One day in 2002, I was in a now-vanished second-hand bookshop in Nîmes where the owner, perched on a high stool in the middle of overflowing boxes and strewn back numbers of Paris Match, would talk politics, philosophy and art to anyone who happened to be present, the air scratchy with his Gauloiseroll-up. It was an open dialogue and easy enough to join, except that I was often the only interlocutor. That day I was there rooting out material for my novel-in-progress, No Telling, and its exploration of 1960s France through the eyes of Gilles, a Parisian schoolboy from the poorer suburbs. The novel climaxes in the midst of les événements, as the May 68 revolt is generally called, into which Gilles and his mother stumble by accident, comprehending nothing.
When I told Luc what I was foraging for, he emitted an ironic sigh of barely disguised satisfaction and within minutes produced a plethora of relevant material, including his own anecdotes. I was delighted to see the special edition of France-Soir dating from just after that brief period when the state itself was tottering under a general strike, the scent of revolutionary success billowing over the country (or at least its bigger cities) as thickly as the tear gas. The magazine, full of remarkable photographs, concentrated on the fiercest days of early May, and, peering into an unknown future, ended on a question mark: is the present government merely provisional? As it turned out, President de Gaulle won the ensuing election with an increased majority. Stability under an unpopular president aged seventy-nine was preferable to a maelstrom under young Daniel Cohn-Bendit, despite widespread sympathy for both striking workers and rebellious students. The reforms then came thick and fast, however: women, for instance, could now wear trousers to work.
As we talked together in the bookshop – Luc producing the customary reflections of a post-68 Situationist radical (that everything since had gone to pot, that the capitalist fachos were always the winners, Socialists included) – I noticed a middle-aged woman, browsing. As I flicked through France-Soir’s grainy black-and-white images, pausing at some of the most dramatic, I commented how incredible it was that, even if hundreds were injured, only a couple of people had died, given the degree of violence, with heavy square cobblestones flying, cars and Molotov cocktails blazing, batons slamming on to bare heads.
The woman suddenly stiffened. “Of course there were lots of deaths. Lots of them. They were disguised as road casualties! And friends and relatives believed it! Well, what choice did they have?” I nodded politely at this familiar conspiracy theory. “I saw them myself”, she added. I looked up: if there is one thing a writer craves, it’s an eyewitness. Even though our Cévenol village became an important bolt-hole for ideological sympathizers, actual participants were in short supply.
“I was a newly qualified nurse” the woman explained. “I saw the dead and the dying. I treated the very first casualty. The policeman in the van, hit by the pavé outside the Sorbonne.” Every drama has to have its opening scene, and May 68 found it (or at least France-Soir found it) in the series of shots capturing a student in jeans and dark rollneck sweater, armed with a cobblestone with which he shatters a police van’s windscreen, shards suspended like snowflakes. “The flic in the van was seriously concussed”, she said. “We tended him but he was never the same.” I found the relevant double page. His face was visible under a kepi behind the intact glass; in a few seconds his life would be changed for good, at the fulcrum of an historical moment.
It is now the fiftieth anniversary, and Air France, Carrefour, SNCF train drivers as well as university students are on strike in what is generally regarded as an eerie echo lacking the original clamour. Up the road from Nîmes, however, in Montpellier University, a peaceful gathering in a law lecture theatre was broken up last month by bulky thugs in balaclavas wielding wooden clubs. This was captured, not in single shots by sharp-lensed Rolleiflex cameras but on fuzzily jerking mobile phones. Yet there is still a general feeling, voiced not only by those around us but in article after article, report after television report, that any resemblance to les événements is forced. The world has changed, it is declared, soused in capital and consumption, enfeebled by the lack of any real debate about society and its future, and lacking jobs for its youth, who are too fractured and insecure to show solidarity. Instead of a seventy-nine-year-old born in the nineteenth century, we have a hip president forty years younger and possessed of a different kind of gravitas.
Above all, being audacious is not in fashion. One current commemoration on state radio involves giving personalities across the political spectrum – including the extreme Right – a five-minute slot to remember and to comment. It is all very consensual, and criticized as the product of “dépolitisation”. During the last anniversary in 2008, by contrast, President Sarkozy – despite being a child of 68’s libertarian impulse – insisted its memory “should be eliminated”, and reform unwound. That revived our nostalgia and turned it into fury. He is currently facing charges of corruption and fraud. Any anger now is more diffuse and perhaps stifled under the sheer imponderability of the world’s problems and injustices. Commentators have pointed out that we are as far from May 68 as its participants were from the Armistice. Daniel Cohen in Le Nouvel Observateur (not to be confused with the similarly named student leader, now active in the European Parliament) suggests that, whereas the youth of the time reproached their parents for obliterating historical suffering with the comforts of consumption, these days the “children of the children of May 68” denounce their parents for leaving them a society shorn of that same material security.
Ever since moving to the Cévennes mountains in 1990, I have been surrounded by the more visible aftermath of May 68 in the form of soixante-huitards with the weatherbeaten skin characteristic of the néo-ruraux. The cobbles had barely been replaced by tarmac when these dreamers left Paris and took up goat herding, woodwork or ceramics in the remote southern valleys around us. Straggle-haired Patrice, for instance, specialized in political silk-screened posters as of old. Others tried to right the world with sheer youthfulness, in an era when, as our near neighbour Mathieu pointed out from behind his characteristically bushy beard, it was safer to leave your job, family or traditional milieu when work was so plentiful. “All the options were possible. We were incredibly free.”
Patrice is dead now, and even the Maoist teachers in the local lycée have retired. Eccentric Guillaume, our most tenacious veteran, a jobbing gardener and obsessive collector of junk, tells me that most of his fellow utopians who came to the Cévennes didn’t last the first winter “and went straight back to their mums and dads”. Our close friends who created the eco-hamlet nearby are divided. Françoise, a journalist, and Gérard, a successful “chanteur engagé” (though he admits the term is now a bit “ringard”), bitterly regret the collapse of 68 ideals “comme un soufflé” during the disappointment of Mitterrand’s 1980s presidency. “But these days we’ve got far bigger problems, like climate change.” The hamlet’s founder, retired performer Yves, aged nineteen at the time, happily admits that he spent the entire period in his central Paris design school “dancing, singing, chatting up the girls. No way was I going to go outside and face les flics”. A few years later he moved south and settled into the life of a rural hippie, environmentally active behind his je-m’en-fichisme. A new generation, eerily similar in appearance, have recently arrived with their small children, living out of painted vans or planting teepees, bathing naked in the streams, communal mostly via the internet. It is, in a way, consoling.
My chance encounter with the nurse in the bookshop would have felt contrived in a piece of fiction. I think about her from time to time, still uncertain. In her account of multiple deaths, was she suffering from post-traumatic fantasy or simply speaking in the same spirit as the Communist paper Combat when, the day after the riots on May 7, it headlined its report “Massacres au Quartier Latin”? There’s a tradition of such things in France: 17,000 men, women and children were slaughtered by government soldiers following the failure of the Communard uprising in May 1871; this causes surprisingly little historical shame, although it featured as a major inspiration to the more leftist militants nearly a century later.
I have made enquiries over the years, but no one can either support or deny the nurse’s claims. They shrug, as if unwilling to pierce the mystery, or maintain that it was all mostly a Paris thing, anyway. Yet “Society is a carnivorous flower” now seems to have been the most prescient of those memorable slogans daubed onto the solidities of a lost world.
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