May 68

Under the paving stones, the repression (May 1968-March 1974)

The Assassination of a Utopia

When one does not assassinate men, one strives, despite everything, to kill ideas. The murder ritual is nonetheless realized. Times have changed in our civilized West and one no longer needs to spill blood to impose a way of life refused by the greatest number of people. Fear is sufficient. . . .

All that remains of May 1968 is the memory of the epic for the nostalgiacs, the memory of the fear experienced by the old-fashioned. Forgotten is the ferocious repression that followed the great student demonstrations.[1] Forgotten are the Marcellin years,[2] which were nevertheless years of losses and profits. Certainly there weren't any great slaughters, as in June 1848 or May 1871, or small bloody reprisals as was in the case in February 1934, October 1961 and February 1962. It isn't any less the case that the herd-driving of those who remained persuaded of the need to invent -- as the days went by -- a better world was of long duration.

In May and June 1968, the police did not kill or not very often. This was very fortunate. They simply contented themselves with humiliating, bludgeoning, injuring, reactivating racism and the hatred of the other. The good-hearted people saw nothing and the hardest avengers were happy with the return to political and moral order from which France should never have departed. Which did not only signify a return to the point of departure, but the beginning of a questioning of the individual liberties obtained after decades of struggle.[3] It is also certain that the great fear experienced by the supporters of established power, the silent majority,[4] was never calmed. And then one forgot the years of repression, congratulating oneself with the re-established order, all by routinely perfecting the indispensable backfires, so as to prevent all return of potential flames.

In France, the temptation is constant to tranquilly scour the dross from a past that is gratifying to some and shameful to others. Indeed, the triptych "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" can only bring back the image of a peaceful country. In the conventional history books, hostility is only a factor when one must recall how our valiant soldiers are always sent to the borders to defend justice, not necessarily liberty. And so what high-school student -- or even what college student -- has an approximate version of the shameful episodes of June 1848 or May 1871? Little by little, the same goes for the repression that followed May and June 1969. Does one even remember Raymond Marcellin? Do our contemporaries have a perception of the relatively recent past, beyond the image of Epinal? Instead, they content themselves with benevolent recitatives concerning the turbulent college students who were, finally, only the authors of an immense instance of horseplay, a gigantic single file, the release that two or three times a century agitates the romantic elements of a society that is too preoccupied with its material interests to be truly interested in major interrogations.

In 1968, to dare to criticize [Charles] de Gaulle revealed a lack of awareness. How could one permit oneself to think of replacing the Liberator of France, the one who instaurated peace in Algeria? Even the Communists would not directly risk criticizing him.[5] To blame this regime was to attack its founder, to blacken his image, to tarnish his post, to nail him to the pillory, to repudiate all that one had more or less adored. In the margins, Francois Mitterand had broken the taboo with his book The Permanent Coup d'Etat.[6] More generally, deep France, which had been Petainist 25 years earlier, had become tranquilly Gaullist. The military had reassured the country. What is certain was that one could not question the image of the General since his return to power, riding the cavalry, in June 1958.

De Gaulle knew there was a cadaver in the closet, that of confiscated democracy. This was a big, open secret, but it was absolutely unnecessary to unveil it in broad daylight. The King would find himself naked, no longer able to permit himself anything in the name of a legitimacy that would leave more and more to be desired. Nevertheless, the students dared to do it. Despite the repression, they occupied the Sorbonne, also holding the majority of the temples of the Latin Quarter, scorning the Right Bank, provoking by repercussion a vast movement of workers' strikes that, this time, could turn into insurrection and carry off the regime like a bit of straw in a tempest. Fortunately, the PCF and the CGT were vigilant.[7] It wasn't less the case that the repression would be unleashed in all its vigor.

The Gaullists of all tendencies and their previous adversaries, partisans of French Algeria, united their efforts against the common enemy. Old members of the OAS[8] and braggarts from the Civic Action Service (SAC), soon joined by the thoughtful heads of the Committees for the Defense of the Republic (CDR), would make a single force. The police, previously infiltrated by the OAS, found themselves in good company with these armed, parallel [secret] bands, without neglecting the occasional aid of the neo-Nazis [Nazillons d'Occident] who later formed The New Order after the dissolution of the movement in 1969. The objective was the same: the rejection of the college students, against the background of a hatred for democracy. What would unite them thereafter was much stronger than what had previously separated them and the fiction of the Resistance was completely evacuated. As for democracy and its institutions, they had to be recovered from a by-gone past. Thus it is impossible to be astonished by the police's zeal to beat, nay, torture: some of these officers had been educated in anti-subversive action in Algeria. It is not more astonishing to ascertain that, at the heart of this army of civil functionaries who terrorized Paris from the first days of May 1968,[9] there were those who did not put the finishing touches on their settling of accounts with the Fellagha. . . .[10]

