The myth of 1968
Clinging to pictures of a revolution in France
The memory industry was in overdrive in Paris this summer as France marked the fiftieth anniversary of “Mai 68,” that defining month when major Parisian arteries turned into seas of flag-waving young people and occupied high schools and universities. After violent clashes between students and security forces on May 10 left 367 wounded, and huge swaths of Paris’s Left Bank resembling a war zone, industrial workers joined the protests. Ten million workers were soon on strike, many occupying their factories and workplaces. What began as a challenge to a sclerotic education system had morphed into a crisis that shook president Charles de Gaulle’s government and brought France to the edge of revolution. May 1968 has been remembered in France, historian Michelle Zancarini-Fournel wrote in 2008, as the most important event since the end of the Second World War.
Despite the reams of words written about May 1968, Mavis Gallant’s account of daily life during these tumultuous weeks continues to stand out. With an unerring eye for detail, Gallant took in demonstrations, talked to protesters and bystanders, and pondered the remains of charred and upended automobiles. It was not the cars of the rich that got torched, she reported in The New Yorker, but those of more modest French citizens, for these were the ones that could be lifted and pushed around easily—the ones, in other words, that could be used by students in the building of barricades. When at home, Gallant watched the “night of the barricades” unspool outside her apartment windows. On calmer days, she carried her transistor radio from room to room so as not to miss the slightest scrap of news. By May 22, French newscasters had given up reporting what was closed, preferring instead to focus on the few services that continued to be available: gas, water, and electricity.
Gallant recounted a time when invincible-looking policemen thought “nothing of throwing grenades into houses” and charging unarmed students, and Parisian life limped along without trains, metro, newspapers, banks, garbage collection, or schools. By the time president de Gaulle and his prime minister, Georges Pompidou, finally addressed the nation, the brevity of their responses stunned Gallant and her friends. The government had time on its side, however. As the weeks ground on, ordinary citizens lost sympathy for the protesters. By June’s end, the Gaullists had achieved a majority in the National Assembly after hastily called elections, and the most radical student groups had been outlawed. In a country famed for its revolutionary past, 1968 became the revolution that wasn’t.
Events take on new life when they are remembered and commemorated. Each ten-year anniversary of May 1968 has brought museum and gallery exhibitions, books, and journalistic retrospectives. Commemoration reached its zenith this summer as fiftieth-anniversary events overshadowed even the centenary of the First World War’s conclusion: there were five major shows in the Paris region alone, and two poster exhibits, plus commemorative magazines, new titles and reprints of classic texts, a children’s book, and an online exhibition organized by the research library of contemporary history, located at the suburban Nanterre campus of the Université de Paris. It was here, legend has it, that Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a.k.a. Danny the Red, sparked the student movement.
The 1968 commemorations coincided with a summer of discontent in France. Rolling strikes by rail workers upended travel plans and climate change sent temperatures soaring. Voters who only last year entrusted their hopes to the young Emmanuel Macron and his neophyte political party, En Marche!, had by mid-year become increasingly disillusioned. As Macron’s unshakeable confidence took on an air of highhandedness and his reform agenda appeared more partisan than advertised, his approval ratings plummeted. By mid September, fewer than three of every ten residents approved of his presidency, a result comparable with that of his much-maligned, one-term predecessor, François Hollande. Even before the summer’s doldrums set in, a national YouGov poll found that 52 percent of French residents believed a 1968-like event was necessary to right France’s course.
The country was predisposed to revisit May 1968 for other reasons. France has taken the study, teaching, and exhibition of its history seriously since the late nineteenth century, while French historians have pioneered the study of historical memory and commemoration. The three-volume Les lieux de mémoire, overseen by Pierre Nora and published as Realms of Memory in the 1990s, introduced “sites of memory” into the scholarly lexicon and suggested how historians elsewhere could study their countries’ myths, traditions, symbols, and commemorative practices.
Every nation has its events and people thought worthy of commemoration, its own traumatic experiences that might seem best left unspoken. “What is it that groups, elites, nations, remember from their past?” Harvard’s Stanley Hoffmann asked in 1991 in his preface to the English translation of The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944, by Henry Rousso. “What do they want to remember, and what do they repress? What places, monuments, and works of art do they select in order to commemorate past events? To what contemporary uses are memories put?” These questions may seem old hat at a moment when Canadian curators, writers, activists, politicians, and historians vigorously debate them. Yet they were pioneering at the time.
Memory, forgetting, and commemoration often serve political ends, as Hoffmann reminded readers. De Gaulle, the towering figure of twentieth-century France, did his own share of myth and memory making. The idea of France as a nation of resisters was largely his creation, first articulated in an August 1944 speech from the balcony of the Paris city hall following the city’s liberation from four long years of German occupation. The Second World War’s complex mixture of defeat, collaboration, and resistance lent itself easily to selective invocations, and these postwar rememberings were politically charged. The myth of France as a nation of resisters reigned unchallenged until the late 1960s because it benefited politicians and political parties across the political spectrum.
