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May 68: then and now
























May 68: then and now

Lecture presented by Sylvia Lawson at the Australian Cinémathèque, Gallery of Modern Art, Friday November 9 2007, as part of the Breathless: French New Wave Turns 50 program.

2008 marks the fortieth anniversary of the spectacular political carnival which we generally summarise as May ’68, although as several documentaries in the Breathless: French New Wave Turns 50 program has shown us, the social movements which came to a head at that time were active through the decade. Their many contested meanings continue to work through our thinking on contemporary Western history.

In this talk I want to outline the events of May in France; secondly to explain how the movement of May there was like, and also unlike, those in the US and other countries in the same period; then to consider how it was registered in cinema, particularly in the work of Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker. Then looking at the mythology of May 68, I’ll consider what it seems to mean now for the right, and then the possible resonance for a more progressive politics in the present and future.

What happened in May

This sequence is pretty well known.  We are in de Gaulle’s France, ruled by that phenomenal military hero of the wartime Resistance who became president of France at the institution of the Fifth Republic in 1958. It is also a France in which de Gaulle has turned the Resistance into a nationalist religion, and a France struggling with the vestiges of its imperial roles in Algeria, Central Africa, Indo-China and the Pacific. The long Algerian war came to an end in 1962 and its bitterness continued, as did persistent memories of wartime collaboration with the Germans under the Vichy regime, an overhang of collective shame. The historian Henry Rousso has called this the Vichy syndrome. 

In January 1968, in the provincial city of Caen in Normandy, some 15000 workers in various industries took part in a strike for better wages and job security. The strike was marked by violent clashes with the police, and ended in fairly unsatisfactory compromises. But something which was then unusual occurred: students at the local university collected 2,000 francs for the strikers, an interesting sign of solidarity between the intellectual class and workers in industry.

Two months later, on March 22 1968, on the Nanterre campus of the university of Paris, a student movement grew out of campus dissent; it was about the right to political activity on that bleak and overcrowded campus, and also about male access to the women’s halls of residence. (The girls were allowed to visit the young men’s rooms, but not the other way around.) This action spilt into the city streets, taking up growing opposition to the Vietnam war. After a series of firebomb attacks on American banks in the city, five students were arrested, and the arrests were condemned by the Nanterre group in which one of the leaders, Daniel Cohn-Bendit – Danny the Red, as he became known, still going strong 40 years later as a member of the Greens in Germany – baited the police by circulating instructions for making petrol-bombs. He was arrested; the 22 March group took over various rooms and halls, ran a movie about Che Guevara, who’d been killed in Bolivia only a few months earlier. It was all too much; on May 2 the dean closed the campus, and called in the police.  

On May 3, the leftwing students and the 22 March group held a meeting in the courtyard of the Sorbonne, mainly to protest agains the closing of Nanterre, and scuffles broke out among the factions. Students arrived from everywhere; so did the police; the Rector of the Sorbonne contacted the Minister for Education, and on thing led to another, bigtime. Monday May 6, the students union called a general student strike; the attendant demonstration drew highschool students out from everywhere and grew to 60,000. Police violence, involving truncheons & tear gas, excited memories of the Algerian war, and there was a lot of sympathy for the students. Over the next four days the insurrection spread to campuses and streets the length and breadth of France; and the high schools, the lycees, went on strike as well.

On the night of 10-11 May, in central Paris, the area around the Pantheon, it was on for young and old; paving stones were dug up, trees cut down, cars overturned, stones and bottle and petrol bombs thrown against the police, and for the first time since the liberation of June 1944, barricades were constructed. (All know the symbolism of the barricade for the French: it raises echoes of the revolution, of the commune of 1871, of the Dreyfus case.) The police won, with tear gas, hundreds of arrests, and general military repression; three students were killed., and it was the severity of that reponse by the authorities which then brought the trade unions and the powerful but conservative Communist Party into the action, as demonstrations followed across the whole country. Finally de Gaulle, having stood back and said nothing, agreed with his prime minister, George Pompidou, that the police should be withdrawn from the Sorbonne and should evacuate the Latin Quarter. This defused tensions between the students and the universities, but it didn’t stop the insurrection, which by then had its own enormous national momentum.  

