Mai 68

This month marks 50 years since the events of May 1968 brought the winds of social change to France.

It started out with the students. Their protests against capitalism and consumer society soon led to general strikes, demonstrations, occupations and violent clashes with police.

President de Gaulle fled for fear of seeing the Elysée Palace overrun; despite rumours that he would resign he held on. Still, at the end of may, with half a million protesters in the streets of Paris and in order to avoid a civil war, he dissolved the government and called for an election in the following month.

Talkin’ about a revolution.

The following year, 1969, those same winds continued to blow on the other side of the Atlantic. It had started in 1967 with the protests against the draft and the war in Vietnam but the unrest picked up speed that year. My parents had just moved our family from Canada to the U.S. At twelve years old, I was too young to fully appreciate what was going on in Woodstock, but I remember being riveted by the songs of revolution. And living state-side in Minneapolis as I saw first hand what it meant to be American. We had to pledge allegiance to the flag at school. I placed my hand on my heart but never bothered to learn all the words.

Half a century later, you have to wonder: have we learned anything at all? The world has surely undergone many a revolution in the past 50 years, perhaps the biggest of all being our entry into the information age. So much has changed, and yet so little. Social injustice, the waves of migrants displaced by war, the violence of governments against their people…

Perhaps one thing that has changed is that communication technology is making it harder for any one group to own the information. The change has been slower to come here in France but, as explained in this report from the BBC, it has taken the wind from the sails of the strikes this year. People are able to see which trains are running and adapt accordingly. They are increasingly allowed to work from home. The government has been able to monitor, and surely influence, the news flow.

Of course, the other side of information is misinformation. The attention economy. Fake news. A new battle is being waged, and our minds are the battle field. Sadly, many wander into the war entirely unprepared. Media literacy is all too scarce. Manipulation of naïve souls is all too easy.

There is a tendency in France to think of the events of ‘68 as a purely French phenomenon. It was a time of profound change that brought the sexual revolution, women’s liberation and workers’ rights. But the times, they were a-changing around the world. And the impact of those changes is still being felt today.

Where were you in May 1968?

27 thoughts on “Mai 68

  1. In 68 there was also Prague Spring, not a little event actually ! And even in France people who are not American-like remember Chicago August 68,riots around the Democrats Convention .
    Obviously in this year 68 all around the planet a voice was saying “Hey Earthlings ! What about a deeep change of your attitude in front of life ?”
    It was our last opportunity, it seems to me . May 68 in France is the last “General strike”, the whole country blocked in every field – I remember, as a kid it was weird and fun . A general strike is thorically meant to become an insurrectional strike leading to a revolution, ie a fundamental change of the political and social system . But in France, not more than elsewhere the collective mind did not listen to the voice eventually . And here we are .
    For a bit of dream, or rather a bit of memories of dreams :

    1. Thanks for that memory, Phil. I had completely forgotten about this wonderful song but in fact, it was one I used to sing with a friend who played guitar back in those days when we hung around outside school. The history is all a bit of a blur…Prague Spring? Historically challenged me? I’ve heard of it, of course, but in those days it might’ve been another planet. 😫 As for ’68, you were lucky to be able to live that experience. What memories!

      1. Always pleased to please you Mel ! 😊
        In Prague they tried to get rid of the URSS yoke and in the end Russians tanks invaded the city . In Chicago the youth tried to promote their anti-war candidate to the Democrat Convention and the “Leroys” hit and arrested them by thousands . We here were very aware of all this, it was worthy since it looked like a planetary wind .
        The French touch : here no need for dictatorial repression, the perennial betrading by the leading bodies of every proletarian parties and unions was enough for abortion .

  2. I was 17, I was in love with the music and with the hippy philosophy of Free Love ( well, who likes paying?) and in revolt, certainly I was revolting ( nothing new there then).
    50 years later, I’m still in love with the music, and with the hippy philosophy of Make Love not War but little came of it.My generation who should have been the saviors instead became the politicians of today and we still have wars, still cause wars, have greed and currently have the most petty American president of all time who tweets his way through the day, appoints people to positions which they oppose (ie The Environment) and may be on the point of creating more strife in the Middle East.It’s time for a Hippy comeback with people committed to genuine change for the better.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    1. Why pay indeed? You are certainly not revolting to me! 😆 No surprise that you fell in live with music – your weekly updates are always filled with great tunes that bring back memories for me. How on earth do you manage to keep them all in mind? Maybe I sampled too much of the good old peace and love….🌿🚬

  3. I read an interesting article about how the unions and students kind of talked past each other–both wanted de Gaulle out, but they had different visions of the future. In looking for that, I found another article, full of amazing photos. Both in the New York Times:

    One of my neighbors was 12 and living in Paris in 1968. She still talks about how exciting it was.
    I was pretty little then and remember only a couple of things: “The Age of Aquarius” on the radio and the assassination of Martin Luther King.

