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On Contact: Paris Uprising, May 1968

On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to author and translator, Mitch Abidor, about the student uprising in Paris in May 1968.

Mitch Abidor’s book is entitled ‘May Made Me – An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France.’

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the lessons of the May 1968 uprising in France with Author, Mitch Abidor.

MA: What happens in May is as a mass cultural--as a class event, its results are ambiguous, but its results for the--for the individual are enormous and I--there was a great and really funny example in the book.  When I asked everybody, like, how did it change your life?  And so people talked about how, you know, I discovered my voice, you know, the first time I spoke, it changed my entire being.  There was one woman who I interviewed and I said “Like, how did it change your life?”  And she didn’t even have to think about it, she said “You know?  It was thanks to May that I participated in group sex.  I never would’ve done it without May.  But--so as a--as an--as an--as an event that would free individuals, it was an absolutely essential, uh, and successful event and if that was what it ever set out to do in whatever way, without planning, it was a huge success, but what doesn’t kill capital makes it stronger.  And I think May ‘68 is a perfect example of that. 

CH: In May 1968, France erupted in a nationwide revolt.  The revolt was triggered as many revolts and revolutions are by the seemingly trivial dorm visitation rights at the University of Nanterre.  Students of the university occupied buildings.  The university was shut down.  When students at the Sorbonne protested in support, violent clashes broke out with police.  The revolt exploded and so every factory in France, with 10 million workers, go out on wildcat strikes.  Schools were shut down, barricades were erected blocking city streets, police were attacked with bricks, stones, and Molotov cocktails, and yet this nationwide revolt failed, unable to finally radicalize workers or offer a governing alternative to the authoritarianism of French President, Charles de Gaulle.  The uprising opened space culturally for new forms of self-expression and space for the oppressed, including women and gays.  It provided some benefits for workers, raising wages, and improving working conditions.  But because it never seriously threatened or altered the capitalist structures of power, it collapsed under its own weight.  The question of how revolution succeed and fail is one I will discuss with Mitch Abidor, the author of “May Made Me”, an oral history of the 1968 uprising in France.  The book is important for those on the left.  You picked right the people, and what’s even more important, you asked the right questions.  And so I want to kind of go through this popular revolt, which, unlike revolts in the United States, Berkeley, it was a nationwide phenomenon, which included the working class, so the working class was hostile in the 1960s, to progressive radical antiwar movements.  But let’s begin with, I think, one which I mentioned in the intro, this idea that what triggers a revolt of this magnitude is often so banal.

MA: Uh-hmm.  Right.  Because, you know, as you said, it begins at Nanterre.  I mean the real activism begins at Nanterre.

CH: Let me just--for people who don’t know what Nanterre.  So, just a quick, is in the west of Paris.  It’s soulless, horrible, like most French college campuses, and you had had up until World War II only a tiny percentage of the French public had a college education and that was almost exclusively for the elites, and elite institutions like ENS and the Sorbonne [INDISTINCT] and so they expanded these big universities.  So, you have--but it’s not like an American University, the conditions are awful and terrible overcrowding both in the classrooms, everywhere else.  So.

MA: So, the, you know, the University in Nanterre is open to offload some of the crowding from the Sorbonne, from the Latin Quarter.  As you said soulless campus, west of Paris, in the middle of a--of a slum, but what happens is, unlike people who are in the--in the Latin Quarter where they had many opportunities, they can go to bookstores, they can go to millions of cafes, when you’re at Nanterre, that’s it.  You’re out there, you have to take the suburban train to get there.  So, what happens is, the people who were, like, on the left of the certain left, all gather together and they spend all their time together.  So, the first issue that comes up in 1967 was at Nanterre, but also in [INDISTINCT] and a couple of other universities was the right to visit each other’s dorms.

CH: Male, female?

MA: Male, female.  So, this is like the beginning of like real activism.  Then there’s a number of small incidents that follow.  There’s--I think it was in January of ‘68, the minister of youth and sport, there was really a minister of youth and sport, goes to Nanterre to inaugurate a pool.  Cohn-Bendit who, at the time, is still not the big celebrity, confronts the minister for ignoring youth sexuality.  The minister says “Well, you need to go take a swim in the pool and then you won’t have to worry about sexuality.”  He calls him--Cohn-Bendit calls him a fascist.  So now things are really bubbling up.  There’s the incident at the Cinematheque when Malraux fires the head of Cinematheque.

CH: It’s the minister of--minister of culture, Andre Malraux.

MA: Right.  Minister of culture fires the head of the Cinematheque, Henri Langlois.  There’s demonstrations there.  Cohn-Bendit takes part in it.  Then comes March.  And on March 20th, there’s a antiwar demonstration near the opera at…

CH: It should be just--the Vietnam War is a huge issue in France.  They have just come out of a horrific war with Algeria.

