HIST 276: France Since 1871

Lecture 23

 - May 1968


The student protests of May 1968 in France were linked to international protests against the American war in Vietnam and other political and social consequences of the Cold War. In many respects, the terrible condition of many schools in France that led students to revolt remains a problem. Recent attempts to impose American-style reforms on the university system have met with protests that echo some of the demands made in ‘68; although, other conditions for revolution seem as though they may never again be realized in the same way.

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France Since 1871

HIST 276 - Lecture 23 - May 1968

Chapter 1. A Protest around the World: The Revolutionary Moment of 1968 [00:00:00]

Professor John Merriman: All right, I want to today talk about 1968, which I can even remember, though I wasn’t in France in 1968. First of all 1968 has to be put in the context of mobilization across Western Europe, and indeed in some places in the United States, that had more to do with than simply reform in universities, but had a lot to do with the world, as people like me saw it in 1968. It was a time when the Americans were at war in Vietnam and student protests had begun to expand.

The first teach-in against the War in Vietnam was in the University of Michigan, in Haven Hall, in about 1966, or maybe ‘65 or ‘66. And the movement spread in the United States, and of course you’ve read about 1970 at Yale when people, the exams never happened, and it was the time of the Bobby Seale trial. And, so, this sort of generation, this sort of baby boom generation, whether it was in Rome, or in Athens, or in Berlin, or Bruxelles, or in even Munich, though less so in Munich, or in Madison, Wisconsin or in Berkeley, California, where the Free Speech Movement had started a couple of years before that — it was all sort of linked together as people thought about what the downsides of the new prosperity that had come in France and other countries, and the expansion of the university system to include more people.

And, so, the sort of waves of protest were linked. And in the case of France, which is what we’re talking about, there were really two aspects of it. There were the strikes — more about that in a minute — and then there were the student demonstrations, the riots, the aggressive reaction by the so-called “forces of order,” which is what they liked to call themselves, and leading eventually to the resignation of Charles de Gaulle. So, it was at a time, rather like 1936, when everything seemed possible and it was a time of great optimism. And there are all sorts of books published of the graffiti of 1968, as students, most of whom smoked in those days, went into the Odéon theater and unfortunately burned, with their cigarettes, the beautiful chairs of the Odéon theater, and when speeches went on and on in the Sorbonne.

The war of words was written on the walls of the subways, as I guess Simon and Garfunkle once sang, but of the métroin Paris and on the walls of the Quartier Latin. “Long live communication, down with telecommunication,” reflected the great uncertainty that technology and push-button remote controls and all of this was not enough in life. “The more I make love the more I make the revolution; the more I make the revolution the more I make love.” “Every view of things which is not strange is false.” “Amnesty, an act through which sovereigns forgive the injustices they have committed” — that’s not a bad one.

“Mankind will not live free until the last capitalist has been hanged in the entrails of the last bureaucrat” — not a very nice one, that, nor very original because that came from the French Revolution, the radical phase of the French Revolution, that “we all be safe only when the last priest has been hung in the entrails — or strangled in the entrails of the last noble.” So, there was — as they quarreled, and they debated, and they battled, everybody didn’t agree on everything, and it was like the Paris Commune, and there were a lot of childish aspects to it. It was a youthful resonance; people my age, though most of them were older than me, that in those days, “Professors, you are old,” was one.

And one I can remember, and I believed it at the time, “Never trust anybody over thirty.” Thirty seems awfully young to me now. It was in the wake of the consumer revolution, it was in the wake of the thirty glorious years of the French economy expanding; and the same thing happened, the West German economic miracle as well. It was a reaction to the kind of technocratic society that seemed unfulfilling, that seemed to have turned capitalism and the State, that dynamic duo, loose on ordinary people. And here it was tied to the war in Vietnam and a verbally, rhetorically violent reaction against an American way of sort of splitting up the world with the Soviet Union; and it has to be seen in all of that. And it generated resistance.

At the end — we’ll come into this in while — but there was a huge march down the Champs-Elysées, and of the prosperous people. And you could see them from the 16th arrondissement and there were ladies in their fur coats and they’re flashing rings, and they were there to express their solidarity with the General, to whom all of this seemed something just strange, from another planet, that he couldn’t comprehend, didn’t want to deal with, just wished it was all going to go away. In terms of — also you have to put it — it is linked to America. Because you have to remember — and you weren’t even born then; one of you was in this room, besides me — Martin Luther King had just been murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. And that was an enormous, enormous event for people of my generation.

