The year 1968 started with a bang: on 30 January, Vietnamese fighters launched the Tet (Vietnamese New Year) Offensive throughout South Vietnam, attacking all major US military bases and all major cities controlled by the puppet forces of Saigon.
US Marines during the offensive at Hue. Photo John Olson
This offensive, which would last three months, became a classic subject of study of all schools of war, in the same way as the battle of Dien Bien Phu, during the first Indochina war. This offensive had been extensively prepared by the North and South Vietnamese politico-military leadership and had been the subject of fierce debate between the two lines which were clashing in Hanoi: some were aligned with Moscow and advocated a war of position between conventional armed forces, leading to peace negotiations, the others, the forces classed as "militant", advocated a mass guerrilla war on the Chinese model and was opposed to the opening of negotiations. The offensive was prepared by attacks on enemy positions along the borders with Cambodia and Laos, to dispel some US troops and puppet forces from the densely populated areas of the East and South. On 20 November, 1967, General Westmoreland declared that the communists were unable to mount a major offensive. In mid-January, the Resistance announced a Tet truce on 27 January and 3 February. A ruse of war.
The offensive was aimed at triggering a general uprising of the population in the cities of South Vietnam. From this point of view, it was a failure for the Resistance, alienating even a part of the Buddhists of the "third way" - those who were neither communists nor pro-US - shocked by the fact that the Resistance had violated the sacred truce of Tet. But the military failure was a political victory: the offensive triggered total panic in the White House and the Pentagon, and ended up shifting public opinion into the camp of the opponents to the war, fueled as it was by the media reports on US losses in soldier's lives. The record of these losses was beaten in the second week of February, with the death of 534 soldiers. This was not a big figure in comparison to the thousands of dead on the side of the resistance and the Vietnamese people, but it was a lot to the US population, who started to open their eyes, making the link between the rising cost of the war and the crisis that was manifesting itself in the USA itself.
Following the course of the war battle by battle, studying the maps of Vietnam that were covered with an increasing number of flags in the colours of the NLF, we were pumped up with enthusiasm, from Berkeley to Berlin, from Paris to Rome. After a demonstration on 7 February, the big event was set for 21 February.
“Let’s prepare actively the February 21st anti-imperialist day”: Victoire for Vietnam, newspaper of the Grass-root Vietnam Committees
This date was instituted as an anti-imperialist International Student's Day after 1945 by the pro-Moscow student organisations, in commemoration of the Manouchian Group's immigrant fighters, shot as "terrorists" by the Nazis in 1944. Many years later we would learn that these fighters had probably been sold to the Gestapo by the French Communist Party leaders. The date was rescheduled for tragic reasons in 1965, when Malcolm X was murdered in Harlem by Nation of Islam militants, no doubt manipulated by John Edgar Hoover's FBI. But the pro-Soviet communist movement had been gradually abandoning that day, and the leftists would take up the torch, each in their own way.
The Trotsko-Guevarites of the JCR, Cohn-Bendit and other French activists, had participated in the Congress for Vietnam organised by the SDS in Berlin on 17 and 18 February. Taking its lead from the Germans, the Vietnam National Committee organised a parade - authorised by the police - on Boulevard Saint-Michel under the slogan "The Latin Quarter for the victory of Vietnam". The UNEF (National Union of Sudents), for its part, organised a meeting at the Maison de la Mutualité. We had other projects in mind. It was necessary to carry out an action at the height of the Tet Offensive underway in Vietnam. So we organised a clandestine demonstration, unannounced, which saw us converge at nightfall on the South Vietnam embassy - that of the puppets of Saigon -, which was guarded by some policemen in kepis, capes and armed only with their truncheons. Some Molotov cocktails blackened the front of the embassy, of which we took the flag, replacing it with that of the NLF, and which we covered in slogans with black paint, "the NLF will win". And we ran back while the CRS (riot police) arrived as reinforcements.
We were at least 2000, including about a hundred members of the GPA* who were "armed" (with axe handles bought at the BHV store, which we emptied of its stocks in those weeks before spring) but the special envoy of France-Inter public radio did not see us, counting "a dozen young people playing cat and mouse with the police" (listen from 12’ 30’’).
After our retreat we crossed four Paris arrondissements to arrive at Boulevard Saint-Germain, with the intention of joining the gathering of the CVN on Boul'Mich. But the cops had now spotted us and blocked us in front of the Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Stuck against the church gate, I looked up as the cop's truncheon hit me and I saw the sign of the cafe facing the church: "Les Deux Magots"! So that's where it was, the legendary café of the existentialists! I did not have time to learn more. Fortunately, I had long hair and it was dark: the cop who had started to club me stopped upon the command of his boss, who shouted: "I said: not girls! ». It was there that I discovered that this sign of revolt could also advantageously replace a helmet. Anyway, unlike other leftist groups, we did not like the helmets, which immediately made you stand out if you were not on a moped or a scooter. We preferred caps padded with foam or newspaper, also very effective as protection under jackets, to protect the clavicles, the weak link of the anatomy, from the blows of police clubs.
“21 February: the flag of freedom flies over the puppet embassy”: Servir le Peuple newspaper
After disembarking from my Africa in September 1967, interned in a suburban high school, it was through demonstrations and street actions that I discovered Paris. We would return to this square of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés two months later, this time in broad daylight.
At the end of March, the Grass-root Vietnam Committees held their first congress. When we counted, we found that we had 270 committees all over France. It was no longer a small group, but a movement. Starting from high schools and colleges, the committees had begun to take hold in neighbourhoods and businesses. We distributed our newspapers and leaflets on the markets, with explanatory panels and we were gaining visibility, even if the media ignored us, favouring the stars of CVN, who had their entries at Le Monde and Nouvel Obs. But this kind of mediatisation did not interest us, we preferred direct communication with the population, by taking action.
Vietnam, although it was our main concern, was not the only topic of social unrest in this pre-spring period. There was also "the struggles of the people" in France. May 1967 had seen Guadeloupe explode in bloody riots, harshly repressed - resulting in several dozen deaths -, in October, it was the turn of Bretagne: in June 1967 at Redon, in Ille-et-Vilaine, the metallurgists staged strikes that started to spread. The peasants, with their children being the spearhead of these worker's struggles, entered the dance in their turn - they demanded an increase in the selling price of milk. 12,000 people demonstrated in October in Redon, which had no more than 5,000 inhabitants at the time. It was the first regionalist movement under the banner of "Living and working locally", with social demands, without any Breton "nationalist" dimension. This one will appear later. Other social movements broke out in early 1968, pretty much everywhere. The strongest movement took place in Caen, in Calvados, where there was a junction between the demonstrating young workers and students, with barricades on top. For our part, in the Paris region, we were launching the "Movement to support the struggles of the people" during the strike of immigrant workers at the Schwartz-Hautmont building site (see Chapter 1). In my high school, staff members - mostly women - went on strike with our support. By the beginning of the school year, we had already begun to help these women to climb up to the third floor of the boarding school with 80 kg baskets of linen that were breaking their backs. In this school with several thousand students, including several hundred interns, there was substantial number of staff. We discovered their conditions: the men and women were housed in the attic, in a kind of dormitory christened "California", without even showers, doing their business in zinc chamberpots. Their struggle was the subject of the first article I wrote, for the UJCml newspaper, Servir le people (Serve the people). Unfortunately, I have no recollection of how the strike ended.
*The GPA, groups of protection and self-defence but also groups of armed propaganda, were the striking force of the UJCml, in charge of keeping order in the demonstrations and also of muscular commando actions. The author was one of them.
To be continued