Guestposter Mark looks back 45 years to the fabled events of 1968 in France and the counter-revolutionary role of a popular song:
‘Les évènements’ of 1968 in France, 45 years ago, took place against the anglophone sounds of the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. ‘The times they are a’changin’ sung the soixante-huitards. Françoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan, at the height of their yé-yé fame, were not the student rebels’ symbols ; ‘Salut les copains’ was to them a commercial rag. Despite some attempts by Leo Ferré, a supporter of the students, no memorable song in French has celebrated the occupation of the universities or the Paris street battles with the CRS (in which, historians remind us, no one lost their life).
Instead Soixante-huit is coloured now by a popular song that reflected not the students’ hopes, but the reaction to the May évènements from the Gaullist-leaning population of France. ‘Petit fille de français moyen’, sung by Sheila (Anny Chancel), issued on 25 June 1968, must be the only song to represent counter-revolution that topped a chart. Its melody by Georges Aber and Claude Carrere, claimed to be a ‘Tango’, is rather clunky. The lyrics by Jacques Monty, which are uncomplicated and easy to follow, can be found below this recording with slide-show.
They contrast the world where people like Sheila work for a living with the lives of rich girls who have the wealth to enjoy themselves, spend time dressing, go to see arty films, and discuss ideas. A scopitone video of Sheila in a trouser-suit and other assorted clothes of the time is here.
Sheila is the daughter of a Paris market trader and thus, like Mireille Mathieu, from the small business world of people who supported De Gaulle, in contrast to the socialist and communist-leaning world of intellectuals. The great pro-De Gaulle demonstration in the Champs-Elysées on 30 May 1968, which effectively ended les évènements – the strikes continued but gradually faded away – was full of Sheilas and Mireilles.
As described in ‘Sheila – une histoire d’amour’, some radio producers who had supported the strikes of May refused to play the record until popular pressure forced them to. Les évènements resulted in universities ending their summer terms early, but that meant longer summer holidays, and by the time of la Rentrée, 45 years ago this month, Sheila’s song had done its job in quietening things, while depicting the students, who had rebelled against poor, crowded courses in the Sorbonne and elsewhere, as ‘jeunesse dorée’. This was in fact inaccurate, as the wealthy put their children into the Grandes Ecoles, which did not rebel.
Sheila, typically, is straightforward about it all, just saying, ‘Combien d’arbres coupés pour disserter sur le contenu politique de cette chanson !’.
Sheila was a big winner from 1968. Françoise Hardy ceased live concerts at the end of the year, making more more space for her to reach the top. A decade later Sheila was France’s disco queen, and is remembered for ‘Spacer’, written for her by the Chic talents Nile Rodgers and Bermard Edwards. The soixante-huitards and the student generation after them thus found themselves dancing to the counter-revolutionary Sheila singing in her charmingly-accented English – as we can still do. The 6-minute extended version of ‘Spacer’ with video of Sheila is here.
For an enjoyable encounter between Sheila and the arty left-leaning intellectual Denise Glaser on TV in 1971, see here . There is an entertaining commentary in English below. The French intellectual left which disliked her has faded away, but Sheila has had the last laugh, still recording at 67.