And it seemed that if you — the harder you worked for social justice — people believed in social justice and we believed in associations and organizations, and then when people went out, down to Mississippi, to work on the civil rights march, and then they got murdered. And I remember going with a couple of friends of mine from Jesuit High School and we joined — went out to North Portland and joined the NAACP, and we were sixteen-years-old, we’d just learned how to drive. And if you believed in social justice — and we weren’t big militants, though certainly during the war we were, we all were, or many of us were. But then every time you took a big step forward, then it just seemed like we were confronted with the Lyndon Johnsons and the Richard Nixons of the world; and with the murder of Martin Luther King.

And, so, these things did reflect a globalization, just as the Algerian War — one of the arguments that I made, which is Matt Connolly’s argument, is that the Algerian War reflected the globalization of technology and newspapers, and the rebels getting the newspapers on their side about French torture. Well, the globalization of news with “Got Live from Vietnam” and all this business meant that issues, the murder of Martin Luther King and the Americans plunging more and more money and more and more bodies into wars, in other places, had ramifications from Nanterre — which I’ll talk about in a minute — which is the university, one of them, to the west of Paris, and the Sorbonne which had been there for centuries and centuries and centuries, since the Medieval Period, in the Latin Quarter.

So, the problems seemed, did generate simplistic answers that if you thought hard and you went out and worked that you could abolish the excesses of capitalism, you could abolish the excesses of the State. And it would be a more reasonable world, wouldn’t it, that the Lyndon Johnsons…? I remember, March 31st, 1968, announced he would not run for office. And the Richard Nixons, that “people power” — that was a phrase that was used in France and in the United States in Berkley, at Columbia, in Ann Arbor and all sorts of places.

Chapter 2. The Crisis in the French University System [00:09:18]

But specifically in France it had to do with a crisis of education, a crisis in education, that education in a society that was still class-based, and to an extent is still class-based, had remained the privilege of the upper classes, even as the numbers of people in the university system in France had increased dramatically, as all across Europe this had happened.

In 1938 there were 79,000 university students in France. In 1958/59 there were 192,000, in the same buildings. In 1967/’68, there were 478,000 — that is a huge number. And in 1968, just since 1967, the number had increased by 50,000 more, in one year. Now, this is the baby boom. If you go back eighteen, twenty years, before that, you have the la fin de la guerre, you have the end of World War Two. So, you’ve got all these little babies who had grown up, like me, and were in universities. But the university structure could not possibly welcome all of these folks. I have these really good friends in Lyon, they actually now they live in Paris and they — I met a Greek professor, a long time ago, and she was teaching in one of these huge Greek universities in Athens where she had 1,000 students in her class, 1,000, and no TAs. You better come up with a question that you can grade 1,000 answers to — name three people, name three nineteenth-century Greeks. You better come up with…

It was an impossible situation for students and for faculty. And as now, as in the issues now, there wasn’t light at the end of the tunnel because compounding the fact that there weren’t jobs — unless you were in one of the grandes écoles, that is the big, fancy schools; unless you were an anarque, one of these people in the administration school who was going to just slide into some party post, in a Gaullist government, what was there at the end? And you also had this extraordinary ambiguity, in thinking about this, or ambivalence, because if you were basically against the sort of technological, super-powered society of fast cars, and the Americanization of European culture, if you believed strongly against that, what kind of job is there going to be at the end of the tunnel for you?

You can’t be a professional militant your entire life. What are you going to do? And the people, by the way, who were, who invested their careers, or lost their careers, in this mobilization were toast because they refused to sit for their exams, and they committed professional suicide, right on stage, because they did it. And it all starts with the latter, when Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who was a militant, when he was expelled from the University of Nanterre, because of his militancy. So, there was a lack of jobs, particularly for those people studying the life of the mind, studying arts, the literature, history. And the structure had changed very little since Napoleon bragged that when he created the académie that he knew what everybody was studying at any given time; it had not changed and to some extent it still hasn’t changed now — more about that maybe in a minute.

The structures of the universities were extremely rigid. In 1964 two percent of the university students were sons or daughters of workers and peasants, two percent in 1964. This is what’s called a class society, and it had not changed very much by 1968 — and people blamed the state for the rigidity. I have a friend, in fact a Gaullist with whom I waited in line to get into Notre Dame for the Charles de Gaulle affair, who was supposed to take — he’s a lawyer and he was taking an advanced degree, and he lived in the suburbs and he stayed in — the prosperous suburbs, fairly prosperous — but he stayed in Paris one night because the metros closed, the buses closed, and if you didn’t make the 12:32 then you had a long walk; and I’ve walked back to that suburb and hitchhiked back and all of that — some funny stories about that but now is not the time.

