Nicolas Sarkozy may wish it dead, but the legacy of 1968 lives on in the cafes of Paris. Agnès Poirier reveals where to get your café crème with a dash of rebelliousness
This article appeared in the Guardian on Saturday April 12 2008 on p2 of the Travel features section.
“How do you build a barricade?” a 10-year old boy asks his dad who, like me, is drinking his café crème standing at the counter of Au Petit Suisse, a cafe facing the Luxembourg Gardens. Au Petit Suisse, which has a mezzanine and a heated terrace for smokers, is as famous for being a students’ favourite since 1791 as for its raspberry tartelettes. The boy’s dad, a 40-year old man, grumbles, a pastry in his left hand, his cup in the right and his eyes fixed on the Libération newspaper spread in front of him. The boy insists. The barmaid answers in a teacherly tone: “There is nothing easier, but you can’t do it alone. You see the lamppost over there, the green bins, the cars, the phone box? You push them over and put them in a heap across the street. Cobblestones are handy too but are difficult to find these days. There is a little street though, not far, it’s still covered with pavés. I can show it to you if you want. Once you’ve managed to get one cobblestone with a lever, it’s very easy to get all the others.”
An older customer intervenes: “Forget about lampposts, they are a real pain – it’d take you ages. You see this one, at the crossroads of rue de Médicis and rue Vaugirard? I tried with a few friends to break it at its base on May 10, in 1968 – we gave up after an hour, and it’s still standing. But don’t worry; you can also use a chainsaw to cut a few trees. That’s what we did on the boul’Mich [boulevard Saint-Michel] back in 1968.” At the mention of the chainsaw, the boy looks excited. His dad wakes up from his torpor. “Le monsieur is right, my darling. This is how you build a barricade,” he says and resumes his reading. The boy asks his dad: “Do we have a chainsaw at home?” “No.” “Can we buy one?”
This vignette of Parisian life, captured early one morning near the Sorbonne, hints at the rebellious culture that still permeates parts of Paris. Today’s visitors may now find a Starbucks impudently standing at the Odéon, behind the statue of Danton, hero of the French Revolution, but they shouldn’t be deceived. Under the top layer of consumerism and bling that afflicts all European cities, there still exist, right in the heart of the Latin Quarter, many traditional haunts that are seething with argument and rebelliousness.
They offer a special reason to visit Paris this May. Forget for a moment the city’s splendid neo-classical palaces and Haussmannian avenues, and roam the same streets that staged, 40 years ago, the most theatrical of all student revolts: les événements. To quote the Situationist slogan of the time: “Sous les pavés, la plage” (underneath the cobblestones, the beach).
I meet Professor Jacques Capdevielle, who has just written a dictionary of May ’68, at Le Basile, a cafe on the corner of rue de Grenelle and rue Saint Guillaume. Standing opposite Sciences Po, the famous grande école set up in 1872 on which, 23 years later, Sydney and Beatrice Webb modelled the London School of Economics, Le Basile has always been the students’ and professors’ favourite den, the heart of political debate. It has gone through many renovations. Ten years ago, I’d ordered a croque madame (croque monsieur with an egg on top) and sat in the back room; Le Basile looked slightly dishevelled then, with its old, broken furniture – absolutely not hip. Today, vivid colours, new bistro tables and chairs, make it trendier but the students still look the same: effortlessly beautiful and emphatically serious. And they still devour les croque madames between lectures.
Capdevielle, a student in 1968, recalls how the decision to occupy Sciences Po sprang from the Sorbonne, already occupied by radical students and Guy Debord’s Situationists. “Somebody shouted: let’s occupy Sciences Po! And, almost immediately, a small group of students set forth into the streets of the Latin Quarter for rue Saint Guillaume.” They were carrying black and red flags and, on the way, enrolled an inebriated and elated clochard (a tramp) whom they placed at the front of their improvised procession. When they arrived in the main amphitheatre and declared Sciences Po occupied, its director, Jean Touchard, looked on, lost and perplexed. Ushers, in full grande école regalia, were so startled, they didn’t move an inch. “Little known is the fact that until May ’68, French universities and grandes écoles had official ushers in full frock whose job was to announce the professors’ entrance in the amphitheatres with a resounding ‘Mesdemoiselles et messieurs les étudiants, le professeur!” Capdevielle says. “All this 19th-century nonsense stopped with May ’68.”
Cafes are inextricably linked to intellectual and political life in France, and to rebellion. The French Revolution sprung from a cafe at the Palais Royal, and it was in a Parisian bistro that the socialist leader Jean Jaurès was assassinated on the eve of the First World War. Cafes are an endangered species in Paris; there were 510,000 in 1910 but only 36,000 are left. But if you avoid the tourist traps, the franchises and the chichi eateries, you can still find places where Parisians from all backgrounds, preferably standing at the counter, scoff at the latest Sarkozy stunt and argue about politics.
While Capdevielle is reminiscing about May ’68, at the next table two students are loudly discussing the political future of the centrist politician François Bayrou. Capdevielle says: “I totally disagree with those who say that today’s youth is depoliticised. The will to change the world is as vivid today as it was in 1968. The demonstrations of 1995 and 2005 proved it. Radical politics are very much alive in France. The French are as hungry as ever for political and philosophical debate. Just think of the Cafe Philo!”
In 1992, the philosopher Marc Sautet persuaded the proprietors of Café des Phares in Place de la Bastille to host a philosophy discussion every Sunday morning. The success was immediate; 100 people come every Sunday to debate the topic of the day but also to listen to visiting philosophers. The concept spread across Paris, France, Europe. There are now hundreds of “philo-cafes” around the world.
