Forbidden to Forbid – May ’68 in France (Part 2)

Forbidden to Forbid – May ’68 in France (Part 2)
  Le Chienlit, c’est lui (He’s the cause of havoc Poster by Ecole de Beaux Arts students, May 1968). When the streets take to the theater I was a student at the Sorbonne in May of 1968 and, though I didn’t participate directly in the student riots, I was lucky enough to be what you might call an “inside observer” when students called on the population to donate medicine and discovered that Kotex was an excellent tear-gas filter or, during the general strike, again occupied the school’s main amphitheatre and declared it to be an “autonomous people’s university”. I was also there when, on May 15th, 2,500 of those same students stormed the Théâtre National, Odéon in the nearby St Germain district.  That day theater manager Jean-Louis Barrault asked authorities what he should do and was told to “Open the doors and negotiate”.  Barrault opened the doors, “negotiated” and the theater quickly became a twenty-four hour debate center, similar to what it must have been like living in Paris during the French Revolution of 1789. I sat in the theater listening as heated debates shook the walls of a monument intended for less “down to earth” spectacles.  The subjects of debate between those on the stage and those in the audience were more or less the same as those encountered in the street:  liberalizing contraception, opening up the media, inventing new ideas, challenging authority, revamping the country’s historical perspectives, attacking class discrimination in education, all of the possible outcomes of the general strike and even the prospect of a possible military coup d’état. Damage to the theater was inevitable; Barrault was eventually “thanked for his services” and fired.  A courageous and wonderfully talented actor and director, along with his wife Madeleine Renaud, Barrault went on contributing profoundly to the progressive enrichment of French theatrical culture over the years that followed May ‘68, but independently and outside of “government” structures! May 15th, 1968, occupation and debates, National Theater –Odéon Is there a President in the Palace? Two other outstanding moments mark May ’68 in my memory.  One was the sudden disappearance of de Gaulle for two days on May 29th when the general strike continued despite what was to be called “the Grenelle agreement”.  After postponing his Council of Ministers meeting and convinced that if he dissolved the Assembly his party would lose the elections to François Mitterrand and the Socialists, the General packed up his personal papers and announced that he was going to his country home in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises.  The presidential helicopter never arrived in Colombey and no-one, not even George Pompidou, de Gaulle’s Prime Minister, knew what was going on.  Rumours spread that de Gaulle had fled the country and, with Paris surrounded by French Army tanks, it was feared that we were in for an eventual military “coup d’état”.  Though it’s mute, you’ll get an excellent idea of what May ’68 felt like here.  The video was taken on May 27th. I was on an American passport and it was also rumoured that the Sorbonne would again be invested by State Police and all foreigners expulsed from the country.  We were bussed to a “foyer de jeunes travailleurs“  (a sort of refuge for young working people) in the suburbs.  Today we know that members of government at the Presidential Elysée Palace also panicked, burning papers and trying to find ways of fleeing the country where there was no gasoline,  in the case of an eventual Revolution. Alone to assume the direction, Prime Minister Pompidou soon discovered that De Gaulle had, in fact, “fled” to the French military base of Baden Baden in Germany to meet with a fellow general Jacques Massu.  Former key figure in the efforts to keep Algeria from becoming independent during its war for independence, Massu eventually convinced de Gaulle that the French really needed his presence and he came back to Paris.  We were all gathered around the radio and I remember feeling my knees knocking together in fright as we listened to de Gaulle’s speech before 30,000 people locked into the Charlety Stadium on May 30th. The tension was so high that I actually found my knees shaking.  One  though kept running through my head, “A single shot, a movement of panic,  and the tanks placed all around Paris will move into action.” There was no shot and though the sudden turnout of support was of short duration, a pro-Gaullist street march, up the Champs Elysées, that ensued was overwhelming.   It was enough to allow De Gaulle to dissolve the National Assembly and win the June elections with 354 of the 487 seats, a first time ever record in parliamentary history. The lasting effects of May ‘68 Graffiti covered the walls, not with gang insignias or tags, but with a poetry of metaphores.  “C’est interdit d’interdire” (It’s forbidden to forbid).  “Sous les pavés la plage” (Under the paving stones, the beach); traditionally a great many French people spend their summer vacations on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coast beaches.  When the students snatched up the paving stones to build the barricades, they found a layer of sand beneath them).   With reference to a toilet: “Veuillez laisser le Parti Communiste aussi net en sortant que vous voudriez le trouver en y entrant”  (Please leave the Communist Party as clean when you leave it as you would like to find it upon entering).  “L’imagination prend le pouvoir” (Imagination is seizing power).   “Soyez réaliste, demandez l’impossible” (Be realistic, ask for the impossible).  “La barricade ferme la rue mais ouvre la voie” (Barricades close off the street, but open the way).  Or, finally, “Les murs ont la parole” (Walls have the right to speak). The graffiti, like the posters made by Beaux Art students, including the response to the President’s comment to the Press “La réforme oui  ; la chienlit non” (Reform yes, havoc no) were a response to governmental censorship of French media.  Note that the term actually means “sh…in bed” and comes from a character in bedclothes…

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