Our society suffers from amnesia when evocations of the past irritate it, and the most ardent in the attempt to bury -- even under flowers -- a pure revolt such as that of May 1968 are often its former actors. How not to see in this behavior the eternal error of youth?[11] Between forgetting, the refusal to know, and the participation of the old combatants at the barricades of May in new [subsequent] repressions, there is a kind of tacit accord to no longer remember the epic, and to billet oneself in forgetting all aspects of the repression. Memory is volatile, especially for the individuals who have no will to perpetuate it. Nothings aids forgetting, furthermore, than commemoration, again and always. Under the weight of the wreaths, one no longer sees that the flowers have faded, and less and less the [old] wounds and scars.

One has sufficiently spoken to us of the dreamers of May 1968, of the students in search of an unreal society! How could one permit oneself to repress the dreamers? Nevertheless, even more than the dream, it was the evocation of the creative imagination that panicked the governors as well as a certain Left that had become conformist. It was liberated thought (considered to be libertarian) that was hemmed in, and it matters little if the tens of thousands of students were right or wrong to dream.[12] Most often, the ulterior motives did not have their center of decision in the Sorbonne but in Matignon and the Elysee,[13] and, to some extent, at the headquarters of the PCF and the SFIO,[14] without forgetting the CFT. If a coherent ideology was sometimes absent in the Latin Quarter, there was generosity amongst the majority [of the students] and perhaps derisory calculations in the spirit of a minority.[15] A certainty: fixed ideas were absent, as were fads. There were several fanatics, but freethinking dominated. These dreamers were also poets, and the many sentences inscribed on the walls of Paris, and in the tracts and manifestos, proved it.[16] There was not always a profound reflection [in them], but utopia reigned undivided. Equally numerous were those who did not know very well what they wanted, but affirmed quite strongly what they did not want.

"Power to the imagination!" A beautiful proclamation of May 1968.[17] A formula now empty of meaning after years of immobilization, but not when Pierre Viansson-Ponte announced in Le Monde that "France is bored!"[18] The imagination, [which is] most often fertile. The imagination, which makes the foundations of power tremble and, even more, the foundations of a frozen, archaic society. The invention of liberty also terrifies those who govern the conventional opposition, awaiting its turn to take the reins of power.

There are no longer any limits to the imagination! A terrifying perspective! Faced with this great upheaval, in which liberty was the master word, the Gaullist brotherhood was afraid from the first day, whereas the President of the Republic remained in Bucharest, with Ceausescu, and his Prime Minister, invited by the Shah of Iran, did not seem pressed to return from Tehran.[19] From the Minister of the Interior to his counterpart at [the Ministry of] National Education, a single remedy appeared coherent [enough] to calm the grumblings of the students: the use of the bludgeon. Without the least difficulty, the great democrats did not hesitate to send tanks -- the modern cavalry -- to subdue the future elites of the country, who began to give ideas to all of France, as far away as the provinces.

Faced with abundant ideas, power lacked imagination, limited itself to the use of force. The Gaullists, fervent theoreticians of participation, were loath to share when it was a question of power. To dream of it, even peacefully, produced outrage, even more than [the idea of] utopia. To be opposed to the father[20] had become a veritable heresy. To combat this will for change -- at first considered to be the caprice of spoiled children, then a fatal error or even the emanation of confused thought, a misunderstanding perhaps, a conflict between generations or the regrettable revelation of [the qualities of] a part of the youth -- wise adults found no other resource than the use of cudgels.

Perhaps more than repression, the desire for vengeance dominated because, at the summit of power, the student revolt was experienced as a crime of treason. Such profound resentment could only produce fall-out; it would be necessary to extirpate this no doubt contagious evil to the roots. The animosity of the first few days, clearly expressed by this power, nearly democratically issued from universal suffrage,[21] was translated into tenacious hatred. Proof of the disarray of the men of power and the forces of order. The violent reaction of the State organs closely resembled a declaration of war. It was absolutely necessary to strike hard and fast, to set an example. Fearing that the judges were ineffective and, in any case, too timorous, the police rendered justice on the spot, distributing penalties with truncheon blows under clouds of tear case.

