May ’68 was the beginning of something: LAURE BATTIER and CATHERINE MAYEN
with Charles Reeve
The story of May ’68 is usually a story told about students, above all, about their political and intellectual leaders in Paris. But sometimes we remember that ten million workers went on strike across France. In February 2018, Charles Reeve sat down with old friends to discuss the experience of May ’68 as lived by two teenage girls in the small, southwestern town of Perpignan.
Charles Reeve (Rail): To begin, let’s try to outline your personal histories in Perpignan in the years before 1968, your family and school life, your daily life, the position of young people in the town, the relations between girls and boys.
Laure: I was sixteen years old in 1967. Catherine and I were both in a girls’ high school. I lived with my mother in a little apartment in the center of Perpignan in a poor, mostly immigrant neighborhood. My mother was a midwife working in a private clinic in town; she was on duty from 10am to 10am, twenty-four hours straight for two days in a row; she then rested for two days and resumed her shift, and it went on like that. I was a boarder in high school. There were three categories of students in my high school: day students, half-boarders and boarders. That’s how class relations were felt in my high school. The day students did not eat there; they were seen as privileged daughters of the bourgeoisie. The half-boarders ate at the school cafeteria at noontime and returned home at night. Socially, they were between the day students and the boarders, and were from a slightly lower social class than the day students. The boarders were girls who came from the countryside, from a peasant background, or who were welfare cases like myself. In the classroom, the boarders and the day students did not mix easily.
Catherine Mayen: I am Laure’s age and so I was in the same high school. I was a half-boarder and did not go home for lunch. My mother was a housewife, and my father a classics teacher in the boys’ high school. I was happy not to go home for lunch and to be with friends at noontime. From a fairly young age, I went out a lot with girlfriends and boyfriends. We had great discussions over questions like: Is it okay to flirt with a boy you don’t like, with a boy who isn’t the boy of your life? My preoccupations revolved around all that, to which I added a feeling of being completely useless. I was already very affected by the poverty that I heard about on the radio and saw in the streets. For all that, I did nothing and I was angry at myself for not doing anything. Also, I was very religious and that must have reinforced this feeling.
Rail: What was the social atmosphere like in Perpignan then?
Mayen: There were very few workers in the actual town. There were few large industries, just a few companies connected with agricultural production, some canneries. It was a rather poor village with a rather crusty and very conservative old bourgeoisie.
Battier: Perpignan was a prefecture, and there was a lot of administrative staff. This means that in ’68—we’ll come back to this—there were many people in the demonstrations.
Mayen: At the time, very poor people lived in the town’s historic center. There were Gypsies settled there who had lived in Perpignan for centuries, and there were people from the Maghreb. As everywhere, there were the high-rises on the outskirts of town. In 1968, Perpignan, including the suburbs, had a population of about 100,000 people.
Rail: Catherine, you spoke about your feelings about social injustice, that troubled you. Were there any political ideas around? Were you aware of these kinds of questions?
Mayen: That depends on what you call “political.” A year before 1968, when I was fifteen, I began to be aware of things through the actions of André Durand, the high school chaplain, who also managed the Christian Student Youth (JEC) organization. I belonged to this organization and participated in a lot of its activities. Let’s say that the priest did not directly talk about political ideas but he had a way of approaching people that was not just connected to his faith, or rather, his was a faith that went into action. He woke up my political conscience, which the May ’68 movement later awakened even more.
Battier: Because of my personal history, I was driven by a powerful revolt against the State, against the police, against the bourgeoisie, against everything. I was motivated by the fact that my father was a police commissioner and that he never recognized me. I dragged that around with me. I was possessed by an intuitive rebelliousness, almost for survival. Also, even if my mother had work as a qualified midwife, we lived extremely precariously. We were the only French women in the neighborhood; we saw ourselves as “White women” surrounded by Spanish, by the non-French. My mother was a déclassé—I learned that much later—from a family of small manufacturers in Paris. She had the values of this bourgeois class, and at the same time, her values were totally out of step with her living conditions, her social situation. My mother was super conservative. We were a Gaullist family! My mother always fought for me to go to high school. With her middle-class values, I had to go to high school, get an education, go to college.
So I was not like the other kids in the neighborhood. Everything was confused and complicated. I can’t say that I had a social conscience, but I was a super rebel. There were Abbé Durand’s classes that Catherine talked about, classes in religious instruction that he gave in high school. I went to those too. This was an opening to the world, to the history of humanity. It’s true, he didn’t have a political discourse. But this allowed you to ask yourself more questions, personal questions on a general level; he provided a historical framework, this was the story of people from the Bible. But there was another thing. At the boarding school, there were daughters of Spanish refugees. There was the famous Dolores Ponramon whose parents were either in the CNT (Confederacion National del Trabajo) or were Communists, I can’t say which. But the fact was that she was very political, and I remember we had a lot of political discussions. After, I don’t know how, I ended up at the Christian Student Youth too. Its meetings were held on Sunday mornings not far from my house. There it was possible to discuss social issues, more than political questions, and at the same time, there were boys there. Great!