Strikes broke out everywhere. On May 13 workers, students, teachers and ordinary citizens were out across France; the demonstration in Paris involved around 600,000 people; there were up to 10 million people on strike. The public services, the bureaucracies, the commercial sector, private industry everywhere were involved; so were the theatre and musical professions. Public transport stopped, post offices were closed, planes stopped flying; you couldn’t get into or out of France.  Finally, even the journalists who worked for state controlled TV & broadcasting joined in. There was a great outpouring of art production from the great Ecole de Beaux Arts; posters, prints, poetry for the streets; there were huge public discussions in major theatres. Two directors in particular, Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, managed to close down the Cannes Film Festival. Elsewhere museum, gallery and theatre directors and producers issued statements criticising state cultural policy and calling for cultural renewal. Orchestras went on strike, and a classical music station closed down.

The great tide began to recede at the end of May, when de Gaulle, suddenly gathering his energies, called for new elections. A huge Gaullist demonstration, full on with brass bands and military medals, filled the Champs Elysees on the evening of May 30: a massive ‘counter-revolutionary coup de theatre’. Student involvement wound down, occupations finished, and the strikers went back to work in mid-June.  Cohn-Bendit and the other student leaders had no interest in personal political leadership. De Gaulle’s UDR (Union pour la Defense de la Republique) won the elections, with a gain of 93 seats at the end of June, and state power was decisively reasserted. The following year, however, de Gaulle lost a referendum on constitutional change – he wanted to strengthen regional powers and reform the Senate. He lost, and finally resigned, leaving public life in France only a year and a half before his death in late 1970.

The historian Rod Kedward identifies four main strands of meaning in the events of May; first the need to free up what was seen as a ‘blocked society’ – gone rigid and frozen under Gaullism; then the pressure for social and industrial justice, which led to gains for workers in wages and conditions, and generally raised the confidence of unions. At the same time, the idea of revolution was rejected, and there was a challenge to the Communist party from the non-party, popular left of the students, the workers and their sympathisers, at a time when the crushing of dissidence in Eastern Europe – especially in Czechoslovakia with the brief Prague Spring – was undermining sympathy for Communism everywhere.

How was May 68 special, different from student-led movements elsewhere?

Students were massing in protest against the Vietnam war and also against hierarchical institutional authorities everywhere; it was said that the ultimate credit for the Paris movements came from the stimulus of the German movement led by Rudi Dutschke. The demonstrations on campuses across the US were huge, and they didn’t catch it from Paris – they were building up right through the 60s, and the student left became the subject of anxious, high-level concern in Washington by 1967.  

The difference with Paris was that from the moment when the student movement linked with and supported the workers’ strikes, the insurrection wasn’t confined to a particular, privileged class. It was systemic, not as in nearly every other Western society, the business of a minority. No part of French society was untouched by it. And while it’s hard to tell from this distance, it seems to me that the whole movement was accommodated by the population, it had a kind of welcome and support from the world around it. In America, on the other hand, and indeed in Australia as protest took hold here, respectable society was affronted, more inclined to rebuke than to support.

While the movement, like those elsewhere, was marked by freewheeling social life, music and fun, a sense of liberation and joy, it also involved intellectual critique of the whole social structure, of cultural institutions and practices, the operations of power. It was not mere rebellion, but developed oppositional dissent. This was the period which among much else gave rise to the work on power and authority of the philosopher Michel Foucault, with his drive to uncover hidden knowledge and look at the operations of institutional power and authority in places like gaols and clinics and in the professions.  

Then too, perhaps even more importantly, the movement in France carried the immediate inheritance of the Algerian war, and the traumatic implications for imperialism and racism. The student leaders, when interviewed after the events, constantly insisted that they had been marching to demonstrate for the claims of the Third World as well as for their own rights and for a more just society in France.  

