At the time it seemed that Paris had yet again become the center of a world revolution, but in time a quite diffferent legacy has emerged, recalls Diana Johnstone fifty years later.
By Diana Johnstone Special to Consortium News
Nineteen Sixty-Eight began with the Têt offensive, when the Vietnamese national liberation struggle suddenly showed its strength as a military force, though it was eventually beaten back into guerrilla warfare. The images of burning villages and burning children were seared into the consciousness of millions of people around the world. In the United States, Martin Luther King, whose call for an end of the war clearly linked the anti-war cause to the battle for civil rights, was assassinated on April 4.
In France, reactions to the U.S. war in Vietnam, a former French colony, were viscerally linked to the war in Algeria, which was fresh in people’s memories. For those who had supported Algerian independence from France, achieved only six years earlier, the Vietnamese people’s struggle for independence was a natural follow-on.
If anything, the Vietnamese victory was even more clearly just and inevitable. On the other side were a smaller number of diehard colonialists who hated Charles de Gaulle for giving Algeria away and dismantling the French Empire. The youth group “Occident”, rooted mainly in the law faculty in the rue d’Assas, organized commando groups to defend ill-defined “Western values” which they considered under threat.
One evening, to my great surprise, I turned out to be one of those “threats.” As I arrived late to take part in an anti-war panel in Saint Germain en Laye, near Paris, I smiled at a small group of men standing at the entrance who proceeded to knock me flat and bleeding, leaving a few of my teeth loose. That was my informal introduction to “Occident”. This sort of encounter heightened tensions, and leftist groups strengthened their services d’ordre in self-protection.
Such minor incidents concerning Vietnam helped set the mood for the street fights that inflamed the Latin Quarter in the early days of May 1968.
The revolt broke out on May 3 after police entered the…