I find this photo, taken in May 1968 in Bordeaux, France, fascinating on a number of levels. This was taken during the civil unrest that roiled France, particularly in the cities, during that month nearly 50 years ago, which itself was part of a worldwide tide of demonstration and unrest (including in the United States). Here you can see that protestors have piled up furniture, doors and other junk in the street as a barricade against a presumed police onslaught. Barricades in the streets have a long tradition in France. Rioting in Paris during the French Revolution of 1789, and again in the Revolutions of 1848–I showcased a previous “Historic Photo” of those barricades–utilized the same tactic. When the French have gotten mad about something in the last 250 years, usually something political, on numerous occasions they’ve started reaching for the furniture. It’s a curious feature of European history.
The May 1968 strikes in France were a fascinating “quiver” of post-World War II European society. They began at Sorbonne University in Paris as a show of solidarity against the closure of the college by French authorities, who were acting out against the agitation of left-leaning students. The original demonstrations were a fuse that caught fire all across France. It wasn’t really about the Sorbonne students. It was about capitalism, consumerism, the Cold War, youth culture, intergenerational conflict, and the almost dictatorial rule of French President Charles de Gaulle, who had been in charge since he led Free French forces in World War II. In fact the strikes finally brought an end to his reign; he stepped down in 1969.
I personally know someone, an American, who was in France in 1968 and involved in the strikes and their aftermath. It was fascinating talking to him about what he saw and the ideas that were flying around in the dormitories, cafes and the streets during that heady spring. It may seem like ancient history to us, but perhaps it isn’t. In the age of Donald Trump and a resurgence of fascism, resistance and protest have re-emerged in a big way. I’ve been thinking a lot about this trend in conjunction with the writing of my upcoming science fiction dramatic podcast Double Perigee, which involves protest and demonstration as a key theme. The events of May 1968 are not merely our past. They may be part of our future as well.