MAY 1968: Four Students Who Remember it Well

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The Independent Online
Jean-Paul Dolle, now 53 and a lecturer in architecture:

I BELONGED to groups which foresaw and organised, if not exactly the revolution, at least movements, events, strikes, general strikes and the like.

But it did not happen at all as we expected. It was very, very spontaneous. From 10 May, the night of the barricades, it was something that was huge and blurred, sweeping everything up, it gave an impression of power, it was total jubilation, a sort of total joy, everybody talked to each other and did what they liked. It was not at all violent. On the one hand we were fighting the police and at the same time it wasn't violent.

Little by little, we began to believe that it would never end. We were outside time, in a different time. We no longer had any political strategy. We looked at the politicians from afar, they seemed like total zombies.

We didn't have the impression that we were taking power except on 24 May, the day de Gaulle proposed his referendum. All night long, there were riots in Paris. I thought it was very beautiful. It was like in the books or films about the French Revolution. I thought that the city, that Paris, belonged to me. We thought we could do anything. At one point, I don't know how it happened, we set fire to the Bourse. It was a moment of great happiness, of wild joy. It was too big for us, we didn't understand anything. We still haven't understood it. It became a myth, a fable.

Philippe Meyer, now 45 and a well-known radio journalist:

FOR ME, May '68 began in November '67. The first big strike in which we sociology students took part was not at all, as has been said, about girls' bedrooms which boys couldn't visit. It was about the reform of the university. The authorities came up with a reform, especially in the humanities, which made us learn things to practise a profession. That was not our idea. The first demonstration was limited to the humanities but, to our great surprise, the other departments joined in. When you see the current university situation, I am sure we were right. Now there is a pre-professional training and students still don't find work.

What is attributed to May '68, the permissiveness and the destruction of many structures, is not the May '68 I lived through. That is the degeneration, perhaps that is not the right word, of the '70s. For me, May '68 was a humanist protest against the technocratisation of society and especially the technocratisation of the university. There was a libertarian current in May '68 which was anti state control, anti authoritarian and humanist. The 'spoilt child' tendency which prospered in the '70s is all that I detest. But that was not May '68.

Gerard Miller, now 45 and a psychoanalyst:

I HAVE never known anything in all that followed, and there have been other political events in 25 years, that I lived through with such intensity. It is, maybe, in part because I was 20 in May '68, but not only that. It happens very rarely that such a large number of people feel they are living collectively through an experience which you can call an experience of liberation.

I was used to demonstrations, fairly violent demonstrations. Those of May '68 were different because of the number of people. Those streets filled with people] What amused me in those demonstrations was the attempt at slogans without end. May '68 produced the longest slogans in French political history. At first, there was 'Continue the combat]' but there were things, which we put rhythm to, like 'Long live the workers of Rhodan who beat back the CRS]' or 'Down with the anti-popular Gaullist government of unemployment and misery]'

There was a particular satisfaction in seeing what words could do. I remember interminable meetings, where we put together agendas of 20 to 25 questions, not just of philosophy, but practical issues, how to distribute a tract, how to write a text. After three hours, we would realise that we had just touched on point number two and perhaps we should move on to point number three. We had such pleasure in being together.

Marc Kravetz, now 50 and news editor at Liberation:

WHAT struck me immediately about May '68 was that there were no orders, no organisation, nothing. Ten days after 3 May, there were nearly 10,000 who invaded the Sorbonne and stayed day and night. Nobody foresaw what was going to happen or could have foreseen.

The original meeting was nothing, maybe 200-300 students. There were the arrests of the supposed leaders. This set off immediately, and not just in the little leftist groups, the desire to take over the street and chuck things at the police. The next day and the day after, it doubled, it tripled, it quadrupled. People gathered together spontaneously, people called each other, organised meetings. People you'd never seen, good boys and girls who normally went home on time, suddenly started taking huge risks, of arrest or of being hit. We don't know the exact number of deaths, there was one officially. Unofficially, it was said to be four or five. It was not civil war, it was not Beirut, even less Sarajevo. This was not a suburban riot with thugs, this was big adolescents in an act of subversion, saying we're not going home.

There were revolutionary speeches, insurrectional speeches, very imitative. More Rosa Luxemburg than Georges Marchais, more Bakunin than Brezhnev. At three or four in the morning, there was an hour, an hour-and-a-half of real violence. All the population joined in. There was talk of people pushing their own cars into the middle of the road to be burned. Society was changing. The rules of society were archaic and overtaken by reality. It needed this moment of upheaval.

By 24 May, the students controlled all of Paris, the police were swamped and were just aroud the Elysee Palace. There was no desire for power. It benefited everybody finally. The modernisation of society happened. Ten years later, society was notably different.