And he got back on Saturday to find a pneumatique — which was a way of communicating, these little things that shot around and then were delivered to your — in tubes and they were delivered to your house — saying that he was supposed to show up for the exam; and it had arrived on Friday, when he was at work, and was supposed to take his exam on Saturday. And of course he got it on Saturday at about noon, when he got home, after his long night in Paris; and that was the end of that. Then you’d just simply say, “well, I guess I’ll take it next time around, if I happen to be here.” It was a rigid system that was unforgiving and seemed to be perpetuating the kind of elitism and the kind of unfair sociopolitical world against which people struggled. And 1967, in the worst economic year of the ’60s, as I’ve just said, de Gaulle’s response was typical. He said, “well we need to have more participation.”

Qu’est-ce que a veut dire, what does this mean to have more participation, what do you mean by that? Well he meant nothing by that. In October 1966 his workers were getting increasingly militant and he said, “you know, the changes that we must bring to the working-class condition is the active association of work and the active association of the economy which we all want to accomplish, all of us.” What does this mean? It means nothing, it means nothing. And, so, phrases like that, sentences like that are reassuring for the upper classes in Paris or Lyon, in the sixth arrondissement of Lyon, or wherever, who don’t want to be bousculer, they don’t want to be bothered by the militancy of students and of workers. They want the metros to run, they want the buses to run, they don’t want the students building barricades and all this stuff. So it’s reassuring to them but it didn’t mean anything.

De Gaulle was so completely out of it, he said, “je suis coupé des Francais;” “I’m adrift from the French, I’m cut off from the French,” because he had no understanding — that the nationalism of French should be enough, that the mystical body of himself should certainly be enough. But of course it wasn’t. And the demonstrations, many of them organized by the National Union of Students, which had begun — which was militant, had begun in the 1950s, or maybe the ’40s, I don’t remember — its militancy had declined after the Algerian War, but then you have the students leaders, whose names you don’t remember, but they were young, often young sociologists, or one was in physics, Alain Jeanmaire, names don’t matter — well they did to them and they did to people of my generation but they don’t necessarily to you — they were in sociology or mostly in literature and history, and they all committed together professional suicide.

Chapter 3. The Student Demonstrations [00:17:05]

And, so, it begins with demonstrations in Nanterre. Now, the French university system began with the Sorbonne, and the Latin Quarter is so called, as you know, because that’s what people spoke in the Middle Ages. Students conversed in Latin, Latin was a living language. And the second medical school in Europe is Montpellier; the first was Bologne. And there was already a very strong university in Lyon, and there was X and there were other universities. But the big expansion of even the Paris system and of provincial universities has come in response, in part, to these big events, in this heady time. But they haven’t necessarily brought many changes, as we’ll see later. And, so, there’s also lack of a campus.

I’ve taught at Lyon, at Lyon II, and I teach in Rouen sometimes, and there’s, with the exception of Grenoble, which has a fairly nice campus, maybe Montpellier a little bit, most of the places, students don’t, most of them don’t live in dormitories, and so they’re just places where they go — they’re essentially all-commuter colleges. If you go to Lyon, University of Lyon, I, II or II — they’re also named in such a not terribly poetic way. University of Paris has 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14. So, you say, “where are you a student?” “Moi je suis à Paris VII” “Moi je suis à Paris XIV” — good luck if you’re at Paris XIV, that’s Villetaneuse, and oh my god it’s just unbelievable. These are buildings that were built, already falling apart and they’re just out there, and they’re soulless and it’s a…

You’re privileged, you’ve worked very hard to be privileged. In Michigan we were privileged. But you can’t — there’s no sense of solidarity. There’s nothing to do. There are no sports really basically; there’s the equivalent of club sports. They would just sit around and smoke cigarettes. And there’s just not much to do, there’s no sense of esprit de corps, there’s no sense of being a former student of that place. It’s part of your existence for three years — unless you’re one of thegrandes écoles or the fancy folks and all that. So, even trying to get people to mobilize against the structure isn’t very easy. But the conditions, they start out with these demonstrations against these conditions. This is also tied — and this is a point I stupidly forgot to mention early — the women’s movement, although not terribly dominant in France, still essentially limited — this is probably an exaggeration, but to the middle class feminists, influenced by Simone de Beauvoir, the women’s movement also meant that lots of women put forth their claims; and again, as I said, that the vast majority of the students are bourgeois students, they’re upper class students and so — but that still was part of it.

