Remembering a revolution: May 1968

Spanning hopeless romanticism to utter contempt, Harrison Jones takes an in-depth look at memories of France’s last mass uprising

 An assembly during the Paris uprising of May/June 1968. Photo: André Cros, Toulouse City Archives (CC 4.0)

Paris stinks. The undertakers, the bin collectors and – well, everyone – is on strike. There is no public transport; no petrol; and food is running short. President Charles de Gaulle has fled the country, at first paralyzed by indecision and then reportedly briefing friends about his resignation. The largest general strike in French history – a wildcat walkout involving around 10 million people – is at the end of its second week. The country has witnessed its stock exchange set on fire and the biggest demonstrations since its liberation from the Nazis.

It’s May 1968 and French society is tense: the young and the left are energized; the old and the right horrified. In the streets, many are convinced revolution is inevitable, as huge public meetings, occupations and political debates take up their afternoons, before students and workers stage pitched battles with police on a near nightly basis.

Despite the hippy movement, recent assassination of Martin Luther King and the Vietnam War, the world is watching France. The upper class tones of one foreign correspondent, punctuated by shouts from demonstrators, float across the channel to tell British listeners that ‘the whole country’s going through a nervous breakdown’. There will be no accusations of sensationalism.

But as we approach the 50-year anniversary of one of the contemporary era’s most significant revolutionary events, one question looms large: why does it not get more attention?

The French are well versed in their own history, though any more than a passing interest in ‘mai ’68’ is generally reserved for activists and the chattering classes. So, how do participants look back on the events; what does the public think of its legacy; and does France, collectively, remember it fondly or critically?

This is a story of memory.

Public spaces

‘Many don’t give a shit,’ declares Christelle Dormoy-Rajramanan, a sociology tutor and PHD researcher at various universities in Paris, who has recently published a book about the events based on 150 participant testimonies.

One reason why it can all be forgotten is particularly striking when wandering Parisian streets to the sound of a May ’68 themed podcast. The event which apparently inspired the Rolling Stones to write ‘Street Fighting Man’ lacks commemorative sights in the city.

Some months ahead of commemorations, the vast majority of receptionists at Parisian museums provide little insight, staring blankly back when asked if the venue has any information on the movement.

Will there be exhibitions for the anniversary? ‘Don’t know’; ‘probably not’; ‘I don’t have a clue,’ staff members at three different museums reply. Perhaps the same would happen for British equivalents like the general strike of 1926, or the poll tax riots in 1990.

May ’68 was, however, a far more significant event, with international resonance. Most of Europe and countries including Mexico, Japan and the USA also had mass student movements, some of which inspired worker activism and/or took their lead from the French May. Given this significance, it is perhaps inevitable that some material can be found in public spaces, though it is generally limited.

‘Nineteen sixty-eight has not ended up in a museum perhaps because it symbolizes the opening of an era, the founding of living traditions, unstoppable transformations that cannot be contained, tagged, and hung on a wall’

In the Les Invalides complex, an exhibition dedicated to the life of president de Gaulle has an insignificant section dedicated to the student uprising. Though arguably a prime factor in the termination of the general’s political career, this is one of few displays not translated into other languages. Regardless, the technically flawed interactive guide makes it impossible to learn anything, even for French speakers.

Amid endless tedium on de Gaulle, a 25-minute biography, given pride of place in the central cinema, grants perhaps 30 seconds to the events. Even this focusses solely on the one supportive demonstration at the end of May, which encouraged de Gaulle to call an early election (he would win a landslide, with the revolt petering out); but it fails to elaborate on the countless protests against everything he represented.

At the Archives Nationales (formerly the Musée de l’Histoire de France) there is, yet again, no information on ’68, though a four-month exhibition is planned to coincide with the anniversary. Given France’s rich history of revolutions, it is perhaps unsurprising that a failed attempt is given short shrift, but for one still in living memory, and still having an impact on modern life, it seems to be strangely lacking acknowledgement.

Perhaps the most insightful material is to be found at the Musée de la Préfecture de Police, where, on a small wall depicting the authorities’ response to May ’68, a letter from the head of the police is displayed. In it, Maurice Grimaud urges his colleagues not to be violent, writing: ‘You may win the battle, but you will lose something more valuable: your reputations.’

