Over half a century ago, change was brewing in Paris. Right outside my window in the Latin Quarter, from where I write this post to you, violent street battles were turning the city upside down and bringing the country to a standstill. They joke about how the French love to protest and go on strike as if it were a part-time hobby, but in May 1968, there was nothing to joke about when a series of initially peaceful student protests nearly started a French civil war.
At the height of the chaos, the entire economy of France and the national government itself was brought to a virtual halt. The protests reached such a point that political leaders feared civil war or a second revolution; and even President Charles de Gaulle secretly fled France for a few hours.
These British Pathé newsreels will give you a pretty vivid idea of how bad it got …
Summarising why the events of May 1968 occurred and what exactly they were all about is not as easy as explaining some of history’s more famous examples of civil unrest. Parisians remember the riots well, but when it comes to giving a definitive reason as to why they happened, there is no quick answer.
The demonstrators were made up of an array of leftist groups; as anti-capitalist as they were anti-communist. They were socialists, anarchists, Maoists and Marxists. Some critics suggest they were merely hormonal adolescents rebelling against the old-fashioned traditional values of their parents.
Although the events sometimes turned violent, they also had artistic and festive aspects with passionate debates and expression through music and art.
The Atelier Populaire was a group of Marxist artists and art students who occupied the École des Beaux-Arts during uprising in May 1968. Using a silk-screen printing press they produced thousands of posters at a time.
None of the individual artists were ever credited, rather each work was voted for by the movement’s assembly and treated as the artwork of the collective.
The protesters’ posters and slogans of 1968 have been kept in the French archives all these years, and even if you don’t speak a word of French, you can appreciate their artistic value. They remind me ironically of the work of America’s mid-century “Mad Men” artist, Saul Bass, but they also help me understand a little better what everyone was so angry about.
I’ll translate them as best I can…
Be young and shutup.
Are we not welcome in our neighbourhood?
Let’s keep fighting! Capitalism is feigning.
Adolph Hitler using the disguise of General Charles de Gaulle.
Get out Nixon plague!
French people, here I come!
The beauty is in the street.
People’s power bowling ball heading for the pins that represent major political parties such as the De Gaulle’s party and even the Communist party.
Return to normal – encouraging the public not to back down.
Will he be jobless?
Working today is like working with a gun to your back.
I participate, you participate, he/ she participates, we participate, you (plural) participate, they profit.
The police talk to you every night at 8pm. The ORTF used to be France’s public radio and television agency.
Implies that the police were so brutal, it was as if they were released straight out of the mental asylum.
Iran= repression, prison, torture. After buying 3 billion Francs worth of American weapons, why is the Shah in Paris?
Free our public television and radio network.
All the major press titles, labeled as poison.
Silhouette of Charles de Gaulle promising reform with a wide grin.