Mayen: My family was more leftist. The daily paper at home was the local paper, L’Indépendant. But there was also a weekly magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur, which I detested! At the time, this was the great leftist weekly that took a position against the Algerian War and everything. But I saw it as simply a magazine for stuffy people. I was a little difficult. I couldn’t stand the trend toward consumerism that started to affect daily life. For me, l’Observateur was the magazine for parents, for unadventurous people who were consumers.
Rail: And the famous “social malaise” pre-’68?
Battier: I have to say that, as a boarder, I experienced the highly militarized and repressive environment of the boarding school. The beds had to be made just so, every evening there was a locker inspection. All this happened just before ’68—the school was very strict, there was no freedom, we had to wear checkered blouses, pink or blue depending on the season. We didn’t have the right to wear stockings, we had to wear short socks, I think even slacks were forbidden. We felt the repressive environment, but I wouldn’t say things were at the boiling point. After all, we could imagine this would go on and on forever. We couldn’t know that everything was going to explode.
Rail: How did the explosion of May ’68 happen?
Mayen: In the beginning, it was in the news, on the radio and television. As I remember, it was first Paris that rose up, followed by the countryside. The University of Perpignan already existed and I remember students coming with leaflets to discuss it at the end of the school-day.
Battier: As a boarder, I didn’t have access to that news. But, at some point, the administration closed the school because, quite simply, the teaching staff was on strike, the cleaning women, the administrators, and others. We were sent home. That’s how May ’68 came to us. My mother was still working, and I was hanging out all the time in places where there were meetings and discussions. I think we met at the school and left as a group for the Labor Exchange where meetings were held. I think I went with girlfriends. I also went alone as I was very interested in what was happening. It was so extraordinary, this feeling of being all together. I was in a great personal revolt, I lived on pins and needles, and, suddenly there was an explosion and I could fit my revolt inside it. Your personal problems disappeared in the collective, in something bigger than yourself; at the same time, you had a place there. You forgot your problems because yours were tied to other people’s problems.
There were some old people, I mean forty or fifty year olds (!) in the workaday world, who came to participate in these meetings and discussions. And that’s where I heard the magic words that corresponded to what I was intuitively searching for, “workers’ councils.” What meaning did I give to this idea? That you must not submit to a party or an organization, that you must decide for yourself what you are going to do. I never thought about this before. I learned that there had been a revolution in Russia with Soviets, that power was in the hands of the people. Well, that’s what I wanted to hear. Revolution, in any case, was a new idea that I adopted. I discovered all that in May ’68. This thing where it’s you who decide at the grassroots level, no leaders, no State.
Mayen: I well remember an event that happened at the high school. Before it was closed because of the strike, there were meetings and in these meetings some people spoke more easily than others. In the gym during one of the meetings, a girl—she had short hair and was sort of a tom-boy, which wasn’t so common back then—had climbed on a table and started haranguing her audience, us. I was completely fascinated, saying to myself: “How did she dare to give a speech like that?” and also, “She was really good.” I had already heard people speaking in public, like the famous Abbé Durand, who gave speeches that carried. But that was different; this girl revealed to me the power of words.
At the university, there were meetings where all the organizations were present. The Trotskyist Communist League was very present at Perpignan. I noticed a practice of theirs that shocked me: Everyone participated in their discussions, but when it came down to actions, it was the girls who distributed the leaflets and pasted up the signs and the boys who wrote the leaflets. I said to myself that for revolutionaries, this was no good. This was out of sync with the ideas of the moment, with them the roles of girls and boys remained definitely separated. The fact the actions of the militants of these organizations were not in accord with their ideas, that didn’t suit me at all.
The demonstrations impressed me. There was a mad world in the streets, even for a provincial town.
Battier: The whole population was there, in the streets. Besides, the schools were closed and many services were on strike. Public transportation was shut down. There were no more buses, no more fuel. Even in a little town like Perpignan, nothing was working, normal life was blocked. You couldn’t sidestep these events, they were there, imposing themselves on daily life, which was disrupted.
Mayen: Everything was moving and even folks who would never have thought of doing anything like this were drawn into the movement.
Battier: It’s funny, I learned much later that my mother, a super-conservative Gaullist, a midwife in a little private clinic where most of the staff was religious, had gone on strike with the other midwives, that she had set up a union section—I think it was affiliated with the CGT, the Communist union! This shows the social force of a movement, which affected so many, including people who before were far from having any thoughts of protesting. My Gaullist mother became a union member in ’68!
