Lecture on the revolution in Paris in May l968
Southern Cross University, Lismore, Australia - 9th May, ????
May 1st: anti globalisation demonstrations in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, and smaller towns such as Lismore.
While writing some of this lecture on the train up North from Melbourne on May 6th, Gilli talked to a young man who limped into her carriage. He had been so badly kicked by police without badges at the non-violent join hands sit in, in Sydney, that he could hardly walk. Gilli thought of another friend who had been staying with them in Paris in l968; when she went to take photos of the events, the police took her, broke her leg in three places with an iron bar, and left her in the road. Gilli thought "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose"… so many things are the same, like police brutality against peaceful citizens, and like the oil companies in Nigeria or Sudan still crucifying the people to dispossess them for oil pipelines. The issue of misuse of power to further commercial interests - the same then as now.
Now, however, these corrupt corporate structures seek to legitimise their activities by "agreements" such as MAI or GATS. These, by making governments compensate multinationals for any loss of earnings due to environmental protests, human rights issues, or union regulations, have cut out most of the "people power" possibilities as when money is involved, we "ain't seen nothing yet" and we can expect far greater police brutality than in Sydney or London, far harsher working conditions with no recompense. I guess the difference with l968 is that the outlook today is more pessimistic, and the hard realities we see because of the above, far more likely.
In l968 people saw the possibility of the "prison planet" we face today, but also contemplated taking over the government and setting up a more equal, communal, socialist system. ("control of the means of production, cf. Marx and Engels). It was good to talk to the students in Lismore, to show images of the amazing outpouring of inspirational art in May 68, posters, satirical magazines, film footage, graffitti etc., and to compare them with what is being put out today, fuelled by the same beliefs in some kind of revolution. (One question at the end was "What practical steps can we take to start a revolution?"! er, well…)
The Gaullist government in France in l968 was the usual arrogant and indifferent, very right wing set up.(An academic quipped "The French do not interest their leaders".) They were unprepared for the strength of public feeling, fuelled by very bad working conditions, lowest pay in Europe, overcrowded reactionary universities, and against this public misery, a government creaming off the profits. Heard this before? During l967 there were strikes, mainly in the car factories like Peugeot where the police killed a couple of workers. Students too had staged protest sit-ins, ignored by the university administration. (GS and DA did gig in March 68 at Nanterre uni, on strike and run by students, very inspiring).
On May 6th (Bloody Monday) 30,000 students on strike but peacefully encamped around the Sorbonne were brutally dispersed by the "Special Squad", the CRS, and with 500 injured, threw up barricades and paving stones in defence and thus it all began, although there were already 2 million workers on strike. (The brutality of the CRS was a result of the Algerian war of independence, when France was almost invaded by its own paratroopers). However France did not erupt until the police beat to death a l6 year old high school boy in the demostrations on Quai S. Michel leading up to May l3th,. His bloodied face appeared on the cover of Life Magazine,; middle class parents feared their own children would be beaten to death, sympathies flowed towards the movement and twelve million workers were on strikeby the end of May. For a moment nothing functioned at all, no gas, no electricity, no petrol, thus no cars, no buses, trains or airlines, no normal food supplies, even the undertakers were on strike and the govt. put up posters about the bodies piling up.
However one of the most interesting things about the movement, and what we see today in SII and MI, was the way students and workers mobilised together, they took over the electricity and ran it so no more cuts….they manned the one petrol pump in Paris set up for doctors..they organised the convoys of free food the farmers were sending in (for example there were lO,OOO camped at the Sorbonne to feed), they ran the National Broadcast Centre, the ORTF for two weeks before the police broke in so the uprising and events were beamed everywhere. They organised Workers Councils and Students Committees, spontaneous organisations to deal with survival structures, which they did well. A well functioning state of natural anarchy. It was also completely non-violent, the violence came from the police (even the government were begging them not to be "sur-exite", their excuse for beating young men on their testicles and breaking their legs. At one stage a company of mercenaries arrived at the Sorbonne from Algeria, hung with machine guns, just dying to join in, and were persuaded with great difficulty to go a long long way away. However De Gaulle, panicked and with a plane waiting to take him to Ireland, made a last minute deal with the generals, ironically, who had defied him in Algeria. They agreed to send the tanks in against the barricaded factories (note this was more like a civil war than "student riots"..the English newspapers never quite cottoned on). As the armoured vehicles started rolling towards industrial centres, the French had no stomach for guns against the people, since it was a very "idealistic" uprising, the strikes started cooling off and by the end of June it was all over.
Lessons learned… the only way to change entrenched institutions or multinationals, and corruption is endemic in these from the fact that the only motive is profit… is to make change, environmental protection, human rights become economically viable. Sad but true, although whether Shell or Mobil will stop any more of their atrocities today than yesterday is not at all evident. They just have better PR, that's all.
All one can say is thank goodness that there are people who care enough to even make an anti-globalisation movement, considering the opposition and the danger of losing one's knees. Then as now, a few dedicated people, to bring in other people, can make a whole lot happen outside the rule book.
Gilli and daevid