Interview with Romain Goupil
Student Activist, Paris, France
Q: What was your childhood like?
Goupil: It was very political. My parents were strongly marked by World War II and by what we might call the 'splitting of France --' the polarity of political life between those who were culturally of the left and those of the right.
My father worked in the cinema, so an enormous number of people passed through the house, with endless discussion between the adults. As a child, I took part in serious discussions about the nature of Stalinism. Was it the enemy? Or was it at least in part 'progressive?' I found myself in the middle of relatively complex problems...
There was one theme that kept cropping up in all our family discussions: "Never again. No more Holocausts, or the kind of things that took place in WWII." It's around that subject that innumerable discussion took place, among people who dropped in, over meals...
My family was 'left wing' and my father was a union man... there were endless discussions about what was going on in France at that time.
Q: Were you drawn to politics at an early age?
Goupil: From the outset. In my family there was a very clear conception of our place in the world... we were linked to what had gone before us. This was very simply explained at home: we had the opportunity to go to school, to argue, to read the papers -- all because of things that had happened in our own country after struggle. This had very concrete implications.
Around 1960 to '61 there was the matter of repression and war -- which didn't go under those names by the way -- the operations by the French authorities to maintain order in Algeria. Everyone you met was either eligible to be called up as a soldier if they were young, or to have already fought if they were older. So there would be discussions about torture, about censorship... I remember some extremely violent demonstrations -- I must have been 10 or 11 -- demonstrations in which my parents took part... at least my father did... demonstrations which were very violent, with deaths.
Q: Were you affected by les Trente Glorieuses? (the French economic boom of the '50s and '60s, up to the oil crisis in the mid-70s.')
Goupil: We were quite comfortable -- not upper class, but what you'd call upper-middle. We were those people who would benefit from the reconstruction of the country and the incredible expansion in France... people with decent salaries that enabled them to own homes, to put something aside, to travel... an environment that was free from worries, unlike some others less fortunate that we could talk about. The typical income was three or four times the basic working wage of the period.
We benefited from the Trente Glorieuses even if our discussions were precisely about how these benefits should be fairly shared by everyone. It was a period when one still talked about class struggle. We still saw society divided between the working class and the bourgeoisie. My family was in-between and decided to stand with the workers -- the poorest. A left-wing political outlook informed all the discussion and debate I heard at the time. But we had no problems, far from it. At home everything was pleasant. We were just not extravagant. At any rate, as a child, I have no memories of arguments about money.
Q: Did your parents buy the new products - a television? a refrigerator?
Goupil: We had an interpretation of things as 'left' or 'right'. We were very wary of television. We didn't have one for a long time -- but by choice, not because we couldn't afford one. Television was supposed to broadcast lies, and uninteresting things. But as children, of course, we were absolutely fascinated by these things and we ran to the neighbors to watch 'Zorro' and the other serials. At home there was just a gramophone with records of classical music or popular singers. We were against television, but buying a car to go on holiday, or talking about buying a second home or going to the seaside wasn't impossible. Looking back, we were very nicely off. And although we lived simply, there were all sorts of things around the house to make life more comfortable -- especially for my mother. There was no dishwasher at that time, but there was a refrigerator and all the modern conveniences. This was before the consumer society, and well before the over-consuming society. We lived simply, off the fruits of our labor, trying to ensure that the people around us lived well too. In short, a very pleasant life.
Q: Did you follow popular music closely?
Goupil: No. It's strange when I think back. The American music in my family was jazz. I absorbed it through the people around me who talked about jazz or Myriam Makeba. As far as the first rock groups from England are concerned -- the Beatles or the Rolling Stones -- that happened without our parents' knowledge, at school, via friends. And it happened between political engagements and another kind of existence for the youth of my epoch: parties, meeting girls, going out with them, and so on.
In my universe, there was a clear division. I listened to, I knew of... but I was not a fan or groupie of anyone. It's quite personal but all that militant generation passed rock by, because we were anti-beatnik, coming from a hard left tradition. Communist even... we were anti-pacifist. So obviously anything 'peace and love' was outside my universe. More radical music, yes -- the more rebellious side of the Stones, for instance, their revolt, something in their sound that struck the ear differently -- but it's absolutely not the symbol of my generation, strangely enough. We say today that those who took part in protest movements were 'the rock generation.' But in my case, I wasn't... because of my background, I suppose.
