This article examines changes in how the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs handled anti–Vietnam War protests in the period immediately following the May–June 1968 uprisings. Through a study of the Quai d'Orsay Asie-Océanie archives along with American Embassy and CIA documents, the article adds to research on French domestic protest activity and expands understanding of the philo-American shift in French foreign policy following May. In its emphasis on how foreign policy affected domestic experience, the article argues for the importance of situating May globally to evaluate its full impact.
Cet article examine les évolutions dans la gestion des manifestations contre la guerre du Vietnam par le ministère des Affaires étrangères dans les mois suivant les événements de mai–juin 1968. Fondé sur une étude des archives Asie-Océanie du Quai d'Orsay, aussi bien que sur des documents de l'ambassade américaine et du CIA, cet article éclaircit le mouvement anti-guerre en France, tout en contribuant à la compréhension du basculement philo-américain de la politique étrangère française après Mai. Soulignant les effets de la politique étrangère sur l'expérience domestique, l'article avance l'importance de situer Mai au niveau mondial afin de mieux évaluer son impact.
On Anticolonial Day, February 21, 1968, anti–Vietnam War protesters took over the Latin Quarter. Renaming the streets after Vietnamese war victims, thousands marched, chanted, sang, and hanged and burned a giant effigy of Lyndon B. Johnson.1 One year later, on Anticolonial Day in 1969, protests were decidedly more muted. Even though the war raged on, the Vietnam War Peace Talks were occurring on French soil at that very moment, and students were still protesting other issues. The largest antiwar gathering only brought about 450 people to a quiet, closed meeting in Paris.2 It was quite the switch.
Determining what led to such a change in protests offers an opportunity to look at French identity and experience in the wake of the May events. Scholars have written extensively on the role of pre-May antiwar protests in the student movement in France, with researchers underlining how participation in protests served as a training ground of sorts for actions in May and allowed students and others a chance to reflect on France's identity and role in the bipolar Cold War world.3 Similarly, excellent research has analyzed how the Gaullist government used the Vietnam War to carve out a position for itself internationally.4 And, of course, the debates at the square-or-not-square table in Paris between the four Vietnam War powers have generated volumes.5 But how these topics fit together, and what practical impacts they had domestically in the wake of the May–June 1968 events, has not been recognized.
By looking at the archival reports of the Asie-Océanie department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 1968 into early 1969, supplemented by documents from the American Embassy in Paris and CIA reports on France, we can evaluate changes in French government policy at the microlevel and see how developments in government foreign policy positions after May affected the French domestically. In this article I examine the changing role of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (also known as the Quai d'Orsay) in monitoring and controlling antiwar demonstrations in France in the immediate aftermath of the May–June 1968 uprisings. After explaining the chronology of changes in French policies on protest, I analyze the domestic and foreign impacts of these policy evolutions, looking first at what such shifts reveal about how French ministries functioned before moving into an examination of what the changes explain about anti–Vietnam War activism in France after May. I use the Quai d'Orsay archives to examine how the French government conceptualized and addressed issues of free speech, showing how changes in protest monitoring after May emphasized the significance of the site where it took place as a factor in determining the limits of free speech. I then consider the situation more globally, looking into what the emerging protest policy can explain about transformations in Franco-American relations during this period. While I agree with Pierre Journoud that any philosophical shift in French foreign policy toward the Vietnam War occurred before May, my research demonstrates that practical applications of new stances toward the United States appeared after May and grew in intensity with the role of Paris as host city for the peace talks and the aftereffects of May. My findings thus support Garrett Joseph Martin's and J. P. Baulon's contentions that the post-May period reflected a philo-American shift in French government actions. Finally, I emphasize the importance of international French activities on domestic French developments in the wake of May. As Jeremi Suri has noted, in the aftermath of the tumult of 1968 “cooperation among the great powers reinforced established authorities.”6 France may not have been a great power, but my research demonstrates a similar evolution in Gaullist policy: as the French government worked more closely with the Americans for peace abroad, it simultaneously worked harder to quell French protest movements to gain control at home. This close analysis of the Asie-Océanie files therefore shows the need for a larger historical approach, encompassing both foreign and domestic activity, to understand the significant changes that occurred in France in the aftermath of the May events.
