Reprinted courtesy of Wiley Online Library. Original: Critical Quarterly, Volume 50, Issue 3, October 2008, 26-32.
First published: 17 October 2008 Full publication history DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8705.2008.00840.x
‘CRS/SS’ (CRS being French riot police) is not a May ′68 slogan. It appears during the great miners’ strike in 1948, a movie by Louis Daquin shows it painted on the wall. One example among thousands of the inordinate mythification that never ceased to enshroud the events of that prodigious decade. This slogan, quoted ad nauseam as a typical expression of excessiveness and ignorance in those young quixotic bourgeois, had been originally drawn by a proletarian hand. Which doesn’t make it any wittier, yet there are circumstances when you sort of lose the right sense of proportion. It’s an aptly applied blow during a demo, and the cauliflower ear that followed (not much, considering) that prompted me next time to grasp my film camera, thus triggering a series of causes and effects whose cinematographic fallout appears on these DVDs.
But that was 1962, the prehistory, so to say, of my subject. In gauchistese, ′68 would be its zenith. Yet A Grin Without a Cat turns around year ′67, seen as the pivotal point in the sixtyish saga. Perhaps too much has been made of the famous editorial by Pierre Viansson-Ponté in Le Monde, March ′68, ‘France is Bored’ – a moody column from which rose the consensual idea that May had been a thunderbolt in a clear sky, that no one had seen coming. As for me, I wasn’t bored at all, and to discern the waves of the seism that began to shatter our planet you really didn’t have to be prophetic. All you needed was to move, and keep your eyes open. Chance having made me born a bit restless and gifted with the insatiable curiosity of the Elephant’s Child, when I browse mentally my diary of 1967 I think on the contrary that one had to be pretty dumb not to catch a glimpse of what was already cooking. Springtime: a trip to Cuba, at its heretic best (to the extent that the sheer name of Cuba never appeared any more in L’Humanité, the French communist newspaper), Fidel thundering against the dogmatism of the Marxist-Leninist manuals, severing ties with all the communist parties in South America, explaining to us that the time had come for ‘non-Party people, new people, who break with that tepid, weakly, pseudo-revolutionary model of some who boast to be revolutionaries …’, wrong-footing his Russian allies in such a way that one year later, on the verge of delivering the famous speech in which he would align with the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, everybody in Havana was certain that he was to announce the split with the USSR (the icy shower would be but icier, but so goes History). Back in France, a message from Besançon, a small town with a strong workers’ tradition, and first meeting with the strikers of the Rhodiaceta factory: a strike with occupation of the plant, a premiere since the Popular Front in 1936, and a style of demands that sounded quite new. ‘It’s remarkable to see how these workers do link their immediate economic demands to a fundamental questioning of the labour conditions and of the capitalist society. The dignity of the working class, the true meaning of life and work are brought forward in most speeches. It’s not then for these men a matter of negotiations to get their share in a Welfare Society, US way, but to challenge that society itself, and the compensating goods it offers’ (Nouvel Observateur, 22 March 1967). Doesn’t all that sound sixtyish? In June, flight to Bolivia with François Maspero, searching for a certain Régis Debray, who happened to be our friend, recently nabbed by the sbires of the Bolivian dictatorship, in order to bring our little stone to the campaign of honourable men (Malraux for one) which could perhaps protect him from a probable dispatching. He was accused of fiddling with a guerrilla band operating in the Ñancahuazú area, and rumours as well as confidential intelligence already named their leader: Comandante Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, aka ‘Che’ – on breaking terms, he, with practically everybody. July: Paris again, to complete an original, collective cinematic adventure, Far from Vietnam. Since the beginning of the year a team had taken shape, variable, informal, leapfrogging, mixing twelfth-graders like Resnais, Godard, Varda, Lelouch, Ivens, Klein with a bunch of largely unknown people, some of them film technicians, some nothing-at-all, attracted by the idea of doing a militant work while practising cinema for real. Behind the explicit