A member of the museum’s staff is deeply defensive about the police’s record, arguing that there were no deaths (one student, who drowned, was allegedly chased into the Seine by police). She then points to a prominent statistic, claiming that protesters threw 10,000 square metres worth of cobblestones at police (‘under the cobblestones, the beach’, read one famous slogan on Parisian walls).

A barricade in Bordeaux (Gironde, France), Rue Paul-Bert, May 1968. Photo: Tangopaso (Public domain)

Behind all the violence were ‘extremists hijacking the student plans’, the woman says, making the rather questionable assertion that the police were not at all brutal. She believes that most French people think negatively about ‘68, but suggests there was a much-needed revolution in police equipment. Having been pelted with projectiles throughout the course of events – some of which the museum display proudly in a glass cabinet – French police switched to transparent shields, visors and more protective clothing. The museum offers a few other nuggets but there is no deep analysis and certainly no criticism of police.

Exhibiting May ’68 in a museum is, however, deeply complicated, because of the events’ elusive nature, current relevance and lack of a concise chronology, Julian Bourg explains.

‘The very multiplicity of 1968 poses real headaches to any would-be curator,’ the award-winning professor who has written extensively about the event tells me.

‘Nineteen sixty-eight has not ended up in a museum perhaps because it symbolizes the opening of an era, the founding of living traditions, unstoppable transformations that cannot be contained, tagged, and hung on a wall.’

Despite the difficulties, though, he claims there should be more exhibitions on 1968 because ‘the best museums in the world conduct living vital energies to the public.’

‘So much time has passed, there is doubtless a need to present – especially for new generations – what was at stake in 1968, what all the bother was about.’

Anniversary interventions

‘There are decades when nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen,’ the Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, supposedly claimed. The latter seems an apt description of the uprising which overtook France 50 years ago and fermented a social, sexual and cultural revolution, despite its political failure. Arguments about its repercussions have been raging ever since.

The meagre offerings in public museums are more than offset by public debate, though political figures have skewed the conversation to suit their agendas for decades.

In 2008, the BBC reported that: ‘The 40th anniversary came complete with dozens of books, hundreds of articles, special editions of magazines, daily debates on TV and radio, comic strips – and a growing chorus of sceptics who feel the whole thing was overdone.’

Then, the incoming president Nicolas Sarkozy lit the fuse when he declared: ‘May ’68's heritage must be liquidated once and for all’ – a stunning intervention, given the ‘mythic’ status (as history tutor Dormoy-Rajramanan describes it) that ’68 often enjoys.

‘Commemorations and anniversaries are ways of consigning events to the past – as over, no longer active in the present’

Sarkozy’s comments finally provoked a response from the revolution’s poster boy, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who mocked the future president’s comments, after remaining consciously tight-lipped for decades about the movement which brought him fame. Alain Geismar, another leader, goaded Sarkozy further: ‘If the movement was dead now I wonder why Mr Sarkozy used his last speech before becoming president to say that he has got to kill it.’

As far as anniversaries go, Helen Arnold, an American worker active at the time, is sceptical about their effect.

‘Commemorations and anniversaries are ways of consigning events to the past – as over, no longer active in the present. France loves that sort of thing, anniversaries are particularly popular here. They are of course opportunities to make and sell books, films, “events”, and to occupy the media scene, all of which are very lucrative and quite innocuous.’

With activists again threatening to echo ’68, thinkers from all fields, political colours and nationalities are keen once again to have their say – and often warn against a repeat, much to Arnold’s annoyance.

‘The only way to celebrate that event without killing it is to create an equivalent today. But this time, not stop’, she states bluntly.

‘In the case of May ’68, the nostalgia often expressed by former participants during those anniversaries expresses the main point: it was something you had to experience to understand.’

Though the Boston College professor Julian Bourg did not experience the events, he clearly has a deep understanding of them, exemplified by his nuanced take on the impact anniversaries have had on memory.

‘For several decades after 1968 many French people considered the events of that year to have been the most pivotal and consequential since the Second World War. Especially on decennial anniversary years – 1978, 1988, 1998 – a flurry of publications and documentaries testified to the ongoing resonance.