Changes in Foreign Ministry Reactions to Protests during 1968
In 1968, prior to the outbreak of protests in May, ministry interactions with anti–Vietnam War protests were simple: the government primarily observed rather than acted. This is understandable, as before the May events, left-wing views on the Vietnam War paralleled those of the Gaullist government. While some of the more radical protesters, who insisted on the call “NLF [National Liberation Front] will win!” rather than “Peace now!,” pushed for a more pro–Vietnamese Communist stance than the official governmental view, de Gaulle had carved out a strong international reputation with his outspoken statements about Vietnam and American hegemony. The government could thus allow even more radically aimed protests to continue without loss of prestige or control.7
One notable exception to this policy before 1968 was the attempted Bertrand Russell International War Crimes Tribunal, a multinational group of intellectuals and activists who constituted themselves into a “court” in 1967 to “try” the United States for war crimes in Vietnam. In this case, the French government stepped in to refuse the tribunal the right to hold its trial on French soil. Publicly, the government claimed that allowing the tribunal to pass “legal” judgments would interfere with the government's control over the legal system. In his letter explaining the ban, de Gaulle remarked that “all justice, in its principle as well as in its execution, belongs only to the State.”8 Privately, the government admitted it was concerned about the damage such a high-profile activist event might do to Franco-American relations and, the Americans believed, were worried that the French stance on the Vietnam War might be “tie[d] down” to whatever decision the tribunal made.9 But this highly visible event was the only protest at the time that prompted intervention, even though others were also public, often volatile, and known or suspected ahead of time. For example, the attack on the American Express building on March 22, which led to the creation of the Mouvement du 22 Mars, appears in the Quai d'Orsay archives only as a police surveillance report, which indicates the government knew something was afoot for that day but gives no indication that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs discussed preventative measures.10 General protests and exhibits about the war were allowed to proceed without interference regardless of their size or potential for violence—and numerous protests were held, increasing in number over the first quarter of 1968.11
The explosion of the May events coincided almost exactly with the choice of Paris to host the Vietnam peace talks. Given the significant role the Vietnam War had played in the development of student activism, it would have seemed likely that protests targeting the talks themselves, located across the river on the Right Bank, would break out at the talk sites. This possibility, coupled with the fact that earlier protests against the war lined up with Gaullist views, while May–June protests were decidedly anti-Gaullist in flavor, meant the government became more wary.12
Yet during May and June no problems related to the peace negotiations occurred. Along with the police, the Quai d'Orsay kept tabs on Vietnamese nationals and far-left student activists, but no student protests ever extended to the talks' location on the Right Bank. In part, government protection of the talk site discouraged potential protesters. The Maoist Comités Vietnam de Base (local Vietnam committees; CVB) scrapped plans to demonstrate “unconditional support” for North Vietnam by marching to the Hôtel Lutetia, where the North Vietnamese delegation was staying, because organizers decided that it would be too “risky.” Claiming that protests at the Lutetia would be “repressed with extreme violence” by the police, who would grab the chance to “‘justify’ the violence of these last days [of protest in May], trying to intimidate, to decapitate, and to crush the anti-imperialist movement,” the CVB called off the march.13 At other points during the protests, police blocked the Seine bridges, “ready to cut Paris in two if necessary to halt demonstrators from crossing over from the Latin Quarter to the Right Bank.”14
The “extraordinary security,” as the New York Times described it, might have been intimidating, but as students were more than willing to clash violently with the Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité at other locations in Paris, it seems more likely that the real reason for lack of protest at the talk sites came down to a shift in French protester priorities: a move to looking at France, and not abroad, as the locus of anti-imperialist activity. Michael Seidman, noting that anti-Americanism figured as a theme on “only a few” posters from the May events, remarked that “antiwar demonstrations may have helped to spark the [May] movement, but were not among its raisons d'être.”15 Police continued to monitor the few Vietnam War–connected meetings that took place, but they reported low attendance and interest, which did not pick up in the immediate aftermath of the protests. A press conference on the war on June 21, for example, organized by a member of the international Stockholm Conference on Vietnam, attracted only “twenty or so” people—ten of whom, the police report noted, were journalists.16 The war became, as members of the Paris American Committee to Stopwar (PACS) noted, “almost forgotten in this period of local disturbances.”17
One reason for the declining number of protests lay with the students, who had formed the backbone of the earlier antiwar movement. Student attention, as PACS noted, was now fixated elsewhere. Student participation in antiwar protests was also diminished by government moves to regain control in the aftermath of May, most notably the ban on gauchiste groups such as the Jeunesse Communiste Revolutionnaire (Revolutionary Communist Youth; JCR) and the Union des Jeunesses Communistes Marxistes-Léninistes (Union of Marxist-Leninist Communist Youth), left-wing groups that had worked closely with the Vietnamese War–focused CVB and Comité Vietnam National (National Vietnam Committee). The result was, as Laurent Jalabert has noted, that after May the Vietnam War “no longer mobilized” student activism.18
What protests did continue faced a much more active government response. As early as June, responding to American concerns, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs began searching for ways to limit protest activity. Its first prong of attack lay with determining if events had a “public character” that could be considered “public propaganda” unsuitable for a host city. When the United States signaled concern over a June 28 protest at the Centre International d'Information, which it believed was connected to an attempt to restart the Russell Tribunal, the French sought to ban it not on the legal grounds used earlier against the Russell Tribunal but out of concern for the environment needed for the war negotiations.19 In a letter to the minister of foreign affairs, the Asia section of Foreign Affairs asked to stop the film showing that the protest group had planned, arguing that inclusion of the press conference and exhibition meant that the meeting had a “public character” and explaining that they felt that, given “concern over maintaining an atmosphere favorable to calm discussions between the Americans and the North Vietnamese, such public propaganda activity is regrettable and it would be better to ban it in our capital.”20 The quick response to the protest showed a clear shift in government priorities.
The change in ministry reactions emerged alongside increased American pressure to limit protests. Since May, American contacts had been bringing more planned protests to French attention and more frequently requesting action on the protests. Encouraging the French to do something about the June 28 protest, the Americans had informed the French of the American “wish that all possible be done on the French side in order to preserve the favorable climate and the atmosphere of objectivity which, until now, have surrounded the negotiations underway.”21 By July such contacts with the Americans had increased to the point that the French government seemed resigned to hearing from the United States as soon as the Americans learned of a protest. In a memo listing a series of planned events, the French had remarked, “We can't rule out a reaction from [American chief negotiator] Mr. Harriman.” In the margins, someone scrawled a note in response: the American ambassador, Sargent Shriver, had already contacted them.22
In the face of what the French deemed an “escalation” of protest activity at the start of July, which they felt threatened the “calm, objective atmosphere” of the peace talks, put “moral pressure” on the United States, and risked sparking counterprotests, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs proposed a new solution: authorize large protests in the provinces but not in Paris.23 The government furthermore wanted protests to “take place in the most discreet fashion, without marches on public streets, nor meetings in State buildings, and with American consulates protected from all hostile demonstrations.”24 By moving protests to the provinces, the French government increased its interference in protests while not contravening French rules of free speech, creating an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach that temporarily appeased the US delegation.
