May 1968 has an enduring appeal. How many of you who rocked the familiar lemon logo of the stone roses in younger days knew its origins lay in the streets of paris? Donal Fallon takes us back to those street fighting days.
John Squire of the band recalled how “me and Ian saw a documentary on it and liked the clothes: there was a guy chucking stones, with a really nice jacket and desert boots. The students used to suck on lemons to nullify the effects of tear gas.”
The images Squire saw didn’t lie – there were plenty of well-dressed students on the streets of Paris in 1968. What was more significant was their motivation, and the context of the time in which universities and factories were seized and slogans full of possibility found their way onto every wall in the city. Commandeered walls proclaimed “Be Reasonable, Demand the Impossible”.
Events on the continent directly impacted on student politics in Ireland too, where some conservative voices feared the influence that images of the occupied Sorbonne could have on Irish students. Even as it happened, eyewitnesses knew the events would echo through subsequent decades.
In the words of socialist intellectual Chris Pallis, “The French events have a significance that extends far beyond the frontiers of modern France. They will leave their mark on the history of the second half of the twentieth century. French bourgeois society has just been shaken to its foundations.”
Just what kicked it off in Paris remains the subject of much debate, but perhaps the best answer is a combination of many things. By 1968, French youth in particular were hostile to the continued reign of Charles de Gaulle. Much like de Valera in an Irish context, de Gaulle had emerged from a moment of great national hope and vision, in his case the French Resistance to fascism, only to create a society that was positively grey. In May 1968, his government was comprised of exclusively male ministers, while the state tightly controlled the media with Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française having a monopoly on both television and radio.
A radical student movement not only viewed de Gaulle and those around him as a barrier to progress, but also placed little faith in forces like the French Communist Party or even the Soviet Union. In the wake of the Sino-Soviet Split, it was instead banners of Chairman Mao that were carried aloft in the streets by radicals. Even de Gaulle understood this, stating in a televised address that “this explosion was provoked by groups in revolt against modern consumer and technical society, whether it be the communism of the East or the capitalism of the West.”
Student occupations began at the Nanterre University near Paris, but quickly spread into the French capital and beyond. Riots erupted in Paris on 6 May, bringing huge crowds onto the streets and forcing the trade union movement to follow the students’ lead. More than a million people paraded in Paris on 13 May, with Pallis recalling that “the law of the land demands a five-day notice before an official strike can be called. Too bad for legality.” This was no time for bureaucracy.
This was not the first time barricades had dotted Parisian streets, but what was different about 1968 was the immediate international coverage of events. To students elsewhere, it showed the way. In Dublin, the ‘Internationalists’ of Trinity College Dublin, a small Maoist student body with influence beyond their numbers, disrupted the visit to the university by King Baudouin of Belgium.
The Herald wrote that “several hundred Gardaí moved in to reinforce the big concentration inside the college as scuffles broke out between Gardaí and a small group of students chanting “Down with Belgian Imperialism.” To the annoyance of some of their fellow students, the Internationalists had plastered the image of Mao around the college and city, with Nusight magazine proclaiming that they “lived communally, shared all their earnings, rose at a certain time for pre-breakfast study sessions, and often worked an 18 hour day bill-posting around the city or stapling magazines.” The Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin told one gathering that month that there were 3,000 communist radicals “infiltrating all walks of Dublin life.”
In truth, Dublin was a long way removed from the scenes in Paris. Paris wasn’t the only talking point in Dublin. The course of Irish history inspired much heated debate too. Peter Lennon’s remarkable film The Rocky Road to Dublin, asking the important question “what do you do with your revolution when you have it?” was screened at the Cannes film festival. In it, IRA veteran and The Bell editor Seán Ó Faoláin lamented a state populated by “urbanised peasants” which had fallen far short of the aspirations of revolutionary Ireland. To him, the Ireland of the day was “without moral courage, constantly observing a self-interested silence; never speaking in moments of crisis; a constant alliance with a completely repressive, regressive, and uncultivated church.”
The film found a natural home in the occupied universities, where students and workers hotly debated its meaning and the lessons it offered.
The barricades came down, owing primarily to the heavy handed approach of the French state. When de Gaulle called elections on 30 May, he lined up the entire apparatus of the state to break the will of those on strike, threatening a state of emergency and mounting a cynical rally of tricolour-waving supporters for the visiting media cameras at the Champs-Élysées, as if to say, “business as usual”.
The election gave the French Communist Party a bloody nose, having not quite won the hearts and minds of student demonstrators by proclaiming them to be “false revolutionaries who must be energetically unmasked because, objectively, they are serving the interests of the big capitalist monopolies”. They had proven themselves just as out of touch as the young suspected.
May 1968 didn’t change the world, but it did open up a discussion on what a new world might look like.
Illustration by Luke Fallon