Art News & Views



May 1968

by Navya Ashokkumar

Protests, strikes and revolutions have been the tunes in the songs of history. The socio-political status globally has always been a platform of indigestion with a constant conflict within its own structure. Social struggles for a fundamental change in the society, and the modification of the existing structure has prevailed its authority throughout. Democracy has been a major area of concern in the political revolutions, most of the protests and revolutions have the bottom line of an unjust exercising of democracy - to overthrow the undemocratic government rule and uplift the ideologies of a counter cultural attitude. The political ideologies are under a constant scan, the conflicts and confusions on how a society should function, the form of government system that the society adapts and follow, the economic system, act as an uproar to the revolutions that were being triggered. The May 1968 protests is known to be one of the largest general strikes that has ever flamed up in the society bringing together eleven million workers which is two third of the French workforce – twenty two percentage of the total population in France – A Wildcat strike! The street battles, which were in full force, choked the President Charles de Gaulle’s government, which feared a civil war or a revolution!

The strike began at the University of Paris in Nanterre (Sorbonne) by a few students and authorities who were against the class discrimination in the French society and the political bureaucracy that controlled the universities funding. It did not start of with a huge group of people, but eventually the number added on. The strike gradually took a shape, students at the university of Sorbonne in Paris met on May 3rd the students demanded the university to shut down which was followed by a march protest by the national student union, (UNEF - which is still the largest student union in France today). There were hundreds of students arrested on the same day. On the 6th of May over sixteen thousand demonstrators which included the national student union the teachers and other supporters took over the strike and marched towards Sorbonne which was charged and sealed by the police force. A riot was paved with the violent students, who swung stones and triggered the Sorbonne administration to get more than a hundred students who were involved in the strike behind bars. The following day a large group of workers, high school student unions and teachers gathered and demanded to take back all criminal charges against the arrested students, the police to leave the university and the authorities to reopen Nanterre and Sorbonne. The demands were been approved. The students returned to the university but were further agitated when they found that the police still occupied the school. On the 10th of May, a huge crowd gathered and a violent riot broke hundreds were arrested and injured. The police turned violent and wounded the strikers throwing tear gas grenades. The student protest was slowly charging up into something bigger. This further brought in the nation’s mainstream singers, poets, artists to join hands with the strike when the heavy-handed police brutality was evident. The French Communist Party (PCF), The General Confederation of Labor (CGT), Worker’s Force (CGT-FO), and The Situationist International (SI) many anarchists and a major number of left union federations came in favor of the strike-over a million people marched through Paris. It was first time in history when the student force entered the political spectrum.

The Prime Minister Georges Pompidou proclaimed the release of the students who were behind bars and the reopening of the Sorbonne, hoping for the strike to mellow down but instead the protests got worse than ever. The strike took over many dimensions in the coming days, the student youth had succeeded in bringing a socio–political conscious wave among the population; it literally brought all the French population together for one agenda that caused an evident amount of injustice and hierarchy in the society. It brought a change in the conscious of the workers and they began occupying the factories with a sit–down strike at the factories around France. When the Sorbonne was finally been reopened, the students occupied it and declared it as an “Autonomous – people’s university”, but the riots were gearing up simultaneously – the workers and other supporters were in full swing at the protests.The events that took place in France at this junction were clearly a ‘Proletarian Revolutionary Movement’. The growth in the number of people involved in the strike was rapidly increasing, by the 16th of May workers had occupied over fifty factories and there was roughly two–thirds of the French workforce on strike in the coming week. It was an important moment in the history of class struggle, it influenced, affected and brought in a major amount of people from the engineering and the industrial work places. The frustrated population voiced against the hierarchical practices of the French bureaucracy. There was a struggle for higher wages; the workers put forth their demands and even attempted to run their own factories. The motto was to “Question Everything”- to demand equality, justice, freedom and the basic human rights that were in major constrain under the Gaulle’s government.

The government wanted to end the strike by an increase in the pay. The General Confederation of Labor – the national trade union centre (CGT) arbitrated an increase in the pay, which was turned down by the workers. The strike was furthered with a political acute which demanded for the government to be overthrown and for a reelection; the chaos of this political and social strike shook the foundations of the government that was on rule. With not much option left, The Prime Minister Georges Pompidou urged Gaulle to dissolve the National Assembly and call for a new parliamentary election. The government threatened to exercise a state of emergency if workers did not get back to work. With this, the strike ended. In the following months things got back on track, the workers went back to the factories and the students brought down the street demonstrations. The government banned a number of leftist organizations. When the new election was held Gualle’s government celebrated a victory over the Communists and the Socialists. The chaos all over France finally ended!

In the span of a few days, the general people triggered, agitated and provoked a movement that brought a change and influenced many more socio-political movements in the future. The government settled the student revolt at Sorbonne but it took a wider turn over when the issue was left open for the public to discuss the general problems that they had been subjected to, which led the movement take a wider significance. The workers were inspired and took charge of the situation. The movement was not just about poverty that existed; France at that point of time was in a rapid ‘modernization’ metamorphosis. The changes that took charge brought an increase in the production levels, but the workers were been deprived of too many things, the struggle was advanced for the control of the means of production. The management hierarchy and the social ills triggered the strikers to charge up for a revolution. The administrative sector was been largely affected; media, transport were also affected by this chaos. There was no leadership in this strike, which clearly demonstrates the individual interest that was evident. Since the revolution had no democratic form of representation (a leadership), the movement lacked organization and could not gathered more power, which could probably have helped in structuring and centralizing the movement further more. The democratic representation could have sharpened the political perspectives of this act and strengthened the entire situation to a different level. However, the workers left undefeated. The aura that this movement left behind is set as an inspiration. As Jean-Paul Sartre commented, “What’s important is that the action took place, when everybody believed it to be unthinkable. If it took place this time, it can happen again….” 

