557: PARIS, MAY ’68 – MY FIRST REVOLUTION

“A warm welcome to Zingcreed, the only religious blog written by a revolutionary anarchist. What we all are today depends largely on our past experience: who we met, what we saw and did, what we read; what inspired us and what repelled us. In my case I was influenced in my teens by the church and by some values of fair play and justice inculcated by my parents who were very anti apartheid and anti nuclear weapons as well. In my twenties I volunteered between college terms to work in impoverished areas in Britain and overseas. I also took part in 2 revolutions. Both failed to achieve their larger goals, yet both sent shockwaves through the ruling elites of their respective countries and things were never the same again. The only reason I’m publishing this mémoire on line is because when I gave an account of my adventures in Paris at my French evening class, a couple of my fellow students said it was the most interesting part of the whole course.

I hope you find this as interesting as they did,

In solidarity,

Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.”

The background:

For three weeks in May 1968, the students of Paris had been building barricades and fighting in the streets. Their main grievance was with the way the French educational system was organised. The authoritarian government didn’t care what the students said and sent in the C.R.S. (riot squad). They used excessive force that just poured fuel on the fire and made matters worse. (Most students were from wealthy bourgeois families and they were not going to be pushed around by semi literate cops recruited from the French peasantry.) By the end of May the students felt demoralised and let down by the politicians, the trade union leaders, and their own leaders who didn’t know what to do next. Actually they had achieved an amazing amount.
“In three weeks they destroyed the French system of secondary and higher education, they ruined the government’s economic and financial policies, and they destroyed the government. Monsieur Pompidou has had to form a transitional ministry to hold the fort until the elections” (Patrick Brogan, Guardian 3 June 1968)

What could I do to help? 

While all this was going on I was back in England trying to get a job and spending time  camped out outside Britain’s biological warfare research establishment in Porton Down with CND. I read The Guardian eagerly for the latest news from the French capital and I longed to cross the channel to help with – or at least to observe – what would surely be the only political revolution in Western Europe in my lifetime. When a window of opportunity came I was off.

What follows is a personal account based on a diary I kept  at the time. It falls into a number of sections:-
(a) Getting to Paris
(b) What I saw in Paris
(c) Finding a role in the revolution
(d) The ‘Tribune Libre’
(e) Demo and counter demo
Fortunately I knew Paris well, having visited it just a few months earlier, and my French was adequate to read a newspaper and to chat with people. I took a lot of 35mm black and white photos which will be added to this account when I have had the negatives digitised.

(a) Getting to Paris

Turning up at Dover with my knapsack on my back I found there were no ferries to France – the ferries were on strike, and the French ports were closed too, including the customs. From being a student protest in Nanterre led by one man, Danny Cohn-Bendit, the protest movement had spread to working people all over France.  I quickly bought a ticket to neighbouring Belgium instead and hitch-hiked down to the frontier with France. The gates to France were open with no one in the booths to check passports and as I soon found out the motorway toll  booths were abandoned too: was anyone at work?

I had no choice but to hitch as the French public transport system was closed by strikes like everything else, but it gave me the opportunity to find out what the drivers of the cars that picked me up thought about <<les événements>> or ‘the events’.

I entered France at  11 a.m. on 5th June 1968 and got my first ride from a man who had just driven over into Belgium to get  some Gauloise cigarettes as he couldn’t  get cigarettes in France any more. He had planned to go to the Congo some days earlier but owing to  train and plane strikes he was stranded in France. “Nous ne sommes pas contre les  étudiants,” he told me, “mais contre la violence.” “We are not against the students but against violence”. On the surface of the road some one has painted a slogan “22nd May Movement” and an advertisement for a meeting at 5 pm, but no date was given. The driver tells me that all the factories in this part of northern France are closed, and indeed we have just passed one with 6 workers in overalls and berets lounging outside the gates with a flag of some description.They look cheerful and defiant. A slogan, something “Populaire” is painted on the gates. I take some photos of the women outside the next factory. There are 50 women working here, my driver tells me, and 10 men. They belong to the communist trade union confederation, the C.G.T. ( The alternative non-communist trade union federation goes by the initials of C.F.D.T.)  These particular workers  been out for 17 days so far. Their plant makes ceramic funeral flowers. “C’est grâce à femmes qu’on fait grève” opines my driver “Nous espèrons que les choses vont s’arranger bientôt”. “There wouldn’t be a strike if it wasn’t for the women. We just hope that things get sorted out soon.”  I guess he was referring to the fact that no work means no wages – slogans alone can’t pay the bills.

