The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2018

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MAY 2018 Issue
Field Notes

Class Struggle at the Folies Bergères

Charly has a head like Bakunin’s. He comes from La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland and, after a rocky career in construction work in the French provinces, has ended up in Paris. He’s a hefty guy. He lives with Bernadette, a young Parisian who is full of energy and who does odd jobs, in a small maid’s room on rue Mouffetard. We are there on a Sunday to eat Swiss fondue. Bernadette has Charly as a friend and a lover. When he goes to Switzerland to see his big proletarian family from time to time, she likes me, too.

We met in the summer of 1967 at a youth camp in a small village in the south of France. As a Portuguese exile, I was spending the week dragging myself around the sad streets of the Parisian suburb of Saint-Ouen stuffing mailboxes with ads for a Faubourg St Antoine furniture company. I lived badly, that is to say, in poverty. Along with Charly, I got a small job for one or two days a week in the Youth and Reconstruction Association, located on the rue de Trévise, off the large boulevards. The Folies Bergère, with its large photo displays of young women in seductive outfits, their beautiful bodies decorated with feathers, is just on the corner of the nearby rue Richer; also not far is the Musee Grevin, the wax museum. The Youth Association organizes camping and theme trips for young people and is loosely linked to the secular left movement. I am convinced that they are all induced to join the Socialist Party.

Charly and I distribute mail, make coffee, do the shopping and housekeeping, and especially, print publicity flyers, and the association’s journal on two old offset machines in the basement. It is now the beginning of May ’68 and student activism is already noticeable in the universities, especially at Nanterre. During my “professional” trips to Saint-Ouen, I start running into groups from the Communist Party (PCF) who are distributing leaflets in streets, squares, and marketplaces warning people against agitation from “leftist” students who are manipulated by the bourgeoisie and the “ruling class.” So, I say to myself, the game is getting serious. I already had an idea about the nature of the PCF from my readings and meetings with people and from direct experience, when one day I was rebuffed by a few PCF militants whom I asked for help, given my destitution and my isolation as an exile. Their proof of solidarity was to offer to sell me a ticket to the Fête de l’Humanité (the Communist Party’s yearly festival) when I hardly had enough money to buy a day’s sandwich. I quickly made the transition from Lenin and his What Is To Be Done? to Rosa Luxemburg, and I chose my party, as it were.

May ’68: The movement is spreading; one after another, factories are going on strike and those under union control are occupied; demonstrations are becoming increasingly violent; the country shuts down. It is quite something to feel a society shut down like that, like a stalling engine, by the power of the men and women who make it run. One evening, after a day in the heady streets of the Latin Quarter, Bernadette, Charly, and I decide to occupy our workplace. The next day, before the few dumbfounded managers and secretaries of the Youth and Reconstruction Association, we announce our intention to occupy the space around the clock. A few voices timidly express approval, but the majority remain silent. They don’t understand it very well. That evening we three are left with the keys to the space! A few comrades from the youth camps join us in the following days. The employees have vanished to go watch May ’68 on television, while waiting for the leaders to come to an agreement. 

We understand that our occupation is mostly symbolic. We hold discussions among ourselves, we make our meals and sleep in the space. In short, we form a little community. And we display a banner from the building’s large front window which reads: “Youth and Reconstruction is occupied in solidarity with workers and students.” This attempt to open out to the neighborhood quickly turns into a fiasco, and worse, it exposes us to a danger we never suspected. The 9th arrondissement of Paris is a network of Pieds Noirs, the repatriated French from Algeria, who own most of the neighborhood businesses, bistros, cafés, and little restaurants. There the extreme right is very active. Very quicky, we are attacked: a window is smashed, walls are covered with nazi and nationalist signs and with the words: France for the French. These people have a limited imagination. We lower the gates and take precautions; we organize guards day and night; and we ready ourselves for a siege.

In the meantime, thanks to my contacts with a group of Portuguese affiliated with the anti-Leninist, ultra-left journal Cadernos de Circunstância, which I had joined a few months earlier, I went to the University of Paris, Censier with Charly. It is a glorious free-for-all: lots of meetings; discussions in every corner of the hallways; action committees forming upstairs. There is even a committee of Portuguese deserters from the colonial war, which I avoid because I don’t want to be locked into that category, however honorable. In one hallway, a young woman approaches me, saying that an action committee is looking for Portuguese translators for its leaflets. As I leave, I meet Jean-Claude, an anarchist electrician, whose forcefulness is like electric current (an appropriate metaphor in this case). We would later become friends for life. Bernadette and Charly join the postal workers’ committee.


We divide our lives between the committees and the symbolic occupation of the Youth and Reconstruction Association, where we return every night to catch our breath and above all to sleep. Time is sort of in parentheses; we live in an almost continuous present. With Jean-Claude, I distribute leaflets in poor Portuguese neighborhoods on the outskirts of Paris, where I discover a strange situation. Almost all the workers avoid us, and their fear is palpable. They don’t understand what’s happening; for them it is the devil on earth, a communism that menaces their already miserable existences. The mental oppression they have taken from the fascist regime of their homeland manifests itself concretely: many of them return to Portugal. One day an immigrant in the Portuguese Communist Party opens his shanty to us and we have a long discussion. Faithful to Communist discourse, he brings out the nonsense about “extremists” and “manipulated students.” But at least there is an exchange of ideas. We return a few days later, but either he isn’t there or he won’t open his door to us.

