'May 68' by Bruno Barbey | Magnum In Motion

One of the slogans of May '68 : "The beauty is in the street"

"I came back to Paris in spring 1968, after a long trip to South East Asia and Japan, where big riots were taking place. I photographed most of the Paris demonstrations : the ‘Sorbonne crisis’ as well as the moment it was abandoned, with students shouting ‘Too late, civil police, the Sorbonne is no temple’. I also photographed the occupation of the Odéon theatre, the striking Renault factories, the burial of Gilles Tautin, the big pro-De Gaulle demonstration on the Champs-Elysees and the barricades in the Latin Quarter on Rue Gay-Lussac.

May ‘68, we immediately understood that it was something important, probably the most important protest that took place in the decade, certainly since WWII. People were tired of Gaullism and wanted a change. They wanted to remodel society, to change the relations between executives and workers and all of that. It was sort of the Middle Ages at that time! France was a very conservative nation, quite insular, and thanks to May ‘68, you saw people - young, old - chatting together without social barriers, without hang-ups. And that was something never seen before. 

At the Sorbonne, there were memorable evenings in the large amphitheatre, where intellectuals, philosophers, artists and union members - as well as people from the right wing, left wing - came to express themselves. Well, there were also leaders, of course; professional speakers who were experts in rhetoric and monopolized the dialogue, but Cohn-Bendit or Jean-Paul Sartre weren’t the only ones to speak. At the enormous Richelieu amphitheatre, debates would last until late at night… until 2, 3 in the morning. Then people couldn’t go back home - there was no commuting so they just slept there.

On May 6, there were major riots in protest against the arrest of Sorbonne students, after they were arrested. At the first large protest, the CRS riot police were throwing grenades inside the apartments of the bourgeois who were watching the scene from the fifth floor, commenting “Oh, so interesting!.. etc.”

When reporters of the CRS riot police were published, showing them hunting, lashing and beating up young women or people on the floor with shoes and their nightsticks; it was filmed, and above all, it was photographed - and published. And at that moment, it contributed to show the people’s repression and it stimulated the people’s uprising.

The sight of Rue Gay-Lussac on the morning of May 11 was something! It felt like being in Beirut after the civil war. The barricades, every 50 meters. It went on through the night. The next day, early in the morning, people came down in their houses robes and slippers to try and buy bread. They stood there, totally frightened, between cut trees and burned cars - it was unbelievable.

For weeks my clothes were saturated by the persistent smell of tear gas. The ORTF (French public TV and radio network) was on strike, so with Godard, Chris Marker and others, we shot some short movies called “cinétracts”, a kind of filmed version of our photos. These films were broadcast throughout France, deprived of TV and radio news due to strikes in the public service.

We shouldn’t forget that ‘68 was a year incredibly wild and rich in events perhaps more dramatic and consequential. Prague for instance… There was the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers. A lot happened at the same time everywhere, and finally May ‘68 was sort of like a student protest in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. There was no unemployment, no people laid off. There was incredible economic development, there was no dictatorship as in other countries - well, there was a youth that wanted to change, move and breathe.  

The emergency was to communicate, to talk to each other, to question everything. It was the rebellion of a whole generation against what the society had in principle prepared for it, a rebellion against everything that came from above.” Bruno Barbey

Click on the link above to watch (and to listen) the photo-essay.

[Picture : One of the famous slogans of May ‘68 : “Beauty is in the street”]