Remembering May

In May 1968, a wave of protests, demon­stra­tions, and strikes engulfed France. At one point, over nine mil­lion work­ers were on strike, bring­ing the coun­try to a stand­still. Social roles were chal­lenged, pol­i­tics re-imag­ined, and new voic­es heard. For the fifti­eth anniver­sary of those events we repro­duce two oral his­to­ries from a new col­lec­tion by Mitchell Abidor, May Made Me, now avail­able from AK Press and Plu­to Press.


Isabelle Saint-Saëns, who was 20 in 1968, came from a fam­i­ly both polit­i­cal and artis­tic. Her father, a pro­fes­sor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, was a mem­ber of the PCF, though opposed to many of the party’s posi­tions. “From 1945 to 1970 he was part of a group with­in the par­ty that was crit­i­cal of its line, peo­ple who naive­ly believed they could change the par­ty by crit­i­ciz­ing it from with­in.” He was among the sig­na­to­ries of the Man­i­festo of the 121, which called on those called to ser­vice in Alge­ria to refuse ser­vice or desert. He would leave the par­ty in 1968, after the inva­sion of Czecho­slo­va­kia. From this Isabelle admits that her par­ents’ expe­ri­ence taught her that “polit­i­cal par­ties and their bureau­cra­cies were some­thing I saw that had to be fought against, some­thing I’d also learned from my moth­er, who was in the Resis­tance in the south and had been deport­ed to Ravens­bruck, had met Span­ish women who were able to tes­ti­fy to the way the Com­mu­nists act­ed dur­ing the civ­il war.” Both her par­ents would sup­port the revolt of May.

Why did you go to Nan­terre?

This was pure­ly a mat­ter of chance. At the time we were dis­patched to schools based on where we lived. I lived in the eigh­teenth, in Mont­martre, so I was sent to Nan­terre. I nev­er con­test­ed this and asked to go to Paris. All my friends were there, some of them a year ahead of me, since I’d done a year of prepara­to­ry class in sci­ence. So even if it wasn’t mandatory—and we’d have to check to see if I’m right—all my friends were there.

Now things actu­al­ly began in Nan­terre in ’67 ...

That’s true, but there was also the fact that there was a gen­er­al effer­ves­cence that was par­tic­u­lar to Nan­terre, while at the same time there was an open­ing on to the world. At Nan­terre, for all the far-left par­ties, even the Com­mu­nists, one of the main sub­jects of mobi­liza­tion was the war in Viet­nam, be it in the CVB, that is, the Maoists, or the Comités Viet­nam (CVN), that is, the Trot­sky­ists. As for me, opposed as I was to groups, I had friends in both. So I fol­lowed what went on in the CVB because I had a close friend there, but I was clos­er to the CVN because there was an open­ness about it and less dog­ma­tism than with the Maoists. I was also a sym­pa­thiz­er for about a year of the JCR, and at the end of that year they told me I could join, but I chose not to. I enjoyed all the dis­cus­sions that were going on at Nan­terre, between the anars, the Maoists, and the Trot­sky­ists.

What were the first actions there? In ’67 …

There was a first occu­pa­tion, a first strike, in Novem­ber ’67 to demand that the boys could vis­it the girls’ dorms and vice ver­sa. Even though I didn’t live in the Cité Uni­ver­si­taire, it was a con­ve­nient place to hold meet­ings on evenings and week­ends. As for the strike, there were posters every­where, there were pick­et lines every­where, we dis­cussed non-stop.

One of the things that mobi­lized us orig­i­nal­ly was when Mal­raux as min­is­ter of cul­ture want­ed to fire Hen­ri Lan­glois, the direc­tor of the Cinématheque. There were a bunch of us from Nan­terre who went to sup­port him. Here’s a tract that that we dis­trib­uted in Nan­terre. I don’t know if it was Truf­faut or Godard who wrote it, but it’s mag­nif­i­cent. Look, I even scrib­bled “The NLF Will Win” on it!1 There wasn’t just one demo, there were many, and then lat­er, when the Cannes Fes­ti­val was inter­rupt­ed, there were even peo­ple from Nan­terre who went there.

And then there was March 22, 1968.

On March 20 there was an action against the Viet­nam War orga­nized by the JCR in front of Amer­i­can Express, near the Opéra. It was very well orga­nized and there were about 200 of us. We took the metro and when we got off—maybe at Opéra— we passed in front of Amer­i­can Express and some peo­ple tossed things at it. No one was arrest­ed at the time and the next day—or maybe two days later—Xavier Langlade, one of the orga­niz­ers, was arrest­ed. He was a won­der­ful man who died a few years ago. So imme­di­ate­ly the deci­sion was tak­en to occu­py the fac­ul­ty coun­cil room of Nan­terre. The school had a live­ly cul­tur­al life, and that evening there was a con­cert of clas­si­cal music and we went there to speak. We entered the hall and said, “Free our com­rades. The NLF will win.” And then we took the ele­va­tors that were nor­mal­ly reserved and we climbed to the sev­enth or eighth floor—it’s an image I still car­ry with me—and all night we occu­pied the room of the fac­ul­ty coun­cil.

How was the deci­sion tak­en to do that?

It was just like that. It was decid­ed to do some­thing, and that we need­ed to hold dis­cus­sions, which is just what we did all night. We weren’t going to be sat­is­fied with demand­ing free­dom for our com­rades, we were going to launch a move­ment. We dis­cussed soci­ety, the strug­gles of the working-class—because one of the things that mobi­lized us was sup­port for the work­ers’ strikes, the strikes in Rouen … And as I said, there was an open­ing onto the inter­na­tion­al sit­u­a­tion, the US, the war, and there were peo­ple among us who were old­er who could talk about the war in Alge­ria. These were peo­ple who came to see what was going on in Nan­terre, because they’d heard there was a group of young peo­ple there doing fun­ny things.