‘A real turning point in memories of 1968 occurred in 2008. Everyone was surprised by the onslaught of publications, conferences, documentaries, etc. Old posters from the era were sold for hundreds of Euros and cardboard paving stones were on sale in bookstores. Its defenders rallied but a deep sense of 1968 fatigue also quickly emerged.’

The unfairly French, Parisian and student focus

Yves Coleman, an activist hospitalized by police during the movement’s last major protest, is tired of talking about ‘mai ’68’. He takes the view that there is now far too much focus on France, in what was a radical year for Europe and the world.

‘If you are talking about a mass workers’ movement, France is certainly not the place, in the 60s, where you have the most violent and most radical clashes between the workers and the state.’

Indeed, what is forgotten is perhaps just as telling as what is remembered. ‘History is written by the winners,’ we are always told. It’s also written by historians trying to sell books and come up with imaginative angles: France, Paris and students are far more romantic than the alternatives, and the prevailing narratives of ’68 reflect that.

As such, Coleman suggests the global left’s memory of 1968 is skewed unfairly towards France, because of the ‘radical chic’ way in which the left remembers it.

‘Collective memory was sanitized by making it something picturesque and Parisian, but ultimately youthful and unrealistic ... striking workers, colonial militants, and reinvigorated regionalists are all just outside the frame’

What many also fail to recognize is the impact events had outside of Paris. Dr Andrew Smith, a Historian of Modern France at the University of Chichester, has researched the fallout across the country, and believes the frame of May ’68 makes people see it as ‘distinctly Parisian’, because the accepted chronology says the important moments took place in the capital.

He explains: ‘Collective memory was sanitized by making it something picturesque and Parisian, but ultimately youthful and unrealistic. In this established narrative – where May ’68 is solely about poetic student radicals in the picturesque Latin Quarter – striking workers, colonial militants, and reinvigorated regionalists are all just outside the frame.

‘The first flash points were at Nanterre, but things really broke into the national media (and national consciousness) with the occupation of the Sorbonne on 3 May,’ he continues.

‘This framed the event as Parisian and about students. This dominated press coverage until the middle of May, despite solidarity movements springing up in places like Nantes and Lyons. These were seen as the regions reacting to Paris. After the ‘Night of the Barricades’, attention turned again to Paris and violent clashes between students and police, ensuring that Paris was reinforced as the centre of events.’

Another of the forgotten elements is the involvement of high school students and Coleman, who, at 17, was one of them, says that of the European student movements, France was ‘maybe’ most significant – and therefore worth the hype; unlike the workers’ movement.

Legacy: division and unity

The students’ agenda, he suggests, caused bitter divisions over what critics call ‘the events’. Like modern day Brexiteers and Remainers in Britain, France appears to be divided into May critics and May supporters (who refer to what happened as ‘the movement’).

‘There are two very different competing memories and neither is right,’ Coleman says.

‘There is this kind of leftist, radical chic version – that it was marvellous and we were smoking pot and making love and were very anti-authoritarian and we liberated France of all its bad authority and customs. (You can see with [President] Macron, that we didn’t change anything, but never mind.)’

Recognizing that perspectives can become rose-tinted over time is important, because some modern activists’ interest in ’68 stems from the notion of a ‘cool’ revolution. Had they actually been there, perhaps they might have remembered less pleasant things, like having no transport or watching bystanders being beaten up by police.

‘Then you have a right-wing version,’ Coleman continues: ‘People were just stupid, violent, liked the mess, (didn’t) respect anything and destroyed the family.’

This perspective, he says, blames the ‘soixante-huitards’ (‘68ers’) for today’s high divorce and migration rates, women being ‘easy’ and an overly tolerant society.

‘For the right, ’68 is almost the cause of everything bad and, for the left, the cause of everything good.’

It’s always been like that, he suggests – ‘it’s getting worse, in fact.’

May ’68 confusingly encompasses the period between March and June, and arguably longer, leading some revisionist historians to use the phrase the ‘May years’. This characterizes the period between the 50s and 70s, in the mould of France’s May, but includes colonial and worker struggles, as well as student ones.

May ’68, as most refer to it, began in March at Nanterre, where a current student agrees with Coleman’s views on the French divide.

