‘Boredom is counter-revolutionary!’, ‘Barricades close the streets but open up the way’, ‘They are buying your freedom. Steal it!’, ‘It is forbidden to forbid’, ‘Take your desires for realities!’, Don’t negotiate with the bosses, get rid of them!’, ‘Under the paving stones, the beach!’. What do such graffiti as these tell you about the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times – in France in the late 1960s?
The graffiti of Paris in May, 1968, such as the slogans above, articulated the revolutionary zeitgeist: a profound disaffection with the delimited offerings and exclusionary, authoritarian nature of society under The Fifth Republic. Slogans interweaved new revolutionary ideals of action, individuality and festivity with traditional revolutionary intentions. It was, after all, “the first revolution that demanded roses as well as bread.” The extent of the graffiti alone indicates the desire for rejuvenation and popular empowerment. Yet the Parisian revolutionary impulse such graffiti conveys, though certainly expressed outside of Paris, did not encompass the opposition to de Gaulle’s régime in the late 1960s. What graffiti clearly misses of the zeitgeist of France in the late 1960s is the overwhelmingly conservative nature of French political culture. May ’68 is but another example of the sad fate of Paris, its collective imagination shackled to a national culture at best timid and hesitant and at worst violently reactionary.
A prominent trope of the graffiti of May ’68 was hostility to the priorities of consumerist society. It represented the belief that wealth had become the system’s imperative in place of things like time or individual initiative. Whoever wrote ‘They are buying your freedom. Steal it!’ encapsulated the belief that material prosperity was displacing ‘freedom’. Economic growth was accompanied by what Ross called “the withdrawal of the new middle-classes to their newly comfortable domestic interiors.” The number of cafés was declining, while by 1968, sixty-two per cent of French homes had televisions. One graffitist wrote, “We do not want a world where the price of being certain of not dying of hunger is the risk of dying of boredom.” By writing that ‘boredom is counter-revolutionary’, revolutionaries identified the state with the repetition and alienation of consumerist society. They defined themselves against this, as with the artists who worked constantly but refused to sell their posters, later printing a poster that read, ‘The Revolution Is Not For Sale.’ In this, May ’68 was Paris’s part in what Ehrenreich termed the worldwide “uprising of the postwar generation, bored by affluence and stifled by the prevailing demands for conformity in lifestyle, opinion and appearance.”
Consequently, opposition to the status quo was often expressed in festivity rather than more traditional forms. This was especially clear in Paris. A vast array of primary sources illustrate that the revolution was a fun time. ‘Under the paving stones, the beach’ suggests this. In general, the proliferation of graffiti is indicative of an outpouring of creative novelty. Marc Rohan described the Sorbonne during the occupation as a “fairground” ; Kurlansky called May “part carnival, part anarchist spree” ; McDonough notes one observer’s description of Paris as the site of “a big booming festival”, and also that “elegant Parisian dinner parties [would] adjourn to the Sorbonne and mingle with the teenagers.” This is not to suggest that May ’68 was not profoundly political: Lenin described revolutions as “festivals of the oppressed and the exploited.” Indeed, the fact that May ’68 did not take the form of an ideological power struggle accounts for the enormous potential it had. ‘Take your desires for realities’ captures this spirit of hope and empowerment. It gave the activists great integrity that their actions stemmed from direct, immediate grievances. It must be noted that the ideological 22 March...