Tag Archives: de Gaulle

I Love Paris in the Springtime: May 1968, Part 2, by J.F.

12 May

I had become “politicized” back in middle school around the issues of the war in Vietnam and nuclear disarmament. In fact, opposition to the War in Vietnam was very strong in France and there were many demonstrations protesting American imperialism.  I never went to any of them, but my family did have the news on, as I have said, and the reports from Vietnam we heard were—to my ears—heart-wrenching.  It just seemed that the horror would never end.  The assassination of Martin Luther King was a big blow too.  It seemed that the United States was going in the wrong direction.  The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy later in June was another devastating piece of news.  Coming shortly after what I considered the defeat of “our” movement, it affected me tremendously.  I remember talking to a girl whom I had met during the “occupation” of the school, and we were both quite depressed over it.

At the same time my political awareness was growing, I had become more aware of the cultural shift happening in the sixties.  In 1966 when I was in eighth grade, my family had decided to visit my grandfather’s homeland (Yugoslavia).  We contacted his living relatives in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.  Since it was kind of on the way, my parents decided to extend the trip all the way to Istanbul through northern Greece.  (My grandfather’s hometown is about 16 kilometers from the border.)  We were camping most of the time unless hosted by the relatives.  This was quite an eye opener for me.  We discovered a world we had never thought existed in Europe.  This was 1966 and globalization had not hit yet, so countries still had their own flavors and people were genuinely interested in meeting each other.  The youth, especially with the advance in transportation and, let’s face it, more affluence, hit the roads of Europe and elsewhere, in search of ….  I feel that these encounters were important because they reminded us that material comfort is not an end in  itself, that life has other purposes.  We met people on their way to Iran, Afghanistan, India.  The world was so open then.  There was none of the fear we have now.

We picked up a hitchhiker in Kosovo.  We usually did not do that, because with three kids in the back of our Peugeot 403, there was not much room.  This time it was different because we knew there were so few cars on the road he would have to wait a long while before being picked up.  He was a student in Paris and was taking advantage of his long vacation (at that time university ended in May and started in October!) to hitchhike through Europe.  He was on his way to Greece.  The road was barely existent and we must have driven at about 20 miles per hour.  We passed by Gypsies (as they were called at the time) on horseback and drove along steep riverbanks on one side and mountain on the other.  It was beautiful and very wild.  The hitchhiker slept in our car once we got to Skopje [Macedonia] and we spent the night in a hotel.  The city was still recovering from the 1963 earthquake, and there were ruins of buildings and the plaster of our hotel displayed some very worrisome cracks.

All this and what was going on in the United States had a lot of influence on the “Zeitgeist” of the times.  Young people were following very closely what was happening across the Atlantic.  American protest songs were known (and sometimes sung in translation!).  Also we were aware of what was happening (in a fuzzy way) on U.S. campuses and streets.  There was this program on the radio station I mentioned called Europe 1 that I listened to a lot.  Its name was “Campus.”  It gave us a lot of info about the United States, the music, the whole scene.

To go back to May ‘68,  in the end it was depressing. At the end of May there was a big pro-De Gaulle demonstration on the Champs Elysées.  The government did come to the negotiation table with the unions and some good things—not negligible if you were a worker—such as raising the minimum wage, did happen.  De Gaulle left the following year after losing a referendum, but his replacement—Pompidou—was certainly not an improvement.  In fact, he nearly destroyed Paris in his attempt to make it “modern.”

Paris 1968.Demo       Paris 1968.Je vote      LEE1968015W00001-01

We didn’t change the world after all. When Robert Kennedy was assassinated, we knew the Vietnam War would continue. After World War II there had been a lot of idealism, but in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the road diverged like in Frost’s poem, the one the world took and the other not taken.  Idealism still survived for a while:  some youth became involved in organizing in the factories.  Others, such as the Red Brigades (though not too much in France) turned to armed rebellion. And there was also the counter-culture movement with its back-to-nature communes. But mainly one could feel that the “affluent” society and its emphasis on consumerism had won. Even though it took a while for all the sparks to die, it eventually happened.

And we all grew up.