The lowest police officer was thenceforth esteemed to be the center of power on the very terrain of his interventions. The protector of people and goods changed into a judge, quite committed to make the disruptive students pay for their mistakes. The police officer suddenly disinterested himself from [maintaining] public order so as to no longer pay attention to the disorder that was at the origin of his interventions. Whence soon came the propensity to decide everything, including potential readers and publications to proscribe. From then on, no question of discussion, because the police officer had more right [to speak] than the interlocutor had rights to frightened silence. It had always been possible to envision dialoguing with justice, even if the scales of the balance were badly calibrated, but not with a police officer who was more sure of his authority than the general interest. Moreover, the police officer was never deceived; just like the pope, he is infallible; he is never wrong; he only knows the right road for the application of the laws that he sometimes improvises. With a truncheon handled with vigor against those who do not walk right or might refuse his primary logic.

From the first clashes of the days of May 1968, the police officer became the best rampart of power and made it pay for its loyalty at a high price. Rigid personality, little predisposed towards for humanism, much more accustomed to the grin than frank laughter, always ready to detect insult or outrage in the least remark and rebellion in the outlines of a gesture of recoil so as to not receive a blow, the man in uniform did not hesitate to choose his camp, despite the existence of so-called "Leftist" unions among the police forces, whose reactions were more and more rare since the end of the Algerian War. The loud, often crude word, jeering and full of haughtiness -- the police officer is not a citizen among others, and to resist him corresponds to questioning the State that he is charged with defending. It was men of these qualities[22] who saved the Fifth Republic in May and June 1968, and post-Gaullist power would continually thank them by providing them with a constant increase of their manpower and their means of intervention, more or less transforming France into a police state.

The vaguely democratic regime that governed France just before May 1968, a little like the liberal empire of Napoleon III at the end of the 1860s, very rapidly changed into a State that had returned to its putschist origins. Thereafter, de Gaulle was closer to the soldiers who protected him than to the people who until then had been his best supporters, but suddenly sensitized by the students, "a dozen enrages,"[23] capable of troubling the daily hum to which each had been accustomed. For ten years, the residents of chateaux, the affirmed owners of the country -- sure of their legitimacy -- could not envision a different democratic rule than one that suited their concerns. Having the right, they held [a monopoly on] force, and considered contestation at any level to be an insult. As in the Ancien Regime, it could only have what was conceded in advance; without such a concession, those who were unsatisfied were confined to their hardly enviable roles as irreducible adversaries. All authority proceeded from the State and, by delegation, down to the lowest cog of society; to suggest the least opposition, even barely discernible opposition, resembled revolt.

And this was what May 1968 was.

Against the dream and imagination, violence. To limit the spaces of liberty, the charges of the CRS.[24] So as to comfort the convictions of the "silent majority," tear gas against those who threatened the politically privileged. A hundred years after the Paris Commune, a new assault against the "Sharers."[25] Was there actually a more abominable than making the rich -- the tranquil fathers[26] of profit -- tremble? In May 1968, there was a single solution to punish such an affront: the use of force. Violence, war against one's own people, did not trouble the Gaullists who were in all of their glory during the Resistance. The men of Free France were not repugnant to using the worst brutalities to achieve their goals.[27]

Following the secular tradition, the sons of the people were thrown against the students, who were globally presented as the children of the bourgeoisie. All this was in the order of things, and one can imagine the mindset of some members of the CRS, recruited in 1945 at the age of twenty,[28] hardly back from the front, after having struggled and risked their lives against the Nazi occupation and who, twenty-years years later, bludgeoned without mercilessly.

The honors of war are good for the hereditary enemy. This remnant of chivalry did not deserve, as an internal enemy, the May 1968 [movement] that it agreed to crush, to humiliate, in any case, without respite.

For the men who governed, in May 1968, the ideological battle did not respect the adversary. The rules of democracy, if not its founding texts, and the possible interpretations of them, could only incite one to mistrust those who demanded more liberty. Where do we go if "democracy" actually signifies "government of the people"? Were the students in the streets, even before the elaborated the least contestatory project, through simple solidarity with those whom justice had stupidly locked up, were they more or less representative of the people than those who governed in their name? Bad question.[29] Those who govern are always right. At the end of several days, the loyalists surrounding the General, incredulous about the student revolt, quickly cried out against the inexpiable crime against the institutions. Quite obviously, it was not necessary to wait long before one could understand that the usage of force could only comfort the contestatory spirit of the students and, soon, that of a large part of salaried society. Insupportable! To counter this "whim," as the General called it, it would be sufficient to increase ten-fold the size of the forces of order, but this rule of the game knew its limits and transformed a pseudo-defense of democracy in action into a safeguard of a power that was less and less democratic.

