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“Be realistic, demand the impossible!” May ’68 in photos

May '68 in Paris, by Gilles Caron. Courtesy Courtesy of School Gallery Olivier Castaing

Fifty years ago this month, student protests in Paris morphed into huge demonstrations across the country, in scenes recorded in iconic images by Gilles Caron, Bruno Barbey, and Claude Dityvon

Half a century on, the events of May ‘68 still burn in the memories of its provocateurs. Morphing from a frenzy of student protests into a nation-wide revolt, embroiling seven million people at its height, France was dragged out of its post-war complacency that summer and into seven weeks of turbulent action and police brutality.

The fire of the rebellion was first sparked on Valentine’s Day, when students of Nanterre University in the Western suburbs of Paris, held a residents’ strike to promote the right to move freely between male and female dorms. The university hesitated over making any change, so on 22 March, 600 frustrated students gathered to occupy an administration building in protest against the old institution’s ageing values.

By 02 May, after months of boycotted exams, vandalism, and campus protests, the administration shut down the university. It was a move that reeked of hostility to hundreds of students all across the city, and on 03 May they rallied in the courtyards of Sorbonne University central Paris, hurling whatever they could find at police – who waded in with batons and handcuffs. By the end of the first night of rioting, the police had locked up over 600 students.

At the centre of this revolt was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a young man famously photographed by Gilles Caron (1939 – 1970). Caron’s iconic images of May ’68 – and of other major conflicts of the 60s – are on show at Photo London this weekend, including this portrait of Cohn-Bendit. The rebel stands, with a small but confident grin, opposite the looming figure of a CRS officer [French riot police] in a portrait that Olivier Castaing, curator of the show, describes as an image of confrontation between youth and authority.

Montage of images from the Paris May ’68 series by Gilles Caron. Courtesy of School Gallery Olivier Castaing

The image made it to the front pages of the national press the morning after the first night of the barricades but, while they were originally made for the press, Castaing says that Caron’s photographs now find themselves in the artistic field too, giving “importance to photojournalistic images and their aesthetic qualities”.

According to Castaing, Caron was a short man of around 5’4”, and in 1968 he was only 28 years old. Naturally he fit in with the protestors, and he also sympathised with them. Tragically, by 1970 he had disappeared on the road between Cambodia and Vietnam, but in five years he had made his mark in the history of photography, says Castaing – producing iconic images of five of the major conflicts of the 60s, including the Vietnam War, the Prague Spring, and of course, May ‘68.

Portraits of students flinging cobblestones became a symbolic element in Caron’s photography, but the violence quickly escalated. Parked cars were flipped over to create barricades against the police, who responded by firing swarms of tear gas. Over just a week, what had been a student demonstration had grown to encompass 20,000 people, including teachers, artists, filmmakers and civilians, who flowed out onto the streets of the Latin Quarter demanding that Nanterre University be reopened, and that the charges on the detained students be dropped.

“I’ve never seen such violence in a western capital as I saw in Paris that month,” Magnum photographer Bruno Barbey has said – another image-maker whose coverage of May ’68 has become iconic. Shots of the police’s heavy-handed response sparked sympathy for the protestors, he told The Guardian in an article published on 21 August, but it also meant that the photographers became targets.

Journalists were chased down the street for their cameras, says Barbey, and – after images of people throwing stones were used as evidence for arrest – the protestors began to view the cameras with suspicion, making it increasingly difficult to document what was happening.

Worker and student demonstration from Republique to Denfert-Rochereau, 11th arrondissement, Paris, France, May 13th, 1968 © Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos. From the book May 1968 – At the Heart of the Student Revolt in France, as witnessed by Bruno Barbey

Even so, one of Barbey’s most iconic photographs from May ‘68 shows both the sheer number of people involved, and the spirit of liberty in the marches. “I had climbed onto a traffic light to get the picture,” he recalls in The Guardian. “It wasn’t easy to balance because I had a long lens and I had to focus with one hand at the same time as holding on to the traffic light.”

In the photograph, a young man raises his hand in a closed fist, a Communist gesture, while the Colonne de Juillet, a symbol of liberty from the French revolution, is blurred in a distance that seems populated by a never-ending river of people, pickets, and banners.

“But what did these youths really want?” asks Philippe Tesson in the book May 1968, At the Heart of the Student Revolt in France, which he has co-authored with Barbey. “The economy in France and the rest of Europe was doing very well at the time,” Barbey writes, “there was no joblessness; in fact the economy was growing. The youth at the time were well off compared with the youth of today.”

