Stay tuned for postings on my new play, FLIGHT PATTERNS!
TO ARM OR NOT TO ARM
March 6, 2015
Every movement with an eye toward major change will ask itself the same question: to arm or not to arm? What is the nature of our movement, how do we carry it out in the most effective way possible, and does this include the use of arms? The answer for the students and workers of May ’68 was a nonviolent one. The demonstrators in the streets remained unarmed, though I can’t with any truth or confidence say that no punches were thrown in the chaos.
Let us remember, though, that the students’ demands were not met. Was, then, the lack of arms to blame here, or were there other factors at play? Sartre was one of the first to lament this choice of nonviolence. "A regime is not brought down by 100,000 unarmed students," he said, "no matter how courageous." Sartre was not the only one to question the protestors’ tactics. Kristin Ross, in her book May ’68 and Its Afterlives, quotes militant Pierre Goldman:
It seemed to me that the students spreading out onto the streets, in the Sorbonne, represented the unhealthy tide of an hysterical symptom. They were satisfying their desire for history using ludic and masturbatory forms. I was shocked that they were seizing speech and that they were happy with that. They were substituting speech for action. This seizure of power was an imaginary power. My opinion was that they gravely misunderstood the government’s tactic and that that tactic was subtle and effective. They thought they were in insurrection, in violence, but it was paving stones they were throwing, not grenades (66).
There are several things we can take from Goldman’s testimony. First, that there existed a possibly sizable faction of people who didn’t take the students (and by extension, the workers) seriously. To Goldman, and likely to many others, the students weren’t fighting for any concrete necessary cause, but rather feeding their own restless aversion to authority and need for revolution in no specific form. We can further derive from Goldman’s criticism that it was indeed the lack of violent action that allowed the movement to fail. Too much talking and not enough doing.
To me, what is missing from the protests in Paris which more likely handed the victory to de Gaulle was a lack of focused demands. The students and workers had a lot to fight for and against. And they asked for it all at once. This is not, however, to imply that the students were unorganized. Despite my previous impressions, I have learned that there was indeed a great deal of organization in the comités d’action (action committees). More on that to come.
Ross, Kristin. "Forms and Practices." May '68 and Its Afterlives. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2002. 68. Print.
Sharp, Gene. "The Methods of Nonviolent Protest and Persuasion." Class of Nonviolence. Ed.
Colman McCarthy. The Class of Nonviolence, n.d. Web. 06 May 2015.
PARIS MASSACRE OF 1961
March 19, 2015
Though not directly connected to the events of May 1968, the Paris massacre of 1961 (also known as "The Battle of Paris") plays a significant role in the motivations and sentiments of one of Babel's protagonists, Katia. While I can't yet reveal that connection, the research is worth sharing.
This little known massacre marked one of the most violent moments of the Algerian War of Independence on French soil. Prior to the night of the protest, Maurice Papon, the chief of police at the time, had implemented a curfew on all French-Algerians in order to curb subversion by FLN supporters in France in the midst of the Algerian War of Independence. According to the mandate, French-Algerians were forbidden from being out of their homes between the hours of 8:30pm and 5:30am. This was problematic for those effected on several levels. First, this prevented French-Algerians from accepting night shifts at work, often reducing income for their families. Second, less than two decades after the end of World War II, Papon’s curfew was dangerously reminiscent of those implemented by the Germans on Jews during the war. On a political level, the curfews prevented members of the French division of the FLN from meeting and addressing grievances.
On October 17th, the French-Algerian community in Paris gathered peacefully in protest against the curfew (and against other police acts, including the unwarranted raiding of households in Algerian-populated neighborhoods). Demonstrators marched at Pont Neuilly, the Latin Quarter, Place de la Concord, and Place de L’Étoile. At Pont Neuilly, the police opened fire on the protesters. Witnesses report seeing bodies thrown off Pont Neuilly into the Seine. Though numbers from that night are vague in accuracy due to a lack of documentation and a decades-long cover-up by the French government, the general consensus among researchers is that the police arrested about 12,000 protesters that night and 14,000 total by the end of the week. About 500 of those arrested were deported to Algeria in the weeks following. The death count from the protest ranges between 31 and 200. Those who died were either shot or drowned. Those arrested were taken to amphitheaters and sports arenas on the outskirts of Paris and kept there for the duration of the war. The facilities were unsanitary, uncomfortable, and medically ill-equipped. Some detainees were even tortured. Even more grievously, the death toll provided by Maurice Papon the next day was three — two deaths by police fire and one by cardiac arrest. Historians arrived at the aforementioned current numbers through an investigation of Paris morgues, eye-witness accounts, and documents from the police department released in 1999.