Q: What did you think of the political events in America and Vietnam?
Goupil: That was the breakthrough, that's what would make the movement grow from one very simple base after the end of the Algerian war, at the end of the colonial era. It was basic Marxism. There were two blocs -- the socialist bloc and the capitalist bloc. And the USA was the imperialist, in the forefront of those who wanted to impose the imperialist order, prepared to use their armies, their bombs.
Here the imagery was very simple: a small people were trying to free themselves, and the B-52s with massive bombardments, were trying to stop this independence, this liberation struggle. There was something violently symbolic on the level of images that gave birth to our awareness -- young as we were, just 14 or 15 -- and that was the suicide of the Buddhist monks and when a schoolboy -- young Van Treu who had taken part in the struggle to free Vietnam -- was to be shot in Saigon.
You could feel the uprising of so many groups, of organizations that were demanding their liberation. And the USA was in the front line -- with the Marines, the GIs -- with their military apparatus to crush all these liberation movements... I spoke about France being split in two, but the world, or our vision of the world, was also clearly composed of the bad on one side and the more or less good on the other.
Q: Were you aware of the anti-war movement in the United States?
Goupil: Of course, and it helped us, even if there were no precise links. We knew quite well what was happening. And when the Watts riots took place, and when the movement started to build, notably at Berkeley, then we had a sign that we were all working towards the same end. This applied to what was taking place in America, and also in Germany, in Italy, in Japan. We knew about all these anti-war movements, these peace movements.
Within the pacifist movement we had a different basis... so completely different it would lead to a break, and it's easy to understand what happened later in France. The watchword for all those in the USA was 'Peace in Vietnam.' They wanted the aggression to stop. But for us it was 'Victory for the FLN.' The FLN had to overcome, to defeat the USA. And that made all the difference. They had to defeat them militarily. That was the essential difference between the pacifist movements and that part which would become the radical left. It was over this basic idea -- that the FLN should win -- that the Paris demonstrations would split, and reorganize themselves in 1967/68 around that difference.
Q: How did you personally take part in these demonstrations for the first time?
Goupil: I started as a child of about 14 or 15, maybe even younger, with my parents on the Peace in Vietnam marches. Little by little, it all began to seem uninteresting, not radical enough. And I was young, I was very attentive. When I started to hear new things, and when other countries began denouncing the Pentagon and American policy as aggressive... suddenly, I became radical.
Q: You also went to Berlin...
Goupil: There was a period -- in 1965, when I was 14, 15 -- where there was this radicalization, to be different from your parents, centered on the National Vietnam Committees (CVN). These committees organized groups in schools and universities. It's from that base that we learned a radicalization based on the slogan not of 'Peace for Vietnam,' but 'Victory for Vietnam.'
1967 became a demonstration of all those who came together under that slogan, an international demonstration which brought together Italians, Japanese, Americans and English. And the Berlin demonstration would be the starting point for the crises that were to take place in Western Europe, and all over the world, that we refer to as ''68.'
In France, we all came from the same background -- the (Communist) party or the unions. It wasn't like that at all in Germany, where the youth had broken with the Nazi past of their parents. They were more violent. They were against their government; Germany was the home base of the B-52s. The USA was using Germany as a huge aircraft carrier, and that made the youth movement extremely violent. We learned a few lessons from them. It was in Germany that we learned how to radicalize ourselves. We really used the Berlin demonstration to change the form of demonstrations in Paris. It was a turning point for us.
Q: You were young. Weren't your parents concerned about your attending a demonstration in Berlin?
Goupil: My parents tried to reason with me in political discussions. But the more they tried, the more I revolted. This was true for my whole generation. The more our parents gave us advice, the more it became a matter of personal radicalization. Our parents could do nothing about it -- all the advice they gave, and we did the opposite. And with my parents, who talked about politics a lot, the argument arose over the confrontation of two political positions that could not listen to the other point of view. Things got very complicated, very difficult. We didn't think we were being stupid; we took it very seriously.
Q: Did you discuss politics a lot with your parents at that time?
Goupil: The discussion was non-stop. When I was 15 or 16, and sure of my own experiences -- the trip to Berlin, what was happening in the schools, organizing the Vietnam committees, or taking part as a militant inside organizations -- well, of course I took part, and rather vehemently, quite violently.
Q: Describe the atmosphere in Berlin. What were you able to do? How did it change you?
