Friday, May 11, 2018

May 1968

In 1966 I started my first year of university, I was 18. I had won a couple of scholarships that enabled me to live in residence and still have enough money to pay tuition and books, I had worked a summer job that also helped financially. It was my first time living away from home.

Even though I detested French in high school I had ended up going to a college that required all first year students to take French, and so was enrolled in a small class taught by an Englishwoman who happened to be fluent in French. Miss Dawes. She was a likeable sort and several of us used to hang about her office and she started encouraging us to go to Europe as students. She said we were at the age to truly appreciate it, and there were all sorts of savings and discounts if one was a registered student. A few of us were convinced and she helped us do it. We each picked a French university to enrol in and she guided us through the complicated and extensive paperwork to get ourselves registered. She cautioned us that the universities would try to enrol us as foreign students and we should insist on being regular students. In those days that was possible and tuition in France was ridiculously low, but the universities would prefer us to be foreign students because they made more money that way.

Long story short, I got myself enrolled as a regular student at l'Université de Rouen, which is half way between Le Havre at the mouth of the Seine and Paris. I worked my butt off that summer to make money to pay for this. My father was dead against it because he had been in France in the war and considered it an awful place. And in the meantime my personal life went all to hell and I very nearly did not go to France or anywhere else at all, but when I tried to explain to Miss Dawes why I couldn't go, she said that if I really wanted to go she would make it happen. And she did. I am indebted to her, my life would have turned out very differently were it not for her.

So I went to France in September of 1967. In spite of 5 years of lousy high school French and one year of very good college-level French, I was almost completely unable to speak the language and totally terrified when I arrived in Dieppe. But Miss Dawes spent her summer getting married to the Harbour Master of Dieppe, and I was able to spend my first few days with her and her new husband before setting off for Rouen. I never saw her again after that.

Of course there were a lot of adventures and scary moments and the year I spent living in France was probably one of the most intense of my life. But that is not why I am writing this. Well it is, but it's not why I am writing it now.

Last weekend I was browsing around on Youtube and came across a video documentary (in French) about 'les événements de Mai' in Paris France, 1968. I realized that it was the fiftieth anniversary. My French is pretty rusty now and I only understood half the dialog, but I certainly understood what it was about because I was there. I recognized Dany le Rouge even before they said his name.

Last night CBC Ideas did an hour-long radio documentary on the same subject, interviewing some of the players and witnesses at the time. I listened to it and it bothered me. In the broad strokes it was accurate and certainly I cannot argue with witness accounts, but I felt like the creators of the documentary really didn't understand, they weren't there. For one thing they kept harping on this idea that it all started from students in Nanterre wanting to sleep with their girlfriends in the university residences. There was a tape of Dany Cohn-Bendit saying that apparently, although I think he was just being cheeky. I'm sure it was said but to trivialize the whole thing that way was offensive.

I lived in residence at Rouen. The university was not actually in Rouen but in Mont-Saint-Aignan, a suburb on one of the hills surrounding the city. It was a new university like Nanterre, built to serve the huge numbers of young people going to college then. And men weren't allowed in the women's dormitory or vice versa, but it was done. Besides, most of the French girls I met in residence had zero interest in letting a man into their rooms. I think it must have been the same at Nanterre. Over the course of the winter I made friends with a group of people who met regularly in one of the guys' dorm rooms, Romain's, during the daytime. When Romain and I became close friends I spent the occasional night at his place, but we weren't sleeping together. We also did volunteer work together, fixing up homes for people who couldn't afford it otherwise. Some of the students in the group belonged to an organization called Jeunesse Communiste Revolutionnaire (JCR). I didn't think anything of it, they were my friends. Then the revolution happened.

It started in Nanterre and very quickly, almost immediately, moved to la Sorbonne in Paris. Le quartier latin became a battlefield between students and police ('les flics'), and we at all the provincial universities wanted to be part of it. So when the students in Paris occupied la Sorbonne, we occupied le Faculté des Arts. That meant we had to guard it against rightwing (fascist) students so we took turns occupying the building around the clock. When we occupied le Fac we mostly spent the night sitting around in the hallways, drinking coffee and listening to music. Mostly French pop music of course, but I remember Bob Dylan being played a lot.

When the Paris students occupied l'Odéon in Paris we were going to take le Théatre des Arts in Rouen. We marched en masse down the mountain and down rue Jeanne d'Arc (Rouen's main street) almost to the river and gathered shouting slogans in front of the theatre. All able-bodied policemen in the provinces had been sent to Paris, all that was left in Rouen were older men with batons. They formed a line in front of the theatre and smiled at us, all they had were those batons hanging from their belts. There was some shouting and some fiery speeches, but in the end no one wanted to beat up some old men. The crowd dispersed.