Yet much to the dismay of both the United States and France, several Paris-based protests still slipped through, either because the police felt that they qualified as private or because they were announced so quickly that there was no time to intervene.25 For example, police activity kept a Geneva Accords anniversary protest on July 20 from becoming a street event.26 The intervention showed that the government was serious about keeping protests “private,” with limited participation and off public thoroughfares. However, because the protest had happened at all, the United States offered only halfhearted thanks, remarking that it had gone “the least bad it could have.”27
The French hit much harder with their next move: outright banning of an event planned by PACS on July 26 because of the meeting's public nature.28 PACS, an American group in France, offered a convenient target. Its members were foreigners and thus limited in their protest possibilities, as French law prohibited foreigners from participating in activities that might interfere with French politics. PACS was also a desirable target because the meeting ban satisfied the Americans by silencing an American antiwar voice on French soil. Targeting PACS also shielded the French from accusations that they were silencing the free speech rights of their own citizens. The move had the added benefit of pleasing the American delegation in Paris, as became clear in the immediate aftermath. When French journalist and PACS supporter Claude Bourdet inquired into reasons for the ban, a police staff member “practically admitted” to him that “the interdiction came following an intervention from the American delegation to the talks at the Hotel Majestic.”29 The action showed the government's increased control over antiwar protesting and its greater attempts to placate the Americans. Banning the meeting, on grounds that it was too public, made a statement without causing considerable fallout.
The move proved inadequate, however. With the coming of fall, French groups continued organizing protests, and the United States now seemed to expect their banning as a “token of [French] goodwill.”30 Continually worried about the “major inconveniences” protests could cause, but not responsible for implementing the ban—a responsibility that fell to the Ministry of the Interior—the Ministry of Foreign Affairs began pressuring Interior and the prefecture to follow up on protests more quickly.31 It also pushed to make even provincial locations less effective, requesting, for example, that one protest scheduled to happen outside Paris be allowed only if it “takes place in a private and closed-entry location, [with] no publicity given to its debates and [with] it not showing the characteristics of a public protest.”32 The stated limitations seemed to point toward a goal of making protest of the war not worthwhile at all.
In the midst of this rule tightening, the hammer fell on PACS in mid-October 1968.33 From the prefecture, PACS members learned that their group had been banned completely, allegedly due to its public nature and involvement with American military deserters in France. Etienne Manac'h, responsible for the Asie-Océanie division, claimed that he had had no prior knowledge of the decision to ban the group, but a government spokesman told the New York Times that the decision was made “because the government wants absolutely nothing to trouble the [ongoing Vietnam War] negotiations.”34 It is interesting to note that the ban came hard on the heels of a meeting between former French prime minister Michel Debré and American president Lyndon Johnson. In a conversation in the United States on October 11, Johnson commented to Debré that “it is a tribute to the character of the French people . . . that despite their views on the Viet-Nam war, they made it possible for us to hold the talks in their country.” Debré responded by assuring the president that “there was no doubt that for the duration of the talks, the French Government would do what was necessary to assure a propitious material, political, and intellectual atmosphere for them.”35 Within a week, PACS had been banned.
While not the result of Ministry of Foreign Affairs' actions, the move fit within the growing philo-American intolerance of protests and desire to prove that the French could serve the international role of hosts. The Communist Mouvement de la Paix had protested the earlier meeting ban, releasing a statement proclaiming that “the choice of Paris as the site of the peace talks should not mean, in any way, that we are obliged to give up actions in the capital that call for an end of American aggression in Vietnam.”36 Bourdet denounced the PACS ban as a measure that made the group “a victim on the altar of Franco-American rapprochement.”37 But complaining was in vain. The wish the Asie-Océanie division had expressed for a “calm, objective atmosphere” in Paris was shared widely and had serious consequences for antiwar protesters in France.
Around the same time as the dissolution of PACS in October, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs laid out its “doctrine” on protest clearly, setting the new guidelines for antiwar protests down in writing. The rule, an internal memo announced, was to “only tolerate [anti–Vietnam War meetings] if they are incontestably private, the criteria for which is as follows: written invitations, closed location, control at the entry.”38 This marked a decisive departure from the attitude of the previous year, when street protests were kept under observation by the government but were allowed to proceed nonetheless. The ministry's new stance meant that these “private” meetings allowed for free speech but limited how such speech could be disseminated and clearly specified that such speech was to stay out of the public arena and out of sight—especially the sight of anyone involved in the peace talks.
