French Friday: En Mai, Fais Ce Qu’il Te Plait


In April, don’t take off a single thread (of your clothes); in May, do as you please

In plain English: the weather being finicky in April, it’s unwise to wear light clothes since you could get a cold, but in May you can wear what you want.

No panic, the  A to Z Challenge is NOT starting again 🙂

But I could not resist to use one of the French expressions used to depict the month of May. The other one compares May to a piece of Gruyere, due to the copious amount of holidays (Labor Day, End of WWII, Ascension Day, and Pentecost).

This month of May is quite special since it marks the fiftieth anniversary of May 1968.

Sadly May 1, 2018 was marked by violence in Paris. About 1200 Black Blocs, coming from anarchist and libertarian movements, infiltrated the peaceful march, destroyed shop windows, restaurants, bus shelters, and burned cars.

Embed from Getty Images


Embed from Getty Images


Even though violence also happened in May 1968, the ultimate goal of the French back then was Change. Political, economical, and social reasons ultimately converged and France was indeed forever changed.

I would change too!

If you don’t read French I recommend this article published in the New York Times since it recapitulates an intense French period of time. The photos are also excellent. In fact, they reminded me that France was a country mostly run by men back then.

My very own mini Mai 68 rushed to my mind when I read:

“It is hard to find any Frenchman or woman born before 1960 who does not have a vivid and personal recollection of that month.”

I was seven that spring and my sister six. School was closed. For kids, it meant an extra month of vacation. What’s wrong with that? The weather was gorgeous, even warm for the season, and our maman let us play outside even more than usual. Playdates, at least in my village, were inexistent. Impromptu ruled. I could either be totally alone on the backroads where I was allowed to bike or bump into classmates. That spring, I suppose that parents were tired to see their kids home all the time since they were homebound too, now that the country had almost stopped. With kids outside, so were bikes and plenty of energy.

Even though women are clearly absent from most photos and reportages from that time, girls my age had no doubt they were as good as boys. We only had to demonstrate it, again and again. Although I was limber my sister was more daring than I was. Racing ran through her DNA. So over this long, unexpected estival month, while in Paris students and factory workers united, built barricades, and threw cobblestones to oppose the police and SWAT teams, elementary school kids in rural France had a blast.

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All was good on our front, until my sister braked with her left brake and was ejected from her bike. She landed on a rock and blood immediately gushed. Her eyelids turned red and I thought she had lost her eyesight. She had not lost her good common sense, though, since she urged me to check on her bike and to take it home with us. Our parents weren’t as strict as others, but we didn’t swim in money. My sister knew as well as I did that she wouldn’t get a new bike if she had wrecked this one.

The boys who had been racing against us only minutes ago had vanished. Thanks for not helping us. So I pulled my bike and my sister’s while talking to her the whole time as we made our way home. I had read that it was crucial to keep an injured person alert until receiving treatment. I was 100% that my sister needed treatement. Maman was hanging the laundry in our backyard when we showed up. She dropped the sheet she was holding and our goat trotted over, excited at the perspective to eat something fresh. She was a sucker for laundry. Like me, Maman believed that my sister had hurt her eyes. But when she washed her face we both gaped at the sight of the deep gash on my sister’s forehead. My diagnosis had been pretty accurate.

In May 1968, I had never seen my father home that much. Papa must have felt weird too since he still drove with his Solex to the “office” where he met his colleagues at the truck company that employed them.

Courtesy Solex

My father allowed me to drive his Solex when I turned fifteen. He was right about the instability, but had not said anything about the feeling of freedom I would feel riding it.

Now that I’m an adult and know more about strikes I imagine my father and colleagues worrying about money, wondering when they would sit behind the wheel again, and bring a paycheck home. But I also detected hope for change when I overheared conversations.

In any case, Papa wasn’t home that afternoon and had exceptionally taken the Dauphine.

Courtesy Wikipedia

Our Dauphine was blue too, but much lighter

Our nextdoor neighbor informed Maman that he hadn’t been able to refill his car at the gas station. Deliveries of all kinds were sporadic in May 1968.

Maman decided to hitchhike to town, only four kilometers away. Ironically a taxi driver stopped and drove the frantic trio to the doctor. Family legend says that he refused to be paid. I think it’s true.

Our family doctor was not on strike and quickly closed my sister’s wound with staples. He was a charismatic man, very well dressed, a father of seven, and a smoker of blonde tobacco that floated through his wood-floored and high-ceiling office. To this day, even if I don’t smoke and know that smoking is a bad health choice, the distinct smell still conveys an image of elegance, confidence, and comfort.

Our doctor owned several cats that wandered in and out and he strongly encouraged the outdoors and even rough games for kids. That day, he only reminded my sister to use her right brake when she biked. Later, Papa would echo the advice.

If my parents worried during this strange month of May they never shared it with their kids. We didn’t have TV at that time, but I read well and tried to understand what was going on, based on the newspapers’ headlines.

Maybe this is when I understood that Paris was the place to be. Clearly May 68 was different there. More than words, photos leave their mark on young minds.

These photos were intense. Even though I would have liked to see with my own eyes I also wondered if this could be the End of the World that the priest described at Catechism.

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In May 68, students and young people who had not known WWII were hungry for a different France. In May 68, the working class was fed up with inequality. In a unique moment in French history, the needs of these two radically different groups of people met.

