May 1968 at the University of Liège
By Marie Liégeois
At that time the students of Liège were ripe for a revolt. As Guy Quaden (1), a leader of the student movement at Liège recalls, “…for several years ideas of this kind had been germinating among a minority of students, of which I was a member, a minority that had “had their consciousness raised.” We wanted to make the university more democratic, its structures seemed outmoded to us and very poorly adapted to the arrival of our generation of baby-boomers. […] We also wanted and needed to loosen up a society that was itself outmoded.” A spirit of liberty emerged at the heart of the ULg, fanned by small political groups, those opposed to the war in Vietnam, or “leftists” in general. Everything seemed possible at the time.
Organizing a change in mentalities
In May 1968 Guy Quaden, former president of the Student Union (Union générale des étudiants, UG), who was working at the time on a doctorate in economics (and who today is Governor of the National Bank), shocked the General Assembly of the Student Union. He made a speech intended to get students to emerge from their slumber, and to mobilize on a large scale. A few weeks later, Thierry Grisar, today a professor in the department of biomedical sciences at the ULg, won the presidency of the Student Union. At that exact moment, Daniel Cohn-Bendit was creating the movement of the “enraged” at Nanterre. Elected by only a few votes over Ludo Wirix, Thierry Grisar remembers thinking that his mission was “to organize a change in mentalities.” The “student union movement”, normally bogged down with social preoccupations and matters pertaining specifically only to academic matters, was about to enter a war.
The approaching examination period did not completely mobilize the crowds around the University; but a handful of students, looking for confrontation and anxious to make their mark well before classes began again, had created already in the spring of that year a group known as the Snowball (Boule de neige). The leader was Ludo Wirix, held to be a grand orator. On May 9, 10, and 11, members of the group stayed up all night following reports from free radio stations about the events along the barricades in Paris. Following those events, the Snowball, which included Guy Quaden, Luc Toussaint, Philippe Gibon and Jean-Marie Roberti as members, produced two pastiche versions of the newspaper La Meuse, which had come in for criticism because of its strong right-wing positions. La Geuze, printed on the presses of La Wallonie, was sold throughout Liège “with some success,” as Guy Quaden notes. In the meantime the Snowball was actively preparing actions for the re-opening of classes, and preparing to try to exercise an influence on the University itself, which was often hesitant in taking political positions.
Meeting of students to start the fall semester in their own way
Since the students had not been given an opportunity to speak when the new academic year began, they organized a “counter-opening” of the fall semester. Jacques Sauvageot, one of the leaders of the May 1968 uprising in France, and Guy Quaden took the microphone. The meeting attracted a large crowd; the Place du 20-Août was filled with people, and there were about 3000 participants. In the speeches that were made, the university was portrayed as an open, democratic institution, a place for debate, concerned with the problems of the region…
After a first general strike by students in November and a meeting of the General Assembly attended by hundreds of students, the wave of protests culminated in February 1969. In a climate of complete opposition between the students and the Rector, the government minister assigned to the problem, the Socialist Abel Dubois (who was rather opposed to the attitude of Marcel Dubuisson) tried to reconcile the two sides. Seated in two different rooms in the provincial Palace, a delegation from the Student Union (including Grisar, Quaden, and Wirix among others) and the Rector began six hours of negotiations. Minister Dubois and his chief of staff went back and forth, carrying a typewriter. “We succeeded in getting half of what we were asking for: the right to information. Two or three years later the Board of Directors would include students,” recalls Thierry Grisar.
How did it all end?
These few months of revolt, while not leading to revolution, did leave their mark (see also this interview with Marc Jacquemain). That “joyful and stressful climate”, as it was referred to by Rentier, changed people’s way of looking at things, and set the University heading toward a new era. Guy Quaden says today that “…there was food and drink in what we said and did,” but an important period of reconstruction had to follow. Relations between teachers and students would change little by little. Wishing to be taken seriously, the students would even play down, for the rest of the decade of the 1970s, their legendary festive and folkloric spirit.