One of the main reasons that much of central Paris, with wide boulevards and major intersections, looks somewhat uniform – and has become iconic – is the desire to prevent protests. Georges-Eugène Haussmann, a French official better known as Baron Haussmann, took on a public works project between 1853 and 1870 that would end up completely redeveloping nearly all of the centre of the city. Though not the only aim of the renovations, the streets were intentionally widened to make it easier for troops to enter and harder for residents to block them off.
Almost a hundred years later, in 1968, the city of revolutions once again erupted in protest. The seven weeks of unrest, which have come to be known as May 1968, began with students at Nanterre University just outside Paris agitating for rather modest reasons: to protest cramped living quarters and demanding the freedom to spend the night in each other’s rooms.
The protest was met with a brutal police response, which only meant that the anger and agitation spread. At first it expanded to the famous Sorbonne University at the heart of Paris, which saw even more police repression. And later the workers and unions also joined in, bringing the city to a grinding halt, with authorities even fearing civil war.
Though the initial demands may have been simple, the leftist strikes also carried with them broader themes of pushing back against American consumerism, capitalism and imperialism. At the heart of this thinking were the Situationists, an organisation of social revolutionaries. The Situationists’ ideas may be best understood by reading The Society of The Spectacle, by Guy Debord, which argues that modern society has turned genuine life into the “representation” and “appearance” of the same – an argument that could find echoes in today’s capitalis, commodified social-media driven culture.
Among the many slogans of the protesters, like “prohibitions are forbidden” and “the cops = SS” (a reference to the Nazi paramilitary), was one with Situationist overtones: “Sous les pavés, la plage!”
The “pavés” were the pavement cobble stones of Haussmann’s streets, which the students would tear up so that they could barricade the streets and also to throw at the violent police.
A big part of Situationist thinking was “détournement” and “dérive”, two approaches that sought to reinterpret Haussmann’s military and work-focused Paris in a more playful manner, with the aim of deriving more meaning out of community life.
So when the students unearthed the cobble stones only to find sand underneath, two Situationist-influenced activists came up with the slogan meant to evoke the joyous, community-focused aims of the protest that nevertheless involved taking on a brutal police force: Under the cobblestones, the beach!
In that year of protests, from the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations to popular unrest in Tokyo, Prague, Poland, Mexico and Berlin, the events of May 1968 would eventually unseat Charles de Gaulle, the otherwise legendary General who had saved France from disaster multiple times, and leave a cultural and political legacy in Paris that continues to this day, as the yellow vests and the Nuit Debout-ers continue to demand a different version of the world.