22 novembre 2018

Mai 1968

Speaker, Vikki Nelson, with copy of Paris Match from 1968
Our latest Cercle talk on the 14 November with Vikki Nelson was introduced by Allison through the use of a photomontage going back to the beginnings of their friendship in Paris.
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.
More please.

Thank you Vikki - un très grand merci !

There are dozens of videos relating to mai '68 on Ina - site officiel de l'Institut National de l'audiovisuel. If you are not already subscribed there are various packages available.  Why not click on the link here for more information?

01 novembre 2018

CfB in the Ulster Tatler

The latest edition of the Ulster Tatler is out now and in its Arts Diary there is a feature on our recent Seamus Heaney, word alchemist event. Thanks to Ulster Tatler for giving permission to reproduce the article here.

15 octobre 2018

Émile Durkheim. 10 octobre 2018. Review and response

James Dingley’s presentation on Émile DURKHEIM (1858 – 1917) (Cercle français de Belfast, 10th October, 2018) – A brief review, and an extension of Durkheim’s ideas to modern times.

There is a lot one could say about Durkheim, and James made a good beginning, in an accessible and enjoyable presentation. Essentially, the division of labour (now more commonly known as specialisation) was the mainspring of the industrial revolution, and Durkheim explained many of the new developments in 19th century society in terms of its effects, especially the contrast between life in the traditional rural setting, and in the rapidly growing industrial cities. I had not been aware of Durkheim’s emphasis on morality and religion as important sources of stability, particularly their encouragement of tolerance in anonymous urban centres where people from many different regions and occupations had to honour contracts and accept others’ behaviours, strange (to them) as they might be. Unexpectedly, to some, Durkheim is the person who could be credited most for "laïcité” in France. The state recognition of marriage for legal purposes, so that couples still are formally married only at the mairie, can be ascribed directly to him.

Most of what I would like to say in response concerns the division of labour and the current environmental crisis; in the interests of brevity, I have focussed on four questions: “What is the Crisis?”, “Why are our Structures Deficient?”, “What Change is required?”, and “What are the Main Challenges?”

What is the Crisis? Survival in Question
Humankind faces the real possibility of extinction, either of our species, or of life itself, through climate change, pollution, armed conflict, or all three. This would be a pity (!), as there is no significant evidence of any life anywhere else in the universe. However, the young have more to lose than we do; we have to open up a genuine path towards a sustainable soicety, with an ideology which counters the promises made by free markets to poor people. 

Why are our Structures Deficient?Specialised Technology
The specialisation of modern society is a source of many difficulties: the achievement of economies of scale by modern firms reduces the power of democracies to protect consumers and workers. The pursuit of free market ideas, combined with economies of scale, opens the environment, especially the seas, to waste from what seems like an inifinite number of different production processes. Our needs tend to be met one at a time, with a specific production process developed to meet each, so that (broadly speaking) only costs specific to that need are considered in the profitability calculation. Also, all of the professions tend to restrict their activities to their own interests, limiting the progress that can be made towards sustainability. The technology structures (universities, multinationals, governments) monopolise the available scientific talent, and manage it from separate ivory towers, at a long distance from everyday practice. 

What Change is required? From Specialised to Integrated Technology
We need rational approaches to the development of integrated technologies which will meet basic human needs, locally, within current resource constraints. Integration means identifying all the costs and outputs in societal terms, and developing ways of living and working together, on technologies specific to our local environments which will meet those needs. (This is about the largest agenda one could think of.) When we re-tool our basic systems (such as energy), local knowledge, and sharing it, will be essential, in addition to an understanding of universal technologies. 

What are the main challenges?
Sustaining human beings as the transition occurs, from one technology set (which does, after all, deliver survival, even if it is unsustainable in the long run) to a new one. Also, the new technology set has to be adopted by everyone in the society where it is to work, if sustainability is to be achieved.

Main Areas: 
Healing Nature – reducing the damage made so far
Healing Work – many people’s work does them harm
Healing Learning – Change criteria from selecting the best, and rejecting the rest, to genuinely developing provable skills. This probably means fathers or mothers teaching their own children, using information technology of many different kinds, mediated by religious or cultural institutions. 

This is likely to be rather more than might have expected from a response to a talk about a 19th century scholar. Durkheim was right, in so many ways, and his commitment to humanity is well worth replicating.

Douglas McCulloch
15th October, 2018.