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To Forbid is Forbidden: the 50th Anniversary of France's May 1968

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on April 19, 2018

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Student and worker demonstrations 

It's the 50th anniversary of May ’68, the largest mass movement in recent French history, as well as the biggest strike ever held by the workers movement. Echoing world-wide movements, students who wanted to express their frustration with global inequality and what they felt was a stifling post-war society at home, and millions of oppressed workers who had had enough, became brothers and sisters-in-arms. Strikes and demonstrations took place which brought the country to a halt for several weeks. 

The student movement called for the need to democratize and rethink social and cultural institutions and do away with authoritarian political structures, while the downtrodden workers' situation, despite a 50% increase in industrial production over ten years, needed desperately to improve.

There are a number of books that examine the events leading up to the protests, the scale of the revolts, its reasons and the aftermath. 

Robert Linhart, a militant leftist intellectual got himself hired in a Citroën car factory in 1968. He gave a firsthand account in The Assembly Line (translated by Margaret Crosland) of the numbing experience of factory work and the experience of resistance and strikes. 

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Author Robert Merle's novel Behind the Glass was translated by Derek Coltman in 1972. He recounts a single day on the Nanterre University campus just outside Paris, where an exploding student population became an explosive student body, and occupied part of the administration building, a month before the May movement began. Merle's book shows how the students, many of whom became leaders of the student movement, came together in the first place. 

Scholar and historian Kristen Ross' 2004 May '68 and Its Afterlives examines thirty years later, the mainstream image of May '68 in France. Conveniently forgetting the violence and the profound sociopolitical implications, it is seen as simply a youth revolt, and traces of police violence, deaths of participants and angry workers have been erased. Ross uses tracts, pamphlets, and documentary film footage of the era to show that the original movement, concerned with what was happening in Algeria and Vietnam, was above all preoccupied with the question of equality.

Angelo Quattrocchi and Tom Nairn's The Beginning of the End describes Paris in May 1968 when it was a battlefield of barricades, burning cars and tear gas. Students and millions of young striking workers on the streets quoted philosophers: 'To Forbid is Forbidden', 'Be Reasonable...Demand the Impossible', 'Freedom is the Consciousness of Our Desires'.

In May 1968 the Parisian art school, the Ecole des Beaux Arts, was an active participant in the strikes, whether it was faculty members or students. Many of the students produced the first posters of the revolt, with declarations such as  “Usines, Universités, Union” (Factories and universities unite). 

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The Atelier Populaire (or popular workshop), was born shortly after, and was a collective of print shops that produced posters to inspire protestors but that also encouraged them to report police brutality. Beauty Is in the Street  visually retraces the events of May '68 with more than 200 of these posters in full color, which have since become landmarks in political art and graphic design. The book also includes an introduction by Philippe Vermès, one of the founders of the Atelier Populaire.

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Finally, short story author and playwright Mavis Gallant reported on the events for The New Yorker in 1968, beautifully describing daily life in the capital during those several weeks when life as everyone had known it ground to a halt. Her essay is included in Paris Stories, a collection of stories and reviews about Paris. 

 For more information this video (in French) with archive footage goes over the essential historical facts. In it, you can see Daniel Cohn-Bendit as a young student leader, he later became a European parliament member and co-president of the Greens/Free European Alliance Group in the European Parliament.

Events in Paris being held to commemorate the 50th anniversary can be found here, some in English. 

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A poster by the Atelier Populaire


Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.

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