In May 1968, the guard sent in by l'Eylsee scared itself by launching disproportionate forces against the students who were more numerous after each of the violent charges by the CRS and the mobile military police units. Not understanding these boys and girls, hardly adults, power could only accentuate the repression, not even imagining that its results showed that it could explode a system that was so well-defended -- fear added to offended dignity. The police officers in charge of public order aggravated the repressive measures, unlike the soldiers, who, in due course, geared down.

What differentiated this little revolution from revolts of the past was both the age of the rebels and their mature spirit, their level of culture. Moreover, the young people who did not even imagine that they were capable of making tremble the institutions that were considered to be stable were not necessarily issued from the mythical working class.[30] Even more seriously, they did not break with the tradition of negotiations that are uncorked with respect to the least evil, rather than the best good. At this stage, it suited power to add fear to bludgeon blows: a double action that always works marvels. An inverse result to what was anticipated. The fiction of the assembled people having failed long ago, at least in the domain of the recognition of the founder of the system, the only solution was to reduce by force any attempt to jump the track, this definitively traced route that it was necessary to take without protest.

It was no longer possible to speak of the same people, but of two hostile groups: one that had the fixed right and the means of repression, the other that contented itself with the naive generosity that makes laugh those who repress more ferociously than the resistance is coherent. For the property owners, the most frightened during the days of May and June 1968, this student jacquerie[31] exposed the weak points of a democracy that was still too much an imitation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.[32] Joe Average no longer wore rags, he knew how to read and write, to reason, to make demands without fear, to contest, to demonstrate en masse, and to even allow himself to give lessons. The inheritors of the "smock," who were students of higher education, did not rediscover the habits of the "riffraff," the scum of the people, always reduced to its lot, more by habit than by necessity. As it is always necessary to ally scorn with hatred, the need for soil with the utilization of force, the General in power and his Prime Minister, Pompidou, issued from the Rothschild bank, found the suitable word to stigmatize the educated oafs who betrayed their class [camp]: the "bed-shitter"!

[1] But, of course, "May 1968" was not primarily a "student" movement, even if tens of thousands of students were involved. It was a proletarian movement, a movement of the French working classes.

[2] Raymond Marcellin was the Minister of the Interior; he took office on 31 May 1968.

[3] As a matter of fact, such "questioning" began in June 1958, when Charles de Gaulle seized power.

[4] Impossible: during the course of the events two-thirds of French society -- over 20 million people -- went out on general strike.

[5] A doubly stupid remark: it assumes that the Communists were actually opposed to (and not a part of) the existing order; it ignores the Situationists' immediate and direct denunciation of de Gaulle's seizure of power back in May 1958 (cf. A Civil War in France, Internationale Situationniste #1, June 1958).

[6] Published by Plon in 1964.

[7] Fortunately?! It was fortunate that the French Communist Party (PCF) and the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) were "vigilant" and tried to keep the wildcat strikes from spreading?!

[8] Formed in fascist Spain in 1961, the "Secret Armed Organization" (OAS) was a paramilitary organization that used terrorist methods to prevent Algerian independence. On 22 August 1962, members of the OAS tried to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, due to his support of the Evian Agreement.

[9] Note: the author would have his readers believe that this fascist agglomeration only attacked France's college students in May 1968 (not before then!) and in response to the occupation of the Sorbonne.

[10] Derived from colloquial Tunisian Arabic, this word means "killers" or "breakers of heads" and was used to refer to anti-French Algerian fighters.

[11] Thus begins a completely metaphysical and ahistorical series of remarks: May 1968 was a "pure" revolt because it was nothing other than "youth," not youths, but Youth (eternal and always the same, "again and always," not matter what the society or the era).

[12] An incredibly stupid thing to say: the workers (and students) who led the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 were neither "dreamers," nor were they "wrong" to fight against their oppressors.

[13] The Hotel Matignon is the official residence of the Prime Minister of France; and the Palais de l'Elysee is the official residence of the French President.

[14] French Section of the Workers' International (a political party), replaced by the Socialist Party in 1969.

[15] This is an "old equivalence, capable of convincing any bureaucrat's soul on the spot: minority action, thus unjustifiable" (letter from Jean-Pierre Baudet to Jaime Semprun, dated 22 February 1987, concerning the student uprisings of November-December 1986).

[16] Quite obviously, the author cannot actually quote any of these inscriptions or texts, because doing so would show that they were not "utopian" and that they did indeed possess or embody "deep reflection."