enterprise of denouncing a war, you could easily decipher the search for a new way to work together, to be together. The release print was hardly out, I was in Washington DC, running with the first wave of demonstrators who attempted – symbolically, quite symbolically – to storm the Pentagon. While strongly tied to the struggle against the war, the ‘challenge’ of the society that the Rhodia strikers had heralded was here the watchword of every university, as well as a flurry of new movements who in turn joined more traditional and fundamental struggles – the Women, the Blacks. Then at the end of the year, our pals in Besançon were onto the breach again, with a new strike. This time we were better armed. All the Springtime episode had left was a soundtrack and a few snapshots. Now we could film. Philippe Labro and Henri de Turenne, producers in the then state-owned French television, the ORTF, agreed for the story to be broadcast in their magazine CAMÉRA 3 – they didn’t know what waited ahead for them. And to be truthful, the documentary value of this episode lies today even more in its ups and downs than in the film itself. We had shot a strike, strikers, workers, union activists; they had spoken candidly about their living conditions, their political stands, nothing contradictory to Albert Camus’s phrase that opened CAMÉRA 3: ‘The journalist is the historian of the moment.’ Obviously the ORTF management had a different conception of what journalism should be. Their response was short and clear: total blackout. With a courage rarely seen in those times, Labro and Turenne fought back, and threatened to sink their magazine if the story wasn’t on the air. Hardly used to dealing with a rebellion, the management pitched, rolled and finally gave in. The story could be aired if it was followed by a ‘debate’ between serious folks. OK for the debate: the hot-and-cold effect it would induce couldn’t but help our cause. And so was it: for the first time you’ll find here large extracts. French viewers, especially those left-oriented, will smile when meeting Jacques Delors, future key figure of the Socialist Party and potential candidate for the presidency, among the serious folks invited to temper the ‘extremist’ content of the workers’ talk. My friend Henri uses that … er … overstatement in his introduction, and by itself this detail sheds a murderous light on the gaullist ORTF. But another sentence of that introduction deserves a second look. ‘We broadcast this testimony because … it reflects in spite of all [sic] a certain state of mind, a certain spirit that exists in some parts of the working class.’ Couldn’t be better said, and so much for the thunderbolt in a clear sky. Then, as the Parthian shot, came the title. God knows that with Mario Marret and Carlos de los Llanos, my two cronies, we had racked our brains to find a title that would be neither too flat nor too provocative. Until a female editor with brains replayed the final words by Yoyo Maurivard, when, facing the camera, he addresses ‘the bosses’: ‘We’ll get you, it has to be, it’s nature and … be seeing you!’ Be seeing you! ‘Here is your title …’ Let’s admit that for a programme aired on 5 March 1968, it wasn’t inappropriate.
Photogram from Le fond de l’air est rouge
Student protests in the US, emergence of a new kind of problematics in the working class, staggering blows in every field of the orthodoxy, right or left, all that composed, as they say, a certain mood. It’s understandable that France, somehow lagging behind History, as it occasionally does, would catch up with mythology the following year. Peculiar circumstances would help. The insane brutality of the police, who from the first day were hitting at anything that moved, demonstrators and passers-by alike, transforming into a riot what could have been a slightly radical rag parade – the fair weather, which lent to that month of May a festal atmosphere: if it had rained cats and dogs on the ‘night of the barricades’, it would have been different. And the presence of an inventive and hyperintelligent kobold, Dany Cohn-Bendit, who immediately gave a sense and depth to the story that others may not have caught. It is by the dilution of all those aboriginal singularities into a big wave that wouldn’t have spared anyone anyway, that had ebbed and flowed in 1967, that the myth of May ′68 would be cemented. A solid cement. Forty years later, president Sarkozy would still find in it the source of all evils, while others mourned a ‘spirit of May’ to be retrieved at all costs in the debris of History, just as Martin Luther was searching the Scriptures for the secret of a betrayed faith.