The biggest tragedy that came from the events of October 17th was the failure of the press, both local and foreign. The French government and police department put pressure on the local papers to underplay the events, effectually censuring its journalists. Reporters were furthermore warned not to approach the detention centers holding the arrested Algerians. On the international level, Britain and France refrained from reporting on the event in detail in order to preserve the status quo of de Gaulle’s government, which had been seen as a stabilizing force in France in the post-war era — and thus a stabilizing force for Europe. They therefore accepted the drastically false numbers provided by Maurice Papon immediately after the protests.
It wasn’t until 1980, among discussions regarding French colonialism, that these events even became a topic of conversation in the media or prominent public consciousness. In 1998, the French government recognized only forty of the possible two hundred deaths from that night. And in 1999, the prefecture of police allowed historians to view police archives from the demonstrations.
Today there hangs a plaque commemorating October 17th on Pont Saint-Michel, though not prominently displayed. There are now also numerous documentaries, narrative films, and novels on the subject, including La Seine Était Rouge by Leïla Sebbar, and Ici on Noie Les Algériens directed by Yasmina Adi. Though the event remains a black mark on the government of Charles de Gaulle, it has gained important, albeit still limited, recognition as a tragically avoidable event in French history.
ROOTS OF REVOLUTION: PART IV
A Year of Everything, Everywhere:
March 5, 2015
The French students of 1968 were concerned with more than just France. They’d been following the civil rights movement in the U.S., the cultural revolution in China, and the continuing conflict in Vietnam, despite the withdrawal of French troops from Indochina after the Battle of Dienbienphu in ’54. Moreover, the popularization of television brought these events directly into people's homes, effectually shrinking the distance between conflicts from one continent to the next.
In the U.S. alone, 1968 saw the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and of Robert F. Kennedy, the Detroit riots, protests against the draft, and the infamous Tet Offensive in Vietnam. So, to put it simply, a lot is happening around the world in the realm of political frustration, protest, and youth revolt.
Which leads me to conclude that the students who occupied the Latin Quarter were part of France’s own version of a global phenomenon. To assume they were protesting one single thing oversimplifies the tumultuous year of 1968. Then again, perhaps it was the lack of a single cause that ended the protests by the end of the month.
ROOTS OF REVOLUTION: PART III
The Anti-Gaullist Revolution:
March 4, 2015
The post-war "Gaullist revolution" championed rationalism, science, and progress. This was The Word until 1960 when such thinkers as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida began questioning its reasoning. Foucault investigated the relationship between power and the origins of the prison and mental institutions, concluding that the Gaullist model was less about reform and humanitarianism than control. And so is born the buzz word of 1968: control.
The students of 1968 rejected de Gaulle’s capitalistic France, seeing it as wholly authoritarian. So really, we’re looking at a whole culture of rebellion, made up of a middle class youth suspicious of authority of all shapes and sizes.
The pot is boiling, it’s just about to burst. Check back for Part IV: The Year of Everything, Everywhere.
ROOTS OF REVOLUTION: PART II
A Political Eclipse:
March 3, 2015
The immediate political roots of 1968 can be traced back to none other than the Algerian War for Independence* (more to come on this later). In September, 1960, eighteen French people went on trial for aiding the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN)*. The leading French communist party at the time, PCF**, barely responded to the situation, despite expectations on the contrary, causing the student union, UNEF***, to take the take the reins of rebellion. UNEF mobilized 20,000 French protesters in solidarity with the eighteen on trial, eclipsing PCF as a new force on the French political left. UNEF thus left behind two legacies from this event: one, beginning in 1960, they would come to replace PCF as a main representation of French communism, and two, they began a tradition of direct action in response to condemnable actions by French authorities. These two legacies provided important groundwork for the events of May, 1968.
