Isolated in France During '68 Student Protests

In May of 1968, leftist students in Paris began strikes that nearly led to another French Revolution — or so everyone thought at the time. Reporter Alice Furlaud was visiting France that month and had a different perspective on the scene.

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GUY RAZ, host:

The political mood in Europe was very different in 1968. In May of that year leftist students began strikes that nearly led to another French revolution, or so everyone thought at the time. 1968 was a year of upheaval almost everywhere, and NPR is taking a closer look at the period with an occasional series of stories.

Today, the recollections of reporter Alice Furlaud. She was in France in May 1968.

Ms. ALICE FURLAUD (Reporter): Paris was the place to be when the students occupied the Sorbonne, set cars on fire or overturned them to make barricades, defied the police and scared everybody to death.

Alas, I wasn't in Paris to cheer them on; I was in Provence. My husband, Max Furlaud, and I had just moved into a cottage we'd been lent in the countryside near the naval port of Toulon. By the time we'd heard of the goings on in Paris, there was no gasoline to drive there and no trains to take.

1968 was the first year of supermarkets in France. The one near us, the Supermarch� Casino, was plundered by panicky people hoarding food before it closed. Flour spilled out of sacks broken in the melee. I was nearly knocked over by a man rushing to the checkout counter with a whole shopping cart full of champagne.

And yet wouldn't you know it - the restaurants never went on strike. We began to feel isolated in our cottage with no telephone. We spent almost every evening in our favorite bar in Toulon to watch the sole half hour of television that was allowed. This consisted of news briefs and talks by government officials but not President de Gaulle who had mysteriously disappeared.

In my memory of those distant days, our convivial fellow drinkers at this little bar all seemed to be wearing black berets, usually describing themselves as communists, and all drinking the pastiche called liqueur(ph), after its local manufacturer whose loyal workers did not go on strike.

American friends Freddie and Lily came from Spain to stay with us, bringing the only newspaper available, the communist paper from Marseilles. An article described the Paris police whacking students with weapons called matrack(ph). Freddie looked this up in a French-English dictionary. A matrack was a tomahawk.

I longed to be in Paris. The revolt had started at the Sorbonne, a place I hated as a student in 1949. Lectures by professors who had no contact with us students were barely audible. We did receive fudgily mimeographed mauve copies of their lectures.

By 1968, I felt, it was high time students there took to the streets. On May 30, the day President De Gaulle came back to Paris to a rapturous reception, one of our communist friends in the Toulon bar said admiringly, (French spoken). After all, he is somebody.

As former President Val�ry Giscard d'Estaing told me 20 years later, it wasn't a political revolution, it was a cultural uprising. But violence continued elsewhere. On the front page of the June 6 issue of that same Marseilles newspaper, we saw with horror the picture of Robert Kennedy's shaggy head on that California floor.

For National Public Radio, I'm Alice Furlaud on Cape Cod.

RAZ: You can listen to other stories from our series, Echoes of '68, at NPR.org.

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