Goupil: In Berlin there was a group effect. The simple act of going off together in buses, to meet up, to see that other groups in other countries were thinking the same things, that they were in agreement with us over the same courses of action -- that helped us realize that we were not alone, and that we were probably right because there were many others. In another way, the positions that these groups adopted towards one another added fuel to our political debates.
All the things that would lead to the youth crisis the following year were concentrated in Berlin. That's what we felt, but we didn't analyze it. Individually, we simply felt that something was being born, was coming to the boil, and that was very strong.
Q: How did your evolution as a revolutionary happen?
Goupil: It didn't just happen spontaneously. At first we tried to set up groups of support for Vietnam of around about 30 or 40 pupils. We took them to demonstrations, got them to take part in actions. We started from a rather broad outlook, which was 'No war in Vietnam.' And then, through discussion, we tried to discover who was becoming radicalized in their actions and their way of seeing things. We did our apprenticeship in the schools. Little by little there was a mobilization of the Vietnam committees, and little by little other questions were raised that had nothing to do with Vietnam -- such as problems relating to education in France, about worker actions that were taking place in France -- and what positions to take on all of that.
To sum up, we were against the Communist party line. As 'youth,' as 'left wing,' we gave another explanation of society, and defined ourselves as revolutionaries. That's how our apprenticeship came about, little by little.
Q: At school, what were you against?
Goupil: At school, we were against everything. We were very violent towards an administration that, for us, was representative of the government and the power that we hated. The headmaster became the Head of State and the prefects became policeman, or more precisely the CRS (riot police). Discipline was the basis of the lycees. These were schools where the working class had very little access, only about 3 or 4%.
The schools were factories that produced future executives. We were taught the dominant ideology, that is, capitalist ideology. We were against everything, against all manifestations of discipline. I remember how it started for me -- it was a protest over the ban on long hair. We were stopped at the entrance by a school official who said, "If you have hair like that, you can't come to school." We were supposed to be like sheep. That was the first tract we put out: We aren't sheep, and we won't be sheared.
From that small start, we began to question the discipline and the whole organization. What exactly was 'discipline?' It meant staying in school like good little soldiers, like in a factory or a barracks, and we absolutely did not want to be in a barracks school. We wanted schools that were open to the outside world and that workers, or the poor could have access to. Even though school was obligatory until the age of 16, the working class children were all apprentices or manual workers and were cut out of the system by then. Very few went on to university. We never stopped denouncing this system, and it started with the protest about long hair.
Afterwards, our activity was more militant, in a system that we saw as a police state. We put out illegal flyers. And no one was caught - you'd get hours of detention, or have your parents called in, or be suspended - these were serious things for a schoolboy of that period. We tried to organize ourselves -- to put streamers round the school, or hoist the flag of some struggling country on the building at night. These little gestures were to show that we were radical not just in our words, but also in our deeds. It's from these little germs that our work as agitators began.
Q: What were the results for you personally?
Goupil: Little by little, I became a fierce adversary, someone who would not listen to the headmaster, or any authority. I was going to revolt, and I took every opportunity to try to explain to my schoolfriends. After a few warnings from the administration, I was suspended for 3 days, which gave me the chance to say, "You see? They suspend me because I have something to say that they cannot admit to..." And it was because of the protests over my suspension that I was formally expelled from school.
The administration saw the distribution of tracts, and the continual fights with the far right. There were always brawls with movements such as fascist organizations that supported the war in Vietnam. After school, there were always fistfights, arguments, calls to meetings or demonstrations. In my school, they tried to stop the movement by giving me warnings, then the suspension -- but those three days of suspension set off a much more intense reaction. Our demands were for freedom of expression. All the schools came together to demonstrate, demanding my readmittance.
I'd been expressly forbidden to take part in any political activity whatsoever so, when the headmaster found me at the heart of these meetings, he called the school governors together and expelled me. That was the starting point in Paris for the pupils who set up School Action Committees (CAL) -- which were to play a prominent part in the start of the movement in '68 -- and in the events of that year.
Q: There is a film showing you, smoking Gauloises, in a café with your friends. What might you have been discussing?
Goupil: Our conversations were a bit odd compared with what was typical for kids of our age. We talked about the world and world affairs: the initiatives of the LOLAS conference, about Che Guevara and Castro, about Giap's strategy or the latest declarations of Ho Chi Minh, of the 'treacherous' attitude of the Soviet Union or China over Vietnam... that, and keeping up to date with what was going on in the schools, was all we talked about.