Some Helpful Terms:
* Algerian War of Independence: (1954-1962) Between 1830 and 1954, Algeria had been a French colony. Led by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the native Algerians overthrew the French, forming their own country in 1962.
** PCF (Parti communiste fraçais): The leading French communist party until 1960.
*** UNEF (Union nationale des étudiants de France): A student union in France, founded 1907.
ROOTS OF REVOLUTION: PART I
March 2, 2015
What I’ve been struggling to pinpoint of late is an exact cause for May ’68. Important, I concede, but nonetheless "slippery" to define. Here we have a movement that shook the country to its core, bringing France to the brink of revolution. We have tens of thousands of students and workers who quite literally ripped up the cobblestones of Boulevard Saint-Germain, risking their lives for ... and that’s where the breadcrumbs end. What was so important to these students that they would take physical beatings to protect ... or perhaps reject?
From what I’ve found, the answer is far from simple. There was no single cause for protest that sparked at a single identifiable moment. Rather, it was a build-up of several different developments, decades in the making. To better understand these developments, I’ve broken them down into four categories: social, political, intellectual, and international. Let us begin our analysis with social.
The Baby Boomers:
Rewind for a moment to 1946. The war is over, France is liberated, and a shell-shocked Europe is on the road to recovery. Hope for the future, a sense of security, and a pinch of celebration equals babies. And so were born the Baby Boomers.
Fast forward to 1968. The Baby Boomers are now of age, and they’re heading off to college — all of them. The issue? The country couldn’t keep up with the population explosion, rendering the available facilities wholly insufficient, most noticeably in the field of higher education.
The student population in the 1960s was ten times larger than that of the 1930s, leading to overcrowded classrooms, lack of access to the appropriate classes, and unresponsive administrations. Now add on frustrations over sex-segregated dormitories and dissatisfaction with the stifling "authoritarianism" of school administrations, and you get thousands of disconcerted students with an aversion to authority. A pot ready to boil over.
Nanterre was by far the worst example of these insufficiencies, despite the fact that it was built in an effort to relieve the overcrowding. To start, its facilities were built in a bidonville, a particularly unsavory type of slum on the outskirts of the city. In American vernacular — a shantytown. By 1968, it still lacked a proper library, forcing students to commute to the Latin Quarter from the banlieue. But even the trains and buses from the university were cut off from central Paris, making that commute all the more difficult. It’s not surprising then that it was here where the first meetings for the student protests took place.
With just this information, I’m starting to see where the students were coming from. But the puzzle's barely solved. Parallel movements in politics, philosophy, and international affairs further added to this ticking time bomb. Check back in for Part II: A Political Eclipse.
March 1, 2015
On the night of May 6, 1968, Christopher Cook Gilmore raced along the quai just near Notre Dame. He was one of thousands of young students evading the French riot police after what would later be known as "Bloody Monday." Gilmore found his sanctuary not from the Cathedral but from a little shop along the quai -- indeed, the only one with a light on. He ran up to the front door of Shakespeare and Company and pounded on the doors, screaming "C.R.S.! C.R.S.!" George Whitman, its owner, opened the door, swung it shut behind them, and turned off the lights. A safe getaway. Gilmore then recalls Whitman turning to him and saying, "Isn’t this the greatest moment of your entire life!"
Bloody Monday went down in history as one of the most violent nights of protests that May. Five thousand students from universities throughout France marched through the Latin Quarter, protesting the closure of the Sorbonne two days earlier and the conviction of thirteen demonstrators from a previous protest, four of whom received jail terms. Whether the police or the students attacked first is unclear, but the result was an overnight bloodbath. Tear gas filled the Latin Quarter, Molotov Cocktails flew through the air, barricades blocked the streets.
These barricades became a trademark of the May protests. Built by the students using whatever they could find -- garbage cans, cobblestones, cars, chairs, etc. -- they were a mark of revolution.
That night there were 422 arrests and about 945 injured persons (345 police and 600 students). Despite the extremities of the night's violence, over 30,000 students stood at the tomb of the unknown soldier the next day at Place de l’Étoile and sang the Marseillaise in solidarity with their cause.