On Thursday, May 9, late in the afternoon, Paris seemed peaceful. From the airport bus moving along the Avenue du Maine, I saw the usual crowds of shoppers and strollers; the cafés were starting to fill up. The taxi driver raced from the Aerogare to the hotel in Montparnasse with customary Paris dash; a book open on the wheel in front of him, he insisted on an English lesson as he shot through traffic.
But the newspapers report that the university buildings of Nanterre and the Sorbonne are closed, the Latin Quarter is occupied by massive police forces, and the students are continuing their protests of the past two weeks. The national unions of students and of university teachers are standing firm on their strike order, demanding evacuation of police from the Latin Quarter, the release of imprisoned demonstrators, and the reopening of the Sorbonne.
At the publishing house of François Maspero, next morning, things were a bit upset. The police had flung a gas grenade into the firm’s bookstore off the Boulevard Saint-Michel, and several people were seriously injured. It was claimed that, along with the usual tear gas, the police were using a variety employed by the Americans in Vietnam that can inflict serious and permanent injury. Students, newspapers, Sorbonne professors expert in chemical warfare, and much of Paris seemed to believe the charge. Feeling against police brutality was running high, newspapers as staid as Le Mondecarrying page-long accounts of unprovoked attacks against students and by- standers, including foreign tourists (who, someone remarked, were especially badly beaten because, unlike the student demonstrators, they didn’t fight back).
In the Latin Quarter, police were everywhere, blocking off streets, gathered in menacing groups at squares and intersections. Everywhere also were the paniers à salade, the black Paris police wagons, in graduated sizes up to bus length. The Compagnies Republicaines de Sécurité (CRS), riot troops of the Ministry of the Interior, were out in force: heavy, black-coated, steel-helmeted, with shields on their arms, big goggles over their eyes and submachine guns slung on their shoulders, they look particularly dangerous, even sinister. Most of the police and troops stared impassively, but some of their faces glowed with hatred.
That evening, from 6:30, there was a demonstration at the Place Denfert-Rochereau in Montparnasse. At starting time, the square was filled with students and sympathizers, probably 20,000 people. The speeches were hard to hear, the amplifiers being weak. Soon a march began down the Boulevard Arago, and the walls resounded with “Liberez nos camarades!” The demonstration headed for the Santé prison, but was turned away. It moved into the Latin Quarter, where, later that evening. police blocked passage into many streets and students milled. Some theatres were closing, some restaurants putting up their iron shutters.
In the smaller streets, the students began to build barricades. Cars were dragged from the curbs and lined up across the narrow ways. The heavy iron grilles that encircle the trees were taken up and thrown into the gaps, along with street signs and anything else loose; thousands of cobblestones were torn up and heaped on top. One barricade was almost 10 feet high. Meanwhile, car radios were turned on and groups huddled close to listen. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the most popular student leader, has proclaimed a peaceful occupation of the Latin Quarter. The students are to entrench themselves and remain until the police withdraw; meanwhile, student leaders are meeting with university officials, though taking the stand that they will not negotiimte until their imprisoned comrades are free. By one o’clock, the students had made themselves as comfortable as they could for the night; it seemed time to leave.