Commemorating the historic events in France of May, '68

Paris, May 1968


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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Experience France with Geri. Ile de la Cité Part 3

From the moving Mémorial aux Martyrs de la Déportation which we visited in our last blog entry, we move across the street to the magnificent Notre Dame de Paris. I like to stop first at the rear of the church to appreciate the dramatic flying buttresses (les arcs boutants) and to give a little overview of Gothic churches.

Many of the major Gothic cathedrals in France are built on ancient worship spots from before the Christian era. Early peoples recognized a special attraction or energy at those locations and designated them holy places. So these cathedrals have an element of sacredness not just because of their being a Christian place of worship, but from far back in human history. And over the years participants in my tours have reported feeling in fact something that moved them inside these churches. But let's get back to the view we have before us, the flying buttresses. Prior to the 12th century, church architecture was based on the Roman style, with its rounded arches which could only support a moderate height. But in the 12th century a breakthrough happened. Architects discovered the principle of the “buttress”, a support on the outside of the building which pushed in against the weight of the walls. This style allowed the walls to go much higher, and also incorporated the graceful pointed “gothic arch” associated with this time period. Another marvelous aspect of the buttresses was that the walls could be thinner, which allowed windows to be installed and this caused the flourishing of the art form we all love, stained glass windows.

So as we stand here we admire the particular kind of buttress known as “flying buttress” which show us dramatically the thrust of these supports against the walls. It is interesting to note that the most authentic and beautiful Gothic churches were all built in the 1100's and early 1200's. At the front of the church, always flooded with tourists, move back away from the entrance to get a perspective on the façade. Over the west entrance is a row of 28 statues called the King's Gallery. They represent the Kings of Judea and Israel, mentioned in the Old Testament. But in 1793, the Revolutionaries thinking they represented the Kings of France pulled them down and cut their heads off! The heads can now be seen in the Cluny Museum. It was only in the 19th century when the famous architect Viollet le Duc did renovations on the church, that these statues were re-created and installed where we see them today.

The rose window over the entrance is nearly 30 feet across and is so perfect that it has never shifted in over 700 years. It forms a halo to the statue of the Virgin and child supported by two angels. The twin towers are 226 feet high and in the right (south) tower is the great bell, tolled only on solemn occasions. Inside the church there are hundreds and hundreds of tourists which often make the experience feel less than sacred! Try to let that go and sink into the beauty of this exquisite monument over 850 years old. Usually you must follow a path to the right. Be sure to stop at the transept, or the cross section that goes across the altar in the center. Here there are several things to notice. First, to the left and above you are the breathtaking north and south rose windows. Be sure to take your time here to enjoy the vibrant colors and the stories they tell. And just in front of you, to the side of the altar is the delicate and lovely 14th century statue of Mary with the Child—Our Lady of Paris. The next visit of our day on Ile de la Cité takes us to the beautiful Sainte Chapelle and ends with our picnic at the other tip of the island. Don't miss it!