Tag Archives: France

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.


I Love Paris in the Springtime: May 1968. Part I

9 May

By J.F.

J.F. was born and raised in France and came to the United States in 1974 for a visit, where she met her husband. She has been living in Los Angeles since 1975.  She teaches high school ESL and French. She is still very much interested in social movements and in politics. Her background and family definitely shaped her values, while the sixties were formative years in her understanding of the world.

Paris 1968

Part I

It was at my cousin’s communion that May ‘68 started for me. The situation that led to the general strike had started earlier and we were all following events intensely, but things got to a boiling point on that day.

I remember a heated discussion with my grandmother. She supported Charles de Gaulle, who was a flashpoint of the rebellion, representing the stale Old World. Politics must have come up and points of view about the student rebellion must have been exchanged. I was definitely on the side of the students, and my family and relatives in general were fairly supportive, except my grandmother, who was a Gaullist. I was 15 years old at the time and the oldest of the grandchildren. Some of my cousins and I were participating in the “grownup” discussion.

Just before came the March 22 Movement, of which Daniel Cohn-Bendit was the leader. He was in Nanterre at a new university in an old working class neighborhood outside Paris. It was next to a large shantytown, and the students protested conditions in the university and injustices in the society such as the low minimum wage.

What had started as a student movement very quickly extended to the working class even though the Communist Party and the trade unions were very skeptical about a movement that had originated with middle-class kids.  Because it included both students and workers, it was a potent movement.

Late in the evening, I was in my uncle’s car and we were taking back to his place one of his nephews who was a pastry chef apprentice in Paris at the time.  His name was Jean-Claude and he was my age.  It was dark and on the way we passed by the entrance of a factory displaying a red flag and a banner:  On Strike.  There were workers still there since the strike was tied to occupation of the workplace.

Paris 1968.ComiteInternational

On Monday I went back to my school, which turned out to be on strike too with occupation by students and faculty. I did not know it had been decided since I had not gone to my Saturday morning classes as usual due to the family gathering on the occasion of my cousin’s communion.

I had to decide whether to leave or stay and participate in the activities. I stayed with some trepidation, not knowing what to expect. I was aware that this was an unusual, history-in-the-making kind of event, and I had no idea where it could lead.  The student rebellion in Paris had had some fairly dramatic development already as reported in the news.

My family did not have a TV and our source of information was the radio and the newspaper.  We were assiduous radio listeners, especially at the news hour.  At the time my parents listened to a station, Europe 1, whose transmitter was located outside France, since only state-controlled stations were allowed on French territory, and the contents of their news could be censored by the government.  There was a censorship commission, which was abolished after May ‘68 (this was one of the results of the uprising).

Day after day I went back to my high school.  I remember intense and heated discussions about anything and everything.  We were all a little dizzy with what was going on and were very intent on remaking the world.  The Chinese Cultural Revolution was big among students.  Mao’s Little Red Book was well-known even if we had not read it.  What we knew about the Chinese experiment sounded very interesting and different from Stalinist communism.  The remaking of society, going after the establishment, making manual labor noble and worthy, the idea of communities being able to sustain themselves industrially and agriculturally, all of this had been topics for discussion, and not only among the youth.  There was the liberation movement in South America.  We all had read about all this, heard discussions and listened to intellectuals argue about it.


In school and outside, a lot of flyers and publications were handed out.  There were different tendencies and they all had their printing presses going.  I had to learn quickly about the different acronyms, distinguish between Trotskyists, Maoists, anarchists, and the rest.  One main subject was the police repression going on in Paris, with stories about beatings and interrogations at police centers.  I met students who were in the same school as I, but whom I had never met before.  Some teachers were present too.  I remember my French teacher participating in a discussion on that Monday when I returned.  Others who later would be my economics teachers in 11th and 12th grades were there too.

We would be addressed as “comrade.”  I supposed some of them were already active in the Communist Youth.  The Communist Party was very active in my city, which had had a Communist mayor and city council since 1935.  However, in May 1968, the party was fairly discredited because of its disdain for the student movement.  (It got even worse during the summer with the repression of the “Prague Spring.”)  It tried to make up for lost time, and when we were not allowed to go into the school anymore to “occupy” our classrooms, city hall gave us permission to relocate to the public library.  We all walked down the street with some students monitoring to make sure we were going in an orderly manner.

At the same time the school scene culminated with a student-led forum one evening, to which parents were invited.  I attended with my mother.  A lot of people were present.  I believe we must have explained to them what it was that we wanted.  No, I can’t remember the details, just that it went well and excitement was in the air.   [To be continued next time]