May 1968 at the University of Liège

By Marie Liégeois

Pavé ForbiddenMay 1968. France is in flames, students are crouching behind barricades, the wind of revolution is blowing. It would take a certain amount of time for those winds and the clamors of Paris to reach Liège. During the spring of that year, the majority of students at the ULg were in agreement; but only at the beginning of the following academic year did they make their voices heard. Behind a façade of studious calm, a battle certainly less bitter and less violent that the one in Paris, was brewing in the Ardent City.

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.

The eye listens

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.

Geuze EN

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.

Pavé happinessThe summer passed. Beginning in August, students organized themselves for the re-opening of school, and wrote out a list of claims to be presented to the University. These included the right to discussion, and the inclusion of students on the Board of Directors of the University, as well as a right to information, by means of the publication of decisions made; these were the main demands of the Student Union. “As students, we were supposed to bow the neck and bend the knee; the professors had absolute power, undivided power,” recalls Thierry Grisar. “The relationship between professors and students was similar in certain respects to the relationship between masters and slaves,” in the words of current University Rector Bernard Rentier (1), who was a student in biology at that time. The complaints of the students were aimed mainly at then-Rector Marcel Dubuisson. Dubuisson has been described as “reactionary” by students of the period, and Guy Quaden agrees: Dubuisson was “… an autocrat, of a kind that is difficult to imagine today. He thought he was de Gaulle, without having de Gaulle’s genius.” The “Czar of Tilman”, as he was called by those who were opposed to the construction of a campus outside the city, became the target for all criticism. Ironically, as Guy Quaden notes, he ended up being “the most important ally of the student protests.” “He didn’t want to listen to anybody, he did just as he pleased; of course that made things considerably worse for him!” says Thierry Grisar with a smile.

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…

Flyers and posters were everywhere, often edited the night before. The Student Union was exerting pressure. The movement was intensifying. That fall, 1000 students marched in the streets of Liège. The American film, “The Green Berets”, starring Ray Kellogg and John Wayne, was being shown. The film, which glorified the American action in Vietnam, aroused anger. A student demonstration, which was held in front of the Palace movie house, turned ugly. Police had to intervene. This was an important event, but a singular one, as Guy Quaden emphasizes, since the movement’s participants always “remained good boys and girls, and though there was some verbal violence, it was never physical.

EN Sauvageto-Quaden (Affiche)

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.

Pavé societyThe month of February was also marked by an occupation of the great academic hall, normally reserved for the council of professors. During a dozen days and nights, the hall was taken and held by students, something which has remained one of the most noteworthy events of the period of protest in Liège. In the hall under occupation, without official permission, debates were held concerning immigration, the ethics of international action, sexuality and morality, and feminism.

On February 25, a great general assembly of the “University community”, including the Rector, professors, instructors and students, took place in a hall on the Quai van Beneden in which there was standing room only. The occupation of the academic hall had just come to an end, and this “solemn mass during which the Rector agreed to appear and then disappear,” as Thierry Grisar puts it, put an end to the protest movement. That spring, the movement ran out of gas and students began to turn their attention to upcoming examinations, "something that made us look like gentle revolutionaries who didn’t want to sacrifice their studies,” in the words of Bernard Rentier.


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.

Pavé ImpossibleJean-Renaud Seba was a rhetoric student in the spring of 1969. (He is an instructor in the Philosophy Department today.) He was beginning the course of study for a “licence” (graduate or now Master’s degree) in Romance philology in October 1969, when the Liège protests were at their height. In his view, Liège was not in the avant-garde, but was a sort of “tail of the movement”; still, he was one of the leaders in his academic section. He remembers that period as “some of the most beautiful weeks” of his life. In a larger sense, he regrets today that a movement that was made up of both workers and students – the two parts distinct, yet allied together – has left behind only traces in people’s hearts, which once was a revolution in our way of living. “May ’68 was the longest strike in French history with 22 million strikers during three weeks, and with factories being occupied, in reaction to the all-powerful attitude of bosses. That was the time when political oppression exploded, when the State’s domination of classes caused people to become conscious of the situation. But, though there was this eminently collective aspect of the revolutionary movement that was May ’68, there remains only a triumph of individualistic values,” Seba remarks pointedly. “The bourgeoisie, which really was afraid, began a movement to reinterpret May ’68. And now, 40 years later, the defenders and the detractors of those events speak only of a revolution in behavior, saying nothing about a workers’ revolt. But there was a social movement with a highly developed sense of change, a reconciliation between the collective and the individual”, he continues. And he cites the words of Hegel, speaking of the French Revolution: “It was a beautiful sunrise.”

68 Belges en MAI COVERToday, actors and witnesses alike speak of “a certain naiveté, which was associated with sincere feelings of generosity and hope”, of a “big to-do”, a “wonderful year that sparkled”, the “emergence of a culture of debate”. “Looking back, the movement was more ambiguous than it appeared. It mixed together leftist positions and libertarian liberalism. It is true that it ended up standing more for individualism in society than collectivism, but it also stood for a critique of all totalitarianism, and for the promotion of human rights,” concludes Guy Quaden.

The years that have passed certainly do show us the goals unattained, the reinterpretations, even the errors of May ’68. But the movement undeniably changed the society and the university, breaking in pieces a whole range of constraints that up to that time had not even been questioned.

(1) Remembrances and commentary by Guy Quaden and Bernard Rentier are taken from the work, 68 Belges en mai, by Elodie de Sélys, published by Editions Luc Pire.