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My May 68

The student

by Alison Hird

Article published on the 2008-05-11 Latest update 2008-05-14 11:21 TU

Daneille Birck: “Caught between very strong political commitment and a desire for greater freedom.”

Daneille Birck: “Caught between very strong political commitment and a desire for greater freedom.”

In May 68, Danielle Birck was a student of philosophy at Nanterre University, the birthplace of  the Movement of 22 March, led by sociology student Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Protests would spread to the Sorbonne and culminate in a huge student and workers’ revolt. Nanterre illustrated, in a phrase used by revolutionary movements decades before, that “a single spark can start a prairie fire”.

The spark came on 21 March, recounts Birck, when militants from the Vietnam committee were arrested for demonstrating against shops in Paris defending US interests.

“The Movement of 22 March was set up to secure their release,” she explains. 

Driven by opposition to the war in Vietnam and what they saw as American imperialism, students also had physical concerns. The 60s sexual revolution had somehow bypassed French universities, where single-sex dormitories were the norm.

“The girls had more or less obtained the right to go and see the boys," recalls Birck. "But it was out of the question that the boys enter the female sanctuary.”

The nature of the Nanterre campus itself also encouraged a spirit of revolt. Built on the outskirts of Paris in 1963 to accommodate overflow from the Sorbonne, it felt far from the capital, remembers Danielle Birck.

“When I arrived in 67, it was still a huge building site," she says. "My room looked onto a slum occupied mainly by Algerians. We felt isolated from Paris, but that feeling of isolation also helped communication between us.”  

Communication and conflict

Nanterre had social science, literature and law faculties and, according to Birck, the latter was dominated by students from the far-right group Occident, who, she says, “came to Nanterre to bash up the lefties. It was a very politicised climate.”

Birck took part in the Sorbonne sit-ins and debates but her real interest was farther afield, in South America.

“I was active in a Guevarist group and more interested by what was happening in Latin America,” she says. “It was the time when Che Guevara called for us to build one, two, three Vietnams all around the world”.

Fired on by Che’s message, Birck went to Brazil, hoping to help bring down the dictatorship. But the level of repression soon drove her back to France. “I had to return quickly before being investigated [by the police]," she says. "Friends of mine were imprisoned, one was tortured to death.”

Other battles in the early 70s kept her busy: dictatorships in Greece, Spain, Portugal, the coup d’état in Chile. “That gave us a lot to chew on," she says. "Supporting those who wanted progress, socialism, democracy and justice around the world”.