Amid the protests of 1968, a group of journalists took French football leaders hostage
“What characterises our public life at the moment is boredom. The French are bored. They play no part, from close or from afar, in the great convulsions which are shaking the world. [...] Our youth is bored. Students are demonstrating and fighting in Spain, Italy, Belgium, Algeria, Japan, America, Egypt, Germany —even in Poland. They feel that they have something to conquer, a voice of protest they want to be heard, [while] French students concern themselves with questions such as whether the girls of Nanterre and Antony [universities] will be allowed to have free access to the boys’ bedrooms — a somewhat limited conception of human rights.”
François Viansson-Ponté of Le Monde wrote those words on 15 March 1968. A week later, a group of those sex-mad students, 150 of them at most, shook off their boredom and stormed the administrative quarters of the University of Nanterre and occupied its eighth floor, calling for the release of six extreme left-wing militants who’d been arrested after the sack of the American Express HQ in Paris — a violent but mostly symbolic attack on US imperialism at the height of the Vietnam War, one of several sporadic explosions of unrest which had pricked France’s apathy for several months but which no one, and certainly not Viansson-Ponté, had guessed would lead to what is now known as the ‘failed revolution’(‘la révolution manquée’) of 1968.
In my native Yvetot, a market town where no one had any recollection of anything ever happening since German bombers had razed most of it in 1940, by mistake it seems, the news that a few excitable admirers of Leon Trotsky and, hard as it is to believe today, Lin Biao and Mao Zedong, had made nuisances of themselves on a university campus barely created a stir. A benign sun was shining on the peaceful countryside. Teachers taught their stuff, catechism, history, geology, using books that my grandfather would have been familiar with. Farmers attended the twice-weekly market on the main square, some of them still wearing the traditional blue serge blouse which stopped just short of their knobbly knees. I was cutting out pictures of George Best from France Football (the organ of the establishment, not that I knew anything of it) and Le Miroir du Football (of which more later) after Manchester United had seen off Górnik Zabrze in the quarter-finals of the European Cup. Young as I was, I soon realised that an unusual wind had freshened in Paris, strengthened into a squall, then a hurricane we were all caught in. It started with queues at petrol stations, where pickets from the Communist Confédération Générale du Travail, the most powerful and best-organised trade union at the time, made sure that the local bourgeois drove off with an empty tank, sending them on their way with a satisfied smirk. A neighbour of ours, who’d been in trickier spots before (Chad just before the decolonisation) took to placing a .22 pistol in his Citroën’s glove compartment, “just in case”, which at the time seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do. My school’s gates were kept locked at all times, except when we lined up mornings and afternoons to slip in and out like monks heading for the cloister, manned by an odd chap who kept surveying the soles of his shoes as if he’d trodden in the remains of last week’s run-over cat. The yard where we played five-, six-, or seven-a-side echoed with cries of ‘mine!’, but we could sense, innocent as we were, that thunder was rumbling beyond the horse-chestnut trees that dotted the gravelly surface.
