Marianne of ’68

 

The government of France came close to collapse in May 1968. In what was perhaps the largest political action ever undertaken in a developed country to date, eleven million workers protested over a period of two weeks in a series of strikes that anomalously rejected both communism and capitalism.

For students leading the protests of 1968, their icons were those of earlier French revolutions. One of them was Marianne, an allegory of Liberty and Reason since the founding of the First French Republic. Ironically, in May 1968, the mantle of Marianne would fall onto the shoulders of an English socialite, Caroline de Bendern

In an iconic photo from that May, de Bendern was perched on the shoulders of her friend the painter Jean-Jacques Lebel, the instigator of Odeon Theatre occupation. De Bendern was a rebel, having expelled from numerous English boarding schools, modelled in Paris and New York, befriended with the likes of Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, and made experimental films with the Zanzibar group. However, on May 13th, she was just an accidental celebrity — she rode upon Lebel’s shoulder because her feet were sore. She waved the flag of Vietnam, not because she herself protested Vietnam War, but because it was the flag Lebel had. Yet, she knew her symbolism as she posed regally – a solemn caricature of Delacroix’s immortal La Liberté guidant le peuple.

At Place Edmond Rostand, near the Jardin de Luxembourg, Jean-Pierre Rey took the above famous photo of her which was later published in Life Magazine on May 24th. Her patrician grandfather saw the photograph and disinherited her out of 7.5 million pounds largesse [Footnote]. Caroline sued Rey unsuccessfully for the rights to the photo every ten years, in ’78, ’88, and ’98.

The future would be bleak for Marianne herself. The tarnished icon was phased out from the stamps, and during the 1789 Revolution’s Bicentennial, she was hardly seen. Rey’s photo, on the other hand, made numerous appearances: on the covers of various books and commemorative issues looking back at the events of 1968.

[Footnote: Her grandfather Maurice Arnold Deforest (1879-1968) was adopted by banker Baron Moritz Hirsch. No one knew where Deforest came from. It was alleged he was the illegitimate son of King Edward VII or an Austrian prince. The shadowy billionaire was later a Liechtenstein count (Graf von Bendern), a French lord (Châtelain of Beauregard), an English baron (Baron deForest) and a MP (for West Ham).]

 

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