Monday, April 16, 2018

Conversations on Europe Videoconference: "May 1968: Legacies of Protest in France"

By Paul Myers

This conversation on Europe focused on the mark left by, but also the influences of, the student, and trade unions protests in the May 1968, remembered for youth clashes with police and other apparatuses of governance in the streets of Paris. While the immediate offshoot was seemingly the solidified power of the De Gaulle regime, as he won office with greater majorities later that summer only to replaced by an acolyte the following year, the protest themselves were and remain emblematic of a social and political shift. The conversation opened with a brief visual introduction by Dr. Jae-Jae Spoon, including some of the poster images displayed in this blog.

A two-tone brown and cream illustration showing the silhouette of a man in a broad-brimmed hat standing behind a young teen boy. The boy is wearing a white collared shirt and suspenders, and the silhouette man has his hand over the boy's mouth. To the left of the two figures is text reading "Sois Jeune et Tais Toi."
Figure 1
The panelists (Dr. Chris Reynolds, The Nottingham Trent University; Dr. Salar Mohandesi, Bowdoin College; Dr. Daniel Gordon, Edge Hill University; Dr. Giuseppina Mecchia, Department of French and Italian, University of Pittsburgh), moderated by Dr. Jae-Jae Spoon, began their discussion considering what May 1968 had meant. Dr. Reynolds noted that the answer to that query was highly dependent upon to whom it was posed. That is, the month and the history which both shaped and came from it, was understood differently, especially upon theoretically uncomplicated binary divisions like left and right, young and old, as well as urbanite Parisian and their rural counterparts. The panelist agreed that positionality and privilege very much shaped the varying lenses by which the protest of the month were viewed. Dr. Mecchia noted that ‘’68 does not start in ‘68’, but arrived on the tides of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial movements that were formed in response to perceptions of de Gaulle’s regime by non-insignificant portions of the French citizenry. Agreeing and augmenting, Dr. Salar offered that not only does ’68 not start in ’68, but it doesn’t end there either. The labor unrest and crises that would occur in the 70s were tinged with characteristics of the protests of ’68. Yet, he also noted that varied views of ’68 also included the resentment of present day protesters that identify ’68 as a space of arrested development in the French popular consciousness, and thus the slogan “F**k May ’68, Fight Now” has appeared not only in France, but across Europe and the world, including the black block protests at the 2009 G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, as a rallying cry for a present revolution that doesn’t nostalgically lionize the past. A part of this disavowal is predicated on generational differences as the “kids” of ’68 came of age and now find themselves comprising the present middle classes and in places of power that bring into question their commitments to change—exposing them to being impugned by younger generations as selfish. In the eyes of today’s youth, those “kids” are now sellouts.

Black and white image of a cartoon hand writing a declension of the French verb participer, ending in the phrase "ils profitent", which is underlined.
Figure 2
Dr. Gordon contested the emphasis on generational differences in scholarship and the popular imagination, explaining, that ‘Not all youth [in ‘68] were radical, and not all radicals were young’. That is, today’s youth critique operates in oversimplifications and mischaracterizations of yesteryears’ youth. That to impugn the present lack of a cohesive radical spirit of the now-adult kids of ’68 implies that there was one previously. Gordon went on to explain that factory workers were on strike for significant periods of time before the protests of 1968 became a part of the zeitgeist. He closed with the consideration that maybe the protest that were so remembered had now become a cliché to today’s youth protestors, only offering them the frustration of an ill-conceived analogy.

Drs. Salar and Spoon closed this portion of the discussion noting that the comparisons of protest, especially made by the older generation, depersonalizes why people protest. Underscoring this point, Dr. Spoon noted how often the protestors of the time, now speak of being “there”, and how they were deeply impacted by space, place, and each other. She then moved to point out that the events of the year were transnational and multifaceted. Interestingly, Dr. Gordon noted that former French President Nicholas Sarkozy got his political start attempting to be a part of the counter-protest. He also explained that the faces of French labor at the time were indeed multinational and in desire of some semblance of protection. Over time, even though the protests are still remembered, they’ve been whitewashed and nationalized towards a less complex fabrication of French identity. Dr. Salar similarly expressed that though many of the protestors were French and male, that it would be an incomplete recollecting of the protests to not include women, queer rights activists, prisoners, and migrants who were attempting to invert or reconfigure presumably fixed social assemblages.

Black and white illustration of a woman in a full coat and narrow-legged pants tossing a boxy shape (that might be a brick) toward the viewer. Text above and below the figure reads "La Beauté Est Dans La Rue."
Figure 3
The conversation, drawing to a close moved out from France, with the scholars speaking on how the French saw themselves on the periphery of movements occurring in the United States and global South held in response to desires for worker, civil, and equal rights, as well the end of war. However, the protests also were influenced by the lack of closure from World War II. Those unhealed wounds and imagery were reflected and reconstituted in protests (note the SS symbol in the image below).

The panel also considered if the ’68 protests could be thought of in any way as a harkening back to French Revolution or a harbinger of today’s populist movements. The panel was largely in agreement that comparisons to 1789 were out of line, but that other revolutions had been influential. Regarding present, ongoing movements, Dr. Reynolds offered the idea that populism, unlike the progressive protest of ’68, is inwardly driven with yearnings for a contrived past. Countering, Dr. Salar explained that the protest of ’68 fostered the neoliberal 1970s. Thus, today’s populism is a second order effect, as the agreements and solutions of neoliberalism are being challenged by empirical experiences and ideology. Closing the conversation, Dr. Gordon stated that the populism of today is anachronistic by some measure. There seemed to be some agreement that though populism may be a part of the contingent history that includes the protest of ’68, that there are a multitude of issues that must be thoughtfully considered by scholars when placing the two eras in conversation—either in comparison or contrast.

A blue and white illustration of a policeman in a helmet. He is brandishing a long, thin club in his right hand, and holding a large, round shield in front of him with two white zig-zags that could be stylized S's.
Figure 4
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Source : Gasquet, Vasco. 2007. 500 affiches de mai 68(Bruxelles : Aden), p. 55

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