my favorite two slogans from '68 france
Recently I've stumbled across the veritable treasure trove that is art from the civil unrest and student protests of May '68 in France. The posters and slogans of the time are beautiful and more relevant than ever, so here are my two favorites.
La beauté est dans la rue (beauty is in the streets)
According to Elodie Grethen,
[This slogan] was a call made to demonstrate against capitalism, consumerism, the Gaullist party and traditional institutions. The slogan encourages social gatherings taking place in the street, while emphasizing the beauty and artistic value of it.
Lenart Slabe points out that the design on the poster references Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (La Liberté guidant le peuple), since the female subjects in both are making the same gesture.
Sous les pavés, la plage! (Under the cobblestones, the beach!)
Joel Mills has a beautiful piece on this slogan which captures its context well, so I'll just excerpt it here:
1968 is remembered 50 years on as an extraordinary and tumultuous year, when a huge wave of protest swept across the world, and the spirit of revolution hung tantalisingly in the air. The assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, caused profound shock and disturbance. In Britain, Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech met with ensuing recoil from his divisive views on race and immigration. The American civil rights movement had been steadily finding solid ground since the late 50s, gaining widespread support against a residual racism that underpinned continuing inequalities. In a newly televisual age, the horrors of the Vietnam War were thrust right into the living rooms around the world, resulting in widespread global condemnation of America’s Foreign Policy and military intervention. When in April 1967, Muhammed Ali defied conscription declaring that, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong’, he was firmly squaring up against the idea of being conscripted to fight in a faraway war, when the US didn’t even give Afro-Americans equal rights on home turf. The optimism of 1967’s ‘summer of love’ seemed a faded tattered ribbon amid the realities of war and political turmoil. Spurred on by a thriving counter-culture, a level of unprecedented activism from students throughout 1968 flared up across the globe, including protests in Tokyo, Mexico, Berlin, Prague and Rome.
It was in Paris, 1968 that the promise of greatest change, new possibilities, perhaps even revolution, seemed in reach. It was also in Paris that by August of 68, the idea of revolution and any significant social change seemed thwarted, absorbed, indeed neutered.
‘Sous les pavés, la plage!’ was one of many inspirational and provocative Situationist slogans to be found in graffiti and posters on the walls and streets of Paris in 1968. The Situationist International had emerged from an avant-garde group of poets, writers, and thinkers in the late 50s, and Guy Debord, perhaps the best known of the collective, had published his book, The Society of the Spectacle, only the previous year. For Debord, The Spectacle, was ‘a social relation between people mediated by images’ in which society co-opted capitalism, creating an inherent alienation, that in turn absorbed dissent. Permeating all areas of social life, knowledge, and culture, people’s lives became less about being, increasingly about having, and in a consumer market and media orientated economy, eventually even about ‘appearing to have’. People became spectators in their own lives, increasingly distant and alienated from their own experiences, creativity, and desires.
Beneath the pavement, the beach — as it is usually translated — was one of many clarion calls to imagine another world, where vital possibilities of alternative ways of being and living could flourish. Beyond the artifice of the city and the structures of society and politics, there might be another life, not tirelessly working as a cog in the wheels of capitalism; one in which creating new situations could disrupt everyday banalities, and stimulate new ways of thinking. Hugely influential on the revolutionary spirit of Paris in 1968, they advocated disruption of the spectacle through tactics such as detournement, a reworking or contextualising existing ideas, art and concepts to shift and subvert their meaning.