I don’t know if there was a May spirit. There was a spirit in May. Philosopher Maurice Clavel saw in it the Spirit itself, the revolt of spiritual forces against a materialist world. It was an angle, but the nice side of that era is that you can say practically anything about it and be sure to strike home from a certain angle and lamely goof from another. It is too easy to sort out all its extravagances and ridicules, everybody did it, and the worst reproach we can make to the soixante-huitard folklore is to have provided those it was supposed to fight with an everlasting stock of caricatures. They ended up covering other images of those unreasonable days, what they carried of true generosity, of genuine inventiveness. Symmetrically it is interesting to decipher in them, as in a laboratory, the pattern of the century’s great contradictions. At the lowest cost (almost no bloodshed), it presents a kind of outline of all the revolutionary processes. What started with a nice but somewhat silly ‘It is forbidden to forbid’ vertiginously turns to ‘Everything is forbidden except us’. The main enemy is no longer an almost abstract power which is fought with rites (slogans, speeches, meetings – we live with the fantasy to storm the Winter Palace, nobody will ever think of marching on the Elysée!) but the other party, the other sect, the other groupuscule. The funny part is that the government itself feels much more threatened than it really is; Michel Jobert’s and Constantin Melnik’s memoirs tell a lot about the real panic that had invaded the power circles. In these limboes of History, any simulation will do. One of the most preposterous: the occupation of the headquarters of the Literary Society by one Writers Union (the sheer name gives a cold sweat to whoever has known the Soviet Union), so named out of antiphrasis since its three constituents keep tearing one another apart in the name of revolutionary purity. For here we are – we’re making the Revolution. A confession: when I heard my friends revel in this word I heard a metaphor, a sort of sexy way to christen the true transformations of thought or mores that unfolded before us, which were not negligible, and would leave traces. And as I just said, nobody outlined a true strategy to seize the power. Today, when I read their memories, I realise they were actually thinking about it, reminiscing about it, dreaming about it and I still wonder with perplexity what precise images they could paste on that dream. Because, as Chairman Mao – who didn’t talk only nonsense – had told us: ‘Revolution is not a dinner party’. Che, whose photo was (already) loved by all, and whose books were read by nobody, was even more technical. ‘Hatred as a factor of struggle, the relentless hatred of the enemy that impels us over and beyond the natural limitations of man and transforms us into an effective, violent, selective and cold killing machine.’ It sounds even better in Castilian: ‘Una efectiva, violenta, selectiva y fría máquina de matar’. Sometimes I used to ask one or another if what they really wished was for their children to become effective, violent, selective and cold killing machines. The answers were dilatory. In fact, in a country ruled by a strong power, although momentarily paralysed, this revolution had another name: Civil War. ‘The only just war’, as some lunatic dared to say. Others would take the plunge: Serge July, Alain Geismar, ‘Towards a Civil War’, 1969. ‘ Although we don’t intend to play prophets’ (just as well), ‘the horizon for France in ′70 or ′72 is the Revolution’. The horror of the two great civil wars of the twentieth century, Russian and Spanish, should have incited them to choose the words with less … (let’s keep moderate) lightness. But the myth was the strongest and it would remain so for a long time. I remember my last conversation with Althusser.1 He was back from Portugal in full ‘Carnation Revolution’, and this time, that was it! After many failed outbursts, including our month of May, Portugal was about to carry out the first socialist revolution since 1917, consolidate it and from there spread it to the whole of Europe. I listened to him as in zero-gravity. Facing me was not a likeable young leftist nut, but one of the greatest French intellectuals of his time. For him, as for others, revolution was in the air, and had to be, like the grin of the Cheshire Cat. He would always see that grin. And he wouldn’t (nor would anyone) ever see the Cat.