Not far from Le Basile, Le Rouquet, standing at the corner of rue des Saints-Pères and boulevard Saint Germain, looks as if it hasn’t changed since the 50s. And it hasn’t. The formica tables, worn-out red leatherette booths, black and white floor, and grumpy waiters haven’t noticed the passage of time. Only the handwriting on the menu looks contemporary. Tourists looking for Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre’s ghosts often go to Café des Deux Magots further down the road, not realising that by the 1960s the couple had stopped going to this icon of Saint Germain-des-Près. “In 1968, the Café des Deux Magots was already a tourist trap for Americans,” says Capdevielle, who has lived in the Latin Quarter for 45 years. “Simone de Beauvoir came here instead, to Le Rouquet, to write in the morning and give appointments.” She would also buy books at La Hune, an independent bookshop that has been open from 10am to midnight every day since 1949, and which refuses to stock publications from the big-name publishing houses.
Debating in cafes is such an institution in Paris that celebrated radio programmes such as France Culture’s Travaux Publics, hosted by the legendary Jean Lebrun (Andrew Marr meets Melvyn Bragg), are broadcast from one of them. Travaux Publics is broadcast three evenings a week from Café El Sur on boulevard Saint Germain. Entry is free and, while sipping a café crème or a mate (the owner of the cafe is part Argentinian), M. Lebrun may ask your opinion, live: “Hey you, what do you think of France’s rekindling with Nato?”
Brasserie Balzar, at the corner of rue de la Sorbonne and rue des Écoles, has been a haven for Sorbonne readers and students, idle between lectures, since it opened its doors in 1931. The Art Deco building has aged gracefully, left unspoilt by successive owners and the waiters have not changed since I was a student at the Sorbonne 10 years ago. One is known for his intense gaze, which makes ladies of all age blush, another for knowing every Sorbonne professor by name, and another for his unrelenting grumpiness. When the restaurant group Flo started negotiations to buy the Balzar in the 90s, customers and garçons set up an association to preserve the cafe’s traditions: there were petitions, demonstrations and sit-downs protests in the street. The new owner had to give in to the activists’ demands: no change to the staff, the menu, or the worn out booths’ red leather. As I sip a coffee at Brasserie Balzar, two well-known intellectuals, one publisher and a Sorbonne professor were discussing Sarkozy’s future: “He won’t finish his mandate” says one. “How can you be so sure?” asks the other. “Because I’ve got my finger on the pulse of 2,000 students,” comes the answer.
Outside, I bump into a tall woman with dark hair, big sunglasses and a black Borsalino, and recognise Anna Karina, Jean-Luc Godard’s muse of the 60s and star of some of his best films. It’s not a coincidence; she lives in the Latin Quarter, the heart of French cinema. It has the highest concentration of art-house cinemas in the world. Le Champo, next to Brasserie Balzar, is one of them. It is also Woody Allen’s favourite. For years, it screened Orson Welles’s Trial every Tuesday at 11am. The Accatone, rue Cujas, a few cobblestones away, has a similar approach, having screened the same films by Pasolini, Eisenstein, Antonioni, Visconti and Fassbinder for the past 20 years.
Strangely, the events of May ’68 were hardly filmed by the New Wave’s young Turks; they were instead caught by still photographers and radio reporters. Film-makers were too busy demonstrating in Cannes, insisting that the festival be cancelled, and discussing how they could change the way cinema was made.
I leave the Latin Quarter wondering if the boy from Au Petit Suisse will remember what the May ’68 veteran told him when they parted – “Barricades close the street but open the way” – and whether he’s asked for a chainsaw for his birthday.
An exhibition of photographs of the student uprising in the Latin Quarter and the strike at the Renault factory, by Gérald Bloncourt, photographer for the communist newspaper L’Humanité.
· Bibliothèque Faidherbe: 18 rue Faidherbe. +1 55 25 80 20. Until May 31. Closed Sun and Mon.
La bande son de Mai 68
Time-travel back to 1968 in this replica apartment in the lobby of the town hall, done up in period décor, with period songs, TV shows, photographs, political tracts, etc. A film will be shown every Tues in May at 8pm.
· Mairie du 18e Arrondissement: 1 place Jules Joffrin. +1 53 41 18 18. May 5-June 6. Mon-Fri, 8.30am-5pm (7.30pm on Thurs), Sat, 9am-12.30pm.
Affiches Mai 68
Forty “consciousness-raising” posters that were made by Beaux-Arts students in May 68 and pasted up at night.
· Confluences, 190, bd de Charonne. +1 40 24 16 34, confluences.net. April 15-May 30. Mon-Fri, 10am-6pm.
Regards croisés sur Mai 68
A festival of films by everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to William Klein, some in English, in the Latin Quarter.
· Le Champo, 51, rue des Ecoles. +1 43 54 51 60, lechampo.com. April 30-June 30.
Regard sur mai 68: photos, musiques et voix
Photographs by Alain Quemper of national and international artists and politicians, events and daily life from the period. Soundtracks add appropriate revolutionary ambiance.
· Dorothy’s Gallery, 27 rue Keller. +1 43 57 08 51, dorothysgallery.com. April 11-June 2.
See mai-68.fr and mai-68.org for further information, details in French.
All Power to the Imagination! 1968 and its Legacies
A season of events across London explores how the culture and politics of ’68 were manifested in the arts and activism. It includes film screenings at th BFI Southbank, the Barbican, Renoir and Cine Lumiere at the Institut Francais; talks and lectures in bars, theatres, libraries and churches; exhibitions.
· See 1968.org.uk for details
May 68: When Culture was Radicalised
As part of Bristol’s Festival of Ideas, films including Sympathy for the Devil and Anatomy of Violence will be screened, with related discussions.
· Watershed Media Centre, May 3-29, ideasfestival.co.uk.