There were 142 of us there.

Cohn-Ben­dit was there of course. Was he already known?

He was already known. And he didn’t assume the pos­ture of a leader, like among the Maoists and even some Trot­sky­ists. He was sim­ply some­one who knew how to talk and didn’t abuse it. He didn’t say, “Me, I know” or “I will sub­ju­gate you through my amaz­ing words.” He was also some­one amaz­ing­ly cul­ti­vat­ed with an incred­i­ble fam­i­ly sto­ry: his par­ents were Ger­man polit­i­cal refugees, friends of Han­nah Arendt’s … He served as a con­nec­tor so things would gel between peo­ple from dif­fer­ent groups. Dany man­aged to crys­tal­ize every­thing, and it’s true that he lat­er per­haps assumed too much, though this was per­haps some­thing owed to the press, which had a ter­ri­ble need for a leader. Now objec­tive­ly he had the role of leader, because he knew how to bring peo­ple togeth­er, like at the moment of the inau­gu­ra­tion of the pool, when the min­is­ter made a big speech about the role of sport in allow­ing peo­ple to ful­fill their poten­tial and Dany said this was the kind of speech we could hear in Nazi pro­pa­gan­da. When he did this he was threat­ened with expul­sion. And this was well before March 22.

We occu­pied the school and we remained until the end of April, ear­ly May. That is, we were there and there were no more class­es, and there were many pro­fes­sors who sup­port­ed us, Hen­ri Lefeb­vre, the philoso­pher, was with us, and Bau­drillard and Lyotard were com­plete­ly on our side and took part in meet­ings. Some­thing else that was impor­tant was the Sit­u­a­tion­ist pam­phlet De la Misère dans le milieu étudiant …

So the school is closed and a day or two later—this is how I remem­ber it, and since this is my sto­ry we’ll stick with that— there’s a meet­ing at the Sor­bonne about the stu­dents expelled from Nan­terre. But not only to sup­port us, but to do some­thing. The peo­ple there were from Sor­bonne Let­ters, includ­ing peo­ple like Marc Kravetz, peo­ple a lit­tle old­er than us who’d been active dur­ing the war in Alge­ria but who close­ly fol­lowed what was going on. And then the police came in and arrest­ed everyone—I wasn’t there, to my great regret.

This was before May 3?

Prob­a­bly. Any­way, once we no longer had Nan­terre as our rear base—as the Maoist ass­holes called it—we met at the Sor­bonne and at the offices of SNESUP on rue Mon­sieur le Prince. And I remem­ber that around this time the group around Guat­tari and Geis­mar came in and said we absolute­ly have to work with you.

There were nine stu­dents sum­moned before the dis­ci­pli­nary coun­cil, at the Sor­bonne where there was a great assem­bly that turned into a demo. After that there were demos every day.

Were you there on the first day, when peo­ple start­ed tear­ing up the paving stones?

Oh yes, but not in the front line: I was nev­er very brave. At least not to the point of throw­ing paving stones.

From that point on I almost nev­er slept at home, and my father often slept at Arts Decos. My moth­er also par­tic­i­pat­ed in the events. We came home in the morn­ing and then went right back out again. While we were occu­py­ing Nan­terre my moth­er would ask, “When’s this gonna end? It’s almost time for final exams.”

And did they hap­pen?

They weren’t held. No tests took place in Paris and maybe even in France. There were cer­tain Maoist lead­ers, peo­ple who’ve evolved great­ly since, peo­ple at ENS (Ecole Nor­male Supérieure), who forbade their mem­bers from par­tic­i­pat­ing in the petit bour­geois barricades.The Maoist lead­ers were real bureau­crats who sent their mem­bers to go work in fac­to­ries while they remained com­fort­ably in their schools. For exam­ple, in Sep­tem­ber ’68 when the tests were final­ly held, Blan­dine Kriegel and her hus­band took them and said, “Well, the degree could some­day be use­ful.”2 At the same time there were peo­ple, includ­ing Maoists, who boy­cotted the agrégation and who nev­er took it or took it many years lat­er. They had this “We have the cor­rect idea” side to them, all that Maoist stu­pid­i­ty.

Did you see beyond the “crit­i­cal uni­ver­si­ty”? Were you look­ing to change soci­ety?

There were imme­di­ate demands con­cern­ing the uni­ver­si­ty and fac­to­ries, but I don’t think we saw as far as chang­ing soci­ety. That’s why I was sur­prised when I went to Italy in June, where I had a lot of friends. I went to Venice to the lec­ture hall of the uni­ver­si­ty, which was packed to the rafters with stu­dents and work­ers. Maybe I was the wrong per­son to send to talk about what was hap­pen­ing in Paris, but I found myself stumped, since the Ital­ian com­rades had a the­o­ret­i­cal analy­sis of the sit­u­a­tion in Italy and Europe that was far more advanced than ours. There was anoth­er dif­fer­ence between Italy and France, which was that they were much more used to rank-and-file activ­i­ties, to squats, to local actions, the cir­cu­la­tion of ideas …

What are your mem­o­ries of May 10, the Night of the Bar­ri­cades?

I spent all my time run­ning from rue d’Ulm to place de la Con­trescarpe. There was a moment—it began joy­ous­ly and then became tense and vio­lent. I was on rue d’Ulm and peo­ple said there’s the Foy­er Liban and there were peo­ple who shel­tered us there till the morn­ing. There were about ten of us in a tiny stu­dio. It was all pret­ty impres­sive, with the cars burn­ing.

Were you afraid?

Of course!

