by Karen Moller
[Author's note: France was a champagne bottle ready to explode. The student riots and the subsequent barricading of the Latin Quarter started the necessary upheaval that shook that country into the present.]
(Swans - August 28, 2006) May 1968 started like any other month but after the first week, it was obvious that dramatic changes were in the air. I had just finished presenting my new London fashion show to the wholesale industry and rather than go to bed, I turned on the radio and heard the first news of the student riots taking place in Paris.
According to Le Monde, the trouble had begun earlier at Nanterre, a suburban university. Since worldwide student unrest was endemic I naturally expected the French students to be more politicized. Instead, much of their anger centered on their personal frustrations with university deficiencies. When their demands were ignored by the authorities, the students took over the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter (the heart of the student area) and raised barricades. The universities in France, even more so than in England or the United States, were sacred institutions, almost like churches. Technically, the police had a right to enter them, but if they did, they did so with great discretion. Roche, the dean of the Sorbonne, had panicked and called on the chief of police, Grimau, to clear out the students. Grimau was careful; he knew he was not dealing with Algerians or the poor and unemployed, where he could get away with murder. Careful or not, the police forcing their way into the Sorbonne had angered not only the students, but everyone.
Unable to contain my curiosity, I telephoned Adrienne who lived in Paris. "Shit!" she said as soon as she heard my voice. "Right in the middle of Paris they think they can get away with beating kids and herding them into the paddy wagons." She urged me to come over. No need to be asked twice! I arrived in time for the protest march held on the tenth anniversary of de Gaulle as President. It should have been a day of celebration for him. Instead, the city took to the streets with factory workers, students, and ordinary people in outrage against his government and the heavy-handed action of the police.
The march from the Place de la Bastille to Denfert Rochereau continued all day with the number of participants expanding limitlessly as people joined along the way. In sheer exuberance, people burst into laughter for no reason and shouted slogans like, "We are all German Jews" in homage to the student leader, Danny Cohn-Bendit, who had dual French and German nationality, but whom the government insisted on calling a German Jew. Others were singing The Internationale, the Marseillaise, and songs from the 1871 Commune.
The next day I went with Adrienne to the Beaux-Arts, where the art students were actively producing thousands of anti-government posters, many of which already covered the walls of Paris. The art school was packed with people standing around in groups, comparing notes, discussing the general strike, and planning the evening ahead.
Adrienne, in her capacity as Maoist representative, was one of the twenty-five people that made up the Comités d'Action. I found it curious that Adrienne refused the rules of bourgeois society, yet accepted what were to me the much more oppressive rules of the Maoists. In fact it seemed ironic that the true guarantors of democracy appeared to be the Anarchists. Their suggestion that the various factions should forget their differences and form a common platform with a true revolutionary moral code was by far the most sensible of all the proposals discussed.
As the speeches went on, someone who looked like a petty official took the microphone and introduced himself as Lionel Jospin (a leftwing union representative and later French Prime Minister). He scolded us and tried to persuade us to go home by saying something to the effect that, "A dreadful dissension reigns over you and an appalling thoughtlessness marks your actions." The grim and hostile crowd made grunts of disapproval. It was evident the unions felt in mortal danger because the revolution had started without them. In fact, it wasn't just Lionel Jospin that had failed to grasp the historical significance of the moment. The Socialists and Communists weren't making any significant contribution either. A middle-aged man dressed like a university professor stepped onto the platform and announced that the students had now reoccupied the Sorbonne. He turned to the previous speaker. "It's too late, Jospin. We don't need you or the unions. You can go home."
Later that day, Adrienne and I headed out to join one of the twenty-five barricades installed on the Left Bank. The electricity supply had been interrupted and the lack of street and traffic lights caused chaos. Our barricade was about two meters high and made of wooden crates, flowerpots, and pieces of furniture that the local inhabitants of the area donated from their cellars and shops. A burned out car added to the heap and blocked one end of the barricade. Students had been at work since early afternoon gathering paving stones, dug up from the street, and now those stones were piled high on top of the barricade for future use against the police.
Since there was little to do, I sat on the top of the wooden crates and gazed out at the city. A soft rain fell, and seemed to spread a polish on the surrounding mounds, making them glow in the faint light. France was taking on an extraordinary make-believe quality. Actually, as the hours ticked by and the dark mass of police at the end of the street thickened like a dish of lentils cooking on a back burner, it felt less and less dreamlike and more scary reality-like. Only later did I realize just how lucky we had been. Apparently, they used not only tear-gas grenades, but also the dangerous, explosive stun grenades and grenades containing CS gas, which could be fatal.