Years later, when I moved to Paris and studied at the Sorbonne, I thought of them, gathered in the heart of the Latin Quarter, and once in a while envied them.

Soon I grew more grateful than envious. Things would never be the same in France from now on. I had no idea that one day I would write in English a novel set in France in the direct aftermaths of May 68.

At that time, a raw, palpable feeling of change infused the air. Even a seven-year-old could breathe it. The reader I was noticed an expression that took its true meaning only much later.

Sous les pavés… la plage.

Under the cobblestones… the beach.


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Courtesy Le Nouvel Observateur















  1. hilarymb says:

    Hi Evelyne – you give us ‘food for thought’ … too many disturbances – and a lot of challenges for the countries. I remember the freedom … but the IRA bombings in and around London … then I was in South Africa for future riots – and then I was there. Lots to ponder and count our blessings for today … brilliant post – and Happy Mother’s Day for tomorrow – cheers Hilary

    • Thank you, Hilary. Some violence can be meaningful, although peace activism is always better. You witnessed your share of riots, for sure.
      Thank you for your good wishes. Have a great day and weekend too. Happy Mother’s Day!

  2. 1968 was a tough summer in the US. I don’t recall being aware of anything going on outside of this country (other than the war), but we were pretty scared, and a little hopeful. I guess it was time for change around the world.

    Happy Mother’s Day!

  3. Thanks for the history lesson. I knew about the strikes in France in the 60s but nothing too specific.
    Happy May to you too!

    • France goes often on strike 🙂
      But 1968 took striking to a whole different level. The aftermaths were concrete in terms of wages and better work conditions but there was also a call for social changes. These would particularly allow more women to work, be part of the political scene and ultimately take charge of their lives.
      There is currently a strike affecting transportation in France. The SNCF (société nationale des chemins de fer) is going through major changes that would definitely affect the employees. Commuters around Paris and big cities are particulary affected.
      And Air France was on strike too, not so long ago.
      But nothing in comparaison to what happened in May 1968.
      Thank you for reading!

      • Thank you for the info! I do need to read up some more on the specific strikes and demands of each etc, in France. But whenever we are discussing unions or labour protest action in the Americas, our conversations always go back to Europe. Even my students who know very little about Europe, seem to have heard of France in relation to strikes!

  4. I was recruiting for Peace Corps at the time, Evelyne, and in West Virginia when Martin Luther King was shot. We were all called back to Washington DC. It was in a turmoil as blacks rioted throughout the city. It seemed that the whole world was falling apart. Glad your sister was okay. In my years of running bike treks, I dealt with many a bike injury. Nothing bleeds more than a head wound. –Curt

    • I’ve read a lot about the events in the USA in 1968 and the following years as I wrote my novel. You’re right: it felt as if the world was falling apart. A lot grew from these turbulent years.
      My sister had a few more injuries after this memorable fall. The bleeding was pretty impressive, especially since we were so young. But she survived:)
      I also fell pretty badly from my bike once, but only wrecked my pair of new shoes. I was really doing something stupid:) But I made it!

      • I can’t think of a part of the 60s that wasn’t “interesting.”
        Bikes can lead to some pretty nasty falls!
        Peggy and I are off on our conditioning trip in about an hour. No Internet. 🙂

  5. First, have a delightful mother’s day.

    Your 1968 reminds me of my 1969 … a year when the world was right. There are times when everything is right, when you know what you want and suddenly, you have a chance to grab it. I am sad that so much progress has been tossed away in recent years. I guess that is the price of living longer, that we get to travel the road twice. I hope this one turns around, too.

    • Thank you for your kind wishes, Marilyn. Happy Mother’s Day to you too!
      I share your hopes for the future and sometimes feel that people were more motivated to change things in the late 60s and early 70s. But again there was so much to do.

  6. What a beautiful and strong story. I wasn’t born, my brother was only 5. My parents were living in Toulouse and I don’t think they had the same feeling as those in Paris and its suburb.
    Happy Mother’s day!

  7. 1968 was a watershed year for me, probably the year I came of age politically. I turned 17 in the middle of it. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April, Robert Kennedy in June; the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in mid-August, and a few days later all hell broke loose at the Democratic convention in Chicago. I was dimly aware of the uprising in France but didn’t really learn what it was about till I was in college, helping organize the antiwar movement and learning lots of stories and histories that didn’t get into the newspapers.

    One slogan was translated into English as “Be reasonable: Demand the Impossible!” I just went looking for a poster with the French version. Didn’t find it, but did find this”Art for a Change” page with other posters from May 1968. Quite a few of them sound very current!

    • I’m sure many young people and probably many more young women like you were came of age politically in 1968. I’ll forward you a list of French slogans. Some are very good.
      Thank you for your visit, Susanna.

  8. Thanks for sharing this story Evelyne, it’s not something I knew about and the way you write of the history interwoven with the way it affected you and your family personally is vivid and insightful.

  9. Is there ever a time when a disturbances, war and strikes haven’t been going on? The one you write of I didn’t know, but with your exquisite choice of words the imagery of hardship and the account of what your family endured is quite vivid. This was a really good read – have a great week Evelyne ~

    • Thank you, Mary.
      May 68 was quite exceptional. My family was like any other. I was way too young to grasp the meaning. I’m sure that my parents had mixed feelings about the stikes and disturbances. Amazingly few people lost their lives during this rather violent month. Sources disagree but all confirm that it is no more than seven. Which of course is too many but a relatively small number in comparison to modern violence.

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