At Bouchain between Chambrai and Valenciennes I got my second ride of the day from a man who was out on strike, not  for himself as he was relatively well paid, but as a gesture of solidarity with the lower paid employees in his workplace. He said there was a worrying lack of contact between the bosses and the younger workers. He was a very voluble man and although he didn’t make it clear I suspect he was in middle management. He said there were no flags at his workplace. He claimed to know all 250 of the workers and their families well. He said he didn’t believe in wage differentials: manual workers should be paid the same as qualified staff .”I have no respect for people in authority, ” he told me, “not for parents, nor priests, nor the mayor nor for employers.” And returning to his theme of different levels of income he said excitedly, “Things cost the same for everyone, so why pay different people different wages?  The factory manager pays the same for his cigarettes as the workers. Bread costs the same for everyone.Who needs more than one fridge or one car? No one can use more than one car or one bed at the same time. Look at our political parties: the communist party is too Russian and not French enough. The socialist party is more French. I’ve been to Sofia (the capital of communist Bulgaria). I prefer France. I think all French communists should visit the Soviet Union and see it for themselves. They’d prefer France or at least French communism, not Russian. “Mais la France n’est pas encore mûr pour la révolution communiste.”  “But France isn’t ‘ripe’ enough for a communist revolution yet.”  “People are just too egotistical these days, that’s why you’ve been having trouble getting lifts. Now when I was at school we were taught to love our country, to love our neighbours. They don’t teach the young that any more.”

The third driver of the day was a Russian, or at least of Russian origin. As the official at the motorway toll gate waved us through without asking for any money, he laid out his comparison of ‘les événements’ and the 1917 revolution in St Petersburg. In spite of being an anti-communist monarchist, this 80 year old lawyer had sent his son to Kiev University in the new Soviet Union. “General de Gaulle (the French President) is is an imperial power, a czar, even stronger than the czar. Mitterand (a French politician) is an unscrupulous corpse, just like the Russian Kerensky. France lacks honest men to take the helm. As soon as Mitterand takes over, the communists will come.  The new Russian ambassador to Paris  since last year is Zorin, the very man who manoeuvred the revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1948! Masaryk equals de Gaulle, although Masaryk was sick.”

The driver went on to tell me something of his personal history – an officer in the First World War and a fighter, presumably on the White Russian side, in the Civil War that raged across Russia after the 1917 revolution. He claimed to know that “the student revolt in Paris was initiated by the Chinese, or if not then by students who were followers of Mao tse Tung. Cohn-Bendit is not an anarchist as he pretends, he is pro-Chinese. He is hoping for a breakdown of society. The Chinese teenagers led by Mao in Peking today, all waving his ‘little red book’, are blind and ignorant, though they are a real force to be reckoned with. All the cadres were ready a year ago, preparing for this event. They manipulate the students who understand nothing.” (I think he was talking about France, not China, at this point.) As we drove along the Bapaume – Paris motorway, he informed me that the communists had a hold over the various nationalised industries in France. 68% of workers in the nationalised coal industry were members of unions affiliated to the (communist) C.G.T., while the figure for private enterprises was far lower. “That’s the trouble – all companies should be in private hands.” As we pass Le Bourget airport at 3pm, about 10 km north of Paris, no planes are visible in the sky. The motorway itself has very little traffic on it; there are as many lorries as cars, although petrol is available again, still at the original price. Many smoky chimneys are visible as we enter the outskirts of the  capital. “The strike’s almost over” says my driver, unlike the previous driver who maintained that the country was completely paralysed. We pass a red flag outside a factory. The post holding up a traffic light is bent  horizontal. I get several photos of strikers and flags outside factory gates. I see piles of rubbish everywhere, the streets are filthy and the gutters are full of garbage, and piles of empty wooden crates block the pavements. It’s smelly here in the suburbs: will the down town area be as messy? I am beginning to feel quite excited, wondering what I will find in the University quarter, and the Left Bank where the action is.

(b) What I saw in Paris.

