Tuesday, May 10, 2011

révolution, je t'aime

Today is forty-three years since the Nuit des Barricades – the Night of the Barricades – when the student-turned-general protests in France, May 1968 came to a violent climax. The protesters dug up cobblestones in the Latin Quarter, threw Molotov Cocktails, set fire to cars and barricades themselves on the street. They were sick of a dated university curriculum, sick of not having a voice and ready (like youth all around the world) for a new government, a new outlook for their evolving post-war world.

The poetic rhetoric of the May ’68 movement captured the idealistic fervour of the protesting youth and has remained one of its greatest strengths. Influenced by the Situationists (in turn influenced by Dadaism and Surrealism) they pasted posters and graffiti all around Paris, writing memorable slogans that have been reused and pastiched in French protest ever since.

The evolution of the slogans is clear as the movement progressed from mere discontent on campus to a wider attack on society as a whole. At the suburban university campus of Nanterre (where the problems escalated around the time Daniel Cohn-Bendit compared the French government to Hitler Youth) the students cried ‘Professors, you are old!’ Also evident in the slogans is an awareness of language and the strength of language as a tool of dissent. The posters and newspapers provide a visual representation of the rhetoric and language of the 1968 uprisings.

Other images also use the creative distortion of French linguistic formations. This slogan is making fun of the verb conjugation exercises that would have been learnt at school, but adds a very cynical edge. Translated, it means: I participate, you (singular) participate, he participates, we participate, you (plural) participate, they profit.
Another favourite is: L’anarchie, c’est je (‘Anarchy is I’). The use of incorrect grammar symbolises the disregard for the conventions of even the most basic element of French culture.

The students, rebelling against the old – the conservative education and the old man who ran their country – were also rebelling against the old ideas of literature and poetry. Rather than in the old books in the library, la poésie est dans la rue – poetry is in the street! The slogans scrawled as graffiti around Paris “were full of popular wit, but also…had a surrealist tone, symbolised in the assertion that ‘imagination has seized power.’”*

Using words and phrases to fight against the old social order, the students created an atmosphere of possibility: Rêve + évolution = révolution (‘Dream + evolution = revolution’).

Given that it's also Australian Federal Budget Day today, it's the perfect time to get some enthusiastic idealism into you!

To write this post I just smooshed together notes I made while writing my honours thesis. Apologies for the undergraduate hyperbole.

*from Daniel Singer's excellent book Prelude to Revolution.
If you want to read about 1968 in general (because it was a very exciting year all around this globe), look no further than Mark Kurlansky's excellent book entitled 1968: The Year that Rocked the World.


  1. I'm ready for the barricades if you are, Kate!

  2. There was also some great graffiti in the French election: "dans les rues, dans les urnes; manifestes toi"

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