An Irishman’s Diary on ‘les événements’ 1968

Let me straightaway apologise for the illustration, especially because the Parisian student posters and graffiti of May 1968, 50 years ago, were just so brilliant. My excuse for the Gaullist one is that the students had better glue.

Posters were stuck to street furniture in the middle of the night. I went out one night seeking illustrations for my piece in the then news magazine Nusight. But even minutes after they had been pasted up, the demonstrators' posters were impossible to lift without ruination.

I got this Gaullist one unstuck: it called for the landslide an alarmed President Charles de Gaulle got on June 23rd. It finalised weeks of the most extraordinary anarchy and protests – you felt anything could happen – I’ve yet seen.

It was a revolution, however, that never was – sometimes called a carnival. With perhaps 11 million workers on strike and occupying factories, the economy and effective governance paused, at one point it seemed the government really would fall. The world might change? The stock exchange was set on fire; the national theatre seized as a revolutionary forum. Universities were occupied, retaken by the infamous flics (police) and closed. Teachers joined the strikes.


I got an interview with the rector of an empty Sorbonne. Can’t remember one thing the poor disconsolate man said but I do recall the “eternal flame” in the courtyard was out.

My secret agenda in seeking student posters was that I sensed they might become collectors' items. I even found the building where they were printed but a smart youth there was on to me, I think, and Nusight's request for illustrations met with a polite-ish Non.

L'imagination au pouvoir (all power to the imagination) was a slogan that emerged from endless stand-off talks over control of universities. "Be realistic, demand the impossible" was another. Reflecting the riotous battles for the streets another said: "The most beautiful sculpture is a paving stone thrown at a cop's head".

The pavés, or cobblestones, were not tarred into place and students lifted thousands of them to hurl from behind barricades of upturned cars at paramilitary police, who replied with batons, tear gas, and worse.

All this was rather quaintly labelled "les événements de Mai" by the daily Le Monde.

That is what the right still calls it. To the left it was “the movement” which succeeded “as a social revolution, not as a political one”, as one protest leader, Alain Geismar, said. This watershed in post-second World War French life completely overshadowed Paris peace talks intended to end the Vietnam war.

Another leader "Dany the Red", Daniel Cohn-Bendit, coined a slogan, "il est interdit d'interdire" (it is forbidden to forbid) which got me in trouble. As in Dublin, there were "Keep off the grass"-type signs on public lawns. More than slightly intoxicated in the anarchic air, I delighted in straying sometimes onto la pelouse, knowing it to be interdit.

But one time I did it a black maria police van screeched to a stop, disgorging a half dozen flics, who surrounded me shouting remonstrations. I got out of it by acting the gauche foreigner, staying in the Left Bank.

Late in May there were rumours that de Gaulle had fled, even resigned. In fact he was at France’s Baden-Baden military base in Germany where he was persuaded to return, assured of troop and tank support.

A 500,000-strong union demonstration bade: “Adieu de Gaulle”. Officer veterans dripping with medals featured in a big Champs Élysée march supporting their chief and a return to “order”.

I recall realising, in spite of marches, that the main unions – and the Communist Party – were almost part of the establishment. The (mainly car-making) worker strikes were wildcat, and when student radicals went to occupied factories they found gates barred – by union officials. The big unions wanted this madness stopped.

The workers weren’t just sympathetic. They got the students’ point.

It was a protest against disrespect of people, their right to be paid properly, against a command society, strict class rules wherever you looked. It included sexual liberty questions. But the most remarkable aspect came when the establishment tried to buy off the workers with generous pay rises – and many stayed on strike, jeering union officials.

An opportunistic march led by socialist François Mitterrand, a later president, clearly aimed at control of the left – and the country. “There is no more real state,” he said offering to fill a void.

De Gaulle’s return, spelling the end, was memorable. Father had come home to take charge.

A long slow cortège of black Citroen DSs by the Seine to the Élysée Palace was a funeral for notions like "l'imagination au pouvoir".