The movements generally happen with a lot of publicity and awareness amongst the public. To provoke such happenings there has to be a strong sense of politically aesthetic approach, such that the awareness is positively touched the population and that is where art and protest go hand in hand. Art and artistic power can create such expressions that it can sweep the onlooker into the subject of concern, and the works that were been produced (in the form of posters and graffiti) had this strong aura embedded in it, such that the posters and the graffiti resonate to even this day. The use of artistic posters, banners, pamphlets, graffiti etc act as propaganda to gear and charge up the revolutionary scenario. This movement was acquainted with such ironically provoking posters and graffiti, which clearly reflected the attitude of the irksome strikers. The anger and the frustration that they were been subjected to were clearly expressed and executed. Since the media in France then belonged to the Gaulle’s government, the strikers had no means of communication with the public other than producing communicative posters and graffiti in public spectrum. A simple silk–screen printing technique was adapted in producing a large amount of posters that were pasted on the walls of Paris and French towns. The creative hands that went behind in making, designing and printing these graphic posters remain anonymous. These politically charged posters were not just a creative work that filled the street walls and the demonstrations, but they largely contributed in generating a political interest amongst the people, the posters were about generating ideas-as a starter to inspire the people to join hands in the protest.  The visual language that these posters carried was strong and extremely influential it served as a concrete support for this social movement that had charged up. Most of the posters were a blend of slogans and images that were narrative, mixed with the pop art motifs. Since these posters carried, many of the ingredients of the ongoing political act it set the revolutionary mood among the people.

The posters pronounced confrontational messages and were influential. On the outlook of these posters they seem to carry very simplistic images and a very few words, but on the contrary the output of these works were a thug to the capitalist government. A Youth Disturbed Too Often by the Future (Une Jeunesse Que L'Avenir Inquiète Trop Souvent) is perhaps one of the most famous posters of the May 1968 movement. The entire poster encompasses of just a portrait of a person with bandage wraps all over the face leaving just the eyes bare for the onlooker to communicate with. Since the Gaulle’s government controlled the press, it was a slave in the hands of the authoritative police and the state officials therefore and all that appeared in the press during the riots were been concealed far from reality. The posters Press: Do Not Swallow (Presse: Ne Pas Avaler), Free Information and Free Press have a satire flavour in them that reflected these realities and even ridiculed the press for publishing news that was not actually real. The hierarchy in the social system and the constrains that the population faced was immense. The low pay and over work of the factory workers against the upcoming production levels in France was evident. the posters such as - Down With the Infernal Cadence, The Boss Needs You – You Don’t Need Him, We are the Power, The Vote Changes Nothing – The Struggle Continues, Light Wages – Heavy Tanks (Salaires Légers, Chars Lourds), Yes to Occupied Factories and No to the Bureaucracy pronounced the unfair acts of the government. The graffiti alongside the streets were no less - “Boredom is Counterrevolutionary, Humanity won’t be happy till the last capitalist is hung with the guts of the last bureaucrat, You must bare chaos inside you to give birth to a dancing star, terminate the university, We don’t want to be watchdogs or servants of capitalism, If god existed it would be necessary to abolish him” are a few examples of graffiti that swung its authority across the walls of the streets. The culture of protest had no doubly been in the representational skills that these convictional pieces of works carried. The posters and graffiti were been encompassed with an essence of an artistic imagery – art activism to be more precise.

Democracy has been a major area of concern throughout history and continues to be so even to this day. A number of civil rights movements have geared up and stormed in the society. The position and the act of neo-liberalists in the society have sparked serious questions on the stand and exercising of democracy. The injustice that comes wrapped with the methodology of ruling in politics, in the society acts as a catalyst for many protests and revolutions. The gap in between the opulent and the mediocre have remained constant, sometimes growing into a larger extent. The May 1968 protests posses most of these ‘political symptoms’. The symptoms that carried the population to charge up against the ruling government and demand for the basics that they lacked. This major event of class struggle remains significant in the social history of France, it has even spread its wings beyond the boundaries of France as well. The riots that shook the foundations of the society continue to resonate its colours even to this day. It serves in directing political awareness even to this day. This movement was the first of its kind in history that has triggered and gathered almost eighty to ninety percentages of the students, workers and other supporters. The movement showed the possibility of voicing out the opinions of the working class in a strong and an advanced capitalist country such as France. This revolutionary wave brought in a change in the strength and the attitude of the workers. However, it is difficult to pin down the politics of the students who sparked this movement, which later flamed up into the events of the May 1968. When the whole scenario of the movement is taken into consideration there is a strong odor of anarchism, the fading colours of democracy in the lap of a capitalist rule! The discriminating practices of the French bureaucracy were uplifted and the motto was to “question everything”. The radical population in France showered anger in their graffiti and the posters that they produced. The liberal young population rose up against the traditional and constructive government and demanded for a social and a political change. The voice of the common person was loud enough. The questions on freedom of expression, class conflict between the workers and the bourgeoisie, the play of democracy under the ruling hand of a strong capitalist country was a prominent subject that was been addressed. At this junction the people had come to a stage of saturation in holding back all the ill deeds that the government offered them, in posters like The Boss Needs You – You Don’t Need Him (Le Patron A Besoin De Toi, Tu N'as Pas Besoin De Lui) there is a sign of the reluctant workers who are not just worried about the underpayment but reflect something further more. Poverty here was just an aspect but the entire politics of this movement had something more to say, maybe which, this is one of the reasons that this particular strike holds a lot of significance and value even today.

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