In 1967-68 I was a student at l'Universite de Rouen, about an hour's drive west of Paris on the Seine. A wonderful place, a wonderful year. Rouen is in the heart of Normandy, a part of the world that Nova Scotia reminds me strongly of. Perhaps one of the reasons I felt so at home here when I first arrived in the early '70s.
Anyway, I was there for les evenements de Mai, the student uprising in France, and because my French student friends were heavily involved, I became involved too. At first it was exciting and exhilarating, we felt we had a real shot at bringing about change. The professors were with the students, and so were the workers, there was a general strike in the country. Paris was amazing. I and some student friends would hitchhike into the city to take part in it all. You couldn't get into la Sorbonne unless you had student ID, and I did so I could. Revolutionary lectures in the classrooms, huge revolutionary banners strung up everywhere, one in particular was the instructions for making Molotov cocktails. The streets surrounding la Sorbonne, le quartier latin, were dug up so that students could use the paving stones as missiles (there was a slogan, "sous les paves, c'est la plage", meaning that if you dug up the paving stones you could be on the beach because the stones were set in a bed of sand).
During the daytime it was OK to walk around, les flics gathered at certain intersections but left you alone, but at dusk if you were still there then you did so at your own risk. There were no buses and le metro was stopped because of all the tear gas in the lines and also because of the strike and the gasoline shortages. So everyone hitchhiked to get around, and the army brought in big trucks to move people around. If you needed to go somewhere, you waved at one of the trucks, it would pull over and two armed soldiers, with guns slung over their shoulders would get out of the canvas-covered back and wave you in with their guns. You climbed in and sat on a bench there with all the other people. The only way to see out was to lift the canvas on the side a bit to peek under it. When you thought you were near where you wanted to be then you shouted at one of the soldiers, who shouted at the driver, and then the truck pulled over and they let you out.
When it all started President de Gaulle was out of the country. But when he returned the tide turned and the whole thing was quickly ended. It was demoralizing. I remember going away to England for a week, and when I returned, someone had carved a huge croix de Lorraine in the sandstone bluff above Rouen. This was de Gaulle's symbol, and it was chilling to see it. It felt like as if someone had carved a swastika over the town.
I guess that experience made me cynical about revolution at way too early of an age. I stopped believing that change was possible in that way. And certainly my experience since then has seemed to confirm that belief, that you can't expect anything good to come out of a popular uprising. But I have been following what is going on in Tunisia and Egypt, and especially in Cairo, with growing admiration and hope. Watching the protestors in Tahrir Square, listening to them speak about why they are there, and reading as much as I can about what it is all about, I am excited for them. I really do hope that this time it is different.
This morning I was listening to Q on CBC and there was a debate about the Egyptian situation, one person for and one against. The one against was all about how revolutions end badly (look at Iran, look at Iran, LOOK AT IRAN) and the people should be happy with the devil they know rather than the devil they don't. I almost felt like reaching into the radio and shaking the fellow, So What About Iran?!? Iran is Iran, Egypt is Egypt!
Anyway hardly had the debate ended and the news came on announcing Mubarak has resigned and left the country in the hands of the military. The Egyptian military has comported itself very well with the people in Tahrir Square. I wish them well from the bottom of my heart.
This time maybe this time the revolution is here.