“This imaginative and richly sourced challenge to narrow Paris-centered accounts of May ’68 is a find contribution to the historiography.”
Memories of May '68: France's Convenient Consensusby Chris Reynolds
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For over forty years now, the French events of 1968 have been the focus of much attention both within France and beyond. While mai 68 is certainly seen as a watershed in the development of French society, a common narrative that portrays it in an increasingly reductive light has become prevalent. In fact it is less and less portrayed as the very serious nationwide crisis and largest strike in French history but more as a bon-enfant tantrum led principally by a spoilt generation of Parisian students intent on wreaking havoc during a period of much required – and today much longed for – political and economic stability. 2008 saw a continuation in the decennial commemorations that have been fundamental in shaping the doxa and thus furnished an excellent opportunity to assess any developments in how these events are represented, perceived and remembered. How and why has the common narrative come to dominate representations? What has been the impact on how the events are perceived by today’s youth? To what extent does this interpretation fall short of painting the entire picture? This study answers such questions by arguing that the memory of 1968 has been shaped and cultivated in such a way that undermines its true magnitude. Why this is the case, who benefits from the dominance of this consensus and to what extent the history of 1968 is retrievable are the questions that underpin Memories of mai 68: France’s Convenient Consensus.
“This imaginative and richly sourced challenge to narrow Paris-centered accounts of May ’68 is a find contribution to the historiography.”
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Memories of May '68
France's Convenient Consensus
By Chris Reynolds
University of Wales PressCopyright © 2011 Chris Reynolds
All rights reserved.
The emergence of a convenient consensus
* * *
Over the last two decades, memory studies have become extremely popular, spawning an impressive research output that some have described as a 'memory industry'. There are a number of explanations for such a phenomenon. For example, Geoffrey Cubitt highlights societal, historical, cultural and epistemological shifts towards an emphasis on the past that can help explain this so-called 'turn to memory'. Kendall R. Phillips points to an increasing mistrust of 'official history' as one of many potential explanations. A certain obsession with history, heritage and commemorations has inevitably focused attentions on the issue of remembering. However, a heightened interest in the past cannot entirely account for the wide-ranging debates on memory. The ambiguity, malleability and 'elasticity' of the term itself are important considerations. Also, there are many different categories of memory (social, cultural, popular, individual, collective, etc.) that are each subject to varying interpretations which further complicate major areas of debate. For this study, the focus will be on collective memory, which – as the subject of debate itself – is defined here as the dominant perspective of how a group (in this case, French society) collectively considers a past event. Before outlining why the events of May– June 1968 provide a particularly revealing and appropriate optic through which to examine the intricacies of the memory question, it is important to highlight a particular area that can be described as underpinning debates surrounding memory thus far.
The issue of the relationship between memory and history is complex and has consequently led to much debate. The lack of consensus can be explained by the inherent intertwining of the two elements. History (which is itself the focus of diverse interpretations) can be defined as the story of the past as told through a variety of vehicles and activities that draws on concrete evidence as the source of its validity. Therefore, for example, the history of the Second World War is multifaceted and can be found in a number of mediums including books, films, photographs, oral testimonies and so on. Over time, the collective memory of the Second World War has been shaped by its history and vice versa. The material chosen, the dominant perspectives and the nature of representations that shape its history are unavoidably influenced by memory. The stories told, the interpretations and explanations of documents, and the subsequent choices made have all at some stage been influenced by issues of recollection and remembering. As such, certain memories are passed on and inevitably permeate historical representations. The history then in turn exerts its influence on the collective memory. Such portrayals form the basis of how successive generations are introduced and exposed to the past. The memories that help mould the historical perspective of a past event determine how later groups will collectively recall it. The ideas that memory and history can be considered independently from each other or that they ought to be separated (with the former acting in opposition to the latter as 'antihistorical discourse') have not been without their proponents. However, and what the rest of this chapter will demonstrate (through the example of the 1968 events) is that, in order to begin an appreciation of the complexities surrounding the notions of memory and history, one must emphasize and examine their symbiotic relationship, the tensions therewithin and the resulting impact on how the past is perceived.
When one considers the extent of the coverage dedicated to the French 1968 events over the last forty years, it becomes clear that the prise de parole so prevalent during the crisis has been mirrored in its subsequent analysis. Even before the conclusion of the events and in their immediate aftermath (1968–72), the level of attention was unprecedented as participants, observers and experts engaged in what has been described as a 'rush to bear witness, to recount, to prophesise'. Interest eventually dissipated before re-emerging on the occasion of the tenth anniversary. This marked the beginning of a trend that would see the May/June 1968 events undergo repeated reassessments in 1988 and 1998 in what has been described as a 'May industry'. Nevertheless, in spite of the production line of material that has accompanied these periodic surges in interest, the events of 1968 remain 'insaisissables' or, as Bousquet describes, 'One of the most indeterminate set of events [...] maybe one of the least understood historical moments.' The incomprehension surrounding the crisis is reflected in the lack of consensus concerning its interpretation and legacy, a fact exacerbated by the wide-ranging ideas outlined in the plethora of material produced – the quality of which has not been without its critics.