And the way society is structured in the United States then where sexism was even more endemic then than it is now, that for militant females this was part of the problem too. There was so much that seemed to have to be changed that it was very frustrating. And, so, there are occupations. People in the United States occupied administrative buildings. Unfortunately they often destroyed books. It happened at Columbia and places like that. But there was lots of student occupations — at Yale there were too, I wasn’t around, but there were too. And the National Guard, if you can imagine the National Guard tanks coming up — John Blum has told me about that, my colleague, former colleague, now long retired. But Branford College was le college rouge, and I guess they had a red flag up or something and tanks were coming down — if you can imagine tanks coming up York Street, between J.E. and Pierson or between Davenport and Branford, and they were setting up little welcome centers and possible places to treat people that are injured by the National Guard who wanted nothing of militant privileged students, and then May 4th, 1970, gunned them down at Kent State with great pleasure. These were different times.

But, anyway, so in France they start occupying buildings, and on May — the Sorbonne is closed down on May 2nd. And on May 3rd the police move in. Now, the police, the CRS were hated, were hated. The CRS, many of them were southerners, and the rumors — and I can remember these rumors, that they were kept in their barracks and not fed enough and given special sections on why militant workers and militant students represented the end of civilization as they had known it. And they had their big — you can still see this now because many of them feel they have free reign now with Sarkozy — their big shields, and their big helmets, and what you call in French paniers à salade, these big trucks that have grills on them, like if you’re shaking lettuce. And they would suddenly come tearing along the place; and it wasn’t just circulez, like move along, move along, they’d just beat the hell out of you.

And we’re still not sure how many people died in all of this, how many people were battered by these folks. But you can tell — I grew up just hating these people, just hating them. You’d walk along, in the ’70s even, they’d be down in their trucks on Boulevard Saint-Germain or they’d be clustered around the Hôtel de Ville. It’s just a very contentious age, and you just grew up — if you’re my generation, I guess my politics, you just hated these people. And nobody hated them, had reason more to hate them — and this may be unfair but it’s not unfair — than minorities, because those are the ones that these white, many of them Corsican but it’s not just Corsicans, but white people from the south who were moved into northern posts and they didn’t want to see North Africans, or West Africans, or folks like that around.

But, anyway, they move in, they evacuate the Sorbonne and things spin out of control. And May 10th to May 11th is the night of the barricades. And the barricades go up in streets that had not had Haussmann’s boulevards plowed through them. It was harder — they do make some attempts and they do, I guess if I remember right across the — see that was the only year I wasn’t there; that’s sort of odd isn’t it? But I first started going to France when I was a kid in 1967, and I’ve been there at least every four months since then, and I wasn’t there in 1968. But there were barricades built between Rue Saint-Jacques and the Boulevard Saint-Michel, in that sort of now touristy, overrun with McDonald’s quarter there, tourist quarter; and all around Rue Monsieur le Prince and all around the Odéon. And the barricades were built, unfortunately many of them with trees that were ripped down on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, and they did a lot of damage there and they ripped up cobblestones, where streets still had cobblestones and they…

Deux-Chevaux were these little, very unsafe, flimsy cars that you could — I, with this friend of mined, picked up the front of a Deux-Chevaux to move, to park; you could just sort of literally — this guy and I — you could pick it up and kind of move the front along. And these things were easily transformed into barricades. And this was the night of the barricades and there was a lot of violence. These were real barricades. And this was rather one-sided violence, but still. So, there are 367 wounded; several killed, we still don’t know how many; and about 460 arrests. Before that even, on May 6th during the fighting, there were 1,422 arrests, et cetera, et cetera. And the middle-class was shocked by the brutality of the fighting, but they were more shocked by the fact that you had workers and students who had not yet really coalesced, that were defying the State.

And one of the obvious, C-R-S S-S, CRS SS, as the SS, as in Hitler’s organization, and this is what was chanted. And it was all the way up to the Jardin de Luxembourg, from which they could get materials also for these barricades. How did the government react? The prime minister was Georges Pompidou, a pure kind of Gaullist whose only resistance in World War Two, incidentally — this is a bit mean to say — but he once refused to sit next to a Gestapo officer, in the opera, in a loge at the opera. But Pompidou had been in Afghanistan and he came back on May 11th and orders the university reopening, without the police, and then he went off to Rumania, as planned, and then he came back and found that strikes had spread.

