by not having been able to continue her studies, Denise found in Protestant scouting a second school (“it was our university, you might say”) and experienced a real social mobility via Protestant activism. In fact, she joined the Protestant association Jeunes Femmes [76] at the beginning of the 1960s; there she took various courses and gradually took on leadership roles. Denise noted:


“In the Jeunes Femmes association I learned a lot: to know how to use documentation and information, how to research supplemental information so as not to wander aimlessly in life; I learned how to express myself and to provide concise summaries of readings, how to construct an argument […]. And these groups were also a place for women to thrive; I have dear friends who did not utter a word in two years, and later became officers in the central bureau because it was a place where you could talk, say things to each other, and work on issues. Then, you know, when we began to discuss opportunities for women to work, there were many who didn’t understand the issue because they had chosen not to work, but to raise their children instead… And little by little, by discussing in groups, by joking because there was a relaxed atmosphere, by trying to listen to one another, to understand each other’s opportunities, tongues loosened and some women said, ‘If I don’t work, it’s because my husband doesn’t want me to…’ There were divorces after that!”

67This long interview excerpt reveals the multiple rewards for a woman involved in this type of organization, especially if she came from a working-class background. As a surrogate school, the Jeunes Femmes association was also a site for female sociability, for political socialization, and for emancipation.

68Just like Michèle, Denise experienced a rather spectacular ascent within her organization and quickly became a national officer for Jeunes Femmes. Denise recounted:


“I belonged to a group, then one day, when I wasn’t there, they promoted me to the regional level […] then to the national level; they needed someone who was more like-minded with the working classes, because, naturally, there were already many leaders from the… bourgeois classes… Therefore, they promoted me to the central leadership team as a member of the ‘workers’ team’. And then, well, I became part of the national bureau.”

70These upwardly mobile careers via religious activism must be resituated into a wider context. For Michèle, the context is the collective history of young rural Catholics who experienced the traumatic effects of the Second World War (through the loss of one of their parents), who found in religious activism a “second family” and a way of social promotion. [77] For Denise, this context is that of the collective history of young Protestants from the working class who were searching for a path toward salvation (social and academic) through religious and activist engagement.

71If their life trajectories appear impressive, it is because, in these specific religious contexts, Michèle and Denise’s aspirations coincided with a more widespread shift in the social recruitment conducted by religious youth organizations. In the case of the JAC, the Liberation marked a shift from a conservative organization recruiting principally from among the land-owning aristocracy to an organization that adopted the “themes that republican and anti-clerical organizations had attempted to develop at the end of the nineteenth century”. [78] They went on to recruit from among the ascending and enlightened segments of the small and middle peasantry. In the same fashion, the promotion of Denise corresponds to a time when the Jeunes Femmes organization [79] was seeking to enlarge its social base and to reach out to the working-class milieu.

Politicization arising from the dissonance between religious social practice and Church discourse

72The activism of these two young women within religious youth associations would lead them little by little to call into question the ecclesiastical hierarchy’s discourse. If the crisis in consent vis-à-vis religious institutions can be understood as an effect of their politicization through their contact with the social reality of the working classes, it subsequently led to a progressive redefinition of their worldview, from a religious outlook to a political one.

73From 1952 to 1957, Michèle was employed as a national officer by the JAC and traveled across France to “listen to and understand the lives and the problems of young farmers and agricultural workers”. [80] The encounter with social misery and injustice and the exchanges that came out of these discussions contributed to the erosion of her primary belief system. This resulted from the contradictions between clerical direction, which expected lay people such as herself to “maintain a distance from temporal concerns and to focus on their apostolic mission”, [81] and her daily experiences that could not separate religion from socio-political realities. [82]

74At the same time, Denise founded a Protestant center for social action. In her case, it was the criticisms from other parishes which eventually made her realize the political nature of her activity:


“In an attempt to depart from the model of a charitable organization, I created, with a friend who was a social worker, a Protestant center for social action… [And were these Protestant centers politicized?] Although the center’s members were not politicized in the sense that they did not belong to a political party, they were definitely politicized in practice: we could not tolerate anything and everything […]. And when we put the center together, it was automatically intended to open people’s eyes to what happened when you came off the rails, and this wasn’t accepted everywhere: there were other parishes where things like this just didn’t happen… We had a newspaper to denounce a certain number of things, and that stuck in people’s throats; people told us: ‘That’s not true, you are making things up… you are engaging in politics’, whereas we were describing social reality.”

76The social activism of these two women, which originated in the religious sphere, thus progressively took on a political dimension in a process of politicization described by Jacques Lagroye as “corresponding to a discovery of the artificiality of objectified categories in the classification of activities”. [83]

Converting religious commitments into political activism

77Michèle: From the JAC to Maoism via Algeria

78Michèle quit the national secretariat of the JAC in 1957 and took up university studies (without having a baccalaureate) with the support of a director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, whom she had met during a training seminar for the JAC. He invited her to work at the Center for Economic Studies. She obtained a degree from EHESS in rural economics in 1961 and completed a masters thesis on “The Living and Working Conditions of Agricultural Laborers in France”. [84]

79Her social mobility via religious activism thus propelled her into the intellectual milieu of EHESS at the end of the 1950s, and through this contact she became politicized during the Algerian War. Michèle participated in a network to assist the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) at the beginning of the 1960s and left for Algeria shortly after its independence to participate in developing agrarian reforms there with her husband.

80Returning to France in 1966, the context of struggle against the war in Vietnam offered them a cause in which they could invest their anti-imperialist sensibility. That’s how they “became Maoists”, in Michèle’s words, since the Vietnam Committee in their neighborhood was “led by Maoists”. And as a knock-on effect of their involvement in the committee they encountered activists close to Alain Badiou and became members of the Union des Communistes Marxistes Léninistes de France (UCMLF), a Maoist group founded by Badiou.

81For Michèle, one again finds a conjuncture of biographical factors (loss of her parents and upward social mobility via religious activism that put her in touch with politicized milieus), organizational factors (lay leaders of working-class organizations who increasingly distanced themselves from the Church and encouraged the politicization of their associations), and contextual factors (Algerian War, Vietnam War, and the valorization of political engagement in Parisian intellectual milieus in the 1960s) that explain the conversion of her religious activism into her Maoist revolutionary commitment. Thus, Michèle can be characterized as an “agent of politicization” [85] from a background of religious activities organized for the rural working classes.

82Denise: From Protestantism to church occupation

83In Denise’s case, the conversion was more gradual. If her involvement in the Protestant Center for Social Action, then in the Jeunes Femmes association beginning in 1964, structured her leftist political consciousness, she would not formally enter the political sphere before 1968, instead she would be active alongside it. She related how:


“The Jeunes Femmes meetings were places where we tried to deepen what we lived on a daily basis, there we could be useful by changing things… so that women would be respected. We put together training sessions on how to listen because we noticed that we could not achieve anything without listening to one another […]. That was sort of my university, too… We had Gisèle Halimi, we had Simone Weil, and then we participated in the creation of family planning centers, too: there were many of us who were counselors at family planning centers.”

85Although sharing the PSU’s ideas, Denise remained nevertheless very reticent when it came to partisan engagement and would distance herself from the Jeunes Femmes association at the point when its leadership adopted stances that were linked to political positions. At numerous points during her interview, she insisted on the need to act “in one’s immediate surroundings” within associations, to “work from the ground up”, and engaged in a critique of the Catholic institution, as well as of the Reformed Church. Just like certain DAL (Droit au logement [housing rights]) activists studied by Cécile Péchu, [86] Denise’s political attitude seems to be influenced by the anti-institutional critique that they adopted within the Church.

