May Made Me: an oral history of the 1968 uprising in France

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Among the many books published in the 50th anniversary of the May ’68 revolt, this one stands out for its ability to hear from those directly involved. Through dozens of interviews with participants, Mitchell Abidor lets us feel the transformative power of mass struggle on individuals and society.

Students fighting the police on the barricades and 10 million workers on general strike made what had seemed impossible capable of being realised. And people found courage and new strengths.

School student Myriam Chédotal describes how she began going round classes and trying to win others to the rebellion. “My life shifted,” she said. “I realised I had a gift for speaking, for finding the right words. It was that day I gained confidence in myself. It was brilliant.”

Everyone talked to each other in the street and on the Paris Metro underground trains. Suzanne Borde told Abidor she was “a girl in pleated skirts before the events” but as soon as everything kicked off she “went home and made herself a miniskirt, around the hem of which she wrote in pen: ‘The problem is not with the length of my skirt, but with your gaze.’”

This was all happening in a society so repressed, so sexist, that women did not fully have the vote, or the same financial rights as men, until 1965.

In the occupied theatre, the Odéon, Jean-Jacques Label describes how workers would walk on to the stage and burst into tears as they described their discovery of an alternative to capitalist rule.

“We saw people coming from all walks of life, there was a general strike. People who were the age of our grandparents. It’s the most important and radical thing I’d ever dreamt I could live in my whole life.”

The book is, however, weaker on workers’ experiences, with the main interviews being with Communist Party supporters at Saint-Nazaire who glory in “kicking the ass” of students who came to offer solidarity and discuss politics.

It’s a shame that other interviews Abidor did with workers were cut for space (although they are available at bit.ly/AbidorExtra).

Abidor concludes that the Communist Party, blamed by the revolutionary left for holding back the movement and diverting it from a challenge to the state, actually was correct in its approach. Workers, he says, were interested in pay rises, not overturning capitalism.

It’s an old argument, but briefly two points. Firstly the things people say today, after 50 years that have seen many defeats, do not fully tell us how they felt at the height of rebellion.

And the argument is not that instant insurrection was possible but that the movement could have been deepened and radicalised and democratised in a way that would have built towards a revolutionary process.

But don’t let any of that that stop you reading this inspiring book.

As Alain Krivine, now of the NPA party, told Abidor, “It’s Trotsky who said during a revolution with every passing day people become unrecognisable.

“People become unrecognisable. I never saw it before.”