May 1968 – Witness Accounts 50 Years on

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With special exhibitions countrywide to mark the 50th anniversary of the May ’68 riots in Paris, Tootlafrance talks to some people who were there in a world that has completely changed in half a century

By any standards, 1968 was a turbulent year: It was the year of the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. It was a year of protest: From the Prague Spring to linguistic dissent at Leuven University in Belgium to violently-suppressed student demonstrations in Mexico, it seemed that the whole world was up in arms.

France in the 1960’s was a restrictive society with a simmering undercurrent of dissatisfaction. Having come dangerously close to a civil war during the Algerian crisis of the 1950’s, frustrations boiled over dramatically in Paris when what began for many as a protest against American intervention in Vietnam became a defining period for French society itself.

Following initial protests in March 1968 in the University of Nanterre on the Western edge of Paris, things began to come to a head on this day 50 years ago, when violent incidences in the Latin Quarter followed police intervention in the 700-year-old Sorbonne University. The previous day, Nanterre University had been shut down by the authorities. On the 6th of May, a march involving some 200,000 students and teachers was organised to protest at the ongoing closure of Nanterre. Police baton-charged and hundreds of arrests were made. As the days drew on, the protesting students were joined by secondary-school students and an increasing number of young workers. Barricades and pitched battles became the order of the day, culminating in an all-night street battle on the night of the 10/11th of May. Despite the devastation, the movement gained more support and the unions – who were at first deeply suspicious of the student movement – officially joined in, calling a series of national strikes across the country, which resulted in approximately two thirds of the work force of the entire country being on strike by the end of the month.

Although we’ve come to associate the French with large-scale protests, this was when it all started. From the outside looking in, it seems difficult to make sense of just what they were all at. Was it something that changed the world or was simply a good old-fashioned student sit-in that went out of control?

Guy Pradelle – librarian and general secretary of the Paris branch of the CFDT union – was an 18-year-old history student at the time. Born and bred in Paris, he believes that it was an important step forward for French and European society.

An anti-Vietnam activist at the time, he found himself propelled to the front line of a spontaneous movement that was inspired by international events outside of France. “I wouldn’t say that people were depressed in France at the time, but people were not happy in a society that functioned on the basis of very strict codes of moral behaviour.”

“The change in French society was absolutely enormous!” says Georges Camisa. “It happened on so many levels, from children’s relationships with their parents to attitudes in the workplace, to… everything.” Mr. Camisa now lives in Provence but was a physiotherapy student in Paris at the time, at the faculty of medicine on Rue des St-Pères. Already married to his German-born wife Lilde, he used to bring his child to college with him, where staff in the faculty helped to look after the 2-year-old.

There was, according to Georges, no doubt in the minds of students as to the gravity of the events that were going on: “We were all trying to create a better tomorrow,” he says, “and because we found ourselves acting in such large numbers as one, we believed that anything was possible.”

Claude Bouissonie, a retired Parisian gardener was a full-time trade union activist during May 1968. For him, the most critical achievements of the period were the increases in salaries and the greater freedoms and recognition accorded to trade unions within companies. “Women’s rights became another important issue at the time,” says Mr. Bouissonie, “It’s difficult now to appreciate the changes that took place; before 1968, for example, women in France didn’t have the right to open a bank account!”

Former Labour Party leader Ruairi Quinn – a 22-year-old student activist at the time – remembers how the events in Paris were viewed by him and others: “It was the empowerment of young people and students… It was a great period of optimism… We were rejecting a model of European society that was based on a generation that was still emerging from the post-war period.”

Revolutionary Smile: Student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit confronts a CRS (riot police) officer in Paris

Inspired by the events in May 1968, Ruairi became involved in setting up the organisation “Students for Democratic Action”, which confronted the college authority over a range of issues, leading to the first university occupation in an Irish college in the School of Architecture in UCD.

“What it did do was to help modernise UCD and a lot of the people who participated in that activity went on to play major roles academically in UCD and elsewhere.” In his own book – “Straight left; a Journey in Irish Politics”, Mr. Quinn wrote extensively about this period and he acknowledges that one of the direct spin-offs from the umbrella of the May ’68 events was the People’s Democracy march from Belfast to Derry by the Civil Rights Movement.

Derry civil rights activist Éamonn McCann was involved in political agitation with regard to unfair allocation of housing in Derry at the time. He saw what was happening in the Bogside as a sort of “small-scale model of what was happening elsewhere in the world.

“May ’68 was both a culmination of the radicalisation of the previous few years and also a plot point, or turning point, in the narrative of radical politics around the world… and it was very exciting as well as that.”

Eleven years ago, French president Nicolas Sarkozy drew some controversy upon himself when he said that he wanted to destroy the heritage of May 1968, presenting an image of chaos and disorder and of total disrespect for authority.

“It’s true that there was that element to it – you can’t deny it,” says Guy Pradelle, “but at the same time, it brought a lot of freedom to our society… there isn’t anyone I know – be they from the left or the right politically – that considers the May ’68 period a bad one for France… the burning cars and wreckage disappears after 2 weeks, but the changes in society in terms of morals, workplace and politics have been its lasting legacy.”

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