Reflections in cinema

After looking at the key documentaries of the early part of the decade, Jean Rouch's Chronique d’un Ete (Chronicle of a Summer) 1960–61 and Chris Marker's Le Joli Mai (The Lovely Month of May) 1963, one is tempted to say that the film makers created May, or at least they went to meet it. Here cinema is being made against the institutions of movie production which Godard assaults in Tout Va Bien (Everything is Alright) 1972. Cinema doesn’t have to be structured fiction, it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, it doesn’t have to involve studios and the traditional studio system, it doesn’t have to require a huge apparatus of machinery and personnel. What it can do is explore the world with new relationships between sound and image, and importantly – this arises both in Tout Va Bien and in Le Joli Mai – it can take up and explore changing personal relationships and question the old categorical divisions between personal life and politics.  Then it draws on what was a separate strand, the ethnographic documentary made as a research tool by European anthropologists engaged with non-European societies, often those living outside what we think of as modernity and moving toward it.  The late Jean Rouch’s work was central in bringing ethnography into Western cinema; we can speculate on how much the circulation of films like Jaguar 1954–67 contributed to the critique of racism and imperialism in the thinking that developed in the 60s.


The May 68 program includes Chris Marker's great film essay Le fond de l’Air est Rouge 1977 (the French title might be translated literally as The depth of the air is red, or perhaps more imaginatively You’ll find the rebels there at the end).  Marker is not using the treasures of the film archive to illustrate a history; he is showing us how film, and indeed theatre and television, are imbricated in modern history as active agents, not simply media of observation.  So the opening images come from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, but they’re not there to illustrate a long ago battle between a group of sailors and the repressive Tsarist military machine, famous though that history is: it’s much more to show protest as intense, highly orchestrated performance, the action of the film itself as it was made in 1927, a moment in a great period of post-revolutionary Soviet art.


The images themselves are given as a form of action, and the invitation is to register them both as showing what was done, and also what was being done with them.  The demonstration is filmed; the film reinforces, confirms the work of the protesters.  Marker is taking up the way the Left, following the great insurrections of 1968, was fractured by its own divisions and by a reorganised Right.  His action in filming, and calling up many other films, is in itself the struggle of memory against forgetting. Godard’s people are seen playing out their roles in historical and political  force fields.  Tout Va Bien is a call to open-eyed, pessimistic realism for the alumni of May 68.  We begin with a meeting of Brecht and Mao –   foregrounding the film Maker’s starting point, hiring the stars and raising the money, and a fiercely Maoist insistence on self-criticism and recognition of class positions and privilege.  Yves Montand and Jane Fonda are positioned both as stars, the film industry’s necessary commodities, and also as anti-romantic subjects put there to satirise the commercial movie’s standard love story.  They visit a strike as media professionals, and are then caught into it; their agendas are radically disrupted, and everything’s out of control.  Can they learn their lessons from the strikers?  Can Jane/Susan, the well-placed journalist, do anything she can believe in within the approved modes of her profession?  What is the meaning of the quarrel between the couple which is at the centre of the film?


And what can the audience, this one here in Brisbane or any other, take from the amazing, and relentless, sequence in the hypermarket?  I can pose that question because, like much of Godard’s middle and later work, the film has an extraordinary contemporaneity.  It is looking back on 68 from the doubtful, ambiguous vantage-point of 72; but looking on, we are not in fact looking back, but looking straight at our own world.  Those battling Australian families, so beloved as rhetorical devices by our political leaders, are the people in the hypermarket.


So the extended film essay was born.  While it doesn’t generally have the power and reach of a commercially viable feature or TV series, it does have endurance; it does help to create new audiences, alternative circuits of response, and generate an extended sense of the possibilities of cinema.  It probes the world differently; it lasts.  

