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Friday, May 16, 2008

Remembering the Soixante-huitards

It just struck me today that we are this month marking the 40th anniversary of the 1968 student protests and general strike which took place in Paris (and subsequently throughout France) in Mai 1968. At one point, 10 million workers had joined together in the strike - 10 million! That's 2/3 of the entire workforce at the time.

On the one hand, the protests and the shocks they brought to the nation ushered in some notable changes at the time, not least substantial increases in wages. It was also a major shift in socio-moral attitudes, along the lines of the changes in America and elsewhere in the West at the time. Mai 68 (soixante huit) is still considered a major turning point in France.

On the other hand, as was the case with many student protests and much of the left wing activism in America at the time as well, the movement seemed to founder and sputter, in many cases quickly, and as the decades have worn on, the concerns which gave rise to protests have been set aside for more materialist and self-centred goals. If the 1960s were one sort of watershed, the 1980s were another -and I am more qualified to make that judgement of America than France.

It's rather striking how little genuine activism there is now as compared with then. One might suggest it is because everything is fine now, but I suspect we all know better than that. So what is it? Part of it, at least here in the UK, was the strategy adopted in the 1980s by the ascendent Tories of dividing and conquering labour. Labour was either domesticated or disenfranchised, in either case taking what little power there was out of the hands of the workers. But it is also more complex as nations have seen their manufacturing bases shift to third world nations, places where - mostly - workers don't have the right to organise and bargain collectively. And while wages might be higher than what was available before, and workers even grateful for the opportunity (there is all kinds of ambiguity here - the issues are complex), nevertheless it is also an exporting of labour from the West, with detrimental effects on the no-longer-employed. It will be fascinating to see in a generation or two what we are doing to find suitable cheap labour as workers become organised and/or better educated and can start demanding better wages; add this to the coming energy crisis, and it will be a markedly changed world.

It is also interesting right now to reflect on the student protests of the soixante-huitards and compare it with current-day street conflict. Last night there was widespread violence and rioting in Manchester in the wake of the UEFA cup football match. (video here, thanks to ubiquitous CCTV.) People were observed drinking as early as 7 in the morning in preparing for the match. This serves as quite a contrast with the Mai 1968 protests. Not that there was no drinking or thuggishness in 1968, but that the entire protest was undertaken for better conditions for students and workers. Manchester, on the other hand, was just stupid drunken football hooliganism.* We've come a long way, baby.

Now, in memory of the 68 protests, a couple of videos documenting different aspects of it. The first one is quite interesting, presenting some of the protest art which came out of the movement. Do watch it all the way through, to see the statement at the end. It is all the work of the Atelier Populaire, and although (with the music in the video, especially) it can seem almost whimsical, it is also deadly serious.





There also seem to be a lot of punk music videos set to pictures of the 68 protests, plus a four part series (en Francais) documenting the entire thing. (Begin the latter series here.) But here is one video - in French, I looked but couldn't find a decent English language one, sorry - that gives a little (photographic) overview, which is also an ad for a French company which makes available historical documentation of such things.





There is a fair amount more on YouTube and elsewhere giving a sense of what May 1968 was all about, but I thought I might at least offer a few little starting points, as well as point out some of the historical ironies - and sigh a bit that more isn't being done now.

*It probably should go without saying that the vast majority of the fans, whether supporters of St. Petersburg or Glasgow, were peaceful and funloving.

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