The unions went out on strike, many of the unionists came to the university. Classes had been cancelled and instead there were forums of students, professors and unionists, talking about how France could be changed to be a better place. It was very exciting. In the news the unions and the students were turning everything upside down, de Gaulle had left town and it really looked like change was happening.

I wanted to go to Paris to see what was happening there, the epi-centre of the revolution. I hitchhiked and got a ride with some other students going to Paris for the same reason. During the winter I had discovered this wonderful hostel on the edge of Paris that I knew I would be able to stay at, a very sympat place. All along the highway to Paris there were abandoned cars on the shoulders. Because of the general strike there was no gasoline, when you ran out there was nothing to do. The city itself was topsy turvy. People in business suits were walking into the middle of traffic trying to cadge a lift to where ever they had to go. And the army was there. We were standing on a sidewalk when a big army truck with canvas over the back pulled up and two soldiers with automatics over their shoulders got out and waved us to the back of the truck. We lifted the edge of the canvas and the truck was full of people. We squeezed in. The truck drove away and people would lift the edge of the canvas to peak out, when you saw the place you wanted to get off you shouted to the soldiers who shouted to the driver and the truck pulled over and let you off. We arrived at le quartier latin in that way.

The cafés were open and full of people. There were big oil drums here and there with fires in them and police standing around them. Lots of police, but no one doing anything, it was business as usual, shopping, lounging in cafés, nothing out of the ordinary except of course all the police standing around barrels of fire. We walked to la Sorbonne. As we got closer we saw the barricades and the torn up streets (students pulled up paving stones to throw at les flics). The entrance to la Sorbonne was guarded by a group of students, you had to have a student card to get in. Thank you Miss Dawes!!! I went in.

The main courtyard was lined with huge banners and signs with many students milling around. Everywhere were political discussions and signs to various forums being conducted in the lecture halls. It was a Communist Revolutionary's dream come true! I remember that one of the large banners hanging in that courtyard was a recipe and instructions for making a Molotov Cocktail. I went to one forum and listened. There were heated discussions about what the outcome to all of this was going to be. People were planning for a future in a whole new world, it was going to be a revolutionary society. The excitement and exhilaration of being instrumental in a huge change to the country was so thick you could taste it.

Later, outside, I was sitting at a café and people were getting ready to leave. It was almost 5pm and the unspoken agreement was that if you were on the street before 5 it was just a normal day but after 5 it was a war zone. If you didn't want to be in the war it was time to leave. I left.

I stayed at the hostel on the edge of the city that night and everyone there shared stories of what they had seen and heard. The next day I returned to Rouen. While I was away, the rightwing fascist students had attacked le Fac and taken it from the leftists. They burned all the student records in the registrar's office. Romain was in his last year and was devastated, he would not be able to graduate. We had become close but he left in the night without telling anyone. That upset me because he was my best friend, but I felt bad for him. Soon after I decided I needed to leave too. I went to England for a couple of weeks to get away from the intensity. I hitchhiked around, staying at hostels, and telling stories of what was happening in France. English students thought it was hilarious and told stories of how intense French students were about politics. In a way I was shocked by their cavalier attitude because I had been taking it all very seriously. After two weeks I returned to Rouen.

The revolution was over. There is a big sandstone cliff overlooking the city of Rouen, someone had carved la croix de Lorraine (looks like a cross with two horizontal arms instead of one) on it. To me, it was like seeing a swastika, it was the symbol of de Gaulle. The mood was glum. I saw a few friends briefly to say goodbye and then went to Paris to meet a Canadian friend who was coming to spend a few weeks of the summer travelling with me. I was glad to see her and tried to explain les événements de Mai to her but I could not convey what it really meant. She could not possibly understand. We had fun and I don't regret it but in my heart I was devastated. At the end of the summer I came home knowing that revolution doesn't work, it can't be done. Every revolution carries within it the seeds of its own demise.

I wrote a few letters to my great aunt Dora about my trip and she wrote to me. After I returned home she gave me all of my letters, saying I should keep them for my records. But I did not. I never took a camera so no pictures. I did buy a couple of books published later in the summer full of photos of les événements de Mai, particularly some of the many wonderful slogans and posters, but I never hung onto those either. A couple of friends in Rouen wrote to me of the aftermath, it was not good. The radio documentary on CBC tried to say that it changed the world but they did not specify how that was and my friends there did not think things changed for the better. Because of the timing most students lost their year, Romain lost four years because of the student records being burnt.

I particularly remember the great Gaulliste demo on les Champs Elysées, hundreds of thousands of de Gaulle supporters, a bigger demo than any the students mounted. the photo in the newspaper was so shocking, I could not believe that the people were that against the students.

But oh, it felt like we came so close! So close!


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