In May 1968, civil unrest, bordering on revolution, exploded on to the streets of Paris. Student protesters and striking workers brought France’s economy to a standstill. President Charles de Gaulle warned of civil war. The Spectator’s then editor, Nigel Lawson, asked Nancy Mitford for a diary on the unfolding drama, which she followed from her house, about a mile from Versailles.
This is an edited extract.
We have heard the young leaders of the revolution on TV for three quarters of an hour. Having said how much they despised everything in life, especially money, they keenly gave the numbers of their bank accounts so that we could hurry out and send them some. There was a great deal of wailing about their treatment by the police. I despise them for it. They were out for a rough-up and they got it. Nobody was killed and now they are behaving like babies who have been slapped. It’s not very dignified.
The postman made our blood run cold by saying, ‘Tout va changer’. Then Frank and Kitty [the Times foreign editor and his wife] came from Paris to see me. Very friendly of them. He thinks we are having one of those periodic student upsets which France has always known. He doesn’t think it’s serious. Frank is a clever man, knows France and French history, but I well remember that in May 1958 he never expected the return of General de Gaulle.
General Strike, so as I haven’t got a car I am stuck here. Very good for work. The wireless has been taken over and the announcers who used to seem such dears have suddenly become extremely frightening. They rattle out bad news like machine guns. The French seem to have turned into Gadarene swine.
The wireless is terrifying. If the BBC were not always so utterly wrong about French affairs I would listen to it, but what is the good? They understand nothing. The Figaro still appears, screaming ‘do something’ to the government like a hysterical woman whose house is on fire. Marie [Mitford’s maid] says her rosary whenever there’s nothing else to do. I am afraid I think, like Frederick the Great, that God exists but leaves us pretty well alone to make our muddles while we are here. No good bothering Him, I’m afraid. ‘Nancy Mitford is
on the line again, Almighty.’ ‘Tell her to get on with her work.’
I rang up Henry. He says that last night some youths dumped a lot of arms in his courtyard, saying they would come back for them later. No butter in the rue de Montreuil so I went to the market. The tricolour is still flying over the Lycée Hoche and all the boys seem to be there, but discussing instead of doing their lessons. What a bore it must be.
Marie, who has become rather bold, said this morning in the dairy: ‘All these strikes are organised and the men have to come out whether they like it or not.’ A young woman with a baby said, ‘You are quite right. There’s a little factory here where nobody was on strike. They came and told the men to come out. The men went to the patron and said, “We’ve got nothing against you but we’ve got to come out”.’
The Archbishop of Paris speaks of much misery. It’s so strange — where is this misery? One sentence recurs among all my modest friends here: ‘La France a été trop heureuse.’ My impression for several years has been that France is almost entirely bourgeoisie. Marie’s father was a poor peasant and his children were brought up almost hungry. But her nephews and nieces are more than well-off. All with motor-cars and little weekend houses.
The dustmen still come here to take away our rubbish. Something to remember when giving Christmas boxes.
All night a pitched battle raged around Jean de Gaigmeron’s house. I hope he’s gone away. These battles are a nightmare for those in nearby houses because of the tear gas which seeps in and can’t be got out for ages. Marie says all these young people seem very mal élevé.
The General was perfect last night. After the flood of words we’ve been treated to of late, it was a relief to hear something short, sharp and to the point. But I’ve got a feeling that he is fed up. Bertrand [Russell, a cousin of Mitford’s] says the problem is democratic. There are too many young people and they are turning against the old everywhere. I note that the fête des mères is to take place tomorrow. Which seems inappropriate as the whole thing is the fault of these wretched mothers for having such vast families and for bringing them up so badly.
I’ve got masses of champagne and no mineral water, so if the tap gives out Marie and I will be permanently drunk. What a picture.
And what a volcano this country is! Of course one knows it may erupt at any moment; but as with real volcanoes the soil is so rich and so fertile in every way that having once lived here any alternative seems unthinkable.
Today I only listened to the news at dinner-time. The students are upset because they have lost the limelight, reminding me of a little girl I could name who has to be the centre of all attention or else. It now seems they think that everybody over 30 ought to be dead. Marie Antoinette, when she became Queen, said she didn’t know how people over 30 dared show their faces at court. She called them les siècles. Poor dear, she was soon over 30 herself and didn’t end too well.
The chemists in Paris are out of stock but tons of medicaments are said to have been squirrelled away at the Sorbonne. I do hope our future rulers are not hypochondriacs.