There are some who weren’t, say­ing this was final­ly the moment to fight the cops.

No, that’s not my thing. Like every­one else, I thought they were bas­tards and said they all should be killed, but …

Mon­day May 13 was the mon­ster demo …

That was real­ly impres­sive. We marched as far as the Invalides and after­wards we went back to the Sor­bonne, which was now open, and I saw a guy there play­ing the piano in the entry­way and every­one was talk­ing among them­selves.

When we marched with the work­ers we felt unit­ed with them, but it remained the­o­ret­i­cal as well. For me, in any case, that was how it was, even if at Nan­terre we’d had some liai­son with the work­ers. It nev­er occurred to me to go work in fac­to­ries, and for dis­trib­ut­ing tracts I would go to Citroën on Quai Jav­el or Renault at Bil­lan­court. But you have to bear in mind the pow­er of the PCF and the CGT, and their line, which was Stal­in­ist, reac­tionary … They had a vision of the eco­nom­ic and inter­na­tion­al real­i­ty that at the time could still be sus­tained, giv­en the pow­er of the work­ing- class and their lead­ers, and then we came along to shake all this up.

At the Sor­bonne …

We occu­pied and we dis­cussed. I didn’t occu­py it, but we met there, but also oth­er places. And I believed in it, but we began to be dis­en­chant­ed, and the last demo I took part in was that at the Bastille after de Gaulle’s return from Baden-Baden. It was transmitted—I have no idea how—and it was clear that the state was back in force. I remem­ber we crossed Paris, and it was the night the Stock Exchange was set on fire, but we were stopped by the cops at place de la République, so I wasn’t there for the fire.

But let’s go back to the demo on the Champs-Elysées. Was it real or did you think it was fake …?

I thought that things were no longer going well. The gov­ern­ment was tak­ing things in hand after a moment of hes­i­ta­tion, which could then give con­fi­dence to those who were either against or not for us that we had once again the asser­tion of author­i­ty, repres­sion. I don’t know if you have the pic­tures of it in your head, but there was a huge mass on the Champs-Elysées, and on the front line there was Mal­raux held up by the oth­ers. I felt like it was the return of the liv­ing dead. Mal­raux was being held up by two min­is­ters, one on each side. I remem­ber a meet­ing at Beaux-Arts after this demo and de Gaulle’s speech from Baden-Baden, and we from March 22, Geis­mar and July among them, were writ­ing a tract that began with “The Bour­geoisie Is Scared, Pow­er at Bay Pro­vokes.” I remem­ber a friend and I broke out in laugh­ter. We thought the bour­geoisie no longer had its back against the wall, per­haps it had once been, but it no longer was.

You laughed, but did you think that those who wrote the tract were seri­ous?

Absolute­ly! There was auto-per­sua­sion. Geis­mar and July weren’t yet Maoists, but there was a kind of incan­ta­to­ry pow­er to the words. Lat­er that year July and a group of his friends went to Cuba and they went to see Cas­tro and they brought with them a book that they told him he had to read: Vers la guerre civile [Towards Civ­il War], in which there’s a chap­ter “Viet­nam: Geo­met­ric Place of our Most Pro­found Joy”! We were tru­ly car­ried away by the strug­gle of our Viet­namese com­rades, by the Viet­namese army, but with the thou­sands and thou­sands being killed under Amer­i­can bombs, how could they say, “Our most pro­found joy”? This was the begin­ning of all those mil­i­tary incan­ta­tions that lat­er led the Gauche Prolétarienne (GP) to say, “We’re the new par­ti­sans.” What mon­strous stu­pid­i­ty! Now one of the most effec­tive slo­gans of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry was “CRS SS.” Which is total­ly idi­ot­ic. After all, if you know his­to­ry the SS has to do with exter­mi­na­tion, it’s got noth­ing to do with the violence—even extreme—of the CRS. So to say “CRS SS,” how­ev­er bril­liant it was as a find—it’s short, punchy, it rhymes—in look­ing at events by plac­ing the past over the present you under­stand nei­ther the one nor the oth­er.

Though things con­tin­ued into mid-June, when did you feel like it was all over?

If there’s a moment that incar­nat­ed that, I don’t remem­ber the date, but it was when we decid­ed to go to Flins. I remem­ber we first went to Nan­terre and ate cous­cous in a restau­rant in the slum there. Peo­ple had been going to Flins all day, and then we set off and like total ass­es we decid­ed to go by car. There we were, me, Serge July, Geis­mar, maybe Prisca; we took the Saint-Cloud tun­nel and there, because peo­ple had been head­ing to Flins for a few hours, we were arrest­ed and spent twen­ty-four hours at the police sta­tion. They were stop­ping every car going west.

What law had you vio­lat­ed?

I have no idea.They held us for twen­ty-four hours—the max­i­mum allowed—for an iden­ti­ty con­trol. There were tons of peo­ple at the com­mis­sari­at, we were singing in the cells. The girls were in one cell, the boys in anoth­er, and in our cell was Jean-Edern Hal­li­er with his fiancée of the moment, they’d tak­en his sump­tu­ous con­vert­ible and like us he was arrest­ed.3 We were chant­i­ng “CRS SS” and he told us, “Be qui­et, you’re going to get them worked up!” Then he used his pull and got him­self released well before us.

But being arrest­ed, why I felt it was the end, it was that in Flins it was real­ly real­ly vio­lent, it was there that Gilles Tautin died. We didn’t suc­ceed in mak­ing the con­nec­tion with the work­ers. Lat­er on peo­ple from the GP would work in the fac­to­ry, but for me that was the moment when we couldn’t do any more.

What did you feel after all the demos, the occu­pa­tion, and then sud­den­ly it’s over?