    1. Two huge memories from my youth as well. Paris in ‘68 as as 12-yr-old must have been memorable indeed. Thanks for the NYT articles, will definitely give them a read!

  4. I was still in school, but I have a feeling we learned the phrase ‘manning the barricades’ from the French students.

    I also remember a feeling of both anger and pride that we, meaning my generation, were going to make the world a better place. It was a time of passion and commitment and hope. Oddly enough, the protests all over the world /now/ have revived those feelings of hope. For such a long time I felt as if we all stopped caring. I don’t want to see /any/ bloodshed, but I do want to see citizens of the world standing up for each other instead of turning a blind eye to all that needs to be fixed…-cough- I’m not a revolutionary, really I’m not!

    1. I remember the shock I had in 1980 when on French TV we saw American STUDENTS demonstrating in the streets shouting “Bomb Iran !” . To me it was more than a shock; for the last American students I watched were demonstrating to stop the war in Vietnam . For me collective hope ended when the 70s ended, and in France too mind you .

      1. Yeah, the 80s brought Reaganomics, Thatcher, a new wave of consumerism and the hippy generation somehow converted that energy into material things. I say we but hope you know I would never have been among those in the streets advocating for war. 😇

    2. I remember this sense of changing the world, even though I was a tad young for the hippy generation. It seems sad that all that passion and commitment has fallen into cynicism or ‘slack-tivism’. Yet while I share the beliefs of that generation, I certainly don’t devote my life to changing anything either. Guess I have a rebel spirit but no revolutionary drive. *Sigh*

      1. lol – trust me, I have no revolutionary drive either. I think I’ve attended just two protests in my entire life, one when I was very young and the second a couple of years ago [climate change]. But as I’ve grown older I’ve given myself permission not to self-censor. Now, when I see something that strikes me as unjust, I write about it.
        Honestly, I doubt that my written words make much of a difference anywhere, but I figure that cultural mores as made up of lots and lots of small acts so maybe mine have some value as well. 🙂

  5. Revolution is necessary for progress and does not need to be violent. Your excellent piece highlights the best and worst of the revolts we are experiencing at the moment. It will surely take many moons for mere humans to really be able to cope with the sheer speed of information transfer and the volume of it that bubbles in the social media cauldrons, let alone to actually, truthfully be able to decipher truth from fiction. Troubling it is. In 1968 I was mostly 7-8 and the only vivid and pertinent memory I have was the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Of course MLK went first but that didn’t penetrate my young world, the reason Kennedy did was quite simply that my birth name is Kennedy and my father was away on business. The headline ‘Kennedy Dead’ in the morning paper had me quaking with fear because I imagined it was daddy. I didn’t voice my dread but instead refused to eat and didn’t sleep for several nights until he mysteriously came back from the dead and carried on as if nothing monumental had happened at all.

    1. It’s funny, although I was clearly a few years ahead, the whole politics of that era really went over my head. I just thought: ‘Burn the bra? Yeah!’ ‘Get high? Yeah!’ ‘Ban the draft? Yeah!’ As for Kennedy, it was also my mother’s maiden name. She loved JFK – guess that handsome persona combined with shared Irish Catholic roots spoke to her. I remember her weeping in front of the TV for JFK, for Bobby and for MLK. What a traumatic memory for a child to fear it was her own father. 😰 Seems no matter where you were in those years, they left their mark in one way or another.

      1. So way back in the darkest of dark our ancestors may have been kin. Did you know that when the clan got too big it was split into three … Red Kennedys, Yellow Kennedys and Brown Kennedys. I am one of the brown ones. I was fond of telling people in that era that Kennedy Drive, a newish street in our village was named after my father which of course the gullible sucked up and I got cachet for. I never let onto daddy – he would have been appalled. And as a further nugget – the name Kennedy actually means ‘Ugly Head’ a fact which caused me much grief when revealed by a class conducting an afternoon assembly at Secondary School decided to treat us gathered to the meanings of various teachers names …. our Maths teacher was called Roy Kennedy – the shame of the revelation scarred me for life!!!