The clouds took a while to gather. More people saw Saint Étienne make a huge step towards securing the first of the four doubles in their history by beating Bordeaux 2-1 in the French Cup final, played on 12 May at the Stade de Colombes, than demonstrated in the streets of Paris that day. A crowd of 70,000 greeted the victors when they paraded the trophy in their home town on the 13th, whereas less than a third of that number responded to the call of the main left-wing parties and trade unions to march from the Place de la République to Denfert-Rochereau in the capital. The great Rachid Mekhloufi, the undisputed star of the 1958 Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front) team, who’d been forced into a brief exile — to Servette, in Switzerland — once his country had acquired the independence he’d fought for, in 1962, scored twice as he brought the curtain down on his career with Les Verts. The figurehead of the struggle against the French imperium was known to feel sympathy for the youth who, looking for “beaches under the cobbles” and praising Ho Chi Minh, faced the baton charges of the feared anti-riot police on a daily basis. But Mekhloufi, like all other footballers, kept his counsel. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, aka Dany the Red, the French-born German spokesman of the 22 March Movement, later to become a Green MEP and a regular on French TV sports shows, did not mention his love of the game when cameramen and reporters sought him out in the teargas mists1. Football was a proletarian sport in France then — and still is — but those who called for the destruction of the established order on behalf of and for the benefit of the prolétariat turned their noses up at the smoke rising from the people’s opium pipe. As the country veered between chaos and paralysis, ending with a strange mix of both, two discourses took hold. One was the preserve of a hyperactive, militant minority, which championed a utopian ‘year zero’, a concept which borrowed its constituent parts from Lenin, Bakunin, Proudhon, McLuhan, rock’n’roll and the situationnistes alike, in no particular order; it was adhered to and fiercely debated by the romantics of May ’68, some of whom chose to ‘opt out’ after the events and can now be found herding goats in the depths of rural France. The other, not quite knowing what to do with itself, whispered in parlours and churches until Général De Gaulle called on the bourgeoisie to reclaim the streets, which they did, decisively, but very late in the day, which doesn’t mean that the forces of reaction won. Consumerism did. The ‘failed revolution’ went out with a whimper on the back of multiple covenants, mostly pay-rises and generous holiday arrangements of which public sector workers were the chief beneficiaries. At first, the Communists, who could count on the support of a quarter of the electorate, had been scared stiff by the anarchic nature of the movement. Then the Party set its apparatus in motion to channel this explosion of revolutionary feeling into the more disciplined kind of protest which they were used to managing. Some aftershocks notwithstanding, France could be bored again. Their larders and fridges replenished, the masses went back to work, the café and the stadium; it had taken a little under three months for the system to right itself.
Football — as an event or as a spectacle — had only been superficially affected by the events of May 1968. There was a simple explanation to that: the domestic season was already drawing to a close when the thousands who’d taken to the streets to the streets in March and April turned into millions. The first division title had been Saint-Étienne’s to lose from the first days of spring onward and France had, not for the first time, failed to qualify for the European Nations Cup. The 1967-68 campaign was to all intents and purposes over when strikes multiplied with extraordinary speed and vehemence2.
True, there was frustration among the more dedicated fans at missing out on Manchester United’s European Cup Wembley triumph on 29 May and, to a lesser extent, the European semi-finals that took place in Italy from 5 to 10 June. The French state broadcasting monopoly had stopped transmitting its normal output as early as 17 May, five days after Saint Étienne’s victory in the Coupe de France, and would stick to a ‘minimum service’ until 23 June, which meant that no live sport was shown on television. But these were mere disruptions, not a revolution. What almost no one realised at the time, and almost everyone has forgotten since, is that French football — a section of it, admittedly — did stage its own insurrection and that, had it not been for some unfortunate timing and lack of decisiveness at a crucial point in the protest, might easily have changed the face of the game altogether in the country. This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. While football’s rulers conformed to the type that was to be found in other European countries — gentlemen of a certain age who were suspicious of change and leant to the right of centre — a number of France’s foremost sporting figures made no secret of their left-wing sympathies. The Saint-Étienne manager Albert Batteux, who, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, had taken Stade de Reims and les Bleus to a level that no French club or national side had attained before, was not nicknamed ‘le rouge-gorge’ (‘the robin’) for nothing . He could warble like a songbird, but also, more importantly, he was un rouge, the author of columns which were regularly printed in the Communist press. For him, football was an instrument of social transformation, as it showed how the freedom and desires of the individual need not be stifled by the recognition that the collectif had to prevail; quite the opposite, in fact. Another of those rouges was Just Fontaine, the World Cup’s record goalscorer, the former national team manager (in 1967) and the first chairman of the French players’ trade union, the UNFP, which he’d set up in 1961 with the help of another progressiste, the Cameroon-born Eugène N’Jo Léa, in order to put an end what he called the “slave-like status” of the pros, an expression which was also used by the man then considered France’s greatest-ever footballer, Raymond Kopa. The views and values of these men — who were far from the exception in a milieu in which badly-paid players called themselves workers (travailleurs), just as others did on the factory floor — were also those of the already-cited Miroir du Football. Despite being published by Les Éditions J, a Communist-controlled company, the Miroir did not tread the orthodox Party line and promoted a ‘progressive’ agenda whose foundations were ethical rather than stricto sensu political. And it was the men behind Le Miroir who were to initiate one of the most remarkable coups of that troubled period: the storming of the French FA headquarters and the sequestration of some of its highest-ranking officials within it.