Indeed, as Tesson says, these students were “mostly the children of the petits bourgeois”, from conservative, conventional backgrounds. But their irreverent chanting of “Adieu de Gaulle, adieu de Gaulle” clearly resonated with the frustration of a whole population disillusioned by the stagnant government of a re-elected prime minister. By 10 May the student protests against out-dated tradition had evolved into an uprising for workers’ rights and gender equality, and against capitalism.

“The most singular thing about May 1968 was the way the movement spread out throughout society,” writes Tesson. Major union federations called for a one-day strike in which workers, embittered by poor standards of living and low wages, were to march in solidarity with the students; by 16 May – less than two weeks after the first riots – roughly 50 factories throughout France were occupied by over 200,000 workers on strike.

Boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris, France. May 1968 © Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos. From the book May 1968 – At the Heart of the Student Revolt in France, as witnessed by Bruno Barbey

The shut-down spread, with lighting-speed, to the rail network, the postal service, and even the nationalised media. By 23 May, that figure had snowballed into a mighty seven million, 22% of the country’s population at the time.

“The most astonishing aspect of May ‘68 was to see all these open discussions among every social milieu, and this need people had to speak up for everyone else,” Barbey has told Magnum. “I remember this young student trying to talk with the Renault workers through some railings, she wanted to share her mad ideas to change the world.”

Claude Dityvon (1937-2008) was another photographer whose images have become iconic of the student-worker revolt – but in his case by his own efforts, rather than via the press. François Cheval, author of a new book on Dityvon called Mai 68 – État des leux [May 68 – State of Play] explains, “The act of photographing has become, thanks to him, a necessity and a freedom. The freedom of the press, and of a large part of the profession, freed him from journalistic shackles.”

A self-taught photographer, Dityvon’s images were barely seen and never published, at the time, on the grounds that they were art rather than journalism. The print press, says Cheval, was controlled by financial and industrial groups who did not want to see the merging of document and art, but rather a “twi-lit story of the clashes between good and evil”.

Boulevard St Michel, 24 May 1968 by Claude Dityvon, from the book Mai 68 – État des lieux

Driven by instinct, passion, and a desire to create his own, personal series of images, Dityvon provides an alternative record of ‘68, including an extraordinary photograph of a man sitting on a chair in the middle of the Latin Quarter at 2am, surrounded by tear gas. “Dityvon does not expect anything from these photographs, except the urgency to do them,” says Cheval.

Eventually, on 30 May – after two weeks of paralysed industry and an increasingly agitated government – De Gaulle settled for another general election, ordering workers to return to work with immediate effect. The union accepted, and by the end of June, feelings of revolution had faded, and the Gaullists had won another victory.

To some, the re-election of De Gaulle meant that May ‘68 was a failed revolution, perhaps nothing but a naive summer’s daydream. But for others, it was a key event that led to the eventual restructuring of education and workers’ rights, and a re-evaluation of contemporary capitalism.

Fifty years on, the world’s political and social climate again seems futile to many. Yet since then we have seen many marches of liberation led by young people – most recently in protests on gun laws in the US. While the fires of ‘68 have died, memories of what they stood for continue to burn.

Gilles Caron’s photography from May ‘68 is on show as part of the Pavilion Commission at Photo London this weekend

May ‘68: At the Heart of the Student Revolt by Bruno Barbey and Phillipe Tesson is published by Les Editions du Pacifique, priced €35

Mai 68 – État des leux, featuring the work of Claude Dityvon and essays by Francois Cheval and Christian Caujolle is published by Andre Frere Editions, priced €33.50

Icônes de mai 68 : Les images ont une histoire is a large exhibition of press images from May 68, on show at The National Library in Paris until 26 August

Gay Lussac Street, Paris, France. May 10th 1968 © Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos. From the book May 1968 – At the Heart of the Student Revolt in France, as witnessed by Bruno Barbey

An explosion of teargas, during the night between the 10th and the 11th of May 1968. Boulevard St. Michel, Paris, France © Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos. From the book May 1968 – At the Heart of the Student Revolt in France, as witnessed by Bruno Barbey

Barricade built out of movie posters, Rue de Lyon, near the Bastille, Paris, France. May 24th 1968 © Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos. From the book May 1968 – At the Heart of the Student Revolt in France, as witnessed by Bruno Barbey

On the Barricades on Boulevard St Germain, 25 May, 1968 by Claude Dityvon, from the book Mai 68 – État des lieux

Medic, Boulevard St Germain, 24 May 1968 by Claude Dityvon, from the book Mai 68 – État des lieux