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.

1) ISABELLE SAINT-SAËNS

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.

2) MYRIAM CHÉDOTAL AND ELIANE PAUL-DI VICENZO

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.