[17] In point of fact, as the situationists pointed out "The Beginning of an Era" (Internationale Situationniste #12, September 1969), this slogan -- an expression of "recuperative ideology" -- was "pretentiously launched by the March 22d Movement," a movement that Maurice Rajsfus seems to know nothing about.

[18] In early 1968, Pierre Viansson-Ponte (the head of Le Monde's political bureau) wrote an article that contained the observation that "When France becomes bored . . ." This observation would later and quite cynically taken as prescient -- as if the country-wide movement of strikes, riots and occupations that is summarized by the phrase "May 1968" was a form of entertainment.

[19] It certainly required no "imagination" -- a simple knowledge of the facts would have sufficed -- to recognize that neither Nicolae Ceausescu nor Mohammed Reza Pahlavi were democratically elected "leaders" or "friendly" to the students and workers in their respective countries. Like de Gaulle, these were dictators.

[20] More metaphysical, ahistorical nonsense: a modern, capitalist country is not constructed and does not function like an authoritarian family. As we wrote in an essay about another piece of Leftist bullshit: "This is a nice, easy and all-too-obvious set of analogies: strict father in the home (the Republican social agenda); 'a strict father model of government'; above it all a strict God (presumably God the Father). The ideology of the Strict Father's authority is often called 'authoritarianism.' But authoritarianism does not explain [...] fascism. It does not account for [...] an inclusive and 'warm' embrace of people who are 'inside' of his literal and metaphorical family (the international family of Judeo-Christian nations), and an exclusive and murderous rejection of those who are outside this family (in particular, fundamentalist Muslims). Quicunque finem iuris intendit cim iure graditur ('Whoever intends to achieve the end of law, must proceed with law'). Strict fathers do not capture 'outsiders' and deport them for torture or preemptively murder 'outsiders' in foreign lands to prevent attacks at home. Strict fathers enforce the law, they do not act outside of it or suspend it due to an emergency."

[21] This verges on a flat-out lie: on 1 June 1958, in response to the French military's seizure of power in Algeria and threats to seize power in France as well, the National Assembly "appointed" de Gaulle Premier and provided him with the things that he had demanded (emergency powers and a new constitution). It was only on 28 September 1958 that the people of France were allowed to vote on the new constitution, and it was only in November 1958 that de Gaulle himself was "democratically elected" the country's President.

[22] It seems strange to us that the author should offer up such a long and withering portrait of the police officer, and yet speak so briefly and gently of de Gaulle and the other "men of power." Did not the police act on orders from above? Were they not "infiltrated" by the French military, which was under the command of General de Gaulle? There is something class-based about this uneven portrait of the various armed forces in French society: it is presumed that, while the police were vicious working-class louts, the soldiers and politicians were drawn from the privileged sectors of society. . . .

[23] This remark ("un groupuscule, une dizaine d'enrages"), originally offered in a disparaging fashion by the Communist labor "leader" Georges Marchais, was later adopted as a mass slogan.

[24] The Companies for Republican Security: a national police force.

[25] The Partageux: those in favor of the equal division of property.

[26] Once more (one last time): there was nothing childish about the Communards, the May 1968 movement or their respective (or identical!) demands.

[27] It seems clear that, rather than supporting the "students" or in any way validating their "dreams," the author is simply arguing that brutality was an ineffective means of suppressing them, and that another, more effective means of suppression should have been employed. Much in the same way that "enlightened" parents no longer spank their children, the "fathers" of France should have reasoned with them, that is to say, bought them off (with promises).

[28] This clearly echoes what we pointed out in footnote 22: a class distinction between the nobility of soldiers and the loutishness of mere police officers.

[29] Indeed: it is stupid to speak of representation when the people are in the streets, clamoring for and engaging in direct democracy.

[30] Even if this bluff was supported by the facts (it is not), the point is irrelevant: it does not matter if a student is descended from working-class parents or bourgeois parents. All that matters is the socio-economic situation in which that person finds him or herself: a proletarian is someone who is powerless to control his or her life; the key decisions are made by others. Thus, it is much less relevant or accurate to speak of the relative bourgeoisification of society (see the author's comments about "Joe Average"), than of its massive proletarianization.

[31] A peasant uprising, typically fought in the Middle Ages. Once again: not something conducted by children or by those adversely affected by mere boredom.

[32] Added to the French Constitution in 1793.

(Written by Maurice Rajsfus. Published by le cherche midi editeur, 1998. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! July 2007. All footnotes by the translator.)

To Contact NOT BORED!
ISSN 1084-7340.
Snail mail: POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998