In France when you say the words “Mai soixante-huit” you get a variety of reactions. On one hand, people who were students in 1968 get a faraway look in their eyes as they remember those heady days of student revolt when the strikes and demonstrations almost brought down the French government. On the other hand, older people shudder as they remember the unrest and upheaval.
I was studying in Toulouse in May 1968, so I experienced first-hand the excitement and effervescence of those days that changed France. I would take the bus into town to attend our lectures, which were held in the old university buildings next to Place du Capitole. The lecture halls in the form of amphitheatres were too small for the number of students, and although the long semi-circular benches seemed to reach endlessly up to the ceiling they were often seriously overcrowded, so that many students had to stand to listen to the professors. There was discontent, and complaints to the university authorities at the conditions in which we studied, but little was done to improve things.
We would stream out of the dusty lecture halls into the courtyards and gardens and wander over to Place du Capitole to sit in the sunshine and have a ‘café crème’ and a croissant and watch the world go by. Our days were slow and lazy as we discussed Sartre and Camus, and we were cocooned from ordinary life, only vaguely aware of trouble stirring. Our first real awareness of the violent events in Paris came as we saw scenes on television of students and workers marching, waving banners and shouting anti-government slogans. The violence in Paris escalated rapidly with the students joined by trade unions, extreme left political parties and disgruntled workers. The name of German student Daniel Cohn-Bendit (“Danny le Rouge”) became a household word as he led the student movement in Paris, and when the French government decided to expel him from France the outcry was enormous.
Toulouse is a provincial town, a step removed from Paris, but the 21,000 students of Toulouse university quickly became infected by the fever of revolution and joined in with strikes and demonstration marches. The university was closed down, busloads of CRS (riot police) were suddenly parked in the Place du Capitole and other strategic points around the city and wildcat strikes closed factories, schools, public transport, the post office, hospitals, shops… The country ground to a halt as 10 million workers joined in the student protests clamouring for better working conditions, a higher minimum wage and equal rights for women.
The most violent confrontations took place in Paris where students tore up the cobblestones and threw them at the police shouting “Sous les pavés la plage” (beneath the cobblestones the beach) which has been interpreted as meaning ‘beneath oppression we find freedom’. In Toulouse, protests were no less vociferous, but generally things were less violent. There were demonstrations with banners waving and impassioned speeches, and although we were English and so rather more spectators than participants, we were very aware that we were witnessing history being made. I was determined that I would be able to say later “I was there!” so I took part in the march of 50,000 people through the streets of Toulouse, all shouting “Soyons réalistes, demandons l’impossible” (Let’s be realistic, ask for the impossible) and “Il est interdit d’interdire” (It is forbidden to forbid).
The mood of the marchers was of simmering frustration. It couldhave turned ugly quite quickly, but the authorities wisely kept the riot police at a distance (or as the students would say “they kept their dogs shackled”) so there were no confrontations during the march. There were shouts of “De Gaulle démission” (De Gaulle resign) but I had the feeling that many were like me – they wanted to be there but were not entirely clear what they were marching for. I saw a graffiti that said “J’ai quelque chose à dire mais je ne sais pas quoi” (I have something to say but I’m not sure what)
The direct effect on us of the strikes was that there was suddenly no public transport to get in to town, but this resulted in great community spirit – you only had to stand at the side of the road and a car would stop to give you a ride. However, as the petrol stations were not receiving supplies and were only selling restricted amounts to each customer, cars soon became scarce as people saved their petrol for emergencies. Another problem was that the telecommunication and postal workers were on strike so it was impossible for us to call our families or send letters home to England. I went to the telegraph office asking to send a telegram to my mother to tell her I was all right and was denied. “But I need to tell her I am alive” The answer was “Don’t worry, if you do get killed or injured she’ll hear about it”! After much discussion we decided that two of us would hitchhike to Andorra and post letters home from there. The distance was less than 200kms and in normal conditions the journey would take about three hours.
We told our friends that we were going and the word spread rapidly, so all the foreign students hurriedly wrote letters home for us to post for them. I stood at the gate of the campus with my companion at 8am on the appointed day, laden with a sack of letters and enough French francs to pay for the stamps, and accepted a ride from the first car that stopped. He took us to the crossroads where we could hope to find a lift going south, and there we were picked up by a delivery truck who took us 15 kms. The next car took us 30 kms, the following one 10 kms, and so on all through the day. It took us eight hours to reach the border of Andorra and on the last stretch we encountered snow. As we had left Toulouse in warm summer sunshine we were not dressed for the cold and got wet and miserable as we waited for our final lift. We had intended going to the town of Andorra la Vella where we knew we would find a post office but it was already getting on for 5pm and we still had to get back to Toulouse. When we crossed the border and saw a bus waiting to pick up passengers we explained our problem to the driver. Would he be so kind as to take our bag of mail, and the French francs, put stamps on all the letters and post them for us? He laughed and said he wasn’t the postman, but very well, he would do it for us. With a sigh of relief we found a café, had a hot coffee to warm up and ventured out into the snow again to search for a lift back to Toulouse. We were lucky and on the way back only had to take two lifts so were back at the campus at 10pm. And yes, the letters were posted and arrived at their destinations.
It was a strange feeling being in the middle of a general strike – it was as though every day was Sunday because everything was closed except the cafés and a few corner shops – which quickly ran low on essentials as people stocked up in case the strike went on for weeks. In fact the nationwide strike lasted about two weeks until the government caved in and agreed to call elections. Then people started to return to work, public transport started operating and I was able to leave France. I discovered when I returned to university in England that those of us who had lived through Mai ’68 were objects of admiration and some envy among students who had missed out on the excitement. The events of Mai ’68 radically changed the politics and culture of France, and I was there…