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Remembering the significance of Paris 'May revolution' 50 years later

Romain Goupil recalls the 1968 Paris May Revolution on Feb. 19, 2018, in Paris. (Mainichi)

PARIS -- Many demonstrations and strikes are continuing here following May Day on May 1, but the origin of the pushback against the Macron administration can be traced to an event 50 years ago: the student-led May revolution.

In response to French President Emmanuel Macron's move to drastically revamp the national railway and other business sectors, there has been an intense pushback from labor unions and residents in Paris, even leading to the destruction of some U.S.-brand shops. Amid these demonstrations, the recollection of the reality and effect of the still-controversial 1968 May revolution is still being considered by those who joined the protests in their youth.

Cobblestones torn up from the street are piled up to create a barricade, and protesters and police face off on either side. It is May 10, 1968, and this is "Quartier Latin," Paris' Latin Quarter and a gathering point for student protesters. The chic atmosphere of the neighborhood has been replaced by a sense of urgency. The demonstrators are mainly students calling for university reform, dissatisfied by the strict rules and their professors' outdated lectures. However, they have been joined by a wealth of other young people, such as left-wing activists demanding the overthrow of the current government, factory workers fighting for improved working conditions, women eager to break the shackles of gender discrimination, and others unhappy with current social conditions.

"Because the protesters weren't just young people like me who dreamed of a revolution that toppled the establishment, but a variety of young people from different walks of life, it gave birth to a giant wave of change," recalls 66-year-old Romain Goupil, one leader of the 1968 demonstrations and now a film director.

At around 2 a.m. on May 11, 1968, police climbed over the barricade to try and disperse the protesters. The students fought back with Molotov cocktails and rocks. Smoke from flaming bottles and tear gas fired by police filled the street. Some 367 people were injured including police officers, and 460 people were arrested.

The forced dispersion sparked public outcry, and on May 13, the laborers who had joined with the students in protest had organized a country-wide strike, paralyzing all of French society. This was the so-called "May revolution."

The seeds of unrest had been sewn two months earlier. On the evening of March 20, 1968, Goupil and his friends had thrown rocks at and smashed the glass windows of the Paris branch of U.S. credit card giant American Express in the center of the French capital.

Goupil, who had been expelled from high school for organizing political activities there, had devoted himself to far-left activism to protests against the Vietnam War, and targeted "American Express" as a symbol of the United States.

A Paris Nanterre University student was arrested for the vandalism incident. Some young people and others against the arrest gathered two days later on the Nanterre campus, and not long after, the protests grew, expanding into the Latin Quarter.

The administration of then President Charles de Gaulle mobilized the army to suppress the unrest. It also broached dissolving parliament and holding a general election, while promising to move to meet laborers' demands for a higher minimum wage and a 40-hour workweek. De Gaulle won the ensuing election, and the protesters receded like the ocean tide.

But what was that "revolution" for? For 78-year-old lawyer Denis Langlois, it was about overthrowing de Gaulle. The World War II Free French leader and general is widely seen as the father of the nation, but for Langlois he was a symbol of disciplinary rule and authoritarianism steeped in tradition. He was an "enemy" of personal freedom and equality that Langlois longed for.

The de Gaulle government was never overthrown. "The revolution failed. But the fact that the people of the nation came together for the single cause of changing the current social situation was meaningful," Langlois says.

"A 'revolution' to topple the establishment wasn't realized, but a cultural revolution did occur," Goupil says. "If it weren't for the May revolution, then we might not have gained well protected labor rights or upward social mobility for women."

(Japanese original by Isamu Gaari, Paris Bureau)

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