Fortunately, our age and liveliness also led us to talk about going out, the cinema and the girls that we met. We met more girls at demonstrations or at political meetings than the average schoolboy. At that time girls were raised very strictly and the schools weren't coeducational, so there was that added attraction. The way to chat up a girl was probably to talk about Trotsky or the Russian revolution.
Q: How did May 1968 begin?
Goupil: It began in March. There was an attack by the far left on American Express, an extremely violent commando attack. It was just a few stones thrown at their windows, but for us at that time there was no tradition of smashing windows. All the demonstrations were calmly organized by the Communist party or the trade unions. But now, a whole series of young radicals were following what had happened in Berlin and other countries and had decided to attack and try to occupy the offices of American Express. It was impossible... the doors were locked. We tried to barge through and the police arrested 10 militants out of about three to four hundred.
A group organized at Nanterre University (in the Parisian suburbs) to have these ten released and their discussions gave rise to the 22 March Movement. Anarchists, Trotskyists, Maoists - all gathered to free their colleagues and to discuss the problems the students faced: co-education, student housing, working class access to the universities. The movement grew until there was an occupation of the university. To occupy was an affront to the Rector, to the administration. And that's how it started. At the same time, there were student demonstrations.
It exploded on the first of May in a confrontation between the radical groups and the reformists -- those closer to the Communist party. There were fairly violent scuffles in the march. There were a number of actions against the far right. A meeting was called at the Sorbonne because there had been threats from the far right, so everyone -- school students and University students -- went down to the Sorbonne to stand up to the far right. The police took advantage of the situation to arrest everyone. I arrived late and I wasn't arrested. I went with a few others to try to get my colleagues released. That led to a riot, and more arrests and a series of events which sparked "May '68."
The police had no riot helmets, no tear gas... they were totally surprised by this wild demonstration of youth. On the 6th of May there were more arrests and the Sorbonne was closed. We demanded the release of our colleagues and the re-opening of the Sorbonne. The school students decided to have a sit-in -- something which came from America... It was an expression of solidarity that was quite astonishing. Schoolchildren of 14, 15, 16 went en masse -- between 6,000 and 10,000 of them -- to the Quartier Latin to surround and open up the Sorbonne. After hesitating for a long time, the police confronted the young people. We started to overturn cars, and to set up barricades around the students, and as has been done traditionally in Paris for a long, long time, we found ourselves behind the barricades saying, "We shall not be moved." It was around 2 or 3 in the morning when the police decided to put a stop to what had become an occupation, and what was running the enormous risk of becoming a "free zone" in the heart of Paris. It happened in a quite spectacular fashion -- without serious injuries, without fatalities, but very spectacularly. We were all so young, and everyone was scared, on both sides.
The whole population of Paris was called to demonstrate their support for the students on the 13th of May, and it was one of the largest demonstrations ever held in Paris. From the 13th of May on, we were no longer alone. The workers organized occupations of factories, and had their own demands, and we stood behind the workers. That was what took place in '68.
Q: Did you participate in the violence personally?
Goupil: We used everything we could from a defensive position to keep our ground around the Sorbonne. However, we were dealing with tear gas specialists... it was hard to breath, hard to move about, there was no means of communications. This wasn't war -- we were students, schoolkids. Everyone tried to hold out as long as they could at their barricade. If yours was taken you had to fall back on another one. We took what was at hand -- the cobblestones -- and we tried to defend ourselves by throwing them, or throwing the tear gas grenades back at the other side. There were a few bottles of petrol, but no one was very organized.
There were people who went to cars and filled a few bottles, then threw them. They weren't the Molotov cocktails that were perfected later. Everything was improvised then and there. If you were on a hill for instance, you'd set fire to a car and send it down to stop an advance. Anyone would do that to defend a position, knowing there were no firearms, and that the other side wouldn't resort to them either. It was to hold symbolically to the idea -- which was never in fact true, but just a rumor - that the people of Paris, the general population, the workers, were coming to relieve us at 6 a.m. We felt if we could hold out until 6 or 7 in the morning, the whole of Paris -- just like in 1830 or 1789 -- would come to the aid of the youngest and bravest of its inhabitants. So it was a lyrical, romantic vision, in no way organized. There were absolutely no -- as was suggested afterwards -- no plots or military organization. That's absurd.
Q: Were you afraid?