Because enforcement of bans fell to the Ministry of the Interior and the police, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs quickly became frustrated with the implementation of its “doctrine.” Officials felt that the Ministry of the Interior followed their guidelines too literally, thus letting protest meetings proceed that technically followed the rules but angered the United States, on the one hand, and spilled too much into the public arena, on the other. Thus, for the remainder of the year and into the next, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs concentrated on attempting to redefine “public.” It tried and failed to get a Mouvement de la Paix meeting in October stopped, because while it was “formally” private, one could not “conceal . . . that the meetings fit into . . . a large public opinion campaign.”39 To make sure an international meeting in Boulogne-sur-Mer took place with “extreme discretion,” it requested that the locations be closely watched, to guarantee that they were indeed private locales and that international participants were monitored in transit to avoid any chance of protests breaking out en route.40 It called on the police to intervene in a Parti Communiste Français antiwar petition campaign on the grounds that plans to collect signatures on factory sidewalks could be considered public activity.41 By delimiting what counted as “public,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hoped to control the number of protests. Its inability to fully do so became apparent even to the Americans: when the mid-October meeting could not be banned, US embassy personnel reported that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs official they spoke to “was clearly embarrassed by the decision.”42
From the start of 1968 to the start of 1969 the number of anti–Vietnam War protests did decline. Of course, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not claim full credit for the decrease. As noted, students had lost interest in Vietnam. A November antiwar protest fizzled, with student action committees arguing that it “did not refer to French problems” and thus “would get hardly any audience.”43 And some notable protests did occur: a small group of activists hung the National Liberation Front flag from Notre-Dame, and street actions broke out when newly elected President Richard Nixon visited in early 1969.44
Yet Ministry of Foreign Affairs actions had caused changes in French government relations with antiwar protest movements. The repeated push for moves to the provinces or to private locations reflected the ministry's desire for limited protest visibility and attractiveness and a wish to appease the Americans at the cost of French public expression. The government had also become much more proactive. For instance, when Vice President Hubert Humphrey visited in 1967, out-of-control protests forced him to change his car route into Paris and even cancel his dinner plans. The protests that did break out against Nixon were much less volatile, in no small part because the government had had known activists arrested before he arrived.45
Policy Problems and Procedural Changes Post-May
As the chronology indicates, the more restrictive protesting doctrine faced obstacles, and closely examining the move to tighter control over antiwar protests reveals insights into both philosophical concerns facing the government and more basic domestic realities. First, regarding domestic reality, the archives demonstrate the difficulties besetting the inner workings of the French government. As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs attempted to coordinate with the Ministry of the Interior so that its policies could be enforced, it encountered numerous problems. Sometimes these were mundane; Interior and Foreign Affairs had to clarify to whom memos should be addressed, for example, because interoffice mail risked getting lost.46 Obtaining information about protests and protesters posed problems as well. The Ministry of the Interior was responsible for most surveillance and was expected to share its information with the Quai d'Orsay, but Foreign Affairs frequently had to source its own information, much to its dismay. “How regrettable,” one official wrote to a colleague, “that you should have to read L'humanité to keep up!”47 Multiple letters from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs pushed for follow-up and asked for policy enforcement. This nagging led to increasingly sharp responses pointing out that the Ministry of the Interior was doing its job and did not need reminders, causing Foreign Affairs to finally note that they should probably stop bringing the policy up—or risk seriously annoying their colleagues.48
More significantly, the division of tasks between offices highlighted the gap between domestic policy and domestic practice. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs shifted its definition of acceptable protests and set ideal standards of what was permissible, but actually banning protests fell to the Ministry of the Interior. The division between the ministries and their tasks highlighted the separation between desire and enforcement, meaning that in practice policy had to stand down before procedure.
Policy changes, although they may not have been continually enforced to the Quai d'Orsay's desire, are useful in seeing the practical impacts of May–June 1968 on the Gaullist regime. The evolution demonstrates that the government was no longer content to simply observe groups. The changed focus arose in part due to Gaullist foreign policy but also reflected lessons learned from May. When the police protests were evaluated, they looked for direct ties to May: in a memo about banning the July PACS meeting, the police signaled to the Quai d'Orsay that one participant was the brother of May activist Alain Krivine of the JCR. Jean-Michel Krivine had not participated in the JCR, but the reference implied that the connection alone made him a threat.49 Additionally, the proactive move of arresting militants before protests showed unwillingness now to allow protests simply to play out. Finally, the repeated requests for protests to be “discreet” and the insistence that protests be kept out of public space showed that the government was much more aware of the possibilities that could arise from left-wing antiwar activity on the street. The government may have had difficulties coordinating its efforts, but in the aftermath of May it had learned to be wary.
Protest Policy Changes and Evolutions in Franco-American Relations
The glimpses that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs moves offer into changed Franco-American relations are even more revealing. De Gaulle had become known for his public stance against US actions in Vietnam. His repeated calls for a negotiated peace based on self-determination irked the Americans and offered him the opportunity to position France as an international role model.50 But when negotiations became a possibility and Paris appeared on the hosting short list, de Gaulle's tone began to soften. He offered public praise for a Lyndon Johnson negotiating move and publicly supported Paris as the host location for peace talks.51
The desire to host may have provoked the shift in foreign policy, but May doubtless accelerated the improvement in Franco-American relations. At the height of the crisis, just before his infamous trip to Baden-Baden, de Gaulle met with the American ambassador and argued that the United States and France were inextricably linked despite their differences. As he told Sargent Shriver, “At bottom, we are, you and us, in the same camp: of freedom.”52 By aligning himself with the United States in the Cold War, de Gaulle set himself against the Left in France and indicated an opening up to American initiatives.
The United States, moreover, saw clearly what the uprisings offered for American interests. As early as May 28 Ambassador Shriver was reporting back to the United States that “whatever the outcome of present trials, it already is clear that De Gaulle's authority in France will be significantly reduced, and that his standing and France's leverage in the international area will be considerably diminished.” Shriver pointed out that “France's internal problems should encourage any tendencies already at work for De Gaulle to ease off on his anti-American posture” and concluded by remarking that “in general De Gaulle must have need for better relations with US to bolster his reputation at home.”53 On June 4 the embassy reported to Washington that “for [the] short term we can probably expect modulation and rounding of edges in foreign policy. This could mean tactical warming of Franco-American relations, cooling towards Moscow and restraint regarding Vietnam,” and noted hopefully that “cooperation in certain areas could develop, particularly since France will be in trouble financially and doctrine may become less important than pragmatism.”54 The Americans fully intended to use de Gaulle's need for a stronger domestic position in the wake of May to their advantage.
The first post-May ban requested by the United States, of the meeting at Ranelagh in late June–early July, showed the shrewdness with which the United States played its cards and how the Americans worked to curry French favor. Stating that they were worried that the protest might put too much “pressure” on US delegates, the Americans contacted the Quai d'Orsay with the hope that the French could do something. The United States mentioned protesters' connections to the Russell Tribunal, the only pre-May protest blocked outright by the state for interference in foreign affairs. The reference reminded the French that they had blocked activities before and invoked Gaullist power to control the public. The professed concern over “pressure” brought up the French need to present Paris as a suitable, and above all neutral, host city for the ongoing talks, especially in the wake of May. According to a French report, the undersecretary of the American embassy “did not hide his disappointment” on learning that the French police would not ban the protest.55
The Americans badgered the French to act. The undersecretary immediately followed the rejection of the Ranelagh ban by complaining about other protests that had been allowed.56 At one point the undersecretary called twice in one day and then demanded a meeting to get an explanation for why a protest was happening.57 The American ambassador himself called to express his concerns, moving beyond leaving communications to his staff.58 The increased pressure on the French showed an American desire for and expectation of results, indicating an awareness that now their requests might receive a favorable response.