I had now reached the heart of the French capital where I was to spend the next few days. Many army trucks are parked outside a major rail terminal, the Gare de l’Est. Incongruously there is a fairground nearby full of people on roundabouts enjoying themselves.  Along with the garbage collectors, the bus and metro workers are out on strike, so many young people can be seen hitch-hiking in the wide Parisian boulevards. A few taxis can be seen. The most eye-catching thing about the streets is the slogans decorating every surface: posters, stickers, painted graffiti. The dominant  message is “C.R.S. = S.S.” The C.R.S are the riot police and the S.S. refers to the wartime Nazi storm troopers who had occupied Paris only 23 years earlier. According to the media, the home-grown storm troopers had committed such atrocities against the protesters as throwing them off the parapet of a bridge into the freezing cold waters of the river Seine below, without first enquiring if they knew how to swim; and shoving peoples’ heads through plate glass windows then dragging them back out again so the jagged glass cut their throats. From what I heard I knew it was only a matter of time before I encountered these thugs myself. I reckoned what would save me was my trainers – I could probably  run away faster than they   could pursue, as they wore heavy boots and coats. Looking back, it strikes me how similar to Darth Vadar the riot police looked, although Star Wars was yet to be written.

It was not always easy to understand the significance of what I saw. Some of the notes I made seem strange “Traffic jams in Rue St Martin and Rue St Jacques” for example. So what? Why did that seem noteworthy at the time? More important was probably this hint at struggle over control of the airwaves: an RTF (state-owned French Radio and TV) van with the message emblazoned on it “Personnel en grève. Assurance d’information”, which translates roughly as “TV and radio staff on strike, but still bringing you the news”. Ambulances were out in force – did that mean the dreaded CRS were beating people up in the streets nearby? Ankle deep litter had not been cleared, and cars were just parking over it. Paris’s council had for years been known for defacing every old building in the town with one message painted on its walls: “Défence d’Afficher” — Stick no Bills, and now these self same walls were plastered with posters, and the message itself had been altered; it now read “Défence d’Interdire!” – It is forbidden to forbid!

The same day  that I entered France I had a run-in with the (ordinary) police. I was stopped at 3 p.m. in Ile de la Cité by 2 “flics” (cops) who wanted to know why I had photographed police buses full of civilians. They asked for my papers and told a bystander who stopped to listen to move on. They smile when they find out I’m English, and almost laugh when they compare the passport photo with the reality (I had a beard then). As I leave, the same bystander comes up and tells me he thinks the police are ferrying pro-government civilians to a pro-government demonstration. They stopped me because they were afraid I’d publish the photos with a revealing caption.

I walked on up the famous “Bou St Miche” or B.S.M. (Boulevard Saint Michèle) jotting things down in my notebook, little imagining I wouldn’t read it again for nearly 50 years and that I would then be transcribing it onto an unimagined data carrier known as the internet! Here’s what I  recorded:
– broken glass was scattered over the pavement from a telephone kiosk,
– affiches (posters) everywhere, one stuck to a tree says “La Bourgeoisie a Peur” (The bourgeoisie are scared.)
– far fewer people than usual sitting at the open air terrace cafés in spite of it being a sunny spring day,
– students hawking broadsheets,
– a smashed shop window is boarded up with hardboard,
– in the nearby B.S.G. (Boulevard St Germain) many “craters”  about seven feet in diameter mark the spots where big city trees used to grow. The students had cut them down to make their barricades 10 days earlier. All the metal grids which surrounded the bases of the trees and let rainwater in are missing too. I didn’t see the barricades as they had all been removed by the time I got to Paris.
– some street signs and traffic light are decapitated: you can almost feel the rage that must have been pouring out of these young people,
– a bench has been removed leaving a metal stanchion behind,
– most lamps at the entrances to the underground railway system (metro) are smashed,
– the pedestrian  crossing signs which used to say PIETONS: ATTENDEZ, MARCHEZ are smashed too; seems like people had had enough of being told what to do!

At about 4 o’clock I arrived at the Sorbonne, the University of Paris itself. Outside, students were begging for cash and cigarettes from passers by. They got a reasonable response. On the pavement was a pile of charred timbers, books and files. I was later told this was the result of an arson attack on the occupying students by “Occident”, a militant fascist outfit. Another group to avoid. Little did I know how close I was to getting hurt by them in the days ahead. Their symbol was the cross hairs of a  rifle sight, a cross in a circle. They were brave enough to paint their logo on walls near the Sorbonne.