‘There's definitely a deep well of far-left activists whose imagination revolves around a May ’68 type of event, the way the right's imagination probably revolves around a Charles de Gaulle type of strong, fatherly figure,’ says Thomas, while studying a masters in screenwriting.

‘It's been 50 years but it stills feels like that divide between the students who barricaded the Sorbonne in May ’68 and those who marched to defend de Gaulle and family values still holds.’

Caroline Benoit, a young Parisian giving guided tours around the capital’s left bank, perhaps embodies this dichotomy in collective French attitudes. Repeatedly labelling it the ‘student riot of 1968’, in a rather dismissive tone, she also professes: ‘We had to do it.’

Walking through the Latin Quarter, where the majority of the action took place, she stops in the Sorbonne, which students occupied, and talks about the protests for a couple of minutes on each tour.

‘There used to be barricades and everything in the streets,’ she explains to nonplussed English speakers, who are told that the lack of mixed-sex dormitories and the selection process for universities were the key motivators in the student rebellion.

‘This was a real riot and so it is considered the last French revolution,’ she concludes, having fielded a question about some underground jazz club.

The period is, of course, just another part of France’s eclectic history; though it is one which pupils learn about at middle and high school, Benoit adds later.

‘It is taught only as the thing that pushed General de Gaulle out, while it's really the referendum [which de Gaulle lost the following year]. But we understand it most as a conflict of generations, between the young people and the old government and the old General.’

Some would disagree with those sentiments, but where there is widespread agreement is in the unalterable impact ‘68 had socially. For better or for worse, today’s France is considered more sexually liberal, tolerant, diverse, and open.

‘It is forbidden to forbid’ was famously daubed on walls, while protesters chanted ‘we are all German Jews,’ after leader Cohn-Bendit’s expulsion from France: a highly provocative statement in the post-war era, heralding the greater individualism to come. Such proclamations opened the door to social liberalism, which spread across the world in the wake of the 60s hippy movement. Today’s France couples scepticism and limited respect for authority with secularism and a greater allowance for self-expression.

As is regularly mentioned in discussions on ’68, the victory of president Sarkozy in 2008, despite being divorced and having three children by two women, spoke volumes about change in France. It proves ‘we won’, said Cohn-Bendit, still playing the provocateur 40 years on.

Indeed, ever since ’68, tradition has taken a battering in all aspects of everyday life and this, perhaps, is its real legacy. With less emphasis on conformity and respect, modern-day university students are allowed far more freedom than their predecessors. A dispute about being barred from the opposite sex’s dormitories – deemed by some the initial trigger for the trouble at Nanterre – seems a distant memory.

Britain’s paper trail

Deep inside London’s National Archives, a small collection of rustic looking documents detail the British establishment’s reaction to May ’68.

The Foreign Office and British diplomats were briefed thoroughly on an almost daily basis by Sir Patrick Reilly, the Ambassador to France. Like everyone else, he and the embassy were caught completely off guard by the events of May. In the preceding weeks, when Cohn-Bendit and co were arguing about sexual repression, the embassy seemed preoccupied by the impact a debate about advertising being shown on television might have on French politics.

As events progressed, the British soon became worried about Cohn-Bendit coming to the UK for a BBC programme and making a statement to win support back home, like ‘Free French’ leaders past. All the way up to prime minister Harold Wilson, who was informed of Cohn-Bendit’s movements, the British were concerned that the show could harm Anglo-French relations.

‘France is now clearly in a situation which might become revolutionary’

The archival documents reflect well on the British, suggesting they were concerned less by allegations that their own citizens were influencing events, and more by police brutality being meted out on their own people.

‘A few British students came over when the trouble began, and a few were later expelled by the French authorities. But there is no indication that British influences played an important part.’ Ambassador Reilly writes, adding: most Britons involved could not ‘have been as important as all that’.

British diplomats watched on with great interest, noting the reaction of other foreign powers, particularly the Chinese press.

On 19 May, Reilly told the Foreign Office: ‘France is now clearly in a situation which might become revolutionary.’ They did nothing bar observe, not that anyone remembers.

