50 years since the Night of the Barricades and a revolutionary
moment in France… Video version of this article here
Reflections by Hall Greenland
The Night of the Barricades in Paris on May 10-11 fifty years ago is arguably the most dramatic event of 1968. That’s saying something as this was a year of rebellions, insurgencies and revolutions worldwide.
Mainstream historians now talk of “the long 1968”, lasting from 1960 to the mid-1970s, and key chroniclers such as Arthur Marwick emphasise the cultural revolution or transformation of that time rather than any political revolution.
Others claim central importance for the Tet offensive in Vietnam which demonstrated the limits of American power, or the suppression of the Prague Spring in August 1968 by Soviet tanks which meant the end of any immediate prospect of marrying democracy to communism.
Nevertheless, most observers find themselves drawn back to the images and realities of this iconic night in the heart of Paris. It was a night that released a cascade of events that held the promise of a revolutionary outcome in an overdeveloped country for the first time since World War II.
This was, as Eric Hobsbawm, the most accomplished historian of the short twentieth century, observed at the time, ‘unexpected and unprecedented’.
It was to be a revolution like no other, its spirit captured in the slogans – inspired by the tiny anarcho-surrealist group, the Situationists – which soon appeared on the walls of Paris and other cities:
It is forbidden to forbid
Imagination to Power
Be a realist, demand the impossible
Underneath the cobble stones, the beach
I take my dreams for reality because I believe in the reality of my dreams Commodities are the opium of the people
Revolution is the ecstasy of history
Quick, go forward comrade, the old world is behind you
Barricades close the street but open up the path
The English poet Stephen Spender described it as ‘poetry in the streets’. This playful and utopian graffiti, mixed with more everyday political points, was soon to appear on hundreds of posters produced by the fine arts students of L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
But all that was in the near future. On the night of May 10-11 students had their backs to the wall.
The police, spearheaded by the black-clad, helmeted, baton-wielding, semi-military CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Securité), had already invaded and occupied the Sorbonne and Nanterre campuses of the University of Paris. On the afternoon of May 10 up to 30,000 students had attempted to march from the Latin Quarter to the Right Bank only to be halted at the bridges over the Seine by phalanxes of gendarmes.
In response the students voted to erect barricades in the Latin Quarter. More thn 30 barricades went up around rue Gay Lussac. They were assembled from construction materials dragged from nearby building sites, cars, billboards, garbage tins and cobblestones
Barricades. It was so 18th century. So French – although there had not been a barricade in the streets of Paris for 97 years. Street fighting, however, was of more recent vintage,
Street fighters might have been in short supply in sleepy London town, as Mick Jagger was to sing later in 1968, but not in Paris and other French cities where students had been blooded in solidarity protests in support of colonial fighters.
In October 1961, for instance, Paris students battled police in protests over the killings of hundreds, of Algerians who had defied a ban on October 17 to march in favour of Algerian independence. Their bodies had washed up on the banks of the Seine. Since then marches in favour of the Cuban revolution and the civil rights movement in the United States had regularly ended in street clashes. The bombing and napalming of Vietnam had aroused an even wider movement, one that politicised high school students.
The solidarity demonstrations were not only expressions of anger but celebrations of victories. Revolutionary success was in the air. The Algerians attained their independence, Cuba survived, and as well as tragedy there was grandeur and heroism in the resistance of the Vietnamese. At the core of all the student actions in 1968 were would-be revolutionaries, a bewildering melange of anarchists, Trotskyists, Maoists and radical Christians.
It was the jailing of student protesters after Vietnam demonstrations in 1967 that led to campus disturbances at Nanterre (the University of Paris campus in the western suburbs). Some students were disciplined which led to more campus strikes and protests and eventually the closing of that campus. Disciplinary hearings against Nanterre students were transferred to the Sorbonne on May 3, students rallied in solidarity and the police were called. As was their habit, they attacked protesters and bystanders indiscriminately.
Days of street battles ensued. Leading to the fateful night of May 10.
On the barricades that night, there was a long wait as ministers considered their next move. They decided to wait until after the last train on the Metro. The police attack came at precisely 2.12 a.m. – we know the time because the pirate radio stations, Europe 1 and Radio Luxembourg, had stationed radio cars in the area and they provided a running commentary on the see-sawing battle that ensued. Pirate radio – or ‘riot radio’ as one minister called it – was the social media of its time.
The battle raged back and forth for hours in clouds of tear gas and the din of percussion grenades, the last barricade not falling until after 5 a.m. That no one died that night was a miracle. A future friend, the high school student Nicholas Baby, was hit on the side of the head by a tear gas canister which broke his jaw. It was the fate of hundreds. Medical students managed to get him away safely but many of the wounded were not so lucky. They were intercepted by the CRS and batoned mercilessly on stretchers or in makeshift ambulances.
The extreme violence used by the police during those dawn hours was witnessed by the middle class residents of the Latin Quarter, many of whom threw buckets of water into the streets to douse the tear gas or sheltered fleeing students. For their troubles, police burst into apartments in pursuit of students to bash.
