Wednesday 26 September 2018

Paris, May 1968, the student's revolution by Carol Drinkwater

                                                                         May 1968, Paris

These photos were taken by Bruno Barbey who was a twenty-five-year-old photographer in '68 and a superb visual chronicler of the events of May 1968. He wrote later, "I went with Cartier-Bresson to buy helmets to protect us from the stones, but with them we couldn't use our Leicas.'

It is always an exciting moment for an author when she receives an email from her editor confirming the date of publication of her next novel. That has been one of the highs of this week for me. My new novel, THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF, is to be published in Britain on 16th May 2019.

I had hoped to have the book out on the shelves this autumn to coincide with the fifty-year anniversary of 1968 in France, a year that changed modern French history. However, due to various issues, I am a little late. The main point is it is on its way!

The book is set principally in two time zones: 1968 and the present. There is a small section that takes place in the 1990s but that is not the main body of the book.

I was a gauche teenager in 1968 and really rather ignorant of politics. My thoughts were all about training to be an actress by winning a place at one of the more prestigious London drama schools. So 1968 passed me by, which, I think now, is a great pity. It has, however, made the research for the new novel all the more fascinating, and if I could live those adolescent years of mine again, I like to think that I would get myself to Paris to participate in the student revolution. To have been what the French call a 'soixante-huitard', one who participated in the events of May 68. It is for that reason that I have had a very exciting time writing of the involvement of my young English protagonist, Grace, who finds herself in Paris at that time and gets drawn into the fight and the building of the barricades.

The subject is hugely complex and I will come back to it again between now and publication of the novel and again perhaps afterwards. Who knows? But I want to offer a brief resumé of what the revolution was about, rather than dates and details, and I hope that it will whet your appetite to discover more with me along the way.

In 1968, the US was in Vietnam. Americans and youngsters elsewhere in the world were beginning to voice their opposition to the US involvement in Asia. Young Americans were burning their draft cards, some were escaping the country to avoid being called up. For the first time in history a war was being relayed on a daily basis into our sitting rooms via television. The world could directly witness the killings, the violence and the sacrifice of lives, and many people were, quite understandably, horrified, appalled. The year previous, in 1967, in San Francisco, it was the Summer of Love, the Hippy Movement was making news worldwide, Make Love Not War. I found this video on Youtube that will take you back to San Francisco in 67. 

By 1968, there were movements of dissatisfaction breaking out all over the western world, marches against the war, a growing call for Peace. In France, the dissatisfaction went further, deeper. There was a fervent desire to change French society from within the system. Many were saying that the nineteenth century was a long time in ascent, meaning that they felt France was backward, had not moved into the modern world. The young were tired of De Gaulle, a right-wing military man. They were calling for changes to the educational system, describing it as outmoded and inefficient.They wanted fairer opportunities for the worker, the man in the street. Paris '68 began with the students and then it spread fast, when the Communists came on board, to include striking workers all across the country. By late May, close to eleven million people in mainland France were on strike. The country had, literally, come to a standstill and De Gaulle went, briefly, into hiding before he returned with resolve to crack down and break the back of the revolution. 
But he did not break its spirit, its resonances.

In 1968, the only TV stations operating in France were government controlled. If the Élysée did not approve of the information being broadcast, it did not go out. De Gaulle, his cronies, were monitoring, censoring the news. During the weeks of rioting in Paris, the only means for the young, and those involved in the fight, to learn what was actually going on was through two radio stations: Europe One and Radio Luxembourg. 

After several weeks, those working for the TV station also went on strike so no news of the revolution was being televised at all. At this time, Bruno Barbey (the photographer mentioned at the top of this page) got together with filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard to make short films. About 30 in total were shot. These were sent out to striking factories and cities throughout France, to keep the people informed. So the nation could see what was really going on in Paris. By this time, the movement was huge. 

Barbey said later that it was not easy to get their pictures out of France for the world to see what was happening. He worked for the prestigious Magnum Agency (later became its vice-president). Once every two days, a Magnum messenger riding an old BMW motorbike travelled to Brussels and from there the pictures were distributed worldwide.

I think one of the facts that has most astonished me during all the research I have been doing for the novel is to comprehend the reach of political censorship at that time in France. And this is one of the profound effects the revolution had on the country. France was opened up. Communication and dialogue between people of all classes became an urgency. De Gaulle and his government failed to rein this in. This is one of the major achievements of the 68 movement. 

Another aspect that has really shocked me was the level of police violence against the young, hence the building of the famous barricades. In order that the students and those fighting with them - because by May 6th/7th white collar workers and some of the university professors had joined the students - could protect themselves they spent nights building defences against the police. The amount of tear gas, the arrests, the convictions, the rescinding of the students' right to continue their studies is all very shocking to read about. You could believe these were the acts of a government in some Banana Republic, not France.

The night of 6th May was particularly violent. 600 people were wounded and 422 arrested, many taken to trial, a few losing their right to study. Again overnight on 10th May, the city, mostly on the Left Bank, was burning. Cars upturned, pavements dug up. The students were building barricades to protect themselves against the police weapons including rifles, the tear gas, the violence. Hundreds were hospitalised.

                            © Bruno Barbey. Student passing stones to build the barricades

One thinks of France - and I live here - as a liberal country. Certainly, more liberal than most. But French women were only able to vote for the first time in April 1945 after decades of campaigning. 1968 did a great deal to bring France into the late twentieth century. It proved itself to be a cultural and social revolution that had long lasting waves.

Bruno Queysanne, who at the time was an instructor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, said: "In the history of France it was a remarkable movement because it was truly a mass movement that concerned Paris but also the provinces, that concerned the intellectuals but also manual workers." Many living in France today say that it engulfed their lives, changed the way they perceived their society, gave a new emancipation to women. The sexual revolution was also a part of it. 

"The feeling we had in those days which has shaped my entire life," these words are taken from an essay written by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the most prominent of the student leaders of that time (and now a member of the European Green Party), "was, We're Making History. An exalted feeling - suddenly we had become agents in world history."

Not only the cars, but life in France had been upended. It would never be the same again.

I so wish I had been there, but as I wasn't I have buried myself in my novel in the skin of a young Englishwoman, Grace, and through her eyes and passion, I have lived the experience.

Here are some photos from those amazing, heady days.

                              Renault workers on strike at Bologne-Billancourt 27th May '68

                                                                    © Bruno Barbey

                     Jean-Paul Sartre speaking to students within the occupied Sorbonne

All photographs  © Bruno Barbey and Magnum Photos


Unknown said...

All very true, especially about the long 19 th century for France. '68 was, in a way, the child of the 1870 Commune and the work that was briefly effected there. I often think the Labour laws the Communards passed still influence France and much of their manifesto was progressive. Marx watched and noted. I was in Paris in the autum of 1969 and everything had calmed down but you could feel the change, the freedom begining to trickle into lives. Your account of the censorship is terrifying. Voted for Dany Cohn Bandit as Green candidate for the EU and smiled to myself as I did so.

Miranda Miller said...

This is fascinating, Carol. I went on many marches against Vietnam in the sixties and early seventies and look forward to reading your book.