The Year the World Shook

The Year the World Shook

Mon 26 Mar

MAY MADE ME: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France by MITCHELL ABIDOR. London: Pluto Press, 2018

Fifty years ago in France it started like this: on 20th March 1968 offices of American Express were attacked in protest against American involvement in the Vietnam War. Two days later the administration building of Université Paris, Nanterre, was occupied by students. On 30th April Nanterre campus was closed. Three days later the police closed and occupied the Sorbonne prior to the disciplinary hearings of those students arrested at the American Express building near Opéra in March. On 7th May there were mass demonstrations in Paris, and less than a week later there were worker-student demonstrations throughout France. On 24th May the Paris stock exchange was attacked and set on fire, whilst in Lyon a violent demonstration ended in the death of a policeman.

Mitchell Abidor’s book provides the participants’ and bystanders’ memories of the uprising, now fifty years ago, and their different perspectives. What we get is a collage of views that do not always accord. Certainly, it seems that the workers were more modest in their aims, wanting only better rates of pay and / or conditions, whereas the students (in some cases) and leaders wanted genuine political change. (Some of the students admit to being swept along with the flow of events.)

In Britain, the pop culture of the Swinging Sixties changed the country's culture and image. There were occupations of universities and in 1968 Hornsey College of Art was occupied by its students. Yet Abidor’s book centres mainly on Paris in isolation. It is worth looking at the international context where resistance to Capitalism and new freedoms of expression had arisen from the Second World War. Paris was not isolated. There were also mass demonstrations in the USA and there was a culture of resistance throughout Western Europe.

When Abidor asks, “What changed in France after May?” Alain Krivine, another veteran of the struggle, replies,

I think here we can talk about a sexual revolution. It permitted the women’s movement later on, and the gay movement. … May freed all this up, but later.

A less optimistic, and more defeatist, reply comes from Prisca Bachelet, another veteran:

We were constantly doing work with the rank and file, assemblies and all that. But while we were doing this the Socialist Party reconstituted itself, the right re-mobilized, working like crazy while we didn’t, and while we assumed intellectual hegemony, we didn’t notice that the bosses were reorganizing and modernizing, that there was new management. … We missed the central axes, which leaves us in the situation we’re in.

Pauline Steiner, another 1968 Paris student is asked, “How did events change France?’” She replies, “The main impact on France was the liberation of speech, the liberty of women, of homosexuals.’ Asked if it lasted, she adds, “[W]hat lasted was that you could dress the way you wanted, could wear your hair the way you wanted.”

Are they right to claim that the women’s movement and gay recognition are born of the 1968 uprising? I doubt it. It could equally be claimed that the post-war search for freedom in France in general, and in Paris in particular, was the progenitor of these developments. Long before 1968 Simone de Beauvoir was having promiscuous relationships with both men and women. Certainly the essay she wrote for Les Temps Moderne in 1946, “Women and Myths”, which was developed into The Second Sex has been extremely influential in the women’s movement. Not that this places the uprising outside the improvements Krivine speaks of. It’s just that it is easier to see the uprising as a minor event in the cultural life of Paris and of France as it developed from being an occupied country in the war to striving for freedom thereafter.

Introducing Isabelle Saint-Saëns, Abidor tells us of her parents’ background, explaining why May was so important to her:

Her father, a professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, was a member of the Parti Communiste Français, though opposed to many of the party’s positions. From 1945 to 1970 he was part of a group within the party that was critical of its line, people who naively believed they could change the party by criticizing it from within. He was among the signatories of the manifesto of the 121, which called on those called to service in Algeria to refuse service or desert. He would leave the party in 1968, after the invasion of Czechoslovakia. From this Isabelle admits that her parents’ experience taught her that ‘political parties and their bureaucracies were something I saw had to be fought against, something I’d also learned from my mother, who was in the Resistance in the south and had been deported to Ravensbrook, had met Spanish women who were able to testify to the way the Communists acted during the civil war.’ Both her parents would support the revolt of May.

The Cold War, despite some argument about dates, is generally accepted to be between 1947, the year of the Truman Doctrine pledging military aid to those western allies threatened by the Soviet bloc, and 1989, the year that Communism collapsed in eastern Europe. So, slap bang in the middle of that period is 1968. The Cold War was being fought out ideologically and culturally in western cities, where post-war advances provided economic growth and recovery so that a new generation prospered. Can it really have been all about sex?

Pauline Steiner again:

I was different from most in that I’d already lost my virginity at age 20. It allowed me to participate in group sex, but I didn’t like it, so I never did it again. I had a lesbian relationship. I lived in a commune in Paris… None of this would have happened without May.

Suzanne Borde again:

When I arrived in Paris I was the type of girl who wore a nice pleated skirt. Not that I actually wore one, but I was the type to wear one. A young proper girl with long hair and a bow. And then suddenly, I went to have all my hair cut off and out of some fabric I found I made myself a skirt – red, that only reached to here – and I wrote along the bottom in black marker, ‘Indecency is not in the clothing but in the gaze.’ You had to spin me round to read the whole thing.

Of the students at the time, perhaps the most interesting comment is by Pierre Mercier who links May 1968 with contemporary politically motivated groups. He mentions Occupy Wall Street, Syriza, the Indignados and Podemos in Spain. He also argues that with Marxism defeated, it is Islam that has filled the political void in the fight against Capitalism. That seems a fair point insofar as the collapse of Communism has left a vacuum. But is he right to claim that Islam is in and of itself revolutionary? Much of the rhetoric we hear from radical Islam is of the kind we might have heard from the radical Sixties’ hard left. Nevertheless, does he think that the freedom for which he sees himself as a fighter will be delivered by Daesh, Isis or Boko Haram? If he doesn’t mean radical Islam, then it’s hard to see why he thinks Islam will provide answers or deliver the freedoms he cherishes. Certainly, the main religions will not be so relaxed about the sexual freedoms other contributors celebrate.

“May and Films” is the penultimate section Abidor’s book. Here we find a more fine-grained comment on the connections within and beyond the French situation in terms of an intellectual tradition. Michel Andrieu, a film-maker, speaks of Guy Debord and Félix Guattari, and film-makers finding themselves connected to a movement at the time blending psychoanalysis with politics.

I leave the last word to Daniel Pinos, the son of Spanish refugees. Here, he throws light on the international and personal background that sees May as an event in a much larger context:

My aunts, uncles, my grandmother, all of them were Spanish refugees in France who’d fought in Spain and then in the French Resistance, so throughout my childhood I bathed in an atmosphere of combat, of activism. I had lived in this atmosphere of revolt, in the desire to change things all my life. Even though the Spanish Civil War was lost and we were forced into exile, and though their youth – and some of their illusions – were denied by the defeat, they’d managed to maintain their spirit of revolt and combat. And I, very quickly – at around 13 or 14 – was imbued with this. I was also imbued with the French environment, even if there was a kind of lead weight that crushed everything, with the presence of de Gaulle and a right-wing government that denied much of the libertarian spirit.

The book is, as it has to be, a collection of memories from personal points of view. Inevitably, given the range of voices, some will be more salient than others. It is an interesting social document and it is good these stories are being told. Abidor’s introduction is helpful and sets the scene nicely. It would be good to see another book that provides more analysis and makes more connections. But this is, for those of us around at that time, an enjoyably nostalgic read.

Review by Ed Winters.

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