The teenagers from Parkland, Fla., who led the recent March for Our Lives should know that student protests can have long-range effects. Case in point: The May 1968 protests at the Sorbonne, which led to the premature shutdown of the Cannes Film Festival and major changes in the festival, the French film industry and even the government.
The 21st Cannes Film Festival opened as scheduled on May 10, 1968. That same evening, Paris police attacked an estimated 20,000 Sorbonne students, who had rallied against the policies (including education) of the conservative government under Charles de Gaulle. Hundreds of cops and students were hospitalized. Two days later, 2 million French workers declared a general strike in sympathy to the students and shut down federal and municipal services. The one-day strike was extended as millions more walked out of factories and offices.
The festival was to run May 10-24, with competition films including works by Alain Resnais, Jiri Menzel, Richard Lester, Carlos Saura and Milos Forman. Several directors withdrew their films and jurors resigned. At a May 18 screening of “Peppermint Frappe,” people grabbed the curtain to prevent the film being shown. Later, a delegation of filmmakers met with the fest’s secretary general Robert Favre Le Bret.
As Variety reported, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Berri, Claude Lelouch, Louis Malle and others led a group “insisting that the festival must close as a matter of solidarity with the Sorbonne students and the 2 million French strikers.” It worked. Of the 28 scheduled films, only 11 were screened.
A month later, Variety quoted fest juror Roman Polanski as saying those directors were “idiots.” He continued, “People like Truffaut, Lelouch and Godard are like little kids playing at being revolutionaries.”
The 600 members of the international press at Cannes offered various motives for all of this. Aside from sympathy for the students, there were other reasons for anger: Culture minister Andre Malraux had recently fired Henri Langlois, the esteemed head of Cinematheque Francaise. Many filmmakers claimed France’s Centre National du Cinema cared more about box office prospects than about experimental and avant-garde directors. And the French government promoted old-fashioned values (such as a workplace policy forbidding women to wear slacks to work).
On July 3, Variety quoted Truffaut as saying, “Polanski might have gotten the wrong impression from all of the confusion during those few days.” Some people thought the protests were anti-Cannes, but Truffaut insisted he wasn’t against the festival (“I love the galas. I love the tuxedos.”) and that he’s apolitical, except for his work to reinstate Langlois.
During the weeks of general strike, there were also massive counter-demonstrations. On May 22, Variety wrote that France was experiencing “a protracted period of anarchy, with fear of bloodshed and civil war, a showdown between left and right extremisms.”
The student protest led to a series of changes.
Langlois got his job back.
The Centre National du Cinema got more inclusive, and a group formed the country’s Societe des Realisateurs de Film (Society of Film Directors), to protect filmmakers.
That Society also created the Directors’ Fortnight, an event running parallel to Cannes and offering less traditional fare starting in 1969. And the festival altered its policies on submissions and juries.
As Variety wrote in a post-mortem on the festival, “Secretary general Robert Favre Le Bret admitted that ‘there are legitimate injustices in the way most fests — with Cannes leading the way — are run.’ ”
The story continued, “Events pinpointed certain outmoded aspects of fests and led to a reappraisal at Cannes and others.”
Politically, there was a backlash in the 1968 elections, when conservative Gaullists won a majority seats in National Assembly. And they re-elected de Gaulle, who was still admired for his WWII heroism and his role in helping shape the government after the war years.
But 1968 marked a turning point, an end to the paternalistic and conservative world in which a married woman could not open a bank account without her husband’s permission and the country’s single TV channel carried news that always reflected government policies. De Gaulle resigned the following year and there were a series of concessions in the workplace, including higher wages, better working conditions and more paid vacations. And there was significant education reform.
Last year, French president Emmanuel Macron said the 1968 unrest was momentous, but also stood as a warning: “It helped liberate things within French society, and then it perhaps broke something that you need to protect in a society.”