86During the events of May ’68, Denise joined in the occupation of the Protestant church in Montreuil, which was transformed into an open space for public political debates day and night. She noted:


“During ’68, every night there was a meeting in the church: we occupied the church! We welcomed the workers of Montreuil, there were continuous political debates…”

88Contrary to Michèle, who broke with her religious activism to engage in political activism, Denise continued to campaign at the church in Montreuil, but the church’s readiness to embrace activists would overshadow its religious dimension. According to Denise:


“In the aftermath of May ’68, the Reformed Church of Montreuil became not the church of Montreuil, but an open house: there were still religious services, but the principle of the open house was that it was open to all debates so long as they did not take on a fascist tone. And then little by little, they stopped holding Protestant services, then the center’s board was opened up to other people: after ’68 there were Catholic couples, couples who left their churches, and those who were seeking something else, therefore we also broke away… The link was broken with the institution insofar as we said: ‘We are not going to continue with services of worship that do not include our friends, therefore, this will become a center for reflection’.”

90The contradictions between maintaining religious services and the opening of the church to political debates and to non-Protestants are discussed above at the level of the local religious institution, leading eventually (in 1972) to its deconsecration. This is a case where people do not leave one place for another, but a place that undergoes a symbolic dislocation.

From a virtuous religiosity to Maoism: the politicization of young bourgeois Christians

91Colette and Jacques, [87] members of the Catholic upper bourgeoisie and the Protestant upper bourgeoisie respectively, both became revolutionary Maoist activists after their religious involvement as youth activists. They are discussed separately from the preceding cases because social origins strongly influence primary forms of socialization and this difference had a lasting impact on the level of their subsequent political commitments.

A primary bourgeois and religious socialization that conveys an “ethic of responsibility”

92Colette was born in 1946, the youngest of six children. Her father was from an aristocratic military family and was a graduate of the École Polytechnique, then became a fighter pilot. He was situated politically on the far right. Her mother was from a large middle-class family from Marseille that was engaged in business. Colette was educated in Catholic schools until obtaining the baccalaureate and received a religious, middle-class education that socialized her to think of herself as “always above average” as these interview excerpts demonstrate:


“We were a family of enormous means living in a beautiful house, and a childhood that others found unbelievable: we never experienced things on a small scale, I lived immense happenings, knew important families, and weighty matters […] I was very brilliant, very, very brilliant, gifted […]. We had connections in the world of literature and with many famous people, we the daughters H. and my brother, Luc, who lives in London and New York, because our parents raised us like that; they received people like they were grand nobles […]. Finally, in general, we are not average people: we always go above and beyond the rest.” [88]

94Colette insisted on another critical dimension several times in the course of our interviews, which is the “missionary spirit” in which she was raised and the inculcation of a charitable ethos of devotion that could be summarized as the imperative to be of service.


“I lived in a missionary spirit, missionary in the sense that it was very, very open, which certainly marked me. There are religious orders that do very good work for political consciousness because I was told, ‘Colette, since you have everything, you are supposed to serve others.’ And when there were the pieds noirs, the mother superior said: ‘We must welcome these families.’ I remember entire immigrant families, with very working-class backgrounds who arrived with bundles… I didn’t know anything, but my instinct led me to spend days in helping out. I was taught that it was necessary for me to serve given all that I had as a result of my birth… that had to shape me, too.”

96Colette’s testimony reveals the way in which her parents and to a greater extent her social milieu played a role in the inculcation of a “vocation” by habituating some of their children from an early age to seek the evidence of salvation in the gift of self for a cause and to “find a benefit to be gained from altruism”. [89]

97Jacques was born in 1941 to a bourgeois Protestant family in Nîmes on the political right. His father, a lawyer, was a member of the Conseil d’État, and became the chief of staff to Pierre Laval in the early 1930s, before being named prefect in August 1940. An only son, he received a Protestant religious upbringing (religious observance in church, Sunday school, scouting…). His parents entrusted his education to religious and school institutions, selected according to a classic strategy of bourgeois social reproduction. Thus Jacques was educated in the Hattemer School. [90] He recalled:


“The Hattemer School was where I went in the 1930s and 1940s in Paris, it was the ENA of preschools! I later read in an article that Rocard and Chirac among others went there […]. There I learned to read very early; I began to devour books from the age of four, and at seven I was reading like a kid who was fourteen.” [91]

99An only son and spending little time with his parents, he found refuge in reading and quite quickly came to rebel against their parenting style:


“I was very solitary, an only child, and I had very little contact with my parents […]. I don’t have the slightest recollection of any affection from my mother, nothing. My father was a lawyer who was completely enthralled by my mother… I had no place in the family […]. I quickly formed a rather poor, but I think lucid, opinion of my parents, of their bourgeois pretensions, and their extreme superficiality […] and then I knew that during the war my father was a prefect under the occupation… that part of our family history shocked me a great deal, obviously.”

101Colette and Jacques both experienced an ambivalent primary socialization that predisposed them on the one hand to conceive of themselves as “above average” and on the other hand to reject their family’s dominant social status. In fact, they both inherited a certain “ethic of responsibility”, or “duty to act” from their family history and/or History with a capital “H”: whether it be along the lines of Catholic “guilt” in Colette’s case, or as a necessary “reparation” for Jacques who inherited an encumbering family history.

A “virtuous” religiosity responding to ideological and identity expectations of bourgeois youth

102After obtaining her baccalaureate in 1963, Colette enrolled in literature studies at the Sorbonne to join Paul, her future husband who had just entered HEC (École des Hautes Études Commerciales). She joined the JEC with him, living a Catholic commitment that she characterizes as “total” under the guidance of the HEC priest, whom Colette describes as someone who was “extremely charismatic”:


“It was really intense. We went to Mass at six a.m.; we prayed often; worshipped often, and then there were major rallies the way young people like them – extremely symbolic: fantastic night-time vigils with candles lit, in the countryside, vigils with bonfires and songs… It was very ‘group-oriented’ […] It was a little like when you get really fired up inside for something: there was something of a sexual nature in these spiritual relations, it formed one whole, it was a complete commitment.”

104In this interview extract we find the mechanisms of religious socialization forming part of the process of learning about collective experience, of the emotional bonds that link the individual to the collective, of the practice of communal rituals; these mechanisms are the foundation for the assimilation of a readiness for religious commitment. In fact, Charles Suaud [92] reminds us that if religion is a force that compels action, it does so less because of an ideal than because of the dispositions that are assimilated through a long process of molding, fabrication, and internalization.

105Although the community dimension appears of primordial importance in this engagement, Colette maintained a very intellectual relationship to religion. With numerous other young graduates from the upper class, she shared a feeling of disconnection between a system of Catholic and humanist values that were internalized in the family sphere and the ideology transmitted by a business school, like HEC:


“You had to see what was being taught in HEC: sometimes, Paul came home completely depressed and told me how they were taught to fire ‘Secretary Moineau’, and times like that are when you say to yourself, ‘No, that’s not possible, not for me!’”

107This dislocation is particularly fertile ground for those looking to give meaning to their life, a reason for existing, which the religious benefits provided by the HEC priest satisfied for a time. Colette mentioned how:


“This priest from the JEC supervised those students who wanted to hear something else: there were heaps of them who were terrified by what they were learning and they were wondering what they were doing there […]. It was a very high intellectual level, a real learning process for us, about the meaning of existence – what we were doing there…”

109For his part, Jacques, a brilliant student at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris became involved in the Protestant scouting movement. After his baccalaureate, he entered the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris, attending various Protestant youth associations before joining the “Fédé” (Fédération française des associations chrétiennes d’étudiants), still unsure about what he wanted to do as a career.