The idea was first floated in mid-May at a dinner party organised at the home of one of the magazine’s most eloquent writers, Pierre Lameignère. His flat was located in the heart of the Latin Quarter in Paris, a stone’s throw away (le mot juste) from the scene of some of the most brutal clashes between demonstrators and the CRS in the spring of 1968. His editor François Thébaud was among the guests that night. Meeting again a few days later, the two men, joined by a number of friends, mostly recruited from the club for which they played Sunday football, APSAP Bretonneau, resolved to take action. They were following a popular trend: the occupation of landmarks such as the Odéon Theatre, the Sorbonne university and the Renault and Citroën factories had been a recurrent tactic of protesters since the beginning of the troubles. Violence would not be resorted to. There would be no sack of the luxurious hôtel particulier of 60 Avenue d’Iéna. The aim was not to overthrow the current regime, despised as it may be, but to force the federation’s panjandrums to listen to their demands, and, given the publicity that the occupation of the headquarters would undoubtedly generate, make it a necessity to open the national debate on the state of the game which Le Miroir craved. Anything and everything was possible, be it to re-invent society or to transform football. It was a heady scent that was carried by the breeze in that month of May.
A few days were spent monitoring the comings and goings in and out of the federation’s head office; a small vanguard of conspirators patrolled the area on scooters and bicycles, evaluating the number of people in the building at any given time and the resistance the invaders could expect to meet. On the given day, on the morning of May 22 , sixty-odd men, divided into three groups, one per exit of the Iéna metro station, made their way to the building and waited for the agreed signal. As one of them bent over as if to tie a shoe-lace, ten others, led by an oil company engineer called Jean-Pierre Lemeaux, entered the FA’s marble halls, soon followed by their accomplices. The organisers of the operation had made sure that none of the first intruders worked for Le Miroir. Journalists would have been recognised by the ushers, refused entry, leading to the kind of confrontation which Thébaud and Lameignière wanted to avoid. The general secretary of the FFF, Pierre Delaunay, Fernand Sastre, who was to become its chairman a year later, and George Boulogne, who would soon be named national team manager, were led to safe rooms and ordered not to leave the premises. Boulogne, in particular, was fuming, but, contrary to what he later suggested, no blows were exchanged, no insults were traded. The plan had, so far, been executed to perfection. A banner was unfurled and suspended from the first floor balcony. It read: LE FOOTBALL AUX FOOTBALLEURS — “football for footballers”. A second one proclaimed, “The FFF, the property of 600,000 footballers”, that is, of all those who held a licence, be they amateurs or professionals. Volunteers, posted outside the main entrance, handed out leaflets in which the newly-formed Comité d’action des footballeurs outlined its demands: abolition of the eight-month season, which made it illegal to stage games outside of the period defined by the FFF; abolition of the ‘B’ licence, which prevented players moving from one club to the other; abolition of the ‘slave contract’ which professionals had no choice but to sign if they wanted a job; abolition of automatic fixed-term contracts, to be replaced by freely agreed covenants of variable duration; integration of active footballers within football governing bodies; and a typically soixante-huitard call for the ‘dismissal of football’s profiteers and incompetent pseudo-benefactors’, which made it all the more puzzling that Marcel Leclerc — the chairman of Olympique de Marseille, not one to miss an opportunity — had agreed to have his name and signature added to the application form of the Comité d’Action.
