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The Color of Paris: End of May '68

While the daily street fighting and strikes began to have a more serious impact on me, the political battles remained distant and largely meaningless. At the time, I didn’t realize how close the city was to outright revolution. Later, I would hear about the troops stationed just outside the city limits and the fear on the part of officials that rebels would attack government buildings, resulting in bloodshed on all sides. So when President Charles DeGaulle mysteriously disappeared on May 29, effectively shutting down the government as Prime Minister Georges Pompidou set a search an unprecedented search operation in motion, I responded with little more than amusement. To me, DeGaulle had outlived his self-made legend. His outsized nose was a cartoonist’s dream, and his stentorian speech a mimic’s treasure trove. I didn’t take him seriously—and in that I greatly underestimated him and the mood of the French majority.

It was soon revealed that DeGaulle had fled to Germany, reportedly demoralized and angered by the raging students and workers and ready to quit. He was also worried that he and his family would be attacked in the Elysée Palace by bloodthirsty rebels, perhaps seeing himself in the image of Louis XIV, who moved the royal residence to Versailles in order to escape the dangers of the Paris rabble.

But somehow, over the course of a day, DeGaulle regained his resolve. On May 30, my roommate and I sat in front of the TV with our French family to hear his famous come-to-Jesus speech to the nation. “Françaises, Français…,” he began dramatically. Though he adopted a no-nonsense, at times belligerent tone, he did make some concessions: he dissolved the National Assembly and scheduled a referendum for June 23, during which the people would have the chance to either accept or reject his and his party’s continued leadership. He also said he would work with his trusted advisors to address problems in the French economy and university system that had been at the heart of the protests. DeGaulle’s words—and authoritarian presence— that day did what matraques and teargas had not been able to do: they cooled the anger and halted the violence. The revolutionary balloon had been popped, and a wary, tentative calm ensued.

Yet disturbing events just kept on happening. On June 5, the news reached us that Robert Kennedy had been shot. After he died the following day, Le Monde carried the awful story on its front page, which was entirely framed in black. This news rocked our world in ways that the even Paris riots had not. We were still reeling from the assassination of the 39-year-old Martin Luther King and now we had lost 42-year-old Bobby, a fiery advocate for civil rights. The response of the French people I knew, young and old, added to the hurt. Why would I want to live in such a dangerous place? some wondered. At first this seemed absurd in light of the open warfare we had just witnessed. But we had to acknowledge that throughout all the street violence that had occurred in Paris during the previous month, not one death had been reported. By contrast, more than 40 people had been reported killed in the U.S. during the violent riots that followed King’s death in April.

The national referendum was duly held on June 23, about a week before I was to head to Le Havre and reboard the S.S. France for my return home. Madame Robert surprised me by confessing, sheepishly, that she had voted for DeGaulle, who ended up winning a huge victory for himself and his party. After all her sleepless nights, her terrifying flashbacks, her fears for her son, and her repeated denouncements of DeGaulle’s arrogance and stubborn refusal to alter the status quo, when the moment came, she was more comfortable voting for what she knew than for what she didn’t know. I was stunned, both by her admission and by the overwhelming Gaullist victory. The French went back to work and began planning their summer vacations. It all felt disappointingly anti-climactic in light of the passionate protests I had seen in the streets. It was time to go home.

The S.S. France landed back at Pier 88 in New York at the end of June. It wasn't long before I realized that, in the ten months since I had boarded the ship for an adventure I could never have imagined, the world back home had taken a leap into a new era. The culture had gone psychedelic and people—even family and friends—had grown bitterly divided. I found the generational rift over Vietnam heartbreaking and the continuing racial conflicts shattering. Scenes of young National Guardsmen clashing with protesters their own age were clear signals that the so-called “youth movement” hid a class divide that was uncomfortable to confront.

Thoughts of Paris resurfaced often, especially in November, when Republican Richard Nixon was elected to the White House. Nixon had run on a “law and order” platform, promising to restore calm to an anxious nation. Both my parents voted for him. Like Madame Robert, they felt they were making the safe choice. And like her, they were responding from their personal experience of the war years and what unchecked violence can do.

Today, as France marks the 50th anniversary of Paris ’68, I’m much older than Madame Robert and my parents were at the time. When I think back on the passion that galvanized a small but visible segment of my generation in France and at home, so many years ago, I do so with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m sad to have lost the wide-eyed exuberance that made optimism so natural and brought positive change within reach. On the other hand, I took away from Paris a lifelong aversion to extremism in any form and a mistrust of those who rely more on charisma than on reason and empathy. Back then, we over-estimated how much our generation could change the world, and the causes we fought for were undermined at times by the things I found so troubling in Paris: fanaticism, exploitation, self-interest, macho posturing. But the world did change after May ‘68—sometimes because of us, sometimes in spite of us. As someone who came of age in 1968 and is now merely “of age,” I'm trying to use what I've learned without retreating to a zone of safety, as my own parents did. My hope still rests with the young. But by all accounts, the young these days are not very optimistic about the future or their ability to affect its course. What would be truly radical would be for us to bridge our generational divide and share what we have—melding knowledge with vision, experience with energy—and change the world together. Now that would be a revolution.