Chapter 4. The Workers’ Strikes [00:26:34]

Now, the strikes themselves were both a separate but related movement. And the strikes came in the large industries, and there were no plants in Boulogne-Billancourt. These same kinds of occupations that had happened in 1936, in a way rather festive occupations — as Lenin had once said, with considerable reason, about the Commune, he called it a “festival of the oppressed” — and there was good humor in these occupations, again the same kind of guerrilla theater and all of this; great attention not to destroy the machinery that the workers, when this all had settled, would come back. But on May 14th there an aircraft plant near Nantes was occupied and then the sit-down strike spread, as in 1936. On May 16th workers occupied the giant Renault Billancourt, Renault plant there, and then it spread to other areas.

It was the largest mobilization of workers in French history, without any question, even more than 1936. And rather like 1936 it left the Communist Party confused and uncertain, because once again it seemed to be that the tail was wagging the dog. Workers are striking on their own, and they had slogans that weren’t really big communist slogans. One was “autogestión,” that is workers self-management, that workers would run their own factories. Now, in the Soviet Union, after the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik, the Communist Party had crushed like grapes workers who attempted to run their own factories and who wanted to have strikes; and working the power of the proletariat in the Soviet Union, to an extent of Lenin but above all of Stalin, became the dictatorship of the Communist Party. Workers self-management simply didn’t exist, it was run by the party. In theory it existed.

The Communist Party was supposed to represent the Russian, the Soviet working class, but in fact the Communist Party had existence of its own. And, so, suddenly they’re confused because here’s the workers saying, “we want to run — we want to go out on strike now. And they said, “well, wait, wait” — it was the same thing as 1936 — “everything is not possible, everything is not possible.” But for workers occupying their plants it seemed to be — this seemed to be the moment to do it; and there was a strong link between big strike movements and political opportunity, as in 1936. So, it’s a very, very good comparison to make — trent-six, ‘36 and ‘68.

And the workers wanted participation in industrial decision-making, they wanted control over the pace of work. Again they were against Taylorism, that they’re being measured, their performance is being measured by the number of units of whatever — car handles, whatever they’re making, that they do. They want to have the right, which they eventually won, to have a union office in the factory and to collect fees from workers for the union and make — get collects, to pass the hat on behalf of the union and on behalf of workers in the union, during work. And, so, the political goals can’t really be separated from the worker’s movement, it was all part of this huge mobilization.

Chapter 5. The Common Cause of Students and Workers: Against the Brutalization of Human Relations in the Capitalist Age of Technology [00:30:07]

And workers and students had really had a lot more in common than they did in the United States, because people of my generation can remember students at the University of Michigan going down to the Ford plants in Ypsilanti, and in other places, and up in Flint. And the workers there they didn’t want to hear anything about these privileged white students opposing the war in Vietnam, they wanted to have a boat and go out on Lake Michigan or Lake Huron. And they were, “if the United States government is fighting a war in Vietnam then it must be — the United States government knows what it’s doing”; and they didn’t want any part of it. And, so, it was a total — talk about a failure to comprehend, it just didn’t work, and to an extent — this is probably not a fair comparison — but it would rather be like militants at Columbia, and Yale, and Harvard, and Michigan, and Madison activists, some white and some black, going down to Alabama and Mississippi and trying to talk to people down there, because it just, it didn’t work.

But in France because the state structure seemed to be, in a very centralized structure, not a federalized structure, so you could find common cause, because you’re the factory worker who is occupying a factory. His enemy is the CRS, and the students who are afraid they’re going to get gunned down by the CRS, they have things that they had in common. And they’re both fighting against the brutalization, as they would have put it, of human relations, is that capitalism seemed to be simply perpetuating this favored society in which the rich do very, very well, thank you very much, and thegrandes écoles are full of only people who are well connected; basically that was always the case, the big, fancy schools. And the brutalization of human relations on the shop floor, with the bosses sort of dictating the rhythm of work.

So, it seemed to be — there seemed to be this sort of moment where some progress could be made; and in a sense you’re powerless within the system. In the French educational system you were, and to an extent still are, powerless. And in the factory you were powerless. And you’re probably arguably more powerless now because the role of the unions has declined, in France, as in the United States. And in the end the government had to pass laws giving legal status within each factory, to the union, that they could collect funds, as I said — I guess I already said that — and could have an office there. But the education reforms basically scratch the surface.

