A Gallery of Visually Arresting Posters from the May 1968 Paris Uprising

In 1968, both Robert F. Kennedy and Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. were assas­si­nat­ed, and U.S. cities erupt­ed in riots; anti-war demon­stra­tors chant­ed “the whole world is watch­ing” as police beat and tear-gassed them in Chica­go out­side the Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­ven­tion. George Wal­lace led a pop­u­lar polit­i­cal move­ment of Klan sym­pa­thiz­ers and White Cit­i­zens Coun­cils in a vicious back­lash against the gains of the Civ­il Rights move­ment; and the venge­ful, para­noid Richard Nixon was elect­ed pres­i­dent and began to inten­si­fy the war in Viet­nam and pur­sue his pro­gram of harass­ment and impris­on­ment of black Amer­i­cans and anti-war activists through Hoover’s FBI (and lat­er the bogus “war on drugs”).

Good times, and giv­en sev­er­al per­ti­nent sim­i­lar­i­ties to our cur­rent moment, it seems like a year to revis­it if we want to see recent exam­ples of orga­nized, deter­mined resis­tance by a very belea­guered Left. We might look to the Black Pan­thers, the Yip­pies, or Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Soci­ety, to name a few promi­nent and occa­sion­al­ly affil­i­at­ed groups. But we can also revis­it a near-rev­o­lu­tion across the ocean, when French stu­dents and work­ers took to the Paris streets and almost pro­voked a civ­il war against the gov­ern­ment of author­i­tar­i­an pres­i­dent Charles de Gaulle. The events often referred to sim­ply as Mai 68 have haunt­ed French con­ser­v­a­tives ever since, such that pres­i­dent Nico­las Sarkozy forty years lat­er claimed their mem­o­ry “must be liq­ui­dat­ed.”

May 1968, wrote Steven Erlanger on the 40th anniver­sary, was “a holy moment of lib­er­a­tion for many, when youth coa­lesced, the work­ers lis­tened and the semi-roy­al French gov­ern­ment of de Gaulle took fright.” As loose coali­tions in the U.S. pushed back against their gov­ern­ment on mul­ti­ple fronts, the Paris upris­ing (“rev­o­lu­tion” or “riot,” depend­ing on who writes the his­to­ry) brought togeth­er sev­er­al groups in com­mon pur­pose who would have oth­er­wise nev­er have bro­ken bread: “a crazy array of left­ist groups,” stu­dents, and ordi­nary work­ing peo­ple, writes Peter Ste­in­fels, includ­ing “revi­sion­ist social­ists, Trot­sky­ists, Maoists, anar­chists, sur­re­al­ists and Marx­ists. They were anti­com­mu­nist as much as ant­i­cap­i­tal­ist. Some appeared anti-indus­tri­al, anti-insti­tu­tion­al, even anti-ratio­nal.”

“Be real­is­tic: Demand the impos­si­ble!” was one of the May move­men­t’s slo­gans. A great many more slo­gans and icons appeared on “extreme­ly fine exam­ples of polem­i­cal poster art” like those you see here. These come to us via Dan­ger­ous Minds, who explain:

The Ate­lier Pop­u­laire, run by Marx­ist artists and art stu­dents, occu­pied the École des Beaux-Arts and ded­i­cat­ed its efforts to pro­duc­ing thou­sands of silk-screened posters using bold, icon­ic imagery and slo­gans as well as explic­it­ly collective/anonymous author­ship. Most of the posters were print­ed on newssheet using a sin­gle col­or with basic icons such as the fac­to­ry to rep­re­sent labor and a fist to stand for resis­tance.

The Paris upris­ings began with uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents, protest­ing same-sex dorms and demand­ing edu­ca­tion­al reform, “the release of arrest­ed stu­dents and the reopen­ing of the Nan­terre cam­pus of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Paris,” notes the Glob­al Non­vi­o­lent Action Data­base. But in the fol­low­ing weeks the “protests esca­lat­ed and gained more pop­u­lar sup­port, because of con­tin­u­ing police bru­tal­i­ty.” Among the accu­mu­lat­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic demands and labor protests, writes Ste­in­fels, was “one great fear… that con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism was capa­ble of absorb­ing any and all crit­i­cal ideas or move­ments and bend­ing them to its own advan­tage. Hence, the need for provoca­tive shock tac­tics.”