“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a [Protestant] minister or not… then I dropped that idea when I joined the UEC (Union des étudiants communistes); but let’s say that after the baccalaureate, I was somewhere in between Protestantism and politics, and I came to politics somewhat by way of Protestantism.”

111Jacques’ religious commitment was part of a search for identity linked to the impossibility of identifying with or embracing a worldview inherited from a father who had participated, as a “loyal civil servant to Laval”, [93] in the Vichy regime. This crisis of belonging needs to be contextualized in the collective history of a generation born during or just after the war, which inherited a collaborationist past from its family, a veritable burden that could contribute to creating a rupture in the generalized allegiance to parental authority. [94]

112Jacques’ remarks highlight, moreover, the competition between two systems offering the benefits of salvation in the management of this crisis of belonging: Protestantism and politics, both proposing “a coherent vision of the world and of human existence” and providing “reasons for existence, just as they exist, that is to say in a socially determined position”. [95]

From religious commitment to revolutionary activism: the search for identity and the political avant-garde

113How did Jacques, who was considering becoming a minister, turn toward revolutionary activism by becoming one of the leaders of the Union des jeunesses communistes marxisteléniniste (UJCML) and a national officer of the Comités Vietnam de Base (CVB)? Is this conversion comparable to what Colette experienced when she went to work in a factory as an établie[96] from 1967 to 1974?

Anti-imperialism as the source of politicization

114Mirroring the activist careers previously analyzed, Jacques and Colette’s conversions took place against a background of struggle against colonial wars. He explained how his feeling of belonging to a minority (Protestant) politicized him during his interaction with student movements during the Algerian War:


“My second year at Sciences Po I found myself on the rue de Vaugirard, in a leftist Protestant milieu. I began to protest against the war in Algeria and there I joined in my first protest, and was arrested for the first time: we were holding a sit-in on the Champs-Elysées to protest; the real politicization for me was the struggle against the war in Algeria.”

116Again it was a Third World cause that shifted Colette’s activity from missionary to protester, [97] but due to their difference in age, it was the Vietnam War which would constitute the arena for her conversion in 1966:


“It was the situation of the Vietnamese people which really set us off; I don’t know if you can call that political consciousness, because we never said that the FLN were communists: it was political as a result, but not beforehand. Beforehand it would have been: we don’t have the right, the weak may not be crushed by the strong, and that’s written in the Bible! […] When you had Johnson sending in B-52 reinforcements and we saw ten Vietnamese people who were running after them, who had nothing… This awareness and anti-imperialist consciousness trumped any party affiliation or political tendency.”

118Colette and her husband joined the Union des Grandes Écoles (UGE) where they became friends with students from the École Normale Supérieure whom they would follow to the UJCML after the split [98] of 1966.


“In 1966, after Catholicism, Paul and I spontaneously joined what was being created: the UJCML, because personally my need for commitment was very, very deep and always was […]. But as for political consciousness, we did not call ourselves communists at all, and then we didn’t know, and didn’t like them: we didn’t know anything about communism… had not even read a book about it…”

120Colette’s commitment (as well as her husband’s) to a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist organization – without ever having read any of Marx’s writings – thus finds its roots in the (religious) ethos of devotion and commitment to the oppressed. [99] But this single affinity between these two belief systems is insufficient to account for the act of conversion. The transition needs to be explained in the context of the changing religious landscape which made this conversion conceivable and therefore possible.

– A “defrocked generation”? [100]

121In Colette’s case and in the case of the students belonging to the JEC, under the guidance of the HEC priest, the national context of the politicization of Christian youth organizations was accentuated by a specific local context: their priest left the priesthood and led them along his own path of conversion. His charismatic authority seems to have accelerated the conversion, even if it did not initiate it. According to Colette:


“During this very intense engagement, the priest, who was a father to us all, himself called the model into question, so we followed him! It was ’65 or ’66; the priest was leaving, so we followed him into left-wing activism…”

123The conversion of Catholic engagement to leftist activism by Colette is not simply the fruit of an evolution in her belief system: it was made possible by the emergence of a “new figure” – that of a generation of priests who abandoned their clerical ministry, to become, or resume life as, worker-priests [101] – which contributed to enlarging the sphere of what was conceivable and hence possible. In another context, Hugo José Suarez describes a comparable conversion experience of Bolivian worker-priests who joined the revolutionary guerrillas:


“It is only in analyzing how the itinerary of these priests who became guerrillas contributed to a ripple effect that reshaped the structure of the religious sphere – by creating a position that previously had been unthinkable in the ecclesiastic institution – that this engagement then becomes intelligible, no matter how improbable it first seems.” [102]

Age, biographical availability, and leaving home

125The process of conversion to a revolutionary political commitment must be clarified in one final respect: the “biographical availability” [103] of the respondents. A comparison of Jacques and Colette’s trajectories toward politicization demonstrates the importance of age as a decisive factor in their activism: age in the demographic sense of the term (he became politicized at the age of eighteen during the Algerian War, while she became politicized at the age of nineteen during the Vietnam War), but also and primarily the sociological meaning of age. In fact, youth, which Gérard Mauger defines as “the age in life when a dual transition occurs from school to work and from the family of origin to the family of procreation”, [104] is characterized, again according to Mauger, by a lack of familial obligations and a lack of economic obligations in the case of middle-class families, along with a condition of social uncertainty. These conditions allow for a great deal of biographical availability, conducive to political commitment, which Colette summarizes in the phrase, “generosity connected to circumstance”:

“We were learning an enormous amount of stuff. We studied excerpts from Capital, read Lenin’s ‘What is to be done?’ and held meetings that lasted hours. But time was not the same; we were students and we only thought about that! We didn’t think about unemployment; not about work, either for that matter. It was a generosity that was connected to circumstance, which means you have nothing else to think about.”
This step in making a social transition and detaching themselves from the family environment of their upbringing is essential to explaining the erosion of a primary belief system for Jacques and Colette. Leaving home effectively opened up the field of potential engagement by freeing these young adults from the daily family bonds which provided the framework for their primary beliefs.

tableau im2
Jacques Colette For me, politicization was the surrounding student environaul and I spent a year apart, I was in Aix where I was still ment because as soon as I gained some autonomy as a student, living with my parents, and then I went to the Sorbonne, partly the first year I was still living with my parents, but the second to rejoin him, but my parents weren t too happy about that… year I lived in halls for rotestant students and that s where But I can tell you that it was a burst of liberty living in contact it was further reinforced because the halls were clearly with other students. oriented to the left…

Political leftism: in the avant-garde of protest

126If the temporary uncertainty of youth makes possible their shifting worldview, then we can only grasp the motivations of our two respondents in their decision to expend their energies in the UJCML if we re-establish the scale of the symbolic and intellectual rewards – in other words the particular value of the commitment – in context. This is what Johanna Siméant does when she studies how religious commitment translates to humanitarian work:


“Envisaging a ‘marketplace’ of religious benefits therefore supposes a questioning of how these change. However, nothing says that the category of ‘salvation ’ and the practical forms of seeking it have not undergone considerable transformations in societies where Catholicism has been more or less impacted by a significant movement toward secularization.” [105]

128Yet, in the politicized Parisian intellectual milieu of the 1960s, the Church experienced a real crisis of legitimacy (tied in part to a significant drop in the number of worshippers) and found itself out of step with [106] “avant-garde” intellectuals, despite the recent aggiornamento.WhileClaude Lévi-Strauss was publishing La pensée sauvage in 1962, while Jacques Lacan was founding the Freudian school in Paris in 1964, and while Louis Althusser was publishing Pour Marx and Lire le Capital in 1965, Christian humanism, even in its post-Vatican II engaged version, found itself devalued by the theoretical anti-humanism of the structuralists. [107] Intellectual figures like Louis Althusser thus provoked conversions to political activism, starting with Jacques:


“Once in the UEC, my epiphany was Althusser, so it was because of an intellectual step that I found myself at the UJCML, because I had read Althusser. He influenced us a great deal: he was an impressive figure; he was at the École normale supérieure too. So, within the UEC, I positioned myself alongside the future Maoists, but more for intellectual reasons…”

130These positioning strategies should be considered in relation to the symbolic rewards of the perceived “radical chic” of the “distinguished Marxism from the rue d’Ulm”. [108] Colette does not seek to hide this dimension by highlighting her attraction to the most legitimate/legitimizing intellectual milieus:


“Why the UJCML? Well, at the UEC we met friends from Normale Sup. And since we were, after all, great intellectuals, we started studying, developing our intellects […] On the ground we participated in the CVB (Comités Vietnam de Base), and I entered a local group. Since I distinguished myself quickly, I was promoted to a leadership post…”

132The rewards for protesting were unquestionably more important in the sphere of far-left activism than they were in the religious sphere, where, despite the Church’s attempt at modernization through its aggiornamento, what appeared “revolutionary” in the religious domain was relegated to the rear-guard in the intellectual domain.

From a virtuous religiosity to a “prophetic” political activism

133By embarking on revolutionary activism, Colette and Jacques imported their dispositions for virtuous religiosity into the political sphere. They became veritable political prophets (in the Weberian sense of the term), [109] just like those “charismatic figures” who had been catalysts of their own conversion. [110] The prophetic tone permeates the narrative that Colette provides regarding her political work as an établie:


“We had to do something to raise morale, to tell people that it was possible; you had to moralize to people and tell them that there was an ideal.”

135One can characterize Colette’s six years in a factory as a proletarian activist as missionary prophecy, [111] because although Colette effected a radical transformation of her own daily life (stopping her studies for the revolutionary cause, leading a secret life, breaking ties with her family and friends, being forced to flee after each denunciation, being arrested and having her civil rights suspended, etc.), her political practices equally sought to lead the masses toward a revolution. Thus, she engaged in an action repertoire that resembled that of the worker-priests, figures whom she frequented during this period:


“It was in Rouen that we did all the work on the peasants, that’s where I created the Secours Rouge in 1972. We met lots of priests, among them the Dominicans; they were all great […]. When we started the hunger strikes, it was the priests who opened their churches to us, the ministers too, you also had the Brothers of Man…”

137Colette’s memories underline the affinities that exist between the militant activities that she led in the Secours Rouge, a Maoist organization, and what the worker-priest movement did. They also demonstrate how the political uses of confessional spaces, such as churches, could have contributed in the 1970s to a redefinition of the boundaries of religious and political borders by making politics literally enter the church. [112]

138In a more general sense, importing a disposition to engage in religious activism into the political sphere contributed to the redefinition of the political offerings at the turn of the 1970s. In fact, in the same manner that the prophets (for Weber) propose new and subversive religious benefits, Colette and Jacques insist on the “innovative” aspect of their contemporary activism:


[Jacques:] “With regard to Vietnam, we reinvented this type of mass activism, of street protests, of proximity: we took on the low-income housing estates (HLM), we went door-to-door, we reinvented Agit-Prop; at the time, we opposed the Comité Vietnam National, which was the Trotskyist group… and we had this grassroots Maoist thing. We reinvented the act of going to the Metro exit to sell copies of the Courrier du Vietnam; we made huge posters that we put up in the marketplaces that the Communist Party militants had slowly abandoned. So we reinvented a certain style of political action.”

140It is hard not to see in these “new” activist practices the importation of dispositions interiorized at religious youth organizations, such as spreading the good news, enlightening the masses, proselytizing, persuading one’s neighbor. All these activist practices do not appear so “new” once one shifts the lens from the political domain to the religious domain. Likewise, if Colette was among the first activists to get hired in a factory, what emerges from the description of her militant practices is their similarity with the actions of the worker-priests. [113]

141By joining the UJCML, Colette and Jacques succeeded in preserving their virtuous link to activism. In addition, by offering the benefits of salvation, these prophets effected a legitimization of the practices and dispositions they acquired via religious activism. In this way they participated in the devaluation of the competing political options on the left, notably the alternatives proposed by the French Communist Party. [114] This study confirms Claude Grignon’s hypothesis [115] regarding the development of a left-wing anti-communism brought about by actors whose habitus was formed within religious organizations. Colette stated this in so many words with regard to the PC:


“The right is more valuable in combating repression [she is speaking of the repression against far-left activists during the 1970s]. I know them because they put me up: in Normandy or elsewhere, I stayed with them. The aristocrats of the right are better for that, as are decent bourgeois people and priests from the right. All of them are better than those guys [she is talking about the PC], the wreckers on the left, they’re not good for democracy.”

143And Jacques explained at length the avant-garde position of the UJCML “in opposition to” the PC in particular.


145* *

146Only a contextualized analysis of the trajectories of those with multiple activist commitments, which takes into account the singular configuration of micro-, meso-, and macro-sociological factors, permits a better understanding of the social conditions that contributed to changing the worldview of actors who sought salvation through successive commitments to religious then political activism. The results enable us to draw several more general conclusions regarding the Third World paradigm of May ’68 and the schema of politicization of religious commitments. The notion that Third World activism in the 1960s and 1970s would be “clearly organized around two antagonistic poles: one anti-imperialist and inspired by Marxism […] the other humanist and Christian”, [116] must thus be nuanced. In fact, of the six activists ’ life trajectories that were analyzed above, four of them were characterized by a displacement of the second pole toward the first. Christiane, Michèle, Colette, and Jacques thus played a mediating role between these two permeable universes.

147If the Algerian War played a central role in initiating the process of redefining activist engagement, then several years later the Vietnam War was the next step in the transgression of boundaries between the religious sphere and the political sphere, proving itself an important space for those moving from a personalist and humanist critique to a Marxist critique of capitalism. But more widely still, this politicization of religious commitments relates, I would argue, to three principal forms of dislocation. In effect, actors displace themselves (socially and geographically), and also within activist organizations that are themselves shifting (within the set of organizations offering the benefits of salvation), as well as within fields (political/religious) whose boundaries are also shifting. These dislocations, which are not simultaneous, have their own temporal reference points.

148Thus, according to the observed reference point, these processes of conversion will be apparent as actual ruptures (in terms of worldview) or on the contrary as continuities (in practices). [117] Hence the importance of simultaneously analyzing the worldviews and the activist practices implemented by the respondents in their various spheres of activity. This approach means that we avoid overestimating the rupture attributed to the trajectories of these “converts”, who have been considered too frequently as “atypical”, “unique”, and “improbable”, as well as avoiding pure analogy by underestimating the necessary remodeling and refashioning of internalized dispositions during their adaptation to a new commitment. An overly rapid survey of the cases analyzed would conclude that respondents experienced first a religious engagement, within the continuity of socialization within the family, followed by a break with this engagement as their activism shifted to the political sphere. On the contrary, I hope to have shown that if one considers the entirety of their career as activists, their engagement in Protestant or Catholic Action associations (JAC, JEC, or the Protestant “Fédé”) can be characterized as an “antechamber”, or a transitional space characterized by an “implicit socialism” [118] allowing them to progressively break with their familial background at the same time as they became socially mobile, before finally engaging in an atheist, leftist activism.