President De Gaulle had greeted the New Year with optimism, yet beneath the surface, cracks appeared to grow swiftly. The 1968 revolutionary climate in Paris was born in the growing distance in values between authorities and students and workers. Student protests began at Nanterre University campus, on the outskirts of Paris, where cramped living conditions meant students had little privacy or room for socialising. Shifting attitudes of young people leaned towards sexual liberation, and the strict regulations imposed around female and male access to their live-in quarters were out of time, restrictive of personal freedoms students had come to aspire to. Typically, the teaching at the campus was deemed autocratic in style: questioning and discussion with professors was discouraged, with any real debate on politics and ideas supressed. Angelo Quattrochi and Tom Nairn describe in their powerful prose, The Beginning of the End, how mishandling of protests and police brutality lit the fuse paper of dormant disgruntlements, exploding into a much bigger challenge against authority. Police beat up protestors and bystanders, causing public indignation, and bringing widespread support from other students. Within weeks, authorities shut down Nanterre, only further fuelling unrest, and inadvertently relocating the focus to the Sorbonne in central Paris. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leading agitator in Nanterre, became a recognised spokesperson and face for the ensuing protests, articulating the students demands through the media and allying with other global protest movements. When students made a takeover of the university building, police again responded brutally, increasing wider public sympathy, which included many notable figures such as Jean Paul Sartre, and Jean Luc Goddard. The French Communist Party who had initially dismissed the student protests as false revolutionaries, also came out in support of the students. By early May 20,000 protestors clashed in the Latin Quarter of Paris, the numbers doubling within days. Barricades were built from street materials and furniture, upturned cars and aided by plenty of help from neighbours and shopkeepers. Les Paves — the cobblestones — were dug up and used as missiles to hurl at police, who retaliated with water cannons and tear gas grenades. Workers who had simultaneously, albeit separately, been calling for better conditions and pay, called strikes in mid-May, presenting a temporary unified oppositional force to government. By late May, two thirds of workers had joined strikes, and protestors took control of the Stock Exchange and set it alight. When 400,000 or more people hit the streets of Paris, Charles de Gaulle was forced to address the country, promising to put in place new improved conditions and rights for workers, and a new education reform bill.
Despite the promise of an upending of authority, political and social change, any revolutionary sparks seemed to be over in a bright, but all too quickly vanishing flash. De Gaulle was an experienced political tactician and adept knowing how to assuage dissenters — and when to hold fast. Upon hearing that Jean Paul Sartre had been arrested for civil disobedience, for example, during the summer of 1968, while supporting protestors, De Gaulle famously responded, ‘One does not arrest Voltaire.’ He retreated from a proposed referendum, and moved to call a general election. Any hopes that the left would receive widespread support to bring down the conservative government were truly thwarted. De Gaulle received a surge in support, with hundreds of thousands turning up in the streets to march in his favour. While some student protests continued well into June, many French people were fed up of the disruption to everyday life and felt that any meaningful messages had got lost in the violence. He turned in a 40% vote in the first election in June and a week later in the second round, an overwhelming majority. By August, soon after securing his return to power, the cobblestones of the Latin Quarter were covered in a layer of Asphalt, a move seen as De Gaulle’s reassertion of authority and an act of symbolic, civic revenge.
So, was it all for nothing? The events of 1968 precipitated reform rather than substantial structural change, but as Mark Kurlansky emphasised, in 1968; The Year that Rocked the World, an enduring memory for many was how it brought people together from across divides. ‘It was more than about throwing stones’ he argues, describing ‘a round-the-clock orgy of French verbiage’, where beyond the violence, people ‘talked and talked’ like never before. Politics hummed in the air and a new-found energy broke many existing social barriers, even across generations. Historian Arthur Marwick recognised that a vitality of the protests had harnessed a ‘a more deliberate activism’ offering an increased appetite for trying to grapple with important issues. From the fissures grew an increasing sense that people could effect change, even if not revolution.
Take away the nostalgia of 1968 in Paris, and it’s evident that while the power of protest united common people behind the desire for change, it was not the unifying revolutionary moment of myth, but fractured and frequently divisive. While many had been united briefly behind common aims such as an end to the Vietnam War, there were many disparate movements. The civil rights movement, further fractured in 1968, between violent and non-violent methods, as frustration around means and ends mounted, even while gaining important wins. The women’s liberation and gay rights movements gained huge momentum across this period and onwards, that would prove transformative and raise expectations for greater social freedoms for so many. With the longer view from our present moment, we can see how the struggles of various marginalised groups inadvertently fragmented the political landscape and thwarted the possibility of any truly common vision. The political ambitions of 1968 often lacked any ideological, coherent objectives beyond their own group identities. Since 1968, we’ve also seen once radical ideas absorbed by mainstream culture, even adopted as a lifestyle choice, and commodified, negating not only meaning, but preventing any real structural or significant change. The Situationists were prescient in anticipating this co-option. It’s a timely reminder that what we should not lose from 1968 is the ongoing aspiration for greater freedom and ambitions to make the world a better place. The beach beneath stones is still worth digging up the pavement for.