C’est la Révolution!

By Clémence Waller

Monique Lafay (71), can’t remember what she was doing when policemen barged into her neighbor’s apartment. She remembers the shouts, muffled sounds of struggles and facing angry policemen, as she discovered they were arresting her student neighbors for assembling Molotov cocktails in their bedroom. What she did not realise was that she was suspected of doing the same.

She recalls her 21-year-old self, a law student at the Université Claude Bernard in Lyon, being petrified. As the two policemen glared, barked at and questioned her, she quickly assured them she had nothing to do with the student riots, and insisted the police talk to her neighbors and the family of the little boy she babysat that lived downstairs. Satisfied with her alibi, they left with the two students and shoved them in the back of the police van, while Monique was left alone.

Violence, suspicion and even deaths. «C’est la chienlit!» It is chaos/shit in the bed!  Never have there been more fitting words to describe the turmoil of the French student population of 1968. This nationwide student protest was inspired by student revolts throughout Europe and the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech Movement to protest the Vietnam war.  These protests were sparked by a sense of “asphyxiation” and the classic French ‘ras-le-bol’ with the bourgeoisie, strangling social constrictions and the ruling elite.

The protests started peacefully; streets deafened by the roars of thousands during marches, colorful signs hoisted up high, displaying slogans against gender segregation in schools, job insecurity and finally the blockading of Parisian Universities, Nanterre and La Sorbonne.

But egged on by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, “Danny the Red”, a young student revolutionary, the student protests took on a more violent and political turn.

Chaos in the streets

On May 2nd 1968, the police were dispatched to violently bring an end to this blockade, injuring hundreds of Parisian students. Outrage bled throughout the nation as various other universities were held hostage by students, including Lyon, where Monique was studying. By May 24th, the workers and the unions had joined the fray.

However, the spark for reform roared into the uncontrollable wildfire that would ensue a paralyzed country, riots, paranoia, looting and even deaths.

Students rioting, police brutality, charred bins smoking, makeshift barricades, sirens blaring: this is what Lyon looked like from May to June 1968. Monique had a front row seat to the unfolding events as she was part of the minority of students who did not protest.

After seven years in convent school, she recalls the shock she felt when seeing her generation stand-up against the ruling class. “I did not have the revolutionary mentality,” she laughs sarcastically. These memories bring up a strange sensation within her, one of bemusement but also criticism. “The protests started out fine, then quickly degenerated into a mess,” she recalls as other groups tagged onto the student movement and started vandalizing public buildings and institutions.

“What shocked me the most was finding out that people had been killed on Lafayette Bridge,” she exclaims. She refers to the bloody night of the 24th of May 1968, where René Lacroix, police commissioner, was killed by a runaway truck on the infamous Lyon Bridge amidst another violent altercation between youth and police. This incident resulted in the first death of the May 1968 protests, as well as 42 injuries and over 200 arrests.

A nation held hostage

“I loathed masses and protests then and I still do today. I also didn’t feel especially oppressed nor did my family have the money to waste on me having to redo a year because I was protesting.”

Monique recalls her annoyance when she was unable to work during the summer due to having to study for her exams, which had been postponed to September. For the rest of France, the events in Paris on May 10th-11th 1968 led to a nationwide strike in solidarity with the students. Shopkeepers no longer had any food to sell, nor was there any petrol being dispensed at the gas stations. Trains, factories and post offices also went on strike. “The country was completely paralyzed.”  

She quickly added that despite not taking part in the protests, it brought about some positive changes. “In my view, women won the most out of those protests. There was a liberation of speech, a de-stigmatization of women taking the pill for example. There was less bitterness, more freedom and fraternization. More women went into the workplace and asked for divorces.”

The youth sent out the message that they would not just be seen, they would be heard and that message was received loud and clear. “Even today, the government still fears students,” Monique smiles cheekily.