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful and memory-provoking words and images. I was in a similar life situation, as in May ’68 my family had moved us back to the states after a few years living in Europe.
    Changing cultures during those times overshadowed the changes for me, being less than 10 years old.
    For me, it was a time of new beginnings and slow endings, blending Star Trek with the French Riviera, vestiges of World War II, and all within what seemed to me to be a grand adventure.
    The US was strange to me, especially because we returned to the states to live in Tennessee for a year. In those days, the relatively moderate folks of this part of the South were only then starting to put into place the desegregation of schools. Yes, racial separation was a big part of that local life. On arriving, one of the neighbor boys told me: “You’re going to the black school!” as if it were a shocking calamity. As it turned out, all kids in that Nashville area were to ride buses in a great mixing. And, my class only included two black kids, as all the others had been scattered far and wide.
    Moving from Tennessee to a part of California which would become known as Silicon Valley, it felt natural to me that a new flowering would combine technology with understanding and compassion. My optimistic view then was that a blending of cultures through a freer flow of information would enlighten the xenophobic that their humanity was not only their own.
    We might imagine that these times were singular, and yet didn’t France’s own Victor Hugo foretell it? In the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the church and government struggle with fears that giving education and literacy to the masses will have them lose control.
    In the late 70’s, many US newscasters voiced similar fears to congress that news would be out of their (and the government’s) control with the blossoming of the Internet. They foretold of a future rife with misinformation and uncontrolled information and a reeling populace who may not know the difference.
    Taking the longer view of historical times, while any moment may seem pivotal, in truth they’re part of the longer march of humanity. Will the human condition change? Will we advance or will we fall back into the same dysfunction we’ve experienced over the thousands of years?

    1. Thanks to you for chiming in with such rich memories and thoughtful comments. Clearly a cross-cultural move at that age is formative. Canada to the US for me was all the harder for being subtle. We are near neighbours but so very different in many ways. How interesting to have lived in Europe, first of all, then to move back to Tennessee during the period of desegregation. I remember hearing about busing and thinking: how awful! It was certainly for a good cause but school is hard enough on kids without making them feel like fish out of water.
      Your view of history as a continuum is very much in line with my own. Our insights come in waves, then seem to pull back and repeat. You raise some good questions — wish I had the answers. 🤔

  7. In May 1968, I was 10. To be honest, I don’t think the French situation then registered on my radar screen. The assassinations of Martin Luther King in April and Bobby Kennedy in June of the same year seemed to resonate more. This may be an indictment of British TV reporting at the time, which, let’s face it, was restricted to BBC and ITV. Having said that, I wonder if news reporting is any less biased or more accurate now than it was then. Having gone from a paucity of news media choice to an explosion at the other end of the spectrum, it’s very difficult for the lay person to navigate a course. If mai 1968 happened today, how would social media affect the outcome?

    1. True enough! I don’t think the events in France bleeped at all on our North American radar. As you point out, there was a lot going on that year… I think the diversity of information available today is only helpful to the media savvy who know where to find it, measure it and weigh it up in the balance. Sadly, a tiny minority. Social media have already proven to be dangerously subject to manipulation, so if May 68 happened now it would definitely have an impact. It is also interesting to wonder: how would the French resistance have used it?

      1. I sometimes thought about this, and I think with satelllites and drones the French resistance, any resistance, would not have had a chance , not more than Robin Hood . That’s why I deeply dislike electronics . About the internet, it’s a mean of feeding weak brains with any garbage as we can see . Considering the world is owned and ruled by soulless criminals I deeply dislike the internet too, because every progress in technology brings more nuisances than advantages .
        The sacred beast François Rabelais, XVIth century writer and alchemist, wrote “Science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul” . I’d add “eventually “ruin of mankind” I’m afraid .

  8. In May 1968 I was in the third year of high school and certainly socially aware enough to feel the winds of change blowing through the Western world.

    So many things that we now take for granted had their seeds sown back then and, as a generation, us children of the fifties really thought we were going to rock the world.

    In time of blatant sexism, homophobia, institutionalised class and racial prejudices, warmongering and political corruption we truly look forward, rather than backward, as just about every generation before us had done.
    OK, some of us achieved real victories; the rest of us ride on their coat tails congratulating outrsleves on making a difference.
    Those times seem so long passed. The spirit diluted by time and trials and the reality of “growing up”.

    So, kids, how about it? We did it.

  9. “Have we learned anything at all?” you ask. No, dear Mel, I fear not. The older I get the more it seems that human history is cyclical, and that to some extent we’re doomed to repeat our past mistakes. But I do take some comfort in observing that the story arc of our species still has us moving ever forward, even if we take the occasional step back.

    I was a bit too young in ’68 to grasp all that was happening, but your WONDERFUL post has brought me closer to understanding the social context of the 1968 riots. Thank you for continuing to enrich my cultural literacy!

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