Anarchy 89/Whitsun in the streets

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Whitsun in the streets


The most re­volu­tion­ary im­pres­sion of Paris over the Whitsun week­end was that of the simple free­dom of move­ment and human con­tact in and around the Sor­bonne; a sim­pli­city which ought to be a na­tural way of beha­viour, but which now comes as a sur­prise in a modern city.

  In the Sor­bonne itself there is a total lack of sus­pi­cion and inter­fer­ence, in spite of fears of at­tacks by “Oc­ci­dent” (a tough right-wing counter-revolu­tion­ary group). The whole world is there—stu­dents, work­ers, for­eign­ers of all de­scrip­tions; activ­ists (both seri­ous and con­trolled, and the wild), lib­eral in­tel­lectu­als, tour­ists. Hun­dreds of people sleep on floors and benches; there are rooms full of food sup­plies for the oc­cu­py­ing stu­dents; and armies of stu­dents sweep­ing up. It seemed the na­tural thing for us to set up a stove and cook our meal in the Sor­bonne court­yard, and other days we cooked and slept in parks and streets all over Paris; no­body ob­jected and it pro­vided a good way of meet­ing people. There was not a cop to be seen on the Left Bank (ex­cept those rush­ing through in ar­moured buses).

  But there is a seri­ous­ness which makes the fri­vol­ity im­port­ant, so that eat­ing and lov­ing and merry-making in the parks be­comes both an ob­ject and a sym­bol of the re­volu­tion. The Sor­bonne scene is run by a series of Ac­tion Com­mit­tees, deal­ing with rela­tions with the strik­ers, art and theatre, edu­ca­tion, print­ing of tracts, organ­is­ing of food, clean­ing, etc. Meet­ings are con­tinu­ally being held to dis­cuss both ac­tion and the philo­sophy of the re­volu­tion—live, ex­cit­ing meet­ings where polit­ical speeches be­come poetry, both indi­vidu­ally and en masse. Things hap­pen quickly; some Eng­lish stu­dents ar­rived on Satur­day; got to­gether a large hetero­gene­ous group on the Monday to form an “Eng­lish Speak­ing Peoples’ Ac­tion Com­mit­tee”, dis­cussed a pro­posal to liber­ate the Brit­ish In­sti­tute in Paris; and, at 4 p.m. next day, with the co-oper­a­tion of some stu­dents from the In­sti­tute and from the Sor­bonne, oc­cu­pied the build­ing. (Many of the teach­ers seemed quite pleased, and ap­peared to wel­come the op­por­tun­ity of
teach­ing the less bour­geois-orient­ated ver­sions of Brit­ish cul­ture which are to re­place the Cam­bridge pro­fi­ciency courses.)

  In con­trast to the free­dom of the Sor­bonne, there is the Ecole Des Beaux Arts, which is being run like a para-milit­ary poster factory, hard men with helmets and sticks at the gate, ques­tion­ing every would-be entrant in great de­tail. The re­strict­ive atmo­sphere is not re­duced by the Stalin­esque ar­chi­tec­ture nor by the shin­ing of torches into eyes in the dortoir (where rows of camp beds pro­vide an ordered lux­ury ab­sent at the Sor­bonne). Two friends of mine found that to ob­tain three posters re­quired the sort of feats of con­man­ship needed to steal files on <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: draft-dodgers">draft-dodgers from the Penta­gon. But on the other side of the coin, they are seri­ous. They want only people ready to work, for whom there are beds and food. They re­cently threw out a load of “ma­linger­ers”. Con­scious of the dangers of hav­ing “for­eign agit­at­ors” caught, they would not allow my two friends to go around Paris poster-stick­ing.

  It is pre­sum­ably the sheer number of people in the Sor­bonne which allows it to remain open-to-all, yet re­lat­ively secure (as well as the group of “Katang­ese” toughs who lived there until ejected by the stu­dents on June 13th-14th). It would re­quire so many at­tack­ers to take the build­ing that they would be dis­persed be­fore they had time to group them­selves in large enough num­bers to be ef­fect­ive. (A propos the at­tacks, a large number of books in the Sor­bonne ar­chives were burned on May 31st, a sense­less act blamed by the stu­dents upon “Oc­ci­dent”: but no one was able to verify this. This has been the only sign of vandal­ism since the re­volu­tion began, how­ever.)