I knew what to expect when I walked into the University’s central courtyard, all the Western press had been there before me. Posters and slogans and flags everywhere, but everywhere. There were pictures of the “gods” of the left: Mao, Ho Chi Minh,  Che, Leon Trotsky, Karl Marx, Lenin, even Danny Cohn-Bendit, the student’s leader, featured in this pantheon (but not Stalin, the idol of the official French communist party who did not support “les événements”). From upstairs windows hung the red and black flags of the anarcho-syndicalists. The rival groups of the French left produced their separate magazines still, but they seemed to be cooperating amicably in the courtyard and beyond. Did they feel they were on the threshold of a Russian style revolution?
I walked around looking at the stalls trying to find out. Literature was available from the following groups:- Maoist, anarchist, Protestant, Kurdish, Catalan Liberation, French communist party, socialists, Jeunesse Communiste Revoltionnaire (led by Alain Krevine, an important Trotskyist group), El Fatah (Palestine liberation), Antiloguyanese liberation, Trotskyist. I accumulated an armful of all the free stuff – I had a lot of reading to do! One side of the courtyard was occupied by a chapel, whose wall bore the memorable slogan “Comment penser librement dans l’ombre d’une chapelle?” – How can you think clearly in the shadow of a chapel? Quite so!

People  stood around discussing politics, not only in the courtyard but  also in the lecture theatres inside. They had evidently been doing this for weeks. After taking several photos someone tells me to get authorisation from the Press Office. I get an official press card, which I still have. Unfortunately the ink got smudged. I keep it along with my letter from Nelson Mandela thanking me for my work in the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and my piece of the iron curtain which I cut away with pliers in East Germany in the weeks following the wall’s fall. Souvenir’s of a mis-spent youth?

Finding a place to lay my weary head, not having slept since leaving Dover, proved a bureaucratic nightmare. It seemed the only safe place was within the main Sorbonne building itself. I dutifully went to the coordination committee, staircase C, first floor. They say Yes I can stay the night – go to the second floor. The second floor says “No” you can’t sleep on this floor, go to the English students’ committee “pour meilleur te renseigner, camarade”. Merde! What do they think I’ve been doing. Anyway I go, only to find the British “Radical Student Alliance” supposedly lodged at the far end of this huge building pulled out days ago and no one knows where they are now. The English Committee no longer exists. I should have been here last month! It seems like I am currently the only English person in the Sorbonne. A girl tells me I can sleep anywhere there’s a space. I do just that.

The next day, armed with my official press card, I visit the Institute Britannique in the Rue de la Sorbonne. It’s a hostel where English undergraduates stayed whilst doing courses at the Uni. Now, the students having been recalled to the UK by their sponsoring British universities, the place was host to revolutionaries of British origin who had come  to learn, to foment, to fight – I never got to find out. I moved in with them but I have never come across such a security-conscious bunch of people. They wouldn’t reveal their names, towns of origin, or tell me what they were doing in Paris. Together we constituted the Comité d’Action (Action Committee) of the British Institute, and  besides free accommodation in the heart of Paris we also got access to the well stocked larder and fridges of the Institute. That reduced our living costs! At night a watchman, who had been active in the Spanish Civil War, barricaded the front door to keep the enemy out. Paranoia? Hardly. The Occident attacked the front door on my first night but failed to gain access. We could see them from the upper windows. We were unarmed and felt even more vulnerable the following night when bullets were fired through the window of the room in which I was sleeping. It was lucky I was lying down at the time and not standing up or I could have got hurt; as it was I just had to sweep up the broken glass in the morning. Obviously we couldn’t call the police for help, we were an illegal squat and they would have sided with the attackers and arrested us instead! We were on our own.

The Ecole des Beaux Arts was the centre of the revolutionary poster-making industry. All the talent and materials were there in abundance, and I would say they had an enormous, long-lasting impact on European art, right up to Banksy’s wall stencils today. I was delegated by my Action Committee to represent them at a coordinating committee meeting there.. I had to show my ID to gain access to the Ecole. The meeting was hard to follow as my French wasn’t really up to it, and it went on for hours. Every speaker seemed like an egoist who wanted to show off his or her rhetorical skills. I remember thinking, what happens when term ends in a few weeks’ time? Will everyone go home to their parents? What on earth will happen at the Sorbonne during the long summer holidays? What will all these young students be doing in ten years time, or ten weeks time, come to that? On my return to the Institute I was supposed to report back to our own Action Committee. This was the democracy of the future. No more orders from above, all decisions to be made at grassroots level from now on. Whether we knew it or not we were acting out the template on which modern post-capitalist society was to be modelled. Two guys were missing from the Institute’s Action Committee: they had suddenly decided to return to the UK without saying goodbye to the rest of us. Summer holidays had already begun here!
At breakfast the next morning, one of my new English comrades showed me his secret stash of ….muesli. He had brought it with him from the UK, and recommended it as the ideal food for revolutionaries. It tasted quite good when you added milk, I had never had it before. He wore a leather jacket over a white t shirt and blue jeans, and only needed a cap to look like Marlon Brando or  at least James Dean.