They’re beginning — creating new universities all over the place. Now there’s only a couple of départements in France that don’t have at least branches of universities. The most recently created were La Rochelle, which is going very nicely, and the Pays-de-Calais, in Arras. But even these lead to problems because, for example, when they create a university in La Rochelle, then you are hurting an old established university, Poitiers, which becomes this sort of instant rival, La Rochelle does, for students from the area around La Rochelle. And the Pas-de-Calais, that is up in Arras, what does that hurt? Well that is resisted by Lille, obviously; in Lille there are three universities in Lille; Lille is a big student center. So, even in places that are major university towns. And Toulouse is a good example, they create more universities, they can expand the University of Toulouse, more branches and stuff like that.

But does this solve the problem? It really doesn’t because French universities remain woefully under-funded, and that’s why this issue of this law that’s been proposed, or it’d be passed, I guess, the loi, the Pécresse Law, p-e-c-r-e-s-s-e, which is to make these budgets autonomous of universities, represents a kind of an Americanization of the French system where — that the favored will do even better — Paris I, Paris IV, which are very different. Paris I is associated more, a leftwing university, more progressive; Paris IV, quatre, is a more rightwing university. Lyon II, places like Lyon II, as opposed to Lyon I and Lyon III, is going to do very, very well; Toulouse is going to do very well under this system. Montpellier will do very well, maybe they’ll be able to raise money from alumni.

There’s not even — it doesn’t even exist, an alumni association for these places, they don’t even exit. It’s just totally different. Even a public university in the United States, like Michigan, even in hard times, just does so very, very well because the University of Michigan is so identified with — I’m a little proud but — identified with the State of Michigan; or Wisconsin or Berkley; Berkley might have hard times but the California system, it’s so part of the State of California. But it doesn’t do much good to argue that the Besançon University is associated with the Department of the Doubs, which is the Département of Besançon, because unless the state gives them money there ain’t going to be any money coming in. And, so, you have more and more people.

Has anybody here been to a French university? Yes, where were you? Barkley, you were in Paris, weren’t you?

Student: In Paris [inaudible]

Professor John Merriman: At Paris IV, and you went to the lectures and all that.

Student: Yes.

Professor John Merriman: Were there enormous numbers of people?

Student: Lectures, so-so. I guess 100 to 200. But then we had TD as well.

Professor John Merriman: Travaux dirigés are sections and things like that. But the way that these are done is you have these huge lectures. You know what? I taught in — I should get back to de Gaulle, but in a minute — but when I taught at Lyon II I was supposed to — I didn’t pick my courses; here, I’m lucky enough at Yale to be able to pick my courses. They said, “well, you can do history of urban France,” because I’ve written books on urban France, “and then you can do the 1920s and ’30s.” And I thought, “oh man, I don’t want to do that.” “And then you can do” — because we live part-time in North America — “you can do history of North America.” And I don’t know anything about that. And, so, I’m calling my friends, like David Davis and I’m calling my editors at OUP and Norton saying please send me all your books on American history.

And, so, I’m sitting around, the night before — I did ridiculous lectures on Quebec. I don’t know anything about that. I must have repeated three times about Louis XIV sending a boatload of prostitutes, because that’s about all that I could remember, when I got up there in front of 250 people, speaking about the history of North America — I don’t know a damn thing about it; I know a little bit about it but not to teach it effectively. But that’s just it. And then also because of the politics, the person — the dean was at war with my friends there, so they gave me the worst conceivable schedule. I had to go all the way up on Friday for an afternoon class and my other classes were on Monday and Wednesday, and all this. But you’re teaching these people. And there were three courses on the 1920s and ’30s, three lecture courses, and we would get together and say, “What are you going to do?” And we were smart enough to say, “Well I’ll tell you what, you do the economy stuff and I’ll do the political stuff, and we’ll kind of help each other out.”

And you put down a reading list of books that you might hope that they would read, and maybe ten, eight books maybe, or something like that, a reasonable amount. But there are bookstores but there are no such thing as course readings. And what they used to do at the Sorbonne is they would — professors would print out their lectures and you could buy, at one of these bookstores, their lectures. So, they used to say, “well, the hell with it, I’m not going to go to the lecture if they’re going to do that.” But we took it more seriously and so we put out these books. And now — because students, French students don’t have any money, they have no money, I mean no money, most of them — unless they’re at fancygrandes écoles, that their checkbooks are like Kleenex boxes — that they have no money and so they can’t afford to buy the books.