The next day France awoke to the grainy images and reports of the night’s violence. Long inured to police violence against strikers and immigrants, this was different. The bleeding and bruised were bright kids, France’s future. Many were also the children of the middle class and bourgeoisie. Nicholas Baby’s father, for instance, was a top civil servant.
Class issues paled beside the police overkill. Officials of the main union federations – there were three of them, divided along political lines – met the next afternoon and called a one-day general strike for Monday to protest at the government’s use of extreme police violence.
Late on Saturday prime minister Georges Pompidou attempted to avert or defuse the general strike call by ordering the release without charge of the hundreds of arrested students and the withdrawal of police from the Sorbonne and Nanterre.
It was too late. On Monday more than one million people marched through Paris. Hundreds of thousands marched in other French cities. The students swarmed back into the now vacated Sorbonne and proclaimed their Commune.
Even at this stage, the Night of the Barricades might have been one more drama in the global student rebellions of that year. Even on the violence scale, Italian students had been involved in equally violent clashes.
It was what followed that assured the Night its place in history. As the week played out, young workers initiated strikes and factory occupations, first in the provinces at enterprises like the aircraft builder Sud Aviation in Nantes or the CSF-Thomson electronics plant in Brest, and then in Paris at the huge Renault car factories.
Within a week some seven to eight million workers (most of whom, incidentally, weren’t union members) were on indefinite strike as well as up to two million university and high school students. Every university as occupied as were approximately 400 high schools and half the larger workplaces.
While the historical images of the general strike focus on the occupied car factories around Paris, male blue-collar workers were in the minority of the strikers. All classes of workers were involved – the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant living in Paris was surprised to find gallery and museum workers on strike. Scientists at the French equivalent of the CSIRO also struck. Television went off the air – journalists and technicians angry at government censorship and control of content. In what proved to be some of the most bitter walkouts, women shop assistants closed Paris’s prestigious department stores. Even professional footballers occupied the headquarters of the French Ligue 1 and hung out a banner: Football for the footballers.
While they were not working the French were talking. There was an explosion of talk everywhere – “uninhibited, crude, theoretical, confessional” – as the famed British poet Stephen Spender, visiting Paris at the time, noted.
What were they talking about? What did they want?
Le greve general, la reve generale
A poster stuck to the main door of the Sorbonne embodied the heady mix of millenarianism, Marxism and sociology very much in the air then:
The revolution which is beginning will call into question not only capitalist society but industrial society. The consumer society is bound for a violent death. Social alienation must vanish from human history. We are inventing a new and original world. Imagination is seizing power.
For Spender, who spent every day and night listening in at the Sorbonne, the students were “against the consumer society, paternalism, bureaucracy, impersonal party progress and static party hierarchies. Revolution must not become ossified. It is la revolution permanente.”
They were in favour of a radical egalitarianism. At a general assembly in the Sorbonne’s vast amphitheatre, Spender reported students acknowledging that their key privilege was free time to think about and act on social issues. But it was a privilege they wanted to generalise to workers – and immigrants.
Alongside the big visions were the minimal demands of staff-student control of universities, freedom of political expression and activity on campus, and the importance of socially critical content in courses.
As for high school students, they were demanding a less stuffy school experience – the right to wear political badges to school, discuss contemporary events and culture in their courses, call their teachers by their first names and – scandalously in today’s terms – permission to smoke at school.
One of the most heartening moments of May was the demonstration which followed the barring of the return to France of the student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit who had visited Germany and Holland to arouse support. He was denounced as a German Jewish troublemaker by a Gaullist minister. Tens of thousands took to the streets chanting, “We are all German Jews”. It mightily impressed Mavis Gallant, the Canadian writer living in Paris, because it showed the young had put both the anti-semitism and anti-Boche prejudices of older generations firmly behind them.
The egalitarianism was not confined to the Sorbonne. When Paddy McGuinness, the libertarian and economist then living in London, later editor of the Australian Financial Review and Quadrant, made his way to Paris a week after the Night, he discovered the waiters in his favourite Paris restaurants had stopped calling him ‘Monsieur’ and now called patrons ‘comrade’. Spender also observed, “Everyone is called comrade”.
In the factories we have fewer accounts of what transpired. The powerful French Communist Party (it received over 20 per cent of votes in elections, employed hundreds of organisers, controlled the major unions and had a national daily newspaper) did what they could to keep students and workers apart. After May 13, for instance, there were no joint union-student marches.
At the time the French Communist Party claimed that the workers were only interested in pay rises – anything else was ‘adventurism’. Yet for days after the strikes began there were no such demands from workers. They were sharing in the general refusal to accept the status quo. Even when their union leaders came forward with pay demands, the workers in many enterprises insisted on adding vague demands for respect at work and more rights in their workplaces.
The union leaders had been taken by surprise by the sudden outbreak of the general strike but they had quickly taken control of the occupations. The French sociologist Jacques Kergoat, who conducted extensive research into the strike wave, found that in only about a fifth of the workplaces did general meetings of all the workers decide the main questions that arose – except, of course, the question of a return to work in June. Even a smaller number elected their own strike committees which were for the most part constituted by already established union delegates.
