Tuesday, April 22, 2008

À la recherche du temps perdu

A reader, noticing that I say I've been observing French politics since 1968, asks if I plan to remember May '68. Well, I certainly can't give a firsthand account: I didn't set foot on French soil for the first time until August of '68, at the tender age of 21. Paris still bore the scars of the May events. The hotel in which I stayed--Le National on rue Gay-Lussac, where rooms could be had at a price that two footloose American students could afford--had had the plate glass of its breakfast room smashed by a cobblestone (the streets of the Latin Quarter were still cobblestoned back then). My twin first impressions of Paris remain with me to this day: a city of overwhelming beauty and overwhelming anxiety. The patent sign of that anxiety was the massive police presence. There were police and CRS vans everywhere, and each one contained its small arsenal of light automatic weapons. The streets were actively patrolled by police with bloused trousers and combat boots and armed with assault weapons. America was not exactly innocent of riot police in those days, but they appeared only when violence threatened. What struck me about France was the omnipresence of this quasi-military force despite the apparent tranquility of daily life.

The city belonged to the young, or so it seemed to me--but of course I was one of them. Having come straight from Cambridge, Mass., which also belonged to the young but in a very different way, I was nevertheless struck by what seemed to me profound differences between the two youth cultures. The French were at once more earnest, more intense, and more carefree. They gathered in cafés or around park benches or on the steps of public buildings and argued passionately, I gathered through the haze of my rudimentary French. Politics was everywhere, and "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll" were less in evidence, at least to an outsider, as the defining hallmarks of what Time magazine was pleased to call the "global youth movement." (It was generational rebellion that was "global" in those days rather than the economy.)

It was of course a "political" time in the United States too, but in France it was different. Perhaps it was the revolutionary tradition; perhaps it was the multiplicity of political parties, some of which were available to amplify the voice of the student movement; perhaps it was the fact that de Gaulle's grip on power had clearly been shaken by the May events. In any event, politics seemed more serious, even if the French had no Vietnam War to stop and no civil rights movement to empower. But these were moral aims, as it were, and already it seemed to me that the young in France were interested not just in recalling their elders to the straight and narrow but in seizing and exercising power. This was an exhilarating thought but also a frightening one, because of the sullenness, even hatred, that seemed to mark some of the opposition. If de Gaulle remained in power, he was not yet the consensus icon that he has since become. I recall sitting in a movie theater and being stunned, when an image of de Gaulle appeared on the screen in a newsreel, by a spontaneous outburst of catcalls and a barrage of strange oaths such as "le patron du SAC," which in my naïveté I took to be the Strategic Air Command and wondered what de Gaulle had to do with that. Only later did I learn that the reference was to the Service d'Action Civique, a band of marshals--some would call them thugs--who maintained order when Gaullists were on the march.

And then there were the Communists. It was one of the distinctive features of France for a young American that it sustained a large and seemingly vibrant Communist Party. How daring! So it came as something of a surprise when I discovered that to French students whom I met, all of whom described themselves as de gauche or even gauchiste, the PCF was not only ringard (a new word to me) but "the enemy"--not, however, in the sense in which Communists were the enemy of the United States. For my friends, the PCF was the conservative party, the antirevolutionary party, the party of the status quo. The Gaullists, on the other hand, were the party of the bourgeoisie. This was another word whose meaning had to be acquired slowly by being savored in a variety of contexts, like sampling a wine with different foods. To me, a young mathematician still innocent of Marxism, "bourgeois" was a term of cultural opprobrium: "bourgeois" taste was opposed to the "hip" taste of the young. Middle-class American youth, in rebellion against the mores of their middle-class American parents, turned up their noses at such "bourgeois" insignia as suburban tract homes (we listened to Pete Seeger singing "Little boxes made of ticky-tacky"), station wagons, and whiskey sours. We abandoned these "bourgeois" habits in favor of communal apartments, motorcycles, and joints. But we had no class enemy called "the bourgeoisie." There was an Establishment, but that was different, and while we may have turned our backs on our elders, with whom we quarreled bitterly, few of us would have been capable of saying, as Gide said long before the Sixties, "Familles, je vous hais." Clearly the French ressentiment against the patriarchal spirit was a thing more deeply rooted than the velleities of American baby-boomers in their college years. But it would take a long time to sort out that difference.