The University at Censier is like the cave of Ali Baba, or like a Noah’s Ark, where you can find all sorts of people. I quickly spot a few repulsive personalities, with enormous authoritarian egos, self-assured types with the allure of uptight priests, and with whom I would have to deal later. But the majority of those present are exceptionally generous and forceful. We are carried along by a constantly changing situation. We look for solutions to questions raised by the dynamics of the movement, all the while staying faithful to the idea of spreading the struggle through self-organization. At least, that’s what I draw from the discussions I attend.

Back on rue de Trévise, in the Association’s premises, the situation continues to deteriorate. We are only a handful; during the day we stir things up elsewhere and when we return late at night, we clean off the walls where the fascist rats have roamed. On the other hand, we discover that we are in possession of an indispensable war treasure: printing equipment and a large stock of paper and ink. We decide to put these to use to serve the Censier action committees. We need help to protect this treasure and to reinforce our defenses. Putting our heads together, we realize that we have allies not far from us, whom we have up to now ignored, preoccupied as we were with our symbolic occupation: the Folies Bergères! The theater is also occupied, by its technical staff and by a large number of chorus girls; they, too, have been victims of an attack by the extreme right, idiots whom they easily repelled with fire hoses.

We go over there. Charly, Bernadette, and I are warmly received by the occupation committee, composed of a happy group of young male technicians and young women whose faces we recognize from the photos displayed outside, but who seem more sure of themselves without their red feathers. The place is openly affiliated with the CGT union but nevertheless open to our concerns and requests. We agree to keep in touch by telephone and they promise to come to our defense at the least threat of attack. Afterwards, we drop by regularly, which is not at all disagreeable. They spend their time playing cards and drinking a little, but not too much; some romances develop between the technicians and the young women. There is feeling of gaity and freedom. But the occupation of their workplace is an end in itself: nothing dynamic comes out of it. They wait... They like us a lot, we discuss revolution, maybe they find us a bit too leftist for them, but what they want isn’t clear.

Then things get bad. One evening, on our return from Censier, we discover that the offset machines have disappeared, without signs of a break-in, through the door. That could only have been done by some people close to us. Not only did they get the machines out of the cellar and carry them away, but they had time to plaster on a few walls situationist-type slogans like: “Down with the bureaucrats of self-management.” Great work! We are furious, and, obviously the loss also upsets our comrades at the Censier action committees who count on these machines to continue their agitations. This is how a little Cheka-type committee comes to form, run by two slightly sinister types: a Bordiguist bolshevik who has the reputation of promising to execute by firing squad any dissident of “scientific marxism” and an arrogant and cold owner of a bookstore, La Vieille Taupe, where many of us often go to find texts necessary for our anti-Leninist disquisitions. Charly, I, and others attach ourselves to this curious team in order to find the printing machine thieves.

Everything happens quickly because the trail is obvious and the culprits are rather naive. The poor guy who thought he was creating a situationist happening is extracted from his home and taken to rue de Trévise where we attend a scene that deeply shocks us. The two Chekists tie the young guy to a chair and proceed to mistreat him. Only a few slaps are needed to obtain the address of the place where the machines are; they are quickly returned to their original basement. We are not proud of having participated in such a punitive bolshevik-style action. How could we have submitted ourselves to such practices? Returning to our “occupied workplace,” I say to Charly that, for me, those two ideologues of strong-arm methods strangely remind me of the fascist warlords whose practices I recently experienced in Portugal. This is not the “spirit of May.” With his Swiss calm, Charly says, “That’s quite possible.” We experience the strange taste of failure. We decide to keep our distance from these kinds of characters, when we come across them at Censier. To be sure, this event only concerned a handful of people with delusional megalomania, and we continue to participate with the action committees. On the other hand, we spend most of our time between rue de Trévise and rue Richer talking and having a good time with the guys and gals of the Folies Bergères.

What strikes me is that, despite the rather limited political discourse and a certain immobility on the action front, this collective at the Folies Bergères shows a strong desire to change life; it breathes a desire to change the world, even if the guys and gals don’t know how to do it. They don’t need to say it, we can feel it. They don’t go to Censier or to the Sorbonne, but they are in the movement. We give them our leaflets and we have discussions. The young women, especially, are animated by a joyful determination. They don’t want to listen to leftist and unionist lectures (“There is a proper time for everything... First we must do this, the rest will happen later”) For the young women, it is now or never, we want everything, or we won’t get much of anything. Bernadette says the women’s attitude is typical, it’s the expression of their radical equality. I listen. At twenty-two years, I have come from the Iberian Middle Ages, but I can see that what’s happening here is something very important, like the tectonic plates moving under our feet.

At the same time, we feel the movement dragging, struggling, taking longer to advance. The month of May is losing its intensity; instead of growing, the movement is running out of steam and little by little normality is restored, first in the streets and enterprises, and then with the elections.

One fine morning at the Youth and Reconstruction Association, we see the employees return. As if nothing has happened, they take down the banner, clean their desks, and resume their little routines. They say nothing to us but the message is clear: they are correct. After the elections, towards the beginning of July 1968, I spend a day with Bernadette at the Folies Bergères. There is a change of decor and ambiance. The fire hoses are back in order; our charming comrades are no longer there except in photos; the security guard at the entrance signals us to leave. There can be no doubt, May ’68 is over! We put on our backpacks and take off. Bernadette and Charly go off to Quebec. I procure a fake passport and decide to head north towards Denmark, where Bodil, whom I met in 1967 while hitchhiking in the south of France, is waiting for me. We know that history doesn’t stop, but for the time being, we are again in a period of capitalist reproduction where, as the poet Vassilis Alexakis says, “Don’t worry about it, time is just passing by.” We have gone far, however, and we know that. We have lost, but we are proud. I think about the line from Brecht: “The one who struggles can lose, but the one who refuses to struggle has already lost everything.” How true that seems!


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2018

All Issues