Throughout, the United States flattered the French, demonstrating an awareness of the need to placate France's (or, in their view, de Gaulle's) ego. Banning a protest would, Undersecretary Dean said at one point, be a “token of [France's] goodwill.”59 In another case he told them that he had been embarrassed when a protest took place. He was also disturbed that others seemed to have been planned “without any hindrance from French authorities”—but before he wrote to Washington to explain, he said, he wanted to talk to the French to “hear [their] side of the story.”60 His comments implied that the Americans were giving the French a chance to show that they could control protest activity. In fact, the French, the United States proclaimed, had the power to make sure that negotiations went smoothly. As the ambassador himself said, the French had given “assurances” for a “favorable atmosphere for the talks,” and “it would be regrettable to see this change.”61 The Americans continually played to the French desire to prove that the Gaullist government needed to demonstrate control, remained capable of doing so despite the May disruptions, and was still a significant participant in this key international moment.
The repeated calls for “calm,” “serene,” and “favorable atmospheres” all reflected the importance of the talks to French image. Given that the talks began just as May exploded into real violence, it was ridiculous to proclaim, as Couve de Murville had done, that Paris was the “capital of peace.”62 During May, in fact, the volatile protest had forced the government to underline the need for the French to present the proper attitude as hosts, asking that “our fellow citizens observe a strict reserve and the greatest calm, whatever their sympathy for one or the other [side of the talks].”63 The student newspaper Action quoted the president of the Municipal Council of Paris as being even more direct: “At the moment when Paris, chosen as the meeting site for Vietnam negotiations, thus sees its vocation as capital of peace affirmed, it is inadmissible that a handful of agitators, among whom some are scandalously abusing traditional French hospitality, should indulge in acts of violence that don't even spare the passerby.”64 But even in the aftermath of the disarray, the imagery of a “calm” and “objective” public space recurred. This diplomatic language spoke more to the desired international image that France wished to craft for itself than to the actual, lived reality of 1968 France. French invocations of “calmness” and “serenity” reflected their goal of living up to their new identity as global hosts. The Americans, for their part, willingly played into the French desire to present themselves as holding a significant role in the world by requesting such an atmosphere from the French.
In any case, Quai d'Orsay's reactions showed a desire to placate the United States. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs came to expect US contacts. One internal memo began, “Mr. Dean of course drew my attention to this.”65 The French knew that the United States was “particularly sensitive” about antiwar protests—possibly considering the Americans overly so, as they remarked at one point that American reactions to the potential dangers of protests were “perhaps exaggerated.”66 But repeatedly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs leaped to ban protests as soon as US officials expressed concern, and sometimes even before. The ministry agreed that protests could “pose a problem” for the American delegation and for France's ability to host properly.67 In Quai d'Orsay's favorite phrase, protests would be a “major inconvenience” to the talks and thus needed to be hidden or stopped.68 When faced with US displeasure, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs scrambled to justify itself and maintain good relations.
One major interaction with North Vietnam during this period demonstrates the inclination to please the American side. Learning that gauchiste students who had met with the North wanted to protest, the minister of foreign affairs asked leader Mai Van Bo to get the students to back off. Van Bo listened politely but insisted that there had been no student meeting, that he had no idea that a protest was planned, and that he had in fact given orders to keep his own people off the street. Questioning his remarks, ministry officials reported that they needed to determine if Van Bo was “being genuine.”69 French officials responded to the United States with acquiescence but to the North Vietnamese with distrust.
Even though France publicly proclaimed in September that its foreign policy had not changed, the crackdowns on protest and the attitudes toward the United States demonstrated a clear philo-American shift in French policy.70 The Americans noted this as well. In late July American intelligence reported that “Paris seems to be trying to improve the atmosphere with Washington,” highlighting among other positive moves that “the French are also cooperating much more closely about security matters for the Paris talks.”71 An October telegram from the embassy concluded that “although there were no basic changes in French foreign policy, one result of the May events had been the improved atmosphere of our bilateral relations.”72 Because of domestic disturbances, some foreign relations had smoothed out.
Protest Policy Changes and Ideas on Free Speech
Of particular interest in an examination of French government protest responses is the chance it offers for a look at how the government conceptualized control over free speech. The government never attempted to censor what could be said during Vietnam War protests. Rather, there were attempts to limit where it could be said.
By insisting that commentary against the US government be relegated to the provinces or to closely controlled private locations within the capital, the government emphasized that the practice of free speech included a public-private space component wherein expression in physical public space came under state, and not popular, control. In part, the distinction played into the desire to please the United States. After moving the first protest to the provinces in June, the government noted that “the American Embassy stated it was satisfied with . . . having [meetings] in the provinces.” French officials proposed “that this same rule be applied to all protests, regardless of the political tendency of their organizers, as long as the protest concerns Vietnam, and that this be the rule throughout the Paris Peace Talks.”73 The attempt to control protest location also reflected a desire to maintain the delicate balance between acting as a proper host city, keeping protests under control and obeying, as the government put it, “the demands that freedom of speech and information impose on us.”74 Location change offered the possibility of controlling speech without appearing to violate a key French right.