  Posters, slo­gans, pamph­lets, news­papers, pro­claim every left-wing philo­sophy known (with the pos­sible ex­cep­tion of the CP: I only saw one sign, which an­nounced “The French CP does not want to change so­ciety, only the Gov­ern­ment”, but this may have been a Trotsky­ist joke). A good news-sheet, Le Pave (The Paving Stone) prints a day-by-day ac­count of the bar­ri­cades and a letter on Black Power by Rap Brown; also a letter from the Sol­diers’ Com­mit­tee of Vin­cennes, warn­ing sol­diers of the dangers of being used by the Gov­ern­ment to break strikes: “You are the sons of the people … to isol­ate you from the people it (the Gov­ern­ment) orders you to the bar­racks … de­mand your passes. …” The Voix Ouvriere, a Trotsky­ist paper run mainly by work­ers, preaches full co-oper­a­tion be­tween work­ers and stu­dents, de­noun­ces the CP and the elec­tions. Several strik­ers we talked to who were on guard duty at the Renault factory at Billan­court did want com­plete re­volu­tion of the polit­ical sys­tem, did not sup­port the CGT, but other­wise seemed fairly ortho­dox Com­mun­ists, sup­ported the Russian sys­tem and be­lieved that elec­tions would achieve re­volu­tion. Ac­cord­ing to one striker the aver­age wage for oper­at­ives is about £18 a week, in­clud­ing bonuses, and it is per­haps an ex­ample of the French ap­proach to life that it is the better-off work­ers, and those work­ing in one of the most alien­at­ing work situ­a­tions of
all, who are the first to de­mand changes in the power struc­ture.

  However, they had no clear idea as to who they wanted to form a Gov­ern­ment (cer­tainly neither de Gaulle, Mitter­rand nor <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: Mendes-France">Mendes-France).

  Despite the pro­lifer­a­tion of re­volu­tion­ary ideas at the Sor­bonne, as Cohn-Bendit pointed out at the LSE <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: Teach-in">Teach-in on June 13th, the in­tel­lec­tu­als were caught un­awares by the sud­den erup­tions, without hav­ing formed a co­her­ent and co­hes­ive philo­sophy on which to base ac­tion after the crisis had oc­curred. This task has yet to be done, and the lack of such a philo­sophy may be one of the main reasons why the strik­ers did not take over the run­ning of their factor­ies, nor take con­trol of the dis­tribu­tion serv­ices. (There is also the re­luct­ance of the CGT to com­mit any “il­legal act”.) The ensu­ing para­lysis was an im­port­ant factor in gener­at­ing the re­turn to work.

  I have an im­pres­sion that the press is try­ing to ex­ag­ger­ate the split between the CP and the more milit­ant left, with the ob­ject of both dis­credit­ing the CP mor­ally, and demon­strat­ing the in­ef­fect­ive­ness of the re­main­der: a <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: France-Soir">France-Soir journal­ist we talked to thought that the CGT were philo­soph­ically be­hind the Renault work­ers, but that they did not want to com­mit them­selves pub­licly to what they thought would be a failed re­volu­tion: so they simply ar­ranged that the terms they nego­ti­ated with the gov­ern­ment would be bound to be thrown out by the work­ers.

  One of the most hope­ful signs during the re­volu­tion has been the in­volve­ment of pro­fes­sional groups. Le Monde ran an ac­count of a meet­ing on May 23rd of 700 archi­tects in the Insti­tut d’Urban­isme, which gave full sup­port to the stu­dents and de­cided to par­ti­cip­ate through their pro­fes­sion in the move­ment towards chan­ging the struc­ture of so­ciety and of the pro­fes­sions. They have also oc­cu­pied their re­gional coun­cil of­fice, and in­tend to hold all future meet­ings at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. (L’Express re­ports that the oc­cu­pa­tion of the archi­tects’ re­gional coun­cil of­fices was under­taken by a group of which 90% were archi­tects and only 10% stu­dents.)

