In the rearview mirror of May ’68 is the Second World War. Its end marked not only the advent of the baby boomers, who would become the protagonists of that radical political movement that would transform France forever, but also the birth of two independence movements. First were the Algerian uprisings in Sétif and Guelma on May 8, 1945 (the day after the Germans surrendered to the Allies), which triggered the colonial wars first in Indochina and then across the Maghreb. Students and workers who joined forces in May ’68 would have remembered all too well the Algerian fight for independence that played out, in part, in the metropole, and suffered a terrible blow when several hundred Maghrebins were murdered in Paris on October 17, 1961.
Curiously, history books traditionally overlook May ’68’s association with another battle for self-determination, that of French women, who finally made good on the promises of the French Revolution when they voted for the first time on April 29, 1945. It’s worth recalling that, despite winning suffrage in the aftermath of the war, they remained under the tutelage of male relatives, and without permission from a husband or father they couldn’t even work or open a bank account—a reality that didn’t change until July of 1965. There were, however, a few stirrings of female agency: Young women like Caroline de Bendern were occasionally standard bearers for the movement, and in Jacques Willemont and Pierre Bonneau’s short film La reprise du travail aux usines Wonder(1968),a very vocal woman valiantly refuses to return to work in the execrable conditions of her factory. In addition, a few women had served at the forefront of the Algerian revolution, including Parisian film editor Cécile Décugis, who after working on The 400 Blows and Breathless was imprisoned for her support of the FLN. But by and large, the second sex was rarely allowed to speak for the movement in that heady spring. A survey of May ’68’s iconic images reminds us that the young generation mirrored the conservatism of de Gaulle, whose cabinet included no women ministers.
At the same time, certain narrative films of the period intimated that seismic changes in gender relations were afoot. Think, for example, of the character of Haydée in Éric Rohmer’s immensely popular La collectionneuse (1967): shortly before the passing of the Neuwirth Law, which made birth control legal in December 1967, she not only expresses her desire to sleep with whomever she wants, but also acts on it. And in La Chinoise, also from that year, it is Anne Wiazemsky’s Véronique who directs the Maoist-Leninist group known as the “Aden-Arabie Cell.”
Despite being sidelined in histories of ’68, women were central to it—perhaps most obviously in the movement’s festival-like nature, which was not only deeply artistic and anticapitalistic but also feminine. In their assault on the establishment, young men identified with young women. The length of their hair not only demonstrated their political leanings but also overtly feminized their appearance. Instead of going to war, they wanted to talk, and indeed, one of the most famous catchphrases of the day was On a envie de parler (We want to talk). In comparison to the fiery oratory of the French Revolution, which led to murderous action and a bloodbath via the guillotine, May ’68’s endless talkfest may seem weak and desultory, like talk for talk’s sake. But this newfound openness crossed lines of class, age, and social background, and led to a collective carnival, communal living arrangements, and a return to a simpler way of life.