May 68 and ourselves

Listening to Australian pre-election broadcasts and interviews it appears to me that we are greatly in need of this retrieval, not least in that sense of unblocking what is blocked and dammed up in the social and historical flow.  If the forces of reaction prevail once more in the forthcoming election, and that is unfortunately far from impossible, it will have to do with the intransigent, settled-in comfort of the respectable middle class, a world in which – for example – a young professional in the finance business can actually tell the ABC that since Labor appears to be worrying about the working class, and she doesn’t consider herself in that category, she finds that the Coalition’s economic programme suits her better. 

The spectacle of May reminds us that such miraculous breakouts can happen, habits can be broken, you can get outside the home, the suburb, the office and join the drive for something better.  I think this coming 40th anniversary should remind us that it is both a reasonable and a highly enjoyable thing for people to meet at times in large numbers and take up their right peacefully to occupy public space and to move through it, in order to draw serious attention to injustice, or indeed to mark such an anniversary as this one.  A rally is not a rabble, and when violence breaks out, as it did in May 68, we must ask how that happened, how the violence was incited, and accept that it’s not a reason why everyone should fold their tents, be well-behaved, give the authorities no more trouble, stop dissenting and go home.

The May insurrection began with the refusal of blind, blundering authority, the refusal of students to accept that teaching and learning had to be conducted under impossible conditions.  In a different time, in a different world, that is true again: life has become very, very difficult for students, and to cut a long story short, this is leading to the intellectual impoverishment of a whole society.

But the students of May 68 didn’t stop there,  They recognised that they were dissenting within the framework of metropolitan Western privilege, and that strength was to be found in the affinities with non-privilege, with a much wider population’s struggles for basic material justice, and also the struggles of a worldwide population against colonial/imperial oppression.  The continuing challenge of May is to respond to these same affinities.  

Now we are in the grip of propaganda which reduces people from citizens to economic units.  There should be someone here and now doing a programme of interviews like that in Le Joli Mai – remember the happy young couple who couldn’t see beyond themselves (except that the young man did have to go off and do military service in Algeria).  Overhung by the prevailing fundamentalism, we are in great danger of forgetting what we have inherited from May 68, and of remembering it only as a romantic political carnival on a distant planet.  Much of the movement became mainstreamed in quite a short time, so that by now – for instance – we take official levels of racial and gender equality for granted.  But what we should have learned from the last 11 dismal years in this tantalising country we live in is that everything gained can be lost.  They make a bogey of union power, but in the drastic fragmentation of working conditions, union power is exactly what people need – and the kind of union power which will protect refugees and guest workers as much as others.  

For the same reasons, critical and industrial feminism need reviving; and so, not least, does the anti-racist movement which took on vitality in the Australia of the 60s.  Human rights are denied, the Racial Discrimination Act is contravened, again the government claims to know best.  Consider now how in the context of present intense debates, the great Aboriginal leader Lowitja O’Donoghue has been insisting that top-down solutions don’t work.  It was against top-down governance, patriarchal governance, that first a few students, then ten million of the French took over their streets in May 68.  In this notional democracy, I suggest that we need to take another look at that whole idea.  Why did Nicolas Sarkozy tell the French people, this past April, that it was time to turn the page on May 68?  Because May remains a live legend, and its spirit and spectacle still amount to a radical challenge to everything that authoritarian, patriarchal politics is about.  That being so, I suggest we allow ourselves, here in Australia, a happy 40th anniversary.  It should be happy; it should also be a moment in which we insist on some clear analysis, do some work on this highly productive chapter in modern history, and let it go on working into our future. 


Further Reading
H. R. Kedward, La Vie en Bleu, Penguin 2005; especially Part 2, Chapter 16.  Sylvia Harvey, "May 68 and Film Culture", British Film Institute, 1978.


Sylvia Lawson is an author and academic. Her recent work includes The Outside Story 2003, a novel on the Sydney Opera House, and the prizewinning essay collection How Simone de Beauvoir Died in Australia 2002.


© Sylvia Lawson and the Australian Cinémathèque. Not to be reprinted without permission of the author and the Australian Cinémathèque.