Individual and collective memories

Personal memory depends on interests and experiences. Perhaps sport fans remember the striking footballers, student agitators their underwhelming exams results, or the Observer’s Central Europe correspondent the ‘constant hurrying’.

Neal Ascherson was in Paris, but only found out that the Foreign Office thought he was one of three Brits likely to have played ‘an important part’, when I brought the archived letters from the embassy to his attention a few months ago. They suggest Britain thought the French were ‘seeking foreign scapegoats’, like himself, to blame.

In the build up to the 40-year anniversary, Ascherson heard a similar revelation, when an author told him he had been declared a ‘prohibited immigrant’ and banned from France for a short period. It was the first he knew of it.

The new information has not coloured his memory of events, however.

What was it like? As a journalist? ‘Constant hurrying from the confused uproar of occupied institutions to the quiet of newspaper offices (of foreign media), where you heard official French and international accounts of what was happening – often far from the reality on the streets. TV and radio, now under 'workers' control’, issuing long, theoretical Marxist analyses of events but often forgetting to report the events themselves.’

Despite being a reporter, Ascherson admits to sympathizing with the revolutionaries and accepts the label ‘activist-journalist’ (‘balance obviously becomes more difficult – but far from impossible,’ he argues).

‘I did think that history was being made. Until the PCF/CGT [Communist Party and trade unions] decided to puncture the revolutionary balloon by turning it into a wage round, an eruption on the 1789 scale was quite possible.’

Students and artists occupy the Odeon Theatre, Paris, May 1968. Photo: Eric Koch / Anefo (CC 3.0)

It’s interesting that the assessment of the world-renowned academic Noam Chomsky is wildly contrasting, despite both men coming from the radical left. Chomsky suggests ‘personal self-indulgence’ played a ‘large part’ in the events, which many saw as an opportunity to experiment with drugs, sex and violence.

‘There was an awful lot of play acting and posturing,’ he grumbles.

‘It had a social-cultural effect but I wasn’t that excited. It had good features but a lot of negative ones, too.’

Perhaps Ascherson, as a participant, is right that a political revolution was possible. But maybe those present struggled to grasp the full scale of events when they were there; making Chomsky’s assessment, with the benefit of hindsight, more reliable.

Dr Chris Reynolds, of Nottingham Trent University, has written a book on May ’68, with one chapter dedicated to memory.

‘Basically, it is my belief that there is a certain formative period when the main parameters of the way in which a memory will be constructed are set down,’ he says, summarizing his work.

‘These parameters will largely determine the nature of the memory but are not immovable. As the contexts change and time passes then that memory will change and develop.

‘In the case of ’68, the parameters have been set by a select band of memory barons who have dominated how the story has been told and in my view have limited the nature of the doxa. As time passes and new research is done, the full story will emerge but this will take time as the barons have so solidly anchored their narrative that it will be difficult to undo.’

So how do ordinary people recall the actual events now?

Jill Lovecy, a British exchange student in Paris, has one souvenir which is particularly telling.

‘I did bring home an empty CS [tear] gas canister as some kind of memento. The guy I married found it in the wardrobe one day and didn’t think it was a sensible thing to have!’

Mention of the souvenir brings her on to another recollection, of running away from police. ‘I can remember being chased and escaping by good fortune. You know, cowering in a shop front and things.’

She remains amazed, too, by the way the French ‘knew what to do’ when it came to building barricades – as if they had a kind of inherited memory. Talk to Parisians on the street, and violence does indeed seem to be a recurring topic.

Collectively, though, there is more division. The right remember the disobedience: considering it a reminder of the ease with which society can break down. On the left, participants recall the electric atmosphere, mentioning without fail how people talked to each other en-masse, alongside the street art, graffiti, posters and slogans which fine art students and others worked so hard on to decorate Paris.

Distractions and critics

Linked to such a narrative is the notion of ‘the spirit of 68’, which 68ers often mention. In reality, that appears to mean the spirit of the optimistic and revolutionary left from time immemorial. Patrice de Beer, a former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde, could have been talking about any number of movements in the last decade when he described May ’68 as: ‘the last great moment of collective political idealism: when opposition to war, belief in solidarity, celebration of freedom, and the search for new forms of communication and creativity, made it appear that everything was possible. Amid a driven-mad-by-money global society, even a flawed utopia is worth a Mass.’

