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The Uncivil Servant (in France): “We Are All German Jews”

Mitchell Abidor
March 6, 2016

by Mitchell Abidor

france-paris-3th-arrondissement-rue-beaubourg-monday-may-13th-1968-students-and-workers-demonstrating-from-place-de-la-republique-to-place-denfert-rochereau-14thI DIDN’T TRAVEL to France to escape the shame and horror of the current American presidential campaign, but I’ve been able to do that while here, to some extent. French politics being in almost the same state as ours, with the National Front posing a serious threat, the people I spend my time with know they have nothing to be smug about when they compare France to the U.S.: the French left is dead, the government’s attitude toward the refugees camped in “The Jungle” in Calais is as repugnant as any ours would be capable of, and entering a large stationery store today, I had not only to open my bag, but open my coat so they could check for explosives strapped to me.

This would be all too depressing if what I’m here for weren’t so thrilling and so antithetical to all that I see and hear around me. For an oral history to appear in 2018, I’m here to interview participants in the great uprising of May 1968, a moment when it seemed that another world, a better, more just world, was possible. I’m meeting with over thirty people from all over France, all of whom are telling me their personal tales of those few weeks nearly fifty years ago.

And how wonderful it is to hear them:

To hear Prisca, who was the Zelig of May, omnipresent from the preliminaries in March, helping occupy the campus at Nanterre where it all began, and on the scene for every moment of the events.

To hear Jacques, who at 19 planned an attack on the prefecture in Lyon and needed a personal bodyguard, so deeply was he hated by the right.

To hear Pauline, who said the impact of May on her life was that it freed her to participate in an orgy, which she didn’t enjoy and so never tried again.

To hear Thierry, who has never gotten over the image of rows of trees cut down during one of the nights of violence and has never been able to find out who did it.

To hear Thierry’s friend Wally, who bragged to me of the night he hijacked a bulldozer and knocked down those trees.

To hear Rémi, who voted not to return to work when the unions settled in late May because, though he came out well, it didn’t help out those who were in worse shape than he.

To hear Joseph, a farmer who organized the distribution of milk at cost to striking workers in Brittany who couldn’t have obtained it otherwise.

To hear the Communist Guy brag of kicking students in the ass who came to the naval shipyards where he was a union leader because he considered them nothing but troublemakers.

To hear Pierre spontaneously break into a song of the period that ended: “We Are all German Jews.”

To her Myriam talk of how she and her boyfriend sneaked away from provincial St. Nazaire to visit Paris and see how events were unfurling there, hiding the trip from her parents.

To hear Eliane, who prevented a famous French intellectual from speaking at her university in Nantes because they had no need of leaders.

To hear Daniel, son of Spanish anarchist refugees, talk about the letter he sent to the Minister of “War” (instead of Defense) explaining why he refused to serve in the army, signing off “Please accept my most insubordinate greetings,” and who lived either outside the country or underground for eight years;

To hear one of the leaders, Alain Krivine, lamenting how his activity kept him from seeing his family for weeks.

And to hear the filmmaker Michel talk of siphoning gas from parked cars so he could film a strike outside Paris and allow those previously ignored to speak for themselves.

MOST OF THESE PEOPLE have not had the opportunity to speak at length about their experience of nearly fifty years ago, and they all seemed to turn young before my eyes as they did so. As one of them said as we ended our conversation, “I didn’t make May, May made me.”

Our generation has failed, in the U.S. as well as in France (and Italy, and Germany, and Japan, and the UK...). In 2018 we’ll be as far from 1968 as 1968 was from the trenches of World War I. We are the doughboys and poilus we all once found so ridiculous. The future is blocked, but we still have that foreign country that is the past. And though it’s not much, we at least tried to change the world. It’s cold comfort at a time when a discussion of penis size can occur during a presidential debate, but it’s at least something.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books are Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.