We thought it would start up again. I stayed at Nan­terre, but for ten years I was depressed—though it was more gen­er­al and not real­ly because of the fail­ure of May—I drank, and that doesn’t help things. I stayed at Nan­terre, where not much was left, and then I began to work. I was involved in fem­i­nism, in work with the peas­antry … There were those who stayed more active than I, but for me it was dif­fer­ent.

But it wasn’t all over, there were inter­est­ing things going on in the ’70s that could have saved us: fem­i­nism, gay rights, pris­on­ers, men­tal health, high school stu­dents, move­ments not at all bureau­crat­ic. But which weren’t strong enough to keep things mov­ing after the ’80s and the arrival of Mit­ter­rand.

Is one way of look­ing at May is that it influ­enced those who were influ­ence­able?

Prob­a­bly. It didn’t pro­found­ly change the struc­ture of soci­ety. Not that there weren’t impres­sive things in the ’70s; there was Lip, the move­ment around immi­grant hous­ing, that last­ed from ’75 to ’81. But that wasn’t enough. It was like there was a lead weight that descend­ed on us, with lit­tle things, like ACT UP.

What changed in you?

I think I kept—it was buried but lat­er came out—the taste for dis­cus­sion, for lis­ten­ing, open­ness to the inter­na­tion­al. Through­out the ’70s I did Latin Amer­i­can sup­port work, and col­lec­tive action. But it took time for all of this to come out again, the mid-’90s in fact.

After all this, do you think anoth­er world is pos­si­ble?

You have to believe it, but … The world of ’68 wasn’t the world of 2000, and the world of 2000 isn’t the world of today. If you look at what’s hap­pen­ing to refugees today, you see his­to­ry being made against them and against us. Every day we have to endure new deaths … Things close up anew every day.


Eliane Paul-Di Vicen­zo was a uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent in Nantes in May 1968; Myr­i­am Chédotal one of the few girls at the tech­ni­cal high school in Saint-Nazaire. Both would be extreme­ly active in their schools and cities, and remain polit­i­cal­ly active today. I had been told by sev­er­al peo­ple how repres­sive France was from the sex­u­al point of view, some­thing that hard­ly res­onat­ed with what we in the US had always assumed. I began by ask­ing them about this.

Eliane: It wasn’t some­thing at the lev­el of the right to speak: the right to speak is some­thing you nat­u­ral­ly take. It was rather on the lev­el of dai­ly life. I was a stu­dent at the Ecole Nor­male de Nantes, and we didn’t have the right to wear pants, tights, short skirts … There were tons of reg­u­la­tions that meant that we didn’t have the right to our own appear­ance, our own bod­ies. There was that. Plus, I had a moth­er who was Sicil­ian and Catholic, so I had no right to go out alone: if I went out I had to be accom­pa­nied by my lit­tle broth­er or sis­ter. I lived in a poor neigh­bor­hood of Nantes, the north, where there were a num­ber of asso­ci­a­tions, among them a group there from the Young Com­mu­nists that had a club, and my moth­er trust­ed me to go there, but that was it.

Myr­i­am: It was a lit­tle dif­fer­ent for me: I’m three years younger than Eliane, so in this area the dif­fer­ences were tremen­dous. I was far from being of age in ’68 and there was the great fear of preg­nan­cy: obvi­ous­ly there was no birth con­trol. As for speak­ing, per­haps in some fam­i­lies girls were less lis­tened to than boys, but in high school I had no fear of speak­ing out, nor did I feel girls were less capa­ble of doing so than boys. On the oth­er hand, being in a fam­i­ly where I had a broth­er who bore the halo of some­one about to do his mil­i­tary ser­vice, you didn’t feel you had as much val­ue when your future was get­ting mar­ried rather than doing your mil­i­tary ser­vice. Though I had no hes­i­ta­tion about speak­ing up, lat­er on, when I was in high school dur­ing May, when I was in the Comité d’Action Révolutionnaire Lycéen (CARL), it was main­ly boys who did, as was the case in the CAL. The leaders—though every­one would have been ashamed to be called a leader—were boys.

Did you rebel against this?

Eliane: The stu­dent move­ment in Nantes was tiny. In ’67 we went to occu­py the girls’ Cité Uni­ver­si­taire so the boys and girls could vis­it each other’s dorms. And in March ’68 I was the first to have the right to live in the boys’ dorm. This was the first strong, col­lec­tive move­ment.

Is there one exam­ple of back­ward­ness that real­ly stands out?

Eliane: I was at the Ecole Nor­male of Nantes and we were all giv­en num­bers based on our rank in the entrance exam. Accord­ing to the num­ber we were assigned a ped­a­gog­i­cal moth­er, a ped­a­gog­i­cal grand­moth­er, and a ped­a­gog­i­cal hus­band. Every year there was a ball orga­nized by the direc­tor and direc­tress of the school so we could meet our future spouse, and nor­mal­ly this was our ped­a­gog­i­cal hus­band. For the ball there was a mass of rules about how we should dress, the dis­tance to be kept between us when we danced, what to say.

Myr­i­am, did you know this was what await­ed you when you went out?

Myr­i­am: No, because I was already unhap­py with the path laid out for me and I lived in the hope of an explo­sion. Had it not hap­pened I’d have pro­voked it on the indi­vid­ual lev­el. I couldn’t imag­ine myself going to the Ecole Normale—though par­en­thet­i­cal­ly it must be said that I became a teacher—and for some­one like me, not exact­ly from the pop­u­lar class­es, but mold­ed by rur­al life, liv­ing in a tiny town of 3,000, 50 kilo­me­ters from Saint-Nazaire, I was con­stant­ly forced to lie, to get around the sur­round­ing hypocrisy, which meant either pre­tend­ing to con­form, and some­times by inso­lence or rebel­lion or lying. Because every­one knew that we were going out with boys, that boys and girls of my age were sleep­ing togeth­er. So I quick­ly found myself con­front­ed with lies and the need to lie.

