Remembering May ’68

Remembering May ’68

In the pre-RER regional railway days of spring 1968, the University of Nanterre was light years away from the Sorbonne and the Latin Quarter in Paris. No one would have chosen to spend their student years in that bleak no-man’s wasteland of concrete northwest of the city. But if your residential district was affluent western Paris, too bad: You were shipped off to poor suburb of Nanterre where you were bound to feel alienated, despite any ideological adherence you might have had to the principle of social equality.

Worse, there was nothing to do in that suburban desolation. Adding fuel to the flames, the unimaginative authorities imposed rigid regulations in the dorms and university halls, denying the students basic fun-a recipe for trouble that could so easily have been averted. In other words, the fireworks of May 1968 were triggered no less by the barring of students from the dorms of the opposite sex than by such ideological concerns as the Vietnam War or class struggle.

The agitation in Nanterre had been brewing since March, but it was only in early May, following student demonstrations and the closing of Nanterre university, that fellow students at the Sorbonne decided to call a first meeting, which drew only a few hundred activists. But by that same evening a pitched battle raged on Boulevard St Michel, complete with barricades and the crossfire of cobblestones and tear gas. The battle cry “CRS (riot police) = SS”-which conveniently rhymed-added to the excitement. By the end of the first night 70 CRS policemen and an untold number of students had been injured, and several hundred students had been arrested.

As a soixante-huitarde (’68er)-that is, a participant in the “événements,” as the revolt has come to be known-I recall being astounded by the spontaneity and speed with which everything flared up. And it wasn’t only about violence. There were also ongoing discussion groups and enthusiastic committees bent on reshaping the world and creating a new French society. Some of the students’ elders also got involved: Jean-Paul Sartre, for example (just a month shy of 63), and actor Jean-Louis Barrault (age 58), who was punished for his involvement by being removed from his post as director of the Théâtre de l’Odéon. To me, the sit-in with Barrault at the Odéon was one of the highlights of that month of May, because of the surge of collective mental creativity it unleashed.

On a more modest scale, discussions took place everywhere-on street corners, in cafés, in the courtyard of the Sorbonne. It was very fraternal, at times too fraternal for my liking, since I did not appreciate being addressed with the informal tu by total strangers. (Today that’s common usage among almost all students, but it was not at the time.) Nor did my boyfriend appreciate having to drive our old jalopy out to the Porte d’Italie every night, then back to Rue Mouffetard the following morning, to spare it from being cremated-the fate of many cars imprudently left on Left Bank streets during those explosive days.

It was amazing how fast the conflagration spread all over France, not only in academic circles but seeping into most strata, social circles and age groups of French society. I say “most” because the parents of the 17-year-old girl to whom I was giving English lessons were shocked that I was mixed up with the Sorbonne riffraff. The family lived in the bourgeois 7th arrondissement and the girl dressed in the navy blue uniform of Catholic schools, the epitome of the Vieille France that the soixante-huitard spirit hoped to eradicate, together with consumerism, sexism, racism, imperialism and conservatism.

“We are all German Jews!” the students shouted in support of their leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, partly German and Jewish, known as Danny the Red, both for his leftist politics and his carrot-red hair. (Cohn-Bendit had traveled to Germany during the course of the month and been forbidden to return to France-he did anyway, in disguise.) “Yankee go home!” was scribbled all over, in protest against the Vietnam War. “Make Love Not War” was borrowed from the hippies, flower children and protest marchers in the United States, where 1968 was also a watershed year.

Distinctively French, however, were the ubiquitous graffiti slogans including “L’imagination au pouvoir” (Power to the imagination) and the more subversive “Il est interdit d’interdire” (It is forbidden to forbid). Some ten million members of the nation’s workforce spontaneously joined the protests, including factory workers who traditionally look askance at these middle-class fils à papa students playing at being Marxists. Unprepared, the government adopted a confrontational attitude, going so far as to put the country on high alert. President Charles de Gaulle, the man who had stood up to the Nazi occupier and to the French Algerians, now retreated discreetly to a German military base for a few days, leaving his prime minister, Georges Pompidou, to deal with the mess. On his return, he dissolved parliament and called new elections, which his party won by a wide majority. Less than a year later, however, after a referendum on government reorganization, he was defeated and resigned, retiring from public life.

A wage agreement sent the workers back to their jobs in late June, but this was of little relevance to the students. For us, it was the summer holidays and the beaches of the south of France that damped the fires of revolution. When we returned to the Latin Quarter in September, the wreckage had been cleared away, including the old cobblestones that had given the Latin Quarter its charm. To our dismay, the streets had been covered with asphalt during our absence, to prevent future riots in the quarter. In years to come the Latin Quarter would also signal the triumph of the consumer age as, one by one, the old bookshops closed and boutiques took their place….

Other battles have been won, however, from women’s rights to the breakdown of certain social barriers. Whether you approve or not of the dumbing down of education that has befallen our western democracies, whether you regret that children don’t always yield their seats to old people on the bus, whether you dislike seeing young people turn up in jeans at the opera or you agree with philosopher Raymond Aron that the 1968 events were a mere revolutionary “carnival,” there is no denying that they helped rid France of at least some of the layers of dust that were holding the country back. There was so much dust, indeed, that 40 years later President Nicolas Sarkozy, no ideological friend of the likes of Cohn-Bendit (who is now head of the Green Party in the European Parliament), has that same dust-removal item on his agenda. As has been debated of late in several forums and books, in his own way, paradoxically, Sarkozy-who was 13 years old during the événements-is also a product of May 1968.

Thirza Vallois’s most recent book on France is Aveyron, A Bridge to French Arcadia. website

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