Friday, May 23, 2008
May '68 isn't the only anniversary being celebrated this spring. It's the 100th anniversary of Les Pieds Nickelés, the bumbling but lovable smalltime criminals who were the flagship product of the early years of what has since become a major component of the French culture industry, la BD. "Comparative comics" is not my field, but I am always struck by the throngs that crowd the BD section of my favorite FNAC. There is a comic subculture in the United States, but it seems to me less mainstream, more furtive and sad, than the robust and unabashed French trade. Having heard the eminent historians David Bell, Ann Blair, and Orest Ranum discourse learnedly on Astérix at a recent French Historical Studies conference, I would not dare say a word about the content of Louis Forton's creation; I'm far too ignorant. But I once saw the Woody Allen film "Small Time Crooks" with a French friend who found it a lot funnier than I did; perhaps he was brought up on LPN. A character in a Wim Wenders film says, "The Yanks have colonized our subconscious." Maybe, but it seems that it was the Yanks who grew up on Superman and Batman who believed their own myths and have repeatedly had to pay the price of their fantasies of invincibility, while readers of Tintin, Astérix, Bécassine, and Les Pieds Nickelés, weaned on human fallibility and finitude, have settled for less lethal ways to amuse themselves.
Change can seem glacial, yet sometimes when we look back to our own youth we are shocked to discover another world. I've mentioned before that I first visited France in 1968, and in some ways I have no difficulty recognizing the country I discovered then in the country that subsists today. But when I look at the book Mai '68 à l'ORTF: une radio-télévision en résistance by Jean-Pierre Filiu I'm stunned by the distance that has been traveled. The initials ORTF stood for Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française. Parisians will recognize the round building above left as the Maison de la Radio. Back in the day it was the Maison de l'ORTF. In May '68 ORTF employees eventually joined the general strike, and France was without its "official" organs for a month, so that many people received their news of the "events" via peripheral radio stations such as Europe 1 and Radio Monte-Carlo. But reporting that ORTF journalists did manage to broadcast was enough to incur the wrath of General de Gaulle personally, and Filiu has been able to document the vindictiveness with which de Gaulle pursued some of them, ordering police investigations, demanding the heads of reporters he particularly disliked, and making sure that their careers were ruined and stayed ruined. As late as 1972 de Gaulle's successor Pompidou delivered a speech in which he stated his position that "television journalists are not like other journalists" because they are "the voice of France," granted a monopoly by the state and obliged to serve its purposes. The mentality was frankly totalitarian, and those who like to recall de Gaulle's genial liberalism by citing his famous remark, à propos de Sartre, that "on ne met pas Voltaire en prison," should also remember that not every critic of the regime was Sartre and that 1 in 2 strikers at the ORTF lost their jobs in the wake of May '68. "Repressive tolerance" was not just an idle concept invented by Herbert Marcuse; it was a reality in 1968, and the uprising, now a venerable lieu de mémoire covered with the abundant guano of commemoration, had its raison d'être.
Mitterrand had many flaws, and when it came to control of the media he was hardly above reproach: think of the surveillance of Edwy Plenel, for example. But the liberation of the airwaves made decisive progress under Mitterrand, and however subservient to power the broadcast media may seem today, the story that Filiu tells should serve as a reminder that not so long ago things were a good deal worse than they are today.