The French wireless has asked that anybody who knows of a full petrol pump to report it. Now I am fairly public-spirited but if I knew of a full petrol pump I should tell my friends and not the French wireless in its present mood.
Went to the town and bought a few things to hoard, a practice to which so far I have not lent myself, but I only took as much as I could carry and only things abhorred by the French like Quaker Oats.
On my way home from the park two boys on a motor-bike pretended they were trying to kill me, following me up on to the wide footpath; but I must say when I laughed so did they, and went away with friendly waves. I do hope the over-30s are going to be killed mercifully and quickly and not starved to death in camps.
Mitterrand on the tele — Marie kept up a running commentary and I was laughing so much at it that perhaps I didn’t get his message correctly, but the impression was that he is claiming a coup d’état. Then we had Pompidou, whose calm reasonable manner inspires optimism every time that he appears. He asked for a secret ballot in the factories. What a hope!
The French architects are demanding liberty — in other words, anarchy — in other words, a free hand to pull down Paris and put up New York.
I saw a young man selling L’Action Française — how typical of Versailles. I had a look at it. It is almost too silly and, readers of this diary will be surprised to hear, even more right-wing than I am. If I am a conservative it is because I see so much worth conserving in French society. It seems a pity that all should have to go up in flames for the sake of a few reforms.
I hear the Embassy Rolls-Royce has been all round Paris delivering cards for the garden party — that’s the spirit — up the old land.
I hadn’t quite realised what a hermit I am by nature — the days go by and I have no desire to move from my house and garden. I haven’t done so for three weeks now. Of course one is virtually kept going by the excitement. We live in a thrilling serial story and the next instalment will be the General’s statement this afternoon. I waited for it feeling quite sick but as soon as he opened his mouth one knew everything would be all right. France is not going to be handed over like a parcel to a regime which she may or may not want without being allowed to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. The eight o’clock news on television was a real muddle. But we were shown a lovely photograph of Mendès-France and Mitterrand [the two socialists] looking like two vampires who had seen a piece of garlic.
The BBC, at it again, says it is evident that the ORTF [France’s public broadcaster] is back in the hands of the General because no opposition reaction to his speech has been broadcast. Untrue. We have had statements in all the news bulletins from every leader except one. I wonder if habitués of the television find the lack of it as much a relief as I find the lack of letters? I used to think I lived for the post, now I don’t know how I shall bear the sight of it. The joy of letters from various cherished correspondents is outweighed by all the requests, demands and statements from strangers. I see that the post office workers are on their way back, so I am doubtless enjoying a last few days of peace.
I took the local bus and went over to Orsay. This little bus, which has been faithfully running all through the troubles, is very symptomatic of the modern world. As every soul in this country except me has got a motor-car, it only caters for Arabs and children. I have never seen a fellow-bourgeois in it. Orsay, which used to be such a dear little market town, is now part of the Sorbonne, covered with university buildings in the modern taste. The inhabitants are furious with the students — they say everything has been done for them — huge swimming pools and sports grounds, free holidays in the mountains and so on, and this is how they show their gratitude.
I got hold of some English papers of the last week or two. My goodness, they were alarming — no wonder people rang up from London offering blankets and tea. One felt frightened here, but it was for the future — the possible ruin of this beautiful land. The bang on the door and the commissaire telling one to pack up a change of linen and go.
People are flocking to church. Marie had to wait in a queue for two hours yesterday to confess her saintly sins. Lucy meanwhile is yearning over the students. She says they are out in the streets again this morning, beautiful and polite, collecting money for the old — to give a Molotov cocktail party for them, I expect, said I. ‘Oh Nancy, you’re so cynical.’ The fact is these students are like a chicken whose head has been cut off — they are running round in circles with nobody paying much attention to them and with nothing to do. They held a demonstration yesterday, but instead of the hundreds of thousands of a week
ago they mustered only about 20,000 people.
The deepest holiday sleep outside — the streets are far quieter than yesterday, when there was much activity round the church. Nothing on the student front except that, fighting having broken out between Jews and Arabs in Belleville, they seized their red flag and sallied forth to join in. Unfortunately they arrived when all was over. They had much better start their lessons again.
I went to see my great friend from Renault. He spoke as if everything had already returned to normal, though in fact the strike is still going on: ‘Oh là, on a eu chaud.’ That’s what they always say when France has seemed to be losing a big football match and then wins it.
But what will happen to us when Le Grand has gone? I said, ‘France explodes like this about once in a generation. Thank God this blow-up happened while the General is still here to cope with it. With any luck at all you and I won’t be alive to see the next time.’