149When those militants whose habitus was partly structured in religious youth organizations entered into French politics in the second half of the 1960s, they contributed simultaneously to the emergence of a new political option on the far left and to the devaluation of the PCF. In this way, they modified the internal power relations of the political arena, but perhaps they also altered power relations among all those “in the business of offering the benefits of salvation” (by shifting the boundaries between the religious and political fields). [119]


  • [1]
    See “Utopie missionnaire, militantisme catholique”, Le Mouvement social, 177, October-December 1996; Claude Liauzu, Aux origines des tiers-mondismes (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1982); Éric Agrikoliansky, “Du tiers-mondisme à l’altermondialisme: Genèse(s) d’une nouvelle cause”, in Olivier Filleule and Nonna Mayer (eds), L’altermondialisme en France: La longue histoire d’une nouvelle cause (Paris: Flammarion, 2005), 43-73.
  • [2]
    See Romain Bertrand, “Mai 68 et l’anticolonialisme”, in Dominique Damamme, Boris Gobille, Frédérique Matonti, and Bernard Pudal (eds), Mai-Juin 68 (Paris: Éditions de l’Atelier, 2008), 98.
  • [3]
    Gregory Barrau, Le Mai 68 des catholiques (Paris: Éditions de l’Atelier, 1998); Étienne Fouilloux, “Des chrétiens dans le movement du printemps?” in René Mouriaux, Annick Percheron, Antoine Prost, and Danielle Tartakowsky (eds), 1968: Exploration du Mai français, vol. 2 (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1992), 247-68.
  • [4]
    Jean-Marie Donégani, “Itinéraire politique et cheminement religieux: L’exemple de catholiques militant au Parti socialiste”, Revue française de science politique, 29(4-5), 1979, 693-738.Online
  • [5]
    Sabine Rousseau, “Des chrétiens français face à la guerre du Viêt-Nam, 1966”, Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire, 47, July-September 1995, 176-90; Catherine Morbois, Frères du monde: Recherche sur l’itinéraire d’une revue chrétienne contemporaine (Lyon: Collection du Centre d’histoire du catholicisme, 1973).
  • [6]
    Nevertheless, the work by Johanna Siméant has produced stimulating analyses on the subject. See “Un humanitaire ‘apolitique’? Démarcations, socialisations au politique et espace de la réalisation de soi”, in Jacques Lagroye (ed.), La Politisation (Paris: Belin, 2008), 163-96. See also Marie-Hélène Lechien, “Des militants de la ‘cause immigrée ’: Pratiques de solidarité et sens privé de l’engagement”, Genèse, 50, March 2003, 91-110; Cécile Péchu “Les générations militantes à Droit au logement”, Revue française de science politique, 51(1-2), 2001, 73-103; Marnix Dressen, Les établis, la chaîne et le syndicat: Évolution des pratiques, mythes et croyances d’une population d’établis maoïstes 1968-1982. Monographie d’une usine lyonnaise (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000); Danièle Hervieu-Léger, “Les utopias du ‘retour ’”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 29(1), 1979, 45-63; Jean-Marie Donégani, “De MPF en PSU, un mouvement entre en socialisme”, Autrement, 8, 1977, 116-25.
  • [7]
    See Olivier Fillieule (ed.), Le désengagement militant (Paris: Belin, 2005).
  • [8]
    With the exception of several recent studies, notably that by Julien Fretel, “Quand les catholiques vont au parti: De la constitution d’une illusion paradoxale et du passage à l’acte chez les ‘militants ’ de l’UDF”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 155(5), 2004, 76-89. Online
  • [9]
    Guy Michelat and Michel Simon, Classe, religion et comportement politique (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po/Éditions sociales, 1977).
  • [10]
    J.-M. Donégani, “Itinéraire politique”, 696.
  • [11]
    Julie Pagis, “Les incidences biographiques du militantisme en Mai 68: Une enquête sur deux générations: des ‘soixante-huitards ’ et leurs enfants scolarisés dans deux écoles expérimentales”, Doctoral thesis in sociology under the direction of Gérard Mauger (Paris: EHESS, 2009).
  • [12]
    For a critique of the different interpretations of May ’68, see the first chapter of Boris Gobille’s thesis, “Crise politique et incertitude: Régimes de problématisation et logiques de mobilisation des écrivains en May 68”, PhD thesis in political science under the direction of Bernard Pudal (Paris: EHESS, 2003).
  • [13]
    I defined “participation in May ’68” in a non-restrictive manner so as not to exclude from the outset of the study levels of participation that may have been low-key, less vocal, or less visible, and in order to develop a typology of degrees of participation in the events after compiling my study sample.
  • [14]
    Consult the introduction to my thesis for a more detailed description and rationale for the composition of the sample survey population. This group in no way claims to be a representative sample of “soixante-huitards” (an impossible objective); on the other hand, its rational structure permits a way to control the survey by socially and politically situating its protagonists, a necessary condition for any attempt to generalize its results.
  • [15]
    See Boris Gobille’s doctoral thesis, especially in chapter 1 the section entitled, “Le schème du déclassement et de la crise des débouchés”, 78ff.
  • [16]
    Pierre Bourdieu, “Le moment critique”, in Homo academicus (Paris: Minuit, 1984), 207-50.
  • [17]
    This critique has already been articulated by scholars elsewhere, such as B. Gobille and Louis Gruel in La rebellion 68: Une relecture sociologique (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2004), chap. 1.
  • [18]
    The four determinants are: the familial transmission of dispositions to activism, the politicization of religious activism, the politicization of first-generation intellectuals, and status confusion. Only the second schema is developed in this article. Refer to chapter 1 of my doctoral thesis to read about the development of the other three schemas.
  • [19]
    The explanation of political activism arising from the acquisition of “altruistic habitus” within religious organizations would artificially link commitments that have neither the same motives, nor the same symbolic rewards.
  • [20]
    This article is based on a presentation made during a workshop co-organized with Solenne Jouanneau and Béatrice de Gasquet at the Ninth Congress of the Association française de science politique, entitled “Ferveurs militants: Comment penser les liens entre engagement politique et engagement religieux: rupture? continuité? re-conversion?”, Toulouse, September 5-7, 2007.
  • [21]
    I am following the approach developed by Jacques Lagroye who defined politicization as the process of “adapting the most diverse social activities, an adaptation that produces a practical agreement between social agents inclined, for a variety of reasons, to transgress or to challenge the differentiation of spheres of activity”. See Jacques Lagroye, “Les processus de politisation”, in La politisation, 360.
  • [22]
    The textual analysis was completed by using the SPAD software program. After compiling a glossary of different words used by the survey respondents, the “VosPec” process (Specific vocabulary of groups of individuals) brings into focus the vocabulary specific to the categories of respondents that are of interest to this study.
  • [23]
    To conduct this factorial analysis, the software program compiled a “table of lexical occurrence” (Talex process) based on the glossary of words developed from the open responses to the questionnaire and on a certain number of variables that I defined. For this analysis, I selected the following as active variables: sex, age, parents’ political orientation, parents’ religious orientation, parents’ social origin (recoded), presence of a familial political heritage, parents’ participation in the Resistance, activism or not prior to 1968, the degree of engagement in 1968, status (student or salaried worker) and political orientation during the events of 1968.
  • [24]
    Each point in the factorial plane (on the grid) has coordinates that provide information regarding the distribution and relations between the set of sociological characteristics presented in the analysis.
  • [25]
    Defined by Frédérique Matonti and Franck Poupeau as “the knowledge and expertise acquired through political experiences”. See “Le capital militant: Essai de définition”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 155(5), 2004, 4-11.
  • [26]
    Thus, a set of terms that are near one another on the grid were used by the respondents who sociologically resemble one another. For example, respondents whose parents were actively practicing religion and who did not inherit a familial political legacy (to the right of the grid along the horizontal axis) more frequently cite Michel Rocard, Pierre Mendès France or their parish priest as having played a role in the development of their political ideas.
  • [27]
    In my doctoral thesis, I distinguish the children of communist Jewish families from children of other militants, in so far as the family history of the former plays a specific role in the transmission of dispositions toward engagement.
  • [28]
    Gérard Mauger, “Annie Ernaux, ‘ethnologue organique ’ de la migration de classe”, in Fabrice Thumerel (ed.), Annie Ernaux, une œuvre de l’entre-deux (Arras: Artois Presses Université, 2004), 177-203.
  • [29]
    Dominique Memmi, “Les déplacés. Travail sur soi et ascension sociale: La promotion littéraire de Jules Romain”, Politix, 24, September 1996, 57-80.
  • [30]
    For a more detailed analysis, consult my doctoral thesis where three sub-groups are distinguished, according to the date when these class defectors started higher education, and the forms of activism in which they engaged their dispositions toward revolt (far left groups, the PCF, and the student union movement).
  • [31]