This fear was dra­ma­tized by Sit­u­a­tion­ists, who—like Yip­pies in the States—gen­er­al­ly pre­ferred absur­dist street the­ater to earnest polit­i­cal action. And it pro­vid­ed the the­sis of one of the most rad­i­cal texts to come out of the tumul­tuous times, Guy Debord’s The Soci­ety of the Spec­ta­cle. In a his­tor­i­cal irony that would have Debord “spin­ning in his grave,” the Sit­u­a­tion­ist the­o­rist has him­self been co-opt­ed, rec­og­nized as a “nation­al trea­sure” by the French gov­ern­ment, writes Andrew Gal­lix, and yet, “no one—not even his sworn ide­o­log­i­cal enemies—can deny Debord’s impor­tance.”

The same could be said for Michel Fou­cault, who found the events of May ’68 trans­for­ma­tion­al. Fou­cault pro­nounced him­self “tremen­dous­ly impressed” with stu­dents will­ing to be beat­en and jailed, and his “turn to polit­i­cal mil­i­tan­cy with­in a post-1968 hori­zon was the chief cat­a­lyst for halt­ing and then redi­rect­ing his the­o­ret­i­cal work,” argues pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy Bernard Gen­dron, even­tu­al­ly “lead­ing to the pub­li­ca­tion of Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish,” his ground­break­ing “geneal­o­gy” of impris­on­ment and sur­veil­lance.

Many more promi­nent the­o­rists and intel­lec­tu­als took part and found inspi­ra­tion in the move­ment, includ­ing André Glucks­mann, who recalled May 1968 as “a moment, either sub­lime or detest­ed, that we want to com­mem­o­rate or bury.… a ‘cadav­er,’ from which every­one wants to rob a piece.” His com­ments sum up the gen­er­al cyn­i­cism and ambiva­lence of many on the French left when it comes to May ’68: “The hope was to change the world,” he says, “but it was inevitably incom­plete, and the insti­tu­tions of the state are untouched.” Both stu­dent and labor groups still man­aged to push through sev­er­al sig­nif­i­cant reforms and win many gov­ern­ment con­ces­sions before police and de Gaulle sup­port­ers rose up in the thou­sands and quelled the upris­ing (fur­ther evi­dence, Anne-Elis­a­beth Moutet argued this month, that “author­i­tar­i­an­ism is the norm in France”).

The icon­ic posters here rep­re­sent what Ste­in­fels calls the movement’s “utopi­an impulse,” one how­ev­er that “did not aim at human per­fectibil­i­ty but only at imag­in­ing that life could real­ly be dif­fer­ent and a whole lot bet­ter.” These images were col­lect­ed in 2008 for a Lon­don exhi­bi­tion titled “May 68: street Posters from the Paris Rebel­lion,” and they’ve been pub­lished in book form in Beau­ty is in the Street: A Visu­al Record of the May ’68 Paris Upris­ing. (You can also find and down­load many posters in the dig­i­tal col­lec­tion host­ed by the Bib­lio­theque nationale de France.) 

Per­haps the co-option Debord pre­dict­ed was as inevitable as he feared. But like many rad­i­cal U.S. move­ments in the six­ties, the coor­di­nat­ed mobi­liza­tion of huge num­bers of peo­ple from every stra­ta of French soci­ety dur­ing those exhil­a­rat­ing and dan­ger­ous few weeks opened a win­dow on the pos­si­ble. Despite its short-lived nature, May 1968 irrev­o­ca­bly altered French civ­il soci­ety and intel­lec­tu­al cul­ture. As Jean-Paul Sartre said of the move­ment, “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.”

via Dan­ger­ous Minds/Messy N Chic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Strik­ing Posters From Occu­py Wall Street: Down­load Them for Free

Theodor Adorno’s Rad­i­cal Cri­tique of Joan Baez and the Music of the Viet­nam War Protest Move­ment

Bed Peace Revis­its John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Famous Anti-Viet­nam Protests

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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