We were ‘doing Europe’. It was an Australian tradition. We were twenty-one-year-old women who had hitched from northern Spain to Paris in a day, as if we’d been travelling in Australia. After naïvely expecting to stay free-of-charge in a friend’s hotel, and then objecting to a traditional, authoritarian youth hostel, we’d been told about a hostel with a more relaxed regime. It was in the nineteenth arrondissement, a working-class suburb of Paris. The hostel was run by a group of anarchists who supposedly held all possessions in common, even toothbrushes. There was an exciting mix of residents, from a US Army deserter who had been stationed in Germany, to Greeks and North Africans who were lodging there long-term. In a way, the place epitomised the spirit of 1968 – the youthful desire for freedom from restriction and authority. It was March, 1968.
The youth hostel became well known among the young traveller population in Paris. The anarchists tried to run it like an experimental society, working hard to improve the facilities (which were pretty rudimentary by today’s standards) and fixing it up. They were cheerful and good-humoured. The manager Yves used to whistle and sing while he worked, although did tend to shout at people who left the kitchen a pigsty. Ruth wrote in a letter home that the general atmosphere was ‘one of comradeship, co-operation and general willingness to help.’
Sometimes the occupants clubbed together to prepare a communal meal. One day it was Ruth’s task:
I walked round the corner to the butcher’s shop with the effigy of the horse’s head over the door. Minced horsemeat was the cheapest option. I was making spaghetti bolognaise for the returning warriors. A United Nations of young men and women were staying at the hostel, some eager to join the fray, others having drifted there after travelling the roads from other parts of France and Europe. At our evening meal Tunisians, Africans, a Pakistani, Italians, French and we two [sic] ate spaghetti, the horsemeat bolognaise enlivened by five-spice powder I’d enterprisingly bought from a grocery shop. Some gourmets expressed surprise at finding cinnamon and cloves in their bolognaise.
Unbeknown to us, political unrest had already begun on 22 March at the new University of Nanterre, a branch of the Sorbonne. Students agitated about their living conditions, the restrictive rules on visiting times to the women’s dormitories and the rigid, archaic academic environment. The police repeatedly broke up protest meetings, provoking the students to go on strike and occupy the campus. One of the leaders, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, was expelled from France on 22 May for being a ‘seditious alien’; he subsequently became a legend.
On 3 May, when students at the Sorbonne in Central Paris met to protest against the closure of the Nanterre University, there were clashes with the police. Following a demonstration of 20,000 people on 6 May, they took over the Sorbonne and the surrounding streets. Over the next few days there were repeated demonstrations and fights. The police routinely tried to disperse the crowds by charging at and beating them.
Although we didn’t closely follow the newspapers, we knew major events were happening around us from the reports of the anarchists and other residents who returned bloodied from the daily demonstrations. The atmosphere was highly charged.
As a trained nurse, the returning injured often saw Ruth for attention:
One large wound on the leg of a French partisan required washing and bandaging. Someone said the wound was due to shrapnel. It wasn’t. It was caused by a grenade. It was said that four students had been killed by hand grenades. Hand grenades hadn’t been used. But smoke grenades had.
There was the story of a gendarme throwing a tear gas canister into a café. Another of the demonstrator whose arm was broken by police, only to come out of hospital, be recognised and beaten again. We were shocked by the reports.
Janey was an eyewitness at one of the demonstrations.
One day I decided to see what was happening for myself. A large crowd had gathered so I pushed through to get up the front. As I arrived at the front of the demo it suddenly became the back as the gendarmes were attacking from that end. Now, I’m really a very poor runner. The batons were going thwack, thwack to my left and right striking at the running demonstrators on either side of me. Somehow, I didn’t get hit. To get away from the strong smell of tear gas I rushed down a metro entrance and managed to escape notice.
Our daily lives in the hostel were also affected by the police. A contingent of 400 gendarmes belonging to the force that specialised in public order and crowd control had been transferred from Lyons, and had taken up residence in the school next door to our hostel. The street was closed to traffic with a security check at both ends. Ruth remembers having to explain at the checkpoint that she was going to buy horsemeat.