    This term (status confusion [incohérence statutaire]) is taken from work by Jean-Claude Chamboredon regarding youth: “Adolescence et post-adolescence: La juvénisation”, in Anne-Marie Alléon, Odile Morvan, and Serge Lebovici (eds), Adolescence terminée, adolescence interminable (Paris: PUF, 1985), 13-28.
  • [32]
    For an empirically argued development of this model, see Julie Pagis, “Quand le genre entre en crises (politique)… Les effets biographiques du militantisme en Mai 68”, Société et Représentations, 24, 2007, 233-49.
  • [33]
    Michel Dobry defines it as the “phenomena of discrepancies and delays in representations, anticipations, and expectations that are disconnected from the effective state of ‘objective ’ structures”. See Sociologie des crises politiques: La dynamique des mobilisations multisectorielles (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1986), 244.
  • [34]
    P. Bourdieu, Homo Academicus, 236-7.
  • [35]
    M. Dobry, Sociologie des crises politiques, 154.
  • [36]
    Bourdieu writes, “Functioning as a sort of collective ritual of rupture with ordinary routines and attachments [… the crisis] transforms the perspective that agents ordinarily have of social symbols, generations, sexes, cosmetic habits or clothing, etc.”, in Homo Academicus, 242.
  • [37]
    On this point, see Gérard Mauger, “Pour une sociologie du moment étudiant de May-June 1968”, Nouveaux regards, 40-41, 2008, 27-32; B. Gobille, “Crises politique”, chap. 1.
  • [38]
    Robert D. Benford and David A. Snow, “Framing processes and social movements: an overview and assessment”, Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 2000, 611-39 (618).
  • [39]
    These crises are analyzed in the first part of D. Damamme, Bo. Gobille, F. Matonti, and B. Pudal’s Mai-Juin 1968, “Crises des rapports d’autorité, trajectoires critiques et formes symboliques, 1945-1968”, where the break in allegiance with different institutions, such as the university, the church, and the workplace, are analyzed in detail.
  • [40]
    In the legal domain, changes in legislation regarding sexuality – notably the Neuwirth Law of 1967 legalizing contraception – permitted access to a form of sexual independence. In comparison, the representations of the feminine – and of the masculine – did not evolve at the same pace, and the disparity between objective transformations and the inertia of representations would be at the origin of the collective politicization of an entire “generation” and of the emergence of feminist movements.
  • [41]
    Whether as a result of young women’s access to higher education or the access of women to paid employment and thereby to economic independence, the employment rate among women between 25 and 50 years of age went from 44% in 1964 to 73% in 1989. See Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet, Allez les filles! Une révolution silencieuse (Paris: Seuil, 1992).
  • [42]
    Jacques Lagroye shows that the stability of a regime depends on the efficiency of the processes of legitimizing and implementing its rule. See Jacques Lagroye, Bastien François, and Frédéric Sawicki, Sociologie politique (Paris: Dalloz/Presses de Sciences Po, 2006), “Ordre accepté et ordre souhaité”, 441-54.
  • [43]
    On scouting, see Philippe Laneyrie, Les scouts de France (Paris: Cerf, 1985); Gérard Cholvy and Marie-Thérèse Cheroutre (eds), Le scoutisme (Paris: Cerf, 1994). On the links between scouting and subsequent activism, Johanna Siméant writes that “even if it can not be reduced to this, scouting appears a site for inculcating a humanitarian vocation”, in “Socialisation catholique et biens de salut dans quatre ONG humanitaires françaises”, Le Mouvement social, 227, 2009, 101-22. More generally, on the political socialization of children linked to forms of organizing youth, see Francis Lebon, Une politique de l’enfance: Du patronage au centre de loisirs (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2005).
  • [44]
    In the sense defined by Pierre Bourdieu in “Genèse et structure du champ religieux”, Revue française de sociologie, 12(3), 1971, 295-334 (313).Online
  • [45]
    This approach builds on the biographical analysis developed by Jean-Claude Chamboredon: “It is therefore the unity of a moment in regional history: political consciousness and forms of political expression, relations between city and countryside, social conditions and relations, that one can measure in the narrative of a biography and in the production of a text, so long as it avoids the false unity of a singularized individual history: at this level the opposition between history and biography fades”, in J.-C. Chamboredon, “Pertinence et fécondité des histoires de vie? Le temps de la biographie et les temps de l’histoire”, in Philippe Fritsch (ed.), Le sens de l’ordinaire (Paris: Éd. du CNRS, 1983), 17-29 (26).
  • [46]
    I use the concepts that Max Weber defined in the following manner: “A religiosity of the ‘virtuous ’ or of ‘heroes ’ as opposed to a religiosity of the ‘masses ’, with the understanding that ‘masses ’ in no way refers to those of the socially inferior classes on a secular social scale, [but those who do not have an ‘ear ’ for religion]”, in Max Weber, “Introduction à l’éthique économique des religions universelles” [1920], Archives de sciences sociales des religions, 77, 1992, 139-67, quote from pp. 155-6.
  • [47]
    Christiane’s remarks come from an interview at her home, 15 November 2005.
  • [48]
    Matthew’s remarks are taken from an interview at his home in Nantes, 7 February 2006.
  • [49]
    Charles Suaud, “L’imposition de la vocation sacerdotale”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 3, May 1975, 2-17 (15).Online
  • [50]
    Ibid., 6.
  • [51]
    According to Max Weber, the benefits of salvation are bestowed on the faithful by religious personnel and may relate to both heaven and earth: “The benefits of salvation offered by all religions, primitive or civilized, prophetic or not, they are all firstly related to this world.” See Max Weber, Sociologie des religions (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), 345.
  • [52]
    Frédéric Sawicki and Luc Berlivet, “La foi dans l’engagement: Les militants syndicalistes CFTC de Bretagne dans l’après-guerre”, Politix, 27, 1994, 111-42 (126).
  • [53]
    See Claude Grignon, “Sur les relations entre les transformations du champ religieux et les transformations de l’espace politique”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 16, 1977, 3-34.
  • [54]
    Frédéric Sawicki and Luc Berlivet characterized this reconciliation as a “new ethic that made engagement and militant activism take on the dimensions of religious practice”, in La foi dans l’engagement, 112.
  • [55]
    Thus, he was the only member of his cohort to obtain the baccalaureate in the community where he grew up.
  • [56]
    See Émile Poulat, “Un moment décisive: La guerre d’Algérie et son impact”, Une Église ébranlée: Changement et continuité de Pie XII à Jean-Paul II (Paris: Casterman, 1980), 92-115.
  • [57]
    Revolutionary organization with a Marxist orientation and anti-Stalinist nature that emerged from the International Communist Party (PCI). See Philippe Gottraux, “Socialisme ou Barbarie: Un engagement politique et intellectuel dans la France de l’après-guerre (Lausanne: Payot, 2002).
  • [58]
    Hervé Serry highlights this opening of seminarians to the external political context: “The institutions of formation lost their traditional orientation and opened up to the external world due to the influence of seminarians who had experienced the Algerian War”, from “Église catholique, autorité ecclésiale et politique dans les années 1960”, in D. Damamme et al. (eds), Mai-Juin 1968, 47-61 (50).
  • [59]
    Cécile Péchu recalls that “among these ‘poor ’ with whom one must maintain solidarity, the foreigner benefits from a privileged place for the ‘Christ-centric ’ Catholics, in a reference to the place accorded to the foreigner in the Bible”, in “Les générations militantes”, 81.
  • [60]
    On this point, see Renaud Dulong, “Christian Militants in the French Left”, in Suzanne Berger (ed.), Religion in West European Politics (London: Totowa Frank, 1982), 55-72 (71). Jean-Marie Donégani, La Liberté de choisir: Pluralisme religieux et pluralisme politique dans le catholicisme français contemporain (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1993).
  • [61]
    Hervé Serry observes a similar process several years later: “The engagement against the American war in Vietnam on which the Catholic hierarchy remained silent, at best, became a weapon in the anti-institutional argument”, in H. Serry, “Église catholique”, 51.
  • [62]
    J.-M. Donégani, “De MPF en PSU”, 117.
  • [63]
    See Céline Béraud, Prêtres, diacres, laics: Révolution silencieuse dans le catholicisme français (Paris: PUF, 2007), 42ff; Dominique Julia, “La crise des vocations”, Études, February 1967, 238-51.
  • [64]
    Denis Pelletier, La Crise catholique: Religion, société, politique en France, 1965-1978 (Paris: Payot et Rivages, 2002), 26.
  • [65]
    Emmanuel Mounier, Le personnalisme (Paris: PUF, 1995 [1949]).
  • [66]
    See Danièle Hervieu-Léger, De la mission à la protestation: L’évolution des étudiants chrétiens en France, 1965-1970 (Paris: Cerf, 1973).
  • [67]
    After having participated as activists in Socialisme ou Barbarie, Christiane and Jean got involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement by joining the JCR (Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire). After taking a very active role in the events of May-June ’68, they joined the LCR (Ligue Communist Révolutionnaire) where they were activists throughout the 1970s, while still maintaining their trade union activity in their workplaces. (Christiane became a primary school teacher.)
  • [68]
    When he finished at the seminary, and obliged to support himself financially, Mathieu accepted a post as a primary school teacher in a Catholic school, then as a teacher in a Catholic middle school. He changed careers in the 1970s and became an electrical technician and joined the CFDT.