  A “Com­mis­sion of Inter-Profes­sional Rela­tions” (Ex-ENSBA) con­sist­ing of groups of archi­tects, <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: city-planners">city-planners, high­way en­gin­eers, build­ers, masons, so­cial psy­cho­lo­gists, etc., voted un­an­im­ously at a meet­ing on June 1st, to set up an organ­isa­tion to fight against the cap­it­al­ist struc­ture of the pro­fes­sions.

  Practic­ally every edu­ca­tional in­stitu­tion in Paris has been taken over: a friend of mine at a school for inter­pret­ers, for ex­ample, has spent the past two weeks work­ing ex­tremely hard on the de­tails of a new “con­sti­tu­tion” for his col­lege.

  The main work of the stu­dents over the Whit week­end ap­peared to be the organ­is­ing of groups to go to the factor­ies to help per­suade the strik­ers to con­tinue. The seri­ous­ness had not evapor­ated over the hot sunny week­end. The Odéon on Tues­day was still packed with ardent de­bat­ers, speak­ing in rapid but ordered suc­ces­sion. The atmo­sphere was holi­day, but a heady holi­day which was no escape
from life, like our stand­ard fort­nights in Black­pool or Tor­remo­linos, but a con­firm­a­tion of life. A holi­day in which every­one part­i­cip­ated, a holi­day which every­one had them­selves cre­ated (in this sense it was more than the joy­ful feel­ing of dis­rup­tion pro­duced by heavy snow­falls or power fail­ures). The crowds in the Sor­bonne did per­haps ap­pear to be mill­ing about aim­lessly, but it was the open aim­less­ness of people search­ing, ques­tion­ing, come to dis­cover the situ­a­tion and their part in it, and by their very being there they made the situ­a­tion.

  The Sor­bonne so clearly stands for some­thing, in­de­fin­able, but de­fin­itely some­thing much more than the sys­tem of human rela­tion­ships we sur­vive on at the mo­ment. Even when the pres­ent ex­cite­ment and open­ness has died down, as Cohn-Bendit says, the people now know their power, and even if there is no im­medi­ate change in work con­di­tions and rela­tion­ships, people who feel that the mechan­ised role-play­ing life is again over­power­ing them, can con­tinue to pro­voke crisis after crisis until the changes do oc­cur. The re­newed at­tacks upon the police of June 11th showed that the stu­dents have by no means lost hope in the re­volu­tion: and whether or not re­volu­tion is achieved, the af­flu­ence of Western so­ciety in general and the com­mit­ted posi­tion taken by so many French pro­fes­sion­als, in­tel­lec­tu­als and stu­dents, are bound to ensure that sub­stan­tial changes do oc­cur within the edu­ca­tional and pro­fes­sional sys­tems.

  It is more dif­fi­cult to pre­dict what will happen in the factor­ies. But per­haps the whole feel­ing of the re­volu­tion was crys­tal­lised in the meet­ing we had with a group of anarch­ist work­ers when we were cook­ing our supper in the street in Les Halles, dur­ing the monster traf­fic jam on the Tues­day evening. They leapt out of a café on top of us, asked us what we thought of the re­volu­tion, de­clared the strike was con­tinu­ing 100%, clenched fists, pro­claimed; “C’est une re­volu­tion de vivre, les patrons, les ouvriers, tous les deux”, and “Les syndicats sont depassés, depassés”, leapt into a big Citroën van shout­ing they were off to the provin­ces to spread the word, and just dis­ap­peared down the street where traf­fic had been mov­ing at the rate of two car-lengths every minute. A minute later they were gone, but leav­ing a stronger im­pres­sion on us than any other people in Paris.

View from the Island

  Chris­topher Logue, poet laure­ate of the Left, asked earn­estly what We in Brit­ain could do: that, said Cohn-Bendit wear­ily, is your prob­lem. Ken­neth Tynan, in a kimono shirt, kept in­quir­ing how re­bel­lion could suc­ceed with­out army sup­port. Among icon­o­clastic cheers, Cohn-Bendit resorted to (Anglo-Saxon) four-letter words. You felt, break­ing free of the sham­bles, that the only thing our Fidel­istas will be able to do with pav­ing stones is drop them on their feet.

<span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: the guardian">the guardian, 13.6.68.