Did the two of you feel that all you were doing to free your­selves had a polit­i­cal dimen­sion?

Eliane: It was only when I was in high school in Nantes that I gained this aware­ness. That I was polit­i­cal. I was at a girls’ school with reac­tionary teach­ers, but it was when a teacher spoke in praise of Lenin that I first gained a polit­i­cal con­scious­ness. Before it was all on a per­son­al lev­el.

Myr­i­am: For me it was dif­fer­ent. It’s always a mat­ter of a con­flu­ence of expe­ri­ences and encoun­ters. I had a mad desire to lib­er­ate myself from my fam­i­ly milieu, not so much on a per­son­al lev­el, since they were nice peo­ple with a cer­tain nar­row- mind­ed­ness, with moral ideas that didn’t agree with me. But in ’66, ’67 I was led to anar­chist groups in Saint-Nazaire that were already fol­low­ing in the wake of Gaby Cohn, who taught class­es at the Uni­ver­sité Pop­u­laire, so my aspi­ra­tion to eman­ci­pate myself, to go a lit­tle mad, to accept my inso­lence and do things that were a bit extrav­a­gant, found their legit­i­ma­cy in the fact that there were groups with a the­o­ret­i­cal reflec­tion con­cern­ing things I was doing com­plete­ly spon­ta­neous­ly. With them I found polit­i­cal legit­i­ma­cy for my desires.

And you, Eliane, you felt the same thing?

Eliane: Exact­ly. Though I’d read Cap­i­tal it wasn’t my cup of tea, and my first action was against Juquin when he came to Nantes to give a talk at the Cen­tre d’Etudes Marx­istes in 1965. I asked a ques­tion and he answered me with utter scorn, say­ing I hadn’t under­stood Marx and he treat­ed me like I was wet behind the ears. He raised his voice to me to make fun of me and all. And since then I’ve nev­er accept­ed a man rais­ing his voice to me. And I decid­ed I’d nev­er become a Com­mu­nist.

When did you hear about the occu­pa­tion of Nan­terre on March 22?

Eliane: I went to Paris on March 22 because there was already a group in Nantes that had con­nec­tions with the Parisian stu­dents. So there were three of us who met with stu­dents from Nan­terre.

What did you learn?

Eliane: Many things, about the GAs, on how to con­duct them, how to see to it that the move­ment takes hold every­where. And it was Nan­terre that gave us the idea to live in the dorms of the oth­er sex: I was in the boys’ dorm in March ’67.

Myr­i­am: The news from Paris inspired me. I was already fre­quent­ing a group of anar­chists around Gaby Cohn, not that we were his stu­dents at high school, where he taught Ger­man, but we knew him from the Uni­ver­sité Pop­u­laire, where he gave class­es on the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and Bakunin … But already there were doc­u­ments that reached us from Nan­terre, so we knew what was going on. Plus, high school stu­dents had already joined the work­ers at one of their demos in Saint-Nazaire, the first time this had ever hap­pened here. So I was ripe for the events. And I was ripe for anoth­er rea­son, and that’s because like Eliane I had had prob­lems with the PCF. I had many Com­mu­nist pro­fes­sors at the Lycée Tech­nique my par­ents had had me attend. And they were like Juquin: since I was inso­lent and rebel­lious in class they cat­e­go­rized me among those who put their author­i­ty into ques­tion. Who desta­bi­lized them. So through this teacher-stu­dent con­flict I began to detest the Com­mu­nists. Though I’d lat­er join the par­ty. So when the moment began in my high school, and since there were many stu­dents who were Com­mu­nists who were behind the orga­ni­za­tion of the CAL, I imme­di­ate­ly joined with the three or four Enragés to form a CARL, the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary High School Action Com­mit­tee, which was opposed to the CAL. We spent more time com­bat­ting each oth­er than we did the author­i­ties. That is, the CAL for us were reformists, col­la­bos, because they nego­ti­at­ed with the lead­er­ship of the high school for bet­ter rules inside the school, while for us in the CARL, we didn’t give a damn about chang­ing rules, we want­ed a rev­o­lu­tion.

Eliane, you hear what’s going on in Paris, you go, and when events explode on May 3 you’re ready in Nantes.

Eliane: Oh yes, from May 4. Nantes fol­lowed Paris imme­di­ate­ly. We occu­pied the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nantes and I took over the switch­board, send­ing mes­sages all over the world. To Berke­ley, for exam­ple.

Switch­board oper­a­tor … So they gave you a tra­di­tion­al­ly woman’s job. Did that both­er you?

Eliane: Not at the time, because we laughed a lot. We did it glee­ful­ly. We met so many peo­ple. In fact, I didn’t even real­ize it was a woman’s job. Nor did I real­ize at the time that it was main­ly men who spoke at the GAs. It took me two years to real­ize all this, but at the time it was so euphor­ic, so enjoy­able, so dif­fer­ent from what we’d lived until then that it nev­er even occurred to me I was doing woman’s work.

How did the occu­pa­tion func­tion, was it round the clock?

Myr­i­am: The school was occu­pied all the time, and the CARL occu­pied the school overnight. The peo­ple on the CAL, if you were to ask them, prob­a­bly wouldn’t know we were there all night. I remem­ber bring­ing in a duvet and sleep­ing in a class­room, so we def­i­nite­ly occu­pied the school at night. We didn’t occu­py on the week­ends, but dur­ing the week at night, yes.

