‘Give us back May 68!’ a group of students shouted in front of the Odéon in Paris. On 7 May, the theatre had scheduled a May 68 commemoration. First there’d be a play, then some intellectuals and artists would talk. ‘We must emphasise the importance of the Odéon,’ the blurb said, ‘which … was the main platform for “everything is possible”. There, on the stage, everywhere in the theatre, a community of young people tried to invent a utopia and to live it. This was a contradictory and experimental space for speaking out.’
The students outside the theatre fifty years later had been protesting against a law that changes the conditions of access to university and introduces academic selection. They demanded to be let into the Odéon to take part in the discussion – to no avail. Inside, an audience mostly composed of smartly dressed white older people listened politely to the speakers. The theatre’s director called the police, who sprayed tear gas and arrested four students.
Patrice Maniglier, who teaches philosophy at Nanterre University (Paris X), was scheduled to speak at the event. ‘May 68 hasn’t passed,’ he told me. ‘It got stuck in time’s throat. We think our present is the result of May 68. It’s not the case. It’s a window that is looking at us critically, asking us why we failed to rise to its demands.’
On Monday 14 May, at 10 a.m., in Saint-Ouen, students turned up in front of a building surrounded by police in full riot gear. It was raining. Saint-Denis university (Paris VIII) had rented a private building for students to take exams in; a student occupation was blocking the university. In the street, psychology students, mostly young women, were waiting to enter the building and take their exam. Some were taking a last look at their notes in the rain. The protesting students had unfurled a banner and were shouting in front of a row of riot police. A few postal and railway workers on strike had joined them.
The police told the psychology students to head to the back of the building. Protesters followed them down the small street to explain why it was important not to sit the exam. ‘Don’t break the movement,’ a young woman shouted through a megaphone. 'It isn’t acceptable to sit your exams under police presence. One, two, three … fourteen members of the riot police! Yeah, I know how to count even if I’m not taking my exams!’ In the end, only thirty students entered the building. The university cancelled exams for the rest of the week.
The students were tracking protests using a website called Demosphere. From Saint-Denis I went with them to a railway workers’ protest at the Gare de l’Est, against a proposed reform of their special employment status. We then met health workers who asked the crowd to join their protest the following day: the government had recently announced cuts of €1.6 billion. Heading home, I found the McDonald’s near the Gare de l’Est occupied by workers, backed by students, asking for better pay, more humane working conditions and an end to the company’s tax avoidance. ‘Fry after fry, nugget after nugget, we will recuperate McDonald’s money,’ they chanted.
Quentin Ravelli, a sociologist, told me he had been trying to follow the convergence of struggles over recent months: ‘In April I couldn’t believe what was going on, that there were so many mobilisations across different sectors, all opposing privatisation. We’ve seen students, railway workers, health workers, airplane pilots and mechanics mobilising. Magistrates … carried justice’s coffin to the Palais de Justice. Carrefour supermarket cashiers recently stopped striking after obtaining a ridiculous pay rise … There’s been a strike at the Paris Catacombs since 3 May, which started – I kid you not – in the archaeological crypt. Postal workers in the 92’ – Hauts-de-Seine department – ‘have been on strike for more than two months and letters have piled up in the post office.’
At the rail workers’ protest, Pierre, who had taken part in the exam blocking in the morning, explained why he had joined: ‘Rail workers are one of the most militant sections of the working class, one that’s always held its ground. There’s a feeling that if their mobilisation fails then all sectors will follow.’ Fabien Villedieux, a spokesman for the SUD Rail union, told me: ‘If we realise that Macron’s project is basically Thatcher’s, that it will affect everybody, and if we join forces, then there’s hope.’
The student movement this spring hasn’t reached the size of previous mobilisations. There wasn’t a huge turnout at the protest in front of the Sorbonne on 16 May. ‘Some teachers haven’t mobilised because they believe selecting students is actually a good idea,’ Christophe Mileschi, who teaches at Nanterre, said. ‘Or because they think there’s no hope. The law was passed on 8 March. But we were told it would be in force from October, and asked to apply it. That’s unprecedented in France.’
‘The government has said that students would be at the centre of the new system,’ his colleague Marine Cordier said, ‘but that isn’t true. And the other lie is that there would be room for everybody. That’s also not true.’ Both Mileschi and Cordier were hoping that lycée pupils would mobilise when they got their results on 22 May. As Cordier predicted, many of them have not, despite government promises, been offered a university place.
‘I actually think that by insisting on selection they’re fooling everyone,’ Samuel Hayat, a political scientist, told me. ‘We’re failing to see a bunch of really serious measures brought by the new law. Students are robbed of their choice. The government has put an end to the social security system for students. There’s no more limit for student fees for foreign students. So in a few years time we’ll end up with universities in shambles, social security in shambles and foreign students paying €5000. Where do you think that’s headed? Introduction of student fees and privatisation.’
On Friday 16 May, I went to a student general assembly at Saint-Denis, which was still occupied, the only university whose president hadn’t called the police to evict the students. At the entrance, graffiti announced that the university had turned into a ‘self-managed queer caliphate’. ‘Look at your Rolex,’ someone had scrawled in the lift, ‘the time of revolt has come.’
In the lecture hall, a woman told me that if she hadn’t had children, she would have been at the ZAD (‘Zone to Defend’) in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, a large area near Nantes occupied by protesters. An airport had been planned for the site, but it was abandoned in January in the face of the protest. ‘There’s no defeat, even if this university occupation ends,’ she said. ‘This is what life is now.’ In another part of the campus, students have requisitioned a building to house migrants. There were 156 people sleeping there, with rotas for cooking and cleaning. On the sunny terrace, three men from Chad were learning French.
On Saturday evening, students occupying Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) had organised a conference about police violence. Relatives of people who were killed or injured by the police, victims of police racism, migrants, protesters and lawyers spoke, calling for solidarity between protesters and victims of police violence. Nicolas Jaoul, an anthropologist, was assaulted by the police after the May Day protests. He told me that demonstrators who had been chased by the police around the Latin Quarter had sought refuge at EHESS. He had been having a drink in the garden with friends. When he tried to leave by a back door he was pinned to the ground by five police officers who punched and kicked him. Ten others came to join in kicking his head. ‘You’re going to pay for the students,’ they told him. ‘It’s because of all the shit that you guys teach them that they’re like this.’ Another officer had put his foot in the door and agents were teargassing students and hitting them with batons, but they failed to get in. So far the school administration has failed to condemn the actions of the police.
Léopoldine, a student at EHESS, had been involved in the occupation of a Le Corbusier building that students have renamed ‘la Brèche’ (‘the breach, the opening’). ‘We’ve been meaning to organise differently,’ she said. ‘This occupation is a way to live this in action. I’ve been unable to think about anything else. Yes, we’ve been selected to be here, we’re mostly white, we’re privileged, but between occupations and Notre-Dame-des-Landes, people are creating a network, opening up to one another. We disrupted a conference about May 68 which was organised by EHESS, telling speakers: ‘“You commemorate, we start again.”’