May, the month of the Cannes Film Festival and the French Open, is when France usually pivots, turning heel on a season of gloom and rain to show off its finery and raison d’être.

May is also the month the French, who make striking something of a national sport, get their protest mojo back, and this year is no exception. On May 14, there was a strike among sanitation workers. On May 16, firefighters followed suit. On May 21, employees of the national railway, S.N.C.F., took to the streets demanding a pay raise during the Olympic Games. And on May 23, staffers at Radio France said they, too, had had enough and refused to be merged with—can you imagine?—French public television.

Many of these rallies can trace their lineage back to May ’68, when French students protesting the war in Vietnam launched a movement that quickly grew into a general strike. It led to the dissolution of the National Assembly and the early departure of President Charles de Gaulle, along with plenty of social change. Soixante-huit (as they all call it) is anchored in the French consciousness. The memories of Jean-Paul Sartre arm in arm with Renault factory workers remain fresh in the minds of an entire generation of left-leaning postwar boomers nicknamed soixante-huitards, who have run France for the past half-century.

But amid all the recent banner waving, there has been one glaring omission—students protesting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And while campuses across the United States and other parts of Europe are roiling with sit-ins, camp-ins, and tear-gassed confrontations with cops, in Paris, for the most part, it’s been crickets. Pourquoi?

Some attribute the relative quiet to President Emmanuel Macron, who, they say, pushed through a series of draconian laws during the “yellow vest” movement to limit and intimidate protesters, namely students.

“It was a lot easier to protest during the Hollande and even Sarkozy administrations, I’ve been told,” says Abel Grossman, a third-year computer-science major at La Sorbonne. Grossman says that fear, rather than apathy, is the students’ primary sentiment. “Macron’s been a lot more repressive than the world understands. Today, if you’re a French student [protesting], you can end up in a holding cell for 24 hours, have something go on your record, be expelled, and not to mention be accused of anti-Semitism, which itself is a crime in France.” (The Gayssot Act, enacted in 1990, prohibits Holocaust denial and discrimination of ethnic groups.)

In Paris, for the most part, it’s been crickets.

Macron’s anti-casseur (anti-vandal) law was passed in 2019 by the National Assembly. It placed stricter limits on protesters, especially violent ones, who could be found economically responsible for any damage they caused. The law also said protesters who covered their faces could incur fines of up to $16,278 and be sentenced to one year in jail. (During the high tide of the yellow vests, three million protesters caused billions of dollars in damage throughout France.)

Not everyone thinks Macron’s laws have made France the new Singapore.

François Jost, a professor emeritus of communication at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, points to Macron’s response to the single, short-lived university protest that did make headlines: the occupation of an amphitheater at the prestigious Sciences Po, in Paris.

On April 25, the Palestine Committee of Sciences Po University demanded that Sciences Po clearly condemn Israel’s actions and end “the collaboration with institutions or entities judged ‘complicit’ in the oppression of the Palestinian people,” as well as “repression of Pro-Palestinian voices on campus.”

Gabriel Attal, the country’s prime minister, was immediately dispatched to meet with students,” says Jost. “Afterwards, there was a town-hall discussion, and I think students there felt listened to and their demands that Sciences Po divest [from future collaborations with Israeli universities] were heard.”

Jost, himself a soixante-huitard, sees differences between his era and today’s. “In ’68, we shared a lot of sweeping and encompassing values: we were against capitalism…. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although important, is a regional-specific issue, and from what I see, students are trying to link it with other problems in France, so the cause is being pulled from both sides, and that leads to the message getting lost.”

Lucas Delattre, a professor at the Institut Français de la Mode, doesn’t see the student mobilization at Sciences Po as merely a dustup. “It’s not on the same magnitude as Columbia or other American campuses, but what happened and what’s still happening at Science Po isn’t nothing,” he says. “The problem is in the perception and the way it’s been treated, I think, that speaks to larger issues in France.”

What Delattre could be referring to is how French politicians on the right and left are using any form of student unrest as a political football to run with.

As reported by many outlets, including Le Parisien, François-Xavier Bellamy, the head of the right-leaning Republican party, made an impromptu appearance in front of the school on May 7, demanding that students occupying the campus be expelled or deported.

“I came to be the voice of all the students who don’t want to see Sciences Po reduced to constant stoppages,” he told a pool of reporters.

Bellamy’s adversary, Louis Boyard, from the extreme-left populist party La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), was also in the crowd and challenged Bellamy in front of the reporters. “You go from one pretext to another never mentioning the fact that there’s a genocide going on in Gaza.”

