Fifty-one years ago this month May, 1968, one of the major events of the second half of the 20th century took place in Paris. Called “les évènements de mai”, France was virtually shut down by student demonstrations joined by union members throughout the country.
I was in Paris during these demonstrations and riots, where I was working with my French professor who had just concluded a study on the pronunciation of Parisians from the “classe dirigeante”, and on which my own teaching is based. I also had the opportunity to teach language lab courses in American English in the English department of the Sorbonne.
One evening shortly after the demonstrations began, there was a meeting of the students and professors of the English department at the Théâtre de l'Odéon. Already changes in the air could be seen as the professors and students sat together on the stage in seeming equality. At the end of that meeting, it was decided to march to the Sorbonne, a few blocks away, to confront the riot police surrounding the building. The department chairman said, “We demand entrance to our house”. There the police stood, shoulder to shoulder, shields in front. They politely refused the gentleman, and I quickly realized that this was not my fight, and I felt it was best to get out of there quickly. I probably got one of the last métros back to my apartment before the métros became filled with choking tear gas.
As part of this movement, students occupied the universities (as American students did in the 1970 protests against the war in Vietnam). I remember one day along the side of the Sorbonne, students were throwing archives of old exams and other papers from the windows onto the street below. The streets were lined with burned cars and holes where “les pavés” had been dug up to throw at the police. It was quite an experience!
For a variety of different reasons, the unionized workers in factories all over the country started to sympathize with the student movement and to go on strike as a protest about their working conditions and salaries. This led to the shut-down of just about every service or business connected to the government. The métro stopped running, as did the trains. There were no traffic signals, no post office, no telephone, no flights and no transtlantic ships sailing. Of course all of this was way before computers or cell phones. Parents of foreign students were unable to reach them and to know if they were all right, after following the riots on TV in their home countries.
Since gasoline supplies were cut off due to the strike, auto traffic was at a standstill. I remember seeing “little old ladies” with gloved hands asking for a ride from the few cars that still had fuel. You could have had a picnic on the Champs-Elysées! But not on the day when an estimated crowd of 800,000 people marched in Paris in solidarity with the students.
These events lasted the whole month of May, but eventually the government made some concessions, strikers went back to work and things calmed down. But these “évènements de mai” are seen as a turning point and as a symbol of the emerging youth movement which was beginning to stand for human rights, women's rights and against senseless wars.
And the movement followed me. In 1970, while teaching phonetics at the University of California Santa Barbara, the students protesting the war in Vietnam burned the Bank of America to the ground, in the student community where I lived. Again, burning cars, destruction, curfews, riot police, tear gas. And memories of Paris in '68.
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