Nevertheless – and arguably as a result of the confusion – a certain 'official history' has come to dominate representations. The manner in which the events have been portrayed – particularly around the tenth, twentieth and thirtieth anniversaries – has been progressively reductive. For example, despite the nationwide impact of the events and the involvement of almost every sector of French society '[t]hree words have come to represent '68: May, Paris, Student'. Any violence is described as the purely symbolic actions of a handful of utopian extremists based in the Parisian Latin Quarter and whose attitudes are often characterized by the now legendary slogans, such as sous les pavés la plage or Il est interdit d'interdire. Furthermore, any consequences attributed to the events are limited to specific areas such as feminism, ecology, morals and, in particular, cultural advances. Whilst Parisian students were unquestionably important at the beginning of the crisis and the areas mentioned as having been influenced are beyond debate, their predominance has led to what has been described as a 'May '68 [...] persistently diluted, mutilated, distorted, reconstructed and mythologized without any possibility of a more general historical perspective rectifying or shifting the focus of this work of memory.' In order to understand how we have come to this point, one is able – using the decennial commemorations as plotting points – to chart the evolution of the events' portrayal and, in so doing, delineate and explain the emergence of the dominant narrative.
1968–72 – The immediate aftermath
Whilst the influx of material produced as the events were petering out and in their immediate aftermath provide valuable insights by capturing the feelings of the participants, objectivity is at a minimum and the required distance for a balanced analysis absent. Nevertheless, two texts in particular rose to prominence during this period that very much characterize the essence of the debate concerning the crisis at the time. Raymond Aron's La Révolution introuvable and Alain Tourraine's Le Mouvement de mai ou le communisme utopique both underscore the early desire to make sense of the tumultuous events of the previous spring. Whilst both authors accept the importance of what happened, they are equally keen – for different reasons – to play down the revolutionary aspect attached to the crisis. Instead, they attribute the magnitude of the upheaval to a culmination of separate problems mishandled by authorities that were seized upon by an irrational, illogical movement. Both appear as wishing to represent the voice of reason during a period when imagination threatened to seize power. Their minimizing of the revolutionary potential of 1968 would set a trend – aided by developments in the years following – in steering understanding of the crisis away from the extreme views so prominent during the events and in their aftermath. Other important memory vectors reflect such sentiments.
In terms of filmic representations produced at this time, one only has to consider two examples to get a sense of the emerging consensus. Jean-Pierre Mocky's 1969 film Solo recounts the story of the violent fallout of the events. The lead character Vincent Chabral (played by Mocky himself), a renowned international musician and diamond smuggler, returns to Paris in the aftermath of the events only to find his younger brother caught up in a terrorist organization. Made up of disaffected youths, this militant body is clearly frustrated by the failure of 1968 to bring about real change. In a bid to help his brother, Vincent unintentionally becomes embroiled in his troubles before eventually paying the ultimate price. Set in a sombre atmosphere, no better represented than by the repetitive, haunting score, the portrayal of the 1968 'spirit' is dominated by the violent, irrational, irresponsible and ultimately fatalistic objectives of the student militants. The film is punctuated with references to what would become stereotypical clichés; sexual promiscuity and irresponsibility; utopian idealism, wanton violence; Paris and its Latin Quarter. That such groups existed in the post-'68 period is not in question. However, the choice to focus on this minor facet of the overall upheaval is indicative of early moves to portray mai 68 as an irresponsible, pointlessly utopian and ultimately failed revolt. The utopianism that characterizes the objectives of the student militants in Solo is equally discernable in L'An 01.
This adaptation of Gébé's comic strip of the same name tells the story of how an entire society decides to put an end to the status quo at a specific time and date with a view to considering an alternative way of life. This An 01 or year dot (starting from scratch) moment is a clear reference to the events of 1968, evidenced by the range of clin d'oeils to the now (already) accepted symbols of what occurred. For example, the L'An 01 movement is depicted as acting without any real consideration for what it was trying to achieve. It takes place in a festive, joyous atmosphere where people suddenly find their voice and find themselves free to converse with those they have never spoken to before. Furthermore, the ideas and actions are extreme with property abolished, consumerism rejected and a new, more open approach to life. Older generations are depicted as struggling while young people revel. And, in what becomes an international movement, France is the country that goes the furthest. This film could be perceived as a manifestation of the frustration felt by those who believed that the 1968 events were a missed opportunity to introduce real changes. However, once again, it is the more extreme, unrealistic and utopian elements that are pushed to the fore. Such a portrayal can only lend weight to the emerging trend at this time that appeared to be striving to depict the events as somewhat of a psychodrama.