Now, in our three classes on the 1920s and ’30s there were 400 students. And you know how many copies of the books there were, available? One, in the library. And there was another one in the municipal library in Lyon. So, how are you going to read the books? You’re not going to read the books. How are you going to do on the test? Not very well, because you hadn’t read the books, and the whole course can’t be built on lecture. But it’s good, but I mean it’s bad, because you had — Lyon II is very good. So, I had students who were comparable to you nice people. But then some of them were just totally clueless, and they used to do things like — there was one who would bring — a couple of them would bring these little stars that you have that you used to put on — you have in Catholic first grade, little stars you’d put on the big points you want to have, and they’d bring these little stars, and they thought they were still in high school, and they’d say, “can I borrow the glue of my neighbor?” or “can I borrow the eraser of my neighbor?”

And then everything in France has to be three, so you’d have one, you’d give them a question and say one, two three, and some of them would have three points, and none of them made any sense at all, but there were always three points. But then some were just brilliant and some were terrible. But the thing that was so sad about this whole system, and this is what really got me, is that I had to do the travaux dirigés, also, of one of the courses. And so somebody wouldn’t be there and you’d say “Madame” — you couldn’t tutoie them, though I finally ended up doing it, the hell with it — and you’d say, “whatever happened to Mademoiselle X, here’s Mademoiselle X?” “Je ne sais pas.” “Well, she’s not here anymore.” “No, I guess not.” And you never know. There would be a nurse available for twenty minutes a week, and so if somebody was having serious problems you would never know; no one ever followed it up and they just would disappear into the night, and there was no structure.

Here, if you get the sniffles we know about it and you’re taken very care of. And even at places that aren’t fancy like this that’s the way it is. And so the system has never been reformed. Even for the simple task — oh here, I go, boy, this I’m getting — what happened to my lecture? — the hell with it. But waiting in line to Xerox something, have you ever waited in line behind ten geographers, all Xeroxing the fourteen biggest volcanoes in the Puy-de-Dôme? It’s just mind-boggling. And then you’re looking at your bell, and then you sort of struggle through this cigarette smoke. Hopefully you’ll see your amphitheater B will be somewhere through there, and you sort of stagger along through the smoke. And then people talk too, the other thing, people talk, and they used to drive me nuts. And they all-and they drague too, they’re all, these guys are always hitting on these women, and in your class this stuff is going on.

And I once got so mad, I got to kind of control myself, this was in amphitheater B, as it’s called so poetically, I was talking about some damn thing about nouvelle France — I didn’t know what I was talking about, zerozero. And I was going on anyway, that doesn’t stop me, and I walked up the stairs and these people are talking, they’re just talking. And I stood right in front of them, and then they said, “oh, excusez-moi.” And then I left and went back down and they start talking again. Or sometimes they’d be talking and you say, “Est-ce que vous voulez la parole, vous?” “Do you want to talk?” And they say, “oh no, no, excuse me,” and then they go back to their email or they go back to hitting on their neighbor or whatever. It was just mind-blowing. But the very good students — but the way that you teach — and Da-ihn knows all about this system too, you should ask her, but she was in very good schools and all that there. But it just is, it’s an incredible thing.

Chapter 6. The Inadequacy of the Gaullist Response: A Sincere Revolution without Direction [00:41:41]

So, it didn’t really change very much after de Gaulle. So, what happened to old Charles de Gaulle, back to 1968, what happens to him? Well he takes a mysterious trip. He first, he goes to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, probably to finish those feuilles tendres, those serials on TV, that he was watching, and then he disappears and he goes to Baden-Baden in Germany. Why did he go to Baden-Baden in Germany? Well, nobody really knows. Probably the best explanation is he wanted to make sure that he had the support of the French Army. Why is the French Army in Baden-Baden? Well, the French Army is in Baden-Baden because that’s part of French territory in the après guerre, and they’re still occupying.

And, so, he announces that they’re going to have participation, and this necessity of participation in overcoming this crisis — that’s the word he uses, participation. He comes back. And so in the meantime there’s this huge march down the Champs-Elysées to support him. The upper classes are clear that they will support the Gaullist response, no matter what it is; that if it’s the Army just shooting down students, which they aren’t ever going to do, but the brutality of the repression, they will support that. They were quite happy to see people like Cohn-Bendit and the others who committed professional suicide go, and basically things calm down. But the point is that the reforms were never really — meaningful reforms, I think it’s safe to say, really don’t come to the French university system.

