It was serious stuff on the streets of Paris in May 68 - inspirational slogans were daubed on the walls of the Sorbonne - ‘La lute continue’ (the war goes on); ‘L’imagination au pouvoir’ (unleash the imagination). Many students there, and here, in the UK, were simply jumping onto a bandwagon which had started rolling, railing against the system, but there was also a deeper lasting movement stirring across the continents. These struggles for personal liberties, social reforms, civil rights, racial justice and gender equality had a powerful effect on subsequent generations.
It was a great time to be a student and I was one of them, studying Politics at Edinburgh University. As my fellow students at the Sorbonne were on the streets tearing up paving stones, I was busy getting into the intricacies of the American Presidential election process; the political system in West Germany; and the protracted Sino/Soviet conflict. Mind you I was doing that in the context of daily disruption from sit ins, boycotts and demonstrations.
The student body was outraged at the University’s investments in Barclay’s Bank and its links with apartheid South Africa and in companies associated with US weaponry for use in Vietnam. I remember a bitterly cold night spent on the pavement outside the Chaplaincy Centre as part of a 24 hour fast against the Vietnam War. 1968 turned out to be a pivotal year for the ending of the Vietnam War. President Johnston had brought his Army Chief of Staff, General Westmoreland, back home to make the case for why the war could still be won. However that changed dramatically after the Tet Offensive - a major coordinated fight back by the Viet Cong and their supporters in the south. It caught the US by surprise and, although they were eventually able to contain it, the psychological damage was done. It was a turning point in the war; America stopped talking of victory; LBJ announced he wouldn’t seek a second term and it was left to his successor Richard Nixon to oversee US withdrawal.
‘Gilets Jaunes’ (yellow vests) protests in France today stem from Macron’s decisions to increase fuel taxes, especially on diesel. That may seem a long way from the idealism of the protests of 1968 but today’s demonstrations are part of a movement whose core aim is much more than a fuel price protest - it is to highlight the economic frustration and political distrust of poorer working families. That is why we now see President Macron responding with promises to raise the minimum wage and scrap some planned tax rises. John Le Carré is finishing a new novel called ‘Agent running in the field’ due to be published next year which looks at London 2018 through the eyes of a ‘solitary’ man resisting the political turbulence around him. Perhaps it’s time I looked out an old aerosal paint spray from the garage and found a nice stretch of wall to daub the slogan of 2018 - ‘plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose’.