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?

Remembering ‘les poilus’

W2289-Affiche14-18_PoiluType_0_94926The French would not be French if they didn’t do things a little differently.

Known to all in France as ‘le 11 novembre’, the day of remembrance traditionally commemorates the end of the first world war with the signing of the Armistice in 1918. It is really about the unsung heroes of that war, the soldiers known as ‘les poilus’.

Literally, ‘the hairies’, a better translation would be ‘the unshaven’. The term denotes not so much the facial hair as the image of the simple foot soldiers who left their fields and families to fight in the trenches. They are considered the unsung heroes of history as so many of their number died unknown and unrecognized for their sacrifice.

Lazare Ponticelli, a Frenchman of Italian descent, was the last surviving poilu. When he died in 2008 at the age of 110, Jacques Chirac wanted to bury him at the tomb of the unknown soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. True to his origins, however, le poilu refused the honour, preferring to be buried in the family plot.

The public holiday was officially changed by Sarkozy to the ‘Jour du Souvenir’ in 2012. It was meant to broaden the focus of the day in honour of all those fallen in service for France. At that time, so that the memory of the first world war heroes would not be lost, it was decided to reintroduce the French symbol of the poilus, the bleuet de France. The bright blue cornflower was the distinctive colour of the soldiers’ uniforms. It is worn instead of the poppy, although has yet to become as common.

poignee-de-mains-entre-francois-hollande-d-et-nicolas-sarkozy-en-presence-de-jean-yves-le-drian-gerard-larcher-manuel-valls-et-claude-bartolone-lors-de-la-commemoration-de-l-amistrice-le-11-novembre-2015-sur-les-champs-elysees-a-paris_5461328

On this day of remembrance in France, however, while our thoughts were meant to be on les poilus and the tomb of the unknown soldier, another image captured everyone’s attention. A handshake between two sworn enemies, who have apparently signed a truce in memory of armistice.

 

What does Remembrance Day mean to you?

 

Photo credit:

‘Les poilus’ cut-out: Wikimedia Commons - W2289-Affiche14-18 PoiluType 0 94926 » par G. Morinet pour Éditions Pellerin / Llann Wé² — Travail personnel. Sous licence CC BY-SA 4.0

Trudeaumania

#TrudeaumaniaMy earliest memory of Pierre Elliott Trudeau goes back to 1967, the year before he became prime minister.

I was ten years old that year, and Canada was celebrating its first 100 years as a country. We were a young country, everyone said, although it didn’t feel that way to me. We celebrated Canada’s centenary and being 20 million with songs and parties and a nascent sense of nationalism. Change was in the air. The Beatles were on the radio and my mother sat glued to our black-and-white TV, just as she did whenever anything big happened in those years: when President Kennedy was shot, when the first man walked on the moon, or when the race riots exploded south of the border.

Trudeau came on the scene as Canada was grappling with issues of identity: who were we, anyway? Were we English, were we French, were we British or American? Perhaps we were a bit of all those things, but somehow when Trudeau became our prime minister, we figured it out. We were the truth north, strong and free! We had our own flag and we learned how to wave it.

And we had a young, attractive PM representing us abroad. He was a bilingual French Canadian, and an intellectual. He was born in Montreal but he had all the glamour of the French. He was also a bachelor, and a bit of a ladies’ man. The women, including my mother, all swooned. Trudeaumania was born. My father scoffed, until someone told him he looked like Trudeau.

Trudeau reportedly had affairs with many famous women, including a personal idol of mine, Barbra Streisand. Then he married a woman thirty years his junior, a flower child called Margaret. Canada was shocked, Canada was thrilled. The couple produced three children while Pierre was in office. Sadly, the marriage did not last and Margaret went off the rails before remarrying and disappearing from public view. She was famously photographed dancing in Studio 54 when the Liberal party lost in 1979.

In his years in office, Trudeau stitched together the fabric of our bilingual and multicultural identity. He managed to calm the Québec sovereignty movement, although he did not make friends there, and made us proud with his stand on international issues.

Like most of my fellow countrymen, I am happy to see the last of Harper. He was boring, polite and oh-so Canadian. I could never remember his name. Outside of Canada, there was no reason to know it.

We Canadians are not the proud, flag-waving types; ours is not a celebrity culture like our American cousins to the south. To some extent, Pierre Trudeau changed that. Now, Justin is set to continue what his father started.

So forgive me for waving the flag for a moment: Long live Trudeaumania!

What are your memories of the Trudeau years? Any thoughts on Canada’s new PM?

The kiss

Le baiserYou must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss…unless it happens to be a man on the street spontaneously embracing a member of the French national police.

It was a modern take on the famous photo by photographer Robert Doisneau, Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville.

It felt more like a scene from New York than Paris – the French don’t often break ranks in public displays of feeling. But as France buried its victims last week, including three police officers, there was a lot of love for les forces de l’ordre.

The police are a fixture of life on the streets of Paris: they’re often seen escorting VIPs on motorcycles, directing traffic, controlling crowds during the frequent demonstrations. And they are often criticized for unfair fines, excessive violence, coming down too hard on minorities.

But this day was different. Off-duty police officers were marching in mourning for their own tragic losses: Clarissa, the young policewoman killed in Montrouge by Amedy Coulibaly, Franck, the officer who acted as a body guard for Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Charb, and Ahmed, a Muslim bicycle cop gunned down in cold blood by the Kouachi brothers as they fled.

During the historic Marche Républicaine last week, as 3.5 million people took to the streets all over France and 50 world leaders joined arms against terrorism in Paris, people weren’t looking at the police in fear, but to salute them. They applauded the snipers stationed on top of the buildings along the Avenue de la République.

One gentleman in the crowd was so overcome with goodwill towards the CRS – the riot control forces of the French national police – that he asked if it was okay to embrace one of its officers. The officer hesitated, then gave in as the crowd urged them on. It was captured by French TV crews and became one of the scenes from that day that stole the hearts of viewers across the country.

As I’ve posted before, I’m certainly no fan of men with guns. But I have to confess to feeling a certain admiration for les gardiens de la paix, as the French national police are known. They managed to take out all three terrorists and get the hostages out of that supermarket with no further loss of innocent life.

That’s deserving of a kiss.

Chère France,

Chère CharlieIt’s been a long time. Thirty years since we began this relationship; more than twenty since I decided to call you home. Since I married in Paris, gave birth in Lyon, made friends, built a life, put down roots.

In all these years, I’ve never felt moved to share my feelings about what it is to be French. Until now.

I have often criticized you, and rightly so. It has not always been easy to live here, to decode your culture, understand your language and fully appreciate your history. There have been moments of mutual incomprehension. Sometimes I felt alone. But I never felt judged, nor excluded.

Never once did you ask about my religion or political beliefs. You gave my children an education that has enabled them to go forth in the world as free-thinking, critical spirits. You kept us healthy and safe.

So this is to say merci, dear France. Thank you for your irreverence. For refusing to be kept down. Merci for resisting the thought police, refusing the politically correct. For having the courage to face down fear. For supporting even those you don’t agree with in their right to free speech. Like the beloved cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. Like me.

#JeSuisCharlie

Mel

P.S. I don’t agree with all of the choices made by editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo. Nor do I consider this humble blog to be comparable to the work of those brilliant satirists. But I do believe in freedom of expression. What about you?