Bicycle swarms in Paris 1968

The bicycle swarm that has been created during the Occupy Portland movement of 2011, brings to mind Daniel Behrman’s sympathetic but cynical remembrance of another place and time—Paris in 1968—when ordinary people on bicycles became a constructive part of drama in the streets. Although the two stories differ in major ways, both portray the humane and peaceful roles that bicycle riders can play in the never-ending tragic comedy of people against power.

Behrman was an American writer and editor who worked in Paris for much of his career. His book The Man Who Loved Bicycles: The Memoirs of an Autophobe recounts his life as aggressive cyclist and impassioned social critic.

I must confess that Behrman’s account of Paris leaves me confused. Prominent among the players in his morality play are the Gaullians whom he distinguishes from the Gaullists he had known in 1944 when he was part of the U.S. Army liberating France. “Gaullians never strike out,” he says, “Gaullians always win.  If the scoreboard says they’re losing, they get a new scorekeeper.”

Gaullians are people with enough money and position to be relatively comfortable and easily threatened. They need enough order to feel safe and enough freedom to leave town when they feel threatened. They know how to use the possibility of disorder to control the people. So it was, says Behrman that the street drama in 1968 “gave de Gaulle a stick that he used a few days later to beat the living fear of God into the middle-class middling muddling Parisians. Now things were serious, la patrie might or might not have been in danger, de Gaulle certainly was.”

Augustans are the second group in the Parisian street drama. They are named for the month of August, when the Gaullians had fled the city and only a few had remained behind enjoying the empty city with “boulevard, cafés and avenues aslumber.”

Behman numbers himself among the Augustans, a name he likes “because it has dignity.” During the Paris uprisings, he bicycled all around the action, observing what was taking place, talking with people, and noting the contrasts and contradictions. “At the nadir of the Gaullians,” be observes, “there were no more wheels in the streets of Paris, except for the high-spoked whirring discs of bicycles, mind and others.”

As I reflect upon Behrman’s narrative, and the Portland story so many years later, I realize afresh that the struggle between people and power continues across the generations. It often is staged in the streets, with different players and varied plots. As is the case with well-crafted drama, we know how it will end, even though we do not know the twists and turns of how that denouement will be reached.

Even when movements of the people achieve remarkable success, with the Civil Rights Movement a notable example, privileged power reemerges, perhaps with different personnel and patterns, but with similar characteristics to those that have existed across the generations. Jesus once said that the poor are always with us. He might also have reminded us that so are the Gaullists.

The people properly rejoice in subtle changes that improve their lot and open the way to new possibilities. Talking with a “freedom fighter” following the May drama, Behrman said “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

“No they don’t,” the man retorted, and then he recounted the changes that had occurred in the government office where he worked: greater dignity between supervisors and staff, modest improvement of hours and working conditions, and significantly increased sensitivity among the executives who had taken privileges for granted.

Bicycle riders who come and go irrespective of times and conditions, are distinctive players in dramas in the streets. On their fragile but highly mobile machines they combine impertinence and patience in a way that enables them to lighten moods and maintain a humane quality in encounters between stress-filled masses in the streets.

One final thought, which in Behrman’s narrative is the most important: Augustan bicyclists are people who stick it out and stay even when the passions have played out and the drama has come to an end. He concludes his chapter by referring to another demonstration when “five or six thousand young demonstrators on bicycles tied Paris up in April 1972.”

Although he was in Brittany at the time, “two of my bikes were there [in Paris], borrowed by a couple of American girls.”

“I do not know exactly what the Paris bike-in was all about,” Behrman continues. “What I do know is that the following week, on a cold wet day, I was riding a bicycle in the city and, as usual, was an oddity. Out in the rain, I had only the traffic cops for company. The summer soldiers and sunshine cyclists were nowhere to be seen.”

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