Compared to those in other European countries, the occupation of Sciences Po seems pedestrian. As reported in Le Monde, protests have flared up in countries throughout Europe, none of whom traditionally share France’s activist DNA.

In the Netherlands, at the University of Amsterdam, a pro-Palestinian movement organized by students on May 6 spread to other campuses in Maastricht, Eindhoven, Utrecht, and Groningen. In Belgium, at the University of Ghent, more than 200 students occupied a building on May 7, which lead to another protest at the University of Brussels, followed by ones at Liège, Antwerp, and Leuven.

On May 3, in Berlin, at Humboldt University, hundreds of pro-Palestinian student protesters were dispersed by police and several were arrested. Other protests have been reported in Leipzig.

Compared to those in other European countries, the kerfuffle at Sciences Po seems pedestrian.

In the U.K., some university students in Newcastle, Leeds, Lancaster, Cambridge, Oxford, and Edinburgh have demanded their schools cut any financial links with Israel or Israeli-owned companies. On May 9, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak summoned the rectors of the schools involved, insisting they bring an end to any acts of harassment and anti-Semitism.

In both the U.K. and Germany, student protests were met with swift responses by politicians, who were quick to associate the movements with anti-Semitism. Years before October 7, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party faced allegations of anti-Semitism.

When Berlin students published an open letter with 1,000 signatures from lecturers and other university employees supporting students’ rights to peacefully protest and occupy their campuses, papers such as Bilt and Die Welt deplored their actions, depicting the students as Hamas supporters and leftist extremists. Bettina Stark-Watzinger, the federal minister of education and higher education and a member of the Free Democrat Party, joined the pile-on. She suggested that organizers would better serve students “by not taking a clear position of hatred against Israel and Jews.” Delattre, who was a German correspondent for Le Monde in the 90s, says there is a very firm line that German students know they can’t cross when protesting Israel. (Germany’s penal code prohibits disseminating Nazi propaganda, both on- and offline, and publicly denying the Holocaust.)

Grossman sees a danger in labeling any anti-Israeli sentiment as anti-Semitic. “It actually waters down what is truly anti-Semitic and ultimately leads to more anti-Semitism,” he says. “It’s also a classic tactic of the French far right, who suddenly have become pro-Israel, which didn’t use to be the case. Deep down they’re supporting Israel because they’re anti-Arab, and they see Palestinians the same way they do Algerians or Moroccans.”

The reason for the relative quiet may also have to do with good old-fashioned French bureaucracy.

Under French law, protests do not need to be authorized to be legal. However, it is mandatory to declare a protest with local authorities ahead of time. As a result, French police become de facto arbiters of civic demonstrations, says one strike organizer who prefers to remain anonymous. “And don’t forget, each time a protest is lodged with police, you must leave a name, a route on which you plan to march, and actions you plan to take,” says the organizer. “For students, this process can be daunting and intimidating.”

Nicolas Krameyer, a former director at Amnesty International and a specialist in international law, describes the paperwork as a delay tactic. “The police are using authorization not just as a way to deny protesters the right to protest, but also as a way to run out the clock,” he says. “In the end, organizers are too tired to continue or too broke to continue to fight through the courts to obtain authorization…. And if you organize an event and if there’s the slightest hiccup in terms of someone infiltrating your protest and doing something or saying something offensive, you are on the hook for a crime. The amount of time and money union organizers are spending in court defending against hate accusations or apology of terrorism is astronomical.”

A recent e-mail sent to parents of students attending a public high school warned that students involved in blocking access to the school could risk incarceration. “Those between the ages of thirteen and seventeen can be held in police custody for twelve to twenty-four hours,” the e-mail read. The school gave information about having proper legal representation and advised parents to make sure their children know their parents’ phone numbers by heart: “Because if they are arrested, they will not have their own phone to call you.”

Perhaps the biggest reason for the silence, Grossman says, is that French students have tended to skew pro-Palestinian since even before the events of October 7. “For students at Columbia, the issue is real. Their government is actively supporting Israel and is very invested, while here in France, we’ve always had a closer relationship with Palestine,” says Grossman. “Also, there is a freedom of speech which is permitted in the U.S. that we don’t have, so kids there are less afraid to say something or stand up. Isn’t that wild?”

John von Sothen is a Paris-based writer, a frequent contributor to AIR MAIL, and the author of Monsieur Mediocre