Memories of May 1968 have been similarly politicized. As had been the case with Second World War resistance fighters, those who had been on the front lines in May 1968—les soixante-huitards, or 68ers—moved quickly to shape how May would be fixed in memory by recounting their versions of events in books and on radio and television. By October 1968, the Bibliothèque nationale de France listed 124 books on May 1968 in its catalogue. Each major anniversary brought more words and new polls of French citizens. Meanwhile, May 1968 has been recalled in romanticized and nostalgic terms by some and blamed by others for all manner of ills. Nicolas Sarkozy famously vowed to “liquidate the legacy of 68” during his successful presidential campaign in 2007. The ghost of 1968, as Zancarini-Fournel observed in 2008, has haunted French political and social life, functioning as a touchstone in French culture wars.
This may help explain why this summer’s exhibitions shied away from grand pronouncements about the meaning or consequences of May. History’s bureaucracy assisted this broader aim. Because sealed government documents become available after fifty years, 2018 marked “a genuine archival event,” to quote the director of the national archives. Drawing on mountains of previously inaccessible materials, archivists fashioned exhibits that highlighted the complexity of May 1968. Not the month-long student uprising of popular legend, May 1968 was shown to involve a wide range of actors with diverse aims and disparate voices, and to spill beyond the confines of May, if not as far beyond as some historians might want them to go.
The Archives nationales show, “68, The Archives of Power,” held in the stately Hôtel de Soubise, in central Paris, to which Napoleon moved the national archives in 1808, began in the courtyard, whose walls were given over to giant posters testifying to the global dimensions of late 1960s protest movements. Posters taking aim at the American war in Vietnam, a Cold War continuation of France’s own colonial war in Indochina, loomed large. These posters, unconnected to the exhibition inside, proved one of the few gestures at internationalizing 1968 in Paris this summer, even though “global 68” has become a prominent theme in historical scholarship. Visitors clustered around a black Citroën DS 19 perched curiously on a tent-covered platform, beside a sign explaining that the DS 19 had been prime minister Pompidou’s official car in 1968 and that its prototype was the star of the 1955 French auto show. It was as if curators wanted to remind visitors of the “glorious years” of post-1945 economic growth and modernization before they proceeded to the chaos of May 1968.
Because May 1968 has been so frequently commemorated, the show’s introductory panel explained, memories can no longer be disentangled from the event itself. “Archives of Power,” therefore, probed an “alternative memory”: the state’s response to the crisis. At the top of the grand marble staircase stood a triptych of larger-than-life photographs of riot police clad in black helmets, black uniforms, tall black lace-up boots, and black belts. The men of the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) looked eerily like Nazi storm troopers—evidence, perhaps, that subtlety had not been the government’s strong suit in 1968.
Although the curators’ reluctance to pull things together and the antiquated exhibition space detracted from the show, the images displayed could not help but move. To watch de Gaulle present himself as France’s saviour one last time or Cohn-Bendit calmly lay out student demands or trade union leaders inform stone-faced workers that it was time to return to work was to be transported back to May 1968—a time that felt both distant and near. Certainly the maleness of the people depicted in the numerous photographs and television clips was reminiscent of an earlier era, not to mention a reminder of the women’s liberation revolts soon to follow.
A sister exhibition, “The Voices of the Protest,” held in the twenty-first-century archival complex in Saint-Denis that now houses France’s post-1789 archival collections, focused on the protesters and their voices. Long a communist stronghold, Saint-Denis is probably best known to North Americans as the site of the November 2015 terror attack at France’s national stadium. The archives building is surrounded by a high metal fence and gate, and its landscaping is unusually forlorn. Inside, though, the items scooped up in what seemed to be a state strategy of repress and collect were frequently fascinating. Posters and signs ranged from the beautiful to the crudely propagandistic, including caricatures of de Gaulle as Hitler. The opening pages of an article from a Jewish magazine focused on the fears of the fifteen thousand Tunisian Jews in Paris’s Belleville neighbourhood in the aftermath of violent clashes with Arabs in 1968. Listening to students read the poetry they had written, recorded, and distributed brought to life their creativity and youthful revolutionary ardour. Despite these treasures, curators seemed torn between a desire to celebrate the collection of archival materials and to organize them into a narrative that said something meaningful about May.
The most satisfying 1968 exhibit was held at the ultramodern Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF). Located near the Seine in a formerly forsaken area of eastern Paris, France’s national library was the last and most expensive of president François Mitterrand’s great building projects in the Paris region. Popularly known as les grands travaux, these aggressively modern buildings (and, in the case of the Louvre, a pyramid) were built in the 1980s and ’90s to symbolize the vitality, modernity, and power of French culture. The BnF, designed to be one of the world’s great libraries, appears to passersby as four tall, cornered glass and steel towers. The research library itself is located on a subterranean floor that rings a rectangular sunken wild garden to which access is prohibited. Scholarly reaction has been decidedly mixed, with one frustrated historian tweeting recently, “Humans in the basement below the water table + books in the sun = exactly how well thought out la BnF is. Which is to say, not at all.”
