|Speaker, Vikki Nelson, with copy of Paris Match from 1968|
Allison remarked that as Vikki had made an in-depth study of les événements de mai 68 for her university dissertation she was ideally suited to explore this very interesting period in French history and to provide some retrospective analysis in this its 50 year anniversary.
Proudly displaying a copy of Paris Match from the time, Vikki outlined her approach saying that she would provide some political and economical context of 1960s France as well as events further afield. She would then detail the various organisations and key people who took part before describing what actually happened; how protests developed and eventually ended.
To help bring the events to life (and refresh the memories of some of us) she would display some photos and posters, read some related literature and conclude by sharing some observations on the consequences of mai 68.
In setting the context, Vikki looked back at world-wide protest movements of the time and then charted key periods in recent French history: Les Trente Glorieuses from 1945-75, La Guerre d'Algérie from 1954-62 and The Vietnam War from 1955-75.
She went on to discuss those who were involved in the May events starting with the organisation, Situationist International (Les Enragés) claimed to have written the best leaflets, texts and slogans. Among the students and workers in the protests, one of the key figures was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a German national who only very recently obtained French citizenship. Vikki commented that while he was confident and charismatic he had no strategy. She posed quite a few questions when considering the March 22 Movement. Why, for example, did workers join demonstrations which were initially about students protesting the Vietnam war and educational reform? Why risk a criminal record for these causes? Next she considered the National Students' Union and the Lecturers' Union introducing us to other key players, Jacques Sauvageot and Alain Geismear respectively. These two and DC-B were shown together in a photo taken at the time. Others involved were Georges Marchais of the Communist Party and of course Président Charles de Gaulle.
The sequence of events was deftly explained, starting with an incident on the campus of Nanterre, quickly followed by a student protest at the Sorbonne to which police were called. Many students were arrested with the help of the CRS - Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité. There was considerable resistance, tearing up/throwing cobble stones (pavés) and putting up barricades leading to an escalating police response. The students called for a march to take place on 10 May but this was blocked by police and that night became known as "la nuit des barricades". Hundreds of students were arrested and many hundreds of students and police were hospitalised. Public sympathy for the students increased and workers joined the protests - beginning the largest wildcat strike in French history. Students saw an opportunity for major societal change but Charles de Gaulle sensing that French people were ready to return to stability announced that he would dissolve the Assemblée Nationale and call fresh elections. Hundreds of thousands marched in support of his call. The student demonstrations continued into June but momentum had been lost and de Gaulle won a resounding victory. Ironically, ten months later, his bid to change political institutions further by holding a national referendum of regional reorganisation and reform of the senate failed and de Gaulle's career came to an end.
Vikki then posed a series of questions. Did the protests fail? At least initially but ultimately succeeding? Were too many organisations involved? Was there a lack of long-term strategy?
Why were the students not so concerned about the Algerian war? Discussion flowed on these points and others raised by members of the attentive audience. Vikki and Claudine read extracts from various publications, some of which were contemporaneous and others more recent drawn from the body of work that marks the 50th anniversary.
As the talk drew to a close we were directed to some archive film about the events and were treated to a different photo-montage, this time using a series of iconic images. Some of the posters and graffiti were very striking - Si on brûlait la Sorbonne? and Nous sommes tous "Indésirables" along with many others.
This was an enjoyable and information-packed talk which while dealing with events 50 years ago holds many lessons for today.
Retrospectives are a bit like that.
Thank you Vikki - un très grand merci !
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