Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Here it is May 2008, 40 years after the student uprisings and labor movements in France. 1968 was a historic year throughout the world and here in France, it is referred to as Mai 68, as that is when most of the action happened. This date is being commemorated throughout Paris; the Figaro has put out a special edition, 1968 Révolutions: Paris Rome Prague États Unis Vietnam; Rolling Stone has a collector’s edition, 68 Les Révolutions: Rock Art Cinéma Literature. There is a photo exhibit appropriately near the Sorbonne showing scenes of burned cars, and students heaving bricks. There are debates and discussions taking place. There are also a number of films in town that portray or document the happenings.
One such film is Mai 68 by Lawaetz and Kanapa showing at the Filmothèque du Quartier Latin. (It is showing tonight at 18:20 in French). It is a three hour documentary which chronicles the events as they unfolded in the Spring of 1968. I caught the film Sunday night in an effort to have a better understanding of what went on 40 years ago.
Here’s my interpretation of what went on. Mind you, I did fade out at one point during the movie (I fell asleep during Star Wars), and I couldn’t follow the French at times. So what I may have missed, I may now misinterpret.
Taking note of what was going on at the university in Nanterre (not to mention the rest of the world), namely radicals (students speaking out against the government) were met with a taking over of the university by police. This is exactly what ensued at the Sorbonne. In a reaction to the police occupation of their university, students (and teachers) demonstrated and eventually took over the streets. The Latin Quarter became the battleground with the students using the grills around the trees to dig up the cobblestone bricks to then launch them at the police. Barricades were built using nearby cars, bricks and whatever was handy. The police responded by firing what looked like those long rubber bullets as well as hosing down the students with huge powerful currents of water. (Editiorial: after seeing the Eyes on the Prize, a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., it’s hard to take other protests as seriously. Just my opinion.)
Labor became agitated and strikes began taking place all over France at Renault and Citroen factories. The mostly female workers at Galleries Lafayette went on strike. Whereas the students were calling for a dramatic and idealistic demolition of the means of production, workers did not want to destroy the means of production, and thus their livelihood, and instead were calling for higher wages and better working conditions. While the students’ and workers’ ideas were not always the same, it seemed as a whole, both groups were able to send de Gaulle running for a few days, three to be exact.
Literally, de Gaulle disappeared, which really had the public and the media wondering. Here I get a little foggy. It could be that de Gaulle returned with tanks and was going to declare a state of military emergency and ordered everyone back to work/school. There was a pro de Gaulle demonstration. It also appeared that hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest de Gaulle. At one point the well organized students had brought transistor radios to listen to de Gaulle’s speech as tens if not hundreds of thousands had gathered in protest. The footage of all these people in the streets quietly listening to his speech was pretty powerful. At this point, de Gaulle dissolved the National Assembly and announced that there will be parliamentary elections soon. In response, the protestors took out white handkerchiefs and waved them in a sign that they would surrender (I believe).
In any event, the students were able to move society and government in a more liberal direction with more focus on equality and human rights. Workers' wages were increased and the majority of people returned to work and school.
Overall the film was interesting, especially when the shopkeepers in the Latin Quarter were interviewed, and were seemingly unfazed by the cars and streets being torn apart around them. There was also reference to the protests going on worldwide, and some German protest footage was included in the film. If three hours is too much, as it was almost for me, I recommend the first half which covers a lot of the history of Mai 68.
*Picture from liberalisationmai68.free.fr/partie3/manif