One of the students nearby had a transistor radio. He turned up the volume and we heard an interview with student leader Cohn-Bendit, popularly known as Danny the Red. He was absolutely brilliant, cunning, and ruthless. He seemed to remember everything he had ever read. "Don't get caught alone," he warned. "They'll club you and kick you when you're down."
When morning broke, I was very tired. People opened their doors all down the street and brought us coffee and chocolate. It was a strange anticlimax. I was elated to have gotten through the night, but then nothing had really happened, apart from a few bursts of tear gas. The fighting had been elsewhere. As it turned out that was to become the general pattern. The most brutal encounters occurred at night, followed by almost idyllic calm in the day when songs and poetry alternated with spontaneous meetings and revolutionary speeches. Talk submerged the streets as people filled the squares and shared their secrets with neighbors who, until then, they had never spoken to. Nevertheless, there was a heavy sense of impending trouble. Place Maubert looked desolate and ruined, as if Paris had suddenly become a shabby city that no one had the time or money to clean. A pile of burnt garbage smoldered in the middle of the square, traffic lights were smashed, and burned-out cars and broken street signs lay in the gutter. The grills were torn up and the trees flattened.
We stopped at a local café, where a glance around was enough to alert me that, from our appearance, everyone in the bar knew where we had spent the night. The barman looked us over as we sipped our coffee. Then, nodding in sympathy, and with a certain rough affection, he refused our francs. We were about to leave, when a man arrived with a newspaper. "The Dean of the Sorbonne wants to negotiate," ran one headline. "Reason Could Prevail," ran another. I was not so sure. Many shops were closed. Perhaps more afraid of the students than the police, several shop owners had put up signs in their windows that read, "Solidarity with the students."
Later that day, after another meeting at the Beaux-Arts, Adrienne was put in charge of the most important student enclave in Rue Gay-Lussac near the Contrescarpe. She had grown up in that area and knew every twist and turn of the streets and alleyways. The students controlled the area so no one believed the police would dare to invade, but Adrienne took no chances and stationed lookouts on the roofs. Toward the end of the day, we got word that a group of six or seven policemen were making their way from doorway to doorway. Adrienne gave a whistle and paving stones showered down. The aim was not to hit the officers, but as she put it, "to scare the shit out of them."
Instead, it was scaring the shit out of me. If something went wrong, like accidentally hitting a policeman, we would end up spending years in prison. Luckily, the police took off at the first volley and no one was seriously injured. Later that night, dressed in a couple of old black sweaters to make us less conspicuous, we headed out to Rue Gay-Lussac barricade. Some workers had kindly dumped a load of building blocks nearby, and after an hour of passing up the blocks to comrades, my hands were raw. Adrienne smiled, confident that we were in control, and with no sign of imminent trouble, she suggested we take a break. We took a walk down Boulevard Saint Michel and to our surprise, we found ourselves drinking coffee next to the CRS, the special riot police. They seemed like kids, as young and scared as we were. Adrienne was never one to lose her cool. After exchanging a few pleasantries with the CRS, she said, "We are making the world better for you as well." The young policeman looked skeptical, then with a nod of his head, he replied, "And we are just doing our job."
Back at the barricade, I gazed out at the surrounding buildings and the dark, forbidding sky. The stabbing rays of the police spotlights threw long, violet shadows into every nook and cranny, and made the entire area dissolve and reassemble in such a way that it looked unfamiliar. Someone began singing the Marseillaise. Gradually, one after another, we joined in, forgetting our danger. The silence that followed our song was absolute except for the soft, clear drumming of the tear gas going off in the distant battles.
At about 2 a.m., things started to happen. I suspected that, like me, my fifty or so companions were damp with sweat and fear as the CRS put on their helmets. They moved forward like a solid wall, swirling their rolled-up policeman's capes made of a special lead mixture, so compact it could knock a person unconscious. The scale of the attack was dumbfounding, like a volcano erupting. I panicked and began wildly throwing paving stones, bottles, and lumps of earth. I could hear the wailing sirens of the nearby ambulances, but they could not get through to us. Suddenly a taxi appeared out of nowhere and carried two of the wounded to the Sorbonne, where doctors were on hand. More comrades streamed in from defeated areas and confirmed that the police were even beating people on stretchers. I heard a series of thuds and tear gas canisters landed, belching smoke in thick, blue clouds. The humidity kept the gas close to the ground, and the acid mist burned my eyes and nostrils. The itching was terrible and I wanted to rub my eyes, but I knew that would only make them worse.
When a photographer was knocked over and his camera smashed, we knew it was the end. We ran, pursued by the sound of sirens, our footsteps hitting the pavement with the regularity of a metronome. I was in despair that we were losing ground but Adrienne brushed off the night's defeat as a hiccup. "The government may think they'd saved their skin, but they haven't. The struggle is only starting. Tomorrow, more workers will join us. You'll see, France is changing."
