In marches against Macron, French protesters recall movements of 1968

The artists, students, and laborers who brought mass protests to France in 1968 have had a profound effect on the social and economic composition of the country. Today demonstrators evoke the past in protests against the president's policies. 

Francois Mori/AP/File
Protesting students file past a board tagged with a reference to May 1968 on April 10 in Paris. The far-left ideologies that were radical in France 50 years ago have now largely become mainstream, and protesters today mostly advocate for the status quo.

French President Emmanuel Macron was not even born when students and workers joined forces during the May 1968 Paris uprising, a pivotal moment in making France what it is today.

Fifty years on, France is once again rocked by widespread protests. "1968-2018: Revolution!" read banners at this year's demonstrations, which saw students blocking French universities to protest Mr. Macron's education reforms, and railway workers staging prolonged strikes against plans to overhaul the country's national rail company.

The centrist president is showing no sympathy for the protesters, and has promised to carry on with his policies in the face of growing public discontent. It's no wonder no official commemorations of the 1968 revolt are planned.

Despite Macron's conspicuous silence, the violent, dramatic events that paralyzed France 50 years ago are still very much in the air today.

An exhibition of political posters which played a major role during the violent unrest is bringing back to life the spirit of May '68, when students tore up Parisian cobblestones to build barricades and some seven million workers took part in nationwide strikes.

"Back then, millions of people thought it was necessary to change society," curator Eric de Chassey told The Associated Press. "People actually thought that revolution was immediate. And that the whole power structure would be completely defeated. That's fundamentally different to the current struggles and strikes."

While the protests of 1968 fought for change, the protests of 2018 are largely fighting for the status quo, to keep the kind of lifelong worker rights that earlier generations enjoyed. Macron says those rights are now outdated and incompatible with the 21st century global economy.

Meanwhile, many of the breakthrough ideas far-left militants fought for during the late '60s and '70s have now become mainstream issues tackled by politicians across the spectrum.

"It's during these years that the underlying trends of today's political fights developed," Mr. De Chassey said. "The fight for the rights of immigrant workers for instance, for gender equality, or for homosexual rights. And Maoists militants who wanted to include farmers in their fight, also contributed to raising ecological concerns."

The "Images en Lutte" (The Clash of Images) exhibition of posters, painting, sculptures, films, pictures, and books documents the work of artists involved in far-left protests from 1968 to 1974. At times art and politics were deeply mixed.

A large part of the show, on display at the Beaux Arts school in Paris, is dedicated to the work of the "Atelier Populaire" (Workshop of the People). This collective of artists, students, and teachers from the Beaux Arts worked 24/7 during the revolt to create thousands of political posters later posted on the city walls.

The group occupied the school's building from May 5, 1968 until they were removed by police at the end of June. Among their most iconic work is a flask printed with the slogan "Press, Do not swallow" that denounced the press as poisonous; a drawing of General Charles De Gaulle with his hand raised as if he was making a Nazi salute; and the image of a factory chimney transformed into a clenched fist.

De Chassey said students and striking workers couldn't express their message through the official press at the time, making the posters even more necessary to carry their political messages.

"All political tendencies of the far-left were represented: Maoists, Trotskyists, and anarchists," he said. "Their basic rule was that a poster could not be turned down for aesthetic reasons, but political messages were carefully debated."

While famous artists including Eduardo Arroyo, Martial Raysse, and Bernard Rancillac contributed to the Atelier Populaire, the art work was anonymous to reflect the collective process of making the posters.

Guy Thomas photographed the often violent protests, gathering overnight with other photographers to develop their images and hang them in the morning so that Parisians could find out what had happened the night before. Now 86, he is exhibiting his work at the national library and sharing his memories.

Recalling the collective spirit of the protests, Mr. Thomas said: "It emerged from a need for freedom." The movement heralded social and economic liberties that were new to conservative France under wartime hero President Charles de Gaulle.

While the late 1960s also churned with change and unrest in the US and elsewhere, it's hard to underestimate the impact of May 1968 on France. Police tactics, company policies, and social attitudes shifted as a result. Student activist leaders such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit joined politics.

Political leaders today still define themselves based on whether they support or lament its legacy, and some of today's protest generation dream of generating the same kind of upheaval.

"May 1968 represents what happens when people become aware of their collective strength, when workers and the youth become aware of their collective strength," said Victor Mendez, a sociology student who recently blockaded Nanterre University west of Paris.

"For many of us who are activists, it's an example to follow."

This story is reported by The Associated Press.

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