A few days into my first sojourn in Paris these latent oppositions burst into the open. The first inkling I had of trouble was a dull roar from somewhere to the west down the boulevard Saint-Germain. Soon busloads of CRS arrived, and police began to line the boulevard along which I was walking with my girlfriend. We had reached the musée de Cluny when the police received an order to stop all pedestrians. They linked arms and pressed us back against the fence protecting the museum grounds. There we remained pinned as demonstrators approached carrying banners denouncing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which had taken place the day before (Aug. 20: not having read the newspaper that day, this was the first I had heard of it). It was a fairly small demonstration, perhaps 300 or 400 people marching down the boulevard and chanting anti-Soviet slogans. When the group had passed, the police released the pressure that was pinning all of us bystanders against the fence, and we assumed it was all over. We continued our stroll eastward along the boulevard, as the police returned to their vans, which began to roll slowly down the street in the direction the protesters had gone. A short while later, however, the buses stopped; the police disembarked again, and this time they formed up in ranks across the wide boulevard. A signal was given, and suddenly they attacked the demonstrators from behind, swinging clubs, launching tear gas, and in the meantime preventing onlookers from approaching any closer. They had waited until the demonstration had moved out of the more touristy areas west of the rue Saint-Jacques and had attacked somewhere in the vicinity of Maubert-Mutualité.

So that night I learned a number of things about France: I saw that a right-wing government nervous about "disorder" of any kind was prepared to unleash its police on anti-Soviet demonstrators; I discovered that the police were no novices when it came to dealing with manifestants; and I learned that in France politics was a blood sport. Yet the cafés remained full, and the marvelous bookstores never emptied. Later that night I went to several of the big ones on the boul' Mich. At Gibert the aisles in the Marxism section were full even at that late hour, and young people were sitting on the floor reading serious tomes. I was smitten by a culture that still seemed quite exotic to me, exotic and incomprehensible. If I'm nowadays tempted at times to echo Swann, who said of Odette that he had given the best years of his life to a woman who wasn't really his type, I nevertheless try to resist. Really, we had some very good times together.

Enough for today. I may have more to say if these personal reminiscences don't turn off too many of you.


Francofou said...

Quite interesting. I would guess your experience parallels that of many others. It does mine. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

As I am spending my year abroad in Paris next year, these anecdotal accounts are very interesting. More of the same would be great.

Anonymous said...

as a regular reader, i found the observations very interesting (no less than the "normal" analysis of French politics, which keeps me coming back on a daily basis). Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Strangely enough your feelings during thiese first days in Paris echo the ones I had as a "provincial" reaching the big city. I still remember these, the first steps out of the train and along the Seine, the first apartment, the talks with complete strangers, and the aisles in Gibert full of peoples reading the books from the shelfs (do they actually sell anything in this shop, by the way?).
To go a bit further than personal memories, let's think about the specificity of Paris in France. What would have been your impressions of France if you had arrived for example in Poitiers, Agen, Grenoble, or Marseille? And then, French centralism and Parisian exceptionalism: even nowadays, Paris remains the main scene of politics in France. To compare it with American politics is very interesting: between a geographically centralized political scene, and scattered politics, strong regional identities.

Unknown said...

Very interesting as usual. But are you sure you first heard the word "ringard" in 1968. I had the impression it entered the common language much later.

Unknown said...

Forty years on, I'm not sure of much. Perhaps it was in 1977 when I returned to France to live for a while that "ringard" first came up in this context. I can't be sure. But the sentiment was that the PCF was "ringard," of that I'm sure, whatever the word used may have been.

Unknown said...

The Larousse Dictionnaire de l'argot says that "ringard" became fashionable around 1975.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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