(c) Finding a role in the revolution

I got an unpaid “job” in the Sorbonne Press Office translating press releases into English for the English speaking press. Of course, looking back, I  realise any journalist sent to France by his paper wouldn’t need a translation because he would know enough French to read the original version. Be that as it may, it made me feel useful and I enjoyed it. French into English with the help of a dictionary – easy. English into French, now that’s a different kettle of fish. My vocabulary increased by leaps and bounds “autogestion” meaning self organisation, along with its partner “pavé” or cobblestone. The latter which might be thrown as a means of attaining the former. I particularly liked the play on words between “grève” (strike) and “crève” (bashing someone’s head in). So a general strike ( grève générale) initiated by the students brought about a response by the state’s strongarm, the C.R.S.,of a “crève générale” or general bashing in of heads.

(d) The Tribune Libre

A white banner was draped across the front of one of Paris’s oldest theatres, the Odeon. It  bore two words: Tribune and Libre. Its doors were open 24/7 for anyone who wanted to come in and take their turn to speak from the stage. That’s what a Free Tribune is. Kind of Open Mic without the mic. This theatre was at the heart of the uprising, a well of hopes and longings, a place where spontaneity and Marxism-Leninism met head on.

The acoustics were good, and it reminded me of the kind of discussions one sometimes heard at Hyde Park corner. There weren’t any lengthy monologues, just a lot of back and forth arguments. More words came from the people seated in the stalls and the gallery than from the stage. There was a lot of emotion and some shouting, but by and large participants listened to what others had to say. After an hour of listening I felt confident enough  to add my tuppence worth, and people were kind enough to listen as, in my broken French, I expressed the wish that after they had they had completed their regime change in France, they should cross the channel and help us achieve the same goal in England.

(e) Demo and counter-demo

The car workers at the Renault plant just outside Paris were due to march the next day, calling on de Gaulle to go. He was reportedly visiting army posts around the country to check on their loyalty. Was a military coup a possibility? Soldiers and C.R.S. would soon put down any revolt by students. Before setting out to the Arc de Triomphe for the demo, I noticed a new sign at the Sorbonne entrance “Help, we’re short of vitamin C”. Were some of the students suffering from scurvy? By the time I returned several hours later, a  farmer had delivered a truck load of radishes and tipped them out in the courtyard!

The march of the car workers filled the Champs Elyssées. We marched in solidarity alongside them. Soon a counter demonstration by fascists and government supporters materialised and an angry shouting match broke out. Suddenly the C.R.S. appeared with their batons drawn, ready to inflict some “crèves” on the Renault workers. I wasn’t going to hang around and watch – I was frightened, genuinely ‘quaking in my shoes’ scared shitless. Adrenalin coursed through my veins as I tried to find a way out of the crowd. Everyone was running in different directions, and the C.R.S. were knocking the slower people down with their truncheons. About a dozen of us ran into a small shop for shelter and the proprietor bolted the door after us. A riot cop peered through the glass but couldn’t see us. I don’t know how long  we were there, but it seemed like ages. An English man with a suit and tie on was trying to tell two French men  – in  English- that they were “barking up the wrong tree, Woof, woof!” I reckon they thought he was barking – mad! I asked a guy who was a car worker how his family was managing without a wage coming in. No problem, he said, we go hunting in the woods. We’ve all got hunting rifles and we share whatever deer or rabbits we kill with our neighbours. Wow! I can’t see that happening in London somehow!

After a while the streets cleared and we emerged  into the evening sun. I had learned one important lesson from all this – my body and brain don’t function well when I’m in a state of panic. Revolution is violent and not for the faint-hearted. I learned then, back in 1968 in Paris, that I am not cut out for it. I can only participate in non-violent social change, and so it has been ever since that day.

Except that, just two years later, I was involved in another revolution: the 1970 Black Power revolution in Trinidad and Tobago.
I may write about that one day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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