MA: Right.  And there had been an antiwar--a European antiwar converse in February in Berlin where people had shared methods and some French have been there.  So, there was--there’s this demonstration, it turned sour, windows get smashed, people from Nanterre get arrested.  Two days later, March 22nd, the students occupy the administrative tower.  So, this is where the March 22nd movement, which would become the essential part of the student activism, got its name and got its beginnings.  Months go by, this stuff continues to go on, little things here and there, and then finally on May 3rd, the students gather in the courtyard of the Sorbonne.

CH: Which is in the center of Paris.

MA: In the center--in the--right in the heart of the--of the left bank and the police are called in.  And I interviewed a number of people who were there and they can’t explain why, but this was just like one thing too many.  And they started throwing stones.  And it was from there that everything set off.  So, it was a series of little things plus the international context that got everything going.

CH: And yet these pressures that erupted in these series of little things, as you call them, the pressures were [INDISTINCT] underneath within the French society, very similar to what’s building in the kind of subterranean bowels of American society, I think, including the extremely difficult time for university graduates to find employment.  So, talk a little bit about what was happening in France at the time.

MA: So, at this point, it’s--we’re 10 years into de Gaulle’s rule.  And even though France is in the middle of what’s--what they call the 30 glorious years of the expansion of the economy, nevertheless, France remains a surprisingly repressive society and it was something that frankly I was surprised when I interviewed people, it was almost a uniform across France, where women talked about how there were gatherings every year--every year from their--in their schools where they were assigned a future husband, you know?  And what you--what you could wear and where you could go, all of these was weighing on French youth just as it was weighing on youth all over the--in--all over Europe and in the--and in the US.  Now, the French, though, were also very much aware of what was going on here with the counterculture and the student movement, Berkeley, the antiwar movement.  And in April, the occupation of Columbia.  And all of this is showing them that there’s a different way to be and to act.  So, all of these fed into French discontent, the discontent of the French young towards this old man, de Gaulle who was ruling them, as one of the people I interviewed said “As if France--it was as if France was Salazar’s Portugal.”  Salazar the kind of fascist ruler of a very catholic Portugal.

CH: Well, he had a degree fascism in him, de Gaulle, didn’t he?

MA: Well, you know, I think that gets…

CH: Certainly authoritarianism, right?

MA: Authoritarianism, yes, right.

CH: And so it erupts without a clearer agenda.  I mean--and there’s a point in the book where it’s--you were interviewing workers and they take over a factory and nobody knows what their demands are.  You talk about three different types of movements in the May uprising because we do see, unlike in the United States, I wouldn’t call it workers solidarity because you make it very clear from the interviews in the books that there was a huge disconnect.  I mean even animosity between the student leadership and the student movement and the working class and yet nevertheless workers do--they paralyze France.  So, talk about those three different strains within the uprising.

MA: Right.  So, first and foremost, there was the student movement, we just discussed them.  And the workers, when things begin in France, when the--when the movement begins on May 3rd and then quickly spreads across the universities of France, the workers don’t do anything.  And in fact on the very day the uprising began on May 3rd, the--there was a lead editorial L’Humanite, the French Communist Party Newspaper, that talked about--it was entitled “The Fake Revolutionaries to be unmasked” attacking the students already.  It hadn’t yet begun.  And that was where they famously called Cohn-Bendit a German anarchist.

CH: Yeah.  So Cohn-Bendit is Danny the Red.

MA: Danny the Red.  Danny the Red.

CH: The leader at Nanterre?

MA: Right.  And who would become the symbol both for good and evil of May ‘68.  So, the students--the workers really don’t do anything in the--in that first week.  And then on May 10th 1968, a Friday night, demonstration goes on and ends with the famous night of the barricades, the images that we have that are for example on the cover of the book.

CH: That’s where they’re ripping down the trees?

MA: Ripping down the trees and burning cars and building barricades all through--well, for the most part, on a couple of streets in the Latin Quarter.  And so this goes on and it’s a--it’s a violent night, but this leaves the workers finally to say we need to join the fray.  They meet over the weekend.  And on May 13th, the following Monday, a general strike is called.

CH: Although is--am I correct in that in many of these factories, it was not necessarily led by the union leadership?

MA: Well…

CH: It just--it was kind of spontaneous.

MA: Well, you know, the situation was different in every factory even in different workshops within the same factory and in different regions.  But it was on May 13th that all the union federations called for a general strike.  And so May 13th, there are these massive demonstrations of workers and students.  So, now you would think we have the workers and the students marching together but it was, as it was pointed out to me by the founder of the main Trotskyist group that even though the workers and the students were marching at the same time, in the same place, they weren’t marching for the same thing.