Eliane: For us at the uni­ver­si­ty, there were pro­fes­sors who sup­port­ed us and there were even secu­ri­ty guards who were on the strike com­mit­tee, so we could come and go as we pleased.

Did the women speak at the GAs at the high school?

Myr­i­am: Yes, not many, but then there weren’t many at the tech­ni­cal high school. And even when we had the big spon­ta­neous demo on May 7, my friends and I went around the school telling peo­ple to join the demo with the peo­ple from the Aris­tide Briand, a more lit­er­ary school. When we spoke to the class­es, one of the two Com­mu­nist teach­ers was dumb­found­ed by what we were doing, and in the end there were 400 of us who marched, main­ly from Briand, but some from the tech­ni­cal high school as well. This was the first time they’d gone out oth­er than on orders from the orga­nized. We already had news from Paris and we had our slo­gans from them. We spent a lot of time imag­in­ing slo­gans.

Had you read the Sit­u­a­tion­ist pam­phlet De la Misère dans le milieu étudiant?

Myr­i­am: In fact, it was the sub­ject of much dis­cus­sion when the CAL was talk­ing about grades. We read excerpts and com­ment­ed on them.

Eliane: And we received Sit­u­a­tion­ist texts from a small pub­lish­er called Edi­tions Bar­bare, and we repro­duced them on a mimeo machine, includ­ing comics detourné [divert­ed] by Raoul Vaneigem.4

Was it com­mon to talk about the Sit­u­a­tion­ists?

Eliane: All of my friends and all the stu­dent lead­ers at the uni­ver­si­ty were Sit­u­a­tion­ists or pro-Sit­u­a­tion­ist. There were some in ICO, some Maoists, some in the JCR, but they were a minor­i­ty. The hard core were Sit­u­a­tion­ists.

Myr­i­am: In high school there was a cleav­age. The CARL was nour­ished on the Sit­u­a­tion­ists, while the CAL was com­plete­ly for­eign to all that, more sen­si­tive to Com­mu­nist and union argu­ments and slo­gans. But hon­est­ly, maybe because we were all young, aside from one or two who were very the­o­ret­i­cal and read reviews, none of us called our­selves Sit­u­a­tion­ists. We were anar­chists. Which marked us off from the oth­ers. We were anars, peri­od.

Eliane: There were some among us who went to Ams­ter­dam to vis­it the Provos and brought back their reviews. We kept up with every­thing going on every­where.

So for both of you the ref­er­ences were more cul­tur­al than polit­i­cal. Or a mix of the two with the cul­tur­al pre­dom­i­nat­ing.

Eliane: Oh yes.

Myr­i­am: Cul­tur­al, but with­in an inter­na­tion­al envi­ron­ment, with myths which we con­struct­ed around events going on in the world. Let me give you an exam­ple. The school had a pho­to lab, and the idea was to repro­duce the image of Che, who’d been killed short­ly before. We felt the need for an iconog­ra­phy, for a myth.

Eliane: We for our part were against any kind of chief. When Raoul Vaneigem came to Nantes he was going to speak to the UNEF down­town and not at the school. So the rank-and-file mil­i­tants went to tell him we had no need of lead­ers and we didn’t need him to speak. We were angry because he’d been brought clan­des­tine­ly with­out our being told, and because he was going to speak in Nantes, where we had refused lead­ers.

Is it safe to say, Eliane, that the lead­ers of the peri­od didn’t inter­est you?

Eliane: I’m a lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor now and I have much admi­ra­tion for Vaneigem’s writ­ings, but it’s not because I like his writ­ings that he could be our spokesman. But at the time we were orga­nized, we had our inter-pro­fes­sion­al/in­ter-union com­mit­tees, which were expand­ed to include the non-union­ized strike com­mit­tee that func­tioned col­lec­tive­ly. We had no need for a leader and we were out­raged that Vaneigem could even think he could come to Nantes to speak. So we didn’t boo him or any­thing, we sim­ply had a dis­cus­sion with him.

Myr­i­am: Lis­ten­ing to Eliane there’s some­thing that comes back to me. It’s that there was a kind of fun­da­men­tal­ism, with every­one bat­tling every­one else, and so the least ini­tia­tive was con­test­ed. Dur­ing May the claws came out very quick­ly and ad hominem attacks were a reg­u­lar fea­ture. Look­ing back on it, bring­ing a speak­er was some­thing inter­est­ing, but just because he was being brought to Nantes that meant he was being ide­al­ized, and as soon as some­one dis­tin­guished him­self a bit he was imme­di­ate­ly sus­pect.

There were strik­ers every­where. Did you seek con­nec­tions with them?

Eliane: Oh yes, absolute­ly. In Nantes on May 9 we went to Sud- Avi­a­tion, and after that we went out every evening, send­ing del­e­gates to fac­to­ries around the region that were on strike.

And what did you do?

Eliane: We’d spend the evening occu­py­ing along with them. Most of the time it was some­thing tru­ly fes­tive. And we dis­cussed issues like self-defense, how we were going to defend the places we occu­pied. And we were always well accept­ed by the work­ers. I nev­er went out alone, there were usu­al­ly three or four of us, among whom I was usu­al­ly the only woman, but we were well received, though I have to say that at Sud-Avi­a­tion Bougue­nais the leader Yves Roc­ton scorned us: I was young, I didn’t have his expe­ri­ence, he was a mem­ber of the OCI, a con­vinced Lam­bertist and mem­ber of FO, plus for him women count­ed for less than noth­ing.5 He held recruit­ment dri­ves all over the Nantes region, and at the events they’d have games of belote, and we’d play it just so we could play against him. He ridiculed us, so we ridiculed him in front of the peo­ple who he recruit­ed.