Moreover, this fight over location of protests continued the battle for control of public presentation of foreign policy that had begun with de Gaulle's ban of the Russell Tribunal from meeting in Paris. As noted, de Gaulle in 1967 reminded Russell Tribunal organizers that the state controlled the judicial realm. At that time, the French government could not allow use of public space that risked putting a veneer of official legality on a French foreign policy view that did not come from the government itself—although it was willing to allow other protests, no matter how large or where situated. But the post-May call for moving Vietnam-connected protests to the provinces went beyond the concern with the legal claims of the speakers, to an attempt to muzzle anti–Vietnam War speech. The government was thus seeking to reserve public speech on an international matter for itself. May ’68 may have allowed for a softening in Franco-American relations, but the government's treatment of protesters showed that its change in opinion meant that French domestic perspectives had hardened. The evolving antiwar protest policies in the aftermath of May highlight the significance of governmental control over the geographic component of free speech.
Protest Changes and Insight into the Vietnam War and May ’68
Finally, looking at the reactions to protests underscores the global nature of the Vietnam War and of developments in France after May 1968. American, North Vietnamese, and French responses to protests in France show that the fight for “victory for Vietnam,” as the French Left put it, extended beyond Asia to the public areas of France and bring out the need to consider the international arena when evaluating post-May France.
American commentary to the French repeatedly reiterated a concern about a negative atmosphere that could harm US chances at the negotiating table. Although the United States was not on trial, as it had been with the Russell Tribunal, the Americans were clearly worried about operating in a hostile environment and, above all, were seeking to create some positive public opinion. Americans flattered the French, but they also believed that Paris needed to be a level playing field. If one side received a larger cheering squad than the other, attitudes at the talks could be affected, and the United States did not want French protests in the streets to tip the balance inside the building.
Similarly, Van Bo's comment about strict orders as to how the Vietnamese community was to act during talks shows the North Vietnamese were also aware that the world was watching. The North had met with French antiwar activists previously, but their hesitation now showed the higher stakes the negotiations posed and the realization that appearances mattered. To borrow a famous phrase, these concerns over protests in France demonstrate that the battle for “hearts and minds” extended beyond the battlefields and towns of Vietnam, spilling into the streets of Paris.
This global nature of the Vietnam War also holds significance for understanding France's role globally in the late 1960s, as well as how the domestic protests of May–June 1968 had a global character. First, the belief that the French could help determine the negotiating atmosphere by monitoring activity on its streets means that the host country has to be considered an important player in the negotiations. The host country's responsibility for crafting a welcoming, or at the very least neutral, atmosphere gave it a role in facilitating the talks that should not be overlooked. Second, however, the overlap between the development of the Vietnam War talks in Paris and the aftermath of the May events cannot be overemphasized. The increased American push for limits on protests came in no small part from the perception that de Gaulle had been weakened in the aftermath of May and thus that his country would be more open to pro-American adjustments. The United States noted in September that the government of France's position “internally and externally was weakened by May–June French crisis.”75 The French desire to appear as better hosts, in control of their capital city and especially amenable to US demands that would result in a “calm, objective atmosphere” no doubt came from the need to reestablish Gaullist power and French positioning internationally in the wake of May.
Analysis of the Quai d'Orsay archives demonstrates the significance of changes in antiwar protests during 1968. This study adds to our understanding of Franco-American relations by delineating the shifted power dynamic between France and the United States as they worked out host relations. It expands Journoud's exposition of the shift in French foreign policy before May by highlighting the practical steps France took to indicate its new pro-American stance. It adds to Vietnam War studies by illuminating the importance of the host location to understanding how the peace talks played out. It augments work on May ’68 by showing that, whereas expected cultural, educational, and social changes may not have occurred, the protests had key ramifications on foreign policy and, by extension, on domestic policy.
Research into the Asie-Océanie division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the aftermath of the 1968 protests serves as a significant reminder that the impact of May did not develop in a French vacuum. Rather, changes after May were influenced by domestic and international factors. In considering how French domestic experience evolved after May, the examination of French government reactions to anti–Vietnam War protest activities demonstrates that a global perspective is required.
The author would like to thank the anonymous readers, editors Don Reid and Daniel Sherman, and the insightful participants of the “May ’68: New Approaches, New Perspectives” conference at the National Humanities Center in February 2017 for their excellent suggestions. Research for this project was completed with the help of funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Coe College's Beahl and Irene H. Perrine Faculty Fellowship, and the Society for the History of American Foreign Relations' William Appleman Williams Junior Faculty Research Grant. An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2013 Western Society for French History annual conference.
1. Vietnam, “21 février”; Le monde, “Manifestations en France et à l'étranger”; Le Figaro, “Huit mille personnes”; L'humanité, “Manifestation au quartier Latin.” Anticolonial Day, originally used to oppose colonialism during the Algerian War, had been revived by young leftists to protest the Vietnam War starting in 1967. For more information on the demonstration, see Keenan, “‘Vietnam Is Fighting for Us,’” 229, 248–53.
2. Le monde, “Un meeting du Comité Vietnam jeudi à la Mutualité”; Direction Centrale des Renseignments Généraux, “La ‘Journée Anticolonialiste du 21 février,” Mar. 6, 1969, Archives Diplomatiques du Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, Corneuve, série Asie-Océanie sous-série Conflit Vietnam (hereafter AOCV) no. 185.
3. In a chapter Geneviève Dreyfus-Armand and Jacques Portes situate the French protest movement within the larger sphere of international student activism, arguing that student activity varied by country and served not as a catalyst but as a point de fixation that allowed protesters to engage with “American imperialism, fascination for the third world, the romanticism of wars of liberation.” See Dreyfus-Armand and Portes, “Les interactions internationales,” 68. More recent work that concentrates on the specific experiences of France includes Keenan, “‘Vietnam Is Fighting for Us,’” and Keenan's study of the French-American group the Paris American Committee to Stopwar, “‘At the Crossroads of World Attitudes and Reaction.’” Pierre Journoud's study of diplomatic relations, De Gaulle et le Vietnam, highlights the significance of student activism to de Gaulle's diplomatic actions during the Vietnam War. Key works also include Laurent Jalabert's study of student activism and Nicolas Pas's dissertation and the article drawn from it: Jalabert, “Aux origines de la génération 1968”; Pas, “Sortir de l'ombre du Parti Communiste Français”; Pas, “‘Six heures pour le Vietnam.’” These works hold that Vietnam War protests served as a catalyst for the events of May ’68.
