- 17 May 18
Europe began to change in earnest in Paris, in 1968, when students and workers united in defiance of the French right, and in opposition to the dead hand of patriarchy. A lot has changed in Ireland in the interim – but Repealing the 8th is the next vital step towards freedom...
Under the stones, the beach!
Over the past year the commentariat has enthusiastically espoused the youthquake. It was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2017, defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.”
Actually, the word dates from an editorial in the Vogue US, January edition, of 1965, when its editor Diana Vreeland wrote: “The year’s in its youth, the youth in its year… More dreamers. More doers. Here. Now. Youthquake 1965.”
For Vreeland, youthquake described the youth-led fashion and music movement of the swinging sixties, which saw baby boomers reject the traditional values of their parents. Financial heft was a factor. Records were relatively cheap, kids had more money and the generation born after World War II was so large, relative to those that had gone before, that their taste was always going to change things.
A new kind of entrepreneurship was a factor too. New ways of selling and marketing emerged to target this new demographic. Just twelve months before Vreeland coined ‘youthquake’, Bob Dylan had already penned the script in his ringing manifesto ‘Times They Are A-Changin’. If there’s a song that captures the decade’s zeitgeist, this is it.
“Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly aging
Please get outta’ the new one
if you can’t lend your hand
‘Cos the times they are a’changing.”
Bob Dylan, of course, was a central force in the transformation from the musical pabulum of 1962 to the explosions of creativity of 1965-1968, a period that was nothing short of revolutionary. It was, in many ways, the modern world’s big bang.
So, the new generation’s emergence was already well in train by 1968. But in parallel with the cultural revolution came a new impatience with the constraints of existing social mores, paternalism, racial segregation, military service and sexual repression.
The last of these was the starting point for the most celebrated of 1968’s youthquakes, which erupted fifty years ago this week, in Paris. The action had begun two months earlier when students in Nanterre, just outside Paris, rebelled against rules preventing males and females from “visiting each other’s quarters.” How very French!
But that was very quickly subsumed into a much bigger battle, a much more political one at that, which took on the sheer dullness and paternalism of de Gaulle’s old, conservative and hierarchical France.
A demonstration planned for the courtyard of the Sorbonne university in Paris’s Left Bank was threatened by a far right group called Occident. Plus ça change, eh? The police sent Occident packing – and then attacked the students with great brutality. Pavés (cobble stones) were thrown at the police. The infamous CRS riot cops responded with even greater violence, attacking journalists, tourists, people leaving the cinema, pensioners. Everyone joined in, and chaos ensued.
Even greater violence followed on May 10th, when a large crowd of students set out to liberate the Sorbonne. When the cobblestones were hurled, they revealed the sand. Hence the anarcho-libertarian slogan: “Sous les pavés, la plage”: under the cobbles, the beach.
When the police were ordered to remove the student barricades, three hours of fighting followed, with tear gas, Molotov cocktails, exploding cars, flying pavés, rioters pursued and beaten, hundreds injured (though nobody killed) – the lot, all captured in great grainy black and white photography.
In turn, this mobilised the workers who marched in support of the students. A huge joint demonstration brought the Left Bank to a standstill. The strikes spread.
It was a leftist dream – but the common cause struck then proved ephemeral. That’s if it ever really existed at all (notwithstanding the efforts of Jean-Paul Sartre). The workers made quite specific demands and the government eventually came up with a capitalism-saving deal to appease them.
The students weren’t nearly so focused. But for a brief and heady period, their actions and the wildcat strikes transformed Paris and other French cities into a giant debating campus. There was a 24-hour open-ended conference at the Odeon involving Renault workers, students, cleaners, academics, writers and artists.
Ideas were generated by revisionist socialists, Trotskyists, Maoists, anarchists, surrealists and Marxists. The slogans were often enigmatic, humorous, surreal: “Be realistic, ask for the impossible.” “Take your desires for realities.” “Unbutton your brain as much as your trousers.”
In the end the centre held. But afterwards, nothing was the same. In its idealism, humour, occasional self-righteousness and euphoria, it was the prototype of all the political springs that followed, from Prague in 1989 to Yerevan in Armenia right now.
It wasn’t the first youth revolt and nor was it unique in its time. Civil rights and anti-war groups had been marching for a decade. But it was the only one that triggered a blue collar revolt, and the biggest strikes in Europe since World War II.
And, of course, it’s now as much myth as reality. For the right it marked the end of French prosperity and the start of everything bad in modern France. For the left, it was yet another in the cycle of French revolutions. For the long-suffering pavés, it was another three weeks of abuse. For the rest of the world it was part French circus, part existential drama, part inspiration.
In Ireland in 1968 we were ourselves about to embark on an era of marching and demonstrating. Some of it was to do with housing crises and much more of it was in Northern Ireland, where marching became a way of life, if it wasn’t so already. Nobody died in Paris in 1968 but over three thousand people died in the Troubles.
We entered many other dark places too over the past fifty years. Many of these involved the legacy of clerical and medical authoritarianism and patriarchy, a legacy that still haunts us all, of monstrous cruelty, neglect, contempt, cynicism and hypocrisy. This is true across many domains, but is especially so of the treatment of women, both in hospital wards and Magdalene laundries, and minorities.
Under the stones, the slime.
The cleansing is still unfinished. Repealing the 8th Amendment potentially represents another step forward: a statement of maturity that we will no longer pretend that we have no abortion in Ireland when Irish women travel to the UK for terminations; a statement that we will create a rational dispensation in our own country for our own people; a declaration that we in Ireland will trust women with their own health.