In May anyway the final whistle came quickly: with the first casualty. Not too serious for revolutionaries, but it’s a fact, the murder of Pierre Overney by a Renault watchman would bring everyone back to the real value of lives, things and words. On the workers’ front, the great wave finally met its dikes, a phenomenon summarised by former minister Edgar Pisani in one sentence, ‘a terrible connivance between the conservative apparatus of the CGT (the communist-led union) and the conservative apparatus of the government’. And a great disorder fell on everyone’s mind. Strangely, the small clannish fights used to draw a kind of overdetermination from the fact they had developed in this fuzzy space of the imaginary revolution. Left to their own devices amidst a reassured country, they became weakly and purposeless. Historical Anarchy had died – heroically – in Spain. To refer to it now made no more sense than being a royalist, unless it became an ideological business, quite profitable at that. The Communist Party had missed every helping hand offered by History and started the long spin of a motorless airplane. French Maoism would remain a landmark in the history of teratology. The foolishness of morons is a plague, but statistically speaking we have to put up with it. What is fascinating is the foolishness of clever people and in this particular case, some of the cleverest. Sometimes you felt an almost physical pain to watch intelligence and character get bogged into this – not only clowns like Sollers and his Tel Quel bunch, but true characters, true intelligences. And stern antifascists glorified the Red Guards, who were inordinate Hitlerjugend … Finally there was a very small minority who took revolutionary logomachy to the letter and became entangled in an armed fight that even Che wouldn’t have approved of then or there. On which basis, with what verbal porridge …‘In my comrades’ minds, this action [the assassination of Georges Besse, Renault CEO] was supposed to slow down the progress of the bourgeois recomposition, aggravate its internal contradictions and thus weaken it in the class struggle’. The quote is reported by Régis Schleicher, and it is really incredible that the only intelligent and dignified self-criticism of Action Directe2 has gone practically unnoticed. ‘Twenty years later’, he writes, ‘we can’t help but notice that the hypothesis we defended failed. Unless we are obsessed, intellectually blind and incapable of understanding how things evolve, we have to admit that the revolutionary movement and the social movement have proved us wrong.’ The petty inquisitors who refused AD member Nathalie Ménigon her parole because she wouldn’t ‘repent’ should have questioned (pure rhetoric, those people never question anything) the relationship between the quality of a reflection and the living conditions of the person who’s supposed to reflect. Schleicher was in jail, but in normal detention. Taking stock of those years, he recalls friendships and violence but, overall, conditions were humane. To hold someone in infra-humane conditions (as when Nathalie did request for the company of a cat, and was denied …), and then to demand that he or she should beg for pardon, is abject but above all stupid. As if clinging to one’s acts and justifying them in spite of all was not, rather than a sign of stubbornness, the last resort to dignity. ‘You’ve robbed me of everything but you won’t hear me say you’re right.’ Back in a world where it is possible to think otherwise than against your warden, perhaps Nathalie Ménigon will be capable of the same self-reflection as Schleicher. From him, one more thing to remember – three short sentences which should stir some people’s conscience: ‘Some maintained that the power is at the end of the gun. I used to believe that thesis. Others, who were teaching it, let us take responsibility.’
Elsewhere, things were more violent, more difficult than in France, but the curve was the same. For having gleaned a few traces of these luminous and murky years, I tinkered with these films. They don’t claim to be any more than that: traces. Even the most megalomaniac, A Grin Without a Cat (originally four hours long, wisely reduced to three but without modifying the content, just shortening it, with a short monologue at the end), is in no way the chronicle of a decade. Its inevitable gaps would become unjustifiable. It revolves around a precise theme: what happens when a party, the CP, and a great power, the USSR, cease to embody the revolutionary hope, what looms up in their place and how the showdown is staged. The irony is that thirty years later, the question is irrelevant. Both have ceased to exist and the only chronicle is that of the unending rehearsal of a play which has never premiered.
This text was written as an introduction to Le Fond de l’air est rouge (A Grin Without a Cat).
- Louis Althusser, philosopher, Marxist, guru of the New Left.
- Action Directe aimed at being the French replica of the Baader gang in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy. They were a tiny group and made a few killings and holdups, until they were arrested and sentenced to life.