When the streets of Paris erupted in protest, Reg Lancaster was on the frontlines.
Reg Lancaster/Getty Images
Published May 22, 2018
Published 3 months ago
The pressure had been building since the early '60s, but in the spring and summer of 1968, the world finally erupted. Riots, protests, assassinations (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and others), and an intensifying war in Vietnam shook the foundations of entire countries. Nowhere were the upheavals felt more keenly than in France — specifically, in the streets of Paris, where hundreds of thousands of students and workers went on strike, marched, and fought police for weeks on end in the spring of '68. Photographer Reg Lancaster, who worked for London's Daily Express for 44 years, was there — and he recently told FOTO that, all these years later, he recalls that thrilling, unsettling time as if it was yesterday. Pictured: Students and police clash during the Paris riots, May 1968.
Reg Lancaster/Getty ImagesAll for OneLancaster, now 83 years old, photographed conflicts, celebrities, political icons, and everyday life in scores of countries during his career, but Paris in 1968 was special. "It was an absolutely incredible year," he told FOTO. "So many terrible things happened, like the murders of MLK and Bobby Kennedy, but it was an exciting time to be a journalist. You could feel a change in the air." The protests in Paris began in the early spring when university students and teachers called for demonstrations against the conservative government of President Charles de Gaulle, the war in Vietnam, and other targets — including what protesters saw as the threat of American militarism around the globe. Workers soon joined the protests. Pictured: Protesters in Paris, May 30, 1968.
Reg Lancaster/Getty ImagesIn on the ActionAt the height of the protests in mid-May, millions of French workers were on strike (demanding higher wages and more control of factories), universities were closed, and students and other Parisians routinely clashed with police. For Reg Lancaster and his colleagues, covering the rapidly unfolding events meant walking miles every day. Driving around the city was out of the question; the unrest made it impossible for owners of private cars to find gasoline. "My feet were so swollen from walking around Paris that they didn't fit into a new pair of shoes I bought for a trip back to see my parents in Scotland," Lancaster recalled. "But it was a case of walk, or miss the action. I wasn't going to miss the action." Pictured: A policeman hurls a tear gas canister during riots in Paris, 1968.Reg Lancaster/Getty ImagesBlood in the StreetsOne of the most remarkable aspects of the Paris protests was their sheer duration: the city endured intense street clashes for months. (Pictured: The scene after a demonstration in Paris turned violent.) Violent political demonstrations are not unknown today, of course. From the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, for example, to bloody and even fatal skirmishes between anti-fascists and neo-Nazis in places like Charlottesville, Virginia, America's streets do occasionally erupt in chaos. But huge, largely peaceful marches have been the norm, especially since November 2016 — and no developed nation has seen sustained, militant, mass protests on the scale of those that convulsed Paris and so many other cities and towns around the globe in 1968.Reg Lancaster/Getty ImagesBundled up for SafetyThis picture shows Reg Lancaster in the middle of the action during the Paris riots. "Most of the photographers took to wearing helmets," Lancaster told FOTO, "against the rocks that the protesters threw at the police. We wore goggles, and usually a handkerchief or bandana around the nose and mouth against the tear gas the police were firing everywhere." For part of the time he was shooting in Paris, Lancaster paired off with a fellow English photographer, Alexander Macmillan; both of them, Lancaster noted proudly, wore helmets in British racing green. Today Alex Macmillan is a member of the House of Lords and goes by the title the 2nd Earl of Stockton. His grandfather was Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister from 1957 – 1963.
Reg Lancaster/Getty ImagesResistanceA medical team helps a an injured, still-defiant protester after rioting in Paris, 1968. President de Gaulle fled Paris in late May and, hoping to appease the workers and students, eventually called for a national election in late June — an election in which his conservative party won a resounding victory. Still, the protests continued after he announced the elections, and the opposing sides still fought, and bled.Reg Lancaster/Getty ImagesGimme ShelterSome of Lancaster's memories of the riots illuminate a quite distinct aspect of the French character: cool, Gallic self-possession. "I was renting an apartment in a Paris suburb," he said, "a place owned by a countess who lived in the south of France. In the middle of the protests, she drove all the way to Paris — something like 500 miles! — to collect the rent in cash, so she could avoid paying taxes. Then she drove back to the French Riviera." Lancaster paused, laughing at the memory. "Where she got the gas, I don't know. But her reaction to the riots was a classic French shrug. Just like she'd seen it all before."Reg Lancaster/Getty ImagesSeeking AssistanceA man wounded during the Paris riots is carried through the streets to safety, May 1968.
Reg Lancaster/Getty ImagesThe WaitingParis police shelter behind riot shields during the riots in 1968. Other cities in France (Bordeaux, Lyon, and more) saw protests and violence that spring, but Paris bore the brunt. From early skirmishes in March, through the general strikes and full-scale demonstrations and riots in May and June, countless protesters, cops, and national security officers were injured, sometimes severely. Incredibly, considering the scale of the violence, only a few people were killed.Reg Lancaster/Getty ImagesEscapeIn mid-June, 1968, a group of students, including one badly injured, escape a riot by crossing a field of waist-high grass in a Paris park.Reg Lancaster/Getty ImagesCoveredA policeman and a photographer take cover during riots in Paris. Note the cobble stones on the street. "Protesters pulled hundreds, maybe thousands of cobbles from the streets during the protests," Lancaster noted, "and used them as weapons."
Reg Lancaster/Getty ImagesWhere There's SmokeFiremen battle fires in Paris's Latin Quarter, May 1968.Reg Lancaster/Getty ImagesAftermathParisians resume the business of everyday life after the riots, clambering over rubble that, not long before, served as weapons in clashes between protesters, police, and French security forces. The end of the riots in the summer of '68 was far from the end of that year's upheavals. For Reg Lancaster, the show simply moved on — to what was then the Eastern Bloc nation of Czechoslovakia. "I was immediately off to Prague after Paris," he told FOTO. "Straight into the last days of the Prague Spring." In August, troops and tanks from Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, and the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed the country's months-old efforts at liberalization and reform. "It wasn't always pretty," Lancaster says today, "but 1968 was unforgettable. A year like no other."Oli Scarff/Getty ImagesFleet Street BoysAt one point when Reg Lancaster worked for the Daily Express, the paper had 62 staff photographers — more than any other newspaper in the UK. Here, Reg (in pink tie) and many of his old Fleet Street colleagues and rivals pose for a picture in London, December 2011. L-R Back row: Paul Harris, Jonathan Buckmaster, Roger Allen, Tom Stoddart, Dave Hogan, Mike Moore, Bob Barclay, Les Wilson, Paul Felix, Bill Rowntree, David Hartley, Mike Forster, Matthew Butson. L-R Standing: Rob Taggart, Barry Gomer, Mike Lawn, Tim Cornell, Steve Back, David Ofield, Ken Towner, John Mead, Tim Graham, Paul Hackett. L-R Seated: Graham Wood, Paul Massey, Douglas Morrison, Clive Limpkin, Reg Lancaster, Peter Shirley, Anwar Hussein, Roger Bamber, Colin Davey. L-R Floor: Bob Ahern, David Cairns, John Rogers, John Downing, Peter Jordan.