  • [69]
    Notably the “Center for Preparation for Marriage”, where discussions about life as a couple, the raising of children, and feminism held importance. See D. Hervieu-Léger, De la mission à la protestation.
  • [70]
    J. Lagroye, “Les processus de politisation”, 365.
  • [71]
    Johanna Siméant, Frédéric Sawicki, “Décloisonner la sociologie de l’engagement militant: Note critique sur quelques tendances récentes des travaux français”, Sociologie du travail, 51, January-March 2009, 97-125, quote from p. 106.
  • [72]
    Confronted by the dechristianization of the working classes, the Catholic Church delegated to religious youth organizations the responsibility of rechristianizing these people in the 1930s under the slogan, “We will remake our brothers into Christians”. It was incorporated into JEC chants.Online
  • [73]
    I could not conduct an interview with Michèle, since she was “too old and tired” (in her own words) at the time of the survey, but I do possess her questionnaire and a long, hand-written letter that she attached to her survey response, in which she recounted the principal stages in her activist career.
  • [74]
    Denise’s remarks are taken from an interview in her Paris home, 14 April 2005.
  • [75]
    During this period, the “cours complémentaire” consisted of two years of study after primary school. These programs were primarily designed for the children of the working classes.
  • [76]
    See Sylvie Chaperon, “Le Mouvement Jeunes Femmes, 1946-1970: De l’Évangile au féminisme”, in “Femmes protestantes, 19e-20e s.”, Bulletin de la Société d’histoire du protestantisme français, 146(1), January-February-March 2000, 153-84.
  • [77]
    This is analogous to the work by Frédéric Sawicki and Luc Berlivet who contextualize the individual trajectories of young Jocistes [Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne] in the collective history of young urban Catholics from the working classes who early on experienced the death or absence of one of their parents during the First World War.
  • [78]
    C. Grignon, “Sur les relations”, 18.
  • [79]
    S. Chaperon, “Le Mouvement Jeunes Femmes”.
  • [80]
    Excerpt from questionnaire.
  • [81]
    H. Serry, “Église catholique”, 52.
  • [82]
    According to Claude Grignon, “If the lay leaders have attempted to distinguish themselves increasingly from the Church, it is undoubtedly because the constant reference to the official ideology of class collaboration and more generally the too direct and visible links to an institution identified as being on the right were getting in the way of their activity and troubling their activist consciences”, in “Sur les relations”, 18.
  • [83]
    J. Lagroye, “Les processus de politisation”, 366.
  • [84]
    Michèle completed her PhD thesis several years later and was hired as a research assistant at EHESS.
  • [85]
    J. Lagroye, “Les processus de politisation”, 368.
  • [86]
    She notes the over-representation in the generation of “militant founders” of the DAL of militants who had come from Christian youth movements, who were supporters of the PSU (like Denise), but who were distrustful of partisan engagement because of the anti-institutional attitudes they had developed in the course of their critique of the ecclesiastic hierarchy. C. Péchu, “Les générations militantes…”, 80.
  • [87]
    These two cases were not selected as representative, but on the contrary for their atypical and exemplary nature insofar as they concentrate multiple aspects of the processes that are being studied and thus permit a systematic analysis of the conversion processes observed in a more diffused manner in other life trajectories.
  • [88]
    Colette’s remarks are taken from two interviews conducted on the 12-13 November 2005.
  • [89]
    Julien Fretel makes the same observation in studying UDF activists. See “Quand les catholiques”, 80.
  • [90]
    The Hattemer Program is a Parisian private school that is secular and not contracted to the state education system; it receives students from preschool to the baccalaureate. It was founded in 1885 by Rose Hattemer, a private tutor.
  • [91]
    Jacques’ recollections are taken from an interview conducted on 18 August 2005.
  • [92]
    In a paper presented at the Conference on Activism in Lille, 8-10 June 2006.
  • [93]
    Jacques clarified in an interview: “My father had a sort of devotion for Laval, because Laval had named him chief of staff, and then he continued during wartime […]. He was not Pétainist or Lavalist in an ideological sense, but simply in terms of continuing his service to the state as a loyal civil servant.”
  • [94]
    As Louis Gruel highlights: “It’s at this time that people look back at the Second World War, the extent of the Jewish genocide, Pétainism, the use of the atomic bomb; all this contributed to shake the legitimacy of political authority of ‘our fathers’ generation ’.” L. Gruel, La rébellion, 68, 164-5.
  • [95]
    Pierre Bourdieu, “Une interprétation de la théorie de la religion selon Max Weber”, Les archives européennes de la sociologie, 12(1), 1971, 2-31 (9).
  • [96]
    The “établis” were students who got hired to work in factories with the objective of preparing the revolution in the midst of the working class. It was principally Maoist organizations that first theorized the “establishment line”. See M. Dressen, Les établis.
  • [97]
    To use D. Hervieu-Léger’s title, De la mission à la protestation.
  • [98]
    See Frédérique Matonti and Bernard Pudal, “L’UEC ou l’autonomie confisquée, 1956-1968”, in D. Damamme et al. (eds), Mai-Juin 1968, 130-43.
  • [99]
    See Sabine Rousseau, La colombe et le napalm: Des chrétiens français contre les guerres d’Indochine et du Vietnam, 1945-2002 (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2002).
  • [100]
    See Frédéric Charles, Une génération défroquée (Paris: Cerf, 1986).
  • [101]
    Denis Pelletier writes, “In the immediate aftermath of the Council, the bishops restarted the worker-priest experiment in the fall of 1965 after it was suspended in 1954 by an injunction from Rome”, in La crise catholique, 20.
  • [102]
    Hugo José Suarez, “Un mystique de la politique. Note de recherche: Sur l’engagement de prêtres-ouvriers dans la guérilla révolutionnaire en Bolivie”, Actes de recherche en sciences sociales, 155(5), 2004, 90-100 (91).
  • [103]
    The concept of biographical availability refers to the relative absence of constraints (familial, professional, financial, etc.) that would render activism too time-consuming or risky. See Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 44.
  • [104]
    Gérard Mauger, “Jeunesse, l’âge des classements: Essai de définition sociologique d’un âge de vie”, Recherches et prévisions, 40, June 1995, 19-36 (30).
  • [105]
    J. Siméant, “Socialisation catholique et biens de salut”.
  • [106]
    I am basing this argument on D. Pelletier’s La crise catholique, 21ff.
  • [107]
    Frédérique Matonti, “Structuralisme et prophétisme”, in D. Damamme et al. (eds), Mai-Juin 68, 172-85.
  • [108]
    Gérard Mauger observes this in his auto-socio-analysis, “Entre engagement politique et engagement sociologique”, in Sylvie Tissot, Christophe Gaubert, Marie-Hélène Lechien (eds), Reconversions militantes (Limoges: PULIM, 2006), 177-92 (184).
  • [109]
    For Weber, the virtuous possess religious goods that they can “sell” to the masses, distribute to them under certain conditions, or withhold from them.
  • [110]
    For Colette, the HEC priest played this role, whereas for Jacques, it is Robert Linhart (UJCML leader), who was for him an “unquestionable leader, with irresistible powers of attraction”.
  • [111]
    Prophecy that “compels the virtuous to lead the masses toward a revolution, a radical transformation in their daily life”. See Florence Weber, Max Weber (Paris: Hachette, 2001), 76.
  • [112]
    This repertoire of activities would be popularized again in the mobilization for the cause of undocumented immigrants. See Johanna Siméant, La cause des sans-papiers (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1998).
  • [113]
    M. Dressen posits the same hypothesis in his study of the “établis”; on the worker-priests, see Charles Suaud and Nathalie Viet-Depaule, Prêtres et ouvriers: Une double fidélité mise à l’épreuve, 1944-1969 (Paris: Karthala, 2004).
  • [114]
    The homology between what Weber describes as sects, and the small extreme-left groups, such as the UJCML, is heuristic: the Church, where one experiences a “mass” religion, therefore corresponds in the political sphere to a commitment to the PCF, for example.
  • [115]
    He writes, “A history of parties and groups dominated by Catholic intellectuals, like the PSU, would demonstrate, without a doubt, that by importing into the left a rapport to communism that was nurtured in Church-controlled or inspired associations, these ‘Christian progressives ’ contributed to the appearance and to the development of new forms of left-wing anti-communism”, in Sur les relations, 30.
  • [116]
    Érik Agrikoliansky, “Du tiers-mondisme à l’altermondialisme”, 64.
  • [117]
    The ethos of devotion and solidarity with the poorest members of society continues to manifest itself through work with the illiterate (Christiane was active in the DAL at the time of the survey), sponsorship of the children of undocumented immigrants (Denise) and participation in various networks that support undocumented immigrants (Michèle is a member of the RESF). In another way, Michèle’s trip to Algeria in 1964 to participate in the agrarian reforms and Jacques’ commitment to the anthropology of development (he lives in Africa six months of the year) are all ways of translating anti-colonial tendencies into the professional sphere.
  • [118]
    Using J.-M. Donégani’s term in “Itinéraire politique”, 722.
  • [119]
    I wish to thank Johanna Siméant for her feedback on this piece and Érik Agrikoliansky for discussing earlier versions of this article.