CH: And they were watching separately as entities.

MA: Well, and…

CH: And they may have been in one, but I think you write in the book about how the workers would have all their own banners be in--and the students would be in another kind of part of the…

MA: And it was terrible--there were terrible fights every time there was a mass demonstration of who would lead it, and where it would go, and who would speak where.  And it was one of the, you know, one of the things that Cohn-Bendit said was he was really happy--I think it was the May 13th demonstration, I was walking at the head of the demonstration and those Stalinist scoundrels were walking in the back referring to the communists.

CH: And when--we’ll continue with this one when we come back.  When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about rebellion and revolt with Mitch Abidor.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation with Mitch Abidor about the 1968 Paris Uprising.

MA: So we have--so the workers and the students seemingly marching together, but in fact they really weren’t.  So, they occupy the same space but not really there for the same thing because whereas the students had all these utopian demands, you know, be realistic, demand the impossible.  The workers who--when they--when they’re finally on strike, and then the--in the--in the coming days that the occupations would start, they’re really fighting for material demands, for bread and butter demands, for an end to de Gaulle, and for increased human--union rights.  And so there’s really this failure to connect between the two of them…

CH: Well, you--in the book, you say--the differences between the quantitative demands of the workers, and the students who want to completely change society.

MA: Right.  And the--as it was explained to me by a group of communist that I interviewed in the--in [INDISTINCT] area in Brittany that the communist’s--from the--from the communist’s point of view…

CH: This is the third arm.  Now the communist was…

MA: No, no, the communists are within the working class one.

CH: Right, but--sure, but the--but it’s the--you said three Mays.

MA: Right, we’ll get to the third one.

CH: And--but I just want to say that in the eyes of the students, the communist party is seen as a reactionary.

MA: Absolutely.

CH: Reactionary obstructionist…

MA: Absolutely.

CH: …force.

MA: Absolutely.

CH: And explain why.

MA: Well, because this…

CH: And we should also be clear, the Communist Party in France is a powerful…

MA: Is a powerful party.

CH: …especially in the labor unions.

MA: It gets 20% of the votes still at the time.  And so for them, the--for the students, the communists were preventing the workers from being as radical as they could be, whereas--as I’ve come to view it, after my conversation with communists and further--and reading on the topic, that I think that these--that the communists saw that the situation was the workers were--was simply not interested in overthrowing society, and given that it was de Gaulle that was in power, what they could--even what they could get as the material gains was limited.  In 1936, there have been massive strikes where there’s a popular front government led by Leon Blum, and they’ve gotten terrific, enormous concessions from the--from the government and the employers, but that was a socialist government.  Under de Gaulle, as far as the communists were concerned, there was a limit to what they could get and also the situation wasn’t nearly as revolutionary as the students saw it to be because there was the third France that you mentioned, which is what we--what we called in America the silent majority.

CH: And who--and we should--who become not so silent on…

MA: Exactly.

CH: Was it May 30th…

MA: May 30th.  May 30th.  So they just kind of…

CH: Explain what happened on it.

MA: Right, so the--so, we’re not hearing much from this other France.  The--and always seeing on the news or--our whole image of it is the students and then their stones, and the workers with the red flags over the factories.  On May 30th, after much activity, de Gaulle dissolves parliament.  But on that same day, there had already been plans for pro-de Gaulle demonstration.  And it turned out to be the single largest demonstration during the events of May and June, half a million people on the Champs-Elysees in support of de Gaulle.  And there were people who I interviewed who said, “Well, you know, there really weren’t a half a million people…”

CH: Right, they get--so that people would come from the back and walk around to the front.

MA: Right, but…

CH: But in fact there were.

MA: There were.  There were.  And when you watch the films of it, it’s really quite--you know, it’s an astounding thing.  And it was an astounding thing for most of the people I interviewed who were convinced that all of France was behind them, and so it was really a shock to them to see a half a million people coming out who had said nothing over the courses.  Now part of that has to do--so they--there--those were the three Frances.  And in the end, it would be third France that would carry the day.

CH: Well, in fact, France, after this whole event, swings right.

MA: Well, right.  If--what happens is when the--when the elections are held because de Gaulle has dissolved parliament, elections are held at the end of June, and every--or the whole left loses power, de Gaulle gains seeds in parliament.  Because--and some of this was doubtless because the people--the silent majority, and many people of France, felt that the choice come June in the elections is de Gaulle or Cohn-Bendit.

CH: Anarchy, really.

MA: Right.  And given the choice, even though, you know, many people--even people on the right were tired of de Gaulle.  I mean, 10 years of de Gaulle is a long time.  But given the choice and given the choice of cars burning every couple of weeks, and order, the mass of--the majority of the population went for no more cars burning.

