The French author reflects on and what her parents’ role in the 1968 revolution means to her today
I was conceived in France in May 1968. As a result, I can offer a firsthand account of cellular division in an environment of protest.
I should let you know that the maternal uterus had placed itself far from the events themselves: 800km from Paris, in fact, in the Pays Basque. But my mother, the daughter of godless Communists, comes from revolutionary stock. A schoolteacher, she greeted May 68 with enthusiasm. She went on strike straightaway, which she was forced to extend due to a pregnancy with complications (me). My father, a technical draughtsman full of ambition, found that the events in Paris interfered with his production schedule. “I came home every evening, and half the teachers from your mother’s school were there gulping down my whisky – that was my participation in 1968. But these are mostly good memories. We smoked and drank a lot. We were very poorly informed: on TV we saw students being beaten up by riot police, but the newspapers we managed to get hold of described the Sorbonne as a student shagathon circulating STDs. I viewed May 68 as an interesting intellectual movement, but one completely detached from reality (their admiration for Mao!), only able to connect with workers in the Paris region, certainly not those in the provinces. And anyway, I think we owed De Gaulle continued respect.”
My mother, long divorced from my father, doesn’t share this view. “May 68 was the revenge of the young on the old. And women also made some advances. We were really fed up with the all-powerful De Gaulle, a fine man of course… but do you realise I couldn’t hold a bank account without the permission of my husband! I got my contraception on the black market, through the post. It was banned in pharmacies. Women were straitjacketed: at work we were forbidden from wearing trousers or espadrilles, forced into closed shoes (it’s very hot in May in the Pays Basque). For the men, it was shirts and ties. May 68 announced its arrival at our school with the appearance of turtlenecks – all our male colleagues turned up wearing them! We held political meetings in the evening in our little flat, since I was confined there by my pregnancy. We were a little anxious about our salaries, but in the end we were all paid. The women teachers won the right to wear sandals and trousers, but the patriarchy carried on: all the leaders of the May 68 movement were men.”
So that’s where I come from, from these two dear old human beings of French nationality, but Basque, who fused their gametes in May 68 and tried to raise me for a while. At age seventeen I raced off to make a life in Paris.
It’s a French characteristic to not fear disorder, especially in public spaces. If anything, disorder is a sign of health: the country is structurally sound, democracy is ancient, France is anchored despite everything. That’s true in the US too – the US is not healthy, but one can still protest there. Although it certainly helps to have a look. Emma González, a student at Parkland’s Stoneman Douglas High School, has an awesome look. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the student leader of 68, also had a singular hairstyle and was nicknamed Danny the Red for his russet mane. Protest movements are powered by icons – the time it takes for one idol to be swept away by another, especially these days, in the era of social media. But that’s in democracies.
As I write these lines, I have just come back from China. Now there’s a country that fears disorder, and fears it more than anything, above all when it happens in the public realm. I was part of a conference in the enormous city of Chengdu. While there I learned that Chengdu is the most gay-friendly city in the country, that a gay and lesbian organisation had even held a meeting in a small theatre there last year. It had wanted to expand and rent a larger theatre this year, with a capacity of 1,200: the meeting was shut down. The authority of the state and the party are overwhelming. Sometimes it’s deployed in the pursuit of just causes, air quality for example. Motorcycles (whose two-stroke engines produce a significant amount of pollution) have been banned from many of the country’s large cities. This goal was accomplished inside of a single month. The first week, a scrapping fee, the second week a fine, the third week a big fine, the fourth week, if you still had a motorcycle in your possession, prison. At the same time as that was happening, a demonstration by angry motorcyclists back in France, their engines howling and smoking beneath my windows, blocked Paris from north to south because Emmanuel Macron had decided to lower the speed limit on secondary roads.
My first book, Truismes (Pig Tales, 1996), a protest fable, is now ‘impossible in China’. That’s despite the fact that it went through four Chinese editions in 2006 alone. My editor made it clear, with great respect, that he would prefer I not come to his city (30 million inhabitants), which is the only time that’s happened in all my travels. One has to assume the fable was read correctly and the animal metaphor fully understood: a protest against all authoritarian and especially patriarchal regimes. It’s in today’s China that one best understands how to protest with metaphors and undertones. Since I was complaining about not being able to access my prohibited Gmail account, my Chinese hosts, sidestepping the debate over freedom of the Internet, asked if I wasn’t missing the news from France. “In any case, it’s always bad,” I said. “In China it’s always good,” they responded mischievously. It’s also in China that I learned, through certain friends, what it really means to fear the police. You protest and you disappear. The reelection in perpetuity of Xi Jinping earlier this year raised not a single audible grumble, the risks involved in protest making it appear that the Chinese are simply happy to consume. Horrible memories are very recent. Two eminent professors from Wuhan showed me the huge tunnel they dug with pickaxes in 1968 when they should have been writing their theses. That was during the Cultural Revolution, at the end of the Great Famine, which their childhood stomachs remembered all too well. Meanwhile my mother’s colleagues were drinking my father’s whisky. And the great Paris intellectuals were celebrating Mao, including Sartre, Sollers, Kristeva, Barthes. A young Chinese friend pointed to a few elderly people in the street: “You have to see them all as survivors”. She herself is discreetly dissident: she tries to avoid using her mobile phone to make payments, a difficult task given that almost all daily transactions are made this way. The life of each individual is mapped with an astonishing efficiency. If, through protesting in China, one risks being disappeared, the ultimate social protest of choosing to disappear is impossible. Everyone there told me the story of the BBC reporter who had been found in seven minutes through facial-recognition technology.
After my flight back to France was cancelled due to a strike at Air France, I returned the following day on another airline. At Roissy, a passenger was complaining loudly about the delay. I was afraid that she was going to get picked up, that she would disappear into the state’s prisons. But no, we had crossed the frontier into Europe, she could grumble.
Translated from the French by David Terrien
From the May 2018 issue of ArtReview