Based on a survey of former May-68 activists who placed their children in two experimental schools, this article re-assays the determinants of involvement in the events of May 1968. The analysis establishes four principal matrices of involvement: family transmission of a disposition towards involvement, the politicization of religious commitments, the social mobility of first-generation intellectuals, and status-related incoherencies. The politicization of religious commitments is then explored in depth. A contextualized comparative analysis of six life trajectories points up the processes involved in the genesis of the disposition toward involvement and then in their reorientation, as well as the conjunction of micro-, meso- and macro-sociological factors that shifted the quest for salvation from the religious to the political sphere.

  1. Statistical representation of the various determinants of participation in May ’68
  2. Politicization of religious commitments throughout the careers of activists
    1. The conversion of religious commitments into political activism in working-class milieus
      1. Christiane and Mathieu: The politicization of “class defectors” socialized in Catholic institutions
      2. The experience of displacement and the quest for “salvation” through religious commitment
      3. Third-worldism: a “gateway cause” leading from the religious sphere to the political sphere
      4. Ripple effects in causing the political radicalization of Christiane versus politicization within the religious sphere for Mathieu
      5. Michèle and Denise: the politicization of national leaders of religious organizations from modest backgrounds
      6. Politicization arising from the dissonance between religious social practice and Church discourse
      7. Converting religious commitments into political activism
  3. From a virtuous religiosity to Maoism: the politicization of young bourgeois Christians
    1. A primary bourgeois and religious socialization that conveys an “ethic of responsibility”
    2. A “virtuous” religiosity responding to ideological and identity expectations of bourgeois youth
    3. From religious commitment to revolutionary activism: the search for identity and the political avant-garde
      1. Anti-imperialism as the source of politicization
    4. A “defrocked generation”?
      1. Age, biographical availability, and leaving home
      2. Political leftism: in the avant-garde of protest
      3. From a virtuous religiosity to a “prophetic” political activism
Julie Pagis
Julie Pagis is a CNRS researcher at the Centre de recherches administratives politiques et sociales (CERAPS). She completed her thesis on the biographical consequences of activism during the political events of May 1968 in France, at the Centre Maurice Halbwachs (ENS-EHESS). Based on a sample of matched individuals – who themselves were involved in these events – and their children (educated in alternative schools), the focus of her study shifts constantly back and forth between objectivization (through statistical analysis) and comprehension (based on the analysis of life histories). The thesis is generally concerned with the consequences of individual life trajectories intersecting with political events and the subsequent potential impacts on the “second generation” (that of the children).
She is currently editing with Catherine Leclercq a special issue of the journal Sociétés contemporaines, on the biographical impacts of commitment, and has recently published “Engagements soixantehuitards sous le regard croisé des statistiques et des récits de vie” Politix, 24(93), 2011, 93-114; “Repenser la formation de générations politiques sous l’angle du genre. Le cas de Mai-Juin 68”, Clio. Histoire, femmes et sociétés, 29, May 2009, 95-116; and “Déscolarisons l’école”, in Dominique Damamme, Boris Gobille, Frédérique Matonti, and Bernard Pudal (eds), Mai-Juin 68 (Paris: Éditions de l’Atelier, 2008), 370-82.
Translated from French by 
Arthur Plaza
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