4. On Gaullism and Vietnam, see esp. Journoud, De Gaulle et le Vietnam; and Martin, General de Gaulle's Cold War. Baulon, “Mai 68 et la réconciliation franco-américaine,” does an excellent job of laying out how French foreign policy transitioned to a more philo-American stance after the events.
5. See, e.g., Gardner and Gittinger, Search for Peace in Vietnam; Asselin, Bitter Peace; and Kimball, Nixon's Vietnam War.
6. Suri, Power and Protest, 213. Suri gives considerable space to the French 1968 protests earlier in the book but discusses events after June 1968 only briefly and ends his analysis of the French situation with de Gaulle's loss of power, which occurred as détente took off. While I agree with Suri that “De Gaulle had never regained the self-confidence he lost in May 1968” (194), my study shows that, like the other superpowers Suri discusses, French leaders as well turned to cooperation at an international level while working to clamp down on protests domestically.
7. While the French Left did repeatedly attempt to undermine de Gaulle's stance—notably via very public displays countering Gaullist diplomacy when American vice president Hubert Humphrey visited in 1967—the government let protests continue. For information on the Humphrey protests, see Keenan, “‘Vietnam Is Fighting for Us,’” 108–17; for more on interactions between the French Left and the Gaullist government over the Vietnam War, see Keenan, “‘Flattering the Little Sleeping Rooster.’”
8. Charles de Gaulle to Jean-Paul Sartre, Apr. 19, 1967, in Sartre, Situations, VIII, 44. Pas discusses how members of the Comité Vietnam National combined their Vietnam War committee work and their tribunal work: “Sortir de l'ombre du Parti Communiste Français,” esp. 189–96.
9. “fm amembassy paris [McBride] to ruehc/secstate washdc,” Dec. 29, 1966, National Security Files, box 172, France, vol. 9, 1/66–9/66: cables (1 of 2), Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, Austin, TX.
10. Prefecture of Police to Foreign Ministry, Mar. 21, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
11. On the increase of protests in the months leading up to May, see Keenan, “‘Vietnam Is Fighting for Us,’” 229–66.
12. The prefecture of police informed the Foreign Ministry on May 14 that, while so far things had been calm, there was a risk that if a delegation from South Vietnam arrived and was protested by “Vietnamese favorable to North Vietnam, or French far-left organizations, students favorable to South Vietnam would immediately hit back with matching protests.” It is unclear which groups the police meant here by “far left,” as both the Maoist and Trotskyist groups had been actively protesting Vietnam before May, but the reference to “students favorable to South Vietnam” likely refers to the violent far-right group Occident, which had clashed with left-wing students repeatedly at Vietnam-centered events in the months leading up to May. Préfecture de Police, “Confidentiel,” Paris, AOCV no. 185.
13. “Le peuple vietnamien vaincra!,” May 9, 1968, tract 4602, and “La manifestation du dimanche 12 mai est reporté,” no date, tract 4603, Bibliothèque Nationale de France. My thanks to Salar Mohandesi for providing me with copies of these documents.
14. Garrison, “Policemen in Paris Storm Student-Held Barricades.” The New York Times also reported that, once workers joined the students and sparked mass strikes, the French government had taken steps to make sure that the talks were not disturbed, including placing “hundreds of policemen” at the Hôtel Crillon and securing a power plant to guarantee that electricity would not be cut off. Hess, “General Strike to Back Students Starts in France.”
15. Seidman, Imaginary Revolution, 143.
16. Prefecture of Police, June 21, 1968, AOCV no. 185. The volume of antiwar protests dropped precipitously in the aftermath of May and moved from being led by gauchistes to being held primarily by the French Communist Party. On the reduction in activism, see Keenan, “‘Vietnam Is Fighting for Us,’” 269–305.
17. “Meeting notes,” May 29, 1968, Paris American Committee to Stopwar (PACS), box 1/meetings, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison.
18. Jalabert, “Aux origines de la génération 1968,” 78.
19. E. M. Manac'h to Le Cabinet du Ministre [Monsieur Bruno de Leusse], Paris, July 2, 1968, AOCV no. 185. Declassified American intelligence shows US concern about the meeting as an attempt to continue the Russell Tribunal, noting that “this meeting will constitute the first of three sessions of the IWCT [International War Crimes Tribunal] in Paris, although there will be no official or overt acknowledgment of that fact,” and listing in detail all known participants and plans. CIA Intelligence Information Cable, June 28, 1968, www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/DOC_0005430982.pdf.
20. E. M. Manac'h to Le Cabinet du Ministre.
21. “Note pour le cabinet du ministre,” June 28, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
22. “Note Pour le Cabinet du Ministre a/s manifestations pour le Vietnam,” Paris, July 11, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
23. “Note Pour le Cabinet du Ministre a/s manifestations pour le Vietnam”; Le Ministre des Affaires Etrangères à Monsieur le Ministre de l'Intérieur, Paris, July 12, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
24. Le Ministre des Affaires Etrangères à Monsieur le Ministre de l'Intérieur.
25. The Asie-Océanie files do not indicate how many protests were moved to the provinces.
26. At this protest, teams from the Communist Mouvement de la Paix delivered petitions to the US consulate, which did not want to receive any delegations. Monsieur de Beaumarchais, de la part d'Yves Delahaye, July 22, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
27. Monsieur de Beaumarchais, de la part d'Yves Delahaye.
28. Préfecture de Police, July 25, 1968, AOCV no. 185; Le Ministre de l'Intérieur à Monsieur le Ministre des Affaires Etrangères, Paris, July 30, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
29. Léo Hamon to Maria Jolas, Aug. 1, 1968, Paris, box 1/PACS dissolution papers, Wisconsin Historical Society. Le monde reported that a source had told it that the meeting “had been banned due its public nature, incompatible, they specified, with the current undertaking of international conversations in Paris” (“Précisions sur l'interdiction à Paris”).