Myr­i­am: I didn’t go to the work­ers very much at all. I was a board­er, so aside from the demos I didn’t get to do too many things. There was a work­er who was close to the anar­chists who want­ed to make con­nec­tions with the stu­dents who came to the high school. We had no means of trans­port, while he came with his pals and told us what was going on.

What did the work­ers go to the high school for?

Myr­i­am: There weren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly GAs, but the weath­er was beau­ti­ful and we had meet­ings out­side almost all the time. There was even a dai­ly pro­gram, with dis­cus­sions about sex­u­al eman­ci­pa­tion, polit­i­cal eman­ci­pa­tion, talks about authors, his­tor­i­cal events. All of this hap­pened out­side. The work­ers came to inform us and they stayed to par­tic­i­pate in our meet­ings.

In the dis­cus­sions, what did you want to achieve? Myr­i­am, you said ear­li­er that you want­ed not to reform the school but to destroy it.

Myr­i­am: Absolute­ly. It was utopi­an. The less expe­ri­ence you had and the younger you were, the more you want­ed rev­o­lu­tion­ary change. I would lat­er join the Ecole Emancipée, but after a time I left that and joined the PCF after meet­ing some mem­bers dur­ing activ­i­ties I was involved in.6 But that didn’t last, and in gen­er­al when­ev­er I was part of some­thing I would quick­ly find myself in oppo­si­tion and would feel it no longer made any sense.

Eliane: I didn’t have that expe­ri­ence. My father was in the CGT and the PCF; I read much about the Com­mune and the Span­ish Civ­il War, so I came to real­ize that soon­er or lat­er the par­ties betray the work­ing-class, so it was out of the ques­tion that I join a par­ty, even an anar­chist one. They’re antonymic. So I was nev­er tempt­ed by a par­ty.

Did you feel that what was hap­pen­ing was going to over­turn France?

Eliane: That was our objec­tive. I want­ed to be done with the old world. At the time I was utopi­an as well. I thought the for­ma­tion of work­ers’ councils—and we had them in Nantes—would spread and change every­thing. We quick­ly real­ized that the army was lying in wait and it didn’t last very long. After­wards I still had the rebel­lious streak which I car­ried wher­ev­er I went to live.

In the region there were attempts at self-dis­tri­b­u­tion.

Myr­i­am: I was one of those who went to buy prod­ucts from Joseph Pot­iron. A few of us would go to his farm to pur­chase goods. Back at the school peo­ple would come get the things we’d brought back, milk, veg­eta­bles, and paid us cost. It was the strike com­mit­tee that paid the farm­ers. We only pro­vid­ed for the north of Nantes.

Eliane had gone to Paris at the very begin­ning. Myr­i­am, did you ever make it there?

Myr­i­am: I had a mon­i­tor at school who I liked who had a 2CV, and we took off for Paris where, as in so many cas­es dur­ing the time, I lied to my par­ents. They thought I was prepar­ing my school leav­ing exam, and I left with the mon­i­tor in his car, and we went to Nan­terre and the Sor­bonne. I remem­ber it was the day of the Gaullist demon­stra­tion. So for three days we went to the GAs and debates, but not the demos. See­ing all of this amazed me, but didn’t make me enthu­si­as­tic, because I was hor­ri­fied by the dis­sen­sion. Where I was com­ing from, in Saint-Nazaire, we’d had the split right from the begin­ning of the move­ment, the reformists on one side and the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies on the oth­er. While there what we saw were rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies tear­ing each oth­er apart.

Eliane: It’s always like that in Paris, with their intel­lec­tu­al debates …

Myr­i­am: So I didn’t return home fired up and full of ideas I’d want to apply. I came home hap­py to be home in Saint-Nazaire with my com­rades and sub­jects of dis­cus­sion in accord with my con­cerns.

When there were dis­putes in the GAs, was it over day-to-day ques­tions or the larg­er ones, or argu­ments over what hap­pened in the Sovi­et Union in 1927?

Myr­i­am: All of the above. It was often on ques­tions of imme­di­ate strat­e­gy, and indeed, on his­toric analy­ses that we did to avoid repro­duc­ing errors, so you had to ana­lyze this or that event.

Eliane: And at the uni­ver­si­ty we did it with much humor, ask­ing the Trot­sky­ists, when we dis­cussed Kro­n­stadt, exact­ly what Trot­sky wrote about Kro­n­stadt.

With all this it’s clear that nei­ther of you was all that much inter­est­ed in imme­di­ate reformist demands.

Eliane: I remem­ber that at the end we put up a poster for the 30-hour week and increas­es in our grants, so we did have demands that were accept­able, and not just those that were unac­cept­able. And let’s not for­get our demands for the mix­ing of the sex­es.

Myr­i­am: No. Cer­tain­ly not. What we reproached the CAL for was for nego­ti­at­ing things we con­sid­ered mere details. We were more utopi­an, seek­ing trans­for­ma­tion of soci­ety. Per­haps had we been at the uni­ver­si­ty it would have been dif­fer­ent, but imme­di­ate demands seemed to us to be the pre­rog­a­tive of the work­ers.

Eliane: The things we want­ed were con­crete: abor­tion, the right to own our own bod­ies.

Dominique Barbe, who I spoke to yes­ter­day and was at the tech­ni­cal high school in Nantes, spoke about how the basis for their demands were that they no longer want­ed to be treat­ed like chil­dren …

Myr­i­am: That was com­mon to every­one. But the things they want­ed, like the right to smoke, were all sym­bols of what inter­est­ed the peo­ple in the CAL, who would dis­cuss these things for hours, and we thought that these issues were fine, but for things like cig­a­rettes and attire, well, instead of wait­ing for the autho­riza­tion to wear pants we just put on pants.