Such a trend is evident in the 1969 documentary Mai–Juin 1968. This short UDR (Union pour la défense de la République) propaganda account of the crisis, with commentary by Michel Droit, unsurprisingly paints it in a very negative light. It is highly critical of the movement and pays particular attention to the most negative aspects of the events and in particular scenes of reckless violence. Describing those that led the movements as simply interested in creating anarchy, the overall message is that the only achievement of the revolt was to seriously undermine a country and regime that had hitherto been doing so well. Overall – and despite the immediacy of the events – one can, through a number of vectors, discern the early signs of a common, emergent core narrative. By the time of the tenth anniversary, such a discourse would not only be firmly in place, it was further consolidated.
1978 – Les Années Orphelines
By May 1978, France was in a difficult place. Under Giscard's presidency, the country was beginning to experience serious economic problems (in particular, unemployment) triggered by the oil crisis of 1973. In spite of such difficulties, the mainstream Left had failed to capitalize and found itself with its own set of problems. For the extreme Left, a series of international developments and revelations (in particular, the publication of L'Archipel du Goulag by Alexandre Soljenitsyne in 1973) in the years leading up to 1978 had rocked the ideological foundations of the so-called soixantehuitards. This led to much disenchantment amongst gauchistes, many of whom would become involved in les Nouveaux Philosophes. The failure of the mainstream left in the March 1978 legislative elections to build on the initial success and enthusiasm surrounding the Common Programme of 1972 further compounded the sense of negativity. Such circumstances are important when considering the dominant characteristics of this first decennial anniversary, of which two texts in particular exemplify the tone.
In Les Années orphelines, Jean-Claude Guillebaud paints a very depressing picture of the motivations behind the 1968 movement by highlighting the difficulties that those who immersed themselves in the revolt have had to endure as a result of the vast changes experienced in the intervening period. For Guillebaud, the motivations that drove the 1968 revolt are no longer present or relevant and the senselessness of the exuberance of the soixantehuitards has become so evident that the time has come to accept the mistakes of the past and move on. Regis Debray's Modeste contribution aux discours et cérémonies officielles du dixième anniversaire is further confirmation of the gloom at this juncture. Whilst there is an acceptance of the fact that 1968 has led to some positive consequences, in a scathing criticism of the movement, what it stood for and what it has produced, Debray refuses to accept the events as a revolutionary movement. Describing it as divisive, not interested in challenging the authorities and lacking direction, he considers the 1968 movement to have resulted in the complete opposite of what it promised to achieve. Instead, it aided the dominance of capitalism by forcing the state to modernize many of its institutions, the principal beneficiaries of which have been the bourgeoisie. Like Guillebaud, Debray insists on the need to face up to the reality of the failures of the revolt. Pessimism is the term that best describes his feelings regarding the events in 1978. No longer in any way considered revolutionary, the portrayal of the crisis is increasingly limited to a Parisian revolt by an irresponsible, directionless minority that has aided the modernization of capitalist France and led to fringe benefits concerning moral issues. Such a perspective is once again evident when one considers just how other vectors framed 1968 on its tenth anniversary.
The 1978 Gérard Oury film La Carapate, starring Pierre Richard, provides a valuable glimpse into the direction portrayals of 1968 were taking. Set during the events, the film tells the story of a barrister (Jean-Philippe Duroc, played by Richard) who, when visiting his client (Martial Gaulard, played by Victor Lanoux) in a Lyon prison – where the two men were to discuss the possibility of a presidential pardon for Gaulard who is facing the death penalty – is caught up in a breakout engendered by the crisis. The remainder of the film is taken up with the two protagonists' journey from Lyon to Paris where Duroc manages to secure the pardon as a result of a chance meeting with de Gaulle just as he is leaving for Baden-Baden. If the film bucks the trend by featuring the existence of upheaval beyond the capital, it nevertheless firmly underscores the dominant discourse through the use of numerous clichés. Opening with an overview of Paris, with the now stereotypical slogans, posters and general chienlit that by this stage had come to represent the 1968 events, the film goes on to reduce the main players in the revolt to students and inevitably the CRS. Clashes between the two sides are characterized by a certain bon-enfant, jovial atmosphere with at one stage the students being described as 'these little idiots and their barricades'. There is very little reference to the strike movement except for when this 'idiotic strike' provides some degree of hindrance to our protagonists' progress. The stereotypical notion of la bourgeoisie en fuite from the revolution is featured in the very comic depiction of the attempt of the middle-class couple (Jacques and Gisèle Pavinaux, played by Jean-Pierre Darras and Yvonne Gaudeau) to flee the country in a Rolls Royce filled with gold bullion.
Excerpted from Memories of May '68 by Chris Reynolds. Copyright © 2011 Chris Reynolds. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Chris Reynolds is a lecturer in French and European studies at Nottingham Trent University.
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