30. J. le Blanc, “Re: l'Huma,” n.d., AOCV no. 185.
31. E. Manac'h to Aubert, and H. Alphand to Aubert, Paris, Oct. 1, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
32. Note, Oct. 5, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
33. France-soir, “Un groupement parisien de pacifistes U.S. interdit.”
34. New York Times, “Antiwar Americans Curbed by France.” For more details on PACS and its dissolution, see Keenan, “‘At the Crossroads of World Attitudes and Reaction.’”
35. Memorandum of Conversation: Washington, Oct. 11, 1968. Subject: US-French Relations; Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia; the Middle East; and Viet Nam, quoted in Miller, Western Europe, 85.
36. Le monde, July 30, 1968.
37. Le monde, “M. Claude Bourdet s'élève.”
38. E. Manac'h, Paris, Oct. 15, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
39. Note, Paris, Oct. 15, 1968, and note, Oct. 18, 1968, AOCV no. 185. The Interior Ministry refused to ban the protest because ministry officials felt that it did meet the requirements of a “private” meeting.
40. Le Ministres des Affaires Etrangères à Monsieur le Ministre de l'Intérieur, Paris, Oct. 23, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
41. Préfet de Police report, Jan. 10, 1969, AOCV no. 185; Direction Centrales des Renseignements Généraux, Paris, Feb. 7, 1969, “La Campagne Communiste en Faveur du Vietnam,” AOCV no. 185. Handwritten notes from the Foreign Ministry on both documents question if the protest locations are truly private.
42. President's Daily Brief, Oct. 18, 1968, www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/DOC_0005976415.pdf.
43. Le monde, “‘La journée pour la paix au Vietnam.’”
44. Le monde, “Le drapeau du FNL a flotté dimanche”; Le monde, “L'agitation pour l'arrivée du Président Nixon.”
45. Le monde, “L'agitation pour l'arrivée du Président Nixon.”
46. J. le Blanc to M. Delahaye, Paris, Oct. 5, 1968, AOCV no. 185. Instructions on how to address mail sought to avoid a “rather significant delay.”
47. EM to Le Blanc, Paris, Sept. 20, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
48. Ministre de l'Intérieur à Monsieur le Ministre des Affaires Etrangères, Paris, Jan. 30, 1969, AOCV no. 185.
49. Préfecture de Police, July 25, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
50. On the evolutions in Gaullist foreign policy, see Baulon, “Mai 68 et la réconciliation franco-américaine”; Martin, General de Gaulle's Cold War; and Journoud, De Gaulle et le Vietnam.
51. Hess, “De Gaulle Praises Action by Johnson”; Frankel, “U.S. Accepts Hanoi's Plan to Begin in about a Week.” Journoud places de Gaulle's shift at this pre-May moment (De Gaulle et le Vietnam, 309–11).
52. Hess, “De Gaulle Cites Ties with U.S.”
53. Embassy in France to the Department of State, May 28, 1968, Paris, quoted in Miller, Western Europe, 79.
54. AmEmbassy Paris to SecState WashDC, “Situation Report Noon June 4,” June 4, 1968, National Security File, Country File: France, box 173, vol. 13, cables (1 of 2), 1/68–7/68, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library.
55. Note, Paris, July 5, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
56. Note, Paris, July 5, 1968, AOCV no. 185. The protest was an organized march to deliver petitions to mark the Geneva convention. While he complained that the protests were “an act of propaganda and a means of pressuring the American delegation in Paris,” Undersecretary Dean ended by noting that “as a rule . . . [the US team] was not receiving any delegation [of protesters] at all” (note, Paris, July 5, 1968, AOCV no. 185), thus indicating that the United States was doing its own part on French soil to limit protest efficacy.
57. J. le Blanc to E. Manac'h, Paris, Sept. 23, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
58. Note, Oct. 18, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
59. J. le Blanc, “re: l'Huma,” Sept. 19, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
60. J. le Blanc to E. Manac'h.
61. Note, Oct. 18, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
62. Tanner, “France Expects Full Peace Talks Will Come in Paris.”
63. Th., “Au conseil des ministres.”
64. Action, “Chiens de garde.”
65. JlB to Manac'h, Paris, Sept. 30, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
66. Note, Oct. 18, 1968, AOCV no. 185; “Note Pour le Cabinet du Ministre a/s manifestations pour le Vietnam.”
67. Note, Oct. 18, 1968; “Note Pour le Cabinet du Ministre a/s manifestations pour le Vietnam.”
68. See, e.g., a letter from the Foreign Ministry to the Interior, where the minister noted, “I feel obligated to call your attention to the major inconvenience that the continuation of these protests would cause if they did not take place under conditions of extreme discretion.” Le Ministre des Affaires Etrangères à Monsieur le Ministre de l'Intérieur, Paris, Oct. 23, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
69. Le Ministre des Affaires Etrangères à Monsieur le Ministre de l'Intérieur, Paris, Nov. 22, 1968, AOCV no. 185.
70. New York Times, “Debre Says Foreign Policy of France Will Not Change.”
71. President's Daily Brief, July 27, 1968, www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/DOC_0005976273.pdf.
72. Telegram from the Embassy in France to the Department of State, Paris, Sept. 2, 1968, 1827Z, quoted in Miller, Western Europe, 84.
73. “Note Pour le Cabinet du Ministre a/s manifestations pour le Vietnam.”
74. Le Ministre des Affaires Etrangères à Monsieur le Ministre de l'Intérieur, Paris, July 12, 1968.
75. Telegram from the Embassy in France to the Department of State, quoted in Miller, Western Europe, 83.