In the hostel there were animated discussions of the crisis, ranging from opposition to capitalism, to analyses of bureaucracy, class privilege and authority. This generation wanted autonomy, open discussion, the power to make a difference. To build a fairer, freer kind of society.
The night of 10 May was the famous Night of the Barricades, when the students who had been battered for hours by the police decided to stand their ground and fight. By midnight, finding themselves holding the Latin Quarter, they built up their barricades. Thousands of people joined this spontaneous movement. They tore up cobble stones from the streets and built over sixty barricades using anything they could find. As one observer described it, ‘women, workers, bystanders, people in pyjamas, human chains to carry rocks, wood, iron.’
Janey remembers her reaction:
Looking at the newspaper in the morning, and seeing the classic Parisian image of rebellion – a student throwing a cobble stone at the police – this is one of the sharpest memories I have of the time I spent in Paris.
The trade union federation, responding to the students’ actions and police brutality, then called a strike for the following Monday, 13 May. Within a fortnight, in a largely spontaneous movement, more than nine million workers from all sectors were on strike, the largest workers’ strike in French history.
But on 12 May, not knowing where its persistent, turbulent state was about to lead, we decided to leave Paris, and continue with our travels. The next day we learned that the national strike had brought France to a complete standstill.
We had been present for the supporting act but missed the main event.
Perhaps it was for the best that we left. We were foreigners. Although Ruth spoke French well, Janey’s knowledge of the language was rudimentary. We were dependent on cashing travellers’ cheques, but once the strikes got underway, the banks were closed. We would have found it impossible to live in Paris without access to money, and very difficult to leave.
As Janey says:
I certainly felt sympathy with the students, instinctively supported them and (we) were on their side, even if we didn’t fully understand the issues they were fighting over. But it also became clear to me that instinctive sympathy isn’t enough. My limited knowledge of the language would have made it very difficult to be an active participant.
The mass strike was an enormously powerful act, but the addition of workplace occupations upped the ante considerably, threatening implicitly the owners’ right of property and management’s right to manage. One of the most striking things about the events of 1968 was the energy, the excitement and creativity that was unleashed. This was evident in the poetry, posters and slogans that were created, one famous to this day: ‘Be realistic. Ask the impossible.’
The strike covered all parts of society. Banks and television stations, undertakers and the Folies Bergere, schools and hospitals, car factories and public transport. Petrol was rationed. Cars out of petrol blocked the streets and moped sales rose.
By 22 May the trade unions started negotiating an improved wage and conditions package with the employers.
On 29 May, President Charles de Gaulle fled Paris, but later returned to dissolve the National Assembly and announce a general election for June. It was a challenge to the country to defy the democratic process. De Gaulle ordered workers to go back to work or face a state of national emergency. Workers did gradually return to work and the police re-took the Sorbonne on 16 June. The 23 June general election returned the Gaullist party with a stronger majority. The party banned a number of left-wing organisations.
On Bastille Day, 14 July 1968, there was a further demonstration by students and left-wingers that was again harshly suppressed by the Parisian police and security forces, with many injured. That was to mark the last gasp of the May ’68 protests in Paris.
Having been derailed into an electoral direction, the strike movement itself did not produce any major improvements in wages or conditions. But in a larger sense, Paris May 1968 had an impact beyond the immediate events. The atmosphere throughout Europe and many other parts of the world in that year was inspired by the French experience. We saw student demonstrations in Vienna, we witnessed Germans and Czechs discussing the Prague Spring when we were in Bulgaria, and took in the large anti-Vietnam War demos in London. There were strikes and student rebellions in Spain, Mexico, Germany, Poland, Jamaica and the US. In the following years, the student and anti-Vietnam war movements exploded, the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements took off, and there were workers struggles from the factory occupations in Italy to the defeat of the penal powers that had been used to prevent strikes in Australia.
Paris, May 1968 remains a crucial milestone for the international working class. In a sophisticated, advanced capitalist country, working-class power came close to calling the whole system into question. The mass strike penetrated every sector of society and raised demands that went far beyond the confines of trade unionism, questioning control at the centre of society. Crucially it was a youth-initiated movement: youth who did not accept what the previous generation had handed down to them – it was a revolution of ideas.