There was talk of worker self-management, even plans drawn up, in a number of workplaces. However nowhere was actual self-management begun and a start made in initiating a new social order.
Meanwhile one thing the Gaullist government and the communist leaders of the main union federation did agree on was keeping students and workers apart as much as possible.
When emergency negotiations between union leaders and government ministers were held over the weekend of May 25-26, both sides agreed to exclude teacher and student unions. The resulting Grenelle accords (named after the Paris street where negotiations took place) agreed to raise the minimum wage by a third, general wages by 10 per cent and to increase union rights in workplaces. Strikers were also to be paid 50 per cent of their wages for the days spent on strike.
Initially, despite their leaders, most workers meetings rejected the Grenelle agreement. In the stalemate that now faced France, the main left-wing forces – the Communist Party, the mainstream socialists led by future president Francois Mitterand, and the leftwing socialists of the Unified Socialist party whose figurehead was Mendes-France – each came forward offering to form a transitional government prior to elections. Separately; there was no unity.
This was an aspect of a more general failure of the rebellion. There was in May what more than one observer called ‘a great refusal’ of the status quo, but no advance of an alternative vision for France – certainly not by any organisation which had the following to make a difference.
This stasis allowed the French president General de Gaulle to seize the initiative once again. He had tried in a broadcast to the nation on May 24, proposing a referendum on the vague promise of more participation in decision-making in France. It had come to nothing as the government could not even find a printery that would print the ballot papers.
A week later, having first made a secret voyage to Germany to visit the generals of the French army stationed there to receive their assurances of support, de Gaulle broadcast again to the nation on May 30 warning of a possible (and improbable) communist coup and calling this time for general elections at the end of June.
This broadcast was followed by an outpouring of Gaullist support in Paris. It was their turn to stage a million-strong march up the Champs Elysee. It was not a pretty sight. They were chanting slogans such as ‘Cohn-Bendit to Dachau’ and ‘La France aux français’.
Here is Spender’s report of the drive-by that followed the march: ‘They came joyously claxoning up the boulevards, hooting at one another, hooting to urge others to hoot, stopping their cars suddenly, getting out to embrace some fellow driver or passenger, in their chic clothes and their make-up, their tawdry elegance, the triumphant bacchanal of the Social World of Conspicuous Consumption, shameless, crowing, and more vulgar than any crowd I have ever seen ….’
The left-wing parties and unions embraced this election solution and in the weeks that followed strikers were persuaded to return to work on the basis of the Grenelle accords. The government was free then to take on the students alone. It banned all the far left groups, outlawed street demonstrations, tightened censorship of newspapers, magazines, films and broadcasting, and sent the CRS to reoccupy the Sorbonne and the more recalcitrant factories. Police recruitment was stepped up so that by 1974 there were 50 per cent more police than in ’68.
The election was a triumph for the Gaullists. The left’s share of the vote dropped by 800,000. It had presented no united front. Besides, the five million young people between that ages of 16 and 21 had no vote.
The elections were not the end of the matter. Between end of May and the end of the year, seven people were killed. Hundreds were arrested and went to jail. Workers militancy continued – wage rises continued to accelerate in the years to come. There were also isolated but successful attempts at worker self-management. De Gaulle was forced from office in 1969, the left parties made slow progress to a more united front, and eventually Mitterand was elected president in 1981.
Since then, around every decade anniversary, the French debate the meaning of the Night of the Barricades and what followed. But do the events of May-June 1968 have any relevance today to overdeveloped societies?
The answer must be a hopeful but nuanced yes. The organised Left and unions are weaker, even if sympathy for left-wing ideas is growing. Neoliberal capitalism has successfully reorganised work so that workers more readily identify with their owners and managers. Many internalise the tenets of neoliberalism, adopting entrepreneurial mindsets.
Yet once again the aspiration for greater social equality is apparent. Likewise the emptiness of our democracy is giving rise to demands for more participatory democracy. The view that there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism no longer has such a sure grip as it did, say, a decade ago, although alternatives remain as vague and tentative as in 1968.
Workers militancy may also be making a re-appearance – certainly that is the case in France. It’s worth recalling that the first meeting of what was to become the women’s liberation movement in France was convened in the Sorbonne during May. That very much remains unfinished business.
The most signal thing about the May events was that they were unforeseen. In the 1950s it became conventional wisdom that radical, let alone revolutionary, change was no longer possible in prosperous capitalist democracies. It was the ’50s variant of Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis of the 1990s.
In our time, revolutionary change is again ruled out by conventional wisdom. Yet the paradox of the unexpected is that we can expect it to occur again. Don’t just take my word for it. As Sartre wrote at the time: ‘What is important is that the action took place, at a time when everyone judged it unthinkable. If it took place, then it can happen again.’
Hall Greenland was teaching in London in May 1968.
He was already an associate of the French groupuscule
Alliance Revolutionnaire Marxiste.
Like every other young leftist in Western Europe,
he (and his companion, Margaret Eliot) made their way to Paris as soon as they could.