Now the French university system is more open to people who are not just following their parents along in the university structure. There are more workers’ sons and daughters — and daughters, above all now — daughters and sons of very ordinary people. We know a good number of people your age or a little older who are at university now who are the first people in the whole history of their families to go to university; and happily still at Yale and other places one can give thanks to various changes that Yale and these other places, one can find that now. This has changed, but the problem is that as long as the economy is not able to absorb all these young people, when they get done, there is no sense that they’re going to be able to go anywhere anyway, particularly if they want to stay in the region where we live, in which there’s not a lot of economic activity.

Thus we have one friend who got her Master’s at Grenoble, and the only job that she could find for the next two years was working at McDonald’s, in Grenoble, or near Grenoble, and now she’s working for her parents. So, to make universities more open to all kinds of people does not necessarily solve the problem of what’s going to happen to them in the long run. Now, one of the things that has done that is of course the bac itself. And you know that in France you take the baccalaureate exam, you take what they call the bac blanc, after the equivalent of your junior year in high school, which includes the French bac, and then you take the real bac at the end. Now, back — I can’t tell you what the percentage of the people who passed the bac in 1968 is, I don’t know that. It’s probably — was probably about half, or maybe even less. Of course it’s steamed upwards over the last fifteen years, and it now approaches eighty percent.

That is still big pressure, because it’s your one exam and it’s you bet your life, because you can’t go to university if you don’t pass the bac, and there’s big, big pressure. And if you get pretty close, by a couple of points, then you can do it again, that there’s a possibility of doing it again within the next couple of weeks, if you’re very, very close. We had a friend whose mother died and she was obviously very upset, and she just barely missed it, and so they let her do it again. So, this puts a lot of pressure. But also, as I’ve said before, because of streaming there are lots of people — kids who are taken out of the line toward university and toward passing the bac, quite early on, because their teachers will convoke the parents and say, “your daughter and son has no business being in a school.” Just like that, cruelty of it all. And then they go off into a different line.

And there are no — and I’ve said this before but there are no second chances, in this system, which can be a very, very cruel system. And not everybody passes the bac. My son has a buddy who managed to get a 1 on the bac, which is very difficult, because it’s graded from 0 to 20, and he managed to get a 0,25 in one thing earlier on, in his brevet, which is an earlier exam. And so university life isn’t cut out for everybody. But I couldn’t in all honesty, as much as I love teaching in France, and I do, and it’s not just because of the — I love the ambiance in French universities, I really do, and I feel useful, and it just — it’s a lot of fun but it’s not — and we’ve had chances to be there forever, teaching there, but it’s just the conditions, they’re tough, they’re challenging conditions.

And basically it wasn’t enough for de Gaulle to say “we want more participation” and to announce an election, a referendum on regional decentralization; and that’s how he walks off the stage. In 1969 he just goes back to — stomps of to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, because it’s a referendum on his leadership and that participation isn’t enough, that his — this big gap between talking a good game about grandeur and all that are not following through with any kind of meaningful reforms, help generate this crisis. And one cannot — it’s pointless, it’s silly to look back and say this was therevolution manquée, this was the missed revolution.

It’s like in 1936 Léon Blum had said, “workers of the world take over your factories, all of them; peasants occupy the fields that you work.” But ultimately this wasn’t going to happen, and who knows if nothing probably good would have come out of that anyway. But 1968 was not a revolution that was going to be a meaningful revolution. In the end that generation was right, I would like to say, in opposing U.S. policies, in trying to create or insist on a more human world, humane world, in industrial relations and in the university. Professors and administrators learned something after all of that. But in a very centralized state where more and more people, because they passed the bac, have access to universities, that isn’t necessarily going to resolve the problem, which fundamentally comes down to the fact that there are not enough — that there’s a real crisis of young people, for young people now, in France, but no light at the end of the tunnel.

And as I’ll argue on Wednesday, that’s part of what’s going on in the French suburbs as well. So, if you go to Paris and you walk up the Boulevard Saint-Michel, which is my least favorite boulevard in Paris because it’s been destroyed by bad zoning and has McDonald’s all over the place, and just tourist hoards, that if you go up there, think about these battles, pitched battles were fought in 1968 in that merry month of May and of barricades. And part of — revolution is part of French culture, the memory of revolution.

But this revolution really — days of running down to the prefecture and declaring a new regime were pretty much over, and this revolution, well intentioned, full of color, full of integrity, full of character, full of wit — it was a witty revolution, full of irony and appreciation of the human condition. In the end, for better or for worse, and I think probably for worse, it didn’t get very far. And to an extent one can look longingly back, as you can probably tell I still do. See you on Wednesday.

[end of transcript]

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