Eliane: Exact­ly.

Did you pick up boys?

Myr­i­am: Yes, yes.

Eliane: A lot. One of the first slo­gans that we took from the

Sit­u­a­tion­ist Inter­na­tion­al was “Les réserves imposées aux plaisirs inci­tent aux plaisirs sans réserve”(The hin­drances placed on plea­sures incite unhin­dered plea­sures). This was one of the first things we put up every­where. It was the sex­u­al rev­o­lu­tion. There were even chicks who came to the school to pick up guys and noth­ing else. And we threw them out. Guys I knew com­plained that I had a nasty atti­tude in May ’68, because I’d thrown out these girls who didn’t come for the occu­pa­tion but strict­ly to pick up guys.

It was a car­ni­val …

Eliane: Oh yes, every minute.

Myr­i­am: Absolute­ly, that’s just how I remem­ber it.

Eliane: Songs …

Myr­i­am: Eat­ing what­ev­er we want­ed when­ev­er we want­ed, lis­ten­ing to music. This was all impor­tant and we haven’t spo­ken about it, but we wrote songs, we sang them togeth­er, there were rev­o­lu­tion­ary songs we adapt­ed to the sit­u­a­tion.

Myr­i­am, were you still a board­er?

Myr­i­am: Well, no. I’d been thrown out at the begin­ning when I called for every­one to leave school and join the demon­stra­tion; I was thrown out by the correspondent—the per­son who was respon­si­ble for me. So I squat­ted and I spent a lot of time with the Cohns, and my boyfriend who was a mon­i­tor had a room at the boys’ school.7 My par­ents didn’t know because I sim­ply told them that Cohn was my new cor­re­spon­dent. They thought it was great, since he was a teacher and it was he and his wife who were tak­ing me under their pro­tec­tion. They didn’t ask ques­tions.

It was all so hyp­o­crit­i­cal. I lied all the time.

If there is one image of May that remains with you, what is it?

Myr­i­am: It would be the day when every­thing crys­tal­lized for me, every­thing changed for me the day when my friends from the lycée classique—who tend­ed to look down on us at the tech­ni­cal school—encouraged me and I dared open the first door and I said to a stunned class and teacher, “Comrades”—because they were already my com­rades, you see— “here’s what’s going on, here’s the news, I pro­pose we all go to town to demon­strate for the abo­li­tion of wage labor.” [Laugh­ter] Some­times I’m not proud to repeat the things we said, though now I see it was fun­ny. That was the first time I spoke in pub­lic, before stu­dents who didn’t real­ly care, before teach­ers. The first class I said that, the sec­ond I said a lit­tle more, the third I expressed myself even bet­ter, and my life shift­ed: I real­ized I had a gift for speak­ing, for find­ing the right words. It was that day I gained con­fi­dence in myself. It was bril­liant.

Eliane: I have two. The first was when I set­tled in the boys’ dorms, and all of them came to greet me. Plus I was on the fourth floor so the school author­i­ties would have had to climb the three oth­ers before I could be dis­lodged. That was a great moment. And then there was the first vis­it to Sud-Avi­a­tion, where we spent the night around a camp­fire with the work­ers, drink­ing, singing, frat­er­niz­ing in a way I’d nev­er done with work­ers, even though my father was a work­er. And work­ers who sang rev­o­lu­tion­ary songs like us, French songs whose lyrics they’d changed. And there were accor­dions.

Myr­i­am: We only had gui­tars.

There’s the dif­fer­ence between the work­ers and the stu­dents.

Myr­i­am: There’s some­thing that you said, Eliane, that I want to talk about. You said how you felt close to the work­ers in a way you nev­er had even though your father was one. It makes me think how in fam­i­lies there was always a bar­ri­er between par­ents and chil­dren, but now we were deal­ing with adults as equals. The first step was deal­ing with teach­ers and mon­i­tors, and the next was with the new school year and the work­ers, where no one con­sid­ered us adults, but now there was no dif­fer­ence.

Eliane: And at the uni­ver­si­ty it was the same thing: we grew close to the pro­fes­sors and assis­tants who sup­port­ed us. And to go back to the work­ers, even though I hadn’t had good rela­tions with the CGT before, we were greet­ed with open arms, no one was hit­ting on me … It was real fra­ter­ni­ty in strug­gle.

  1. The con­cert that night was not in the same build­ing as the occu­pa­tion, which was in the admin­is­tra­tion build­ing. 

  2. Blan­dine Kriegel (1943–) was a Maoist at the time of the events who did, indeed, get a grad­u­ate degree in 1968. She ceased all polit­i­cal activ­i­ty and broke with the left with­in a cou­ple of years and con­cen­trat­ed on her work as a philoso­pher. 

  3. Jean-Edern Hal­li­er (1936–1997), writer and jour­nal­ist, famous as a provo­ca­teur and bon vivant. 

  4. Raoul Vaneigem (1934–), a cen­tral gure in the Sit­u­a­tion­ist move­ment. 

  5. Yves Roc­ton (1938–2008), mem­ber of Lam­bertist Organ­i­sa­tion Com­mu­niste Inter­na­tion­al­iste (OCI) and Force Ouvrière, he led the strik­ers at Sud-Avi­a­tion dur­ing the May events 

  6. Rad­i­cal cur­rent with­in French teach­ers’ unions. 

  7. Myr­i­am and the oth­er peo­ple from Saint-Nazaire usu­al­ly refer to Gaby as “Cohn.” Not “Cohn-Ben­dit.” 

Author of the article

is a translator from Brooklyn whose works include A Socialist History of the French Revolution by Jean Jaurès and Anarchists Never Surrender by Victor Serge.