CH: Well, I think that you have a line in there, you quote somebody who says there’s--in the beginning of May, there’s somebody who says, “Go ahead and burn my car.”

MA: Right, exactly.

CH: And at the end of May, he says, “I’m going to vote for whoever protects my car.”

MA: Exactly.

CH: So you posit this question, which is an important one.  You say it’s the central question and it is.  And that is whether revolution in the west is possible.

MA: Right.

CH: “ If we were to say that a revolution is an uprising that results in the overturning of the power structure and a change in the ownership of the means of production, then May obviously wasn’t one, not only because it failed to accomplish either of these things, but because there is no indication that the seizure of power was ever even seriously considered.”  And that, for me, is the crucial point here as to why this uprising was doomed from the start.  Talk about that issue and whether revolution in the west is possible.

MA: Well, the--what several people spoke about was when these marches would go through Paris, and they would walk past government buildings…

CH: Some of them very lightly-guarded that they could’ve easily taken..

MA: Exactly.

CH: Minster of--minister of justice.

MA: Right.  A couple of cops standing in front of it and that’s it.  And yet…

CH: Well, Lenin would’ve know what do to.

MA: But they didn’t have a Lenin and, you know, although in one of Cohn-Bendit’s books, he talks about how, you know, we should’ve done it, just as an exemplary act.  But the fact is, it didn’t occur to people that because some of this--I--it’s got to do with the fact that there was such a strong anarchist presence in May ‘68, so the state is not the thing that they’re going to be focused on.  But it was even, you know, and [INDISTINCT] the leader of the Trotskyists, spoke about how it never even occurred to us to do this.  And--because like so many revolutions, it just starts up, and it then moves under its own power in a certain direction and the direction of this one was really not towards state power.  If you look at the student demands, they were so focused on the individual, and on freeing the individual, and on freeing speech, that the notion of seizing power, which just really didn’t occur…

CH: But it ends up like the movement in the 1960s, having a significant cultural effect in liberating people from, like, the strictures of--I mean, that gave rise to the feminist movement, more understanding and then tolerance for the gay community, et cetera.  And I think at one point in the book, you talk about it starting as a cultural event becoming--was it a political--and then going back to being a cultural.  So it has a cultural effect.  But as you point out somewhere here, capitalism adapts quite effectively to cultural changes.  As long as you don’t touch the means of production, they can accommodate and that’s precisely what happened here and happened there.

MA: Right.  And it was, you know, the fact--one of the things that struck me was, I was wondering--I wondered and I asked people, “Did you really need all this to get to the cultural revolution that we had over the course of the process of the’60s?”  And some people said, “You know, you might have something there, Mitch.”  But there was Jean-Jacques Lebel, an artist, an avant-garde artist who spent much time--much of his youth in America said, “I shouldn’t make the mistake of confusing America and France that a fluid society like America can make those kind of cultural changes in a way that a hierarchical, sclerotic society like France couldn’t--needed that explosion to get to those cultural changes.”  But as other people said--you know, there was one woman who I interviewed who--slightly older, she even participated in the movement against the war in Algeria in the ‘60s, that while we were, like, so happy with all this stuff and we thought we were attaining cultural hegemony, capital was looking out for the main interest, which was protecting their own interest, solidifying capitalism, and making the kind of concessions that don’t really cost anything.

CH: Right, that’s right.  To keep capitalist consume power.

MA: Exactly, you know--you know…

CH: I want to--before we end, you bring up Max Stirner, “The Ego and Its Own.”  And I think that’s an important point, I’ll let you make it.

MA: Right, because what happens in May is as a mass cultural--as a class event, its results are ambiguous, but its results for the--for the individual are enormous, and there was a great and really funny example in the book when I asked everybody, like, “How did it change your life?”  And so people talked about how, you know, I discovered my voice, you know, the first time I spoke, it changed my entire being.  There was one woman who I interviewed and I said, like, “How did it change your life?”  And she didn’t even have to think about it, she said, “You know, it was thanks to May that I participated in group sex.  I never would’ve done it without May.”  But--so as a--as an--as an--as an event that would free individuals, it was an absolutely essential, uh, and successful event and if that was what it ever set out to do in whatever way, without planning, it was a huge success, but what doesn’t kill capital makes it stronger.  And I think May ‘68 is a perfect example of that.  And it’s one of the things that really struck me as I was doing the interviews, many of the people I interviewed in Paris anyways, I interviewed people all over, I had to pass through Place de la Republique and every day, I had to walk through the square, and there was a banner hanging in the front of a building that said, in English, “Learn Wall Street English,” and I thought that this was a perfect summation of the ultimate failure of a revolution, that when you don’t win, you really lose.

CH: That was Mitch Abidor, author of “May Made Me, An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France.”