On the 16th of May, Adrienne and I visited the Odéon Theater, which had been taken over by the university. The theater was full of makeshift beds, but with the continual vociferous meetings and consultations going on, I doubted that anyone could sleep. Although well dressed, the young crowd looked terribly dirty, as if most of them had rolled in from the provinces, without a change of clothes or the necessities to care for themselves. Their tired eyes and pale, anemic faces appeared euphoric and intoxicated with the idea of righting every wrong. The streets around the University looked as if they had been bombed, but the Sorbonne itself was crowded. Apparently, now that it was in the hands of the students, it was suddenly the fashion for people to make a visit there after dinner. In the vast central courtyard, the walls were plastered with Peking-type papers and posters. Makeshift tables were piled high with Mao's little red books and cheap banners for Lenin, Mao, and Stalin. I asked the girl behind one of the tables, "Why are you touting that megalomaniac killer, Stalin?" She looked embarrassed, as if she had already been asked the same question, but she didn't seem to know why I objected to his inclusion.
De Gaulle disappeared. Apparently, he was ready to send in the army to put down "les chienlits" as he called us. I was mystified by that word. What did it mean? I asked Adrienne. She laughed and said scornfully that it was hard to translate, but the closest was "bed shitters." Rumors were flying on all sides. Our hero, Cohn-Bendit, worked for the CIA, tanks surrounded Paris, etc. The authorities were talking of unwholesome conspiracies and searching for foreign agitators. The students had somehow caught that wind of suspicion; a large sign hung over the door of the Sorbonne amphitheater read, "Tourists keep out!" The guard seemed to think that meant anyone foreign, so I had to wait in the courtyard.
While I waited, I overheard two students being interviewed for a London newspaper. One of the students said that at the university, boys were banned from the girl's lodgings, but the girls could visit the boys in their rooms. Seeing the surprise on the journalist's face, the student said, Chassez la nature, elle revient au galop. The journalist's puzzled look made me wonder if he understood the expression, "If your suppress nature, it comes galloping back." "We're not Anglo-Saxons, you know," the student added condescendingly. "Nature has its laws, which are better acknowledged than forgotten."
Anglo-Saxon culture was different in more ways than he perhaps realized. I'd just read La Société du Spectacle by Guy Debord, the most vocal of the Situationists. From Guy Debord's insular and left wing perspective, the youth culture was an invention of merchandisers, "Likely to create the potential for open revolt because under-privileged youth could not afford the offered merchandise." His theory, based on the past, was correct. However, history was not just the past; it was also something about to happen.
In the present conflict, the middle-class youth of developed countries in Europe were generating open revolt precisely because they wanted more from life than possessions. In his favor, it must be said, the next and present generations in the U.S. and Europe have turned out to be wildly materialistic. More surprising was Debord's astonishing ability to see into the near future. We did not have computers then; we didn't even imagine having them, but today they give us exactly what Debord preached against, "the desire for abbreviated information." He claimed it was the opposite of thinking awareness, and would turn us all into sleepwalking zombies.
Back in the street I saw what looked like footage of WWII mass migration from Paris. People were carrying suitcases and cardboard boxes, and pushing carts full of packages. It was a minute before I realized that they were not leaving, but hoarding food and other items in fear of future deprivations. Around the next corner in a relatively undamaged street, I saw a young man handing out anti-student fliers that read, "Unite and save the country from anarchy." What courage, I thought, to infiltrate our militant enclave. At the same time, I was angry. "A world empty of oppressive rules is not anarchy," I shouted at him.
By the end of the week, ten million workers were on strike. Without airplanes, transport, gas, or telephone lines, ordinary life was at a standstill. Finally, on the 23rd of May I managed to get a lift to Beauvais and from there a plane back to London. I had enjoyed that brief time in Paris and I had loved the French being so un-French. Instead of asking, "What is this going to cost us," which was their usual response in times of crisis, they asked deep questions like, "Who will we be when this is over? How will it change the minds and spirits of our children?" Later, with the handouts and concessions to the workers, and the acknowledgement of the justness of students' complaints, the movement disintegrated. The visionless old guard stayed in power; just the figurehead changed. The same French people who had been asking deep questions about how the revolution would change our minds and spirits seemed relieved because they thought the fabric of their society had not changed. Yet, in fact, underneath, it had. With the May '68 rebellion, France caught up with England, and in some ways surpassed it. The French installed national nursery care, improved all levels of education, gave women the right to abortion, and signed the bill of rights for women. Unfortunately, since the incredible events of the May 1968 revolution, France has hardly moved forward and remains today a democratic country where democracy is only skin deep.
Starting its eleventh year of free publication, Swans is rich in friends, but poor in cash. If you've enjoyed being a Swans reader, please help us out with aThank you.