Goupil: No. Not at all. We were fighting for our ideas, putting into effect all that we'd talked about. We were putting our words into action, and as examples we had Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh -- a whole series of heroes who had actually fought with weapons in their hands. So we weren't especially afraid. What's more, we weren't of the generation that had seen the extremely violent demonstrations over the Algerian war where there had been deaths. We were new to demonstrations, and we were young and had that incredible strength of youth, that innocence and irresponsibility. What child would think that he's going to get hurt? It's impossible! You can't be killed and you can't be wounded. I was never injured, for example, yet I was always in the front line. Being injured was unthinkable to me, just completely impossible.
Q: What did you expect from May '68?
Goupil: We wanted to set off the revolutionary process. From that would come organization in the factories, and from that would come a second power, and from this 'double power' we could overthrow the government and put in its place the working class... 'the dictatorship of the proletariats.' We were decades behind the times and were trying to make the 1917 revolution again, in Paris, with theories. Well, now I can laugh about it, but at the time it was deadly serious. '68 was the rehearsal for a revolution that would bring down the bourgeois government, and the bourgeoisie.
Q: What was the general atmosphere in May of '68?
Goupil: It was clear that something absolutely extraordinary was about to take place. Seeing our words become acts was very impressive for us as agitators. This power of discussion... suddenly thousands of people were involved, there were more and more demonstrations... In the schools everyone spoke, everyone organized, everyone set up meetings, but it all stayed within a very specific milieu -- school by school, campus by campus.
After the 13th of May there were links with the workers movement and a strike that was to become one of the biggest strikes in world history -- 10 million strikers... People began talking to one another because they were all touched by the same events. Everyone was on strike and there was a kind of giddy feeling that everyone was responsible... everyone had jammed the wheels of government, or the bourgeoisie. There was no more petrol, no transport, no cars, no television, nothing. The people of Paris and France had succeeded in thwarting 'important people,' with terrible consequences, because the government didn't know what to do, or what to say. There was some almost hysterical behavior as though the government itself had understood this to be an insurrection... that there were going to be riots and they would have their heads cut off.
The whole phenomenon drew people from all classes and ages together. For us - students -- it was the discovery of liberty. We were old enough that we were no longer obliged to tell our parents where we'd been, or what we'd been doing. Everyone sneaked off when they could to meetings, groups, discussions or tasks. There was an incredible air of liberty. It wasn't a ball, because we weren't dancing, but getting together like that, realizing that we were more and more numerous, working together... there was something of the feeling of a festival in the streets. We experienced the phenomenon of direct democracy, where people come together to discuss a problem and then put forward plans. People were talking, talking for hours on end, and others were listening for hours. As a militant, I wouldn't take part. I thought it was very cliched, I was rather dismissive. I said, "What's this nonsense?" but for the people who took part it wasn't nonsense. Let's just say that personally, I missed out on the playful '68, the joyful '68. For me, it was the rehearsal for the revolution that I had to carry out like a professional.
What we're left with from this time - not just in France, but all over the world - is the memory of an incredible moment of freedom, when the powers that be meant nothing, when the police meant nothing, when all of a sudden it was the people who counted and who spoke up. That's what was so extraordinary about '68.
Q: Were you disappointed with the results of '68?
Goupil: From my point of view the result was that the revolution was possible, and that's why we continued the fight. We could mobilize the working class, we had to replace the Communist party, and we had to make the revolution. Those were the conclusions of the militants. For the general population however, something had pushed France from the 19th to the 20th century. We had entered the society of over-consumption.
France was very much behind the times in terms of music, in terms of sexual freedom, in terms of discipline, in terms of relationships with one's parents and above all, in terms of feminism.
For an advanced capitalist society the main gain from '68 was the opening of the international market. That meant the free circulation of goods on an American scale which, strangely, is the exact opposite of the things we were in the streets for... It was a cultural revolution and in no way truly revolutionary. There was a cultural revolt of an entire population which was no longer prepared to submit to the restrictive laws of 19th century economics.
The consequences of '68 in France were huge but they were not those I planned for. They created the current society of over-consumption, of travel, of permissiveness, the way people live today. This is the direct result. Could it have happened without the crisis of '68? Certainly, examples from other countries show it could and did. But what is peculiarly French is that these things seem to happen via crises, not smoothly, but with a complete fracture, a break between the society of our fathers and the society that is in place today.
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