 

French protest witness Aden

The City Breaks in Aden and Paris, 1968

By Benjie Beer

After a brush with trouble in the Middle East, Andrew Cowan couldn’t resist a
journey to the troubled French capital.

In November 1967, twenty-three-year-old Andrew Cowan was on a Swedish oil
tanker fleeing the British withdrawal from Aden. The ‘Aden Emergency’, as it came to
be called, had turned violent just as his ship arrived: a glance over the deck walls
was to see explosive skirmishes between British troops and the Yemeni National
Liberation Front.

“It was chaos,” says Cowan, speaking from a care home in Ely, Cambridgeshire. “We
couldn’t step foot in the town for fear of our lives.” But, he adds with a wry chuckle, “it
was also very exhilarating.”

The sense of adventure Cowan gleaned from such experiences was the reason why,
at the age of just sixteen, he had run away from his home in Glasgow and joined the
navy. “I’ve lived my life with itchy feet,” he reflects, “and I was never that content at
home, really.”

But the flight from Aden led to some unexpected consequences. After many long,
unplanned months in Cape Town, the decision was made to try and flog oil in Iran.
It was now April 1968, and the long weeks onboard ship were weighing hard. On
arriving in Iran, the young man felt compelled to venture out alone – and was
immediately arrested, for no better reason than that he looked British. A fortunate
twist of fate led to a speedy release, but, with his ship now gone, he had no choice
but to fly back to London.

Now seventy-three, Cowan is nonetheless fluent as he finds the words to describe
what happened next.

“I felt relieved on getting back to British soil, but I didn’t want to settle down. It’s
boring settling down! It was almost as if, having seen the madness in Aden, I wanted
to see some more…”

And, as it happened, April 1968 was also the month in which anti-establishment riots
were beginning to fire up in Paris.

“So, first thing I did when I got off the plane at Heathrow was head into London and
meet some pals of mine. There were three of us, two blokes I’d known in the Middle
East, and we were sitting in this café in Piccadilly, looking at the papers, and we saw
this stuff about riots in Paris. All three of us had been on the road for at least two
years and we were pretty spontaneous. I can just remember that all three of us were
thinking the same thing — so we decided to head over and have a look.”

On the very same day he had arrived home after several turbulent years abroad,
Cowan, with two friends in tow, jumped straight on a plane for Paris.

The question is: why?

“It’s interesting, I’d seen some pretty unpleasant confrontations in the Middle East
and it seemed small in comparison. I had no political motives, I just thought I’d see
how serious they were.”

The riots had begun in March, when students in Nanterre occupied a university
building in protest at their living conditions. A vein of discontent that ran across the
country was instantly tapped into, and before long Paris was churning with students
protesting primarily against the basic principles of capitalism.

On arriving in Paris, it became evident that there was indeed trouble afoot. Riot
police patrolled the airport and taxi drivers were reluctant to drive into the city centre.
After finally finding a cab willing to take them, the three friends were confronted with
an odd scene.

“At first,” says Cowan, laughing intermittently at the memory, ‘it looked like a
significant-looking protest, and I thought, “Blimey, it’s going to be a good one!”. But
then it became clear that this wasn’t so much a protest as a disorganised rabble.”

The protesters, mostly aged from eighteen to twenty-five and the majority of them
male students, were being held in the streets by lines of policeman. Cowan insists
there was no sinister feeling in the air, but more the general, unconcentrated
discontentment of youth. On the few occasions they did manage to speak to a
protester, they could discern no consistent narrative from them.

Three days passed, and ultimately nothing came of it for the three friends beyond
watching a few students irritate policemen in the street.

But is there anything to take from the experience a full fifty years after it happened,
whether or not there were any immediate answers?
Cowan takes a moment to think.

“Yes,” he says slowly. “Yes, I think there is – but I say this as a very old man,
remember – it’s just about seeing things. At that point in life, I was just in it for the
entertainment. And entertained I suppose I was.”