Leaving that last request aside, none of the demands seem particularly revolutionary in 2013. In fact, all of them, bar that for the significant representation of players within statutory bodies, carry — today, if they did not then — a distinctly liberal flavour and were eventually met, even if Jean-Marc Bosman’s lawyers only won their case in 1995. But stopping at specifics would be wrong. The flamboyant rhetoric in which those demands were dressed in by the activists was in many ways more revelatory of the Committee’s true intent. These men dreamt of a football in which every participant would be a valued stakeholder, a football the pyramidal top-to-bottom structure of which would be flipped over. This, and not the brief captivity of some of its most powerful employees, is why the FFF took fright and, without any discernible irony, denounced the “anti-democratic” nature of the protest. Within the building itself, the occupiers behaved impeccably, offering an apéritif to their hostages before sending them on their way as the sun was coming down. A small group of volunteers, all of them unmarried, set up camp for the night, laden with food prepared by the wives of those who’d left, uncorking what veterans of this action say was a prodigious number of bottles of wine, before repairing to the FFF’s private cinema where they played spool after spool of the federation’s Super-8 film archives. Some day, some night.
The operation could only truly succeed, however, if the media reported it widely enough to enable the protesters to enter the second phase of their action. The aim was to use the FFF’s HQ as an agora for French football as a whole and stage discussion forums to which amateurs as well as professionals would be invited, true to the spirit of ‘self-management’ which had inspired almost all of Mai 68’s most admirable actions. Some footballers of renown got in touch, Rachid Mekhloufi among them, as well as the former France international striker Yvon Douis, by then playing for AS Cannes, who assured the occupiers of his support. A far greater number of players from lower-division clubs of the Paris region visited the Avenue d’Iéna: it was the very first time that footballers had been allowed within the FFF’s inner sanctum, as one of the federation’s apparatchiks observed at the time. But whatever interest was shown within the world of football itself, far too much was happening elsewhere for newspapers and independent radio stations, the sole sources of information in those TV-free days, to devote any significant space or airtime to the Quixotes of Iéna. Those who did — Le Figaro, L’Humanité, the former Gaullist, the latter Communist — derided their deed as an empty, meaningless, slightly ludicrous gesture. It is true that the peaceful occupation of the FFF coincided with far graver events, such as the torching of the Paris Stock Exchange and the second ‘night of the barricades’ on May 24, one of the most violent episodes of the failed revolution3. The foreign media showed a modicum of curiosity, but mostly to use the event as an illustration of the more eccentric side of the tremors shaking old, crusty France. A couple of US TV crews paid a visit to the ‘hostage takers’, the Times despatched one of its reporters to meet them, as did La Gazzetta dello Sport. And that was all. The lack of coverage, especially at home, was one of the main factors behind the decision of the football enragés to leave the Avenue d’Iéna after a mere five days, to concentrate on “alternative types of action”. It wasn’t a lack of courage that made them stop in their tracks. They proved it by carrying on fighting within new organisations such as the Association Française des Footballeurs and the Mouvement Football-Progrès4, making themselves pariahs once the old order had been re-established, which was promptly, on the heels of the Gaullist tsunami at the June parliamentary elections. True to their ideals, they believed that dialogue was the way forward, when direct confrontation with the football authorities would — perhaps — have caused the chain reaction in the game’s grassroots which they’d hoped to provoke in the first instance. Jacques Ferran, the editor of France Football, while recognising that the rebels had acted with the best interests of football at heart and had, indeed, come up with some genuinely interesting proposals, could dismiss their operation as “a sword slash in the water”. As so often happens in fights of this kind, it was child’s play for the FFF to address some points of detail in their desiderata, the abolition of the ‘B’ licence, for example and, by yielding a little, recover the power that might have been subverted by more forceful action.
What Lameignère, Thébaud and their friends dreamt of was a transformation of the game as a whole, not just the improvement of the working conditions enjoyed, if that’s the word, by professional footballers in 1968. The real ‘kidnapping’ had been that of the demands they’d made in their leaflets, demands which the UNFP appropriated soon afterwards, but not from the perspective of a popular movement: as a corporation defending the interests of its members and nothing or nobody else. In 2007, Michel Platini, campaigning against Lennart Johansson in the run-up to the UEFA presidential elections, made “le football aux footballeurs” his slogan. Did he remember the banner which was hung over the balcony at 60 Avenue d’Iéna? Or was it not, rather, history repeating itself, first as (some sort of) tragedy, second as a farce? Like Arsenal and Chelsea playing the apocalyptic ‘London Calling’ at 130 decibels on their PA sound systems before kick-off? The enragés of ’68 had believed they could write that history and ended up as one of its footnotes.