Rail: The fact that you sense that you are living in an important moment can cause you to think about what you will do next, what direction to give to your life.
Mayen: For me, it was all in negative: “I won’t do this, I won’t do that,” especially regarding the family. All the debates about relations between the sexes, contraception, were very important for me. In fact, contraception arrived in 1967, even if in a somewhat restricted way. I looked down on the girls, almost contemptuously—I’m sorry but that’s how it was—who had fiancés for a year, two years, and who told me they were going to get married, settle down in a cottage, have children. I told myself I would never do that.
Battier: Since I was fifteen boys, of course, were also a priority in my life. But in ’68, this issue was no longer in my thoughts. They were taken up with something else. For me, it was about the freedom that was playing out in front of me. First of all, freedom from my old space. My boarding school was closed, I lived outside in the streets. I also felt free in my body; it was very important for girls to know that contraception existed. Even if I wasn’t in love at this time, I felt that my body belonged to me alone and that I could have children only if I wanted to. I had the world before me, my world.
Rail: It wasn’t a question of abstract freedom, but the fact that, as women, you put yourselves into the world in a new and different way.
Mayen: At the time, women didn’t have the right to a personal bank account, so they couldn’t have a checkbook, they needed their husband’s authorization. As my mother didn’t have her own money, my father opened an account for her. He put money into that account so that she could enjoy a little independence. That really shocked me, even if I thought it was good of my father to do that. Because he wanted to, he had grand ideas as one says, but he wasn’t obliged to. All this changed, very belatedly, only during these years. It was part of a convergence of things.
Battier: I can’t reduce May ’68 to only the events of May. This was a movement that opened a breach in society and in people’s lives, one that didn’t close with the end of the mass strike. Things were now possible that weren’t before. If we just look at our personal experience, the conditions of high-school life changed enormously. Our high school remained, of course, a girls’ high school and boys still could not enter it. But the required blouses disappeared. The boarding school was less drastic: you could go out; there were lots of discussions. High school Action Committees were created, which I joined. We also had boarding school delegates who presented our demands. All this was new. Another thing, the matter of contraception. Even if you had access to the pill after 1967, it was very restricted. After ’68, you could obtain the pill at the school infirmary. Another aspect: the high school staff had a change of attitude and our relations with them also changed.
Mayen: The relations between children and adults especially changed. It was crazy, here were the same people who, after May, were able to talk to each as equals, or almost. While such an idea could not have occurred before, on either side. What’s surprising is how this movement broke down social rules that were understood—though not obligatory—because afterwards nothing prevented us from going to talk with a teacher or even having a friendly relationship.
Rail In a typical provincial town like Perpignan, a town in the south, far from Paris, were the demonstrations predominantly male, with a strong female presence, or were they too mixed to make such a distinction?
Battier: I would say very mixed, the strike involving service employees was very strong, and women were very present at least in the streets, in the demonstrations. There were young and old, Maghreb workers and Spanish immigrants, merging into the movement. This was the image of May ’68 that I remember: the great mixing of people, from salaried employees to workers, from young people to immigrants.
Mayen: This went totally beyond the “political” world, dominated by men, beyond “politicians.” The case of Laure’s mother, who joined the strike and created a CGT section, is one example, it’s certainly not a unique case. There were plenty of people who never had thought of politics or unions before and who joined the May ’68 movement.
Rail And what happened after ’68? Did you experienced that as something depressing, as an ending, or as the beginning of something new?
Mayen: Both! [Laughter] I experienced my return to high school as absolutely awful. Don't forget that we had just had two long months of vacation—spending all our time in meetings, demonstrations, and not doing our high-school work. On the other hand, in the years since 1968, in the many places where I worked—in crop picking and harvesting, in fruit- and vegetable-packaging warehouses—everywhere we fought and we pushed for strikes. Sometimes, we won. Voilà, May ’68 taught me that you must fight and speak up when things are wrong. This was a beginning, which I have always kept as a principle in my work. I have always participated in strikes.
Battier: I also see it like that. May ’68 was such a rupture that it cannot be reversed. To be sure, some people were broken, some people forgot what they lived through and did. For me, in any case, my vision of my place in the world and my relations with others fundamentally changed. And I don’t believe that I deviated from this for my whole life. Because it was too strong—this feeling of freedom, this necessity to change the relationship to authority, this relationship to organized work—that took me over. For me, May ’68 was the beginning of something; afterwards my life followed this path that opened before me.
But there is something else: Catherine and I did not know each other in May ’68. We lived through the same events, each in our own way. We only met each other forty years later. And we quickly became friends because we shared the same values and the same social concerns, those which May ’68 gave us. This too is a victory of May ’68!
CHARLES REEVE lives and writes in Paris.