The same, happily, cannot be said of the library’s “Icons of May 1968: Pictures have a History,” which examined May 1968’s visual memory by exploring how some photographs became iconic while others did not. Exemplifying the best in photographic history, the exhibit excavated the manifold factors involved in the taking, selling, publishing, and promoting of photographs of May 1968, nicely linking the photos’ histories to that of French photojournalism itself. As the curators made clear, photo agencies helped create May 1968 as a great post-1945 event partly to glorify their own photographers’ roles in capturing it. Celebrations and commemorations of May 1968 became inseparable from celebrations of French photojournalism.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the case of what is now regarded as 1968’s most emblematic photo. Working for the brash new Gamma photo agency, the young photojournalist Gilles Caron captured a clean-cut, almost cherubic Daniel Cohn-Bendit looking up playfully at the much taller, helmeted CRS man standing only inches away from him. The photo was taken at close range in front of the Sorbonne on May 6, the day of Cohn-Bendit’s disciplinary hearing. Neatly tracing the image’s tangled history, the exhibit demonstrates that the photo’s current fame has nothing to do with its importance at the time (it was not even published by a newsmagazine in 1968), and everything to do with developments in the ensuing decades.
The conditions for the photograph’s ascent were laid with Caron’s tragic disappearance in April 1970 while on assignment in Cambodia. The photo began to attract notice in 1975, when Cohn-Bendit chose it for the cover of his memoir, Le grand bazar. The image, along with Caron’s other May 1968 photos, was then featured alongside his work on the Vietnam and Biafra wars in exhibitions and retrospectives. Each major anniversary brought more attention, but the lionization of Caron really gathered momentum during the 1990s. Over time, Caron emerged as the photographer of May 1968. Moreover, his Cohn-Bendit photo shaped how May 1968 was remembered, transforming Cohn-Bendit into the emblematic 68er even though he was absent from Paris for most of the second half of the month.
The exhibition’s second iconic photograph, depicting a blonde young woman brandishing a Vietnamese flag, had an equally lengthy rise to fame and an even more tenuous connection to the May movement. Taken during the May 13 mass demonstration that first brought students and workers together, the photo was one of multiple photographs of young women holding flags that were snapped that day by male photojournalists. When Paris Match published the photo a month later, it appeared alongside four other photographs of attractive young women attending demonstrations. As with Caron’s Cohn-Bendit, the photo’s fame grew as the years passed. In 1988, Paris Match used it for the cover of its commemorative issue, cropping the flag almost entirely out of the picture.
Now known as “Marianne de 68,” the photo evokes allegorical representations of Liberty and the Republic that have been so prominent in French Republican political culture. The image recalls both Delacroix’s painting of a bare-breasted, tricolour-brandishing Liberty leading the people into battle during the 1830 Revolution and Marianne, the female representation of the Republic. The young woman’s personal circumstances added to the photo’s interest. From an aristocratic family, Caroline de Bendern was neither involved in the May movement nor terribly interested in French politics. This was her first demonstration. When de Bendern got tired of marching, a friend offered to carry her on his shoulders, but only if she waved one of his flags. She chose the flag because she had heard of the war in Vietnam. Once on her friend’s shoulders, de Bendern later told reporters, she quickly realized that she was surrounded by photojournalists. Her modeling instincts kicked in and she began posing for the camera. When her grandfather, the Count of Bendern, saw the published photo, he promptly disinherited her. A revolutionary student activist she was not, but this no doubt rendered her all the more palatable to the editors and readers of mass-circulation magazines.
Photographs can diminish as well as elevate their subjects. In “Gilles Caron, Paris 1968,” one of the summer’s best attended 1968 shows, Caron’s ten large portraits of de Gaulle, which come early in the show, do their best to make de Gaulle look old, outdated, and worn out. His eyes are shut in many of them, barely open in others. From there, it is room after room of beautiful, uncaptioned, decontextualized photographs of 1968. Recalling “Icônes de Mai,” the exhibit includes photographs of five different attractive young women holding flags, three positioned on a young man’s shoulders, one on a scooter, and one draped on the hood of a car. There are also fifteen variations on Cohn-Bendit and his CRS man. On the way out, visitors can choose from a range of May-themed books and souvenirs, including commemorative paving stones for 280 or 380 euros.
With this exhibit, the depoliticization and commodification of May 1968 is complete. The event has been transformed into a beautiful site of memory. As such, it can be endlessly commemorated—less as the revolutionary movement it strove to be and more as a time when the world’s attention was focused on Paris, on white French youth, and on events that can be whatever the rememberer wants them to be. Little wonder that a national poll early this year found that 79 percent of residents now believe that May 1968’s legacy has been positive for French society. Little wonder too that activists graffiti their determination for a second May 1968 on walls and monuments: “Ils commémorent, on recommence.”