As de Beer’s words now suggest, many aspects of the event remain applicable today, making it a curious mix of memory and current relevance. Other parts, however, seem trivial.

‘Those who lack imagination cannot possibly imagine what is lacking,’ an anonymous person scrawled on a wall 50 years ago, perhaps exemplifying that elusive ‘spirit of ’68’. But what street art also exemplifies is a distraction from the deeper questions May ’68 provoked, says Dr Smith, the historian of modern France, sceptical about the motivations behind commemorating graffiti.

‘Street art was important, as one of the longest legacies of May ’68 was its striking visual identity. [But] it is politically useful in the collective memory to make [May ’68] about something artistic or cultural, as those are less troublesome concepts that have less disruptive potential,’ he tells me.

If we first remember the latest take on art or sexual liberation, perhaps central questions about human interaction or how to improve French society will indeed be forgotten.

 Classroom at the University of Lyon with graffiti on wall, made during the student occupation of the campus, May 1968. Photo: George Louis (GNU 1.2)

A recurring dream

Yet it is the criticism of the movement itself that is perhaps most damaging, especially when it comes from the likes of Cohn-Bendit. ‘Politically we lost – thank god!’ he has said, probably in an attempt to reposition himself as a mature (but still radical) politician. The statement suggests that the movement’s main protagonist now looks back on it as naive and thinks things would have become worse had the government been overthrown – a damning sentiment.

An unquestionably engaging speaker, the recently retired politician repeatedly told anyone willing to listen to ‘forget ’68.’ He then normally adds: ‘That doesn’t mean don’t dream, it means don’t dream the dream of yesterday; dream the dream of today.’

Far from daydreaming, France’s current radicals appear to be mobilizing. Following a presidential election which saw centrist, establishment candidate Emmanuel Macron win – despite the successes of Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélanchon from the radical right and left – headlines about ongoing industrial action, demonstrations and occupations have evoked talk of a repeat of ‘68.

Then, widespread (but unforeseen) boredom and anger about French society’s backwardness merely required a trigger. Whether such a trigger could come from today’s disputes seems unlikely, but certainly revolutionary events – particularly in France – appear to come in cycles. Discounting striking railway workers, who in 1995 forced prime minister Alain Juppe to drop public sector changes, there has not been revolutionary upheaval for 50 years.

Alain Krivine, one of the revolt’s leaders and later a presidential candidate, does not dismiss the chances of something similar happening again.

‘A mobilization of students and workers on small things… And then a politicization, day after day… That could occur today,’ he argued over coffee, ahead of the anniversary.

Caroline Benoit, the tour guide who also attends one of the high schools most involved in ‘68, sees anger over university selection as another reason it ‘can happen again’, though she believes Macron’s connection to youth means it may be some time away.

Dormoy-Rajramanan, the PHD researcher studying how political the movement was, has less faith in the new president, and predicted the current political turmoil months before it happened.

‘The government have changed the system by which students choose their universities. An algorithm decides, so some students with excellent marks sometimes are not able to follow the course they want,’ she told me last year.

‘There is a cut in the budget of research and teaching and there are many doctors like me [being paid] six months late and very [badly]. On top of that, the laws about work are changing; the new president chose to suppress tax for the rich – I think it could be a good cocktail to make people mobilize.’

Speaking in April following the launch of her book Mai 68 par celles et ceux qui l'ont vécu, she adds: ‘There is now a big mobilization in several French universities where students and teachers are fighting against the new law institutionalizing university entrance. And there is attempt to converge with with worker movements.’

In a country shaken by terrorism, until recently momentum appeared to be with the right, making talk of a leftist uprising seem as unlikely as it did in April ’68. We know where that led and in France it is wise to expect the unexpected, especially as far as protest goes.

Regardless of how long it takes, if and when another such wave of unrest arises, the real question is not whether May 1968 will remain a story of memory, but whether it becomes a story of inspiration.

Harrison Jones has written for various local, national and foreign publications. He won the Guardian's Student Reporter of the Year award in 2015 and was a Scott Trust bursary recipient. He mainly writes for the Oxford Mail and Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter @HarrisonJones7.